Campsite Cooking in the Wild

Camp Cooking
Making guacamole at a primitive campsite, Ibex Dunes, Death Valley.

This week after reading “Upscale Food and Gear is Bringing Campsite Cooking Out of the Wild” in The Globe and Mail, Magellan said, “We did that—and more.”

I don’t know Canada’s stats but the article, originally published in The New York Times, says interest in camp cooking in the US is heating up.

A million more American households have headed into the woods every year since 2014, according to a survey by the research company Nielsen Scarborough, and an estimated 13 million plan to camp more often in 2017 than they did last year.

After eleven weeks in the Southwestern US (mostly primitive camping), here’s what we learned about cooking in the wild with a stainless steel Coleman cooler, a Camp Chef two-burner stove, Magma pots and a Volcano Grill.

Organize. Simplify. Label.
“Where the hell is it?” That phrase was a constant mantra when we were camping in Oman because the tour company lumped all of the dry goods into a gigantic wicker basket big enough to hold a picnic for twenty. We vowed to change the chant.

Outfitting Rove-Inn, Magellan bought three Plano bins and labeled one ”Food,” another “Dishes” and the third “Miscellaneous” for items like toilet paper, tin foil and LED lights. To organize the Food bin, he bought three rectangular containers for small items like spices, powdered coconut milk, chicken bouillon cubes, etc. The Food bin and the cooler cozied up side-by-side at the back of Rove-Inn’s trunk for easy access.

Start Every Day with Great Coffee
Every morning Magellan made us lattes using an Aeropress for the espresso and a battery-powered foamer for the milk. To ensure the milk didn’t go sour, we bought it in small containers. And to keep our lattes hot, we bought Hydro Flasks.

Every time we discovered a good place for coffee (like Firecreek in Flagstaff), we bought their beans and made it a rule to always have at least three days worth of ground coffee on hand.

Know the Importance of Saturdays
Why? Because there’s likely a Farmers’ Market in the bigger towns and cities, and contrary to online info and printed brochures that said they didn’t start until June, we found them to be open in May. Like the one in Santa Fe, where we bought “Shepherd’s Lamb”—the best we’ve ever eaten—from the Manzanares, the only producers of certified-organic lamb in New Mexico.

In the US, Look for Sprouts
Not sprouts to eat—Sprouts the store. The quality is high, prices are reasonable and there’s an organic section. In Las Vegas and Flagstaff, we bought three-pound bags of tangerines—Cuties—for $5—and got the second bag free. Those little orange orbs added sweet bursts of joy to our hiking.

Every shopping trip to Sprouts we bought staples such as onions (see below), a colourful package of small peppers (our second-best friends), mushrooms (long-lasting they are), avocadoes, tomatoes, yams, carrots, cucumbers, lemons, limes, hummus, jalapeños…We planned meals around whatever inspired us when shopping. But we also improvised based on the provisions at hand—overripe tomatoes became gazpacho.

Recognize Your Best Friend: Onions
White onions. Yellow onions. Walla Walla onions. Red onions. Green onions. In almost every dish we cooked from stew to stir-fry, they added depth. In almost every meal that we barbecued foil packs of veggies such as potatoes, carrots or fennel, they enhanced flavour. In almost every salad we made from Asian coleslaw to greens with avocado and grapefruit, they added crunch.

Get Going with Fast Breakfasts
At home, we rarely eat the same breakfast over the course of a week. Not on this trip. In the desert, fast breakfasts help you get an early start on the hiking trails before temperatures soar.

Almost every morning began with the same three tenors—yogurt, fresh fruit and muesli. We especially liked Brown Cow yogurt and skýrr made by Siggis. More convenient were the individual-sized servings of yogurt, plus we found the lids of large containers had a bad habit of prying loose. Yogurt added to fruit and Bob’s Red Mill Old Country Style Muesli or a local granola was effortless to prepare and abated our appetite until noon. Well okay, until the trail mix came out.

