Using a Wood Fire to Prepare Locally Sourced Summer Dishes
Written onMay 26 , 2015
Camping is one of the most sensory pleasures of summer. There are the natural sights, such as towering trees, wildlife, sunsets, and stars, and the sounds, such as those of birds that start their trilling morning songs and lakes that lap at shores in the distance.
One sense where camping often falls short, though, is taste. My partner, Tristan, and I have backpacked several long-distance trails, including Vermont’s Long Trail, and have eaten our share or flavorless—or worse, oddly-flavored—dehydrated camp meals sold in outdoor gear shops. When we traded our backpacks for car camping 10 years ago, our distaste for bland pasta and the same old rice and beans continued.
But while we were camping on Mount Desert Island in Maine four years ago, we stumbled upon freshly caught seafood at a local lobster pound. We stocked up on flaky fish and succulent shellfishes and headed back to our campsite with plenty of lemon and butter.
We decided to cook our catch over a campfire, and thus began our adventures in campfire cooking. It was a memorable night: We settled in by the fire while our dinner cooked, drank wine, played card games, and enjoyed the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of the ocean. The food was fabulous and we slept well that night, with our bellies full of local fare.
In the years since then, we have delighted over fresh chicken and vegetables, roasted potatoes, and ratatouille all cooked over a campfire. While dehydrated camp food or meals prepared with unfamiliar stoves and utensils can leave your palette wanting, meals prepared over an open campfire bring incredible flavors to the camping experience, all while providing “the campers’ TV”—an entertaining fire to watch while dinner cooks.
On your next camping trip this summer, give one of these recipes a try. Build a warm campfire (see special instructions for cooking campfires, below), grab a glass of local beer, wine, or spirits, and settle in by the fire. Watch day become night, and listen as your locally sourced dinner sizzles and cooks over a crackling fire.
Setting the Fire
The trick to cooking on an open campfire is to build a fire that is intensely hot and wide enough to provide ample cooking space. This requires barbeque coals, lighter fluid, and well-seasoned (read: dry) firewood. Most campgrounds include a fire ring with a fold-down cooking grate, and many provide firewood for sale as well. (Please use local firewood. Buy your firewood at or near the campground because transporting firewood from afar can bring invasive insects.)
Start by piling the coals into a pyramid at the center of your fire ring and douse the coals with lighter fluid, just like you would in a charcoal grill. At first, the flames will be light and bright orange and will originate from the outside of the pile of burning coals. Once these flames die down, the key is to monitor the pile of coals to be sure that heat is building at the pile’s center (several more rounds of lighting may be required to get that heat going).
Within about 15 to 20 minutes, the heat will build to the point that a second round of flaming occurs, but this time the flames come from the center of the coals and are deep red and blue. Once these flames appear, it’s time to add dry wood. Start with kindling to get the flames going. Once the kindling is burning well, add larger pieces of wood. When all of the wood is burning well, it’s time to start cooking.
Preparing Food for the Fire
Fresh Vermont ingredients, which are widely available in the summer, make great food for campfire recipes because they are at their peak flavor. This means they require very little fuss or seasoning. Exploring farms and food stands near your camping destination can be a fun part of your adventure. Alternatively, pack food from home in insulated coolers with ample ice or freezer packs to keep meat and butter chilled.
The easiest way to cook on a campfire is to use foil packets (recycled tin foil is available). The tin foil transfers heat from the campfire to your food. This method also makes for very easy clean up—that means there is no cleanings pots and pans in a rustic camp kitchen!
In every recipe, there are ingredients included that prevent the food from sticking to the foil. This can be butter, as in the recipe for roasted potatoes, or the juices from vegetables, as in the garlic and tomato chicken or campfire ratatouille. Substitutions can be made in these recipes, but be sure to include something (butter, oil, or juicy vegetables) to prevent your food from sticking to the foil packets.