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Get fired up! Camp cooking never tasted so good

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Got your campsite reservations at Doheny, Dockweiler or Leo Carillo? Or, since trout season is here, maybe you've snagged a lakeside spot in the eastern Sierra? Prime tent or RV spots may be harder to score than a table at the hottest new restaurant -- but once you're there, fire ring at the ready, the food can be just as fabulous. More so, when you factor in appetites whetted by ocean- or pine-scented breezes.

Our camp cooking menu -- pan-fried trout, bean and fennel salad with crumbled bacon, buttermilk biscuits cooked on a stick and baked-in-the-coals fruit crisp -- is also great for day-trippers planning to linger into the evening around the campfire.

We're not talking backpacking; these recipes are designed to make the most of a couple of time-honored kitchen-on-the-range tools: a cast-iron skillet and a Dutch oven. But you don't have to bring along the kitchen sink. The camp cook's keys to success are smart planning and on-the-spot ingenuity.

Along with my hiking boots, a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is the first thing I pack. It's probably the most versatile tool in a camp kitchen. In the morning, of course, it's what we use to make bacon and eggs or pancakes. Before cleaning up and setting off on a hike, I prepare the first dish for the evening meal, a bean salad with crumbled bacon.

Fry up some bacon in the skillet, then crumble the strips into a bowl, reserving the grease (bacon grease is wonderful -- it'll keep at room temperature and is much more flavorful than shortening). Use a little of the reserved grease to quickly sauté a couple sliced fennel heads and minced garlic, then add them to the bowl. Rinse and drain a couple cans of beans -- I like the white kidney, or cannellini, beans (Italians call them the "bean lover's beans") because they're rich and buttery, and canned beans are perfect because they're already cooked and easy to store. Toss the beans with the salad, then stir in a little lemon zest and juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Season to taste with a pinch of cumin, salt and pepper and a dash or two of hot sauce. Cover the salad and store it in a cool place until ready to serve.

In the evening I ready a fresh batch of coals and start preparations for the trout and biscuits. I stuff whole trout with a few lemon slices, some capers and a couple sprigs of parsley. They're seasoned and dredged in a cornmeal-flour mixture, then covered loosely -- ready to go into that skillet when the coals are right.

Before the trip, I combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a resealable plastic bag. The dry mix is multipurpose and can be used for everything from hot cakes in the morning to cobbler in the evening. Right now, it'll work great for some biscuits.

Take some dry mix and cut in a little of the reserved bacon grease. Stir in some buttermilk, making sure all of the ingredients are combined. Normally, the dough would be ready to go right now -- just portion, shape and bake. But a stronger dough is needed for the biscuits to bake on a stick directly over the hot coals. Knead the dough a good minute to make sure the structure is strong.

When the coals are super hot, each camper threads some dough onto a long stick. The sticks are either fresh-cut ("green") or have been soaked so that they don't burn while the biscuits toast. It's a pretty fun way to prepare a dish, just the same as toasting marshmallows or roasting weenies. The biscuits are toasted just a few inches over the hot fire, turned occasionally for even coloring. They puff up and turn a rich golden-brown, sliding off the stick easily when done.

Checking the heat

ABOUT THE time the biscuits are done, the coals will be ready for the trout. Heat the skillet a few minutes, then add a little more of that reserved bacon grease. Place two to three trout in the pan, careful not to overcrowd. Make sure the pan is not too hot -- you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above it for several seconds. Keep the bottom of the pan moist with a thin film of bacon grease; the fish should sizzle gently as they fry for several minutes on each side.

When you're ready to sit down to dinner, prepare a small batch of coals for baking the dessert, a summer fruit crisp. Peel and quarter ripe peaches (they may be a little bruised from having been packed, but that's fine), toss them with some fresh blackberries, a little orange zest and a drizzle of maple syrup and a dash of almond extract.

As with the biscuit mix, the dry ingredients are easier to manage if measured out before the trip. For this dessert, a blend of ground almonds, oats, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg go into the bag. At camp, mix in some maple syrup and softened butter and the crust is ready to go.

The crisp is assembled and baked in a camp-style Dutch oven, an indispensable tool for the outdoor cook. It's a small, squat, heavy cast-iron or lightweight aluminum oven with a flat lid and three stubby legs. Coals are spaced on top of the lid and between the legs, heating the oven evenly so it cooks like a traditional home oven (the number of coals regulates the temperature inside). A trusty camp oven will cook stews, roasts -- even a loaf of bread.

The crisp bakes while dinner is finished and dishes are cleaned; it's ready when the sweet aroma of the peaches is almost too much to bear.

Dessert is served as we savor the rest of the evening over the rich glow of the campfire. Beach or mountains, for me it's all about a little fresh air and the gift of good friends. The real world might as well be a million miles away.


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