Beyond hot dogs and s’mores
Campfire cooking to rival a restaurant
To be clear, I love a good dog as much as the next guy, especially if it’s been locally produced. My favorites are the uncured beef wieners from Stan Shutte at Triple S Farms, and the old-fashioned hot dogs from Dutch Valley Meats in Arthur. And there’s an art to roasting a perfectly golden marshmallow, and better yet if the chocolate square has been allowed to melt slightly, perched atop a graham cracker by the side of the fire.
Wieners and s’mores were standard fare during the camping trips of my youth. Another favorite was camp biscuits: dough haphazardly smooshed onto questionably clean sticks that we had scavenged for around the campsite. Covered in foil, the dough-wrapped sticks were roasted over the fire until they were more or less cooked through. Inevitably some spots were still doughy, some were slightly charred, but we devoured them, smeared with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Over the years, as our tastes have become more sophisticated, so have our camping menus. I often joke that we’re “going eating” for the weekend, as it often feels like the primary function of all the classic camping activities like hiking and canoeing is to build up our appetites for the next meal. Usually we’ll stick to tradition for the first night of the trip, then plan to splurge the second night. Specialty cuts of steak and fish that require little seasoning are excellent choices to make when you’re looking to keep it simple and not haul half your pantry along.
On our most recent camping trip I brought along some gorgeous fillets of Copper River salmon that we received in our monthly Sitka Salmon Shares delivery. I packed them frozen, and they were still icy two days later when it was time to prepare them. After deboning the fillets, I salted them and stuck the fillets in a plastic bag and returned them to the cooler to hang out on ice while I got the rest of the meal ready. As a roaring fire relaxed into a glowing bed of embers, I readied zucchini, peppers and sweet corn for the grill, tossing them lightly in olive oil and salt. While the vegetables grilled, I made a simple but luxurious sauce to top the fish and couscous that would accompany it. In a small cast-iron skillet over a corner of the fire I added shallots (which I’d pre-chopped at home) to sizzling butter, cooking them until slightly softened. To that I added a couple of chopped tomatoes, a splash of white wine, a pinch of saffron (everyone keeps saffron in their camp kitchen, right?) and a splash of cream. After a 10-minute simmer, the sauce was done and I set it aside. The vegetables finished about the same time, and I transferred them to a tray. After brushing the salmon with olive oil, it was ready for its turn on the grill. The salmon cooked in minutes, and while it rested I made some couscous. Ideal to make when cooking implements are limited, couscous is made by combining equal parts dry couscous and boiling water with a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil, then simply covering the mixture and letting it stand for five minutes before serving.
The result was a meal that would rival the finest restaurant cuisine, served up on tin plates around the fire and washed down with a cold glass of rosé. After dinner the fire had died down to embers, and I mixed up what would become the piece de résistance of my camping menu.
Steamed Blueberry Pudding
This dish is as impressive as it is simple. I placed five tablespoons of butter in a medium-sized mixing bowl that fits inside my cast-iron Dutch oven. This was set on the edge of the grill grate, and once the butter was melted I added ½ cup milk, a cup of sugar, a tablespoon of vanilla, one egg and mixed well. Before we left home I had combined a cup of flour, two teaspoons baking powder, the zest of one lemon and half a teaspoon of salt in a zip top sandwich bag. To this dry mix I added one and a half cups fresh blueberries and tossed them around in the bag to coat the berries. Finally I dumped the flour-berry mixture into the mixing bowl with the melted butter mixture and mixed it gently to combine.
When the pudding batter was ready, we used a shovel to create a bed of embers to the side of the fire pit. Inside my Dutch oven, I made a nest of clean tea towels and nestled the bowl of batter in the middle. To this I poured water into the Dutch oven to come halfway up the sides of the bowl, put the lid on and carefully lowered the oven onto the waiting bed of coals. Using the shovel, we scooped up some of the glowing embers to cover the lid and banked up the coals around the outside of the Dutch oven. After a few minutes steam began to escape from under the lid, and we left it to cook for 45 minutes. It was now dark, and we grabbed our flashlights for a moonlight walk around the campground.
When we returned after 45 minutes, I brushed away the embers from the lid and carefully lifted the pot off the fire. Everyone gathered around, headlamps shining as the lid was lifted. The collective gasp of awe was rather hilarious as we all looked down upon the perfectly golden cake, oozing with berry goodness. A check with a sharp knife revealed that the cake still had a few minutes more to cook, so I returned it to the fire to cook 10 minutes more, just enough time to brew a pot of coffee.
I cannot explain how satisfying it is to pull this beautiful, golden cake out of the ashes. It is perfect all on its own, but would certainly be complimented by some fresh whipped cream, which can be made camp style by shaking a mason jar half filled with cream until your arms feel like they’re going to fall off (a good activity if you’ve got high-energy littles around).
Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.