Setting the Perfect Picnic Table

If you camp as much as I do, paper plates and plastic silverware can get really expensive, and they also create a lot of trash. While paper plates could be burned in the fire pit, the rest is just filling up the garbage bag, and there are a few camping spots where we need to pack out our trash.

All that paper and plastic is just not good for the environment and that’s something we care about and want to protect so future generations can camp and enjoy the outdoors. It’s also a good example to set for kids and show them that the world is not disposable.

For eating and drinking, we use enamelware and metal silverware. Ceramic and glass, of course, are too fragile and won’t stand up to the rugged camp environment. Plastic is lightweight, but you need to be careful with it around fire and hot coals. I have seen many a plate melted because it was set too close to the fire. For that very reason, I prefer the enamelware. It’s super durable, easy to clean, and the speckled finish captures that classic camping look that I grew up with.

For hot or cold beverages, everyone has an insulated mug or they use one of the enamelware cups. We wash dishes after every meal and hang everything in mesh laundry bags to air dry. If you don’t let dishes sit and you clean up right away using soap and hot water, it’s really not that hard, and if everyone pitches in, it goes really fast. For more information on washing dishes in camp, read my blog post: “Good Dish Washing in Camp.”

When I’m cooking, if I need a little butter melted, I’ll grab a cup and set it near the fire or on the stove near the burner to melt the butter. If my coffee gets cold, I’ll do the same thing and it warms in no time. If it’s cold outside, I can load plates into a Dutch oven and add just a few coals to the top and bottom of the oven and warm them before serving.

Enamelware comes in many colors so you have choices if you want to coordinate with an RV décor, other serving items, or if you just want to set that Sunset Magazine table.

Currently, I have a red set, a blue set, and a green set. A friend suggested I get a white set for photographing my food, so I’m on the hunt for a nice white, speckled set to add to my collection.

However you set your picnic table, be sure you’re doing it in a way that is easy on the environment. It might mean a little more work when cleaning up, but it’s worth it if it saves the outdoors for future generations. And, for that future generation, it’s a teachable moment about pitching in, helping out, and working together to get a job done quickly and easily. And the faster we get cleaned up, the faster we can move on to a campfire and s’mores!

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Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole

Imagine the looks on your campers’ faces if you told them you were making chicken cordon bleu for dinner. This is a fancy classic French dish made of chicken breasts (pounded flat) stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese. Each stuffed chicken breast is then rolled in bread crumbs and baked. Now, while you could make it this way in camp and bake them in a Dutch or box oven, we found an easy way to make it casserole style, which is great if you’re feeding a crowd.

This casserole has all the flavors of chicken cordon bleu, including the crunchy breadcrumb topping, without the labor, and, if you are feeding a crowd, a casserole is always a good way to go. Much of the prep work could be done at home before you go so that when you get to camp it’s just “some assembly required.”

The chicken can be cooked at home and cubed along with the ham, and the cheeses could be grated at home. Everything can be loaded into containers for the ride to camp in your cooler.

You could also modify this by adding some broccoli to it. You could also kick it up a notch and add some bacon bits giving it more of a club sandwich flavor.

12-inch Dutch oven or 9×13 baking dish, and a skillet

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups small-cubed ham
1 1/4 cups grated Swiss cheese
1 1/4 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
4 cooked boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into cubes
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
salt and black pepper

At home before you go, cook the chicken breasts by either grilling, frying, baking or poaching, and cube them. Cube the ham and grate the cheeses. Load everything into containers or resealable bags for the ride to camp in your cooler. The cheeses could be combined in one container.

In camp, foil line (if you’re going to) and/or grease your Dutch oven. Put about a third of chicken in a layer in the bottom. Top with half the ham. Sprinkle over 1/4 cup of the mixed cheese. Repeat 1 more time, then finish with a layer of chicken.

You’ll probably want to start your coals about now.

