We couldn't help stealing surreptitious glances at our neighbors during the five days we were camping: there they were, cooking tidily at their stand-up four-burner stove, complete with pot rack, utensil rack, and countertop; there they were washing up pristinely at their wrought-iron wash stand, complete with decorative soap pump and snow-white dish towel; there they were, lighting the dozen or so lanterns that defined the path to their immaculate site. And there we were with our burn-scarred watermelon-print vinyl tablecloth, and the wee camp stove we've used since Michael and I were actual backpackers (i.e. a Godzillian years ago), and our motley assortment of chairs (one of which we rescued years ago from the campground dumpster) and our motley assortment of kids on bikes, kids white rabbiting the smoke out of their eyes, kids with marshmallows in their hair and dirty faces and muddy feet, trying to stay dry while it rained and rained, the enormous drops pelting the tarp like gravel poured from a dump truck.
Oh, but we ate like kings. I can't lie to you. Like kings. It doesn't hurt that every single thing you put in your mouth while camping is the best thing you have ever put in your mouth anywhere ever. That includes the foil-wrapped sandwiches you take to the beach (goat cheese, cucumbers, basil, and harissa for the grown-ups; peanut butter and blueberry jam for the kids), the can of Stop and Shop lemon-lime seltzer you pop open when you return from the beach, the regular old chips and salsa you devour because something about camping makes you feel, ravenously and misguidedly, as though you've exercised, the marshmallow you set on fire and blow out, the beef jerky I made this year and that we all became meatily addicted to, and, of course, the actual meals: soaked oats for breakfast (think: raw granola; think: raw oatmeal), or bacon and eggs for breakfast, smoky from the fire. Or dinner. Dinner is special at the campsite. When the kids were babies, toddling into the road and into the fire and off a cliff and into the pond to drown, peeing their pants every five seconds and choking on large handfuls of pine needles and sand, "special" meant "kill me." But now they're big, and while they merrily play beanbag toss, we prepare actual meals.
One traditional dinner is raclette, which is a French dish: boiled potatoes with sour little cornichon pickles and fire-warmed cheese. Stuck on a clean log near the coals, the cheese goes all unctuously oozy and stinky, and the kids try to roast their stick-spiked hot dogs as far away from it as possible, wrinkling up their noses and screaming "Ew!" every time they imagine they can smell it. Every year, this is the first meal we eat when our friends arrive. Another dinner is foil packets: ground meat and potatoes, or fresh fish, or local veggies, everything sort of steam-roasted with butter over the fire until it goes meltingly soft and smoky. These are called "hobo packets" of course, because nothing is more festive than the culinary arts of the old-fashioned homeless, and they make a fine accompaniment to "hobo pies," which are buttery grilled sandwiches you cook over the coals in a special iron: plain cheese, or mozzarella and tomato sauce for pizza pies, or marshmallows and Nutella for s'more pies. Yum.
There are also lots of instant-ish one-pot dinners you can make over a camp stove, if you can't wrangle a fire into flames in the rain: couscous and beans, or rice and beans (Trader Joe's now has vacuum-packed bags of cooked brown rice, which is a camper's dream come true), for instance, since you don't have to get into any of that pesky boiling and draining of water that pasta requires. And there is always the quick-and-easy hotdog-on-a-stick. I'm going to try to offer you recipes here that might be useful even if you're not camping--recipes that could be made at home during normal life, where every trip to bathroom is not an adventure in entomology and arachnophobia.
Camp Muesli, aka Soaked Oats
Total time: 5 minutes
This is a favorite camp breakfast, but it's also a favorite school-morning breakfast, but usually only when we're out of granola. There is a fresh-tasting chewyness to soaked oats that is lacking from traditional cooked oatmeal, which I am alone in my family in loving. I confess that sometimes I stir a spoonful of wheat germ and flax seed meal into our soaked oats, because that's how I am.
For every bowl of cereal, pour enough milk over a half cup or so of oats to cover. Let the oats sit for about 5 minutes to soften, then add nuts (raw walnuts or almonds are our favorites) and dried fruit (cherries, raisins, rolled dates) and fresh fruit to your liking. Birdy likes to add only a little milk to her oats, and then stir in a big bloop of yogurt after soaking, and it's good this way too.
Fish Cooked in Foil
Active time: 5 minutes; Total time: 15-30 minutes
Even if you are not camping (in the pouring rain), try cooking fish this way on your charcoal or gas grill: the fish absorbs some of the smoky flavor while remaining deliciously moist and tender. We happened to be on Cape Cod during Striped Bass season, and the fish we got was out of this world.
1 large fillet of very fresh fish (1-2 pounds, depending on the number of people you are feeding)
Salt and pepper
1 lemon, very thinly sliced
Finely chopped garlic (optional)
Finely chopped herbs (we usually use parsley)
Butter a large piece of foil, preferably heavy duty, and lay the fish in the middle of it. Salt and pepper it, arrange the lemon slices over the top, sprinkle with garlic, if you like, and dot with 3 or 4 tablespoons of butter. Now bring the long sides of the foil together at the top and fold over to seal, folding over and over until you are more or less flush with the fish, then pinch and roll the sides to seal.
Cook the fish over hot coals for 7 to 30 minutes, just until it flakes with a fork. I know that's a huge range, but different types and thicknesses of fish and different heat of the coals are significant variables. Here's what we do: every few minutes, we press the top of the fish packet to test the temperature of the fish; once the fish feels warm to the touch, we give it a couple more minutes, and then start testing it for doneness. Garnish the cooked fish with parsley and serve.
Active time: 10 minutes; total time: 30 minutes
Try other vegetables, if you like, and consider adding whatever seasoning strikes your fancy, such as sliced onions, chopped tomatoes, or spices.
3 or 4 medium-sized zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced into quarter-inch half-moons
Salt and pepper
Finely chopped garlic
Finely chopped herbs (cilantro or basil will make an especially delicious packet)
Balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
For each person (I like to do one per person), spread out a foot or so of foil, preferably heavy-duty, and grease the center generously with olive oil. Add a handful of squash slices, then salt and pepper them, add a bit of chopped garlic, a sprinkle of herbs, a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, and a spoonful of butter. Fold up the packet as for the fish (above), then cook over hot coals for around 15 minutes, until the vegetables are browning on the bottom and meltingly tender.