Creative Campfire Cooking: There’s more to cooking in the great outdoors than s’mores

This time of year, Missouri’s many rivers and campgrounds are teeming with floaters, river rats and campers who don’t seem to mind the mud, mosquitoes and mugginess of Ozark summers. When the majority of these outdoor enthusiasts gather around the campfire at mealtime, they’re probably feasting on a traditional menu of hot dogs, pork ’n’ beans, chips and s’mores – but there’s a lot of potential burning away in that fire. The versatility of a campfire allows for easy and sophisticated dishes. After all, a few days of sleeping on the ground without A.C. or flushing toilets can work up an appetite.

“In Ironton, Mo., at the age of 4, I had my first experience living, eating and experiencing life without the amenities we take for granted daily,” said Jenni Ezell, veteran camper and cook and co-owner of To Your Doorstep Gourmet Delivery in Soulard. “My father had land near Johnson Shut-Ins, where I would sleep in the back of his pickup truck after a day of swimming and hiking at the park.”

Ezell has learned many tricks for cooking over a campfire in her years of camping. For her, food preparation is an enjoyable part of her camping memories. “It can be so relaxing to prepare a nice dinner after a day of hiking or floating with your friends and family,” she said.

Packing the proper gear is half the battle in creative campfire cooking. Those floating to a camping destination must take care to keep food and other goods dry. Michael Robbins, gear and camping specialist with the REI store in Brentwood and a former director of a summer camp in northern Minnesota, knows how difficult it can be to keep food and paper goods dry in a raft or canoe. “I would definitely recommend buying a dry bag for a float trip. They’re waterproof and airtight and cost about $12 to $20,” Robbins said. Many camping stores carry these bags, and they work well for non-perishable foods as a supplement to a cooler. Pickle buckets with tight-fitting lids serve the same purpose, and local delis usually have empty ones they’re willing to give away.

“I’d avoid bringing any coated, non-stick cookware,” Robbins added. “The surface may get scraped up and the carbon buildup from the fire can actually break down the Teflon.”

Ezell usually brings a folding table in case there isn’t a picnic bench. A tablecloth, tiki torches and citronella candles can add to the dining experience as well. Though her campfire spread is less primitive than many, she said that the usual junk food munchies do have their place at her campsite: “Fritos will always start a fire!”

Jennifer Pruett, marketing and communications manager for the Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis, headquartered in Overland, reminded campers to practice safety when starting fires. She also warned to take caution when handling food. “The same rules for indoor cooking apply in the outdoors,” she said. “Always wash hands before and after handling meat and other fresh foods. Never place cooked foods on a platter, board or tray that held raw meats or poultry without washing it first. Cook all meat and poultry products to the suggested internal temperature to ensure that all harmful bacteria have been killed.” It is also important to keep perishable foods properly chilled. “It’s definitely worth it to buy or freeze your own block of ice for your meat and other cooler items,” Ezell said.

Eggs, carefully stowed in a cooler and later scrambled in a skillet over the fire, make an easy breakfast. For easy breakfast burritos, Ezell likes preparing them beforehand by scrambling eggs with sausage, onions and black beans, then wrapping the mixture in a tortilla. Next she packages each burrito in aluminum foil and a Ziploc bag and places them in a cooler. The burritos can be reheated on a grill over the campfire and then topped with cilantro, jalapenos, cheese or salsa for a hot breakfast.

Robbins favors pancakes for breakfast at the campsite. “Pancakes are a long-standing staple and taste really great if you throw some trail mix into the batter,” he said. Fruits stored in the cooler can add to a breakfast or serve as a quick snack.

Another tasty snack or appetizer Ezell likes is bacon-wrapped mushrooms. She said she wraps each mushroom in half a slice of bacon, then skewers them and puts them on a grill over the fire. Sometimes she secures the bacon with a toothpick and sautés the mushrooms in a skillet.

For lunch or dinner, the baked potato is a camping standard. Ezell skewers several potatoes for easy turning over the fire.

Robbins called his version of the classic a “hobo potato,” made by slicing a raw potato in half lengthwise, sandwiching veggies, cheese, seasoning, meat, butter or any number of ingredients between the two slices, covering its entirety with aluminum foil and setting it in the embers to cook. Served alongside Ezell’s Dirty Bird and capped with the Girl Scouts’ cake in an orange for dessert, this makes for a meal that will ensure campers don’t go to bed – or sleeping bag – hungry.

With a well-stocked cooler, the proper utensils and a pioneering spirit, just about anyone can be a successful campfire cook. Because such cooking can be an adventure, however, Robbins offers a foolproof back-up plan. “You can never go wrong with a block of Velveeta. That will make just about anything you cook over a campfire taste better,” he said. ”Or Tabasco sauce – I don’t know a single camper who doesn’t pack a bottle of Tabasco sauce.”

Be Prepared

Seasoned campfire cook Jenni Ezell has put together a basic checklist of on-site necessities:

1. Well-cleaned grill to put over the fire
2. Cast-iron skillet
3. Tongs
4. Spatula
5. Sharp knife and cutting board
6. Ladle
7. Dutch oven
8. Coffee pot or percolator
9. Aluminum foil
10. Ziploc bags, both small and
large freezer size
11. Environmentally friendly soap and scrubbie to clean dishes
12. Corkscrew (“For us wine-lovers.”)
13. Oven mitt or fire-safe gloves
14. Skewers
15. A prepacked bin with seasonings, plastic and paper goods, trash bags, wet wipes, a tarp, bungee cords