Since my recent post about cooking Orange Brownies in the ashes of a campfire, I've gotten a deluge of requests for good camping recipes. So, just in time for the 4th of July holiday when many of us will be heading for the hills, here's a quick run-down of a few tips, tricks and recipes to keep in mind when you're roughing it in Ye Olde Woods.
My theory is simple: you may be a bit removed from civilization when you're camping, but that's no reason civilization needs to be removed from your meals. Granted, we can all subsist on the basics for a few days in the wilderness, but it honestly doesn't take all that much more effort to make delicious and healthy meals, even with dirt beneath your fingernails.
Note of explanation: This post will focus solely on cooking when you're "car camping" (a term not often used outside of California, I might add). By car camping, I mean you pull your car, RV or trailer into a spot and park it. You might sleep in a tent, but you can haul along some creature comforts - like an ice chest and a lounge chair. And a case of wine. You know, the necessities.
That being said, the ideas to follow require minimal refrigeration and minimal gear - everything can be done either right over the fire on a grill rack; in the fire directly on coals or ashes; and/or on a one-burner butane or propane camp stove (or if you're going even lighter, a backpacking stove - my favorite: the JetBoil - worth every penny). If you're interested in backpacking meals or Dutch Oven cooking.... well, those are posts for another time. (Let me know if you are interested - I certainly have plenty of great recipes for those situations as well!).
Assemble a camping "spice rack." I have a convenient tote all loaded up with my favorite dried herbs and spices: garlic salt, basil, oregano, thyme, dill, cilantro, black pepper, kosher salt, red chili flakes, chili powder, mustard powder, ginger powder, wasabi powder, harissa (paste or powder), curry powder, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Even if you do nothing more than grill up chicken breasts, if you have a loaded spice rack, you can have exotic flavors with minimal effort.
Grilling is probably the most obvious means of camp cooking. I always have ingredients on hand to whip up a variety of marinades - it's easy way to add varied flavors to basic staples like chicken breasts, steaks, fish or veggies. Usually this requires nothing more than some fresh citrus, olive oil, and the aforementioned spices. All you do is combine the marinade ingredients to your taste in a ziplock bag; throw in your meat and/or veggies and coat them well; let chill for 20-30 minutes (or more) in your ice chest, then grill over white-hot coals.
Here's a few of my favorite flavor combinations for marinades (combine with olive oil):
- lemon juice, basil, pepper
- garlic, cilantro, orange juice
- tarragon, shallots, Dijon, lemon juice
- chili powder, garlic, lime juice
- Beer Can Chicken - Sacrifice one of the cans of MGD from your stash; beer can chicken tastes amazing around the camp fire. The beer imparts flavor, sure, but more importantly, it imparts moisture. It's the most tender chicken you'll ever have. In order to cook it evenly, place the grill rack close to bottom of the fire, and build a ring of hot, hot coals to provide indirect heat to the bird. Without the aid of BBQ lid, I then tent the chicken with tin foil to create an "oven" effect and keep the heat contained. It can take a couple of hours for the bird to completely cook - but it's so worth it. Make sure you stay on top of rotating the coals, adding new hot ones to replace dying cold ones. And you don't need a fancy roasting rack - just make sure the chicken is balanced vertically on the beer can and the rack is level. And don't bump it.
- Thai-Style Chicken Satay and Curried Vegetable Skewers - Season chicken tenders and veggies of your choice with a mix of ginger powder, garlic powder, curry powder and oil; thread them on skewers and grill. Bring along a small jar of peanut sauce, and you've got the flavors of Asia in the middle of Yellowstone. Serve it all over a bed of rice that you cook up on your propane stove.
- Pizza - There's a million ways to grill pizza on the campfire. My favorite is to use raw pizza dough and actually grill it on the rack. You grill the dough on one side, and add the sauce and toppings when you flip it. You can also make it even easier by using pre-baked flat bread or naan as a crust. A simple tomato sauce couldn't be easier: a can of tomato sauce, seasoned with garlic, oregano, basil and pepper; the toppings, of course, can be whatever you want, but a few that travel really well and don't require additional cooking include pepperoni, canadian bacon, prosciuttio, canned black olives, onions, bell peppers, zucchini and canned artichoke hearts. Don't forget the cheese.
- Grilled Sausages with Peppers and Onions - Grill up the sausage of your choice over the fire (I like chicken sausages) and top with a medley of peppers and onions that you've sauteed in a saucepan on your stove. You can pop them in a hoagie bun if you'd like - but it's certainly not required. In that same vein, grill up chicken, steak or shrimp with Mexican spices (cumin, chili powder, garlic) for Fajitas. Serve with tortillas and the same sauteed peppers and onions.
- Ash Cakes - This has got to be one my favorite camp treats. You simply take pre-made bread or pizza dough (available in your grocer's freezer), break it off into individual-sized servings, flatten into round disks, and literally throw the dough on top of a bed of white hot ashes, turning once. The outer layer will char and blister, but the ash will brush right off. Top it with butter and honey - heaven! Best. Breakfast. Ever.
- Grilled Corn with Chili and Lime - Husk ears of sweet, ripe corn and grill until the kernels are plump and juicy. Then forget you even know about butter - you don't need it. Instead, take a wedge of lime, dunk it in chili powder, and then run it up and down the length of the corn cob, squeezing as you go. The juice of the lime will spread the chili powder into the rows of kernels, giving you the most flavorful corn on the cob you've ever eaten. Guaranteed.
- Foil Dinners - The possibilities for hobo-style foil dinners are endless. They work especially well with chicken or fish (like the salmon foil dinner, pictured above). Use a couple layers of heavy-duty foil, and just add ingredients that will have similar cooking times (chicken works well with diced potatoes; fish works well with pre-cooked brown rice or raw minute rice). Add slices of lemon or lime, seasonings from your spice rack, and veggies of your choice. Seal it all up tight, and place amidst the coals. The juices will steam everything until it's tender and cooked through, and in no time at all, you've got a complete meal in one convenient foil package.
- Cornbread in a Can - This is really fun and super easy, but you do need a couple of different sized tin cans for each individual serving. I make things simple and use the Jiffy brand cornbread mix (I think you only have to add an egg and some water). Fill a small soup-sized empty tin can (10-12 ounce size; oil the sides and bottom) about halfway with the cornbread batter. Place that small can completely inside a larger empty tin can (20-ounce size or so) of which the bottom has been lined with about a 1/2-inch of pebbles or sand (helps keep the bottom of the cornbread from burning). Cover it all with foil and place it in the ashes to bake. It'll take about 10-15 minutes for fresh corn bread.
- Fire Nachos - Saute some lean ground beef or turkey on your camp stove, seasoning with Mexican spices (garlic, chili powder, cumin). Place a layer of sand or pebbles on the bottom of a large cast iron pan or dutch oven, then line with tin foil. On top of the foil, start layering nacho ingredients: tortilla chips, black beans (from a can, drained), diced tomatoes, jalepeno peppers (from a can, drained), sliced black olives, the cooked ground meat and cheese. Cover the whole shebang with a sheet of tin foil, and place amongst hot coals or in hot ash, and cook until warm throughout and the cheese has melted.