published Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Culinary camping: You don’t have to settle for baked beans and scrambled eggs anymore

Johnny Nix
Johnny Nix
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

OUTDOORS CHATTANOOGA’S TOP TIP

Always test your camping recipes in the backyard, not the kitchen. Food cooked over charcoal or wood fire will always react differently and taste differently than the same meal cooked on an electric or gas stove.

Forget beef jerky and power bars — and remember, there are campfire desserts more sinful than s’mores. Chattanooga-area wilderness lovers have found ways to make gourmet meals in the middle of nowhere.

Johnny Nix cooked so many delicious meals while he and his wife Wanda rode horseback along Appalachian Mountain trails, he eventually starred in two TV cooking shows and gives popular cooking demos in nearby state parks. He shares some of his recipes on his website named Y’allEatYet.com.

“That’s what I ask campers who wander over when they smell the food I’m cooking in a park demo,” Nix says. “And I always share.”

Dishes run the gamut from Beer and Garlic Pot Roast and Citrus Pork Chops to Fresh Plum Tart and Coconut Pineapple Custard. A blacksmith by training, Nix created a special campfire oven 30 years ago made of metal hooks and pulleys. It allows him to modulate temperatures in the pot.

Some campers traveling by horse might hesitate to make a salad along the trail. But Nix enjoyed whipping up elegant combos like Shaved Asparagus Salad with White Wine and Prosciutto and Pear and Apple Salad with Parmesan, Spinach and Almonds.

To keep fruits and veggies fresh and crisp, he borrowed a trick from frontier cowboys and filled his saddle bags with a sort of salt and ice parfait.

“I put in a layer of rock salt then a layer of ice cubes then top those with salt then top that with ice until I get near the top of the bag,” Nix says. “The leather saddle bags provide good insulation for cold foods.

“If there is one ingredient a beginner at outdoors cooking should throw into his backpack, I would recommend garlic,” Nix says. “It’s my go-to spice. Garlic makes any main dish better.”

DeSoto State Park naturalist Brittney Hughes faithfully attends Nix’s demos in her park. He inspired her to bake pizza in her cast iron dutch oven over a fire.

“Some people are afraid to try anything other than cornbread in a dutch oven but I’ve made cookies in one and this week I made a Tuscan soup with sausage, potatoes and onions,” she says. “If you cook over charcoal, remember, each briquette equals 25 degrees of heat.

If you use wood, think of the wood’s smoke as another ingredient. Our sense of smell and taste are so intertwined, the scent of the smoke will affect what you taste. I prefer pecan, hickory and oak.”

For decades, campers have been able to rely on dehydrated and freeze-dried foods, like those sold by Backpackers Pantry, that are reconstituted as edible foods when boiling water is added. The Backpackers Pantry website says a food pouch can last a dozen years while a canned Backpacker Pantry meal may have twice that shelf life.

But there are some outdoor enthusiasts who refuse to take the freeze-dried route.

“I would never eat one of those freeze-dried meals, never; I like to eat too much and I want eating to be a pleasurable experience,” Outdoor Chattanooga Program Director Terri Chapin says.

“We live in an age when rich grains like quinoa and rare types of black rice and decadent spices are available at most Chattanooga grocery stores. Those ingredients are easy to fit in a backpack. Spices, especially cumin, cilantro, turmeric, parsley and lavender, can transform an ordinary dish. If you pack some spices, berries and a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, you can find yourself in the middle of a mountain forest dining on baked fish with blueberry salsa.”

Outdoor Chattanooga Executive Director Philip Grymes and Chapin often host workshops on wilderness cooking. They know all about gadgets like solar-powered water purifiers and Jet Boil, a cylinder topped with a burner that can boil water in under a minute. But they enjoy MacGuyver-ing ordinary, cheap objects into useful backpacking gadgets.

“An empty Pringles can is great for storing tomatoes,” Grymes says.

Chapin is the mother of small children so her camping food must be entertaining as well as tasty. Their favorite campfire desserts are chocolate fondue and bananas cut lengthwise, stuffed with chocolate, wrapped in foil and baked on hot embers.

And remember the wise words of one veteran hiker; the food always tastes better in the outdoors at the end of the day. Fresh air is an invisible spice.

