One of the chief joys of the holiday season is spending time with loved ones. This year, why crowd around in a house when you could spend a lovely evening in the great outdoors? It may sound ambitious to cook a holiday feast over a campfire, especially considering winter temperatures, but you may find that it be done -- and done well.
If your camp culinary experience thus far has been freeze-dried and bland, then wariness is understandable. But with a little creativity and extra logistical planning, a new and delicious holiday tradition can be born, and you're sure to make new memories.
When planning a campfire feast, you need to think outside the oven. Don't try to recreate an entirely traditional meal outside, or you'll just be disappointed. Instead, think of traditional holiday foods as a jumping-off point, and ponder how outdoor cooking techniques can be used to reinvent those dishes.
Let's consider the best ways to cook outside. Grilling is a must. But you may not even need to bring a grill. Some campgrounds provide grills or grates for pit fires. Because they're public, you may want to give them a good scrub-down before using. Roasted turkey is a classic holiday dish. But wouldn't it be better and more interesting to showcase your bird by grilling it? You can season the bird however you see fit, though herbs de Provence works wonderfully. Adjust your cooking times, as outdoor conditions can affect grilling. And save yourself some agony by having a butcher break it down.
Those age-old cranberries sure are delicious. But grilled veggies would be an excellent side dish to your grilled turkey. Plus, they're lighter and more healthful than most traditional holiday side dishes and will keep you full longer, thus helping with those cold temperatures. What kind of veggies work best? Almost any. Root veggies like carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes can withstand the heat of the grill and tend to be comforting in the cold of winter. And drizzle a little butter, cinnamon and nutmeg on them? Forget about it. Zucchini and peppers char nicely and are flavorful. And hearts of romaine lettuce can be seared quickly on a grill and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and blue cheese, for a creamy, yet smoky flavor combination.
Now, your entire meal does not have to be grill-dependent. Even more low-maintenance is foil-wrapping potatoes and yams to bake them on a rack over your campfire. In fact, a lot of food can be cooked in foil. Season and wrap fish for a pescatarian alternative, or try hot dogs for the kids. For a warm side dish (or dessert), sprinkle apple slices with cinnamon sugar and bake them; this will pair excellent with warm bread or biscuits. The best-kept foil secret is banana boats. Roast bananas in foil, and let kids customize their boats by sprinkling chocolate, marshmallows and other toppings.
Speaking of bread, did you know you can make bread in a Dutch oven? It's true; Australians mastered making their own, called damper bread. Quick breads and soda breads are great for Dutch ovens. In fact, Dutch ovens were made for cooking over an open flame, thus making them practically a staple for your camping feast. Lodge Manufacturing makes excellent cast-iron cookware specifically made for camping.
Dutch ovens are great for preparing lots of side dishes, too, such as soups or casseroles. But the real reason you need to bring one along is for dessert. Everything from brownies to pies can be baked in a Dutch oven. What holiday would be complete without pie?
Now that you've got ideas, how can you make your campfire feast a success? Prep, prep, prep, and be organized. There's no such thing as a last-minute campfire feast. A few weeks out, finalize your menu and even the specific recipes you'll be using. Recipes may need to be finessed for camping.
Be realistic about the meal. If this is your first Thankscamping, then don't make yourself crazy and put too much pressure on. Make part of the meal at home, bring dishes that can be reheated, and buy a pie if necessary. Though it's a nice goal to have, the point isn't to be America's next great gourmand of the grill; it's to change it up a bit and enjoy yourselves. This also means, for comfort's sake, you'll probably want to camp at a supported or semi-supported site instead of deep back woods.
Shopping lists are key. Break down each dish by ingredient so you know what and how much you'll need. You'll also need make sure you have the right equipment for cooking, as what's made for your stove and oven at home most likely won't work for camping. Ask relatives if they have equipment you can borrow, or visit an outdoor retail store to buy a few items. They'll be an investment for you to have for many years.
The day or two before, do as much cutting, slicing and dicing as possible before hand. Pre-measure ingredients for each dish, and package the dishes' ingredients together. Remember, you won't be in your kitchen pantry a few steps away. That is, of course, unless you enjoy an outdoor feast atop a crackling fire in your own backyard.
When it's all said and done, sit back and relax with your loved ones, and relish in the new memories you've made trying something new. And what the heck, throw in a s'more or two.