Campfire Cuisine

Maybe it's the fresh air sharpening your appetite. Or maybe it harkens back to our primeval cave-dwelling days when "going out" really meant something. But whether it's a simple picnic on a blanket, a backpacking dinner made of lightweight foods or a four-course meal cooked out of an RV, eating outdoors is one of life's great pleasures. For some inexplicable reason, the simplest meal takes on the aura of a feast when eaten under a clear blue sky. Throw some mountains in the background, and life doesn't get much better; the ambiance of the best eateries can't compare.

And, if you're the cook, you can be creative not only in the food you prepare but also the method you use to do it. If you're thinking burgers and dogs cooked over the coals, you're not thinking. Like the fast food giant, outdoor cooks should "think outside the bun" when planning their meals. Actually, just about anything you can cook indoors can be cooked outdoors.

One-pot meals are a favorite way of camp cooking because they are easy and cleanup is minimal. Dinners can be anything from stew and casseroles to spaghetti and chili. You can even do a delicious one-pot "cowboy breakfast" of sausage, potatoes and eggs in a large cast-iron skillet over the coals.

You can even bake breads and cakes in a simple reflector oven or a cardboard box oven.

Like indoor cooks, campfire cooks are limited only by their imaginations. You can cook just about anything over a campfire or a charcoal fire, of course, but there are more creative methods of preparation if you want to venture into the unusual.

One of my favorite campfire dishes is "breakfast in bag," as described by Dian Thomas in her outdoor cooking classic "Roughing It Easy: A Unique Ideabook for Camping and Cooking." For this bacon-and-eggs breakfast, all you'll need is a small paper bag, bacon, eggs and a stick to hold the bag over the coals.

Cut a bacon strip in half and line the bottom of a bag with it. Crack the egg open and drop it into the bag. Close the bag by folding the top down in one-inch strips, and then poke a stick through the folds and hold the bag over the coals to cook. As the bag heats, the grease will coat the bottom of the bag. Cook the egg for about 10 minutes, being careful not to get the bag too close to the coals or it will burn. You can simultaneously toast a couple slices of bread on a grate or directly on hot coals. Carefully open the bag, avoiding the escaping steam, and enjoy your meal.

Many outdoor cooks will tell you their favorite cooking method is the Dutch oven, a cast-iron pot that is the most versatile item in the campground cupboard. Dutch ovens allow you to cook limitless one-pot meals, such as chicken stew, spaghetti chili and casseroles. And even if you don't want to use briquettes for grilling or stick-cooking, since they could affect the food’s flavor, you may still want to use them for Dutch oven cooking. By placing hot coals under and on top of the pot, you can even bake a cake, a pie, a cobbler or bread.

Don’t let your preconceptions of what “camping food” is cloud your decisions about camping menus. One of my family’s favorite camping memories is of a trip we took with some Japanese friends. In a true case of "East meets the West," the husband stir-fried our dinner by placing a wok over the coals. He also turned quite a few heads in the campground, and we made several new friends as the delicious aroma drew people asking, "What is he doing?" to our campsite.

Plan your cook-it-outdoors menu just as you would any other. Include a protein dish, a starch and lots of veggies.

To help make things go smoothly, especially during that first time out, do as much prep before you leave home as possible – wash and chop the vegetables, clean the corn (unless you plan to grill it in the husk) and immerse the meat in a marinade. For the easiest cleanup ever, place the marinade and the meat in a giant zipper food-storage bag. When you're ready to grill, there's no container to clean.

Here's a sample menu for dinner on your first-time-ever camping trip:

* Marinated chicken breasts grilled on a charcoal fire
* Veggie kabobs, also grilled on the fire. Use your favorite veggies, such as red peppers, zucchini and onions. For a Hawaiian twist, add pineapple chunks.
* Potatoes in mud (recipe below)
* Tossed green salad
* Banana Boats (recipe below), although traditionalists may want "S'mores," that childhood campfire favorite, instead.

And while planning your menu, don't forget the wine. On one of our most memorable camping trips, I unpacked plastic stemmed glasses for the wine I served with a simple one-pot meal and a salad. My brother was amazed when he saw the glasses. "Wine on a camping trip?" he asked. My reply: "Why not?"

