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Wanted: Camping cuisine suggestions

El capitan 2 The first day of summer has officially arrived. With more opportunity to get away from the city’s hustle and bustle, L.A.’s nature-loving folk are setting aside more time for outdoorsy getaways -- camping included -- while the season is in session.

As a camping enthusiast, I’ve satisfied my breath-of-fresh-air cravings with one- or two-day trips to some of Southern California’s most scenic settings. Some especially cool locations to have your camping thrills are Santa Barbara’s El Capitan State Beach, Joshua Tree’s White Tank, Hidden Valley, Indian Cove or Jumbo Rocks campgrounds and Sequoia National Park. A longer drive in a northern direction will take you to Big Sur, with Andrew Molera and Pfeiffer Big Sur as top campground destinations.

El capitan I always come home feeling refreshed and revived, but this is my dilemma: figuring out what the heck to eat. I’ve been putting off buying a camping stove for some time now (I know, it’s crazy talk) and have had to make do with caveman circumstances -- cooking over a fire. Because my fire-making skills are average and I’m no expert at taming the beast enough to cook well (maintaining a high or low flame, etc.), I’ve settled for baked potatoes, spaghetti and hot links …

And that's where you come in: I'm looking for suggestions that might be of help to campers who, like me, have hit a brick wall when it comes to thinking up excellent meals, with or without a camping stove. I want to enjoy the scenery and eat well too, you know? What do you cook when you camp?


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Photos: El Capitan State Beach. Credit: Caitlin Keller

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A basic checklist, that encompasses meals and snacks
-- Bread
-- Peanut butter and jelly (no cooling needed, good for hikes)
-- nuts
-- cookies and/or crackers
-- grapes (you'll appreciate the food and water they provide in the morning)
-- Easiest, best camp meal ever:

Bring a pack of tortillas, shredded cheese, butter and salsa.
Bring tupperware full of:
- shredded chicken ( strip a rotisserie, & spice it with taco seasoning)
- small carton of egg-beaters (or real eggs if you have a way to store them).
- Caramelized onions.
On your camp stove, cook a tortilla in a little butter, and then add chix, or egg, and cheese and salsa. Fry til golden brown. If ingredients are prepped in advance, you'll have a hot delicious meal in 3 minutes.

Couple of things: I'm surprised that with the fire risk this year you would even consider using a campfire to cook with instead of buying a camp stove, let alone write about it for the LA Times, but even when fire danger is low, it is still not a very responsible (or as you point out, convenient) way to cook in the backcountry (unless you have a pre-established fire ring). Go to www.lnt.org for more info.

That being said, you can go a couple of different routes when camping or backpacking. If you are backpacking and weight is an issue, but you still want to eat well, you can use readily-available freeze-dried foods from Mountain House, Backpacker's Pantry and others as a base and add fresh ingredients to improve nutrition and flavor. Some favorites to add to pre-prepared foods are cooked bacon (if you cook it crispy, it will keep about a week at room temp), fresh herbs, grated Parmesan or other hard cheese (keeps better/longer than other cheese), dried mushrooms, coconut cream powder (available in Asian groceries), "Just Veggies" & anything else that packs a lot of flavor for its weight.

If you are car camping & you have more room, you can make almost anything you would make at home by making a few minor changes to the way you prepare your meals. Dice onion & veggies beforehand and store in ziplock bags with other ingredients. I make a backcountry risotto using cooked bacon, dried mushrooms, grated Asagio, pre-diced onion, white wine & bouillon cubes. I make this in a Jetboil, which requires a fair amount of attention but can be done. When in doubt, turn the heat down & stir. Regardless of what stove/pots you choose, invest in a non-stick. Most camping cookware is much thinner than what we use at home, and it gets very easy to burn food if you are not paying attention.

Several outdoor shops (REI, etc.) provide free clinics about a variety of topics--one of them is camp cooking. If a local store does not offer one, call them up and ask them to consider it, especially if you have a group of friends you can bring along with you.

We've stopped taking the camping stove and rely solely on our trusty cast iron pan used directly over the fire. We typically do a mixture of vegetables (onions, peppers, tomatoes) with some sliced hot Italian sausage. Cook the sausage part way to help grease the pan, then add the vegetables. We'll do home fries style potatoes too but you have to keep a decent amount of water in the pan until they soften, which requires tending the fire a little better / longer. Leftovers are great on toast the next morning.


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