After social isolating for months, many of us are eager to resume life as we knew it before the novel coronavirus, or at least some semblance of it.
According to the Kampgrounds of America’s “2020 North American Camping Report,” camping and RVing are expected to grow in popularity once people feel comfortable traveling. Nearly half of the 4,000 leisure travelers surveyed said they would replace a postponed or canceled vacation with a camping trip, so long as some measures were in place to limit contact with others.
Before the pandemic, camping accounted for 11% of all leisure trips. That number is now expected to jump to 16%, according to KOA. Part of it is that people want to spend more time outdoors after being stuck at home for so long. Camping also is relatively inexpensive and allows travelers to practice social distancing more easily.
Half of all campers, in fact, consider camping the safest type of travel once restrictions are lifted, according to the report.
While social distancing rules have altered life at campsites, one thing has remained exactly the same. People still need to bring all their food and cooking supplies with them to camp.
For back-to-nature greenhorns, preparing meals on a cookstove or campfire can seem daunting, if not impossible. Yet it doesn’t have to be so. With a little planning and some simple equipment, you can not only create a host of memorable meals but also have a lot of fun doing it.
The best thing about camp cooking is that you don’t have to overthink it. That’s because even the most basic recipes and simplest ingredients can’t help but taste terrific after sizzling to a smoky finish over a bed of hot embers.
Take nachos, for instance. Typically prepared on a sheet pan in a hot oven or under the broiler, the Mexican appetizer is a perfect dish for cooking over coals or embers. All you need is a well-oiled cast-iron skillet, a sheet of tin foil to create a “lid” over the pan and a grate positioned about 3 inches above the heat source. (I use rocks to adjust the height.) The tortilla chips cook up even crispier than in the oven, and the shredded cheddar and other toppings take on a hint of smoky, woodsy flavor as they melt into a cheesy goo.
Mac ‘n cheese also is a snap to prepare over a campfire, especially if you cook the pasta beforehand. Canned evaporated milk eliminates the need for fresh milk, and the dish happily lends itself to any kind of shreddable cheese you might find in a camp store. It only takes as long as it takes for the cheese to melt to spoon it into bowls. If you top the macaroni with a 50-50 mix of crushed crackers and Parmesan cheese, you even get some crunch along with the creaminess.
Is there anything more delicious than the campfire kebab? All that’s required is a sturdy skewer to thread chunks of marinated steak alongside vegetables — everything from baby potatoes, cherry tomatoes and half-moon slices of zucchini to sweet or hot peppers and mushrooms.
Fish is easier still, and costs almost nothing if you hook it yourself. When my husband pulled a 13-inch rainbow trout out of the Clarion River on our last trip to Cook Forest, it took all of 10 minutes to turn it into dinner. After cleaning it, we stuffed it with kale, basil, lemon slices and garlic, threw it in a hot pan coated in olive oil for a quick sear and poured a little Italian dressing on top to keep it moist. Voila, it was a meal fit for a king.
However, camp cooking requires some forethought, especially if you’re setting up camp in a tent instead of a cabin and don’t have easy access to running water or the convenience of an oven, microwave or stove to get things started.
It helps to cook as much as you can at home before you head to the woods, storing it until use in plastic zip-top bags in a fridge or cooler designated for cold foods. Plan on a separate cooler for dry pantry items. And absolutely plan your menu beforehand right down to the marshmallows and Hershey chocolate bars needed for s’mores. Shop ahead for the ingredients because camp stores are pretty basic and notoriously expensive. Also, the less contact you have with strangers, the better.
When it comes to the actual cooking, recognize that cooking over a campfire can’t be done on the fly. It takes time to burn a fire down to cherry embers (it’s ready when the flames are only about an inch or two tall and the logs are glowing red).
Necessary equipment includes a grill grate to create a safe, stable surface for cooking food directly over the coals and to place a pan or Dutch oven; heavy-duty foil for cooking food in packets or making lids for pans; steel tongs to turn or remove grill items; grilling utensils; steel skewers; a pair of heavy gloves to protect your hands from the fire; and at least one (and preferably two) well-seasoned cast-iron or aluminum skillets.
If you plan on making soups or stews or boiling water for pasta, you’ll also need a Dutch oven, and maybe a camp tripod on which to hang it.
