Five-Star Campfire Cooking

By Amanda Bonner
Photography by Jeff Nelson 

Franks and beans for dinner? Roasted marshmallows for dessert? They’ve gone the way of the metal canteen and cotton sleeping bag. Today’s camp cooks expect cuisine as awe-inspiring as the views around them.

tacos-al-pastor

Prepping the pork and pineapple for the tacos al pastor

The guests have arrived. Dozens of them. You could say things are buzzing.

Makes sense, given who is doing this evening’s cooking: Denver chefs Jen Jasinski and Max MacKissock. The married couple and longtime campers have arrived at Gross Reservoir in Boulder County for a summer night away from the hurly-burly of the city’s restaurant scene.

While Jasinski makes fresh guacamole, MacKissock preps a pork shoulder with a sweet chile-and-garlic marinade. Suddenly, what feels like a whole hive of restive bees descends en masse. (“They were really coming after us,” Jasinski recalls later.) So she and MacKissock, accustomed to kitchen crises, try a diversionary tactic, hanging a bag of the syrupy marinade from a tree 15 yards away. Adios, bees.

The sun is going down, but it’s still scorching outside and the culinary wattage around this campfire is blinding: Jasinski is the James Beard-winning chef-owner at Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall, Stoic and Genuine and Ultreia; MacKissock runs Bar Dough, Señor Bear and the kitchen at Tap & Burger. They’ve brought along two pals, Blake Edmunds, also of Bar Dough and Señor Bear, and his girlfriend, recent “Top Chef” contender Carrie Baird, executive chef and co-owner at Bar Dough.

And the menu matches the pedigree of the company: For dinner tonight, it’s pork-based tacos al pastor, pico de gallo, spicy grilled corn and Dutch oven chocolate cake; for tomorrow morning’s breakfast, it’s Dutch babies with homemade strawberry syrup. No freeze-dried anything in sight.

Of course, you’d expect professional chefs to up their camp cooking game, but these days, they’re not alone. With trips to national parks at record-setting highs—both 2016 and 2017 saw close to 331 million visits nationwide, and Rocky Mountain National Park alone drew 4.4 million visitors last year— campers and backpackers alike are bringing along fresh, healthy versions of what they eat at home. It’s particularly true for car campers like this quartet. According to the 2017 American Camper Report from the Coleman Co. and the Outdoor Foundation, 19 percent of the population in the mountain region encompassing Colorado went camping in 2016—and the most popular form was car camping (where the campsite is within a quarter-mile of the car). And more car campers means a higher level of cuisine from even five to 10 years ago.

“People’s tastes, in general, are more elevated,” Jasinski says. “They don’t want to settle for just a hot dog; they like to show off their cooking and have a bit more fun.”

Emily Nielson, co-founder of the popular website dirtygourmet.com and co-author of the newly released book, “Dirty Gourmet: Food for Your Outdoor Adventure,” says that in the past, people did a really good job of planning every detail of their camping trip. “Where they were going, what they were going to do, what gear they’d need,” she says. “And then they’d treat food as an afterthought, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I better stop at the grocery on the way out of town and grab something to eat while I’m out there.’

elevated-tastes

“But the truth is, it’s not that hard to elevate camp food, and a lot of people have changed their mindsets about it. Instead of thinking, ‘What is camp food?’ we (she and co-authors Aimee Trudeau and Mai-Yan Kwan) like to ask ourselves, ‘What do we want to eat and how can we transform it—simplify it or adjust the cooking time or cook style—so it’s a camp-friendly recipe?’ ”

It’s all part of the overall trend, she adds, toward not only “real food” but also customization of what we eat. “People today are more focused on how food affects them,” Nielson says. “The food intolerances and restrictions that people have, whether it’s being vegan or vegetarian or whatever, are making it more difficult to eat only convenient, packaged foods that you just add water to. And I think it’s even more important to eat well outside because you’re so active and really need the food to work for you.”

“People are trying to eat better,” says Linda Ly, author of “The New Camp Cookbook: Gourmet Grub for Campers, Road Trippers and Adventurers,” who still has fond memories of the great food she ate while on her first big camping trip with friends in California. “It’s a different generation of people camping now, people who have families and are more aware of how they feed them. Before, people didn’t always realize you could cook so well out in the wild, with a minimum of dishes. You can do a real Korean barbecue out there, or one-pot pasta dishes using fresh pasta, not just something out of a box.”

Of course, the quantum leap forward in the weight and efficiency of cooking gear has helped. Today’s car campers are filling their Subaru Outbacks with Yeti coolers that can keep expensive cuts of meat cold for days, two-burner stoves with built-in windscreens for places that don’t allow wood fires, lightweight sporks with built-in knives and Aeropress coffeemakers that can make killer cups of java. “You have stronger, better stoves that are more compact,” Ly says. “You have grills that are more comfortable and easier to clean and assemble. You have tools that are more rugged.”

And car camping allows overnighters to bring all but the kitchen sink, which is great in case of a culinary disaster. “I just throw everything in my car—I don’t care,” Jasinski says.

And tonight, with the stars popping out, the gang tossing occasional logs on the fire to keep it blazing, and a great meal under their belts, all the prep has resulted in magic. Somehow, the camp cooking has done its job: connecting this quartet to each other and their surroundings. After all, as Jasinski says, “When you’re camping, you ultimately want to just relax and have fun.”

COOKING AT ALTITUDE 
Water boils faster at higher altitudes, but the water won’t be as hot as it is at sea level so food will take longer to cook, according to Linda Ly, author of “The New Camp Cookbook.” Also, evaporation happens more quickly, whether you’re making soups or pasta, so add 20 percent more water than you normally would, keep meats on indirect heat so they don’t dry out and, if you’re making baked goods, add 3 to 4 tablespoons more water (or use extra large eggs) to compensate for being a mile above sea level.

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