If there is a silver lining to be found in my pandemic kitchen—even after the Great Flour Panic of 2020, the demise of dinner parties, and the simple boredom of it all—it’s that necessity pushed me out of the kitchen and into the great outdoors. After years of dogged devotion to our old charcoal kettle grill, we switched to a gas model for pure ease of use and have since relished outdoor cooking even in the coldest months. During an RV tour up the Maine coast last summer, I cooked all our meals over a campfire, turning out delicious feasts with just a skillet and a cooking grate. I felt outdoorsy and newly competent. That’s one of the joys of cooking: There’s always something new to learn.
Inspired by my memories of that trip, I’ve created a menu that works well on your backyard grill or in the backcountry. From clambake-inspired grill packs to pull-apart skillet garlic bread to a springy salad, these dishes are packed with flavor and easy to execute. There’s even a fun take on s’mores for dessert. The menu may be a bit too refined for backpacking, but anyone with access to a decent supermarket and a roomy cooler can pull it off with aplomb and no small amount of sizzle.
Direct heat: Food is placed directly over the heat source, whether that’s logs, coals, or gas flames. Usually, the entire grill is lit. This is generally better for faster forms of cooking, such as grilling hamburgers.
Indirect heat: Only one side of the grill is lit, creating a hot zone and a cooler zone. This is usually better for slower forms of cooking, such as barbecuing large cuts of meat.
Low heat: Approximately 325° to 350°. You should be able to hold your hand an inch above the grate for about six seconds.
Medium heat:Approximately 350° to 450°. You should be able to hold your hand an inch above the grate for about four seconds.
High heat: Approximately 450° to 550°. You should be able to hold your hand an inch above the grate for barely two seconds.—
Setup: You can make any of these recipes on a grate set over a live fire or fire pit (if you’re cooking over a store-bought fire pit, be sure to consult the manufacturer’s instructions). Cast-iron cookware is ideal for this kind of heat, and aluminum foil is always handy. Use woods such as oak, apple, cherry, hickory, and mesquite. Do not use pine, as the resins give off foul smoke. Never cook over a gas fire pit.
Temperature: Managing heat is the biggest challenge with live-fire cooking. Use the hand measurements described on p. 55 to estimate the temperature, and remember that a fire’s heat diminishes over time. You can modulate your heat by moving the food closer to or farther from the fire (either by setting it off to the side or raising it higher). Check food for doneness regularly.
Safety: Choose a safe place to build a fire, at least eight feet away from bushes or anything flammable, and form a perimeter around the fire using rocks or green logs. Always keep metal tongs, fireproof gloves, and a bucket of water nearby. Never leave a fire unattended.