Metal baskets come in handy if you want roast vegetables in the hot embers, and a pie iron is a godsend for making mountain pies and melty sandwiches.
Even if you end up making only hot dogs and hamburgers in the woods, you won’t be sorry.
Cooking over a campfire makes the trip feel special, and is a time-honored tradition for a reason. The food tastes great and it gets you out in the great outdoors.
These are so easy to prepare and fully customizable to your favorite ingredients. To make it a meal, add seasoned ground beef, chunks of grilled chicken and/or dollops of refried pinto beans. Be sure to oil the pan before cooking so that the chips don’t stick.
For pico de gallo
2 or 3 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped
1/4 red onion, diced
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 (13-ounce) bag of restaurant-style tortilla chips
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack or Mexican blend cheese
1/3 cup pickled hot banana peppers
1 large avocado, cubed
4 to 5 green onions, sliced
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Lime wedges, for serving
Prepare pico de gallo: Gently toss tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro and lime juice in a small bowl.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let sit, uncovered, to let flavors meld, about 10 minutes. If not using right away, store in refrigerator.
Prepare nachos: Lightly oil the bottom of a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, to prevent tortilla chips from sticking.
Spread a layer of nacho chips over the surface and then top with half of the cheeses, half of the banana peppers and dollops of pico de gallo. Repeat with a second layer.
Cover the pan or Dutch oven with a sheet of foil and place on a metal grill over your campfire and cook for about 10 minutes, until the cheeses melt.
Sprinkle avocado, green onions and chopped cilantro on top and serve with the lime wedges.
Serves 4 to 6.
— Gretchen McKay
CAMPFIRE STEAK AND VEGGIE KEBABS
This recipe is extremely adaptable, as you can use any combination of vegetables, and you can swap out the beef for chicken or pork cubes. If you add potatoes, be sure to precook them in a microwave or pot of boiling water until toothsome so they cook completely on the grill.
If you are preparing the kebabs at home to take with you, bag each ingredient separately and refrigerate.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 heaping teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds sirloin or strip steak
Large handful of baby potatoes
1 medium red onion
2 medium zucchini or summer squashes
1 medium orange, red or yellow bell pepper
Large handful of cherry tomatoes
Make marinade: Mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.
Cut the steak into 1- to 2-inch chunks and place in a large plastic zip-top bag.
Add marinade, and toss back and forth so the it evenly coats steak cubes. Allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes or overnight in refrigerator.
If using baby potatoes, rinse and cook in microwave for 5 minutes, or until just soft enough to pierce with a fork. Set aside.
Cut the onion, zucchini or squash and pepper into 1-inch chunks; leave the cherry tomatoes whole.
Prepare fire, using rocks to build a structure that will support a small metal grate about 3 inches above the fire. When fire is mostly embers, carefully shovel or push the embers into the cook space under the grate.
Thread meat and vegetables alternatively onto metal skewers. If using bamboo skewers, be sure to soak them in water for at least 30 minutes to prevent them from catching on fire.
Once the kebabs are assembled and the campfire is ready, place the kebabs on top of a grate. Let them sizzle away for approximately 3 to 5 minutes, then flip with a pair of tongs and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes.
Take one skewer off the fire and check the steak to see if it is done; if not, put it back on the grate.
Serve kebabs on or off the skewers.
Makes kebabs for 6 skewers.
— Gretchen McKay
CAMPFIRE MAC ‘N CHEESE
Make the pasta before you head to camp, and then all you have to do at dinnertime is add the milk and cheese to the pan, and wait for the cheese to melt. You can use any combination of cheese for this recipe — I opted for a mix of Gouda, Parmesan and extra-sharp cheddar.
1 (16-ounce) box of elbow, corkscrew or tubular pasta
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1/2 cup melted butter
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar, Gouda, Gruyere or Parmesan cheese, or mix of cheeses
1/3 cup crushed crackers
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package directions. (I used mostaccioli). Drain and set aside.
In a large aluminum pan, cast-iron skillet or heavy metal cook pot, combine cooked pasta, evaporated milk, melted butter, mustard, cayenne and black pepper. Add cheeses and stir to combine. Cover with foil and cook over a campfire until cheese is melty, 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir mac ‘n cheese, then top with a mixture of crushed crackers and Parmesan.
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