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Campfire cuisine

Camping cuisine is a concept I’ve fully embraced only within the past few years.

Capitulating to hot dogs and beans for dinner, granola and yogurt for breakfast with peanut butter and jelly in between, I reasoned that camping meals, above all, should be easy.

Eating, in my view, wasn’t the point of sojourning in the great outdoors. Nor is struggling to wash dishes or feeling guilty for using disposable ware. But this viewpoint, I came to realize, was just a campsite cook’s cop-out.

My outlook changed amid garden abundance. Come August, the produce only doubles in number and size during a weekend away from home. So we eat those zucchini and tomatoes, no matter the cooking capabilities or the dining venue. And garden kale, which always needs to be kept in check, holds up better than any other type of greens for several days in a cooler. Overstocked on the seasonal haul, I started adapting strategies from the home kitchen for the camp kitchen.

When food is garden- and farm-fresh, very little cooking is required. And much of what is can easily be accomplished before leaving home for open-air accommodations.

For salads, I mix up the dressings at home and pack them in Mason jars into my cooler. Ditto with hard-boiled eggs that add heft to salads or invite general snacking. Capers and brine-cured olives impart effortless pops of flavor and have virtually no cause for being refrigerated.

Steaming or simmering grains, legumes and potatoes, then packing them into Ziploc bags for the cooler, eliminates much of the work and time involved with meal preparations at a campsite. And precooking these more calorie-dense foods saves on camp fuel.

Precooking extra portions of at least one ingredient allows it to be repurposed in another meal. Take potatoes: Steamed fingerling or new potatoes are the cornerstone of Salade Nicoise, one of my summertime essentials, with blanched green beans, crudité and canned tuna. By cooking another half portion or so of potatoes, I can dice them up or smash them with a spatula onto my cast-iron griddle for a hearty breakfast.

In the same vein, I often pack dry Spanish-style chorizo for snacking on my outdoor excursions. On the last morning, if there’s chorizo left over, I dice it up, render out the fat on my griddle until it’s slightly browned, set aside the bits of meat and then cook leftover potatoes in the fat. If I have leftover kale salad simply dressed with salt, lemon juice and olive oil, I toss that into the breakfast hash and top all of it with a fried egg.

In addition to eggs, cheese holds up really well in a cooler with little concern for spoilage. And I’ve taken to making cheese a main dish, rather than handling raw meat in settings that challenge a conscientious cook’s sanitation standards.

A cheese that plays almost like meat is haloumi, a specialty of Cyprus. This very firm, salty cheese made from sheep or goat milk — sometimes in combination with cow’s milk — resembles cheese curds in texture, even squeaking between the teeth. Haloumi’s primary attribute is maintaining its shape and integrity, rather than melting into oblivion, when placed onto a hot grill or other cooking surface.

If you’ve ever snatched up bits of cheese rendered deliciously crispy after oozing from a quesadilla into the pan, then the appeal of grilling cheese should be obvious. Imagine multiplying the toasted nuttiness in a small bite across a browned skin covering a softened slab of dairy fat.

When I first started shopping for haloumi almost 15 years ago, after seeing it touted in a British cookbook, Ashland’s Shop ’n Kart was among the few local sources. I still buy it there, but most grocery chains and locally owned stores have since expanded their international cheese selections, making haloumi much easier to find. A half-pound will set you back $8 to $10.

During tomato season, try substituting griddled haloumi for the fresh mozzarella in a Caprese salad, particularly sprinkled with fresh mint instead of basil. I also love folding grilled haloumi into a pita with sauteed zucchini and eggplant, dressed with homemade tzatziki.

Gathering around the campfire with these portable packages of fresh veggies and bright flavors banishes any hankering for hot dogs.

Salade Nicoise

1 pound green beans, trimmed

6 small, red new potatoes

4 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup parsley leaves, whole or roughly chopped

1 (6-ounce) can tuna, well drained

2 large ripe tomatoes, each cut into 8 wedges

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

1/2 cup brined olives (Nicoise or Kalamata; may substitute black olives)

2 tablespoons capers (optional)

Bring a pot of water to boil and prepare an ice-water bath. Blanch the beans in boiling water for 2 minutes, or until bright green. Using a fine-mesh sieve or spider, scoop beans from boiling water into ice-water bath.

Cook the potatoes in a pot of boiling water until fork tender. Cool and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices and place in a medium bowl. Drain beans and place in bowl with potatoes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper. Drizzle about half of dressing over potatoes and beans. Toss gently.

Mound dressed potatoes and beans onto a serving platter or divide among 4 plates. Top with the parsley and gently crumbled tuna; drizzle with a bit more dressing.

Arrange the tomatoes and eggs around edges of salad. Scatter the olives and capers, if using, on top. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Summer Lentil Salad with Haloumi

1 cup French green (Puy) lentils

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1 medium cucumber, not peeled, seeded and chopped

1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped

1/2 medium red onion, peeled and chopped

Juice of 2 lemons

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1-1/2 teaspoons ground harissa spice blend (may substitute 1/2 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon each cumin and coriander and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper)

1 tablespoon minced, fresh mint leaves

1 tablespoon capers, drained and rinsed (optional)

1 package haloumi cheese (about 8.8 ounces); may substitute 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

In a fine-mesh strainer rinse the lentils and pick over for any small stones. Combine lentils in a pot with 3 cups water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender. Drain off any water.

In a large bowl, stir together the tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper and red onion. Stir in cooked and drained lentils.

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and harissa. Drizzle over lentils and vegetables; toss to coat evenly. Add the mint and capers; toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to several hours so flavors blend.

When ready to serve, cut the haloumi crosswise into about 12 slices, each approximately 1/8 inch thick. If you can’t find haloumi, toss salad with the feta crumbles.

If using haloumi, heat a cast-iron pan or griddle to medium-high and arrange haloumi in a single layer on pan’s surface. Reduce heat to medium and cook haloumi, flipping once, until it’s golden brown and softened slightly. (Haloumi won’t melt like other cheeses, but it may release some water. If water is preventing haloumi from browning, increase pan’s heat slightly and allow it to simmer off and haloumi to crisp.)

Divide salad between 4 plates, sprinkle each serving with about 2 tablespoons of the pine nuts and top each with 3 slices of the browned haloumi, if using.

Makes 4 main-dish servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

French lentil salad with seasonal vegetables is a colorful complement to haloumi, cheese that can be grilled. Photo by Sarah Lemon
Repurpose potatoes from Salade Nicoise for breakfast hash while camping. Photo by Sarah Lemon