Post by Matt, Information Services staff
Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!
Summer has always been my favourite time of year. No school, great weather, and family vacations made for a very happy Matt; not to mention that August is my birthday month! It was hard to invite friends to a birthday party since everyone was gone for the summer, but my extended family was usually on vacation together during my birthday and that was an even better outcome. We would all drive down to Essex County and take the ferry to Pelee Island, where my aunt lived, to stay at a cottage together. This was always the highlight of my summer. As I got older, I found new reasons to appreciate summer: solitude, ample leisure time and outdoor exploration. These qualities intersect perfectly when going camping.
As a child, I went on camping trips occasionally with my aunt and uncle, but my love for camping really blossomed in high school. As soon as I got my driver’s license, my friends and I would organize camping trips to the closest provincial parks – as a way to spend time together, declare our independence from adult supervision, and participate in the occasional hi-jinks. These trips were not always well-financed, well-equipped or well-advised, but they instilled a love of nature and outdoor exploration in me that I continue to nurture to this day.
My partner and I love to plan camping trips to the countless provincial and national parks dotted all across Ontario. So far we’ve been lucky enough to visit Algonquin, Bruce Peninsula, Inverhuron, Killarney, Killbear, MacGregor Point, Oastler Lake, Petroglyphs, The Pinery, Point Pelee, Sibbald Point, Six Mile Lake and Thousand Islands National Park. These trips have been learning experiences, full of unforgettable memories and mistakes. As I’m sure many people have discovered during the last two years, Canada’s park systems are a truly unique and wonderful leisure opportunity available to all of us.
But camping does come at a cost. The first and most obvious barrier to entry is the literal cost of equipment. If you’ve never camped before, you’ll need access to a tent, tarp, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, camp stove and much more (this checklist from Ontario Parks covers most of the basics). For many, the best option is to rent the equipment for your first trip or two. You can do that through outdoor adventure businesses, local equipment libraries like these – KW Library of Things or BIPOC Outdoor Gear Library – and, occasionally, through the parks themselves. Once that’s done, you need to get there. Most national and provincial parks are at least an hour away from Waterloo Region and the only reliable way to reach them is by vehicle. On top of these physical considerations, there’s also the mental responsibility of being a good camper. That means cleaning up after yourself and following the rules to protect you, other campers, local wildlife and the environment. Despite all these costs and responsibilities, camping can be well worth it.
My least favourite part of camping is meal planning. Packing, storing and preparing multiple days of meals is a complicated, boring chore for city Matt; country Matt just wants to lay back in a hammock with a good book. But, sadly, we need to eat even when we’re camping and, to eat well, you need to be prepared. That’s why I turned to Laura Bashar’s The Camp & Cabin Cookbook for advice on how to improve my cooking in the great outdoors.
Bashar’s book is almost entirely centered on cooking with fire, primarily using charcoal briquettes or firewood. The various recipes range from breakfasts, snacks, sides, and full meals to desserts and even drinks. The necessary equipment Bashar suggests includes grills, tinfoil, and both cast-iron pans and Dutch ovens. I’ve previously discussed Dutch ovens in the May edition of 12 Cookbooks, when I explored bread-baking with Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. While Dutch ovens can be made of a variety of materials (the one I used for bread-baking was made of ceramic), if you’re hoping to cook over a fire you’ll need one made of cast-iron. So, with this blog as an excuse yet again, I satisfied my deep-seated need for new kitchen equipment and purchased a quality cast-iron Dutch oven with a recessed lid and three short legs to raise it above the coals.
But what would I cook? I settled on three recipes that would test out my new Dutch oven: the appropriately-named “Dutch Oven Vegetable Frittata,” the slightly alarming, but intriguing-sounding “Heart Attack Potatoes” and the crowd-pleasing “Chocolate Chip Skillet Cookie.” I planned to cook the former two meals for dinner on the first two nights of a camping trip with my partner at the start of August. The dessert was scheduled for later in the week.
Cooking with a Dutch oven over a fire requires a number of factors to go your way. At minimum, you need good weather, good firewood and the permission to light it. Luckily, the weather forecast was fair and there was no fire ban in effect, so I spent the day before we left busily grocery shopping and prepping as many meal ingredients as I could. This was a solid half day’s work, but I highly recommend it. Nothing is worse than being stuck at the campsite chopping vegetables for dinner while other, more-prepared people glide past in a canoe. In the end, I cut and bagged all of the vegetable ingredients for the frittata, sliced and stored sandwich toppings, pre-cubed halloumi cheese and veggies for skewers, and chopped or mixed the ingredients for the potatoes, chili-cheese dogs, hashbrowns and cookie dough.
