Cooking in the woods: tips for car camping
Believe it or not, it’s possible to feel like a complete failure even after you’ve learned how to set up a GCI Outdoor Slim-Fold cook station in 60 seconds, mastered the art of making toast on a two-burner stove, and figured out how to bake rosemary-and-garlic-stuffed potatoes on an open campfire.
For instance, click on Cat Cora’s Facebook page, and marvel at how the Iron Chef rolls when she’s roughing it. The last time you went camping, you probably subsisted on cold beans and no-name wieners, the latter of which spent two days floating in gross melted ice at the bottom of a cheap Styrofoam cooler. Cora’s July swing up the Oregon coast, on the other hand, had her chowing down on Basque lamb chops, chile-lime corn, and fire-roasted potatoes.
Cora no doubt arrived more prepared than most for cooking in the woods. And that, says Vancouver author and veteran camper Jayne Seagrave, is the key to eating well when you embark on a camping trip, a big challenge often being that space in a cooler is limited.
It’s unlikely that Cora whipped up her Basque lamb recipe after a hard day of foraging in the Pacific Northwest—it was probably prepared at home long before she left. As for the rest of us, no one should be expected to play Food Network star in between setting up the tent and getting the fire going.
“What I sometimes do, for the first day, is have the chicken already marinated,” says Seagrave, whose books include Camping British Columbia and Yukon and the new Camping With Kids in the West (Heritage House Publishing). “I’ll have it in a plastic container at the top of the cooler. That way I’m not disturbing what’s at the bottom of the cooler.”
That’s important because, whether you’re planning on loading up for three days in Manning Park or a multiday haul at the Squamish Valley Music Festival, paying attention to what goes where is crucial.
“The thing to think about when you pack a cooler is that you put your frozen meats and things right at the bottom,” Seagrave says. “Frozen sausages, frozen burgers, frozen steaks, or whatever—those go in the first layer at the bottom of the cooler. You want the cooler to be as packed as possible with food. There should be no spare space.”
Accept the fact that no one will judge you for cutting corners.
“Take wine in a box and not in bottles,” Seagrave says. “We take the three-litre box of wine, and if you want it cold it works quite well—you just take the plastic bag out of the box and put it in the cooler. If you’re thinking food, we take cans of tuna and baked beans that you can just open and fill meals out with.”
If you love caesar salad, there are alternatives to packing a bottle of Rincon de la Subbetica extra-virgin olive oil, Agostino Recca anchovies, fresh Parmesan cheese, and organic romaine lettuce.
“If you’re only going for three days, often a bag of salad is fine,” Seagrave says. “I buy things that I don’t have to wash. If I’m shopping for myself at home, I would never think of buying a bag of prewashed salad—I’ll buy a whole head of lettuce. But if I’m travelling, even if we’re making sandwiches by the side of the road, or we’re cooking in the evening, it’s much nicer to have something that’s already washed and prepared.”
Of course, a large part of the fun of going camping when you’re a city dweller is learning as you go. Every summer I spend a good four or five weekends living out of the back of my car and I’ve figured out a few things along the way.
Given there’s generally no Starbucks around, a jar of Nescafé powdered espresso makes for great lattes in the morning and iced coffees in the afternoon. Skip packaged bacon, which tends to be squishy and weirdly waterlogged, and instead spend a little more for the dry-cured variety at the butcher’s counter.
Bring a medium-sized plastic tub for all fruit and vegetables—ears of corn, potatoes, onions, and apples—that don’t need refrigeration. Having them all in one place is a million times better for your sanity than rooting through various shopping bags.
As for the cooler, forget bags of gas-station ice. Instead, head to a dry-ice outlet such as Praxair (2080 Clark Drive). A block of food-grade dry ice will last you three to four days and will keep essentials like milk, eggs, and Pabst Blue Ribbon as cold as your fridge at home. Best of all, it evaporates instead of making a soupy mess.
Lastly, when out on the road with your cooler, car, and tent, always scour the campground for Iron Chef Cat Cora. No matter how good you get at cooking in the great outdoors, the sad reality is that her Basque lamb chops and chile-lime corn are always going to be better.