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Simplicity is key ingredient in outdoor cooking


There are nearly as many ways to cook outdoors as there are to cook in your kitchen. But camp cooking needn't be fancy. For first-time campers, simplicity rules.

Many campers bring wood or charcoal and cook over the coals using an iron skillet, a Dutch oven and foil.

Make simple meals using simple tools. For starters, you will need seasoned wood or charcoal, long-handled grilling tools, an iron skillet, a Dutch oven, thick oven mitts, lots of heavy-duty foil plus an assortment of auxiliary items.

A quality cooler that will keep foods cold for a long time also is important. Always use a cooler that latches shut and keep it in the car or tent. All food packages should be sealed immediately after use and stored carefully.

When planning meals, include foods that can be used a number of ways -- extra fruit might go in a cobbler, leftover hamburger in spaghetti sauce. Supplement the menu with sandwiches or simple dishes, such as pasta salad, that can be prepared at home.

Although a roaring campfire with leaping flames is wonderful for storytelling, you do not want to cook on it.

A cooking fire should be free of tall flames and excessive smoke. The best cooking coals will be orange and black with some smoke.

A "cook fire" with low orange flame is about 500 to 600 degrees, but can get as hot as 800 to 1,200 degrees. Compare this to your home stove, where the hottest oven setting is usually around 500 degrees. How long it takes to get the cook fire just right depends on factors such as the wind and humidity. Under ideal circumstances -- on a breezy day -- it takes just minutes from match to pot.

If you build a tepee fire (larger logs over a frame of smaller logs and kindling), and your wood is dry, you can cook in about 15 minutes. For dishes such as Dutch-oven cobbler, you'll need to add fuel so the fire lasts long enough to bake it.

Under less-than-ideal circumstances -- a still, humid day -- allow at least 30 minutes to make the fire before cooking.

Once the coals are hot, spread them evenly to create a large cooking area, essentially a big burner. Then, if desired, place a grill -- from your backyard grill or hibachi -- over the fire, and you are ready to cook.

Individual or family meals cooked in foil are ideal for camping. Kids can create their own, cleanup is a breeze, and foil is recyclable.

Assemble the ingredients -- such as meat and potatoes or chicken and onions -- on a 14- to 16-inch square of heavy-duty foil. Carefully fold the package to prevent leaks and place on the grill or directly on the coals.

Individual foil packs require 10 to 15 minutes per side when cooked on coals. The only drawback to foil meals is testing for doneness. There is no easy way to check the morsels without singeing your fingers and most likely getting ashes in your dinner.

Burns, by the way, are a common problem in camp cooking. Be prepared with ice water and a good burn spray.

Cast-iron skillets are best for camp cooking because campfires are usually so much hotter and less easy to manipulate than stove-top heat. Most everyday pans are too thin for cooking at higher temperatures. Plus, cast-iron skillets spread heat evenly along the pan surface.

The Dutch oven is the most versatile camp cooking tool. Think of it as a slow-cooker, oven and stockpot all in one. In a pinch, you can even turn the lid upside down and fry in it.

Made of cast iron or aluminum, it resembles a squat version of your favorite soup pot with some modifications. Dutch ovens have three legs that hold them above the coals, and a concave lid recessed to cradle hot coals.

A basic mix of ingredients can be used to create a number of meals in the Dutch oven. Begin by browning hamburger, onions, garlic and green pepper in the oven over hot coals.

Variation No. 1: Add a can of tomato soup or one to two cans of tomatoes and uncooked spaghetti. Cover the oven and place coals on the lid. The tomato liquid cooks the pasta in about 15 minutes.

Variation No. 2: Add a can of beans, some chili powder and canned tomatoes. Allow ingredients to heat thoroughly and serve over corn chips with grated Cheddar for a campfire pie.

Remember, the whole idea of camping is to get away from it all with family or friends. If you have nightmares of scorched lasagna, burned chicken or soggy chips, don't worry. When you are tired and hungry, even burned hot dogs taste great.

Blackened Fish

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons cayenne pepper, or to taste

2 tablespoons white pepper

3/4 cup Creole seasoning

1/4 cup blackening seasoning

4 to 12 fish fillets

1/8 cup butter or margarine ( 1/4 stick)

Mix spices. Coat fillets with spice mixture.

Melt butter or margarine in an iron skillet over a hot cooking fire. Sear the fish for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, or until they smoke and appear blackened.

Remove skillet from fire and cover. The heat in the pan will complete the cooking in about 10 minutes.

Note: The spices can be mixed at home and stored in an airtight container.

Per serving: calories: 321; fat: 13 g; cholesterol: 137 mg; sodium: 1,261; calories from fat: 37 percent.

Peach Cobbler

Makes 4 servings

1/4 pound ( 1/2 cup) margarine

1 cup self-rising flour

1 cup sugar

1 cup milk

1 (29-ounce) can sliced peaches

cinnamon (optional)

Line a Dutch oven with aluminum foil and preheat over coals.

Melt margarine in lined oven.

Mix flour, sugar and milk and pour over melted margarine. On top of this, pour 1 large can of peaches with juice; sprinkle with cinnamon if desired. Place lid on oven and cover with hot coals. Cook for about 1 hour.

Per serving: calories: 618; fat: 25 g; cholesterol: 9 mg; sodium: 305 mg; calories from fat: 36 percent.

Chicken in Foil

Makes 4 servings

1 small green pepper, chopped

1/2 small red bell pepper, chopped (optional)

10 mushrooms, chopped

4 large chicken breast halves

1 (8-ounce) can pineapple slices

nonstick cooking spray or 1 teaspoon butter or margarine

garlic powder, salt and pepper to taste

4 (16-inch) squares heavy-duty foil

Divide peppers and mushrooms into 4 equal parts. Coat a small area in the center of the foil with cooking spray or a small amount of butter or margarine. Place a portion of peppers and mushrooms on the greased area of foil. Top with a chicken breast and a pineapple slice. Season with garlic powder, salt and pepper.

Fold foil securely and check for leaks. Place on coals for 10 to 15 minutes per side.

Per serving: calories: 186; fat: 3 g; cholesterol: 72 mg; sodium: 330 mg; calories from fat: 16 percent.

Burgers in Foil

Makes 4 servings

1 to 1 1/2 pounds ground beef

4 (16-inch) squares heavy-duty foil

4 carrots, chopped

1 (16-ounce) can potatoes, sliced

2 small green peppers, chopped

dehydrated onion flakes

Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper

Separate meat into 4 portions. Place each in center of a foil square. Top with equal portions of chopped carrots, potatoes and peppers. Season with dehydrated onions, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper to taste. Seal foil, checking for leaks. Place on coals for 10 to 15 minutes on each side.

Per serving: calories: 389; fat: 22 g; cholesterol: 95 mg; sodium: 548 mg; calories from fat: 52 percent.

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