Cooking outside on a makeshift set-up makes a welcome change from everyday life – but it’s no reason not to eat well, says Simon Farrell-Green. And there’s never a good reason to drink from plastic cups.
I refused to compromise on a few things, including what we’d eat and, more importantly, how we’d eat it. So it is that each December, we load up two cars (yes, you got that right, two cars – one for freight and one for children) and head to the Hahei campground on the Coromandel Peninsula, where we spend two glorious weeks cooking on a two-pot gas stove and a small, red Weber (of which more later). We eat outside in all weathers at our small, plastic table, though we do have a tablecloth – vintage 1970s and highly patterned, to match our vintage 1980s green-and-yellow tent. I’m happy to say some of the meals we’ve eaten around that table have been the best of my life.
The perfect camping kit
Having the things you need means you won’t spend the holiday making excuses for what you’ve just cooked or find yourself using the same spoon for everything, and means you stand a good chance of putting together something delicious.
This balancing act will mean different things to different people. In our camping kitchen, we have a little fold-up bench, with storage underneath, and the cooker goes on top of this, though it’s quite low so I end up sitting at the table to do all the chopping. We have big plastic crates that we use to transport everything to the campground, and these become the pantry after we arrive. I take a Hario hand coffee grinder and a V60 pour-over, along with a digital set of scales on which to measure my coffee. I also take a set of very nice (ceramic) coffee cups. Hence the third ritual of the day, after a cup of tea, and opening up the tent and checking the poles and guy ropes, is to wander around our site, contemplatively grinding coffee beans.
I take one decent (wooden) chopping board, a decent bread knife and a decent chef’s knife, one good frying pan and a good wooden spoon. I take a proper bottle opener, a proper corkscrew and a double jigger for measuring gin. I also take a lemon zester and a lemon squeezer. Because lemon makes everything better.
Here’s a true story. A summer or two ago, I was attempting to cook a whole butterflied chicken on a 1980s yellow camping barbecue, with a big flat top. I did this by covering it with tinfoil and jacking it up in the air on three squashed beer cans. It worked remarkably well – until a seagull swooped down and made off with a drumstick. I’m ashamed to admit we couldn’t face eating the rest of it after that, and it went in the bin. So last year, I bought the smallest gas Weber you can get; I’m a charcoal man at home, and owning a gas barbecue was something of a comedown. I’d still like to work out a way of cooking over charcoal while camping.
My favourite things to make while camping
I don’t really know what this is called; I just call it green sauce. In short, before we go camping, I harvest all the herbs from our garden that I know will go to seed while we’re away. I blitz them with olive oil, apple cider vinegar and some garlic, enough so it’s sharp to taste but doesn’t overwhelm the herbs. It goes with everything.
A whole chicken
I used to butterfly my own chooks, until I realised all the chicken companies – even the really good organic ones – had started doing it for you, and then marinating it in some kind of sauce that you can’t really taste once it’s cooked, but which seems to ensure the chicken stays juicy. Why would you bother doing your own when they do it for the same price and it tastes better?
We always take one camping: it goes a long way to feed a crowd, and there’s something very, very satisfying about turning out a whole grilled chicken off a small red barbecue that is roughly the same size as a chicken. Amusingly, despite being prepared on such a nice little barbecue, the chicken has a tendency to burn because you can’t get it away from the flame as you can on a big guy. So I jack it up on beer cans…
We eat it with lots of salad, and maybe some Israeli couscous with green sauce mixed through.
Courgettes are your friends. They last for weeks, and over summer they’re cheap. We buy bag-loads of them and keep as many in the campground fridges as we can; they seem to make their way into every dinner, somehow. But the easiest thing to do is slice them with a vegetable peeler into a big bowl, then drizzle olive oil and a bit of vinegar or lemon juice over them, add salt and pepper, and leave them for a bit while you do everything else. It makes a perfectly crunchy salad, particularly useful when the lettuce has turned.
It’s many years since Martin Bosley wrote about summer food in his excellent column in Kia Ora, Air New Zealand’s inflight magazine – but we still make his salsa creosa every year some time in December. It involves laboriously chopping up capsicum, courgettes, gherkin, capers and some herbs, and packing them into a big glass jar, before pouring over olive oil and white-wine vinegar to cover. Leave it for a week or so, and it turns into the most glorious pickle, which keeps all summer and goes excellently through an emergency pasta, or more particularly in tinned-sardine sandwiches.
Summer cooking, for me, means making a version of a very simple dish I ate at Culprit in Auckland a few years back, which has become known as “smush”. This was a piece of rare minute-steak, served on a lovely big pile of corn, courgette and capsicum, with whole branches of basil mixed through it.
I’ve been making it obsessively ever since, chopping the courgettes, capsicums and onion into a similar-sized dice as the corn, and then cooking the whole thing with plenty of oil until it gets all smushy, before stirring through a few chopped heritage tomatoes and cooking a bit longer until they collapse. It’s terrific – the essence of summer. We mix it with pasta, we serve it alongside a pavé steak or similar, cooked quickly and rare on the barbecue then sliced thinly. Sometimes we just put it in a bowl and eat it.
Tua tua à la Molenberg
We’re blessed at Hahei with a lovely big bed of tua tua just off the beach. No one ever seems to harvest them, which is something I fail to understand – every year, I watch the beach, and read all the signs, assuming I’m not allowed. A few days in, I can stand it no longer, and head out on a low tide with a bucket to dig around in the sand. Sometimes I just fill the pockets of my boardshorts as I swim, then stagger up the beach with my togs threatening to fall down, empty the shellfish into the kids’ plastic beach buckets and go back for more.
Forget everything you’ve ever been told about tua tua: the key to getting the sand out does not involve Weet-Bix or breadcrumbs or anything like that. Just put them in a bucket of sea water for 24 hours, changing the water once, about halfway through. You know it’s working when all their suckers are out and the bottom of the bucket slowly becomes covered with a layer of fine sand. Tip: make sure you keep the bucket in the shade. This can be challenging while camping, but it’s worth the effort.
When they’re ready, cook a chopped onion and some garlic in a mixture of butter and olive oil until soft, then add the tua tua and turn them through the heat before adding a cup or two of white wine – dry riesling is good. Cook them over a medium-ish heat, whipping them out as soon as they open and putting them in a bowl. Once they’re all out, turn up the heat and reduce the sauce a little, before adding freshly chopped parsley if you have it, and a big knob of butter. Stir vigorously until it emulsifies nicely, remove from the heat and stir in the cooked tua tua.
If I was at home, I’d put them in a nice dish with some crunchy sourdough. But this is camping. So we serve the pan at the table, with a pile of toast-cut Molenberg. It’s magnificent.
Simon Farrell-Green is North & South’s food director.