In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Put the panko in a bowl, pour in half of the melted butter, mix well and set aside. Add the flour to the remaining butter in the skillet and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, whisking out any lumps. Whisk in the milk, broth, Dijon and cayenne and let it cook until it begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 cup of the cheese until melted. Season with salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt because the ham will bring some saltiness. You can always add more salt at the table.

Pour the sauce over the casserole. Sprinkle over the remaining 1 cup cheese, then the panko mix. Bake in a 350°F oven, using 17 coals on the lid and 8 underneath, for 25-30 minutes until the top is browned and the casserole is bubbling.

Makes about 6 servings. Serve with buttered noodles or a rice pilaf, and some green vegetables or a salad.

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Cooking with Propane

When I’m teaching outdoor cooking skills, I’m often asked what are the essential items to get started? Whether you are backpacking or car camping, one must-have is a stove.

Backpacking Stoves

A backpacker’s stove of choice will be a one-burner lightweight, compact stove that will predominantly be used for boiling water that will then be used to rehydrate ingredients to make a beverage or a meal.

Canister stoves are the most common and convenient type of stove, and they’re the easiest to use. Liquid fuel stoves are the most efficient for high altitude or below freezing temperatures. Wood stoves are nice because you don’t have to carry fuel, but they don’t work for trips above the tree line or in most desert environments. Solid fuel stoves and alcohol stoves are generally pretty budget-friendly and they’re ultra light, but you can’t control the flame, they yield slow boil times, and they’re not great in wind. Do your research and factor in where you like to backpack and choose according to your budget and need.

If you’re looking for an all around 3-season option, canister stoves are light, compact, easy to use, and fast. With canister stoves there’s no priming, pumping, or maintenance of any kind. Simply screw the canister into your stove and light the burner for a quick meal. In addition, isobutane canisters are more efficient than esbit and alcohol, and they’re very easy to find in outdoor stores and online.

Car Camping Stoves

For car campers, the classic compact two-burner stove will get you started. It will heat water and make a pot of coffee. You can cook a pot of pasta or rice. You can make a pot of soup, stew, or chili. You can make breakfast or dinner in a skillet or on a griddle. If you have a gas stove at home, your camp stove will be very familiar to you. Camp stoves are usually allowed everywhere, even during a fire ban (check the regulations for where you will be camping before you go, just to be sure).

For fuel, you can use the 1-pound disposable propane fuel cylinder or you can hook up a larger propane tank. I don’t recommend stoves with a push-button igniter. Too often, I’ve seen them wear out and start failing. I just carry a long-nosed lighter and waterproof matches, and light my burner the old fashioned way.

Your average compact 2 burner stove is going to have about 10,000 BTUs per burner, which is great; however, if you want more BTUs for your buck and want something more heavy duty, you could consider a large burner option. These are a little more spendy, but you get more power (30,000+ BTUs per burner), and because the burners are larger, you can use larger pots and griddles, which comes in handy for group camping. These are typically free-standing but still highly portable and you will need to connect them to a larger propane tank. Depending on your budget and needs, you could opt for 1-3 burners, and they also have all kinds of accessories, including griddles, BBQ boxes, and ovens. Please read my blog post: “Product Review: Italia Artisan Pizza Oven.”

If you’re cooking for a crowd or just wanting more BTUs for hotter, faster cooking, a large burner cooking system is the way to go, and the available accessories give you lots of cooking options. However, if you’re just starting out and/or wanting something smaller and more compact, there are lots of good options out there.

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Kiss My Grits!

That cheeky catchphrase was a favorite of a sassy waitress named Flo on the 1970s sitcom Alice. The actress who played Flo was a native of Alabama and no stranger to grits. Made using ground corn kernels, grits are a southern specialty and the official state food of South Carolina, but you don’t have to be southern to enjoy them.

Growing up, one of my best friends was a southern girl and whenever I ate at her house, grits were almost always on the menu. Grits can be served for breakfast much like oatmeal or cream of wheat and they can be served with dinner much like mashed potatoes, rice, polenta, and pasta.

