Like millions of Americans, I spent many a childhood summer holed up in a pup tent in the great outdoors along with my family, temporarily escaping reality for a chance to commune with nature. There were enough comforts for a family with children: the occasional hot water shower, hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows before bed, and many lazy days of drifting down rivers or playing in the crashing ocean waves.
Food while camping was always hot and fresh, if simple. There would on occasion be pancakes for breakfast whipped up from storage containers of flour and baking powder in our camping crates, milk and eggs from the iced down cooler. Dinners tended toward hamburgers and hot dogs if we were grilling, spaghetti with Newman’s Own jarred sauce if using the propane stove. Food was never complicated but it was always fresh, always homemade.
Anything other than freshly cooked food when camping just doesn’t compute with me, even at this age. When planning a group camping trip a few years back on the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara where fires are not allowed, a friend suggested we bring the dehydrated packets of food that many backpacking campers take to cut down on weight and avoid spoilage. I nearly choked on my morning cup of tea. I understand why people use dehydrated food, and I understand that the quality has much improved since the astronaut packets I used to buy as a kid. But just because we could do that doesn’t mean that we should, particularly when cooking real food was still an option.
That trip we paired up for food planning. My team decided on spaghetti with homemade meatballs and marinara for one night, made by my friend’s boyfriend, and beef bourguignon, made by me, for the second night. Neither of these recipes were obvious choices for camping--hamburgers might have been more predictable--but there was a method to our madness. With no open fires allowed due to the high fire danger, we needed food that cooked up well on propane. Also, camping involved taking a ferry to the islands and a 1 kilometer trek from the dock to the camp site. That's why cooking equipment had to be kept to a minimum. But the schlep but was short enough that we wouldn’t need to fully resort to canned or dried food, we could bring a cooler.
The spaghetti cooked up perfectly and accented a hearty mix of braised lamb shank and beef meatballs in a rich marinara. For the beef bourguignon, I made the beef and red wine stew a few days in advance and froze it in reusable containers. It was not even fully defrosted by the time we reheated it on the second night. There was nothing as satisfying after a long day of hiking beautiful seaside cliffs in the hot sun as a hot and hearty bowl of veggies and meat.
All that being said, I am only an occasional camper these days. I have friends who keep their camping boxes in a perpetual state of readiness, on alert to throw in the car and take off for the next trip. Another friend is one such person who is always primed and ready to go should a camping trip present itself to her and her husband. Over the years Janna has developed tactics for food readiness, as well as Tetris-like skills to fit their camping gear in her car.
Before leaving on a camping trip not only will Janna plan out their meals, she will prep as many of the vegetables as possible, sealing up her prep in large Ziploc bags and then filing them away in the ice chest. Janna impresses because, not only does she make hot and fresh meals every evening like fajitas, burritos, and veggie burgers, she also makes sure bellies are filled with warm meals even for breakfast. Her fully prepped veggie breakfast burrito filling is the sort of hearty yet easy start to the day that just about anyone would be happy to have, particularly if taking off from the campsite for a day of hiking, swimming, or lounging with a good book under a shady tree.
Camping has come a long way since my youth. Portable outdoor showers use solar power to heat water for a warm bath. Silicon bowls turn inside out for easy packing, cleaning, and licking of dinnerware. Whole mini barbecues pack down into a light, portable size for a mini campfire anywhere it is permitted.
Enjoying the great outdoors with ease does not have to be limited to camping gear. Gourmet food, whether a hearty post-hike stew or a body fueling morning breakfast burrito, can be prepped ahead of time and cooked up with the greatest of ease for the ultimate food experience surrounded by the wonder of nature.
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