Ungrateful as it sounds, I occasionally tire of the same old backyard standbys churned out by the grill. I love a burger as much as the next person, but during the season for outside cooking and eating, there are so many more possibilities to explore. There is something about leaving the house, getting your hands dirty, and sharing food outdoors that makes everything taste better.
Being a country girl, I had a rigorous childhood training in campfire cooking, and I see no need to forget those skills as an adult. I trained as a chef in London, where I now live, but love to break free and swap the city for the country whenever possible.
Now is probably the time to confess that I’m an appalling cheat when it comes to camping. My 1972 VW bus, dubiously named Myrtle the Hurtle and resplendent in baby blue, makes life pretty easy, equipped as she is with a fold-down bed, a little fridge, a sink and a gas stove. It’s not all roses; the time I save in not putting up tents is lost traveling to destinations at a snail’s pace, stopping to top up on gas with unnerving frequency. She’s a high-maintenance lady, Myrtle, but at least I’ll never get a speeding ticket.
Unless you’re a smug camper-van owner, setting up camp is a bit of a project. Sure, children may love gathering firewood, pitching tents, building a fire and cooking supper, but all this takes time.
Bringing a ready-prepared dish in its cooking pot will help team morale on the first night. Boston baked beans, which beg only to be heated through and eaten with good bread, are a good choice. Hungry campers are more likely to get fractious than well-fed ones when that essential tent peg turns out to be missing.
But when you do cook in your campsite, it’s best to keep things simple. This doesn’t have to mean simple-minded, however. The dishes here require a few ingredients, but the results are luxurious. They are intended to be cooked outdoors, on a gas stove or campfire, but will also work beautifully in your kitchen at home.
Camping builds an appetite, so it’s wise to build your meal upon a good-quality carbohydrate, be that bread, couscous, rice or, in this case, pasta. In this summer carbonara of penne with young fava beans and peas, egg yolks and finely grated pecorino are coaxed into a silky sauce.
The favas and peas, if you buy them in their pods, are already conveniently wrapped for transport, and no chopping is required. When camping with no TV or other such entertainment, the ritual of prepping and cooking becomes a leisure activity rather than a chore. Shelling beans in the late evening sun, away from the bustle and hustle of traffic, is rather soothing. No amount of pastoral loveliness, however, will make dishwashing fun, so this carbonara is designed to leave you with only a pot, a bowl, a spoon and a grater to clean.
When Myrtle and I are cruising the countryside, I like to stop at farm stands and markets, looking for some local flavor. Often, I’ll find myself with a jar of honey from the neighborhood bees, and my thoughts turn toward dessert — something like sticky caramelized figs with honey, thyme and creme fraiche. A mild, clear honey is your best bet in this simple recipe; a stronger variety could mask the flavor of the figs.
The practicalities of packing sparingly but effectively so you can produce something passable for supper require a bit of thought. You don’t want to lug the entire contents of your kitchen into the woods, but the last thing you want is to be caught without a can opener when your wilderness meal depends upon a can of tomatoes.
Carry the right tools
Plan each meal before you leave and go from there, bringing only essential items. Whenever possible, make tools work overtime. The corkscrew known as a waiter’s friend, for example, is much lighter and more useful than the ungainly model with arms that flail up and down. Better yet is a Swiss army knife or some other multitasking battery of tools.
A fine Microplane-style grater will make easy work of garlic and ginger, as well as hard cheeses and citrus zests. A small pair of scissors is handy for both fresh herbs and bacon. I usually don’t bother with a bulky colander or sieve; for draining boiled vegetables and pasta, a pot lid, held gingerly askew as you pour, works almost as well.
Chopping boards are essential, though I wish they weren’t so cumbersome. I make do with a couple of diminutive wooden ones, bought for a song at a certain blue- and yellow-themed housewares store. I find plastic ones to be slippery and insubstantial — not ideal when knives are in action.