Then it was time to go camping! We made the long drive up to our campground near Parry Sound and set up our tent, tarps and other equipment. This was a harrowing process, as always. Something about the long, stressful drive, the presence of neighbouring campers and the finicky job of correctly hanging ropes and tarps brews a bad mood like nothing else. And then we had to make a fire before we could eat! For anyone new to camping, I apologize for not painting it in the best light, but it’s largely true in my experience that the first day is not very fun (though the rest of it certainly is). I can’t promise that the first day grumps won’t happen to you, but I can say: the more prepared you are, the less grumpy you will be.
Starting a fire is another potentially mood-ruining task. My partner and I have practiced our fire-making skills a great deal and made pretty much every mistake you can make, but sometimes we still have a hard time starting a fire. And I’ll let you in on a secret: the wood the park sells is usually the problem. If possible, find a different supplier local to the area instead. Luckily, between the two of us we managed to start a fire and get cooking.
And cooking. And cooking. Between the variable, unmeasurable heat of the campfire coals and the liquid in the vegetables, the frittata took twice as long to fully cook as the recipe indicated. It also became more of a scramble than a slice.
Despite these challenges, it tasted pretty good. The eggs and cheese were soft and creamy, while the tomato, pepper, zucchini and kale added plenty of crunch and flavour. Was it worth the three hours of constant fire-tending to build up a bed of coals to cook with? No, not at all. But, here at 12 Cookbooks, I do these things so you don’t have to, and not every experiment can be a total success. Forget it Matt, it’s the first day of camping…
The next day, the first good day of camping, I relaxed, enjoyed the campground and settled in to my vacation. Later in the afternoon, my partner and I started another fire, chopped up some potatoes, dumped all the ingredients into the oven, and set it down into the fire. This time we piled log after log into the fire, trying desperately to keep enough coals burning above and below the oven to maintain a steady heat. Eventually we resorted to creating a second, smaller fire on the lid of the Dutch oven.
This arrangement worked well in terms of evenly cooking the potatoes, but, again, it took more than double the advertised time. The finished “Heart Attack Potatoes,” a glorified version of scalloped potatoes shaped into cubes instead of slices, was delicious and made enough for two meals, but was absolutely not worth the effort. Instead, to achieve the same great taste with far less work, I recommend baked potatoes in aluminum foil placed directly on the fire, or small pouches of scalloped potatoes placed on a grill above.
To make matters worse, cleaning a Dutch oven while camping is a nightmare, and manipulating the hot metal in and out of the fire means bringing extra equipment like oven mitts, barbecue tongs and a metal tool like a pry bar to lift the lid. The amount of effort involved in cooking this way ultimately discouraged me from making the skillet cookie until we returned home (it was obviously delicious) and I would be very cautious bringing my Dutch oven on another camping trip unless I had a better way to maintain the heat. As I discovered on this trip, there’s a reason Bashar’s instructions all default to cooking with charcoal briquettes – a far more stable, predictable source of heat.
Despite these challenges, we had a great camping trip and enjoyed some delicious food! While I definitely prefer low or no effort meals like pasta or hot dogs when camping, it was fun to experiment and gain a bit of experience with a different way of cooking outdoors. Maybe next year I’ll be able to improve my open fire-cooking technique so it doesn’t take quite so long.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of reading and dreaming about the recipes in Bashar’s Camp & Cabin Cookbook, but I can’t recommend you take it camping, unless your favourite thing to do outside is cook and you already have access to all of the equipment you need. These recipes were some of the simplest, but they still ate up a lot of my precious hammock time. And while I’m determined to get more use out of my new cast-iron Dutch oven, I definitely think it was a mistake to buy instead of borrow. That said, if a whole herd of cowboys comes sweeping through my basement apartment one day, at least I know I can serve up a mean fire-roasted chili – as long as they don’t mind waiting.
For other guides on how to cook outside, read some of these cookbooks from KPL’s enormous collection:
- Feast by Firelight: Simple Recipes for Camping, Cabins, and the Great Outdoors | Emma Frisch
- Vegan al Fresco: Happy & Healthy Recipes for Picnics, Barbecues & Outdoor Dining | Carla Kelly
- Food and Fire: Create Bold Dishes with 65 Recipes to Cook Outdoors | Marcus Bawdon
- The Lodge Book of Dutch Oven Cooking | J. Wayne Fears
- The Campout Cookbook: Inspired Recipes for Cooking around the Fire and under the Stars | Marnie Hanel & Jen Stevenson
- The Outdoor Adventure Cookbook: The Official Cookbook from the Ultimate Camping Authority | Lisa Trottier
I will return next month with a hunger for Mexican cuisine that can only be satisfied with Gabriela Cámara & Malena Watrous’s My Mexico City Kitchen.
Have questions? Want more recommendations?