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6391.

Chicken Braid

2 tablespoons butter

2 small green onions, finely chopped

1/2 cup broccoli florets

1/2 cup sliced fresh sugar snap peas

1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon basil

2 cups chopped cooked chicken

1/2 cup cream cheese

2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup shredded Colby-Monterey Jack cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 can refrigerated crescent dinner rolls

1/2 teaspoon sesame seed

In a skillet over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add onions and cook until softened. Add broccoli, snap peas and bell pepper and cook until crisp tender. Stir in seasonings, add chicken, cream cheese, shredded cheese and Parmesan cheese and continue cooking until thoroughly heated and cheese is melted. Remove from heat.

On a large piece of heavy duty foil that has been sprayed lightly with cooking spray, unroll crescent dough. Firmly press together the perforations to seal them and press dough into a 14-by-10-inch rectangle. Spoon chicken mixture down center of dough. Using a knife, being careful not to cut through foil, cut 1 inch strips down each side of chicken mixture. Fold strips over chicken mixture stretching dough as needed to slightly overlap strips.

Add garlic powder to remaining melted butter and brush over top of braid. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top of braid. Carefully use foil to place braid inside Dutch oven and cook over medium heat; add top coals after 10-15 minutes and continue cooking until chicken mixture is heated through and crust is golden brown, approximately 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before slicing.

— Johnny Nix

Campfire Foil Packs

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast meat - cubed

2 onions, diced

1 (8 ounce) package sliced fresh mushrooms

GOURMET WILDERNESS BREW

Velo Coffee founder, owner and roaster Andrew Gage teamed up with Chattanooga-based Granola Products to make a backpacker’s coffee brewing kit. The green bag is smaller than a shaving kit and contains Velo coffee, two small mugs with lids, a ceramic filter and a compact Aeropress brewer. The basic kit is $100 and the deluxe is $220 and contains Velo Black Label coffee. Gage proudly notes that every bit of the kit except the beans is made by American workers.

“The goal was to let you brew a perfect cup of coffee in the middle of a wilderness, whether that wilderness is a desert, a mountain forest or a depressing hotel room,” Gage jokes. “We recommend bottled water be used if possible because purification tablets can alter the coffee’s taste. And hotel tap water often tastes weird.”

Gage is launching a Kickstarter fundraiser so Velo can buy a new coffee roaster. He says anyone who donates $400 to the effort will get a free coffee-brewing kit and a private class with him on how to brew the perfect cup of coffee in the wilderness.

1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips

1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips

4 cloves garlic, sliced

4 small potatoes, cubed

1/4 cup olive oil

1 lemon, juiced

In a large bowl, or a large zip-top bag, combine the chicken, onion, mushrooms, yellow pepper, red pepper, garlic, and potatoes. Pour in the olive oil and lemon juice, then mix well.

Evenly divide the mixture between 4 large sheets of aluminum foil. Top each with another sheet of foil, and roll up the edges tightly. Wrap each packet again, securely in another sheet of foil to double wrap.

Cook in the hot coals of a campfire until the chicken is opaque and the potatoes are tender, around 40 minutes.

Allrecipes.com

Campfire Skillet Breakfast

1/2 pound sliced bacon

4 cups potatoes, peeled and cubed

1/2 onion, chopped (optional)

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Cook bacon to desired doneness in a cast iron skillet over the slow burning coals of a campfire. Remove bacon from the skillet and set aside. Stir the potatoes and onion into the hot bacon fat. Cover, and cook until the potatoes are soft, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Crumble the bacon into the potatoes. Stir in the eggs, cover, and cook until set through, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle with the cheese, and allow to melt before serving.

Allrecipes.com

about Lynda Edwards...

Lynda Edwards has covered just about every beat there is while working for The Associated Press, PBS as a Frontline and Nightly Business Report associate producer, Gannett in the heart of Louisiana Cajun country as well as newspapers in Miami, Tucson AZ, Colorado and Arkansas. She has freelanced for The New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Vogue, Rolling Stone and The Washington Monthly. While at the ABA Journal, she won a Fourth Estate Award, Lisagor ...

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