As the office food snob (not my label, but I'm sure many others' for me) I stand in judgment of all things edible. So, when campfire cooking emerged as a story idea during a monthly magazine planning session, eyes turned in my direction.
The plan would be to solicit readers' favorite campfire recipes through an Almanac item in the February 1995 Missouri Conservationist. When the responses began to pour in, I would select the tastiest and most creative sounding recipes and organize a group to cook them. We would do the testing and eat the results during an annual magazine review committee meeting on the Current River.
Since 99 percent of my cooking experience has been in a kitchen, and not over an outdoor fire, I thought that organizing a group campfire cookout was a bit outside my territory. However, I reasoned, if James Beard could cook dinner on top of an upturned iron (I don't remember the circumstances, but that was the only appliance at his disposal), then surely I could get a reasonable spread out of 75 mostly handwritten recipes from unknown sources.
Fortunately, readers sent in a nice selection of recipes that covered the meal spectrum from appetizers to dessert. Some were quite ingenious, a few were puzzling, and most we tested were highly edible. I made recipe assignments at the meeting to the 12 "cooks" based upon their skill levels, avocational interests, personalities and how kind they had been to me lately.
For instance, we gave the manly-sounding "Venison Steaks Dipped in Coffee Grounds" to our most macho cook (we'll just call him CD). He prepared them beautifully. Here's the recipe from Dave Brouk of Fenton:
Venison Steaks Dipped in Coffee Grounds
Wrap a slice of bacon around each steak and secure bacon with a toothpick. Dip each steak into a bowl of fresh coffee grounds. (Dave, this recipe just screams "accident." You invented it when you accidentally dropped the deer into a can of coffee, right? It's okay - we all loved it.) You may brush off some of the grounds, then place steaks on hot hardwood or charcoal fire. Cook 'til done.
For our house artist, Mark Raithel, we selected the colorful and creative "Silver Casserole" sent to us by Larry Hasenbeck of Jefferson City:
Cabbage leaves; carrots; potatoes; hamburger (1/2 pound per serving); sliced onions; seasoning. Clean carrots, potatoes and onions. Cut carrots into strips; potatoes can be sliced or cut into strips. Season hamburger as desired and make into rounded servings of 1/2 pound each. Peel off 4 large cabbage leaves and lay them out doubled (one inside the other). Place the hamburger loaf on the cabbage leaves, and stack the vegetables evenly around the meat. Cap with remaining leaves. Place on sheet of heavy-duty foil and wrap tightly by bringing the sides together at the top and rolling the edges to form a tight seal. Roll the ends toward the middle with rolled ends turned up. This will prevent the juices from leaking out. Place directly on a bed of hot coals. Leave for 45 minutes without turning. Remove from coals with flat utensil such as an egg turner. Larry suggests that this is an excellent way to use up that deer burger.
We gave our crack trout fisherman, Jim Auckley, the "Stuffed Trout" recipe, submitted by Marc Sostarich of Florissant:
One large or two small trout; 1 tsp. lemon pepper; 2-3 tbsp. butter; 1/2 cup fresh tomatoes; 1/2 coarsely chopped onion; 1/2 cup coarsely chopped celery; foil for wrapping. Gut and degill trout; wash thoroughly with water, leaving head, tail and fins on or you may cut them off. Fillets also may be used. Lay trout on 14-inch piece of foil and sprinkle on half the lemon pepper; place half the butter in cavity or on fillet. Put tomatoes, onions, celery and rest of lemon pepper and butter in cavity or on fillets; some will overflow from cavity. Take two sides of the foil together and fold several times to seal top; then fold in the two ends to seal. Place on grill 2 inches or more above hot coals. Small fish will cook in approximately 20 minutes and larger ones in 30 minutes. Be careful when handling hot foil.
From David Matthews of Reeds Spring we were introduced to "Hobo Eggs." We gave it to our foremost frugal bachelor and former hobo, Tom Cwynar. Tom had a little trouble with these though, David, and would like your suggestions about how better to prepare them the next time he and his date hitch a ride on the Missouri-Pacific. Here's David's recipe:
After the flames have died from the campfire, place eggs down in the coals. BE SURE to chip a hole in the top of each egg or they will explode! After the embers have cooled, take out the eggs and peel. They'll have a really nice smoky flavor and consistency of hard-boiled eggs.
Note: Tom carefully followed your instructions, but they exploded anyway. Every single one! Plus, they nearly caught one cook's shirt on fire. Did Tom do something wrong - such as use a charcoal fire instead of a wood fire, or an ice pick instead of a fire poker to chip the hole?
Tony and Mary Jo Griffith from Overland sent their favorite way to enjoy corn-on-the-cob al fresco. Naturalist Martha Daniels - with the long, wavy orange hair - seemed a likely corn goddess, so she prepared their recipe:
Soak corn on the cob (husk and all) in water for a few minutes. Wrap in a double layer of aluminum foil and seal both ends. Place over fire and cook until tender, turning frequently. Note: We soaked the corn for 10 minutes and placed over coals, but not a direct flame. Also, some people in the group say they have good results by not using foil; simply soak and toss.
