Patience and improvisation are keys to cooking over campfire -

2022-08-08 03:36:04 By : Ms. Cindy Lin

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Girl Scouts and a Registered Maine Guide offer tips for making meals in the great outdoors.

Standing around the campfire at Bradbury Mountain State Park on a recent summer evening, I shielded my eyes from the smoke as I tried to decide whether to lift the lid on the pot for our dinner to check if the water was boiling so I could (finally) add the macaroni. On the one hand, I risked letting the heat escape. On the other hand, I was hungry!

That evening, as we attempted to produce a nutritious, filling dinner in the out-of-doors, my mom and I encountered more than our fair share of setbacks. But I felt better about our efforts after talking with Elaine Taylor, a volunteer support specialist at the Girl Scouts of Maine.

“Mistakes are part of it,” she reassured me about campfire cooking. When you think about it, camping is an adventure, and it makes sense sometimes campfire cooking is, too.

Since that night, I’ve come to understand that campfire cooking is really about balancing hypervigilance around safety with experimentation around taste. Taylor gave me tips and tricks for avoiding that all-consuming storm cloud of rumbling stomachs and short tempers that can invade a campsite at a moment’s notice, especially after a long day of summertime adventuring.

Dinner cooks for writer Juliana Vandermark and her mother on a recent camping trip at Bradbury Mountain State Park. Photo by Juliana Vandermark


My earliest memories of camping are of scavenging around campsites with friends for the perfect kindling and marshmallow-roasting sticks, my mom playing the guitar, my dad applying bug spray, and of course, the campfire crackling and glowing at dusk. When I was growing up, no camping packing list was complete without a large pot, plastic bowls, biodegradable soap and a sponge, and – if we were really prepared – a cooler of ingredients for dinners over the camp stove or fire.Advertisement

Two weeks ago, my mom loaded the same familiar staples into the car and met me in Pownal for an impromptu one-night-only mother-daughter camping trip. I drove there straight from work and arrived tired, hungry and still dressed in my work clothes.

Mom had packed our ancient Coleman camping stove, but we quickly realized we’d brought the wrong fuel. The only thing we had that didn’t require cooking was an apple and some chips. Clearly, if we wanted dinner, we’d have to switch gears. So starting with old newspaper as kindling (another reason to subscribe to the Portland Press Herald!) we built a log-cabin style fire, think Lincoln logs, and we were off!

After we’d got the fire going, we set our pots up on a grate and boiled water for rice and for Annie’s mac and cheese. In another pan, we sautéed vegetables and chickpeas with tikka masala sauce. Cooked on the fire, and without a lid, the curry developed a deliciously smoky taste I doubt I’d be able to replicate at home. But minus that culinary bonus, you can cook many of the same dishes on a campfire as you might in your own kitchen – as long as you have patience and good music to help you pass the time while you wait for the water to boil.

In the end, my mom and I were successful in feeding our growling bellies and creating a colorful meal. Still, I leapt at Taylor’s offer to get some campfire cooking lessons from some real pros, local Girl Scout volunteers. Never a Girl Scout myself – though a big fan of Girl Scout cookies – I was eager to learn their secrets.

Heather Perry, a volunteer for the Girl Scouts of Maine, opens a foil packet containing campfire-cooked chicken and potatoes, This method, a classic campfire cooking technique, produces what are often known as hobo packets. Girl Scout Addison Goulette looks on. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sitting in Taylor’s backyard with Girl Scouts of Maine Adult education volunteer Heather Perry, Taylor and Taylor’s daughter and granddaughter (Girl Scout Addison Goulette), I understood firsthand the communal lure of a campfire and its significance to Taylor, who has volunteered with Girl Scouts for 34 years. As she helped her granddaughter wrap Pillsbury dough around a wooden stick to form a dough boy, she turned to me and said that in her family the classic campfire treat is “a rite of passage.” Advertisement

Campfire cooking is embedded both in tradition and necessity.

As Dawn Walker-Elders, adult learning manager of the Girl Scouts of Maine, put it about the necessity part of the occasion when we spoke before the backyard demonstration, “You’re going to be outside, you’re going to get hungry.”

Walker-Elders teaches workshops on campfire cooking and other outdoors skills to both kids and adults. “It’s really a fun hands-on workshop, whether you’re seven years old, or you’re 57 years old, because everybody likes to make food, and everybody likes to eat good stuff.”

Campfire cooking may seem daunting to the inexperienced, but it helps if you break it down into steps. Step one, according to the Girl Scouts, is practice. Before going on their first camping trip, young Scouts practice building fires by constructing their own (edible) campfires from candy and pretzels. Taylor recommends all first-time campfire cooks practice actual fire building in their backyard before finding themselves in the same spot as my mom and I: at a campsite, very hungry and ad libbing.

Step two, is figuring out how you’re going cook your meal, and more specifically in what – options include Dutch ovens or box ovens made from cardboard boxes and tinfoil, or you can just throw a foil-wrapped hobo pack directly into the fire.

