Cooking Over an Open Fire

S’mores around camp fires and hot dogs roasted on sticks were something we always did around big lakeside bonfires in the summer.  Chips and salsa were pretty common, as were Pop Tarts in the morning, and crackers and cheese later in the day.  However, camping doesn’t have to mean days filled with basic foods like hot dogs, sandwiches and chips. 

For some people going camping means renting one of the new Kabins at their local KOA or throwing up a tent for the night and leaving before breakfast in the morning.  But the type of camp food I’m talking about is a little more fun than chips and sandwiches.  Our green chile egg torta with black bean and corn salsa and chopped cilantro turned out pretty well, and our late night skillet cornbread was dynamite with a touch of honey. Say goodbye to milk and cereal in tiny bowls!

My parents weren’t really into gourmet camp food when I was a kid, but I think they may have wanted to be.  I recall that ill-fated state park trip when one fine young gent spilled a giant pot of pork n’ beans in the back of their van.  From that point on, they must have simplified our dining options.  If you are toting around a toddler, be sure to use properly sealed containers.   Many people may be intimidated by the idea of gourmet campsite meals, but it’s not as difficult as you think.  Gourmet camp food is gaining popularity and can indeed take place at a camp site with relative ease.

You can do most of the preparation and much of the cooking necessary at home before you even hit the road.  Something that simply needs to be reheated over the camp fire is just fine.  Some may say that’s cheating, but I chalk it up to smart planning.  Our favorite dish during our last adventure was put together at home and baked in a sizzling skillet after a long day of boating, hiking and harmonicas.  Our roasted garlic-rosemary skillet cornbread turned out perfectly over the open fire, and doesn’t take long to knock out at home before the trip.  This recipe does have a few things you need to make sure you do correctly, though.  Make sure your garlic is roasted to a golden brown, too fast and the garlic will be bitter and undercooked, too long and it may affect the whole batter.  We made a quick thyme and honey vinaigrette and made sure it was tightly sealed before packing it.  The sweetness of the dressing drizzled over the slightly smoky, savory notes of the cornbread made for a perfect late night small bite mini-feast.  The key is to get your skillet to just the right temperature- nice and hot.  One good trick is to simply flick a finger of water into the skillet and judge its reaction.  If it sizzles and disappears quickly you’re probably good to go.  If it slowly bubbles you should wait a few more minutes before starting.  Here is another important step: make sure your skillet is seasoned and coated with a little oil so your batter doesn’t stick to the skillet.  Extra virgin olive oil is probably not your best bet, as the smoke point is too low and your cornbread will taste burnt.  Peanut or corn oils are both safe bets.   If you think your skillet is ready to go, simply pull it off the fire (I use a pair of old leather gloves my old man gave me), spoon or pour your batter in, cover with foil and bake.  If you have a Dutch oven you can avoid touching the hot skillet altogether, just pour your batter into the seasoned, heavy-bottomed pot and put the cover on.  Bring along thin wooden skewers to insert to check for doneness, or use a hot dog roaster in just the same way.  Check in on your bread every so often, and when your skewer comes out clean your cornbread is ready.  Let it cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes, drizzle with the honey vinaigrette.  For a more gourmet touch, sprinkle it with a nice sharp, fruity cheddar.

Thankfully, I made too much cornbread to be safely consumed by two people in one sitting, so we had some for the treat awaiting us the next night.  But first let’s talk about breakfast.   Coffee drinkers beware: if your morning typically consists of multiple cups o’ joe, put a pot of water on the fire to boil first thing.  I brought along a can of black beans, some sweet corn cut off the cob, and to those I added lime juice and zest (use a microplane, which are more useful than you might think, or a box grater if you don’t mind a little extra bulk and are car camping), diced red onion, salt, cumin, roughly chopped cilantro and healthy dash of extra virgin olive oil.  The eggs were whisked and mixed with New Mexican chopped green chiles, roasted red bell peppers, minced garlic, salt and cracked black pepper.  Again, we remembered to brush the hot skillet with enough oil to coat.  Wait until the pan is hot to add the oil and you’ll be able to use less as it will coat the pan more easily.  The eggs won’t take long, but do require a bit more tending to than the cornbread.  You can choose to scramble your eggs or cook them any other way you want to with the green chile and red pepper, or cover them with foil and bake them like we did.  After just a few minutes our eggs were ready to be pulled off the fire.  I recommend pulling them off a little earlier than at home so the eggs can finish cooking for a few minutes without becoming dry.  We topped the egg bake with the salsa and a chimichurri rojo, made ahead of time at home.  By this time your water should be ready for the French press, and breakfast is pretty much set.  Cue the Van Morrison. . .

After a deliciously relaxing breakfast, we cleaned up a bit and got to work on what we had planned for dinner.  We wanted something we could cook slowly, an entree that could sit over a small fire all day and be ready later in the day.  Chili was a no brainer, it’s easy to prep and something many people can enjoy.   For ours we diced Spanish onions, red and green bell peppers, garlic and jalapeños.  With a little oil, add all this to the pot and cover.  Stir occasionally, until the onions and peppers are soft.  Instead of ground beef we used sun dried tomato chicken sausage, so that was diced up and added to the mix.  Two cans of fire roasted diced tomatoes with juices were then added, along with cumin, paprika, New Mexico chile powder, salt and black pepper.  I don’t think they usually recommend leaving your fire unattended, but this was low and controlled, and the grate that held the chili pot was placed on the highest setting.  After a few hours of exploring we were back and hungry for more.  The chili had slowed to a lazy simmer, which was perfect.  We made a quick salad of diced avocado, roasted cashews and grilled orange segments tossed with romaine lettuce and a light balsamic vinaigrette, an easy make ahead option whose versatility makes it a great choice for camping.  Soon after the sun set, our chili was ready to go.  It was perfectly smoky, and because it had all day to cook, the flavors had time to develop well.  The consistency was great and the day old cornbread made for great ‘croutons’.

The morning of the day you have to check out never seems to be the best time to dirty dishes and make complicated meals, so try to keep it simple!  We made quick sandwiches of grilled tomatoes and goat cheese on toasted baguette, topped with some of our thyme-honey vinaigrette.   All of these are examples of how to eat some tasty, upscale, gourmet camp food.  If you decide to do a little gourmet camp food of your own, here a few tips and things to consider.

  1.  Make sure you have everything you need prior to heading out.  Make a grocery list, prep list, and packing check list, and make sure all are completed.  Getting even basic grocery items can sometimes be tough when you’re camping.
  2. Make sure you have a dishwashing station set up, i.e. a bucket, a sponge, soap and some towels.  If no water is available at the site, bring jugs of your own.
  3. I once had a family of raccoons tear through a few hundred dollars worth of food at a remote hike in camp site in South Carolina, so make sure everything is either strung up or strapped down to avoid late night visitors.
  4. A good packing tip is to find a handful of air-tight containers that stack well.  Pack 8-10 that fit well into your cooler, so as to not waste precious space.
  5. You can NEVER have too many re-sealable bags!
  6. Hand sanitizer and a long handled lighter are necessities.
  7. Bring along a sturdy cutting board and something to sanitize it with, as well as a sharp knife that you don’t mind taking a few nicks.
  8. Bowls for mixing, tongs for grabbing and tossing, and measuring cups all come in quite handy.  You can find some at outdoor stores that fit inside each other well.
  9. Put together a little pack, pouch, or container that has all of your spices in it.  Getting to a site and realizing you have no salt or pepper is disappointing.
  10. Bring everything you need to pack in for the entire trip, and pack out- don’t leave anything behind. 
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