Lillian Crandall from Circle Pines, Minnesota, sent the following recipe - which, by itself, was enough to feed our gang of 12. Lillian says "Prairie Steamer" has been recommended by at least three generations of Crandalls. We asked Larry Yamnitz and his family of four to handle this hefty assignment, and they did a grand job:
3 young chickens cut into eighths; 18 small potatoes; 12 small onions; 12 sausages; dozen ears of corn. Scrub the potatoes, peel onions and husk corn. Save the husks, but discard the silk. Spread a layer of corn husks on the bottom of a boiler or large kettle. Pour in 1 quart water. Spread a layer of potatoes and onions on the husks. Add a layer of chicken pieces and sausages. Add another layer of husks, then a layer of corn and another layer of husks. Top with one potato. When that potato is done, everything is done. Cover the pot and steam over fire for 1 1/2 hours or until done.
The next two recipes seemed custom-tailored to occupy restless children. But veteran newsman Jim Low impressed the heck out of us with his stick peeling capabilities. Ken and Julie Barrows from Barnhart offer:
Bread on a Stick
Thaw some frozen bread dough (you can also make your own dough). Cut off some strips and roll into elongated segments 10-12 inches long. Cut a green stick, fairly stout; wrap the bread in a corkscrew fashion around one end, pinching the dough against the stick tightly so it'll stay in place. Cook over coals in your firepit. Cook slowly and evenly so the bread doesn't burn and gets cooked thoroughly. You may brush with butter and garlic if desired.
Now this one gets my vote for "most creative" in the "Primitive Utensils" or "Necessity is the Mother of Invention" category. Kudos to Bridget Canaday of Ozark for making ice cream when the White Mountain freezer was left sitting in the garage. Here's her strategy:
Cook-Out Ice Cream
You'll need a large coffee can, a small coffee can, your favorite homemade ice cream recipe, ice and salt. Put all the ice cream ingredients in the small can, put the lid on and place in the big can. Place ice and salt in between large and small can. Put lid on the large can. Sit in a circle or at either end of a picnic table and roll can back and forth. On particularly warm days, you'll need to add ice frequently. Check occasionally, adding ice as needed until you see ice cream. Note: I made two Italian ice cream mixtures to test this method - one blueberry and one peach. We kept two sets of couples busy for quite some time rolling the cans back and forth. Hands tend to get a bit cold and dirty doing this on an old picnic table, so you might want to wear gloves and spread a cloth before you start. The result was good, but a little soft. Probably more rolling or sticking the cans in a tub of ice would have hardened the ice cream a little more.
Waynesville's Russell Shelden came up with the shortest and sweetest submission, "A Peachy Dessert." We let Missouri Conservationist editor Kathy Love execute this one because she's such a peach for coming up with this cookout story idea in the first place. Here are the goods:
A Peachy Dessert
Cut a peach in half; remove pit. Fill the empty pit area with cinnamon and place both halves together. Wrap in foil, throw in the coals until soft on the outside. Remove the peach, and there's your quick peach cobbler.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to help us in our recipe search. We all had a lot of fun experimenting with your submissions. I'd like to offer one I've adapted from a bayside eatery called "Mo's" in Newport, Oregon. Mo's gained acclaim when Paul Newman and crew ate there regularly during the filming of "Sometimes A Great Notion" many years ago.
Her clam chowder is the best I've ever had, and would be great to make in advance to eat riverside on a brisk fall float. It's loaded with all things supposedly bad for you, but once a year it's worth the indulgence. Here's my version to serve about 8-10 generous bowls:
5 pounds potatoes; 1 1/4 pounds onions; 1 pint water; 1 pound chopped bacon; 1 cup flour; 1 1/2 pounds canned chopped clams; 1 bottle clam juice. Peel and chop potatoes and onions and put in a big pot with water and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until vegetables are tender. Meanwhile saute bacon slowly and when it is done, stir in flour and cook thoroughly. Combine bacon and flour mixture, the clams, juice, potatoes and onions and bring to a good rolling boil, stirring often. This makes about a gallon of chowder base. It keeps for a week or more if you cool it well before refrigerating. As you serve, heat equal parts of fresh whole milk with the base and heat slowly, stirring often. Put a big dollop of butter in each bowl and garnish with parsley and paprika. The base also freezes well.
Some readers sent, in addition to recipes, other tips for campsite meal production and cleanup:
David Sailor of St. Louis says the two most important tools for a successful outdoor meal are: a folding wire grate that sticks into the ground and a handheld wire grate with long handles that opens into two halves. The in-ground grate provides a sturdy surface to cook on and a place to rest the handheld grate for cooking certain items (meat, mostly). Both grates clean up with a small wire brush and store in plastic trash bags.
Carol Pointer of Marshall suggests, as did several other readers, that rubbing a little liquid soap all over the bottom and sides of your cooking pot or skillet before placing on the open campfire will aid the cleanup immensely.
Tony and Mary Jo Griffith of Overland suggest that while you are eating, place a container of water on the grill so you will have hot water for washing dishes later.
Clever Bridget Canaday of ice cream acclaim says a great way to keep hands clean during camping is to place a bar of soap in the toe of an old nylon stocking. Tie it to the handle of your water jug, and you'll prevent your soap from slipping into the mud. You can use a milk jug for your handwashing water; just make a small hole and plug with a stick.
And yet another coffee can use from Bridget: place your toilet paper in a coffee can with lid; it stays dry and animals won't want to nest with it.
Tammy Behnken of St. Charles makes salads by cutting up lettuce and vegetables into a large ziplock bag. Just seal the bag and toss; you can serve right out of the bag and store any leftovers in the same. This eliminates the need to wash extra serving bowls and saves room in the cooler for storage.