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Campground cuisine

When dining al fresco, a little creativity goes a long way

Camping season is in full swing here in the Northwest. For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of camping is dining al fresco, cooking over a campfire and sharing a delicious meal as the sun sinks into the earth. Appetites soar after long days of hiking, swimming and exploring, making a hearty and satisfying meal especially important.

Meals at the campsite need not be boring or bland. If you plan ahead and do some work at home, meals can be tasty, as well as easy and quick, leaving you with more time to enjoy the wild.

Planning ahead is essential. One of the most useful tips I’ve learned is to make what I can ahead and freeze in gallon-size freezer bags. The frozen blocks of food actually act as ice blocks, keeping other perishable goods cold in your insulated bag or cooler. After a couple days they will thaw and be ready to use. At the campsite, add in the fresh ingredients to each dish.

For example, with charred fish niçoise, the fish is marinated ahead and frozen in the marinade in a gallon size zip-top bag. In another bag, the olives, capers, blanched potatoes and green beans, roasted red peppers, cannellini beans and dressing are combined and also frozen. At the campsite, all that’s left to do is grill the fish and assemble it over a hearty bed of vegetables, adding in fresh greens and tomatoes.

Quinoa has become one of my favorite go-to camping ingredients. It’s light, easily packable, high in protein, filling and energizing. It also cooks quickly over a camp stove and can be flavored in many different ways. I season it with Middle Eastern spices like cumin and coriander and top it with a fresh mint, tomato and chickpea relish. Drizzled with a little olive oil, balsamic and feta crumbles – it comes together fast and satisfies.

Another simple dinner staple that is easy to make and light to pack is polenta. Served with grilled sausage and veggies, it makes for a hearty dinner. You can also purchase store-bought polenta logs, which are easy to slice and grill along with the spicy sausage, bell peppers and onions, but I prefer the soft creamy style polenta, made from scratch, in a pot over the camp stove. Cut the sausages and veggies into bite-size pieces and place over the creamy polenta, garnishing with a few fresh basil leaves. This will stick to your ribs.

When it comes to camping, my husband and I have different roles. He’s in charge of all of the gear and the packing of it, and I’m in charge of the food. I only get a certain amount of space, especially when kayak camping. I’ve found I can pack sparingly and still create a satisfying meal with a bit of forethought.

I have narrowed down my list of essentials to: one good knife, a small sturdy cutting board, a stainless steel bowl, one medium-size lidded pot, grilling grate, tongs, foil, wooden spoon, metal spatula, can opener, dishtowel, camp suds and a medium cast iron skillet.

When it comes to cooking on a tiny camp stove, it’s the heavy bottomed cast-iron skillet that will save your bacon (and eggs). Instead of bottled wine, bring a good quality boxed wine, and remove it from the box. If there’s any extra room, I’ll also squeeze in our mini French press. There’s nothing wrong with a few luxuries while roughing it, and there’s nothing better than a good cup of coffee in the woods as the sun rises.

Charred Fish Niçoise

For the fish marinade:

1/4 cup olive oil

6 cloves garlic minced

1 tablespoon whole grain mustard

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Fresh ground pepper

Zest of one lemon

4 (6-ounce) fish filets, see note (salmon, black cod, rockfish, mahi mahi, halibut, bass, tuna)

For the niçoise dressing:

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice and zest of one lemon

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup red onion, finely diced

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley

2 teaspoons whole grain mustard

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Fresh ground black pepper

For the vegetable and bean bag:

2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans rinsed and drained (about 3 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup sliced roasted red pepper

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1/4 cup kalamata or niçoise olives, sliced

12 baby new potatoes, halved and blanched (see note)

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and blanched (see note)

To pack for final assembly:

Mixed greens, spinach or arugula for 4 people, about 8 ounces

12 cherry tomatoes, halved

Lemon, for squeezing over cooked fish

Mix ingredients for the fish marinade – olive oil through lemon zest – and place in gallon size zip-close bag with the fish, coating all sides. Freeze.

To make the niçoise dressing, mix the ingredients – lemon juice through black pepper – in a medium-size bowl. Add cannellini beans, roasted peppers, capers, olives, blanched potatoes and blanched green beans (see note). Mix and freeze in gallon zip-close freezer bag.

Remember to pack the greens and tomatoes.

At the campsite, grill fish over a grill or campfire using a grate, charring fish over hot coals for just a few minutes, and with a metal spatula, move to cooler spot, or place on foil, or even a bed of lemon slices, until cooked to desired doneness.

Assemble the salad. Lay down a hearty bed of greens. Spoon a little niçoise dressing from the bag of marinated vegetables over the greens. Divide the marinated veggie-bean mix over the dressed greens, and top with fish. Garnish with cherry tomatoes and give fish a little squeeze of lemon.

Yield: 4 servings

Note: Choose a thicker cut of fish filet so it will grill well. To blanch the new potatoes, bring 6 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil, add halved potatoes and blanch until just tender, 15-20 minutes depending on size. To blanch green beans, bring 4 cups water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil, add trimmed green beans and blanch until just tender, about 4-5 minutes. You could blanch the potatoes and green beans at the campsite if you prefer, but they freeze OK, too.

Quinoa with Tomato Chickpea and Mint Relish

For the quinoa:

4 cups water

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon coriander

2 teaspoons granulated garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

2 cups very well-rinsed quinoa

For the tomato, chickpea and mint relish:

2 cups fresh cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/4 cup chopped Italian flat leaf parsley

1/4 cup chopped scallions or 1/8 cup slivered red onion

2 tablespoons chopped mint

1/2 cup diced cucumber

1 small minced garlic clove

3 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Cracked black pepper

1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese or feta

To make the quinoa, combine water through quinoa in a large pan. Remember to rinse the quinoa very well first, to remove bitterness.

Bring all ingredients to a hard boil, cover, and simmer on low or medium-low for 15-20 minutes, until all water is gone. For extra flavor, try adding sautéed onions, fresh herbs, lemon zest, chili flakes, diced garlic, or even curry powder

Turn heat off, let stand covered 5-10 minutes. Fluff with fork just before serving.

To make the relish, mix together remaining ingredients except cheese in a medium bowl. Adjust for salt.

To serve, make a bed of quinoa on each plate. Divide tomato relish and place on top of quinoa. Sprinkle with crumbed goat cheese or feta, and spoon a little dressing (from the relish bowl) over top and around the quinoa.

Yield: 4 servings

Grilled Sausage and Veggies over Soft Creamy Polenta

Don’t forget to pack a whisk if you’re planning to make this dish at camp.

For the creamy polenta:

4 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup polenta

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

For the vegetables and sausages:

3 red bell peppers

1 large red onion

Olive oil

Salt and black pepper

4-8 large sausages like kielbasas or bratwursts

Fresh basil leaves

To make the polenta, bring water, salt and white pepper to a boil over high heat.

Whisk in the polenta until fully incorporated, whisking out any lumps. Lower the heat to simmer, add the butter, cover and allow the polenta to cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Mix in the cheese, and taste for salt.

While polenta is cooking, grill veggies and sausages. Halve the bell peppers, remove seeds. Slice onions into ½-inch thick rings. Toss peppers and onions with a little olive oil to coat and salt and pepper. Grill all over moderate heat, until sausages are cooked through and onions are tender.

It helps to have a cool spot on the grill to avoid burning the sausages. Slice all into bite-size pieces. Serve over a bowl of creamy polenta, garnish with fresh basil.

Yield: 4 servings