Step three is twofold: practice creativity and patience.Advertisement

When it comes to creativity, Walker-Elders actually encourages ad libbing. The method, if you can call it that, has even worked its way into her favorite campfire cooking recipe: Stone Soup. Remember the folk tale? In the story, a hungry wanderer arrives in a village but the villagers won’t give him anything to eat. So he builds a fire and starts cooking a pot of water with nothing but a stone in it. He offers to share his dinner with the curious villagers, but first cleverly persuades them to add to it . One by one, the villagers bring a bit of this and a bit of that to add to the pot. Eventually, everybody shares the tasty soup.

The story of Stone Soup is also an easy campfire cooking entry point: In Walker-Elder’s recipe, you and your camping friends each bring a can of vegetables or another ingredient that can go into the pot to create an easy one-pot meal. (Incidentally, here’s another thing I’ve learned about campfire cooking: It’s about compromise. This is especially the case if you’re making a one-pot meal. “You just can’t give everyone their own thing,” Taylor said.)

The Girl Scouts were great, but can you really call yourself a Maine campfire expert without some guidance from a certified Maine Guide? Tami Rogers has been a certified guide for 24 years and has taught countless campfire cooking workshops. She was eager to talk, but the logistics were challenging, as she was deep in the woods with no cell reception. When we finally managed to connect, Rogers too, touched on the theme of ad-libbing. A few years ago, with her young granddaughter on a canoeing camping trip, Rogers tried to cook one of the girl’s favorite campfire meals: mac and cheese. Oops! She’d forgotten the crackers to go on top. Instead, Rogers sprinkled on the only crunchy snack on hand: Goldfish. 

“She’s 13 now and that’s the only way she likes the mac and cheese now is with Goldfish on top,” Rogers said.

Sometimes it isn’t the cook who decides how to rescue a meal. Walker-Elders recalled a time she hunkered down in tents with a Girl Scout troop as a thunderstorm rumbled in. When the storm finally passed and the troop emerged from their tents, they realized they’d left their baked potatoes in the coals as they’d raced for shelter. Advertisement

“Those were the best-tasting potatoes we’ve ever had,” Walker-Elders said. “After that, the girls always wanted to have baked potatoes cooked in the coals, even though I don’t think they all remember that it was during a lightning storm that we had done it the first time.”

Like storms, dry weather also affects campfire cooking in that campers must beware of the risk of forest fires. They “just really need to be mindful,” Rogers said – of the weather, of campsite and park rules restricting fires, and of their own potential impacts on the tinderbox environment. 

Those same hot, dry sunny days also have an impact on the humans doing the cooking. When we set up in Taylor’s backyard, it was 90 degrees and very humid. Once we got the fire going, it was sweltering. Interestingly, humidity can prolong cooking times, I learned. Studying the weather forecasts before you go camping can help you figure out your cooking action plan: Food cooks most quickly when the weather is hot with low humidity and a light breeze, Taylor said. 

Cooking over a campfire is a skill. It’s harder than managing a portable camp stove, and doing it well requires “ practice, practice, practice,” Taylor said, “and learning.”

I never get the chance to do as much camping as Girl Scouts have built into their schedule, but with their insights, I’ve worked on the “learning” part and am wishing I can find some time to “practice, practice, practice.”

Mama Liz’ Improvised Chickpea Curry Serves 2-4 depending on how hungryAdvertisement

1 tablespoon olive oil 2-3 scallions, chopped 1/2 red pepper, chopped 1 can of chickpeas with pull tab top, drained 1/2 jar of Patak’s Tikka Masala sauce (or similar simmr sauce) 1 cup spinach, or any other leafy greens

Give your cast iron skillet time to heat up over the fire. Saute the scallions and peppers in the olive oil until soft. Add the chickpeas and the sauce. Once the mixture simmers, add the spinach. Cook the mixture for 20 minutes or until hot and softened. Stir only when needed. Serve with white rice.

Stone Soup Serves as many people as ingredients put in

1 clean stone (OK, just kidding. You don’t have to eat a stone) Canned vegetables or legumes (green beans, beans, chickpeas, corn, peas, etc.) Chicken stock or water A deck of cards

Pour everything but the deck of cards into the pot over a campfire and cover.

Play cards and wait patiently while the soup warms. Stir occasionally.Advertisement

Walking Tacos This recipe is from Dawn Walker-Elders and the Girl Scouts of Maine. “Walking tacos are always fun and enjoyed by the girls, especially because they can build their own,” Walkers-Elder said. 

Ground meat or plant-based meat-substitute crumbles Canned black beans, drained 1 single-serving-sized bag of tortilla chips or corn chips, like Doritos or Fritos, per person Chopped lettuce, tomatoes, green onions Shredded cheddar cheese or substitute Salsa Guacamole Sour cream

Heat a cast iron skillet and cook the meat or meat substitute over the coals until cooked through. Heat the beans in separate pan.

Grab your chip bag and open it up. Fill your bag with the meat, beans and various toppings to suit yourself.

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