Camp Cooking

Camp Cooking

It seems that more and more people are enjoying the great outdoors, at least if you gauge interest on the sale of Goretex raingear and sport utility vehicles. But, more often than not, people who talk about "camping" are usually referring to driving that SUV to a campground, unloading a cooler full of food (and perhaps beverages) and putting on the Goretex raingear as shield against the drizzle they encounter going from cabin to car.
While renting a cabin or going to a campground are certainly acceptable forms of recreation, I tend to chafe when someone describes the activity as "camping".

Perhaps I'm a bit more of a retentive purist, but when I think of "camping", I think of leaving motorized transport at a trailhead, packing provisions in a backpack and heading down a trail or out in a canoe. Nighttime shelter is by way of a tent (or perhaps under a fly if the weather permits), and if you can't find what you need in your backpack, you simply find a way to do without it. While the trail presents certain primitive elements and a sacrifice of creature comforts, that is precisely what makes the endeavor relaxing and regenerating. No TVs, no cell phones, no light pollution, only the quiet rhythm of the paddle stroking through a glass calm lake as the mist rises from the chill of early morning and the occasional warbling of a distant loon. There is nothing quite as relaxing after a long day's paddle as crisp swim in a backwoods lake. All the comforts of home, left behind, are indeed a small price to pay for the quiet solitude. But, not all comforts are abandoned. Being able to prepare and enjoy excellent food in the primitive environment only enhances the experience.

There are two elements that can serve as distinct hindrances in backwoods cooking. The first, and probably the most difficult issue, involves weight. Fresh food contains a huge amount of water, and water is heavy. The heavier your food, the heavier your pack, and consequently, the more strained your back is. This problem has found some solution in the use of dehydrated and freeze dried foods. In many instances, these "add water" meals can approach gourmet quality and are a far cry from flavorless, cardboard textured concoctions to which the camper was limited to fifteen years ago. The downside is cost, for one can pay a princely sum for lightweight food that's worth eating. And despite our efforts, we've also not yet discovered a means to dehydrate bourbon.

The second limitation involves spoilage. Without refrigeration, what was once fresh will simply no longer be fresh, or edible, after several days on the trail. A cooler is not an option, given the combined weight of the food, ice and container. Given weight and spoilage issues, there are certain limitations on what food might be appropriately carried into the woods.

My preferred method of camping, and backwoods travel, is by canoe. While I have certainly done my share of backpacking, water travel provides, in my mind, distinct advantages over hiking. To begin with, finding or carrying water doesn't present a problem, after all, you're surrounded by it. If there is a concern over the safety of consuming the water, there are a myriad of purification devices, from filters to additives. And of course, let's not forget the previously mentioned backwoods lake swim. And while travel by canoe can present some overland obstacles that require you to throw the pack on your back, the canoe over your head and portage to the next lake, hopefully those will not be the all day trek that backpacking is. Because the amount of time spent carrying gear can be minimized, weight can be a somewhat lesser issue. There's also the added benefit of (maybe) catching a fat bass to supplement your menu.

Over the years, those with whom I camp (and you know who you are) have developed a system that reaches a reasonable compromise between fresh and freeze dried, allowing us to enjoy some memorable meals far from civilization. Typically for a five day canoe trip, hard frozen meat, wrapped in newspaper will stay fresh through the third day. So, without resorting to dehydrated foods, dinners could include a spicy chicken gumbo with brown rice. Or combined with grocery store dehydrated hash browns, there's nothing quite as good as a London Broil (frozen in marinade) grilled on a campfire and enjoyed as the sun slips into the lake. Or smoked sausage (again frozen at home) from-scratch baked beans and hot fresh cornbread. There's also a good many foods that travel perfectly well without refrigeration, including pita bread, homemade jerky, slab bacon, salami, hard cheeses as well as rice, couscous, dried fruit, oatmeal and honey. Of course, modern technology and gadgetry can be big helps, enabling a modern camper to actually bake brownies and pizzas over a backpacking stove.

As the fresh foods disappear, we tend to go more towards vegetarian, so that by the fourth night out, we may be preparing linguine with olive oil and fresh garlic. As we reach our homeward bound stretch, we've probably reached the point that the fresh foods are gone, and unless Steve has landed that fat bass, we'll be eating freeze dried. Despite the miles of paddling and perhaps some rough portages, I don't think that any of us has ever lost weight "camping".

Homemade Jerky

3 lbs. London Broil (Top round) Approx. 1 inch thick
½ cup soy
½ cup dry red wine
1 tsp. liquid smoke
1 tbsp. Powdered garlic (NOT garlic salt)
2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper

Trim the meat of all fat. Meat should be sliced in ½ inch thick slices. This will be easier if the meat is partially frozen. Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl (glass). Add the meat slices, stir to combine making sure that the marinade covers the slices. Refrigerate 24 hours.

The jerky should be dried, not cooked. This is best done in an oven set at the lowest setting, with the door ajar (there are also various food dehydrators on the market, which do the job very well). Using toothpicks, or a skewer, string each strip at one end and allow to hang down from the oven rack. Use a jelly roll pan to catch drippings.

Dry for 24 hours, or until a uniform brown and stiff but pliable. The original 3 pounds will reduce in weight to ½ lb. Properly dried, jerky requires no refrigeration, but should be stored in a sealed container in a cool place.

Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 2, Issue 10, Posted 2:02 PM, 04.19.06