Jake and Kristin Timm prepare camp macaroni and cheese in a Dutch oven. Photo by Chanda File.
A glorious chaos erupted around the picnic table as canoes carrying campers and cooking supplies arrived at our island campsite. By 5 p.m., every inch of the table was claimed for the preparation of chile, buckwheat noodle ramen, and butter chicken.
Another quadrant of the table was devoted to pouring Tang, grenadine, and tequila: a pair of camp bartenders chose to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 with “tequila moonrises.”
Meanwhile, Chris Zwolinski—who would later win second prize—found a tiny unused section of the table to put down appetizers for all the hungry cooks: a bowl stacked with smoked salmon, hooligan, and Dubliner cheddar cheese.
I’ve hosted camp cooking competitions for the last five summers. While in theory it’s all about the food, my favorite part is the crazy choreography of cooking in a crowded outdoor kitchen.
With 15 human contestants and 10 dogs running around a Chena Lake island campsite near North Pole, the 2019 competition promised to be especially chaotic and fun.
The annual camping cookoff started in 2014 in response to my growing appetite for camping, and growing distaste for my small rotation of camp menus.
That first year, I added an easy peanut sauce to my backpacking repertoire (it’s truly ultra-light if you use powdered peanut butter). For canoe trips and car camping, I learned the technique of cooking campfire blueberry muffins in orange peels for a moist, zesty breakfast.
The 2019 cookoff was an extra special occasion. I was mourning/celebrating my recent decision to leave Alaska after 10 years here. I really needed recipe ideas because I was about to embark on a three-week road trip to move to Vermont.
The contestants didn’t disappoint. These were the favorites dishes.
First place recipe
Kristin Timm won the 2015 contest with blueberry muffins. I was worried she’d be a shoe-in for the 2019 contest when I heard she was making Dutch oven mac and cheese.
But Dutch ovens are slow, and everyone had already eaten a half dozen courses by the time the mac and cheese was ready. I thought Kristin might not repeat her victory. I was wrong. Everyone who had been “full,” miraculously found appetites, and the Dutch oven was soon empty.
DUTCH OVEN MAC AND CHEESE
4 cups elbow macaroni
4 cups water
4 Tbsp butter
2 pounds cheddar cheese, grated (avoid pre-grated cheese because caking agents affect creaminess)
1 tsp garlic powder
4-6 Tbsp spicy brown mustard
1 cup half and half
5-ounce bag of jalapeño-flavored potato chips, crushed
1 small bag bacon bits or chopped cooked bacon
Fresh ground pepper
4-quart cast-iron Dutch oven
Bag of charcoal or campfire with good, hot coals
Oven mitts (for handling the pot and lid)
Metal pie plate (recommended if you are cooking on a flammable surface, like the forest floor)
Prepare a good hot campfire. If you are using charcoal, add 20-30 briquettes to the fire.
In a cold, 4-quart Dutch oven, combine the water, butter, and noodles.
When the coals or charcoal briquettes are hot and ready, put eight coals under the Dutch oven (or on a metal pie plate if needed). Put the lid on and put 10-15 coals on top of the Dutch oven.
Let cook for 10 minutes, then remove the lid, give the noodles a stir, and check the pasta. Based on the hardness of the noodles, cook 5-10 more minutes (cooking time will vary depending on the heat of the coals).
Cook until the noodles are tender and most, but not all, of the water is absorbed.
Take the coals off the Dutch oven lid and remove the Dutch oven from the bed of coals. Set the lid aside.
Carefully stir in the shredded cheese, garlic powder, mustard, and half and half until everything is smooth and combined.
Top off the mac and cheese with fresh ground pepper, crumpled chips, and bacon bits.
— (Adapted from Fresh Off The Grid’s mac and cheese recipe.)
Second place recipe
Chris Zwolinski beat us all in using Alaskan ingredients. Meat for this dish came from a roadkill moose. Chris caught the crab and halibut himself on a trip to Yakutat. The veggies came from his garden.
BACKPACKER’S RED LENTIL CHILI WITH MOOSE, CRAB, AND HALIBUT MIX-INS
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced bell pepper
2 cups sliced zucchini (or substitute other fresh veggies)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp ground cumin
3 Tbsp chili powder
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 can (14 ounces) red kidney beans
2 or more cups vegetable broth or water
2 Tbsp avocado oil (or other vegetable oil)
1 cup red lentils
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
Optional meat mix-in ingredients
1 pound stew meat (moose or other)
½ pound halibut cheeks
½ pound tanner crab meat
2 beef bouillon cubes
2 Tbsp butter
Camp stove for boiling water
At home: In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat and sauté vegetables. When vegetables are still slightly firm, add garlic and spices. Add all other ingredients for about 20 minutes. Add salt or pepper to taste, and check for firmness of the lentils.
Dehydrate in batches in a dehydrator. It’s simple, but time consuming.
For moose: In a slow cooker combine moose meat, bouillon cubes, salt, and pepper. Let cook about eight hours. Shred and dehydrate.
For seafood: In a large skillet, sauté fish and crab with butter, salt, and pepper. Shred and dehydrate.
At camp: Using boiling water, rehydrate chili in large saucepan or individual bowls. Add dehydrated meat/fish to individual bowls as desired.
— Cook time: 8 hours (1 hour active) at home. At camp: 5 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6 hungry campers