Splendor on the Grass
Leave he cans home next time you camp out; you can feast al fresco with no trouble at all.
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The first time our family made camp, the regulars must have thought we were preparing to remake an old Ma and Pa Kettle flick. To begin with, our station wagon was so heavily loaded that my husband couldn’t see out the rear view mirror; the only thing we didn’t have was a pen of chickens. The first crisis occurred about halfway to the city limits; the baby set up a yowl that brought the car to a screeching halt. And he had a legitimate reason to cry: a tent pole was firmly planted in his left temple. We then had three flat tires, each of which required a complete unloading of the gear at the site of the calamity and another at the nearest gas station.
The flat tires played havoc with my dinner schedule. It was pitch dark by the time we dragged onto the campsite in South Texas. The dog had gotten so overwrought by the moving around that he’d relieved himself on the Safari light which has never worked since. We set up camp by car light.
Crouched on the ground knee deep in coastal bermuda which was drier than the bed of the Rio Seco, I gingerly built a fire on the wonderful gasoline stove and began frying a steak. There was no time to cook it over coals made patiently from mesquite as planned. I’d brought potatoes to bake in mud too, but by this time we felt like the Russians in the great potato famine and would almost have eaten them raw.
I’ve learned a lot since then about camp cooking and how to survive a weekend without subjecting the family to pork and beans or having a nervous breakdown because of variables that may be completely beyond my control. I’ve learned how to prepare meals we all enjoy but which leave me time to sit under an oak tree and listen to the water working down the Guadalupe. I can join the rest of the family in a hike over the ridge where we might jump some doves, who look like little business men running from the tax collector in their Brooks Brothers suits.
By changing your mindset and not aspiring to duplicate all the comforts of home, you’ll be able to get more out of a campout. Three days without telephones, televisions, and newspapers does change your perspective. And contrary to what the recreation vehicle industry and the sporting goods stores tell you, you don’t need a $3000 investment to do it.
Before we start camping, I tell my brood that they are to be weekend back-packers—only as much gear as each one can carry. I follow this rule for the kitchen preparations as well. Following is a sample which is cut to the bone and prevents me from being a slave to equipment or chained to the chuckwagon. It also permits my husband to see out the rear view mirror.
For cooking, I take one pot only, no stove, just matches in a waterproof container, and charcoal because firewood isn’t always available. The versatile dutch oven has served the camper well since Paul Revere invented it. It’s a good old-fashioned pot still for sale cheap at most hardware stores. My dutch oven is cast iron, twelve inches in diameter, with three legs and a flat top with a ridge around the edge. In this marvelous contraption I can do everything from cook biscuits to wash the dishes. I can use it over an open fire or in a pit. The lid with its ridge can be used to fry bacon, eggs, or flapjacks. One of the greatest advantages of this utensil is that you can put meat on to cook after breakfast, place the oven in a pit filled with hot coals, leave camp for the day, come in tired and ravenous and voila—there’s dinner, ready and wafting.
In the comfort of my own kitchen, I plan each meal and package the ingredients, premeasured into individual plastic bags. This prevents having to take half of the kitchen’s wares to the field in order to get a bay leaf, a pinch of thyme, or a teaspoon of peppercorns. You needn’t rely on processed foods loaded with preservatives either. Use slow cooking in the heavy pot and your food will be as nutritious as that cooked at home, and will taste better than you can imagine.
The first thing to do is make a supply list that you can check off at home. Don’t risk a nervous breakdown by being stuck in the wilds with no silverware or toilet paper. Here’s a list you might wish to clip and save to use on your venture.
CHECK LIST FOR CAMPING SUPPLIES
Ice and ice chest
Paper plates, cups, bowls, napkins, paper towels
Foodstuffs for recipes used
Matches in an airtight container
First aid kit
Clean drinking water, 5 gal.
Bedrolls for everyone
Utensils for eating/cooking
Charcoal and lighter
Condensed milk to mix with water if there is a baby along
For snacks, pack cheese, peanut butter, fresh and dried fruits, jerky, fruit juice, bouillon, tea, and coffee. All that freeze-dried stuff for sale in the sporting goods backpacker’s section is better left to those planning to pack in for two weeks.
A typical weekend menu with its attendant packaging might look like this:
Friday Supper: A picnic en route to the campsite, completely prepared at home, packaged in throwaway materials which can be deposited in a roadside park garbage can.
