Advice from a magical kitchen to yours—
Dear Kitchen Witch,
This might be a little bit outside of the traditional realm of the kitchen, but we are planning some camping trips this summer and I find packing and planning food for camping overwhelming and annoying. I feel like I spend so much money grocery shopping and then just end up eating hot dogs for every dinner and half-raw breakfast potatoes for every breakfast. Can you help me come up with a better and more interesting game plan for those times the kitchen is outside?
I have been there with the breakfast potatoes, stirring the damn things endlessly in a skillet over a fire while everyone gets hungry and the coffee goes cold. You didn’t ask about coffee, incidentally, but my recommendation for that is the Aeropress—it’s cheap, it’s light, it’s quick, and the coffee tastes great. I also always now keep a bunch of those Via packets from Starbucks in my camp kitchen, for emergencies.
I’m assuming, by the way, from the mention of actual potatoes that we are talking car camping here and not backpacking, for which there’s a whole different calculus of weight and hunger and also endless outdoorsy guides and packets of foods you can purchase at outdoor stores. For more basic car or trailer parking, you have the luxury of bringing a decent-size camp kitchen, and my advice is: build a pretty good one! I make sure I stock a basic camp kitchen with kosher salt, a couple of preferred spices or spice blends, a pepper grinder (no more of those terrible cardboard salt-and-pepper shakers available at the kind of mountain stores you stop at to pick up more marshmallows), flour, sugar, a couple of kinds of vinegar and oil decanted into smaller bottles, a couple of mini tetrapacks of chicken broth. My camp kitchen is also the destination for all condiment packets I get with takeout, so it has soy sauce, sriracha (a real boon to those breakfast potatoes, trust me, and no slouch on a hot dog either), ketchup, mustard, mayo, and whatever else I’ve had thrown in a takeout bag lately. Packets of red pepper flakes from pizza delivery are another good one.
Oh, a random camp kitchen tip: It is worth it to get the special plastic egg encaser thingy from the outdoorsy store because real tragedies can happen with eggs in cardboard in a full ice chest. Trust me. Also, you’ll never regret having a few ziplock bags and a roll of foil in there for leftovers.
Once you’ve got the camp kitchen box dialed (and it’s also a great thing to throw in the car if you’re going to a rental house on vacation and aren’t sure they will have basic kitchen staples), you basically never have to think about it again—just make sure to replenish it when you get home from the camping trip, rather than putting it away all messed up and then having to do a major inventory before the next trip, or worse, forgetting to do so and realizing you have no salt right when you have a beautifully fresh-caught fish to cook. (If that happens, though, wrap the fish in bacon or ham. It will end up salted and excellent.)
A thing I really like to do for camping is to make a big batch of beef or vegetable stew or chili or a similar hearty braised something for the first night. By this, I mean I make it at home, chill it down right in the Dutch oven, and put it in the ice chest. That way, you have a large cold item, no prep to do, and dinner all ready to go after you are annoyed by putting up tents in the dark. Plus, any leftovers making a banging breakfast with an egg on top the next morning, trust me on this. In other ice chest-packing tips, you can radically cut down on the amount of ice you bring, and thus maximize space for food in your ice chest while also minimizing the amount of sopping wet drippy food, by packing meat (sausages, bacon, sliced lunch meats, etc) frozen. For something like a flank steak or chicken pieces, freeze them already flavored and marinated—essentially, a way to make something that’s more delicious and sustaining than hot dogs as easy and convenient as hot dogs. I like to bring the biggest cut of meat frozen for the last night, so it keeps things cold-ish for longer. Bear in mind, also, that a lot of things we think of as fridge items and perishable (veggies, some fruits) will last just fine when not strictly cold, and plan accordingly.
The same tip about freezing goes for any juice you’re bringing for breakfast, buttermilk for if you’re going to make biscuits in that Dutch oven or campfire damper bread. The goods will thaw over the course of your trip. For the biscuits—a fantastic thing to have out in camp—I make up a homemade biscuit mix (cut the butter into the dry ingredients) ahead of time and freeze that too, then mix things and bake in the Dutch oven while out in camp.
A word about lunch: it is always sandwiches or leftovers (or sandwiches made of leftovers) in any camp kitchen I am running, and all but the tiniest children can fend for themselves on this front. Don’t drive yourself crazy—except a little bit before you leave, but if you make plenty of food ahead, that’s a productive kind of crazy.
Finally, about those breakfast potatoes: parboil, chill, and chop them at home. That way, all you have to do is heat them through and get a decent crust on them, preferably in a skillet where you’ve just cooked some bacon. It will be a hassle to make them ahead, sure, but if you didn’t like a hassle on some level, you wouldn’t be going camping.
Every week, the Kitchen Witch answers your culinary questions with an eye towards seasonal, sustainable cooking. Ask your question by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ECkitchenwitch.