And for those of you who are wondering, both grits and polenta are made from ground corn, but the main difference is what type of corn. Polenta, as you can probably guess from the color, is made from yellow corn, while grits are normally made from white corn (or hominy). Polenta originated from northern and central Italy. Grits came from the Native America Muskogee tribe. Grits will usually end up being finer and smoother. Polenta has a coarse texture and takes a little longer to make.

And, just like potatoes, polenta, rice, and pasta, grits will go with just about anything, but perhaps the most famous pairing is shrimp and grits. Think of them as mashed potatoes but with a different flavor and texture.

Grits can be made simply with just water, a little butter, and some salt and black pepper or they can be dressed up with milk or cream, chicken stock, cheese, green onion, garlic, almost anything. They are a blank canvas. They are also an excellent source of vitamin B and iron. For a sweet, hot breakfast, omit the black pepper and add some fruit or cinnamon and sugar. Again, treat it like oatmeal or cream of wheat. Today, September 2, happens to be National Grits for Breakfast Day.

Grits can be made on the stove top or in a slow cooker. The only trick is, much like cream of wheat, when you add the grits to the boiling liquid you have to add slowly and stir or whisk the whole time and keep stirring until everything is mixed well; otherwise, they will clump.

The recipe below is easy to make on a stove or in a slow cooker. They are smooth and creamy, and all my southern buddies have given them two thumbs up. When I make these in the scout camp dining hall, on Saturday morning, I’ll set out a large slow cooker with breakfast and they quickly disappear.

2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
3 1/2 cups water
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 cups stone ground grits
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated

In a saucepan, on medium heat, combine all ingredients except grits and cheese. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently to prevent the milk from scalding on the bottom. Gradually whisk in grits. (Add them too quickly and they will clump.)

Reduce heat to low and cook according to the directions on the container, stirring frequently. Add the cheese and stir until melted in. If grits get too thick add more water or half-and-half.

Serves 6-8

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Use More Herbs and Spices

This Saturday is More Herbs/Less Salt Day and I am reminded of my dad who had a massive heart attack when I was about 13 years old. By the grace of God, he survived it. Following his recovery, his doctor put him on a no salt diet and to make it easier on dad, mom and I went on a no salt diet with him. It was really hard at first, everything just tasted so bland, and dad was just miserable, but we learned to compensate by adding more herbs and spices when we cooked.

Because dad could no longer work, he started doing more cooking and it was fun to get into the kitchen and experiment with him. He was a marine and he embraced the Marine Corps motto of “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.” He was a problem solver and bland tasting food was a problem that needed to be solved.

Salt is a great flavor enhancer and aids foods in a variety of ways. Check out my blog post: “Let’s Get Salty” for all the great things that salt can do. But too much salt for some folks is a bad thing. Too much salt increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. However, just because you’re limiting your salt intake does not mean that you have to eat bland food.

In order to reduce our salt intake, we eliminated processed foods, which tended to be high in sodium, and we cooked almost entirely from scratch. This allowed us to have 100% control over all the ingredients.

We added more acid using citrus fruits and vinegars. Acids act a little like salt in that they help bring out the natural brightness of foods and work to meld flavors together.

We increased the size of our garden and used a lot more fresh vegetables and herbs. And, in some cases, we more than doubled the amount of herbs and spices any given recipe called for. We seasoned liberally and with authority. We learned to be fearless when it came to seasoning. Did we overdo it once in a while? Ya, we did, but we learned from each and every mistake how to make it better tasting despite the lack of salt.

Over time, we found that we didn’t miss salt quite so much because there were so many other flavors in our food. My grandmother who was diabetic loved coming to visit. She had to limit not only her salt intake but her sugar as well. Talk about there being no joy in Mudville. No salt and no sugar, and there just weren’t all of the sugar substitutes we have today.

But, being who he was, my dad stepped up to the challenge. When grandma came to visit, my dad would pull out every trick he knew, but he made sure she was still following her diet and eating healthy. She ate so well and the foods were so flavorful, I know her visits to our house brought so much joy to her in her final years.

