A Perfectly Portable Picnic

by Diane L. Mangum

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    There’s something about a campfire that stirs the desire for good food and friends to share it. But carrying all the gear to cook over a fire can be a real project for you and your friends unless you know how to put together the perfectly portable picnic—an aluminum foil dinner. Foil cookery can be much more than the basic hamburger patty and potatoes most of us have tried at camp. You can cook a hearty beef stew, an ear of corn on the cob, and even a cinnamon sweet roll for dessert—all in foil.

    The ease of a foil-wrapped meal is that all the preparation can be done conveniently at home, and since dinner cooks in its container there is no need to carry along any pans. For that matter, you don’t even need to carry along any dishes because you can eat right from the foil. The fun of foil cookery is that a wide variety of foods from main courses to desserts can be prepared ahead and tossed in a campfire while you enjoy your picnic spot.

    The technique for foil cookery is simple.

    1. Cut a 15- to 20-inch length of aluminum foil for each item to be cooked. (Cut a longer piece off for an extra large dinner.) Heavyweight foil is ideal, but two layers of regular foil will also work well. Dinner for each person should be wrapped in a separate package.

    2. Following the recipe directions, put the food in the center of the shiny side of one piece of foil. Generally, it’s best to layer the foods so that those with the most moisture are nearest the foil on each side.

    3. “Drugstore wrap” the food in the foil. That is, bring the opposite lengths of the foil together over the food and then fold them together using small tight folds until the foil snugly wraps the food. Similarly fold in each end of the package, also using small, one-inch folds so that the food is tightly sealed inside. It is important that no liquid can leak out.

    4. To help prevent scorching you may then choose to wrap the foil dinner in several layers of newspaper. The newspaper should then of course be drugstore wrapped in another layer of foil. (Keep in mind that a layer of newspaper may also slightly lengthen cooking time.)

    5. Your foil meal is now ready to be placed directly in the hot coals of the fire. Take along a pair of hot pads or tongs for convenience in getting the food out of the fire. A watch is also handy to keep track of cooking times.

    Amazingly, it is possible for a fire to be too cool for cooking a foil meal. A good bed of hot coals is important to the success of a foil meal. A fire made from either wood or charcoal briquettes may be used, but it is important that the fire burn down to a layer of coals at least three or four inches deep. (For hints on fire building, check any camping or Scouting handbook.) You also need a fire large enough so that each food item can be placed directly on the coals, so if you have a very large group you may want to build more than one fire. Cook only on coals. An open flame is likely to scorch your food.

    It’s a good idea to turn the foil package over several times during the cooking time, but allowing for an even amount of time on each side. Cooking times may vary according to the fuel used in the fire, the stage to which the coals have burned, the size of the package being cooked, and even the altitude. It’s best to check the food to see if it is done after about two-thirds of the cooking time has elapsed.

    If you’re a hungry hiker or simply impatient, try using precooked meats in your foil dinner. Both precooked ham and chicken work well, but hamburger meat usually does not. When you use a precooked meat in a foil meal you should add a little moisture, and a flavorful sauce is best. For example, boil or bake several pieces of chicken ahead of time, then cover with barbecue sauce and add to a foil dinner with potatoes and carrots and a spoonful or two of water. You need to cook it only until the vegetables are done, or about 20 to 25 minutes.

    Meals cooked in foil are easy and fun to experiment with. You might try a foil dinner with Polish sausage and sliced potatoes, or ham and rice with a sweet and sour sauce. Fresh fish steamed in foil over a fire with just a pat of butter can be delicious.

    Once your dinner is cooked, you can unwrap it and eat right from the foil if you like. Don’t forget to take along eating utensils, though, and any condiments you like, such as salt and pepper, catsup, or whatever. Or add a checked tablecloth, a candle, and menu listing the “Bill of Fare” for a portable picnic in real style.

