The best way to cook lunch outdoors
Orion, the great hunter, was beginning his daily sweep across the southern skies when my wife and I closed the tent shutters and walked away from the camp. It was a clear October morning. The grass was stiff with frost. The fresh air was cool with a smell of fir and pine. We were here to hunt elk, and since they feed at night and move into their day hiding places at dawn, we would be looking at a saddle a mile away by the time it was clear enough to see our rifle sights.
Our strategy didn’t work that morning. The herd of elk we hoped to intercept took a different route from the open south slope where they had fed to the spruce jungle where they spent their days. We left our viewpoint at sunrise and headed north, hunting through the lodgepole pine forest and skirting the thickets, and although we saw fresh tracks almost everywhere, we saw none. momentum.
Noon found us next to a small stream that meandered through a mountain meadow. The sun was hot now – we had long lost our coats – and it would be a good place for lunch. And it had to be a great memory, the brightest memory of that hunt 15 years ago.
In my backpack was a typewriter tape box containing two 6-foot lengths of wire, a spool of monofilament for the leaders, and half a dozen flies. I cut a few alders, as straight and thin as I could find, and rigged them so that the combined length of each row and leader was a little shorter than the post. Then, in maybe 20 minutes, we caught 10 nice little native cutthroat trout.
Ellen collected some wood and started a fire while I dressed our fish and made a coarse broiler chicken by tying a few twigs of green alder to another larger alder that had a narrow fork. It didn’t take long for the half-inch fuel to burn and leave coals hot but short lived. As soon as they were ready, I started grilling our trout, first lightly salting them inside and out. Meanwhile, Ellen kept the fire lit next to the bed of embers so that there would be more of it as I needed it. Above the flames, she heated some water for our tea.
Lunch was soon ready: tea, a sandwich and an apple each, and our delicious trout. Small wild trout are a delight anytime. Grilled by the stream 10 minutes after capture, with just a hint of the smoky flavor of the embers, they are superb.
It was a perfect meal in a perfect setting. No dining room could match ours that day. The meadow, about 7,500 feet above sea level, sloped gently to the south, bordered in places by dark thickets of spruce or fir trees, in others by sunny hills under a stand. open lodgepole pine. Here and there a clump of golden aspen broke the solid green of the coniferous forest. And far beyond, softened by the blue haze of the distance, the horizon line was a snow-capped ridge.
The air was good to breathe, fresh and stimulating. The temperature was perfect, warm in the sun, a little cool in the shade. There were none of the jarring sounds of civilization; only the eerie, half-musical croak of a crow broke the silence. Nowhere as far as we can see in any direction has the landscape been marked by roads or logging or any other human evidence. It was easy to feel as wild and free as the eagle circling slowly in the distant blue sky.
We lingered longer than expected. I smoked my pipe and we made another can of tea and drank it before finally soaking the embers of our fire and continuing, slowly chasing towards the camp.
Oddly enough, when I think back to countless hunting and fishing trips, I remember dozens of midday breaks for lunch, although I may have forgotten other details. Or maybe it’s not that strange.
When you hunt you are busy trying to find game. When you are fishing you are busy trying to catch fish. Even if you are aware of your surroundings, you cannot devote your full attention to the sights, sounds and smells of nature. Nature rewards the idle, and most of us, I’m afraid, are only idle when we sit down to lunch.
There was a time when I would hunt or fish all day without stopping to eat. It’s not difficult. A hearty breakfast will keep you going until dinner time if your enthusiasm is high. I have friends who still do. But they’re missing a part, sometimes the best part of a day in the great outdoors. After all, since we don’t hunt or fish to defend ourselves, letting the magical therapy of the outdoors heal the scars of everyday life is the number one reason to be there.
The standard outdoor enthusiast’s lunch – a sandwich, a candy bar, an apple, maybe a hard-boiled egg, and a vacuum-packed bottle of coffee – ends up becoming monotonous. I have eaten thousands of them and expect to eat more of them on days when there is no way to do better. But it really doesn’t take much effort to improve this mediocre fare.
