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Beyond beans; Veteran cooks offer their secrets of fine dining in the wild

Getting out of the house is the whole point of camping. You willingly trade the security of a roof and walls for the promise of waking up beside a babbling brook, a day spent absorbing the quietest silence in a piney grove, a night gawping at a sky stuffed impossibly full of stars.

Kids, braced by all the fresh air and the adrenaline spikes of unfiltered wildlife encounters, develop ravenous appetites. That's when camping can start to sound like a less good idea. Getting out of the house means you left behind the kitchen stove.

For kids, though, conjuring up a meal in the woods seems like domestic magic. That's why cooking over a campfire can make for memorable, satisfying meals. With some help from veteran campfire cooks -- an ex-camp counselor and a four-star chef who loves the outdoors -- we've gathered some preparation tips and campfire cooking wisdom to get you started.

"If you have had a long day of hiking, you're sometimes burning 5,000 or 6,000 calories. If you keep that in mind, gosh it feels good to indulge," said Valerie Baish, a chemist who started her open-fire cooking about eight years ago as a camp counselor. "Everything always tastes better when you're camping."

Planning is essential to campfire cooking. "It's the most important thing," said J.J. Richert, chef-owner at Torches on Kenmore Avenue. "If you get out there and find out you don't have something, it's really frustrating."

Your menu can run from ambitious to homey, and points in between. As befitting a chef, Richert's typical campfire meals may include dry-aged ribeye steak, skewers of shrimp and scallops anointed with cilantro mojo, canned potatoes in marinade, grilled corn with Cajun spices and grilled peaches with rum whipped cream.

On the simpler side, Baish often makes a breakfast casserole with eggs in her Dutch oven, a heavy-lidded pot that can be used for baking as well as simmering. She makes pizza bagels, wrapped in foil and laid in the coals. For dessert, she might make another foil-roasted treat: slit bananas open and stuff them with things like mini marshmallows, peanut butter or chocolate chips.

Before you go, make a list of the meals you need to have, deciding which will be cooked and which will be eaten out of prepared stores, the Pop-Tart breakfasts. Include snacks like trail mix and more substantial instant meals to reserve for rainy weather or hunger emergencies.

Then make a list of all the ingredients; that's your shopping list and packing invoice. Richert said he sometimes opts for simpler dishes, and spends the saved time securing the exact ingredients he wants.

"I could make a real good potato salad, but that would take time, and we can have these potatoes instead," said Richert, indicating the canned potatoes that he simmers in Chiavetta's marinade before browning them on the grill. "I can use the extra time running around, getting a really good piece of steak from Dash's."

Measure out what you need and bag it, Baish suggested. "If you only need half a stick of butter, then don't bring a whole stick, because it'll be floating around in your cooler and you'll end up throwing it out."

If she needs chopped green pepper for a dish, she seeds and chops it at home. "It's easier to do in my kitchen."
Baish gathers all the ingredient bags for each meal in their own Tupperware container, square to fit better in her ice chest. "Then when it's time for dinner, I pull out the container," she said. "It has everything I need, and it should be dry."

Consider your implements. Most campfire cooks bring a metal grill to brace over coals, either one designed for the purpose, or borrowed from a backyard barbecue. (Richert's is an old refrigerator shelf.)

A grate is often joined by a frying pan or Dutch oven. Like many models, Baish's Dutch oven has legs so it can be set over coals, and a rimmed lid designed to hold coals on top.

When she makes a dish like her easy-peasy peach cobbler, like many Dutch oven recipes it specifies how many lit coals to put underneath, and on the lid. Instead of using charcoal briquettes to heat hers, Baish scoops up an equivalent amount of campfire coals. An "Ove" Glove, which is heatproof, allows her to pick up burning logs, she said.

At the campsite, build a teepeelike fire, preferably out of hardwood, and let it burn down. "When the logs are covered with white ash, knock it down with a poker or stick into a pile of coals," Richert said. "You don't cook over flames, you cook over coals."

Set up the grill over rocks, and cook away. Richert prefers sturdy, restaurant-style tongs, and a stout metal spatula, because "if something's sticking, you don't want to wrastle it off," he said.

If you're using a cast iron pan or Dutch oven, allow time for it to heat up. Baish said she tests the temperature with a few drops of water to see if it's ready for cooking. "If it steams off, it's not hot enough. If it sizzles and evaporates really fast, it's too hot." For most cooking, it should be in the middle, dancing for a few seconds before it's gone, she said.

Asked for a good recipe for first-time Dutch oven users, Baish recommended a "really hard to mess up" peach cobbler, with three ingredients. "Dessert is a good thing to cook in a Dutch oven, because everyone isn't ravenous waiting for their dinner, and you can enjoy it afterward," she said.

But if that's too complicated, start with the basics, she suggested. "If you're making the choice between sausages and hot dogs, I would pick hot dogs," she said. "They're already cooked, and you can't really hurt yourself."

>Dutch Oven Peach Cobbler

1 large can of peaches in syrup

1 box yellow cake mix

1 stick butter

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or more, to taste (optional)

Heat up Dutch oven. Use stick of butter to coat the inside for easy cleaning.

Pour in can of peaches, including all the juice. Pour dry cake mix on top of peaches and spread evenly. Slice butter and place on top of the cake mix. If using, sprinkle cinnamon evenly over top.

Put 10 hot coals underneath the Dutch oven, and 20 on top.

Cook until the peaches are boiling and the cake is golden on top, 30-40 minutes. Serve.


Torches Cilantro Mojo

1 bunch chopped cilantro

1 cup olive oil

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons honey

1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper

2 cloves chopped garlic

Salt and black pepper, to taste

At home, combine all ingredients except for crushed red pepper, salt and pepper in a food processor, blending on high until almost smooth. Blend in red pepper with salt and pepper to taste. By adding the crushed red pepper last, it will not be too spicy.

Great for brushing onto grilled seafood. Or marinate chicken in it for an hour or two. Reserve some of the mojo for garnishing the plate.


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