Camping cuisine is a concept I’ve fully embraced only within the past few years.
Capitulating to hot dogs and beans for dinner, granola and yogurt for breakfast with peanut butter and jelly in between, I reasoned that camping meals, above all, should be easy.
Eating, in my view, wasn’t the point of sojourning in the great outdoors. Nor is struggling to wash dishes or feeling guilty for using disposable ware. But this viewpoint, I came to realize, was just a campsite cook’s cop-out.
My outlook changed amid garden abundance. Come August, the produce only doubles in number and size during a weekend away from home. So we eat those zucchini and tomatoes, no matter the cooking capabilities or the dining venue. And garden kale, which always needs to be kept in check, holds up better than any other type of greens for several days in a cooler. Overstocked on the seasonal haul, I started adapting strategies from the home kitchen for the camp kitchen.
When food is garden- and farm-fresh, very little cooking is required. And much of what is can easily be accomplished before leaving home for open-air accommodations.
For salads, I mix up the dressings at home and pack them in Mason jars into my cooler. Ditto with hard-boiled eggs that add heft to salads or invite general snacking. Capers and brine-cured olives impart effortless pops of flavor and have virtually no cause for being refrigerated.
Steaming or simmering grains, legumes and potatoes, then packing them into Ziploc bags for the cooler, eliminates much of the work and time involved with meal preparations at a campsite. And precooking these more calorie-dense foods saves on camp fuel.
Precooking extra portions of at least one ingredient allows it to be repurposed in another meal. Take potatoes: Steamed fingerling or new potatoes are the cornerstone of Salade Nicoise, one of my summertime essentials, with blanched green beans, crudité and canned tuna. By cooking another half portion or so of potatoes, I can dice them up or smash them with a spatula onto my cast-iron griddle for a hearty breakfast.
In the same vein, I often pack dry Spanish-style chorizo for snacking on my outdoor excursions. On the last morning, if there’s chorizo left over, I dice it up, render out the fat on my griddle until it’s slightly browned, set aside the bits of meat and then cook leftover potatoes in the fat. If I have leftover kale salad simply dressed with salt, lemon juice and olive oil, I toss that into the breakfast hash and top all of it with a fried egg.
In addition to eggs, cheese holds up really well in a cooler with little concern for spoilage. And I’ve taken to making cheese a main dish, rather than handling raw meat in settings that challenge a conscientious cook’s sanitation standards.
A cheese that plays almost like meat is haloumi, a specialty of Cyprus. This very firm, salty cheese made from sheep or goat milk — sometimes in combination with cow’s milk — resembles cheese curds in texture, even squeaking between the teeth. Haloumi’s primary attribute is maintaining its shape and integrity, rather than melting into oblivion, when placed onto a hot grill or other cooking surface.
If you’ve ever snatched up bits of cheese rendered deliciously crispy after oozing from a quesadilla into the pan, then the appeal of grilling cheese should be obvious. Imagine multiplying the toasted nuttiness in a small bite across a browned skin covering a softened slab of dairy fat.
When I first started shopping for haloumi almost 15 years ago, after seeing it touted in a British cookbook, Ashland’s Shop ’n Kart was among the few local sources. I still buy it there, but most grocery chains and locally owned stores have since expanded their international cheese selections, making haloumi much easier to find. A half-pound will set you back $8 to $10.
During tomato season, try substituting griddled haloumi for the fresh mozzarella in a Caprese salad, particularly sprinkled with fresh mint instead of basil. I also love folding grilled haloumi into a pita with sauteed zucchini and eggplant, dressed with homemade tzatziki.
Gathering around the campfire with these portable packages of fresh veggies and bright flavors banishes any hankering for hot dogs.