Saturday Breakfast: Bacon and eggs fried in the lid of the dutch oven. Pan toast made by buttering the bread and browning in the dutch oven over a medium hot fire. It takes a while to get a fire going, so send the campers on an errand before breakfast so they won’t sit like vultures blinking in your face the first time you make a fire. Serve this and all other meals in paper plates which you then throw away into a plastic bag that you’ll pack out when you head for home.
After breakfast, dig a pit three inches wider and deeper than your dutch oven, line it with foil, shovel in plenty of hot coals, and place the dutch oven in to heat. When it’s good and hot, you can sear the chicken, vegetables, and seasoning you have packed in the Saturday supper unit, cover the oven with the lid, place more hot coals on the lid, then bury the whole thing with dirt. Now you can be on your way. That night, dinner will be waiting for you. Slowly braised all day, the blending of fowl and vegetables will melt in your mouth. This recipe is also good cooked at home on the top of the stove turned to low.
Saturday Night Chicken
At home, chop and combine in a plastic bag:
1 white onion
1 green pepper
1 clove garlic
In a second bag, place:
1 fryer, cut into pieces
In a third bag:
3 oz. mozzarella
1 teaspoon capers
1 tin anchovies
¼ lb. butter
Salt and pepper
Place the three bags in a paper sack and mark it appropriately. Hold in the ice chest until time for preparation.
At the campsite, melt the butter in the dutch oven, taking care not to burn it. Lay the chicken in the pan (unseasoned) skin down, and braise on both sides over low heat. Remove to lid. Pour the onion, green pepper, and garlic into the dutch oven and cook until clear. Quarter the tomatoes and add to the oven. Replace the chicken, season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover the dutch oven tightly and place in the cooking pit. Place coals in and around it, cover with dirt, then head for the swimmin’ hole.
That night when you return, dig it up, uncover it, and place the mozzarella, capers, and anchovies on top. Take care not to burn yourself—it is hot. Let it stand long enough to melt the cheese, then serve to a sighing appreciative bunch.
Saturday lunch: Irish eggs can be made at home the day before and can be eaten without any utensils whatsoever. If one of your campers plans to hike far away, he can take a couple of them along and have a satisfying, tasty lunch which will stick to his ribs. Children love this too.
7 hardboiled eggs
1 pound country sausage
(This recipe can be multiplied according to the number of mouths you have to feed.)
Divide the raw sausage into seven equal portions, and make flat thin patties large enough to completely envelop the peeled, hardboiled eggs. Place in a baking dish and bake for 45 minutes at 300°. Irish eggs are good hot or cold, the day they’re cooked or the next. They should be kept in the ice chest.
Saturday Dinner: Saturday night chicken and raw vegetables dipped in curried mayonnaise. At home, clean and cut any or all of the following: cauliflower, broccoli, celery, carrots, turnips, radishes, cherry tomatoes, bell pepper, purple onions, mushrooms. Place them in plastic bags and hold in your ice chest. Into a pint of mayonnaise, stir curry powder and beau monde to taste—don’t be timid. Stir and taste until it hits you—then it’s right for dipping raw vegetables in. Refrigerate.
For dessert, serve cupcakes which you’ve made at home. Forget the layer cakes. They’re harder to manage than nitroglycerine if you are traveling with wiggly kids.
Sunday Breakfast: Flapjacks made on the dutch oven lid. If you’re a real purist, you can even make camp coffee in the dutch oven. Personally, instant made in the teapot works fine for us.
Sunday Dinner: By Sunday, the bag of fresh vegetables may look like the last of the Belles but you can dance her around one more time in:
Clean It Up Stew
At home, combine in a plastic bag:
2 lbs. beef stew meat, cubed
¼ lb. butter
Salt and pepper
The vegetables you have left over
½ bottle dry red wine 1 pint sour cream
Place hot coals in the pit you dug yesterday. Seat the dutch oven firmly on the coals. Brown meat in butter in the dutch oven. Add vegetables and wine. Cover. Place more hot coals on top and cover with dirt. Cook five hours more or less. Open carefully. Stir in sour cream. Serve with French bread and wine.
I can usually coax my gang out of the field by letting the aroma of the stew float over their way about two o’clock. Eating in mid-afternoon gets you home in time to bathe before you get really itchy and in time to get in gear again for the week’s routine. Because you spent an hour or so in your kitchen before you left, you had five interesting meals on the weekend, and time to enjoy what camping is all about.