I grew up cabin-ing, not camping. What I thought classified as cooking outdoors extended as far as hot dogs and marshmallows (toasted to perfection because that was the only skill I developed). Maybe there was birthday cake or the rare occurrence of fancy appetizers to have on the beach with drinks, but these were always prepared in a fully equipped kitchen and carried the 100 m to the beach so that they classified as ‘outdoor eating’.
Until last year my only experiences of real camping were Girl Guides (vanilla pudding cups and bannock) and a high school trip with friends where we had chips and sandwiches. Clearly both of these experiences made an impression and made me (justifiably) believe that food on a camping trip had to be kind of lacklustre. WRONG! I was wrong! I fully and completely admit it.
Enter: grown-up camping. The kind where bourbon is served over real ice cubes rather than chugged out of the bottle. The kind where fresh vegetables make more than a cursory veggie platter appearance. It’s delicious, and relaxing, and only requires following a few principles to make it your go-to vacation on a budget.
1) Pack only the essentials. By this I mean one pot will do. And you don’t need to bring your wine decanter. Why not over-pack if you're car camping and can fit it all in? Because if you have it you’ll use it, and just like at home, washing dishes is the worst part.
2) Do pack a good knife though. This is not an item to skimp out on, yet people always try to get by with a paring knife alone. “Cutting” a tomato with a knife which won’t puncture the skin or slicing steak by sawing at each piece until it rips off are not ways to make you enjoy camping. Bring one serrated and one chef’s knife for all of your cutting needs.
3) Make a few things ahead. You’re not attempting to cook every meal before you go, but if you can do a few things like make a marinade or even an aioli for sandwiches you won’t need a million tiny jars. Importantly here, you’re clearing up space in the cooler for the stuff that matters. Like beer.
4) Embrace the seasons. Purchase your main groceries as close to where you're camping as possible. That way they'll be fresh (rather than hot-car wilted) and full of flavour so you won't have to do much to them. Cooking while camping means keeping the flavours simple, but that doesn't mean small. Chopping a bunch of veggies and putting them on the grill with sausages takes practically zero effort and is oh-so-satisfying. Avoid herbs unless you're using them the first day because they always get crushed and become unpleasant.
5) Bring along a few extra mason jars. You know that horrible realization that the cheese in the cooler is sitting in melted ice water that's been contaminated with raw meat? I hate that moment. That's why I recommend packing a few extra wide-mouth mason jars; any package that gets opened can be popped inside one for serious protection. Ziplocs work well too, but they tend to have a short life span before being tossed out.
Having just returned from a week-long camping road trip, I can say that putting these tips into practice makes all the difference. They won't, however, stop you from getting in trouble with the border guard when you accidentally (I SWEAR) try to take fresh fruit out of the country. Apparently the next time I make that mistake it's going to cost me $1200; so the final tip: eat all the fruit.