A fire alone turns an ordinary lunch into an event. And you can do so much with it so easily. For example, a cold cheese sandwich is just food. Wrap this sandwich in foil rather than conventional waxed paper, however, place it next to your fire with a 6 inch twig, grill one side first then the other, and it goes back to the other thing.
Lamb chops, venison chops, or small steaks, like sirloin tips, can be grilled quickly and easily and you don’t have to wait for the coals to do so. Simply sharpen an 18 inch twig at both ends. Poke one end into the ground and glue the other through the chop, near one edge so that it hangs vertically near the flames. You can use any type of wood. The resinous varieties will not flavor the meat because it is not finished. Feed your fire as needed to keep the flames going and flip your chop when the first side is brown. Fresh tea or coffee alone is enough to justify a midday fire, especially in cold weather. A tin can with a wire tie so you can hang it on a stick over the fire makes tea as good as the best porcelain pot. Maybe better. Plus, you can even find a flat box that fits neatly into a bag or pocket. A pint can, measuring about 2x4x6 inches, will contain a sandwich, a candy bar, and a few tea bags, and here’s your lunch.
Obviously, your breakfast fire should always be in a safe location, on bare mineral soil and well away from dry leaves or grass. And he should always be soaking wet, completely dead, before he leaves him.
A small fire is safer and it is better for cooking because you can get close to it. You can boil water for tea over a fire that consumes only a handful of twigs and is no bigger than a saucer. Even in hot weather, such a small fire, on a shady beach or a rocky point with a breeze, is not uncomfortable.
In the low season, when the hunt is over and the fishing is not good yet, we often make day trips that are a bit difficult to classify. They are not picnics in the usual sense of the word and not really fishing trips because we are not very serious about fishing.
At the beginning of last February, on a beautiful Sunday that really looked more like April, Art and Mary Dell Walz and Ellen and I spent such a day in a reservoir near my house. We got there not long after the sun came over the mountain, which isn’t early February, and the women hiked a long way while Art and I were fishing. We caught about 40 shit, and I guess it was 2 a.m. when we met our wives in the car and started making lunch arrangements.
First we gathered some wood and started a fire, a fairly large fire because Art would need a good bed of embers for the lamb chops he was planning to grill. Then we set up the camp table and did our other preparations while the fire burned. We had salad, a loaf of garlic bread that we heated in its foil wrapper next to the fire, beans and baked potatoes. And there is a trick to know here.
It takes about an hour to bake potatoes in your oven at home. Wrapped in foil, it also takes an hour to cook them next to a campfire. We knew we wouldn’t want to wait that long. So, while she was having breakfast, Ellen wrapped four fat bakers in foil and put them in the oven. They were finished by the time we were ready to start, and all they needed later was to heat up next to the fire.
After a pleasant interlude, the wood was reduced to embers. Art put his rack on it and spread a dozen lamb chops on it. The potatoes, beans (also home baked) and bread were hot now. My appetite was gone before I got to dessert.
Aluminum foil is a great help with many outlet dishes. Most vegetables including squash, carrots, turnips, celery, onions, cabbage, cauliflower can be baked in foil in the oven at home and only require heating. next to the fire. Chicken stuffed and roasted in foil at home and then browned for ten minutes outside on a hot fire is delicious. A roast beef or ham is just as good. And it took me a long time to think about it: a small cooler is just as good for keeping hot food hot in cold weather as it is for keeping cold food cool in summer.
We camp in many places in the desert where there isn’t enough wood to grill a steak if you pick up each stick for half a mile. There are other places where, for one reason or another, a fire is not recommended or prohibited. In these cases, we use either our camping stove or charcoal. The stove is perfect for making coffee and frying some fish. But grilling requires charcoal.
A hibachi is great in the open air. It uses little fuel and you can control the draft when there is a breeze. Charcoal also works great on the floor, and we’ve grilled countless fine steaks this way.
It just takes a little more effort to prepare a perfect meal, and I can’t think of a better way to end a pleasant day outdoors.