We should all just get used to it: No matter where you camp in the mountain west, chances are at least even that you won’t be able to burn firewood. Sorry not sorry, s’mores.
And that’s a good thing in some ways: the smell of wood smoke may fire up your camping memories, but it’s not good for your lungs and as our climate changes, it’s becoming more and more dangerous when it comes to the possibility of catastrophic wildfires.
So, let’s look at fire bans as a culinary challenge.
Here are a few tips, along with five dinner recipes that can be pre-cooked or made at your campsite using a propane stove or one of the swank new backpacker-size gizmos.
They’re all easier with two burners, but can be done with a single burner — as long as it will get hot enough to boil water. And you won’t need more than five cooking utensils. If you maximize the use of already-cooked protein and staples, throw in a few canned or jarred essentials and remember to pack some cold and salty pickles and olives, you’ll be ready to fuel some fireless fun.
With the availability of reusable zip-top bags, including the silicone variety that can be dropped in boiling water to reheat them, pre-cooking doesn’t have to be wasteful. The beautiful thing about dinner in a bag is that you can freeze it and it will keep any perishable items cold. This saves on cooler space, water, and fuel: Heat your meal, then use the boiling water to cook your carbs and/or wash your dishes and utensils.
Put a lid on it
When you’re packing, don’t forget a lid that fits both your main saucepan and your skillet. If you don’t do much (or any) cooking or camp cooking, you’ll be astonished at how much faster a closed cooking vessel heats up.
Do the words “scullery maid” sound like fun to you? Then don’t get guilt over taking the shortcuts. After all, camping is supposed to be a vacation. Repeat that word: VAY. CAY. SHUN. Take an all-purpose bottle of dressing for bagged cole slaw (good on tacos, good with barbecue and hell, good with breakfast). We like Brianna’s Creamy Cilantro and Lime), or a bottle of your own homemade vinaigrette that can double as a marinade.
Pillage the pantry
There’s no shame in using instant brown gravy or instant mashed potatoes — and they don’t weigh much, either. We created these recipes from things like pre-made rice in shelf-stable pouches, pasta that cooks in a flash (thin spaghetti, ramen or glass noodles) and dried fruits (apricots, cherries).
Best camping inventions ever: The collapsible square silicone sink, for dishwashing. Anything made by GSI — kitchen kits, pots, nesting eating gear. Compostable paper plates and bowls. Instant espresso powder. And olive oil in a little squeeze bottle — we got by on less than 3 ounces of olive oil for four days and we ate like royalty (granted, we had baked some chocolate-walnut brownies in advance, smeared them with sour cherry jam, and ate them with canned mojitos and daiquiris).
Camp stove Shepherd’s Pie
This can be completely made in advance and reheated. While it’s easier to do it on two burners, it can be done on one. And if instant mashed potatoes offend your foodie sensibility, boil up some small ones and pack into a zip-top bag. Then smash them with your hands and re-warm on top of the stew. Serves 4
For the stew:
- 1 pound or more beef stew chunks or trimmed, cubed chuck roast
- 3 ounces dry red wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper or seasoned pepper blend
- 2 packets brown gravy mix, any variety (gluten-free brands are available)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups frozen vegetables: carrots, peas and green beans are ideal
For the potatoes:
- 1 pound small red or multicolored potatoes, skin-on, pre-boiled
- Pre-packaged Instant mashed potatoes plus the ingredients to make 4 generous servings (most brands call for milk, butter and water, but we skipped the butter and were just fine)
Any or all of the following steps can be done in advance.
Cut any large chunks of the stew meat or chuck into bite-size pieces. Combine beef, red wine, salt and pepper in a resealable bag or container and chill for 2 hours.
Mix the brown gravy according to package directions in a bowl or mug
Heat the olive oil over a medium setting in a skillet or Dutch oven. When it shimmers, add the beef chunks one by one with tongs so that the chunks get a bit of a sear. When all of the beef has been added and turned once, add the brown gravy and turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes or until the beef is done to your liking.
(At this point, you can bag and freeze the stew base, then reheat it and combine it with the vegetables on site.)
OR: Add the frozen vegetables. Cover once again and continue simmering until heated through and bubbling hot; cover and set aside to keep warm.
(You can also freeze the stew at this point).
At your campsite: Make the potatoes. If using instant, boil water and add milk and/or butter according to package directions. Season to taste. Heat through; cover and set aside.
