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Beyond hot dogs
Ideas for cooking over a fire

06/29/17
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



 Cooking over a campfire doesn’t have to be as basic as holding marshmallows on a stick over the flames. The next time you go camping, consider making fancier treats, or even a whole meal.

 
Start the fire
Starting the right kind of fire is the most important thing, said Heidi Holman, a biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game who also teaches workshops with Becoming an Outdoors-Woman. But it’s not always easy.
“Too often, people start with fuel that’s too big, so they get frustrated because the fire goes out and the fuel hasn’t caught. You want to start with a lot of tinder — dry leaves, grass, really small twigs. Some people bring dryer lint from home,” Holman said.
Next, layer on pine needles, then small twigs followed by larger twigs. Eventually, you’ll have enough flame to add larger pieces of wood. Holman estimated it will take at least 15 minutes of solid activity before the fire creates coals ready to cook with.
The food you’re cooking and how you’re cooking it will determine the kind of fire you want. If you’re using a Dutch oven, for instance, you’ll probably simmer over a flame, not coals. The size of the party matters, too.
“When we teach this [outdoor cooking] class, we do a large fire because there are 15 people. But if it’s just you and maybe your kids, you’ll want to have it in a contained area so the fire doesn’t spread,” Holman said. 
 
Food on a stick
Feeling lazy? Put a hot dog on a stick. Done. But you can also jazz that up easily; before you cook the hot dog, cut each end partway before placing it over the fire. As you cook, the sliced ends will curl, resembling spider legs.
Tara Pacht, vice president of the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains board, said one of the challenges at a workshop she taught was to cook an egg on a stick; very carefully stick a skewer through a raw egg, then roast it over the fire like a marshmallow.
And of course, camping isn’t camping without a s’more, and there are a zillion ways to vamp up yours. (Fun fact: the Girl Scouts originated the recipe, published in Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts in 1927.) Pacht advised trying it with Nutella instead of a Hershey bar or cookies instead of graham crackers. Or melt your chocolate at the same time as your mallow by slicing a pocket and plopping the chocolate square inside. You could also replace your marshmallow with a strawberry covered in fluff or a Peeps marshmallow.
 
Foil packs
This is probably the next-easiest cooking method with the fastest cleanup. Pacht likes foil packs because they allow you to individualize the meal for each camper. Fill them with meat, veggies and potatoes for a “hobo stew packet” (slicing potatoes very thin, and choosing vegetables with lots of moisture, which will help the potatoes steam). Double-wrap them with heavy-duty foil and keep them small enough to cook fully, particularly if they contain meat. (If you use lightweight or inexpensive foil, it’s possible the foil will deteriorate, said Holman.) Place them on coals, not flames, and check regularly. Another idea, courtesy of Pacht: cut a spaghetti squash in half, fill with ground beef and tomato sauce, wrap in foil, and voila — spaghetti and meatballs.
 
Dutch oven and pie irons
Dutch ovens kind of look like witches’ cauldrons and work best either sitting on a bed of coals or hanging over the fire on a tripod. Pacht said she made a killer spinach cheese dip with a Dutch oven teaching a recent workshop with Girl Scout volunteers, combining fresh spinach, a variety of cheeses, sour cream and artichokes. You can tackle spaghetti with these, too; throw in some dry pasta, water and tomato sauce, and it’s a one-pot meal. You can even bake cookies in a Dutch oven.
But Pacht’s favorite outdoor cooking gadget is the pie iron, which is kind of like an enclosed skillet attached to a stick you place in the fire. Fill it with buttered bread and cheese for an epic grilled cheese, rotating part-way through, or bake a pie by inserting pre-made crust and fruit filling inside. Most any kind of sandwich melt will work with these, but if you want to mix it up, use phyllo dough instead of bread and make a caprese (mozzarella, tomato, basil) or make it sweet with brie, apples and honey. The pie iron is also perfect for pizza with premade crust.
 
More tips
Rookies: keep an eye on the fire, and season your cast iron equipment before using. To save time on washing dishes afterward, Pacht recommends spreading a layer of soap on the outside of your pans to keep soot from sticking. After that, the options are endless. All it takes is some creativity.
“If I can cook it at home, I can cook it in the woods with some modifications,” Pacht said. “We think about what we ate at the house and how we can modify that recipe for the ease and creativity of camping. … Google ‘creative campfire cooking’ or ‘fun outdoor camp cooking’ and you can get some fabulous ideas. … It’s a very social activity. When somebody’s cooking at home, it might be one or two people, but this engages everybody.” 





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