That was just how I was raised. That was the life lesson my dad taught me. If you’re presented with a problem, you figure out a way to solve it. You improvise, adapt, and overcome.

So, whether it’s salt or sugar or dairy or gluten or something else, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t enjoy what you’re eating. Herbs and spices bring so much flavor that you won’t even miss what you can’t have.

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Hot Stuff

Today is National Hot & Spicy Food Day. For those of you who like it hot, how do you roll? In my blog post “Some Like it Hot” we talk about cooking with hot peppers, but there are other ways to up the heat from a little to a LOT!

When folks think spicy food, there are a few cuisines that immediately come to mind. Thai food is known for its heat. Mexico, Latin, Central and South America are known for being spicy. Italy and India can also bring the heat.

Adding hot stuff to your cooking can help you enjoy more flavorful food, weight loss, and better health. Consuming spicy foods can do everything from reduce your risk of heart disease to help you shed that stubborn spare tire.

In our spice cupboard, we keep a bottle of crushed red pepper flakes. We also stock black pepper (of course), white pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, chili powder, cumin, sriracha powder, and curry powder. These are just a few of the hot spices out there. These just happen to be the ones we keep in our spice cupboard.

Hot sauces are another way to go. Tabasco, Sriracha, and ghost pepper sauce are our go to hot sauces, depending on the level of heat and the flavor we want. Habanero hot sauce is another really popular and really spicy hot sauce. Cholula is a popular Mexican hot sauce that derives its great flavor from Arbol and Piquin peppers. Korea’s gochujang sauce is both hot and sweet and can be added to just about anything, not just Asian dishes. It’s a lot like Sriracha but has more flavor and depth.

Hot sauces are great because they can be mixed into a sauce for a milder heat or they can be poured on top for a more powerful punch.

I know I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to hot stuff. Now that our daughter has upped her heat level and can tolerate spicier foods, our family has only just begun to fully explore the world of spicy foods. But I have to say that what we have explored so far has been very flavorful.

Your local large grocery store probably has whole sections devoted to hot sauces, spices, and other hot ingredients. Spicy foods are fun and bring so much flavor. If your heat tolerance is low, start small and slowly add more heat.

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Spicy Special Sauce

I’ve written on more than one occasion how my son likes spicy stuff. When we go out to eat, he usually orders a spicy burger topped with jalapeños, habanero peppers, ghost peppers and/or a spicy sauce. He wanted to create a spicy special sauce that he could put on his burgers when we grill at home or in camp. Here is what we came up with. Keep in mind that this is tailored to his liking, this is his recipe, but I think you might like it, too. He challenged me to try it with him and I actually like it, when my tongue stops tingling.

For a milder special sauce, please read my blog post: “Thousand Island Dressing is Not Just for Salads.”

In our home kitchen, we stock tabasco, sriracha, and ghost pepper sauce for when we want to spice things up. For this spicy special sauce, we went straight to the ghost pepper sauce because he was wanting some serious heat. We like Dave’s ghost pepper sauce because the primary ingredient is ghost pepper and there isn’t much of anything else in it; however, if you have a favorite hot sauce, by all means, substitute it and adjust the amount for your heat tolerance.

We also need to include a safety warning here. When you are working with really hot peppers or really hot pepper sauces, you need to follow some safety protocols such as wearing gloves and washing your hands thoroughly after handling. For more information on hot stuff, please read my blog post: “Some Like it Hot.”

We tried this sauce on burgers and hot dogs and we like it on both. Since this was our first go around, and I think he was trying to go easy on me, we started with a small amount of ghost pepper sauce. Our plan is to slowly up it until our tongues catch fire, which I’m sure will happen to me long before it happens to him. So, here’s his concoction. Adjust it to your liking.

8 teaspoons sweet relish
8 teaspoons ketchup
4 teaspoons mustard (we used yellow)
1/4 teaspoon ghost pepper sauce

Combine all ingredients. We recommend storing in a glass container because we were afraid it would eat through a plastic container. Seriously.