If using potatoes boiled at home, give the zip-top bag of cooked potatoes to your favorite child or childlike adult and tell them to squish the potatoes with their hands through the bag. Add milk, butter or oil, and salt and pepper to taste (be sparing with the salt, as most brown gravy mixes are plenty salty). Squeeze the potatoes into a pot or skillet and warm through over low heat; cover and set aside. (Or, if the potatoes were in an immersible bag, just toss the bag in the boiling water).
Return the stew to the burner and heat to bubbling. Serve the stew over the mashed potatoes.
Tuna terrine pasta
This cold pasta supper requires only the boiling of some spaghetti noodles and the opening of a pint mason jar. If you have access to a high-quality canned tuna in oil, feel free to substitute that — and if you’d rather serve this on crusty bread than pasta, go for it. Serves 4.
- Two 7-ounce cans of best-quality tuna, packed in oil or water
- 1/2 cup of good-quality olive oil
- 2 cans tomato paste or 2 tubes of sun-dried tomato paste.
- 1/2 cup fresh herbs, roughly chopped and loosely packed (parsley, dill, fennel, basil, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, thyme or chives all work)
- 1/2 cup green olives, coarsely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved, or 2 garlic scapes (optional)
- 3/4 pound uncooked spaghetti noodles
- Shredded parmesan cheese (optional)
Before leaving, open the cans of tuna. If water-packed, drain the tuna (reserve the juice for later use or as a treat for canine or feline pets). Divide the first can of tuna into two glass jars and using a fork, break it up into smaller chunks, then pack it slightly level. Add one-quarter of the chopped herbs to each jar (leaving half of the herbs for the second layer). Cover with one-quarter of the olive oil, to just reach the top of the tuna and herbs layer. Add half of one can of tomato paste to each jar. Repeat the layers. Top each jar with half of the chopped green olives. Add garlic if desired. Refrigerate.
At the campsite: Break spaghetti noodles in half (to fit in a small cooking pot). Boil until al dente; drain.
To serve, portion cooked noodles into bowls. Scoop out olive, tomato, herb and tuna layers to top noodles. Add parmesan cheese if desired.
Lamb nuggets with apricot rice
This recipe works equally well with beef or chicken chunks, spiced meatballs or, we suspect, plant-based alternatives such as falafel. If you make plenty of the pilaf, you can add garbanzo beans and feta chunks to it the second day for a light, cool lunch. And if you forget the apricots, you can substitute currants, raisins, or even halved grapes. Serve with cucumbers and dressing or a green salad, or both. Serves 4.
For the lamb:
- 1 pound lamb stew chunks
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamon
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
For the rice:
- 1 8.8-ounce package ready-to-eat basmati rice
- 1 6-ounce packet dried apricots, diced or snipped with scissors
- 1 and 1 / 2 cup frozen tiny peas
- 1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped
- 1 bunch fresh chives, chopped
- Juice of one lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
The following steps can be executed before your trip.
Cut any large stew chunks into bite-size pieces. In a resealable bag or container, combine the lamb and the cumin, pepper, salt, cinnamon and cardamon. Refrigerate for up to 4 hours — or freeze to cook at your campsite.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the spiced lamb and cook until done to your liking. You can freeze the lamb at this point to reheat at your campsite.
At your campsite or at home: In a large bowl or resealable zip-top bag, combine the rice, apricots, herbs, and lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or cold.
Chicken Sausage Fry-up
This recipe works with any type of sausage, though it’s much more portable with fully cooked sausages or those you’ve previously grilled or cooked. It would also work with plant-based sausages or vegetarian versions, and if you really, really, miss a wood fire, char the vegetables to your heart’s content at home and reheat them at your campsite. Got leftovers? That’s breakfast. Serves 4.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- One large or two small zucchini, cut into chunks
- One large or two small yellow squash, cut into chunks
- One bell pepper, green or ripe, cut into wide strips
- 1 teaspoon ground pepper or seasoned pepper blend
- 4 to 6 fully cooked chicken sausages, cut into half-inch-thick chunks
- 1/4 cup shredded cheese or crumbled cheese, any kind, optional
Heat the olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the vegetables in a single layer. Sprinkle the seasoned pepper blend on the vegetables. Cook until slightly brown.
Add the chicken sausage; continue to cook until the sausages are slightly browned and everything is heated through. Add the cheese and remove from or turn off heat; cover to melt the cheese and keep the dish warm. Serve immediately.
Susan Clotfelter ([email protected]) once cooked for 185 campers for three days at an altitude of 8,000 feet without electricity or modern plumbing. She had a lot of help — and has since completely regained her sanity. Sort of.
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