Dig in to campfire cuisine, Vail Valley
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –My idea of camping is to check in to a luxury hotel and order room service –but lately it seems everyone I know in Colorado’s Vail Valley is spending their days off out in the woods.
When asked, they get a dreamy, glassy look over their eyes and say “It was awesome, I went camping.” Hmmm, what is it about this camping thing? With further investigation I learned that as much as the serenity, the aroma of pine, the view from a special spot, and uninterrupted quality time with favorite people, a big highlight is the campfire cuisine.
In a very informal study, residents of the Vail Valley enthusiastically shared their favorite outdoor eats and techniques. They range from super simple to rustically elegant, and came with a variety of anecdotes, too.
“Camping is really all about the kids,” said Jose Calvo. “They aren’t interested in cooking at home but just get them to a campfire and everything changes. It’s good family fun.”
Laura McBride agrees, “It’s the ritual,” she said.
“Hot dogs on a stick, s’mores for dessert” are perfect fare and a fun activity for her four-year-old daughter, Ella.
Foil packets, Dutch ovens, cast iron skillets are the vessels of choice. The fewer utensils, the better. Planning ahead is important – you can cook a meal at home to be heated up at the campsite or marinate meat in a Ziploc plastic bag to grill up tasty and tender.
Foil packet cooking is easy and cleanup is a snap:
From Vail Daily High Life Editor Caramie Schnell: “I love to cut up vegetables (peppers, potatoes, onions, etc.), fresh garlic and fresh herbs (add olive oil, salt and pepper) and bundle it up in tin foil. Then you can literally put it in the coals of the fire to cook.”
Kim Doedli: “Same for me. Endless variety! I like to add smoked sausage and a splash of beer to the veggie packets.”
Ali Doyle: “I like burritos – breakfast burrito, veggie burrito, or loaded with beans, meat and cheese. You can either make them at home first or on site. Wrap in foil, heat them up, eat. No plates or utensils needed. Tamales are also great, do them the same way. Don’t forget fresh salsa from the market.”
Lindy Phannenstiel: “We make deluxe meals for camping – place lemon wedges, cloves of garlic, and fresh herbs in the cavity of Cornish game hens. Rub the skin with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap in foil and put on a grate or directly in the coals for about an hour, turn them often for even browning.”
Mike Mayer: “Bring your fishing rod! The best food you can eat in the woods is fresh fish you catch in the lake or stream.”
Patrick Hurley: “Bring fish filets – salmon or halibut work well, cover with oil, salt and pepper, sprigs of fresh chervil and thyme, then add thinly sliced onions, peppers, and lemon. Wrap in foil. You can cook on a grate or directly in the coals.”
Sally Ireton: “Baked potatoes in foil right in the coals; start them early as they will take some time. Make extra, then grate them in the morning for hash browns with breakfast. Saute the grated potatoes in butter, oil or just cooking spray in a pan over the fire. A word of caution – keep your bug spray away from your food items so you don’t make the same mistake I made once!”
With just one pan, you can create some great dishes:
Dustin Lombard: “Beer braised chunks of carrots, onions and jalapenos. Let the beer reduce down and keep adding more until the veggies are done. Delicious results – sweet, spicy and crunchy.”
Holly Irwin: “Campfire fondue is fun – Not an exact science but roughly 2 cups of grated swiss cheese, a can of cream of mushroom soup (or any cream soup), a little flour and paprika, and about a half a cup of white wine or beer. Let it all melt together in the pot, on a grate over the fire, then dunk cubes of French bread on a stick.”
Amber O’Quinn: “Lentils or dried beans. Add veggies, cook in water. Packed with protein to get you through tomorrow’s hike.”
Jose Calvo prefers the cast iron skillet for his Frito Pie: “Spread a layer of Fritos (or corn chips) in the bottom. Add a layer of chili that you made at home. Cover with grated cheddar cheese. Add another layer of Fritos, and then top with cooked black beans (or use canned beans). Cook until bubbly – your kids will love to make this, the layering is fun.”
Bringing a piece of meat that is marinating is easy and will feed a group:
Cory Melanson brings marinated pork tenderloins: “A chili-lime marinade is great with pork. Mix olive oil with lime juice, lime zest, chimayo chili powder, salt and pepper and a little soy sauce. Combine with pork in a Ziploc plastic bag before you leave home and it will be ready to grill at the campsite.”
Melanson also recommends keeping a grate with your camping equipment so you don’t forget it when you pack. And a spice kit is handy, too.
Nick Sherman prefers a marinade for beef: “Balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, prune juice, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper really tenderizes. Great with tri-tip roast – this takes a while to grill so start early and let the aroma make you really hungry.”
You’ll note that the techniques above are decidedly devoid of recipes. I heard a lot of ‘a little of this, and a little of that’. The exception was the grand finale: Mark Metzger, pastry chef at Larkspur Restaurant, adapted his pastry skills to a Campfire Soup Can Chocolate Cake with Banana Toffee Topping. Follow the recipe below and dazzle your friends.
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
2 cups sifted cake flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Prepare eight cleaned soup cans by removing labels and spraying them with cooking spray.
Melt chocolate. Cream shortening and sugar in mixer until light. Add eggs one at a time scraping the bowl between each addition. Add melted chocolate and mix well. Scrape bowl.
Combine dry ingredients and add to the mixture in two additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Add water and vanilla and mix well. Once at the campsite divide the batter between eight prepared soup cans. Place on a rack above fire. Cook until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out semi clean. Be careful – the cans will be very hot.
Banana toffee topping
1/2c brown sugar
1/4c corn syrup
Place all ingredients except bananas in sauce pan. Bring to a boil on rack over fire. Remove. Let cool five minutes. Add sliced bananas.
Wrap small hand towels around the can as they will be hot. Spoon banana topping over the cakes and serve.
Sue Barham is the marketing director for Larkspur Restaurant and Restaurant Avondale. Larkspur, at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American Classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Avondale opened in September 2008 in the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa and features a West Coast inspired, market driven menu.