    Foil Dinner Beef Stew (1 serving)

    1/4 lb. beef stew meat

    1 small potato

    1 carrot

    1/4 onion

    1/2 stalk celery

    1/3 cup vegetable juice (V-8, etc.)

    1 tbs. butter or margarine

    2 tbs. water seasonings

    Cut the meat into 1-inch cubes and roll in flour seasoned with a dash of onion salt, garlic salt, salt, and pepper. Cut the vegetables into small cubes. Make a bowl out of foil. In it place the meat and vegetables, and carefully add the juice, butter or margarine, and water. Carefully drugstore wrap. Wrap again. Test to make sure no liquid leaks out. A very tight seal is needed. Cook in the coals about 35 minutes.

    Onion Meatloaf Balls (6 large meatballs)

    1 1/2 slices of bread

    1 lb. hamburger

    1 egg

    2 tbs. finely chopped green pepper

    2 tbs. finely chopped onion

    1 tbs. soy sauce

    1 tbs. catsup

    1/2 tsp. salt

    6 large yellow onions

    Crumble the bread into very small pieces. Mix in the hamburger, egg, green pepper, onion, soy sauce, catsup, and salt. Peel the papery outer layer from each onion. Cut the onions in half, crossways. Take out about 2/3 of the inside of each onion and replace with the meatloaf mixture. Put the two onion halves back together and securely drugstore wrap in foil. Cook in the coals about 30 to 35 minutes. Take along a squeeze bottle of catsup if desired. (For a complete meal, add an ear of corn, a baked potato, and a sweet roll for dessert.)

    Campfire Cinnamon Roll Ring

    1 can refrigerated biscuit dough with 10–12 biscuits

    4 tbs. margarine

    1/3 cup granulated sugar

    1 tbs. cinnamon

    1/2 cup powdered sugar

    Separate the sections of biscuit dough. Spread a thin coat of margarine on each section and sprinkle with the granulated sugar and cinnamon mixed together. Grease the center of a large piece of foil with margarine. Arrange the dough pieces on the foil in a ring slightly overlapping the edges of each dough piece. Very carefully fold the foil to make a “box” around the dough that will leave room for the rolls to expand as they bake. Leave at least one inch on each edge and two inches on top. Put a layer of paper to insulate only the bottom of the foil box. Carefully wrap again in foil. Place in coals that have burned down to almost only white ash. If the fire is too hot, place a rock in the fire and put the foil box on that. This dessert will scorch easily and must be kept entirely away from open flame. Bake about 15 minutes. Sprinkle the warm rolls with the powdered sugar. Let the cinnamon roll ring cool for a few minutes before breaking the sections apart to eat.

    Sweet and Sour Ham with Rice (3 dinners)

    Precooked ham, about 3–4 oz. per person (either sliced or cubed)

    1 1/2 cups cooked rice (1/2 cup dry rice cooked according to package directions)

    1 20-oz. can chunk pineapple with juice

    1/2 cup brown sugar

    3 tbs. vinegar

    2 tbs. soy sauce

    1 tsp. onion salt

    2 tbs. cornstarch

    1 tbs. catsup

    1 small green pepper cut into chunks

    While the rice cooks, prepare the sauce. Drain pineapple juice from the chunk pineapple. Add water until the liquid equals 1 cup. Pour into a saucepan and stir in the brown sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, onion salt, cornstarch, and catsup. Cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens and becomes clear. Add the green pepper and pineapple (save the pineapple if you’re using sliced ham), and cook a minute more.

    For each dinner place 1/2 cup cooked rice on a piece of foil. Place the ham on the rice and cover with 1/3 of the sauce. (If you are using long, thin slices of ham, try making “ham logs” by rolling up the slices with chunks of pineapple in the center and a toothpick skewered through the “log” to keep it rolled up. Make several ham logs for each dinner, and cover with sauce.)

    Drugstore wrap in the foil. Cook about 20 minutes or until steaming hot.

    Photo by Grant Heaton