Cooking outdoors allows you to make messy, adventurous meals that you wouldn't attempt in the kitchen. Mat Follas pitches his tent for the first time this summer and cooks over an open fire.
I used to go camping in a serious way, with nothing more than a backpack and freeze-dried meals to sustain me. Now, however (I'm not sure whether it is because I'm wiser, or just older), I like a little more comfort, and I want my food to have flavour. Some of the old campfire favourites - bacon, eggs, sausages, beans - are fine, but you don't want them every day, and they tend to be heavy with fat and salt.
To get more variety, the key is to go for different flavours and, while you are at it, why not try some dishes that are not that practical to make at home? Cooking on an open fire is the ideal opportunity for messy cooking: charred jacket potatoes, or an American-style rack of ribs with a dry, spicy rub. This is the sort of cooking that, if attempted in suburbia, would have the neighbours complaining about the smoke or phoning the fire brigade.
You will, of course, have checked that lighting fires is permitted in your campsite (if it is a Department of Conservation site signs will be clear: collect dead wood, keep the fire small and soak the fire with water before you leave it.)
When you're camping you don't take your kitchen scales - you do everything by eye and instinct. All you need is some basic equipment (a good knife, a grater, strong plastic bags that seal, and, if you're not backpacking, a heavy casserole dish, sometimes called a Dutch oven), essential flavours which are light to carry and save you from bland food (salt, pepper, powdered chilli, allspice, garlic, sugar, ginger, thyme, lemongrass, fresh limes or lemons, soy sauce) and some sunflower oil (decant the amount you'll need into a small plastic bottle). Here are some of my favourite ideas for meals. Use them as a starting point for your own dishes.
Put some prawns in a plastic bag with chilli, oil and lemon. Shake it about, leave for an hour or so, then skewer the prawns (soak the skewers in water first) and cook them over the fire.
If you prefer meat, mix up some peanut butter with oil and chilli to make a satay sauce. Chop pork, beef or lamb into small cubes and place in a bag with the sauce. To marinate the meat more deeply, add a teaspoon of plain yoghurt if you have some, shake and leave for a couple of hours before cooking.
If you put salad leaves in a sealed plastic bag with a dribble of water, they will keep for a few days. Supplement with foraged wild dandelion leaves, even manuka fern that produces pikopiko (young fronds that taste like asparagus) but be sure that you are in an area that does not have poison traps laid for possums. Drain the excess water from the salad leaves.
Chuck some oil, a little lemon juice, a few drops of vinegar (if you have it) and a pinch of salt into a new bag. Shake, then add your salad leaves and wild leaves. Shake again and serve.
Charred jacket potatoes
Wrap the potatoes in foil and chuck them in the ashes for at least half an hour. They should end up black on the outside. Hold them in a thick cloth to prise them open and scoop out the middle. They will be delicious with butter.
Spatchcock chicken or ribs
Cooking meat skewered on some branches is great fun and impresses the kids like nothing else, except perhaps cooking fish in clay. Spatchcock a chicken - it's easy, just open it out at the backbone and spread it flat (break the bones where the thigh meets the body to even out the cooking time) - or get your butcher to do it. Or use a rack of ribs instead.
Make a dry rub using roughly equal quantities of allspice, crushed garlic, grated ginger, sugar, chilli powder and salt. Then rub thoroughly over the chicken or ribs. Skewer your chicken with crossed branches poked through the legs on opposite sides, in an X shape. Prop the meat above the fire - if the heat is right, the meat should start charring after about five minutes; cook for 15 minutes in total.
Check the juices run clear by poking the thickest part of the meat before serving.
Simple banana halves fried in butter never fails. There is no need to add sugar, although leftover chocolate, if you have any, works well with this.
If you're feeling more ambitious, try this "bonfire clafouti": cover the bottom of a cast-iron casserole dish with a layer of pear, stonefruit or apple halves, make a thick batter using a packet sponge cake or muffin mix, and pour over the fruit. Place the lid on the casserole dish and balance it above the hot ashes (there needs to be an air gap under the dish to stop it from burning). This is a fantastic way to finish your bonfire dinner.
Don't forget to take along something to drink with your fireside feast. And be sure to clean up food scraps and dishes (use biodegradable cleaners only) and thoroughly douse the fire before collapsing content into your sleeping bag.
Have you got a favourite campsite recipe?
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