Wine in the Wild
Gone are the days of gorp – gourmet camping cuisine now means shrimp on a barbie and Sauvignon Blanc.
For many campers, meals are more a matter of grim necessity than an occasion for gustatory delight. After all, campfire cuisine is often distinguished by such memorable dishes as burnt-to-a-crisp burgers, charred-beyond-recognition chicken, incinerated hot dogs, dirt-encrusted beans and half-baked potatoes.
But camping meals don’t have to be dreary exercises in survival. With a little preparation at home, some basic cooking gear and a dollop of imagination, dining in the bush can be a delightful culinary adventure. “Eating is a basic necessity, so why have something ordinary when it can be extraordinary with a little extra work?” asks Leslie Trautman, an avid camper and gourmet cook from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who is writing a book on gourmet camping.
The foundation for many of Trautman’s recipes is a tangy marinade. One advantage of marinades is that they can be prepared in advance and have a shelf life of several days or longer. While Trautman prefers to make her own, when pressed for time, she has no qualms about using a bottle of good store-bought marinade (Hellman’s Citrus Splash Ruby Red Ginger Dressing is one of her favorites).
What to Cook
Naturally, grilling is the modus operandi of haute camp cuisine. One way to spice up a camp meal is to mix and match a variety of grilled foods. Marlena Spieler, a food writer from San Francisco who has a passion for grilling, recommends the following combinations:
- Polenta squares and portobello mushrooms. Brush them both with a blend of garlic, olive oil and fresh thyme as they cook.
- Smoked chicken-apple sausages, red bell peppers and asparagus.
- Butterflied leg of lamb (steeped in a red wine marinade), whole or halved onions and sliced winter squash. Serve with chutney and a stack of warm flour tortillas.
- Zucchini, ears of corn, clams, chorizo and fresh tuna marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, a pinch of chili powder and cumin, and lots of garlic.
- A variety of seafood—mussels, jumbo shrimp in their shells, squid, crab—all lightly marinated in a little olive oil, garlic and lemon. Serve with mango salsa.
When grilling food on skewers, keep in mind that various meats and vegetables cook at different rates, so it’s usually best to use just one type of food per skewer, such as the classic Indian chicken tikka or Indonesian satay. An exception is food that might add flavor to other foods, such as bacon or sausage. Thread a slice or two of bacon in between chunks of salmon or chicken livers, for example, or try alternating pieces of spicy sausage with chunks of chicken or lamb.
Grilled vegetables are another cornerstone of campfire cuisine because they are so tasty and easy to prepare. A light brushing of olive oil or a brief bath in a simple marinade is all they need. Leftovers can be used to perk up pastas, salads, sandwiches and soups.
Vegetables can be cooked on hot or cool coals; just keep checking for doneness. Some veggies—peppers, eggplant, zucchini and other summer squashes, potatoes and fennel, for example—can be grilled sliced or whole. Many salad vegetables are also delicious grilled, especially endive and radicchio. Grilled asparagus is spectacular. Solid, starchy or stringy vegetables need to be parboiled before grilling. Plunge whole veggies such as potatoes into boiling water for 8-10 minutes, then drain and marinate before grilling to desired doneness.
Quick Grilled Veggie tips:
Artichokes: After blanching, marinate in olive oil, lemon and herbs.
Beets: After blanching, marinate or baste with olive oil and lemon.
Broccoli: Blanch briefly, then marinate in a little teriyaki sauce and a dash of balsamic vinegar.
Carrots: After blanching, baste with a little butter seasoned with preserved ginger and garlic.
Garlic: After blanching, marinate whole heads in a little olive oil and lemon before grilling.
Potatoes: After blanching, marinate in olive oil, lemon and herbs.
Fresh fruit roasted on the coals can also be scrumptious. However, the strong smoke flavor makes grilled fruit better suited for savory dishes than sweet ones. Here are a few of Spieler’s favorite combos:
Peaches, nectarines, figs and apricots: Halve and pit stone fruit. Figs may be warmed through, turning once. Serve with goat cheese and a sprinkling of sweet basil.
Pineapple: Baste slices with brown sugar mixed with lime and butter. Serve with anything spicy, especially Mexican or Southeast Asian flavors.
Bananas: Grill alongside anything Mexican or marinated in Mexican-style seasoning paste.
Assorted fruits: Grill a mix of apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, figs and pieces of pineapple; remove from grill and splash them with a fruit-flavored liqueur.
Before leaving for the woods, it pays to make a trip to your herb garden. Lemon balm thrown in the campfire provides a natural insect repellent. Lemon balm, peppermint or spearmint infused in hot water makes a fragrant natural herb tea. Fresh chives chopped and mixed into butter adds zest to breads and baked potatoes.
