More Than S'mores

`Roughing it' for some campers today means meals of marinated ahi tuna and artichoke dip.

August 07, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

LEES FERRY, Ariz. -- If food tastes better outdoors, imagine what it's like with the roaring Colorado River in your ears and the walls of the Grand Canyon looming above.

Each year, more than 20,000 people ride rafts, kayaks or dories 277 miles down the mighty river. But unlike explorer John Wesley Powell, who navigated the Colorado in 1869, modern-day adventurers don't have to rough it.

Breakfast will be eggs to order or French toast with a side order of melon and plenty of strong cowboy coffee. Lunch is deli-style sandwiches to be taken along on a hike in a side canyon. At night, artichoke dip and crackers whet the appetite for a dinner of ahi tuna, wild rice and spinach salad, followed by a hot apple crisp for dessert.

The provisions for these sumptuous meals are hauled in ice-filled coolers lashed to the boats and cooked on portable stoves or grills.

"It's not like the old days, when you popped open a can and called it dinner," cracks Bob Hart, a tanned, bearded oarsman and part-time chef with Grand Canyon Expeditions. "It's good eating down here."

Even do-it-yourself boaters who don't sign up for a commercial trip can do better than canned beans and s'mores. Computer programs can prepare menus based on the number of people, likes and dislikes, and the amount of fussing someone wants to do over a hot camp stove.

And if something stays a little too long over the open flame or has a pinch too much or this or that, campers tend to be forgiving.

"You can't go wrong down here," says Hart, a 10-year canyon veteran. "You can serve it with grit and people still eat it with a smile."

But you don't have to go to the canyon - grand or otherwise - to get the same effect. The appetite for adventure can be as close as a car campsite at a state park or weekend cabin in the woods.

The first bit of advice for camp cooking is "Don't panic," says Dian Thomas, author of 10 books, including Recipes for Roughing It Easy (F & W Publications Inc., 2001, $14.99).

"As long as you stay with the positive, everything will be OK. Just keep it real basic and have success," she says.

Thomas learned to love the outdoors from her father, a forest ranger, and began filing away recipes at an early age. She got a degree in home economics from Brigham Young University in Utah and decided to wed her "college knowledge" to her back-country skills. The result was an eight-year stint on NBC's Today show and appearances on ABC's Good Morning America.

"Martha Stewart is selling a dream. I'm selling reality," she says, laughing.

Experimenting with food and hot coals in her back yard drew curious stares from the neighbors, who all thought, "There's that crazy Thomas woman again," she says.

All of Thomas' recipes, which now number in the hundreds, have a central theme: Keep it simple.

At home she prepares marinades and mixes the dry ingredients for cakes and breads and puts them into labeled plastic bags. If possible, she browns meats for stews and casseroles ahead of time and packs them on ice.

But simplicity is just one of her tips. Others include everything from testing recipes at home first to delegating mealtime chores.

"I'm a stickler on that last one," she says. "I don't do all the work even though I could. I say, `If you're going to eat, you're going to help. Even the young ones can be given a chore.' "

Thomas says the most important skill to master at home is learning to control the heat from campfire coals. She gauges their temperature by placing her hands over the coals. If she can hold her palm at the cooking level for no more than 2 seconds, that's high heat. Four seconds is medium heat and six seconds is low heat.

To give her a varied cooking surface, Thomas divides up her coals into three wedges. The highest temperature setting occurs when coals are touching. A medium heat comes from coals spaced in a checkerboard pattern with spaces between them. A low heat has larger spaces between the coals.

Whatever you do when you're camp cooking, don't shy away from experimentation. In addition to Thomas' books, avail- able on her Web site, www. dianthomas.com, outdoor equipment stores such as REI in Timonium and Eastern Mountain Sports in Annapolis have other volumes filled with recipes and tips. Hungry Hikers Book of Good Cooking (Random House, $20) and Lipsmackin' Backpackin': Lightweight, Trail-Tested Recipes for Backcountry Trips (Falcon Press, $15.95) are among the best.

"A mistake isn't the end of the world," Thomas says. "If you don't have something go wrong, you won't learn."

Dian Thomas' Teriyaki Marinade

Makes enough for 3 pounds of ribs, chicken, ahi tuna or steak

1 cup light soy sauce

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1/2 tablespoon fresh shredded ginger

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

2 green onions, chopped

1 tablespoon sesame-seed oil

In a medium saucepan, heat soy sauce, sugar and water and boil until sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Add ginger, garlic, green onions and sesame-seed oil. Refrigerate, covered, in a 1-pint glass jar.

Dian's Meatloaf in an Onion

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