When the weekend rolls around, Sue Stanek of Rochester is usually happily on the road with her beloved boxer, Olive, eager for new state parks, scenic hikes, and the tasty rewards of outdoor cooking.
By evening, she and friends may have foil packages of shrimp, andouille sausage, corn and new potatoes tossed with lemon, garlic and Old Bay seasoning sizzling on a grate over the fire. By the next night, it might be rib-eye steak and fresh vegetables.
“It tastes so good if you’ve hiked all day,” she said.
Most outdoor lovers agree that few things satisfy like a hot, hearty meal after a full day of fresh air and exercise — especially with the added kick of wood smoke and seasonal ambience from frogs and cricket choruses to the blink of fireflies.
Campers can certainly hit the easy button with heat-and-eat hot dogs roasted on a stick and timeless toasted marshmallows, but passionate campers insist that broadening your campsite menu isn’t as daunting as some people might think.
“You can cook almost anything you can make at home with a camp stove, campfire grill or by roasting in tinfoil,” said Eric Pelto, special programs coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who also runs the “I Can Camp!” overnight program at state parks.
Most traditional campers, though, can create a makeshift camp kitchen with what they can fit into their vehicles or a cart for walk-in campsites, cabins, yurts, wall tents or tepees. Camp stoves, which usually use propane tanks, typically start around $40-$50 and go up to several hundred dollars. If you only camp once or twice a summer, you can rent camp stoves, as well as other essentials, from tents and sleeping pads to bear-proof food containers, from outfitters such as the University of Minnesota Center for Outdoor Adventure or gear stores such as REI.
Cook stoves are helpful when firewood is wet from rain, or campers want something quick and hot for breakfast before heading out onto the trails, Stanek said. They can also be used to precook part of an upcoming meal (such as pasta) and speed up preparation if there’s rain in the forecast.
Pelto joked that cook stoves have two settings, “hot and volcano,” so it’s wise to stick close and be ready to prevent a boil over and to stir often to prevent food burning. He suggested prepping some foods such as a stew or spaghetti at home. Double up on a favorite recipe and throw extra portions in the freezer so they are ready to heat and eat during a camp weekend.
If you’re planning to be on the go during the day and away from camp, pack up a picnic and snacks, such as sandwiches or wraps, trail mix, fresh fruit and protein bars.
When it comes to cooking over a campfire with a grate, gear can be anything from garage sale pans to heirloom cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens well-seasoned by use. Stanek also likes having a tripod with a grill for its ability to adjust cooking heat based on the grill’s distance from the coals.
Gary Campbell of Nevis, Minn., covets his heavy-duty cast-iron cookware, some of which came from his grandma and mother and are polished like Teflon from generations of use. After building a fire and getting enough coals, he’ll mix up ground venison, pork sausage, ground beef, cracker crumbs and eggs in his biggest pan. He can stack other covered and increasingly smaller pans on top, taking advantage of radiant heat to make scalloped potatoes or roast vegetables, and then make bread or a fruit cobbler. If something requires extra heat, he can put coals on the iron covers.
“People get real protective of their cast iron,” he said, advising that only water be used to clean the pots. “It’s a great medium.”
Without kitchen-stove temperature controls, camp cooking requires more experimenting, sampling and moving around coals and shifting pans to get the cooking time right and to synchronize elements of a meal.
Jackie Bedworth specializes in 1700s and 1800s campfire cooking at Pine City’s Snake River Fur Post (formerly North West Company Fur Post) and as a participant at Grand Portage National Monument’s annual Rendezvous Days. For her, camp cooking is a chance to cook fresh fish or duck, wild rice, meat pies, macaroni and cheese, and using whatever is harvested or caught.
“Sometimes fresh and simple is the best. Keep it simple and go slow,” she advised, adding that it’s important to build a good hardwood fire to create the coals to replicate a stove’s heat. “The best way to [learn camp cooking] is to just do it. Get a feel for it.”
Seek inspiration, share the bounty
Stanek has hiked in every Minnesota and Wisconsin state park in the past five years, usually hitting the road every other weekend and picking a full week in August. She keeps track of favorite recipes and ones she wants to try on Pinterest pages and spends the week before camping gathering ingredients and getting organized for the meals.
One of her favorite and more adventurous camp fire meals was a lemon ricotta asparagus tart that looked as good as it tasted. It made more than she and her friend could eat, so they shared with appreciative campground neighbors.
That, too, can be a key part of enjoying camp cooking: socializing with friends and family while making meals, savoring meals around the campfire, and the sense of community at campgrounds that makes it easy and welcoming to share and visit with others.
Campbell and Bedworth revel in that sense of community at historical encampments that encourage old-fashioned foods, period clothing and activities such as storytelling and playing music. Stanek is happy to downshift and unplug from modern life.
“Camping and hiking are my favorite activities,” she said. “At home, I multi-task. When camping, it’s one thing at a time.”
In the evening as skies darken and wood tumbles into coals, it’s also one unhurried and delicious bite at a time.
Here are other tips from experienced campfire cooks:
• Have a designated, ready-to-go tote bin for organizing kitchen gear such as dishes and utensils, spices, towels, cutting board, potholders, waterproof matches or a lighter.
• Speed up camp meals with prep work before leaving home: pre-measure dry ingredients (batters, hot cereals, pasta); pre-cut ingredients such as vegetables; brown meat for tacos or wraps.
• Pack one or two coolers, keeping a second one for beverages and items that can handle more exposure to warm air more often. Freeze as many meats, sauces, dairy items and beverages as possible, eating what’s most perishable, such as fish or seafood, on the first night and slower-thawing meats on the second.
• Freeze water bottles or milk jugs of water to both keep food cool and use as drinking water when it thaws. Pack canned good or dried ingredients if ice isn’t available near campsites to keep food cool.
• You don’t need a boat or a license to fish for dinner at Minnesota state parks. You can use a fishing pier or dock. Many even have free fishing equipment to borrow. Pack what you need for a shore lunch, along with a backup plan if nothing is biting.
• Act slowly to avoid campfire and cooking accidents. Pack quality potholders and a first aid kit.
• Simplify with one-pot meals, such as pastas, stir fries, or roasted meats and vegetables in foil packets. Stanek likes to get a pot of chili bubbling, add a layer of batter and cover it for a hot cornbread topping. Chicken dumpling stew or fruit cobblers can be made this way, too.
• Use leftovers to advance the next day’s menu. Meat, vegetables or beans can be incorporated into a breakfast frittata, wraps or pasta sauce.
• Heat water for washing dishes while eating your meal. Have wash tubs for soapy water, a clean rinse and a disinfecting rinse with a bit of bleach. Keep hand sanitizer handy, too.
• Look for recipes and inspiration on websites such as Pinterest or books such as “The Campfire Foodie Cookbook” (Adventure Publications, 2013), “Feast by Firelight” (Ten Speed Press, 2018), and “The Campout Cookbook: Inspired Recipes for Cooking Around the Fire and Under the Stars” (Artisan, 2018).
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”