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I’ve always believed that camping food tastes better outside. There’s something about the simplicity of the ingredients, the smell of the campfire hanging in the air and the appetite that comes with long days spent moving through wilderness.
But my hunch was just that—an untested hypothesis. I’d never actually made camping food inside.
Last week, in between long walks around my neighborhood and short shuffles to my fridge, I decided now might be the time to test my theory, seeing as I don’t plan on camping the anytime soon. I pulled up some Fresh Off the Grid recipes from the Co-op Journal and challenged myself to abstain from the grocery store while I prepped and devoured five camping dishes, all cooked using ingredients I found in my pantry. Here are the results.
Rich, creamy, filling: Risotto is one of my all-time favorite meals. And while I usually make a buffed-up version of couscous in the backcountry, I often make risotto at home, so I had nearly all the ingredients on hand.
The tricky part: I have a partner who hails from Italy. Would the recipe pass their taste test?
To prep this recipe, I made a few substitutions based on preferences and what I had in stock. I subbed the wine, for example, for more chicken broth, the oil for butter and the zucchini for a few extra handfuls of frozen peas (I apparently buy peas, not toilet paper, when stress shopping).
Next, I altered the cooking method. Risotto typically requires a close eye and a near-constant stir. As a fundamentally lazy cook, I hesitated to spend a whole 20 minutes laboring over a heavy-bottomed pot.
Instead, I pulled out my electric pressure cooker and popped the butter, onions, rice, broth and mushrooms inside. A little less than 20 minutes later, I returned to the pot to discover an undeniably buttery, flavorsome risotto—which I could eat right away, instead of waiting hours to dehydrate it, trek to a campsite and hungrily wait for it to rehydrate. (A silver lining to prepping a meal from the comfort of my kitchen.)
And my Italian partner’s response? A second helping.
Day 2: Cilantro Lime Chicken Tacos
Tacos are one of my go-to car camping meals, given that they’re so delicious and easy to prepare. I chose this recipe on a night when I didn’t have much time to mess around in the kitchen and I wanted the “blast of summertime flavor” the recipe promises.
One of my favorite things about this dish is that the citrus marinade works in an hour or less, making it perfect for people like me who tend to forget all about marinating until hanger (or a combination of hunger and anger) sets in.
I didn’t have the recommended grill or cast-iron pan, but I did have a newly acquired meat thermometer, which helped me cook the chicken to temperature so that it turned out juicy, with a bright, tart finish. I would never bring such a nonessential item with me camping (I’ve been known to be an ounce-counter), so using it for this camping recipe felt extra luxurious.
To make the meal more filling, I turned the tacos into burritos built on a foundation of old tortillas I found in the back of my fridge and some white rice I discovered in my cupboard. As extras, I stir-fried some zucchini in the same spice blend as the marinade and added an almost-too-ripe avocado. Even without the cilantro, the burritos were pure heaven and only took 25 minutes to throw together—making them ideal for my next wilderness trip.
Day 3: Spinach Goat Cheese Frittata
On day three of avoiding the grocery store, my fridge was looking pretty grim. I picked this frittata because I had a bunch of spinach that was about to turn and some goat cheese I couldn’t find another use for.
After pulling out the ingredients, I did a little dance and I realized I could cook my classic camp breakfast under my oven’s broiler, allowing me to fire it up from the bottom and the top—an impossibility when cooking over a campfire. As I waited for the cast-iron pan to heat up on the stovetop and the broiler to start, I quartered the cherry tomatoes I planned to use as a sub for the sun-dried tomatoes and sorted the spinach.
Then, I poured the spinach and egg mixture into the pan, sprinkled the tomatoes and goat cheese crumbles on top and waited for the bottom of the dish to set. Once the pan-side of the frittata turned golden brown, I popped the whole thing into the oven and waited five more minutes. Easy peasy!
I learned from Fresh Off the Grid that frittatas are Italian, so I asked my partner to taste this dish, too. They ate half of the frittata in one sitting, so I’d say it was a success. And, since they despise all things green, the fact that they could “barely taste” the spinach was quite the compliment.
Day 4: Shrimp Boil Foil Packet
With my fresh food options rapidly diminishing, I sought solace in my freezer. What could I make out of a smattering of random veggies and the odds and ends of a little fish and meat? A shrimp boil. I even had one more shriveling zucchini in my fridge to throw in for good measure.
But that’s where things got complicated. Fresh Off the Grid’s recipe says, “While there is a lot of flexibility when it comes to what you want to put in your shrimp boil, one constant is Old Bay seasoning.”
Uh oh. What happens to a shrimp boil when you don’t have the one thing that makes it a shrimp boil?
First, I defrosted some andouille chicken sausage and peeled shrimp, cut the zucchini and tossed it all together with handfuls of frozen kernel corn. Then, I rifled through my seasonings to find something that might compare to Old Bay.
A quick internet search pointed out that celery salt is a vital part of the homemade spice recipe. With no celery salt on hand, nor celery stalks or dill seeds, I resorted to a heavy sprinkle of plain dill weed. From there I added a bit of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika, cayenne, allspice, black pepper and salt. Plus, a whopping four tablespoons of butter.
I crimped up the edges of my aluminum foil, popped the packet into the oven at 400°F, and waited for a little more than 20 minutes, wishing the entire time that I was staring into the mesmerizing play of campfire flames tickling the ever-blackening foil. Cooking on an open fire is far more satisfying than waiting for a digital alarm to beep.
When it was time, I opened the packet only to discover my fragrant shrimp boil floating in a sea of butter. Maybe it goes without saying, but four tablespoons of butter was two too many.
Day 5: Dirty Chai Latte & Tie-Dye Fruit Leathers
On the last day of the challenge, I was nearly out of groceries. Before heading to the store (with my hand sanitizer and face mask in tow), I decided to experiment with my dehydrator and make myself a sweet drink while I was at it.
Though I’d never before tried it in the backcountry, the dirty chai from Fresh Off the Grid took no time to whip up at all and was so tasty I’m already thinking about making it again. I made one slight modification, subbing cow’s milk for almond, which turned a lovely light brown in the 10 minutes it took my stovetop espresso maker to bubble over with coffee. Delish.
Next, I set about making the fruit leather. I thawed some mangos and cherries from my freezer and arranged them in an artistic swirl on my dehydrator’s fruit leather tray. My morning was going swimmingly.
But waiting for the fruit leathers to dehydrate took forever. The recipe indicates that the leathers are ready when the fruit puree isn’t soft or tacky, but also not brittle. I killed time for the prescribed four hours, and then started checking the leathers, hopefully, every 30 minutes.
After 30-minute stints of gardening, binge-watching TV, and even grocery shopping (finally!), my fruit leathers were brittle around the edges, yet. still tacky in the middle. But after 14 hours, enough was enough. Guess what? They turned out to be delicious. In the end, this is an ideal recipe to try when you have 14 hours to spend hanging around the house.
All photos by Aer Parris.
Have you tried making any of your favorite camping recipes during social distancing? S’mores on the gas stove? Cast iron scrambled eggs? Share your recipes and tips in the comments below.