Dining In The Wild

With a well-seasoned Dutch oven and key ingredients, campsite fare can be simple and tasty

Baking, roasting and simmering in the wild


WYE ISLAND — WYE ISLAND-- --Directionally, Fran Gower's pineapple upside-down cake is a success.

Aesthetically, however, it's four rings shy of dessert.

Not to worry, says Gower, as she scurries around the campfire from the Dutch oven to her portable pantry sitting near a stump.

With a quick twist of a can opener and a few pokes with a fork, Gower replaces the charred pineapple rings with unblemished ones. If the 11 guests at her camp site - fresh from a kayaking trip - know about the touch-up job, they never let on.

And that, says Gower with a smile, is what camp cooking is all about.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," says Gower. "Just be flexible and roll with the punches. Campers are usually very forgiving."

Talk of cooking over an open flame in the great outdoors generally falls into two camps: On one side are the "uncork a bottle of 1957 Bordeaux while the wild boar roasts on the spit" folks. On the other, the "mac and cheese with tuna, mac and cheese without tuna" die-hards.

But there is a sensible middle ground. It's the ground on which Gower, a sergeant with Maryland's Natural Resources Police, and Dawn Webb, with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, plant their fire ring, stack of wood, briquettes and Dutch ovens.

The two women teach outdoor cooking each summer and fall in classes called "Becoming an Outdoors Woman." This day on Wye Island, the kayakers eyeing the rejuvenated pineapple upside-down cake are Gower's students.

Yet, even without a course, campfire cooking isn't baffling, say Gower and Webb.

Good camp cooking begins at home, with a menu and a checklist of ingredients and utensils. Nothing can put the damper on a good fire more than forgetting the spaghetti for the spaghetti and meatballs.

"Start with good recipes," says Webb. "You can pretty much adapt anything from the inside to the outside. The only difference is inside, you have to adjust a knob."

Plenty of Internet sites offer meals that are ready-made for outdoor cooking. Gower suggests chuckwagondiner.com and lovetheoutdoors.com.

Stews, spaghetti sauces, chili, baked stuffed chicken breasts and dessert cobblers all adapt well to Dutch-oven treatment.

"I like one-pot meals because there's no reason for a lot of cleanup afterward," says Gower. "The object here is to enjoy the outdoors and outdoor activities, not experience your kitchen and chores moved outdoors."

Once you settle on a menu, put ingredients in one plastic storage bin and label the outside.

Next, get a seasoned Dutch oven and a cast-iron skillet.

"They may be heavy, but I'll tell you what, I've seen people out there with Teflon-coated pans with plastic handles and unless you want laminated food that will last forever, it's best to go cast iron," says Webb.

If they are new, season the pans before you leave home.

For Dutch-oven cooking, you'll need a pair of thick gloves, wooden or heavy plastic utensils for stirring, a pair of long-handled tongs to move coals around and a pair of heavy-duty pliers to lift pot lids. Place all of those accessories in another plastic storage bin and label it with the contents.

Regulating the cooking temperature is the toughest part to master. Even Gower, with years of experience, burns the pineapple now and again.

Buy or borrow a cooking tripod so that you can adapt to any size fire ring and raise and lower the Dutch oven to adjust cooking temperature. You also can use a rack, but it does not allow for height adjustment.

To gauge the amount of charcoal it will take to reach 325 degrees, measure the diameter of your oven and multiple by two. Each additional charcoal adds 10 to 15 degrees of cooking temperature.

For baking, place two coals on the lid for each coal under the oven. For roasting, split the coals 50-50. For simmering, place one third of the coals on top, the rest underneath.

Using that formula, a 12-inch Dutch oven for pineapple upside-down cake requires 24 briquettes: 16 on top and eight beneath.

But, Gower and Webb say, weather conditions, volume of food and the amount of wind all have an effect on cooking temperature.

"The flame isn't consistent. Just a little breeze can make the charcoal burn faster," says Webb, suggesting cooks add or remove coals to compensate.

Suspending a Dutch oven so that it swings free from a tripod will help avoid hot spots. For skillets or Dutch ovens sitting on a rack above the fire, turn the pot 90 degrees in one direction and the lid 90 degrees in the opposite direction every 15 minutes for even cooking.

If early efforts don't quite pan out, "even a good, old-fashioned stick with a hot dog on it tastes great," says Webb.

Gower's parents took the family camping as often as possible. Her father came up with "First Night's Feast," a simple one-pot dinner that could cook while everyone scurried about to make camp.

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