Serves about 4 depending on how much you smear on.

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Is Your Camp Kitchen Organized?

In our camp kitchens, can we readily find what we need? Are we always digging through totes to find that one tool that always seems to be at the bottom of the tote? Are we risking slicing our hands on something sharp as we dig through our totes?

If folks are helping us in our camp kitchen can they find what they need? Are things organized in a logical way that folks can easily figure out? Or are you constantly getting peppered with “Where’s this?” and “Where can I find that?”

Whether our camp kitchen is organized into a chuck box or into totes and containers, it needs to be organized. Having places for things helps you to find them easier and it prevents them from becoming damaged.

If you are using totes, a good way to do it is to organize by purpose. Your home kitchen cupboards are probably organized this way. Dishes are together and probably near your glassware. You probably have a spice cupboard. Pots and pans are all together as are all your baking dishes. Same thing is probably true for your pantry. Canned goods are together, baking supplies are together. Dry goods like pasta and rice are together.

Why do we do this? So it’s easier to find what we need. It’s logical and it just makes sense. You could probably step into my pantry, take a quick assessment and easily find you need you need. Looking for baking powder? It’s probably on the shelf with the baking soda, flour, and sugar. Our camping totes should be organized similarly.

I have a chuck box that holds most of my cooking equipment. It has my camp stove, cutting boards, griddle, coffee pot, pots, dishwashing tubs, small and large utensils, dishes, and more. For a complete list, see my blog post, “Think Inside the Box Part 1-Your Camp Kitchen.” I love my chuck box, but it is very heavy. It takes two of us to move it.

Totes, on the other hand, can be smaller, lighter, easier to stack, and easier to move. If you’re going the tote route, choose heavy duty ones. They’re going to take a lot of abuse and the thinner plastic ones just won’t survive. Totes designed for tools will often have a removable tray on top that can be used for small items. If you keep all your totes the same size and type, they will stack efficiently for storage and transporting. If you camp where there there tends to be critters, especially raccoons, you may want to consider having totes that are lockable.

Inside your large totes, use smaller containers to organize small utensils so they don’t get lost or damaged. A plastic bread keeper or a plastic shoe box works well for holding knives, large utensils, etc.

You could have a small tote that is just for dishwashing that has your wash tubs, collapsible drying rack, mesh bags, clothesline, dishwashing soap, bleach, scrubbies, and cheesecloth.

I have a tote that is just for my Dutch oven cooking. It has my chimneys, lid lifters, feed pans and stands. I made the mistake of using a thin plastic tote and now a couple of the corners are cracked and held together with duct tape. I need to replace it.

All your totes and coolers should be clearly labeled. You could even print a complete inventory list for each box, laminate it, and tape it to the box. It makes it easy to find stuff and, after cleanup, it ensures everything is put back in the correct tote for easy finding the next time.

Food Totes

I try to organize my food totes one of two ways. They are either organized by type (like my home pantry) or by meal. If it’s a longer camping trip and we’ll be doing more scratch cooking then I will organize my food totes like my home pantry with baking supplies together, chips and snacks together, etc.

However you organize your camp kitchen equipment and food, the important thing is that it’s organized. You and all your sous chefs will be way more relaxed in the kitchen if you all can quickly and easily find what you need. This way, you can focus on creating all those good eats!

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Apple Oatmeal Cookie Dump Crisp

This was fun to make and super easy. It’s a great recipe for a beginner chef. There are only 3 ingredients and I only dirtied one bowl and my pastry cutter so easy clean up.

We used apple pie filling but you can use any pie filling you prefer. You could even mix together two different cans for your own custom flavor. If you prefer your crisps a little more fruit heavy, you could add a third can of pie filling. Try it both ways and see which you like better.

When it’s baked, the oatmeal topping becomes very crunchy and granola like. It was very tasty. Serve it with whip cream or a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream. Everyone gave it a thumb up. We would have gotten two thumbs up but no one wanted to put their spoon down!

