When I was a child, summer was the time to gather large groups of family and friends along with heaps of casual potluck casseroles arranged on picnic tables on the lawn. Corning Ware dishes of baked beans, potato salad and ambrosia were the mainstays to go along with hot dogs and burgers cooked on a large grate. I can almost taste how good it was, but my most vivid childhood food memory occurred one summer at Camp Fire Girl’s Camp.
As I remember it, my cabin mates and I stood hungrily in an open clearing near our bunkhouse singing “Here we stand like flies on a garbage can waiting for something to eat”. Embers from a large fire burned red hot beneath an enormous grate. Set up nearby on wooden picnic tables were platters of diced hot dogs, small hamburgers, slices of chicken, grated cheese, industrial sized cans of potatoes, green beans and carrots, sheets of foil and a big jar of Accent seasoning. We were directed to make our own dinner by filling and sealing our own foil food packets, loading them with meat and vegetables. After what seemed to be only a few moments of cooking over the fire, the packets were carefully opened to a puff of aromatic steam. I dug in with plastic fork flying and devoured that campfire dinner like it was my last meal. The experience was memorable for me because it was the first time I ever made my own dinner just the way I wanted it to taste. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it was terrific for the camp cook as well since there was little to no cleanup after feeding 100 hungry girls.
That was over forty years ago and campfire dinners are as relevant today as they were then. More a mindset than a recipe, these complete grilled meals in foil wrapped packets are perfect for feeding a busy family or as a fun and creative dinner with friends. Just arrange all the ingredients in bowls and let everyone concoct their own meal. Or go potluck and ask guests to bring the vegetables or cheese. Your kids will love being “the boss of their own dinner” and their appetites will be fired up (pun intended) by the beautifully colored fresh vegetables and cheese combined to their heart’s delight. Adult palates will likewise be piqued by the flavorful update of gremolatas, vinaigrettes and flavor boosters that spice up this meal in ways that no one even thought of back in the 60’s. It’s so easy; dinner is literally in the bag!
Step 1: Preheat grill to medium-high (400ºF)
Cut sheets of heavy duty foil 18-inches square. Fold them in half and then open them up again leaving the crease mark down the middle.
Choose your ingredients:
- Boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, each cut into strips crosswise, recommended serving, 6 to 8 strips per serving, Salted and peppered
- Kielbasa or smoked sausage, halved lengthwise and cut into 4-inch long sections, 3 to 4 pieces per serving
- Lay down your choice of meat, chicken, shrimp, kielbasa or a combination on one side/half of the foil sheet.
Step 2: Choose the flavoring for the meat, chicken, shrimp or kielbasa
The casual appeal of campfire dinners is tough to beat…especially when the tantalizing flavors of a gremolata is added to the mix. A blend of grated lemon peel, garlic and parsley, gremolata is used to brighten the flavor of classic Italian dishes such as veal Milanese, risotto and osso buco but they make anything taste great. Tip: A microplane or rasp is a handy tool to have around when zesting citrus. It easily removes the colorful zest while leaving behind the bitter pith.
Gremolata serves 4 and can easily be doubled or tripled. Just sprinkle about 2 teaspoons per serving.
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- 1 lemon, zested
- 1 clove garlic, minced
Step 3: Choose potatoes or beans
It might seem like a flash back to the 60’s, but the canned, sliced potatoes are a tasty, already cooked and ready to go option. Sliced raw potatoes (which can rust when cut ahead of time) don’t always cook up tender when the rest of the vegetables and meat are done cooking in the packets. It also opens the door for canned sweet potatoes, which pleases the kids and adults alike. Another filling option is canned beans, one of the busy cook’s fave bonus pantry items. All they need is a drain and a rinse and they’re ready to go.
- Canned sliced potatoes, drained
- Canned sweet potatoes, drained and sliced
- Canned butter beans, drained and rinsed
- Canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- Canned black beans, drained and rinsed
Add up to 1 cup total potatoes, beans or a combination or both.
Step 4: Add vegetables
To insure tender vegetables, cut as directed into thin or small shapes.
- Broccoli florets, no more than 3/4-inch wide
- Thinly sliced red onion, 1/8-inch
- Thinly sliced cauliflower, 1/8-inch
- Grape Tomatoes
- Snow peas, halved
- Thinly sliced red bell pepper, orange or yellow
- Thinly sliced fennel, 1/8-inch
- Shortcut carrots cut in half lengthwise, large ones quartered
- Zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
- Summer squash, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
- Mushrooms, thinly sliced
- Corn, fresh cut from the cob or frozen
- Asparagus, trimmed and cut into3-inch pieces
Add up to 1 1/2 cups total vegetables in any combo you like per meal packet.
Step 5: Add a drizzle of vinaigrette
Vinaigrette adds bright flavor to these foil wrapped meals. The acid in the lemon juice adds brightness while the oil adds flavor and keeps food from sticking to the foil.
Lemony Mustard Vinaigrette : The lemon and mustard flavors of this vinaigrette go with just about everything.
Combine and whisk together:
- 2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
- Pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard (grainy or smooth)
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Drizzle about 1 1/2 tablespoons per packet.
Step 6: Add flavor boosters
Add a sprinkle of one or two of these flavorful additions.
- Sliced kalamata olives
- Sliced green olives
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Julienned or slivered sun-dried tomatoes
- Grated pepper jack cheese
- Grated cheddar cheese
- Crumbled goat cheese
- Crumbled feta cheese
Step 7: Seal, label and grill the packets
Fold the empty half of the foil sheet over the food. Match the edges and turn the bottom edge of the foil up and over the top (to seal in juices). For quick cooking, continue to roll the foil all the way around as close to the food inside as possible. This results in less air in the package that must heat up once cooking has begun. Leave a permanent marker handy so people can label their packets. You don’t want to mix them up!
Lay the packets onto the preheated grill (400ºF) and close the lid.
Cook time: 15 minutes
- Chicken breast, gremolata, sweet potato, red onion, yellow squash, carrot, fennel, vinaigrette, caper, feta cheese
- Chicken breast, gremolata, black beans, red onion, grape tomato asparagus, carrot, cauliflower, vinaigrette, green olive, goat cheese
- Kielbasa, Classic gremolata, butter beans, asparagus, red bell pepper, carrot, summer squash, Mustard Vinaigrette, pepper jack cheese
- Kielbasa, gremolata, sweet potato, carrot, corn, zucchini, vinaigrette, cheddar cheese
In the glass: Hmmm. What to drink with a campfire dinner? Anything you like. Soda for the kiddies and beer and wine for the adults would be perfect. A pinot grigio for the white wine crowd and Beaujolais for the reds. Keep the beer light and go with Blue Moon or a shandy.