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Campfire cooking need not be limited to burgers, dogs and s’mores. With a bit of advance work before heading out, it’s easy to have great grub on the trail, like Sticky Chicken, above.
AP photo by Larry Crowe
Campfire cooking need not be limited to burgers, dogs and s’mores. With a bit of advance work before heading out, it’s easy to have great grub on the trail, like Sticky Chicken, above.

Prep work can make campfire cooking (almost) gourmet

By Annmarie Timmins
For The Associated Press

If hot dogs and hamburgers don’t inspire you to hit the hiking trail and pitch a tent, how about sausage jambalaya bubbling over the campfire followed by hot berry cobbler?

It’s possible, it’s easy and it’s fast. Thanks to improvements in camping cooking gear and a bounty of easy-prep and in-store ingredients, the days of settling for the utilitarian campfire cooking of yesteryear are gone.

“There is almost nothing you can’t do on the trail,” says Don Philpott, who with wife Pam wrote “The Trailside Cookbook” and is a fan of campfire jambalaya. “People don’t think you can have a three-course meal around the campfire.”

The trick to making that happen is forethought — getting the right equipment and prepping ingredients before you leave home.

First, the equipment. The key is to keep it light. Though cast-iron pans offer campfire cachet, you wouldn’t want to hike with one on your back. Reserve those for camping in which you will drive to your tent site. The rest of the time stick with aluminum.

And choose just one versatile pan.

Don Jacobson, author of campfire cookbook “The One Pan Gourmet,” says that with just a frying pan and utensils, he can cook walnut chicken, stir-fry and coconut fruit cups. If brings the Dutch oven instead, he can turn out lasagna or hot berry cobbler.

The Dutch oven — which can serve as a griddle, a cook pot or an oven — is a favorite, especially now that newer, lighter aluminum models offer a packable alternative to the more common cast-iron behemoths.

When a campfire isn’t an option, camping stoves are the way to go. Single-burner stoves can weigh less than a pound. Most run on white gas (sometimes called camp fuel) or butane and can handle anything from pasta to stir-fry to stew.

“Why are we going out in the first place? Because it’s better than being at home,” says Jacobson, who became a campfire gourmet after eating one too many boring meals while leading Boy Scout expeditions. “Why would you take that wonderful experience and ruin it by having a bad meal?”

With your gear settled, focus on the food. Start by figuring out what you’ll need. If you’ll be hiking, canoeing or otherwise expending more energy than usual, you’ll need to plan your meals around supplying those extra calories.

The menu also will depend on the type of camping you do. Staying put at a state park allows you to lug more and heavier gear (including coolers) and food than a backcountry trek from tent site to tent site.

Plan a menu

Most good camping cookbooks suggest menus to help with this. In Philpott’s book, for example, a four-day menu under the “Pack Light” section includes bacon and eggs, pizza, stew, pasta, chocolate fondue and lemon couscous.

Emily Mitchell, an education programs coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club, says learning which foods pack and keep well under camping conditions is essential. As is learning the correct order in which to eat them.

Fresh peppers and spinach, for example, are delicate and so should be eaten early in the trip. But hard cheeses, carrots and potatoes will keep longer and can be saved for later.

Double duty foods

And try to select foods that do double duty, such as pita bread. Mitchell says pita rounds not only can be used for sandwiches, but also make great pizza dough.

Though Philpott and Jacobson favor fresh foods to freeze-dried meals, both agree the meals have their place on camping trips, especially outings that last beyond two or three days.

“There is an absolute reason for freeze-dried meals to exist,” says Jacobson. “They are called Day 4, Day 5 and Day 6.”

How you pack your ingredients also matters.

Jacobson and Philpott suggest taking only what you need for each menu, which means transferring spices (a must) and oils into smaller containers (taking just what is needed for your recipe). Restaurant-style condiment packets also are a great idea.

Mix ahead

If ingredients can be mixed ahead at home, do it.

Soups, for example, could be made ahead at home, then divided into zip-close plastic bags and frozen. These are easy to thaw and reheat, plus they help keep other foods cool in the meantime.

Meats and perishables need special attention. Jacobson portions his meats out for each recipe and freezes it in foil for the trip. He wraps them in foil again just before leaving and, unless he has a cooler, counts on them being good for 24 to 36 hours.

Mitchell suggests cooking cubed chicken at home, but only if you plan to eat it the first night.

Recipes for Sticky Chicken and Hungry Hiker Parcels

Campfire cooking need not be limited to burgers, dogs and s’mores. With a bit of advance work before heading out, it’s easy to have great grub on the trail.

Sticky Chicken

Start to finish: 20 minutes

Servings: 2

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1/4 cup peanut butter

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon ketchup

Salt and pepper, to taste

Before you leave home, cut the chicken into 1-inch cubes. Wrap the cubes in a packet of heavy-duty foil, then freeze. Just before leaving for your trip, loosely wrap the frozen packet in a second layer of foil. The chicken will keep 24 to 36 hours.

When you’re ready to cook, combine all ingredients (breaking up the frozen chicken cubes as needed) in a frying pan set over a medium campfire. Cook, stirring often, until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes.

Can be served with quinoa, couscous or brown rice.

(Recipe from Don Jacobson’s “The One Pan Gourmet,” Ragged Mountain Press)

Hungry Hiker Parcels

This recipe is easily adapted to your tastes. Mix your favorite seasonings into the ground beef before forming it into patties and freezing. Garlic powder, Italian seasonings or a bit of paprika would be nice.

Start to finish: 40 minutes (10 minutes active)

1/4 cup ketchup or tomato paste

2 pounds ground beef

1 large potato, peeled and cut into small cubes

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small chunks

1 large onion, finely chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

Two days before you leave home, cut four large squares of heavy-duty foil.

In a small glass, mix the ketchup with 2 tablespoons water. Spread a quarter of the ketchup mixture in a small circle at the center of each of the squares of foil.

Divide the beef into four patties and place one over the ketchup on each foil square. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the vegetables, then divide equally among the four patties, mounding them on top of the meat. Tightly wrap the foil over the meat and vegetables, then freeze.

Just before leaving for your trip, loosely wrap the frozen packet in a second layer of foil.

When you’re ready to cook, start a campfire and let it burn down to hot embers. Place the packets directly in the hot embers and cook for about 30 minutes.

(Recipe adapted from Don and Pam Philpott’s “The Trailside Cookbook,” Firefly Books)

Spark up your meals

Whatever your camping and cooking style, here are some easy ways to jazz up your campfire meals.

  • Look for dried foods, such as pesto, hummus, even beans and rice, which can be easily rehydrated on the trail and used to dress up or accompany other ingredients.

  • Dried salad dressing mixes offer tons of flavor and weigh almost nothing. They can be added to rice or pasta, mixed into baked potatoes or used to season meat. Spice rubs intended for grilling also can be used for all these things.

  • If you have a sweet tooth, bake some simple desserts at home (cookies and brownies, for example), wrap them well in plastic wrap and freeze. They not only satisfying your trailside cravings, they also help keep other foods cold.

  • Bring ingredients that have multiple uses. Peanut butter is great in a sandwich, tossed with warm noodles (think pad thai) or mixed into oatmeal. Likewise, jam can accompany peanut butter, make a tasty vinaigrette or glaze meat.

    Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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