If it was a particularly cool morning in the desert, we cooked oatmeal/barley porridge laced with rosemary-salted almonds and dried cherries or maybe a mix of candied ginger and apples.

Buying a mix for blue cornmeal muffins at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, fulfilled a craving that started in Death Valley. (I also bought their black powder biscuit mix for which I’ll be kicked out of the Slow Food club.) We’d usually bake at night, adding frozen corn, herbs and cheese to the blue cornmeal mix, eating our muffins or biscuits with chili at dinner, jam at breakfast and a piece of cheese on the trail.

Spice is Nice: Don’t Leave Home Without It
Before we left, I bought small spice towers and filled them with our favourites: cumin, curry powder, cinnamon, Chinese five spice, etc.

We also bought a six-ounce bottle of both Himalayan pink salt crystals and Tellicherry peppercorns—and used up both on our trip. Small indulgences, large rewards.

Herbaceous is Delicious: Splurge
Marjoram became my favourite camping herb. Long-lasting. Long on aroma. Long on flavour. For those of you who don’t know it, marjoram is stronger than oregano and has a more citrusy taste. It’s delicious on many foods, like sliced tomatoes, Greek-style chicken or barbecued pork chops—and it doesn’t go to the dark side like cilantro and dill.

“You’re doing that, too,” a fellow camper said to Magellan when she noticed our little pot of mint on our camp table. “I have basil,” she said.

Say Cheese
You don’t need a bank loan to eat artisan cheese in the United States. A chunk of Point Reyes Original Blue (maybe the best blue cheese we’ve ever eaten) costs less than half of a comparable brand in Canada, like Poplar Grove’s Tiger Blue.

However, we found out the hard way that you can’t leave cheese in its special paper. It goes for a swim and gets wet and sticky when the ice in the cooler melts. To prevent this, we enrobed each chunk in plastic wrap and put all of our cheeses in a sealed plastic bag at the top of the cooler—which also made them easier to find.

Weird can be Wonderful: Try It
Pickled eggplant in olive oil, a little luxury I bought In Healdsburg, jazzed dishes like a Mediterranean salad or lamb with couscous.

A jar of Limited Edition’s Sweet and Hot Jalapeños played the same role in guacamoles and quesadillas.

Sazon restaurant in Santa Fe is renowned for its homemade moles, which they sell in small jars. One of our best mains was chicken thighs that Magellan barbecued before I smothered them with half a jar of mole mixed with fried onions (our friends!).

Buy Trendy (is it still?) Terrific Kale
In our Coleman cooler, sturdy kale outlasted fragile arugula or any other lettuce—except escarole. We massaged kale into salads, added it to foil packs of veggies on the Volcano, mixed it into a stir-fry and, when it paled, tossed still-green bits into a scramble of eggs, ham and potatoes.

Indulge Your Creativity
At a country store in Hanksville, Utah, Magellan bought a small loaf pan and three foil liners. The air space between the pan and the liner prevented our baking from burning on the bottom over a campfire or on our Volcano. It worked especially well the night we added a little sugar, vanilla and whipping cream to the biscuit mix and made Rove-Inn Raspberry Shortcakes.

One of our best dishes was Rove-Inn Asparagus. Onto each spear of fresh asparagus, I pressed a mixture of marjoram, crushed olive-oil crackers, grated Parmesan and olive oil. Then I wrapped a half slice of prosciutto around each spear. They would have been delicious barbecued but Magellan was too tired, so I cooked them in a pan on the Camp Chief until the spears glistened bright green and the prosciutto turned crispy.

Our most creative concoction was Rove-Inn Grapefruit Mezcal Upside-Down Cake. Apologies for the imprecise amounts but here’s what you do. Zest a grapefruit. Supreme it and save all the juice. Melt about ¼ cup of butter in your liner pan. Put half of it aside in a small bowl. Add a few tablespoons of brown sugar to the butter in the liner pan and arrange the grapefruit and half of its zest on top. To the bowl with the butter in it, add a little brown sugar, about ½ cup of biscuit mix and ½ cup of the blue cornmeal mix, the grapefruit juice and remaining zest, a glug of mezcal and a teaspoon of vanilla. Spoon the batter on top of the grapefruit mixture. About 20 minutes after I handed the pan over to Magellan to bake on the Volcano, we were eating cake and sipping mescal under the starry skies at Big Bend National Park.

