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The Joys of Camping : Camp Cooking

Text: Rick Schunk, Linda Schunk • Photography: Rick Schunk, Linda Schunk

Given the choice, we'd rather ride than cook, but people do not live by miles ridden alone. Face it, you have to partake of nourishment at some point.

Over the years we've learned to keep most of our endeavors simple, which includes camp cooking. On some tours, we've been known to distill "cooking" to a skillfully assembled peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When pushed, we've expanded this to gourmet meals like hot dogs and beans - or even just beans if you're a vegetarian like our daughter.

The beauty of simple camp meals is that the equipment needed to prepare them is reduced as well. A camp stove is unnecessary if you're competent with a match and confident about your ability to cook over an open fire. In our opinion, a good campfire always trumps a gas camp stove for creating a true hit-the-open-road experience, and it definitely makes toasting marshmallows more fun - unless you're into the mini variety. For convenience though, a compact stove wins hands-down, especially if your morning routine includes coffee, or if you're traveling through areas where campfires are frequently prohibited.

Basic Equipment

There are only a few items you really need for camp cooking: a mess kit with a cup, fork, knife and spoon set, a decent pocket knife, at least one collapsible water bottle, a lightweight stove, and for coffee drinkers, perhaps a small tea kettle. If hot dogs or bratwurst are on the menu, you might also consider a folding roasting stick.

When selecting a mess kit, pass up the ultra-lightweight models. Look for something a little more substantial, especially for the frying pan. Teflon coating is a rational idea as long as you don't use metal utensils during cooking or cleaning. Plastic bowls and cups work well; however, an insulated cup is your best choice for keeping hot liquids hot and cold liquids cold.

Titanium knife, fork, and spoon sets are overkill. Save a few dollars and purchase stainless steel. A small pocket knife, with a two- or three-inch blade is essential and will fill numerous camp duties. For conserving space, a collapsible water bottle such as Platypus' plusBottle® comes in handy, is available in up to a 1-liter size, and is reasonably priced. Brewing coffee or boiling water for cleaning is best done with a small tea kettle, which is more stable than a larger coffee pot.

For convenience and speed, most campers insist on a small stove. Size matters here. Forget your dad's old Coleman two burner. Today's lightweight stoves have seen tremendous innovation in the past few years. Multi-fuel stoves are very popular. Some, like the Optimus Nova, can burn white gas, kerosene, jet fuel, auto, and even diesel fuel! Be sure to pick up the required tank when purchasing a stove. While tanks may not be included in the price, your stove won't work without one. Another consideration with multi-fuel stoves is cost. Keep in mind that generally, the more options for fuel that your stove can burn, the more expensive the model.

Waterproof matches or a lighter are of course a must whether lighting a stove or campfire. Pot holders are useful items, although a heavy riding glove can be used in a pinch. If your meals will include pancakes or hamburgers, be sure to add a wooden spatula, large spoon, or wire whip to your equipment list.

No one likes doing the dishes, but it's a fact of life at home and on the road. A small dish towel, rag or scrubbing pad, and dish soap will make short work of this task.

A Few Simple Meals

Dried soup mixes are easy to prepare and inexpensive. They pack small, and you only need to boil water. Boxed macaroni and cheese dinners also travel well and require little fuss. Purchase the upscale "real cheese included" variety, and you won't have to worry about finding some milk. A package of tuna or even salmon, now available in vacuum-sealed bags, will add some flair to your macaroni and impress that special someone.

Ready for something a bit more dramatic and a lot more fun to cook on a campfire? Try a foil dinner. With two sheets of aluminum foil (brought from home) approximately 12 inches by 20 inches, fill one sheet with a mixture of sliced potatoes, carrots, onions, and a green pepper. For you carnivores, add some ground beef. Generously cover with salt and pepper, drizzle on some cooking oil or a few pats of butter, and seal it together with the second sheet of foil. Cook on a metal grate over a fire for about 40 minutes, turning it occasionally.

Pancakes are a staple on many of our tours and instant pancake mix makes it easy. Don't forget the butter, syrup, and some cooking oil.

A campfire just begs for S'mores. Graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows... yum!

Resources for Stoves and Cooksets

Backcountry Cooking Deck: 50 Recipes for Camp and Trail by Dorcas S. Miller, ISBN 978-1594850370, $ 14.95

5 Camp Cooking Tips You'll Be Glad to Know

1. Use bagels rather than bread for your sandwiches - they're more substantial, can be prepared in advance without getting too soggy, and pack conveniently when stored in the same plastic bag.

2. Purchase some small plastic containers with lids for items such as cooking oil, syrup, dish soap, and even salt and pepper. There's been many a time when 35 mm plastic film containers have served us well.

3. If you're bringing any dry mix items like pancakes, use a zip storage bag - no need to bring the entire box.

4. Simple fire starters can be made from paper egg cartons and melted wax, mixed with sawdust. Make them at home and then carry in a small plastic bag.

5. Never throw uneaten food into a fire pit, as it can attract unwanted wildlife. Dispose of it properly. Be sure to leave the camping area even cleaner than you find it, with no trace of your footprint left behind.

Kenzo's Potato-Pasta Paradiso
Adapted for the road from a traditional Tuscan recipe, this is a simple, but elegant, entrée.

Two stackable pots and a cover
Liquid-fuel or canister stove

1 large potato or several small new
1 package pasta (any type)
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Peel a large potato (I often leave the skin on for russets), or use small, unpeeled, new potatoes. Cut into ½-inch squares. Add a pinch of salt to water and boil potatoes in the lower pot. When potatoes are about halfway cooked (a fork should easily penetrate the potato without breaking it), boil pasta in the second pot. Meanwhile, grate about a ¼ of a cup of cheese. When the potatoes and pasta are done, drain both, but keep some of the potato water in a cup. Combine the potato and pasta in the largest pot. (I sometimes add a tiny bit of olive oil and gently turn - a folding mix motion - to coat the potato and pasta.) Add pesto and ¾ of the grated cheese, and gently mix by turning with a spoon. Add a little of the potato water to prevent clumping. Add coarse sea salt, and mix. Top with the remainder of grated cheese, add ground black pepper to taste and serve.

Traditionally the potatoes and pasta are cooked in two separate pots, but on the road it's easier to stack the pots. Pesto can be prepared at home or purchased premade. Thin as needed with a little olive oil, and add extra garlic (from a tube or minced raw) to taste. I generally carry small pasta-like noodle-Os, but dried tortellini, farfalle, twists, and penne work better.

This recipe is an excerpt from Cooking On Two Wheels, Ken Aiken's on-the-road cookbook, which should be in bookstores sometime next year.