Backpacking trips have the potential to be pretty punishing food-wise. There isn’t a lot of opportunity for variety and perishables don’t do so well, tricks of the trade like a Nalgene of frozen eggs notwithstanding. This isn’t to say that you can’t be perfectly happy with some good menu planning and prep – you can adapt many stovetop recipes to the woods – but on my personal trips I don’t usually stray far from the standard pasta and dry sauce packet approach. Effort! (I also don’t leave the frontcountry without at least one tube of summer sausage and although I haven’t indulged this urge in years it’s still hard to pass up the spray cheese. What?)
Casual canoeing trips and car camping, however. You can fit a cooler in a canoe! And even paddle out to get more ice! If you camp on an island, you don’t have to hide your food from bears. (This is true in Lower Saranac Lake, at least…) And there’s really no reason why you can’t go completely nuts on the menu when your base camp is the back of a minivan. AND bring in a few boxes of sweet, sweet wine.
(I found that aircraft grade aluminum spork in a mud puddle in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.)
Foil packs are great for using up leftovers, like half a pot of turtle peas and rice from the night before. Chop up a bunch of vegetables – root veggies like potatoes, carrots, and onions do well – and throw onto a flat piece of foil with some meat, cheese, and seasonings as desired. Lots of salt!
Fold foil around food – aim for a good seal at the edges so the ingredients can steam themselves and not dribble all over the fire. Chunk that foil pack in the coals and play the rest by ear. Rotate once or twice. Hopefully you cut the potatoes really thin because they take the longest to cook.
Of course, you’ll have to build a fire to make foil packs. But you wanted a fire anyway, right? You’re camping!
I tend towards a sloppy pyramid style of firebuilding that degenerates into a log cabin as bigger pieces need to be incorporated. Luckily fully half of our campsite’s “kids group” could build a fire, and an abundance of greasy paper towels from bacon breakfasts made the job ridiculously simple.
Fires are also good for s’mores. And further along the dessert complexity spectrum, you can pull off a passable brownie scrambler on a fire too.
Brownie scrambler is a great backpacking dessert if you can find a mix that doesn’t require the addition of an egg. The only downside is cleanup. The upside? A big frying pan of chocolatey fudgey mess that should be eaten on the hot side of warm after your most grueling day as a group reward. I added a little salt and cinnamon to this mix because most brownie mixes tend to be sweetly bland, and if I were the only one eating it I would have thrown in a pinch of cayenne pepper too. Make the mix in the pan, scramble with big spoon or spatula over relatively low fire (for camping – probably medium stovetop heat although why you’re eating this in a kitchen I don’t understand) and cease cooking when some of the mix is brownie-like and the rest is thick and fudgy. There’s some leeway. It will taste good pretty much however you want to cook it, as long as you don’t burn it. Note the jam jar full of wine. This kept appearing mysteriously around dinnertime. Tip: you can put the lid on the jar if yellowjackets keep diving in your wine.
If you’re a real boss you can rig your stove to a low flame, build a spacer out of a foil heat shield, and build a twig fire on top of the pan lid to actually bake brownies in the field. You can also do this in a Dutch oven over the fire. But this requires practice, good camp cooking guesstimation and effort.
And I learned a new trick this week! Wrapping hot dogs (White Hots, since I camped with a Rochester-based crew) in that instant croissant dough that pops out of a cardboard tube. Tip: roast hot dog, apply dough, roast dough: the dough is a good enough insulator that if you roast the whole mess at once the hot dog stays cold. Further tip for perfectionists cooking anything on a stick over the fire: hold over coals for even, predictable roasting, slightly farther away that you assume would be effective, and rotate constantly. Be patient.
My last tips: always bring salt and a spicy seasoning blend. Cheap block cheese can last for a week out of the refrigerator without growing mold, if you don’t touch it with your bare hands. Bring slightly more food and water on a day hike/paddle than you think you’ll eat. And if your crowd likes sweet wine, Franzia makes a sangria blend that goes great with orange juice – and the plastic bladder can be used as a camping pillow afterwards!