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Relaxed approach to campfire cooking

Leisure time in the great outdoors is a great time to rediscover a leisurely approach to cooking.

Campsite cooking can be a pleasurable pastime, producing much more than burgers, hot dogs and s’mores, with a bit of advance planning and preparation before leaving home.

I previously wrote about some of my process for making components of our campout meals ahead of time and freezing them before packing into the cooler. A portable gas griddle is my family’s favorite campground cooking appliance, one to which I’ve tailored our menus.

But most of the dishes translate well to a grill, even a grate laid over a campfire. And not every meal has to be prepped in advance, unless you’re really adamant about conserving fuel in the field. Doing some work on the front end, of course, makes for streamlined, stress-free meal times when relaxation is the primary pursuit.

Freezing chicken in Korean-style marinade for fried rice was the main message of my previous column and a companion podcast. To that, I wanted to add some tried-and-true, rave-reviewed dishes that I’ve road-tested in a variety of settings, from group campouts at Lake Shasta to weekend getaways in the Redwoods. Absent a portable gas griddle, a campstove with a single pot and a grill pan are sufficient for these recipes.

Spaghetti and meatballs: Meatballs freeze well, either cooked or raw. And pasta, particularly shorter, denser shapes, such as penne, can be par-cooked, frozen and refreshed briefly in a pot of hot water on a campstove, without burning the fuel needed to keep pasta water boiling for the duration of its cooking time.

I’ve prepared my family’s signature Sicilian-style meatballs so often for camping trips over the years that it almost wouldn’t be camping without them. Once mixed up and rolled, the meatballs can either be frozen raw in gallon-sized, resealable plastic bags or baked in the oven and frozen. Transporting raw meatballs works well for cooking on a griddle, while transporting them already cooked allows for reheating in a pot of simmering sauce.

Polenta, sausages and sautéed vegetables: Griddled or grilled polenta is an easy and filling backdrop for good-quality sausages and all manner of sautéed vegetables, preferably summer squash, eggplant and similar types fresh from the garden or local farmers markets. And the cornmeal patties are a nice change of pace from the ubiquitous bun for conveying sausages. Polenta also freezes beautifully and takes minimal effort to prepare in advance.

Have two pots of water ready to boil; one should have 3 cups salted water, the other at least 6 cups. Bring the pot with 3 cups water to a boil, the pot with 6 cups to a simmer. Into the pot with 3 cups water, slowly sprinkle in 1-1/2 cups medium-grind, yellow cornmeal. Lower temperature to a very low simmer. Stir frequently and add simmering water from the other pot, a ladle at a time, whenever polenta starts to become stiff and dry. Cook until smooth and tender, for about 30 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter and 1 ounce grated Parmesan cheese until well-mixed.

Pour polenta onto a large, well-greased sheet pan or into a wide bowl to a depth of 1 to 1-1/2 inches; smooth top. When cool, cover with plastic wrap and place pan or bowl in refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight to allow polenta to set. Slice into 6 wedges, place in resealable plastic bags and transfer to the freezer. If you don’t have a portable griddle at your campsite, you can wrap polenta wedges in a single layer in foil and place over a grill or campfire to heat through. Sliced veggies also can be steamed in foil packets with a little oil, salt and other seasonings of choice.

Faux “risotto”: This is another of my favorite uses for cooked and frozen brown rice. Highly versatile, it can be adapted to any meats or vegetables you like but gets its character from soft goat cheese, often labeled “chevre.” The cheese gives the rice a creamy, risotto-like consistency and tangy flavor. Jarred, roasted red peppers and oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes are additions that require no effort but lend complexity.

If you’re starting with precooked, frozen and thawed rice, simmer a couple of inches of water in a pot large enough to hold the rice; add cut-up veggies of choice to blanch. I used spears of garden-grown broccoli on a recent camping trip. Once veggies are crisp-tender and a bit of water remains in the pot’s bottom, stir in the about 2 cups cooked rice and allow to heat through and water to absorb. Alternatively, cook your rice from dry grains and add cut-up veggies when almost all the water is absorbed, steaming until crisp-tender.

Remove pot from the heat and stir in 3 to 4 ounces soft goat cheese, along with the diced peppers and tomatoes and any precooked meat. This dish is a great way to recast leftover cooked bacon, crumbled into the pot, or sliced sausages, even steak or kebab meat. Fresh herbs transport well in a cooler and instantly brighten any of these dishes.

Tune into Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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Meatballs Pignoli with Raisins

2 slices soft bread

1 pound ground beef, lamb or turkey

1 pound pork sausage

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 onion, peeled and finely diced

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 eggs

1/2 cup golden raisins or currants

1/2 cup pine nuts

Pulse the bread slices in a food processor to make coarse crumbs. In a large bowl, combine bread crumbs, the ground meat and sausage, the garlic, onion and parsley. Season with the salt and pepper. Crack the eggs into mixture and stir gently with hands to combine. Work in the raisins and pine nuts, being careful not to overmix.

Form mixture into balls slightly larger than golf balls, being careful not to compress too tightly. Place meatballs in a mini muffin tin or on a rack with a pan positioned underneath to catch drippings. Bake meatballs in a 350-degree convection oven until lightly browned for freezing. Cook meatballs until thoroughly browned for eating immediately.

Makes about 20 medium meatballs.