Don’t Ignore Tuna
One of our best mains was a baked tuna casserole with garganelli pasta. First, I made a béchamel sauce and added grated cheese. Then I fried onions, fresh mushrooms and herbs and added it to the pasta along with the béchamel sauce, a can of mushroom soup (I can see the horror in the eyes of my foodie friends) and a can of tuna and smoothed it into our liner pan. (You could skip the béchamel sauce and just add milk but it won’t taste as rich.) Before Magellan set it into the loaf pan on the Volcano, I sprinkled a little more cheese on top. He baked it for 15 minutes. Retro and remarkable.

Volcano Grill

Say “Yes” to the Doggie Bag
“We can’t eat all this!” was a standard refrain at any Mexican restaurant we went to in the US. We suggest you take those piles of uneaten rice and beans back to your cooler. At dinner, add some fried onions, maybe a fresh tomato past its prime, a little marjoram and voila—Rove-Inn Mexicana to accompany a bbq’d steak.

And bread? Get it while you can. Good bread in the desert is rare as a patch of green grass. If you’re at a restaurant that makes a crusty wood-fired bread, a tasty sourdough or a grainy whole-wheat, ask if you can take some home or if they sell it by the loaf—like we did at the Desert Bistro in Moab.

Avoid Room Hogs
Bags of tortilla chips, with their inflated egos, want a room of their own. They can’t have it in Rove-Inn!

Another mistake was buying graham wafers. Even the smallest box is too much for three-months of S’Mores. I just had to have them when I saw small bags of Smash Mallows® in flavours like mint chocolate chip and Meyer lemon at REI. Those marshmallows are just fine the old-fashioned way—toasted over the fire.

This recommendation should probably be much closer to the first.

Before you head to the wild, think about how many days it will be before you’ll shop again. Three? Four? Now count the bottles of wine you have. Is it enough? Do not make our mistake in Utah: not knowing which towns are still ‘dry.’ Like Blanding. To save us from our wine drought, Magellan drove 21 miles to Monticello and 21 miles back to Blanding. (To its credit, Blanding isn’t totally dry—I stayed behind at its Laundromat.) Population of Monticello: 1,958. Stores where you can buy wine: one. Recommendation from the man behind the glass counter at the state liquor store: “I’m sorry sir, I don’t know which of our wines are good. I don’t drink.”


Bull Mountain Market in Hanksville, Utah, is one well-curated country store. Loaf pans, Greek honey yogurt, local green onions and if you’ve got a crowd, a ten-pound roll of hamburger is just $19.95.

Desert Bistro serves some of the best food in Moab. And last year’s waiters are still there.

“Do you grind your own coffee?” we asked at small place in Jerome, Arizona. “No, it’s from Firecreek in Flagstaff,” the young hipster entrepreneur told us.

Hells Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, is soooo good we’ve ordered their past cookbook (and because of them we bought a proper meatloaf pan) and have reserved a copy of their new one coming out this fall.

“Upscale Food and Gear is Bringing Campsite Cooking Out of the Wild” was originally printed in The New York Times on June 26, 2017, which is why the stats are American not Canadian.

Sazon is a fine restaurant in Santa Fe serving Chef Fernando Olea’s unique interpretation of contemporary and traditional Mexican dishes.

The Shed in Healdsburg is where I found picked eggplant and rosemary-salted almonds—two delicious treats that we made last almost the entire trip.

The Volcano Grill, made in Utah, has a collapsible body, is compatible with wood, charcoal and propane, and has an insulated bottom—we love it.

6 Responses

  1. Once a foodie always a foodie no matter where or what you guys are doing!! Going local…. SO FUN We have that kind of grater – no muss no fuss!

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