Speaking of which, nothing will make you feel like more of a capable Robinson Crusoe-type than a handsome pocketknife. A French Opinel knife is beautifully made and durable, and (this is key) the blade folds away safely when not in use, retaining its sharpness and your peace of mind. And that, along with a wooden spoon, a spatula and a pair of tongs (all long-handled to protect against burned arms when cooking over open flames) should cover it on the utensils front.
One of those foldable fabric coolers with a shoulder strap is useful, as is a sturdy backpack for transporting dry ingredients, utensils and kitchenware. Include a mixing bowl or two (I usually use ugly-but-practical plastic ones), a saucepan or camping pot and a light skillet. Don’t forget the matches.
Aluminum foil is amazingly useful not just for wrapping but for cooking packages of vegetables, fish and meat in the embers of the fire with very little fuss and no washing up.
A bit of prep before leaving civilization will pay great dividends. Try making dressings ahead of time in lidded jam jars. Degradable plastic food bags are ideal for transporting anything from marinating chicken to chopped onion. (Yes, I will and do chop onions in advance to avoid fooling around with knives in fields.) They are practically weightless, take up only the space of their contents and can be buried or composted after use. Along with simplicity, mise en place is definitely the intrepid cook’s best friend.
Water becomes a particularly precious commodity if you’re not near a source that’s safe to drink. Making that heavy plastic bottle of drinking water work for its living will make carrying it less painful. I freeze well-sealed bottles of drinking water and juice to make freezer blocks, essential when transporting meat and dairy. That way, your drinks are chilled, and you eliminate the extra weight of ice or ice packs.
Lastly, and not to hector, but please be kind to the environment. Have a bag for any packaging and non-degradable garbage and take it away with you. Douse fires with water or sand and replace any turf divots you created while building your fire pit.
One final tip: Watch the forecast closely and pray for sun. You might be made of sterner stuff, but wet-weather camping isn’t my idea of fun.
PENNE CARBONARA WITH FAVA BEANS, PEAS AND PECORINO
Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 ¾ pounds young fava beans in their pods (about 1 ½ cups shelled)
¾ pound dried penne
2 ½ ounces pecorino, grated (about 1 cup), plus extra for serving
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen shelled peas
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A small handful of chives, finely snipped or sliced
1. First, find a willing assistant to help peel the favas. Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a large pot. Add the peeled favas and blanch for about 1 minute, then scoop them out (reserving the water) and put them into a bowl of cold water. Drain and slip them out of their whitish skins to reveal the emerald-green bean.
2. Bring the water back to a rolling boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the penne, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix together the egg yolks, pecorino and a little salt and pepper.
3. When the pasta is almost done (about 2 minutes less than the time suggested on the package), add the favas and peas to the pot. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the pasta is al dente.
4. Reserve ½ cup of the cooking water. Drain the penne and vegetables, and return them to the pot. Add the butter and stir well. Add the egg yolk mixture and chives, tossing gently and adding a few tablespoons of the cooking water to form a silky sauce that clings to the penne. Adjust the seasoning, and serve with a wedge of pecorino for grating.
CARAMELIZED FIGS WITH HONEY, THYME AND CREME FRAICHE
Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 tablespoons mild honey
6 plump figs, trimmed and halved
1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
4 fresh thyme sprigs, plus extra leaves for garnish
4 tablespoons creme fraiche
1. Spoon the honey over the cut sides of the figs. Heat a large, heavy skillet over a medium-high flame. Add the butter — it should sizzle briskly when it hits the pan. Throw in the thyme sprigs, followed by the figs, cut sides down. Leave undisturbed for 3 to 5 minutes to caramelize, then turn the figs over and cook for another minute.
2. Transfer the figs to a plate. Return the skillet to the heat and add about 5 tablespoons water. Simmer, scraping the caramelized honey with a spoon. Pour this sauce over the figs and serve warm with generous spoonfuls of creme fraiche and a few extra thyme leaves.