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‘You gotta bring cheese’ – and other tips for elevating campsite cuisine

Elevate campsite chicken by stuffing it with Gorgonzola and bacon using this recipe adapted from Tim Plaza of Spokane’s REI store. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Elevate campsite chicken by stuffing it with Gorgonzola and bacon using this recipe adapted from Tim Plaza of Spokane’s REI store. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Tim Plaza helped make crème brûlée in the hot coals of a campfire.

The mixture of egg yolks and heavy cream was prepped in advance in an indoor kitchen. And the sugar for the caramelized, hard-crack topping was packed separately.

“Someone brought one of those torches even,” Plaza said.The creamy dessert was hands-down the fanciest thing he’s ever cooked at a campsite – and he’s led gourmet camp cooking classes at REI in Spokane.

Camping season is in full swing in the Inland Northwest. While most campers might not undertake crème brûlée, campsite cuisine doesn’t have to mean boring cans of black beans and endless hot dogs. With a bit of planning and prep work, camp cooks can prepare fancy but unfussy meals at the lake or under the pines.

Foil method

Gourmet cooking while camping is a bit of a balancing act, said Plaza, who estimates he’s cooked about an entire year’s worth of meals in the great outdoors. “You want to make (meals) better tasting and fun, but not have all that extra stuff.”

For the 38-year-old outdoorsman, “extra stuff” means a Dutch oven and pie irons. He’s a foil man. In fact, his No. 1 tip for camp cooking – gourmet or otherwise – “is bring foil. Lots and lots of foil.”

Plaza makes Stuffed Bacon and Gorgonzola Chicken Breast using the foil-packet method, which helps cook food evenly and decreases dish washing.

“All of those meals you do in foil are super-easy,” Plaza said. “You don’t have to tend them the entire time, which is good – especially if you have kids. The flavors mingle really well. It’s kind of hard to mess them up.”

But any entrée that can be skewered, grilled, roasted or pan-fried can be cooked over coals or a campfire. And for car campers who can carry a bit more gear, there’s nothing wrong with bringing a Dutch oven, pie irons, skewers or those stacking camp pots that fit inside each other like a child’s toy – in addition to Plaza’s favored foil.

When Kurt Perrigo is backpacking and looking to limit the amount of weight he carries, “I pretty much do a one-pot option,” he said. But when the 51-year-old avid Spokane outdoorsman is car camping, he prefers a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven.

“You can do just about anything in there,” he said. “I can have cinnamon rolls in the morning and chicken and dumplings at night. I can do sourdough, if I want to.”

Perrigo has also led gourmet camp cooking classes at REI. For him, cooking is part of the fun of camping.

“I really like building the fire and getting the bed of coals going and cooking over that,” he said. “There’s smoke involved. It adds flavor.”

Spice it up

Another top tip from Plaza and Perrigo: bring flavor. Something as simple as sea salt elevates otherwise average s’mores. Favorite herbs and spices can be easily packed in small bottles or packets.

When he’s backpacking, Plaza, whose trail name is Tribhu (pronounced tree-boo), relies on Montreal Steak seasoning. He estimates he’s trekked more than 12,000 miles, completing most of them by through-hiking America’s three longest-distance national scenic trails: the Appalachian in 2012, Pacific Crest in 2013 and Continental Divide in 2015.

Perrigo relies on hot sauce. He’ll also save small packets of marinara sauce, Parmesan and salad dressings from take-out or delivery pizzas especially for camping trips.

The fanciest food he has enjoyed camping is crepes. The best part: “They’re super-easy to do.

“I tend to like really good meals, but I don’t like to work too hard for them,” he said – especially in the woods. So he’ll add garlic, fresh basil and heavy cream to a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and call it good.

“It may not be gourmet in a five-star restaurant, but out in the woods it is.”

Cheese, please

For shorter trips, Plaza suggests bringing “easy perishables. If you’re going to bring fruit, bring apples and bananas,” he said. “If you’re going to bring vegetables, bring peppers, onions, carrots, cucumbers, celery.”

For camp cooks who can get their hands on farm-fresh eggs that have never been refrigerated nor washed, there’s no need to keep them cool – just like at home. Otherwise, keep factory-farmed, store-bought, washed eggs cool in a cooler at under 40 degrees.

Chicken should also be stored under 40 degrees and used the first night of camping. If it’s pre-stuffed and frozen, Plaza’s stuffed chicken breast recipe could keep for lunch, maybe dinner, the second day.

But be careful. Raw chicken can carry salmonella bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. Plaza’s trick for handling it at camp: using a large, zip-top plastic bag as a barrier and keeping plenty of hand sanitizer around.

“Your fattier meats” – beef, bacon, pork, pepperoni, summer sausage, bratwurst – “are going to last longer,” he said. “If I’m going to do meat, I do it in the first two days.”