They Never Had This at Summer Camp
No camp meal would be complete without a good bottle of wine. As always, choosing the right bottle depends on the type of food you’re eating. Assertive, full-bodied wines that can stand up to the strong, smoky flavors of campfire cuisine are good choices. Trautman likes to pack a bold, spicy Zinfandel or a punchy Petite Sirah. And, she says, there’s nothing more refreshing than a glass of chilled Beaujolais after a long, dusty hike.”It’s soft, light and quaffable—it can’t be beat!”
If you can’t bear the thought of sipping a superb Zin out of a tin cup, there’s no reason you can’t take along your crystal wine glasses. Trautman wraps hers in clothes and cushions them in her pack with other soft articles. But a more practical option is to take along a set of Lexan wine glasses. These elegant goblets are made of lightweight, super-durable plastic that is virtually indestructible. Even better, the glasses unscrew at the midpoint of their stems so the bases can be snapped into the bowls for compact storage.
The Outdoor Gourmet
You don’t have to drag half your kitchen into the woods to prepare superb backwoods meals. With the proper preparation, campers can whip up some surprisingly elaborate meals a few basic cooking implements. Indeed, using only most of Trautman’s gourmet camping recipes require only a campfire grill and a saucepan.
But for those who insist on camping in style and comfort, there’s a wide assortment of equipment, cooking utensils and other cool gear to choose from. REI has plenty of products for those who want to bring their gourmet kitchens into the wild:
Rome Tri-Pod Grill ($32) features an 18-inch-diameter cooking surface that can be raised or lowered, depending on the size of the flames and the type of food you are cooking.
Open Country Non-Stick Deluxe Kit ($77 for 6-person kit). In terms of cookware and eating utensils, you can’t do much better than this kit, which is stylish, practical and a bargain to boot. It includes three pots (two-quart, four-quart and 10-quart) with lids, six plates and cups, and a five-cup coffee percolator. The entire ensemble weighs only eight pounds.
Lexan tableware ($11.95 per setting). This high-density plastic is reputed to be tougher than steel and one-third as heavy, making it an ideal material for campware. The set includes plate, bowl, cup and three pieces of cutlery.
E-Z Camping Fire Chief Rotisserie ($40). This nifty contraption makes it easy to enjoy the smoky flavor of slow-roasted meat while on the trail. The height of the stainless steel rotisserie is adjustable to control the amount of heat that reaches the meat.
Backpacker’s Pantry Outback Oven ($52). No need to call Domino’s. You can bake pizzas, pies, casseroles and even cakes with this award-winning portable oven, which weighs a mere 1 pound 10 ounces. Backpacker’s Pantry also makes a number of prepackaged mixes to go with the oven, including focaccia bread ($5.50), cinnamon coffeecake ($4), wild blueberry scones ($4.50) and Thai pizza mix ($4).
Coleman Powerchill 40-quart cooler ($100). This plastic cooler can accommodate two-liter bottles upright. It can be plugged into your vehicle’s lighter socket (but the adapter costs an extra 50 bucks).
REI coffeemaker ($35). A wonderful way to brew, dispense and store French-press coffee in the bush. It features a built-in plunger and stainless steel vacuum bottle. (The Traveler II portable coffee grinder makes a good companion item; $19.)
Colibri All Terrain Lighter ($90). This handy device features a variety of tools for backcountry survival, including a stainless-steel knife, bottle opener, screwdriver and magnetic compass. The lighter is powered by a wind-resistant Quantum Electro Flame System designed to ignite in virtually any weather conditions.
Cooking Safely Outdoors
Cooking outdoors is simple and delicious, but food that is brought into the nonrefrigerated wilderness must be handled with great caution. Modern outdoor stoves, grills and toasters are luxuries—but an ice chest is a necessity. A large plastic cooler (not styrofoam—those aren’t durable or insulating enough for an extended trip) filled to the brim with ice should keep your goodies cold for two or three days, depending on how hot the weather is.
Many of the ingredients in the following recipes are highly perishable, particularly the seafood and the chicken. Seafood will stay fresh for only a day or so—eat it for your first meal. Chicken will keep, perhaps, one day longer. To keep food from spoiling in the wilderness, DeeDee Stovel, author of Picnic: 125 Recipes with 29 Seasonal Menus, recommends freezing meat, poultry or fish that you bring on your trip before you leave. While storing seafood in zipper-style bags (the freezer bags are most durable) is acceptable, chicken storage is another story altogether.
Because poultry harbors salmonella, chicken should be stored in a sturdy plastic container, then the container should be wrapped again in a plastic bag to prevent leakage. Remember: Anything that comes into contact with raw chicken can transport salmonella. Be sure to pack an antibacterial soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap) and wash your hands and utensils after touching the chicken. And, of course, wash the chicken carefully before you leave home.
Do the prep work for the following recipes at home, and your gourmet “roughing it” cookout will be a cinch!
Peter Kupfer is an editor on the foreign desk of the San Francisco Chronicle. He has written about politics, culture and technology for Metropolis magazine, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Observer, among other publications. His article on “Careers in Wine” appeared in the May issue of Wine Enthusiast.
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