If there are any leftovers, you can eat them for breakfast the next morning. My daughter did that and she loved it.

12-inch Dutch oven or 9×13 baking dish.

2 cans pie filling
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cubed
1 (17.5 ounce) bag oatmeal cookie mix

Foil line or grease a 12-inch Dutch oven or grease a 9×13 baking dish. Cube the butter and, in a medium bowl, combine it with the oatmeal cookie mix using a pastry cutter or your fingers until the butter is pea-sized or smaller. Add the pie filling to the baking vessel and sprinkle the oatmeal butter crumbles evenly over the surface. Bake in a 350°F oven, using 17 coals on the lid and 8 underneath, for 50 minutes or until the pie filling is bubbly and the oatmeal topping is golden brown. Refresh coals as needed.

Serves 8-10

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Is Your Camp Kitchen Covered?

The bulk of my camping experience has been in the Northwest where you just accept the fact that it will probably rain at some point during your campout. So, in addition to having a good quality tent, you also need a good canopy tent for your camp kitchen. These are often referred to as easy-ups or pop-ups and they offer protection from both sun and rain.

A canopy tent also gives you a place to hang a lightweight lantern to illuminate your kitchen in the dark. Some folks string white outdoor Christmas lights and run them off of a battery to illuminate their camp kitchens in the evening. I like to string a couple of clothes lines to hang wash cloths and dish towels to dry. Just remember to pull them in before you go to bed so they don’t pick up condensation overnight; otherwise, you’ll wake up to damp towels.

If you are camping in a national or state park group site, they usually have a covered shelter with a concrete floor where the picnic tables are. They are usually large enough to accommodate your kitchen equipment and depending on the size of your group, you may be able to designate one of the picnic tables as kitchen workspace. Some group shelters have built in cabinets with countertops, maybe a sink with running water, electricity, and maybe a fireplace. You’ll be camping in style if you have one of these.

Most of the time, you’ll probably be in a regular campground campsite, which will not likely have any kind of permanent shelter.

Location, Location, Location
Most campsites have a picnic table and a grill box. If you can, you’ll want to position your kitchen canopy tent near both of these. You’ll want the ground to be as level as possible and free of tripping hazards like tree roots and large rocks.

Set Up
Once you’ve deployed your canopy tent, stake your legs and weight them if you need to, and stake out your guy lines. For safety, both for your campers and for your canopy tent, hang brightly colored flags on the guy lines to help folks see them and not trip over them. The last thing you want is someone yanking a guy line and ripping a hole in the covering.

What Size Do I Need?
Canopy tents vary in size and deploy quickly using a folding frame, usually at least two people are needed. Most are 10×10, but smaller and larger ones are available, some have overhanging eaves offering more shade, and some come with sidewalls for added protection from the elements. If the one you have or the one you want doesn’t have sidewalls, but you want the added protection from sun, rain, or wind, you can easily attach tarps using bungees or rope. I like to at least tarp the corner where my coolers sit to keep the sun off of them.

When deciding what size to buy, think of all the equipment you’ll want to have under the canopy, including your chuck box, totes, work tables, camp stove, Dutch oven table, etc.

Another thing to consider is how many bodies need to be working in your camp kitchen? Is it just you? Will you have sous chefs? If you regularly have helpers in the kitchen, you’ll want to allow for more maneuvering room.

What work zones will you need? You’ll probably want a designated space to wash dishes. You’ll definitely want a space for prepping and mixing.

At this point, it might be helpful to grab a pencil and some graph paper and sketch out your kitchen layout to ensure everything is under cover and you still have maneuvering room. Sketching a few different sizes and layouts will help you decide which size of canopy tent will best serve your needs.

Protection from the elements is important for you, your equipment, and the food you are preparing. A canopy tent should be high on your priority list. Where you like to camp will determine just how high on the priority list it actually is. For me, it’s a must have.

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