After that, he prepares dry goods, such as pasta or ramen noodles, which are quick-cooking and can easily be paired with the fresh or fire-roasted vegetables and dried herbs and spices. Plaza also likes campsite couscous with curry, cayenne and dried coconut milk.

No matter what, he said, “You gotta bring cheese.”

Hard aged cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Asiago, as well as hard or semi-hard cheeses – Swiss, Gruyere, cheddar – last longer than softer cheeses. Perrigo is a fan of mini, individually wax-wrapped cheese, such as Babybel. Gorgonzola – used in Plaza’s stuffed chicken – “keeps really well,” he said.

Ice, ice baby

The biggest challenge to camp cooking is the care and handling of ice. Plaza recommends block ice, which lasts longer than ice cubes. Both melt faster in standing water. So he also recommends taking block ice out of the bag and keeping the drain plug to the cooler open – or being vigilant about emptying the cooler frequently.

Freezing homemade soups and pasta sauces in zip-top bags can be used to keep other foods cold in the cooler. Same thing goes for tofu or meat or fish, which can be rubbed with spices or soaked in marinade before freezing – helping to keep food cold in the cooler and saving steps during meal prep.

Carol Christensen, 35, the outdoor programs and outreach market coordinator at REI in Spokane, encourages camp cooks to plan ahead – and buy and pack only what they need. She also tries to prep as many ingredients as she can in advance, such as chopping vegetables and grating cheese.

One of her favorite camp breakfasts is a fancier version of a muffin sandwich. “I love breakfast sandwiches: English muffin with egg and cheese and whatever else you want. You can do fancy cheese and arugula, and it’s super-gourmet,” she said.

Other simple ways to elevate camp meals: try bratwurst instead of regular hot dogs or bison burgers instead of beef patties. And Perrigo likes to top his campsite crepes with Nutella and canned whipped cream.

“The more shelf-stable something is at home, the more shelf-stable it is in the woods,” he said.

Other camp desserts include baked peaches or apples and something he calls a Salted Caramel Monkey S’more, which involves splitting a banana in its peel, topping it with mini marshmallows, chocolate chips and cut-up caramel squares, then roasting everything in foil on hot coals.

“When you’re in the woods and you’re active, it’s OK to indulge a little bit,” he said

He also recommends no-bake cheesecake. “If you have access to a cold stream, you have a built-in refrigerator.”

Nearby, there are great places to practice. Why not spend a night or two at Riverside State Park in Spokane to test out gourmet camp recipes?

“Riverside is gorgeous,” Perrigo said. And, “If the meal’s a flop, order pizza and pick it up.”

Stuffed Bacon and Gorgonzola Chicken Breast

Adapted from Tim Plaza

“Be careful with the salt on this dish,” Plaza said. “It has the cheese and it has the bacon, so don’t go crazy.”

1 boneless chicken breast

1/8 cup Gorgonzola crumbles

1-2 slices bacon

1 tablespoon sweet and spicy chutney (mango, plum, peach, cranberry, tomato, pepper)

Ground black pepper and sea salt, to taste

Using a small paring or Swiss Army knife, create a pocket in the chicken breast, taking care not to cut all the way through and keeping one end intact. Stuff in a layer of bacon, followed by the chutney and then a sprinkling of cheese. Secure stuffed chicken in a foil packet, and cook in fire 25-30 minutes.

Yield: 1 serving

Note: This recipe is easily prepared in a cast iron pan. Fry the bacon first. Use some of the rendered bacon fat to cook vegetables, such as broccolini, as well as the chicken breast. Stuff it with the bacon and cheese after it’s cooked. This way, the bacon stays crispier.

Ramen Cole Slaw

Adapted from Tim Plaza

Plaza swears by his no-cook ramen cole slaw, a campsite standby that’s “super-easy” and basically just involves mixing up a few ingredients and a quick dressing. It’s particularly handy if campfires aren’t allowed and campers don’t have a camp stove or – simply don’t feel like cooking.

1 1/2 bags shredded cole slaw mix

1 cup sunflower seeds

1 cup almond slivers

2 bunches scallions

1/3 cup vinegar

1 cup oil

1/2 cup sugar

2 packages of beef-flavored ramen noodles

In a large pot or bowl – or even the bag for the cole slaw mix – combine ingredients through scallions and mix well. In a small bowl or plastic shaker, combine vinegar, oil, sugar and seasoning packets from ramen noodles. Toss dressing with cole slaw mix. Add noodles right before serving.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Basic Crepes

From Kurt Perrigo via

Fill these with anything you wish. Perrigo suggests Nutella and bananas, chocolate chips, cherry pie filling or Nutella, caramel sauce and whipped cream

1 cup flour

2 eggs

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons melted butter

Cooking oil spray for pan

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the eggs. Gradually add in the milk and water, stirring to combine. Add the salt and butter; beat until smooth.

Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly.

Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side. Serve hot.

Note: Altering a recipe for backpacking versus camping means looking for items to substitute for a refrigerated item, such as milk versus powdered milk or shelf-stable milk.

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