Calta: Cooking at camp

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(HOST) Cooking at camp can be a challenge, whether it’s over a campfire or on a rudimentary stove. But commentator Marialisa Calta considers it all just part of the adventure.   

(CALTA) "The rock that wrecks most camping trips is the cooking," Ernest Hemingway is said to have said. Anyone who has chowed down round the campfire knows what he meant: The underdone chicken, the overcooked fish, the half-cooked doughboy – it’s enough to make you want to call the pizza guy and order in. But you’re not in! You’re out! In the woods!  There’s no cell service there, anyway.

What’s a camper to do?  Well, you can cave in immediately, and survive the wilds on a diet of powdered eggs, powdered milk, and freeze-dried goulash.  Or you can step up to the plate – pun intended – and get your campfire mojo going. Look at that back-packing burner, that collapsible stove, that campground fireplace as a challenge.  Ditto the teeny sailboat galley, or that cute little cottage kitchen with the mouse-infested oven and three pieces of equipment: a dented skillet, a dull knife, and a broken colander.  It’s all part of the adventure.

If you are not, normally, a confident cook, a campfire may be the way to improve. Hemingway aside, the fact is that food tastes better after a day outdoors. Try serving scorched stew at home and you’ll face instant rejection; offer it around a campfire and your family will scarf it up and ask for seconds. Roast real potatoes while your friends are mixing up the instant spuds  and you’ll be treated like a Michelin-starred chef.  Betty Crocker’s got nothing on you when you bake your cake in a Dutch oven nestled in the coals.

Camping makes for memorable meals. Once, on a beach, we had no grill, and cooked our chicken on pieces of an old wooden lobster trap and – in a Martha Stewart moment – garnished it with wild mustard. The chicken was done just about the time the trap burned up.   On a canoe trip in Maine, a friend had the brilliant idea of topping fresh-picked wild blueberries with our breakfast granola, and baking up a cobbler. Yum! I know a back country camper who was once given some fresh bear meat in the Northwest Territories; she marinated it in her stash of rum and roasted it in a rock-lined pit.

In the campgrounds of the Canadian Maritimes, I’ve learned to be a confident fish cook, tackling species unfamiliar to me, like dog fish, snow crabs and bar clams. We now have a one-room cabin up there, with a tiny propane stove, and there we’ve worked with unfamiliar cuts of meat, too, like pork belly.

Once you get the hang of it, you may find yourself happy to be liberated from your food processor and microwave. Camping is a time to lose your culinary inhibitions and venture forth. And be glad, when you’re serving up that slightly charred, rum-basted bear steak, that Ernest Hemingway isn’t  along to spoil the fun.

Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur


Here’s a recipe from a new book on camp cookery, "The Great American Camping Cookbook," by Scott Cookman (Broadway Books, 2007)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound smoked bacon, diced
1/2 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups dry red wine or water
3 large eggs
6 ounces hard cheese (Parmesan or Romano) grated (about 2 cups)
1 pound uncooked pasta, such as linguine or fettuccine
salt and pepper

Put a large pot of water on to boil, for the pasta. If it boils before you are ready to use it, just keep it at a lively simmer.
Put the oil, bacon and onion in a frying pan and heat over wood coals (or over medium heat, if using a camp stove). Sauté, stirring, about 10 to 15 minutes or until the bacon and onion are browned; add the garlic and cook for a minute longer. Add the wine to the pan, simmer for 5 minutes, and keep warm. Mix the eggs and cheese in a bowl and set aside.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package directions until "al dente" (done, but still firm to the teeth). Drain. Immediately pour the egg mixture over it and stir well. Then pour the bacon mixture over it. Stir again. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Yield: feeds 4 hungry hikers

Recipe from "The Great American Camping Cookbook," by Scott Cookman (Broadway Books, 2007)


In 1977, I sailed on a boat in the British Virgin Islands with a crew that included a teacher named Jim Sadler. I lost track of Jim, but kept his recipe!

1/2 cup almonds, chopped
2 and 1/2 cups to 3 cups water or chicken or vegetable broth (or water with 1 teaspoon bouillon)
1 cup uncooked rice (white or brown, not instant)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 bell pepper (any color), cored, seeded and chopped (optional)
1 or 2 apples, cored, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup raisins, golden raisins, dried cranberries or chopped dried apricots

In a skillet set over a medium heat source, toast the almonds, shaking the pan for about 6 minutes until fragrant. Set aside.
Bring the water (and bouillon) or stock to a boil; if using white rice, use the lesser amount, if using brown rice, use all 3 cups. . Add the rice and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes for white rice, at least 30 minutes for brown rice. Fluff with a fork and set aside.
In a skillet, heat the vegetable oil. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, curry powder and bell pepper (if using) and cook about 5 minutes more. Add the apple, dried fruit and toasted almonds to the skillet and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the rice, stir well, and cook just until heated through.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

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