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Tips for campsite cooking

I just don’t have the time. It takes too much time. There’s no time.

We’ve all heard it. We’re all guilty of saying it at some juncture. Some of us more than others utter that most common caveat when it comes to cooking.

Like so many things in life, cooking compels us to make time, preferably when we’re not juggling numerous other tasks within our workaday reality. That’s why camping vacations, in my family’s estimation, are the perfect occasion to cook.

WHAT?! Aren’t vacations supposed to be an escape from mundane chores? Indeed.

But low-key, outdoors-focused excursions that need only mark the time from meal to meal are the ideal occasions to spend a little of that unstructured time on cooking and enjoying some of the best meals your family may eat all year. After all, fresh air whets the appetite, and a rustic setting has a way of making a plate of spaghetti and meatballs look miraculous.

It’s not only a doable but pleasurable pursuit, given the same mentality that prompts home cooks to make big batches on weekends and host get-togethers to assemble freezer meals. When I have a camping trip on the calendar, I spend the week beforehand, as reasonable blocks of time allow, preparing the components of our meals and stockpiling them in the freezer. I also mine the freezer for things I know work well when we have limited kitchen space, utensils, water and cooking fuel.

Over the years, whether it’s a week of houseboating with a group at Lake Shasta, or a getaway for two in the Redwoods, I’ve road-tested a roster of dishes that all work on a campstove with a single pot and grill pan, or preferably a portable griddle.

If you think a griddle is only good for pancakes and eggs in the morning, think again. Since my husband started researching the best portable grills several years ago and came across a blog touting the Blackstone griddle, we have seen more and more of the latter in campgrounds. Ours has proven its worth time and again to become our most indispensable outdoor cooking implement, even better with a hardware-store, metal spackling knife to scrape the surface.

Anything you would cook on a grill, a griddle does one better because it has more surface area that maximizes heat and minimizes sticking. We cook hot dogs and hamburgers on it, bacon and eggs, kebabs and meatballs and all those little lake fish that might flirt with falling into the fire if placed directly on grill grates.

But everyone’s favorite, hands down, is fried rice and eggrolls. Try making that in a pan on a camp stove. Then try making it for 15 people without a portable griddle.

The trick is preparing and freezing enough brown rice for your recipe. The general rule of thumb is 1/2 cup cooked rice per person, more or less depending on how many meat and vegetables you like in your fried rice. I freeze the cooked rice in Ziploc bags because it thaws quickly but helps to keep the cooler cold until you’re ready to use it. Plus, precooking it at home saves precious fuel in the field.

Next, I cut up enough chicken thighs to constitute the dish’s main protein, about 3 ounces per person. If you’re feeling generous, make that a pound of chicken for a family of four. I freeze the cut-up chicken in yet another Ziploc bag in which I’ve mixed up a Korean-style marinade of tamari sauce, rice-wine vinegar, garlic, ginger, brown sugar and a few other ingredients. Double-bagging helps to safeguard against leaking once items in the cooler start to thaw.

For vegetables, pack items that travel and keep reasonably well under variable conditions. Think onions, cabbage, carrots and other brassicas and root vegetables. Sweet corn and summer squash from the garden are nice in summer, along with snow peas, if you use them within a couple of days. If you really want to hedge your bets, pack a can each of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots.

Bacon and eggs packed for breakfasts do double-duty in fried rice. Figure on about a half pound of bacon and four eggs per four servings.

Get started by slicing the bacon crosswise into chunks and rendering it on your griddle. Remove and reserve the crispy bits of bacon and add cut-up vegetables to sauté in the rendered fat.

When the veggies have cooked to about the halfway point of your preferred doneness (it depends on size and type), scrape them to one side of the griddle and, on the other side, dump the bag of chicken in its marinade. Allow to cook for a few minutes without stirring, then add the defrosted brown rice; stir the rice into the sauce to coat and allow to cook for another couple of minutes.

Move the cooked veggies from their side of the griddle to combine, stirring and scraping, with the chicken, rice and sauce. On the other side of the griddle, quickly scramble the beaten eggs and then fold them into the fried-rice mixture.

If your griddle is large enough, you can simultaneously crisp in oil, while cooking the rice, inexpensive, store-bought spring rolls. We like a package of 20 stocked on the institutional aisle of Medford’s Food 4 Less for about $3. They also transfer effortlessly from freezer to cooler to griddle to plates seasoned with a whiff of campfire smoke.

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