Hiking burns calories and heightens the appetite, so you'll also want some added energy on the trail. Nothing's better than classic GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) mixture. Or try GORP with a new twist by mixing one or more of the following into it:

* Sunflower seeds
* Raw almonds
* Walnuts
* Dried fruit, such as mangoes or apricots
* Banana chips
* Unsalted pecans
* Chopped figs
* Coconut
* M & M candies
* Various cereals

To make your cooking and dining camping experience pleasant, be sure to pack a mini-pantry of condiments you're used to using at home. There's nothing more disappointing than realizing you've forgotten an ingredient that helps make the meal.

Here are some staples you may wish to bring:

* Salt
* Pepper
* Mustard
* Catsup
* Herb flakes, such as basil and oregano
* Salts, such as onion and garlic
* Spices, such as cinnamon, paprika and nutmeg
* Coffee
* Creamer
* Sugar
* Hot chocolate mix
* Instant tea
* Margarine

First-timers may find cooking over a fire daunting, but it's easy when you learn the basics. Wood makes a fast, hot fire, but for anything other than toasting marshmallows or cooking a mundane hot dog, you will want the wood fire to burn down to coals that give off a steady, even heat. Never put your food directly in the flames because it will be burned on the outside and raw on the inside.

To make a wood fire, arrange tinder (dried grass, pine needles and/or twigs and branches smaller than your finger) in the center of a designated fire area. Arrange kindling (wood the size of your little finger to the size of your wrist) and fuel (wood the size of your wrist and larger) in a circle. Be sure to leave room for air to circulate, as oxygen is an important part of fire. Light the tinder, which will in turn ignite the kindling and then the fuel. Once the fire is going, add more fuel from time to time to maintain it. For cooking, allow the fire to burn down to coals, which will provide the even heat needed for cooking.

If wood is in short supply, you can cook over charcoal briquettes. Add the briquettes to the wood fire, or start your own charcoal fire. You can use a commercial lighting fluid to start the fire, but many people feel that the fluid taints the flavor of the food and adds a chemical smell.

Allow enough time before dinner to start your fire. It can take 40 to 50 minutes for the coals to get hot. You can cut the time by using a "chimney," made by cutting the top and bottom of a large juice can. Use a can opener to punch holes along the bottom of the chimney, and then place the bottom of the can on the ground and fill it with crumpled paper. Top the paper with the briquettes, and then light the paper on the bottom of the can. Prop the can on a rock if more oxygen is needed to create a draft. When the briquettes catch fire, remove the can and spread out the briquettes for cooking.

Whatever the type of fire you build, follow the safety rules:

* Build your fire in a designated place. If your campsite doesn't have a fire circle, but fires are permitted, clear an area away from trees and bushes for your fire.
* Never leave your fire unattended.
* Always keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby in case of an emergency.
* When you are finished with the fire, extinguish it and be sure the coals or wood are cool before you leave.


* Write a menu for each meal. Use it to plan your grocery and equipment lists so you won't forget a key item.
* Take small amounts of staples and other ingredients to save on packing space and avoid having to deal with leftovers.
* Pack your staples in snack-size zipper bags or small containers available at camping stores.
* Measure and mix the dry ingredients, such as for pancakes, in large, flat-bottomed zipper bags at home. At the campsite, you can add the moist ingredients and mix in the bag to save on cleanup. Be sure you label the bags.
* Don't forget the "S'mores" fixings – graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey bars. To prepare, heat a marshmallow on a stick over a fire until it's gooey. Plop on a graham cracker, add Hershey squares and top with another graham cracker. Then enjoy one of life's tastiest simple pleasures.
* Pack a plastic tablecloth, which always makes a campsite feel like "home."
* To make cleanup easier, rub dishwashing soap on the outsides of pots that will be used over a fire or in the coals.
* Pack some bread and peanut butter and jelly for unexpected hungry spells and for emergencies, such as when it's too wet to build a fire.

Some excellent books for more recipes and outdoor cooking ideas are "Roughing It Easy," "Backyard Roughing It Easy: Unique Recipes for Outdoor Cooking, Plus Great Ideas for Creative Family Fun - All Just Steps from Your Back Door" and "Recipes for Roughing It Easy," all by Dian Thomas, and "Woodall's Campsite Cookbook," edited by Marilyn Bartmess.