Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cooking 101: The Packet Dinner

When it comes to food and camping, I believe I've made my opinions clear. Meals matter, and at the end of the day, a warm plate of food that has been cooked over an open fire means a whole lot. 

In pursuit of that yummy and tummy-pleasing goal, I have stumbled upon a concept called the Packet Dinner. It's an easy and fun dish to pull together, perfect for camping, and lends itself to endless variety.  

Let's start with the basic concept. Here are the key ingredients you will need:

Ground beef, precooked and seasoned.
Carrots, cut into thin slices or slim rounds.
Corn, straight from the can.
Tater tots. You know, those lumpy bits of frozen potato that scream delicious.

Plus you will need ketchup, aluminum foil and a big stick.

{Don't let the box of fresh strawberries fool you. They were just a side dish.}

Step One: Build a nice big fire. 
Well that's redundant. Any fire I build is guaranteed to be big. Just make any nice little cooking fire that suits you, and I'll try not to judge.

Step Two: Lay out a generous piece of foil, maybe 18 inches long.
You metric types can divide 18 by 2.54 and that will tell you the length in centimeters. Squirt a generous amount of ketchup in the center, then place a friendly group of tater tots on top. 

Notice that in this process, I measure nothing. C'mon, we're camping. Just eyeball it. You can't mess this up.

Step Three: Add on the precooked meat, and the corn and carrots
Adjust the proportions to suit your taste. You can't mess this up either.

Step Four: Fold up the foil so your dinner is tucked into a cute little packet. 
Now it has truly earned the title of Packet Dinner.

Thoughts on a well-constructed Packet:
  • Make it seamless. You are relying on the internal steam to cook your meal, so don't leave any openings for that precious gas to leak out.
  • Make it distinctive. Once the Packets are sealed up, your dinner is going to look a lot like everyone else's. So unless you want all your thoughtful individuation to go to waste, give your custom-made meal a fancy handle or a distinctive fold so you can claim it later.
  • Make it strong. A broken Packet is a very sad thing. Your Dinner will spill into the fire, or worse yet, the ground. It will mock you and taunt you, and you will want to cry. Don't let this happen. If you have any question of whether your Packet is satisfactorily secure, add another layer. You won't regret it.

Step Five: Plop your handiwork on the grate directly above the flames. 

Step Six: Find a balance between maximizing the heat under your packet and keeping it from scorching. Use the big stick to move it around on the grill, and spin it, in the hopes of achieving an even cooking process. Trial and error, my friends, is the only teacher here. As long as you are a willing student, and not above eating burned food, you'll be fine.

Step Seven: When you think you may have allowed enough time for the food to heat up and the carrots to become at least partially softened, open your Packet and slip in your fork for a taster bite. What you and I might consider to be done is a relative thing, depending on weather, mood, and how long you think you can possibly stand to wait. Trust your judgement.

Step Eight: Finally, when you feel the moment is right, slip your Packet off the grill and onto a sturdy plate-like device. We use the lids to our plastic storage bins because our regular plastic plates do not insulate our legs from the sizzle of a hot Packet.

Tear that puppy open and enjoy. Leftovers are not allowed. Eat it all.

 Now that you have the gist of this Packet Dinner phenomenon, let's talk about variations. As long as you stick to the basic principles of a sauce on the bottom layer to prevent sticking and to generate steam, and some tater tots for quick-cooking bulk, you can mix and match the top ingredients to impersonate a number of more complex meals. 

For example, how about:

Taco Packets. Use salsa on the bottom layer, add tater tots as usual, put some taco seasoning in the ground beef when you precook it, top with refried beans and corn. When your Packet is ready to eat, add some sour cream, guacamole, green onions and shredded cheddar cheese. If you want to go all out, use tortilla chips to scoop and eat. Yum.

Pizza Packets. Pour out a layer of pizza sauce on the foil, drop on some tots, substitute pepperoni for the ground beef, add mushrooms, peppers, onions, or any other pizza-esque toppings that suit your fancy. Add your cheese just before eating, and stir it in to let it melt.

I made a Pizza Packet this week - I used pizza sauce, ground beef and salami that were leftover from other meals, and some finely chopped mushrooms, and added some shredded mozzarella after it had cooked. Here are some 'before' and 'after' shots:

As you can see, the varieties for these Dinners are limited only by your imagination. How about a cheeseburger version, with ketchup and mustard under the tots, and fresh tomatoes, lettuce, onion and cheddar cheese added after it cooks?

Or maybe a stroganoff version, with cream of mushroom soup on the bottom, potatoes and ground beef, topped with mushrooms and onion, and dolloped with sour cream after cooking?

There is no limit to the deliciousness you will create when you turn your imagination loose with the adaptable, camp-friendly concept of Packet Dinners.

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