I grew up camping. Tent camping. I went camping the first time when I was 10 weeks old. We camped on beaches and in mountains by rivers and streams. We camped across America and back through Canada and made two trips up and down the Alcan Highway. With a Coleman stove and a campfire, my mother cooked every meal. She was an adventurous cook, bent on fresh ingredients; we must've stopped at every berry patch, every U-pick orchard, every sweet corn stand. Once, in the Yukon, my mother bought moose from a hunter for dinner--my 12th birthday dinner, in fact.
The great boon for any camping cook is that virtually everything you make tastes good--if you don't make charcoal out of it, that is. There's something about the Great Outdoors. When else can a person bear to eat marshmallows? Try a marshmallow at home: It's too sweet and vaguely chemical in taste, and the texture is sponge-meets-styrofoam. Yet, waved over a campfire, even ignited and extinguished, a marshmallow seems dreamy. Canned stews and soups are suddenly edible. Hamburger Helper . . . well . . . I won't get carried away here.
If bad food tastes good, good food transcends itself. The problem with camp cooking, especially when tent camping, is in the preparation. There's no sink. No wide, level counter tops. No butcher block islands. No Cuisinart. No Osterizer. No microwave. I take only one good knife on camping trips, knowing even then that, when I turn my back, someone will be whittling with it or hacking off the back of a blister-giving shoe, wrecking its edge.
Despite--or maybe because of--the limitations, I've always risen to the challenge of camp cooking. Though you might not believe it to hear me coughing and cursing, I adore cooking over a campfire and finessing a great meal from a minimal larder and even more minimal equipment. I've certainly put a set of paper-thin stainless steel pots and pans through its paces. They've been mixing bowls, saucepans, berry buckets, steamers and, when the one cast-iron Wagner skillet is otherwise in use, auxiliary and decidedly non-nonstick frying pans.
Over the years, I've found ways to make camp cooking less trying and more pleasurable. I chop onions, garlic and other vegetables at home and put them in separate plastic bags. (I know, I know, the flavor will diminish, but everyone will be too hungry to notice.) I also pre-marinate meats for barbecuing, reassured by a marinade's mild preservative qualities; ice chests, after all, are not the apex of refrigeration. And there's something about a long car ride and a marinade; the gentle, continuous agitation draws the flavors in deep.
Perhaps the best camping food I've had has been on group camping trips, when meals were divided up among cooks, and everybody had one or two chances to show their stuff. These trips can become the Battle of the Dueling Colemans, an oven-less bake-off.
Should you find yourself in the seriously competitive and challenging position of camp cooking for a group, let me suggest Laurie Burrows Grad's satisfying, Asian-inflected butterflied leg of lamb. It's from her terrific new cookbook, "Entertaining Light and Easy," and is, as promised, not very fattening and incredibly simple.
You can throw the marinade together in about a minute at home, let the meat steep all the way to the mountains or the beach, and for a day or two more, if necessary. Throw it on the grill over a bed of nice coals, and watch out for sneaky dogs and bears and other hungry campers.
Easier yet, make it at home in your own backyard.
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GRILLED CHINESE MARINATED BUTTERFLIED LEG OF LAMB
From Laurie Burrows Grad's "Entertaining Light and Easy" (Simon & Schuster)
Serves 6 to 8
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/3 cup finely minced scallions (green and white parts)
3 tablespoons Asian-style sesame oil
3 tablespoons well-aged Chinese dark Chinkiang vinegar or balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
One 6-to7-pound leg of lamb, boned, butterflied, with tough outer skin removed and well-trimmed of any remaining fat
Sprigs of mint or cilantro
Whisk marinade ingredients in small bowl until smooth.
Place lamb in resealable plastic bag, pour in marinade, seal bag tightly, toss to coat meat and refrigerate 6 hours or overnight (or as long as 2 days), turning occasionally. Allow lamb to sit at room temperature 1 hour before cooking.
Lightly coat grill or broiler with nonstick cooking spray and preheat to medium-high.
Remove meat, reserving marinade for basting, and grill or broil, basting occasionally, about 15 minutes per side for medium rare.
Allow meat to rest about 5 minutes, then slice on the bias and serve hot, garnished with mint or cilantro.
Food stylist: Christine Masterson