Highway 1 unwinds slowly, precariously, across the state I once called home, inviting only the most daring (or deranged) into the rocky waters of its Northern shores. It’s been decades since I’ve been along this coast, and the first time I’m the one behind the wheel, and oh, it’s so much scarier when you’re the one in charge of navigating its mountainous terrain. But it was good to be home.
I had forgotten how raw the coast of Northern California looks in comparison to Connecticut’s gentle shores. Traversing the whole state is like going through a series of different worlds, as elevation, natural resources, latitude, and human interference transforms the land completely within the span of a few miles. If you’ve never seen it, book a ticket and go. Rent a car and take Highway 1, as long as you’re South of San Francisco. Above SF, you’re in for a bout of car sickness that never ends, as the roads get ever more precarious as you approach its intersection with 101. At the very least, plan to camp along the route; making it to Prairie Creek State Park near Orick from Fresno via SFO in one day was utter madness. Somewhere in there, go inland and check out Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. Yosemite (and the hike / climb up Half Dome) was probably the highlight of my trip, though the redwoods in Prairie Creek State Park managed to make us laugh.
But this is a food blog. I’m not going to go on and on about the trails we took and the places we went. I’ll spare you the experience of seeing an RV, complete with satellite dish, set up in the midst of one of the most gorgeous campgrounds I’ve had the privilege of staying in. I’ll even skip our encounter with the mountain lion (on the trail! Here!) Instead, I’ll tell you how I managed to keep us fed without resorting to bags of chips and MREs, and I’ll try to give you some pointers (so you can learn from my mistakes).
Before we get started, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- You will miss your oven. Starting a fire without a pilot light or even lighter fluid is not my forte — enough so that getting the fire going gradually became James’s job. We had matches, wood, and whatever we could find around our campsite for tinder: leaves, pine needles, chocolate bar wrappers, etc. So … good luck. And take a few cans of sterno along in case of emergencies (or for morning coffee, which could be considered an emergency depending on your morning disposition).
- Don’t plan anything too complicated. Roasted vegetables from roadside farm stands are awesome, and we ate a lot of them. Barring that, roasted vegetables of any kind are pretty damn good. Pair them with a high protein grain (quinoa) or any other protein / carb combination I describe below.
- You don’t need a cooler for anything I suggest here. Cheese and butter are fine without refrigeration for a couple of days, and I stuck to mostly vegetarian meals simply out of necessity. This new one checked bag policy is a bitch, but hey, the whole point of camping is to make do with what you have, right? (Ok, tell that to the souped up RV in the campsite next to you. Especially when they turn on their @#$%@#$ generator at 11 pm).
- A cast iron pan is a very good thing to bring along. My friend P, who joined us for the last leg of the trip, brought hers along for the trip, and it made dinner so much easier. That said, we did fine with foil and copious amounts of vegetable oil as well.
- You don’t need a full pantry. A few must haves for me were salt, flour, powdered milk, yeast, oil, baking soda, honey / agave nectar, coffee (and a coffee cone), s’mores ingredients, cheap wine or red wine vinegar (for flavoring vegetables as they roast), onions, potatoes, garlic — lots and lots of garlic, lemons, quinoa, trail mix, powdered chicken broth, and masa. Everything else was based on what looked best at wherever we happened to shop. Fresh fruit and veg, a bit of cheese, and a few cans of sardines (for protein! If you’re repulsed, pick up some canned beans instead) rounded out the campground pantry. Oh, and you don’t need all of this. We were gone for 2 weeks, so pick and choose as you like.
- Bring measuring spoons, or cook by proportions. Baking soda is the only thing to really worry about, but your food will still taste good if your teaspoon isn’t exactly a teaspoon.
- Don’t forget the tongs. Seriously. I did, and my fingers regretted it.
Ok, so here are the “recipes” and ideas for meals. I use quotes because I didn’t really measure anything on this trip. I also don’t have pictures of everything, just because it was usually late by the time dinner finished, and my camera is afraid of the dark. Oh, and the challah recipe is finally here, as promised. Scroll to the bottom if that’s all you’re interested in. Finally, I’ll have some recommendations for great places to eat (on a budget) San Francisco in my next post.
These proportions are based loosely on this recipe.
- 1-1/2 c. flour
- 1-1/2 t. baking soda
- 1 t. salt
- 2-3 t. powdered milk (maybe?)
- 1/4 c. water
- 1/4 c. oil or melted butter
- Juice from 1 lemon
Mix all dry ingredients together, then add the wet ingredients. Knead in the bowl or pot until a dough forms; shape into a ball and wrap loosely in foil. You want room for the bread to rise a bit, but you also want to be able to turn it over in the fire.
Cook until slightly risen and golden brown all over. You will have to keep turning the bread as you cook, so the sides and top cook evenly.
Corn tortillas with roasted potatoes, onions, avocado, and garlic
We ate so much roasted garlic on this trip it was absurd. 10-12 heads (yes, heads) in all. It’s that good. It’s a little black in the picture above, but most nights it was golden brown and smoky-sweet.
Make the masa-based tortilla mix from this post. Take your time; you need to let the masa/water mix sit for a while, or the tortillas will not taste good. To cook, either heat your cast iron pan as much as you can over the fire and cook as directed in the recipe, or oil a very large piece of foil and put single layers of tortillas on one side. Form a sort of envelope, sealed on all sides, and put over the fire. Flip regularly and check to keep from burning.
To roast potatoes, take a large piece of foil, coat with oil, make a large envelope, and fill with potatoes, sliced garlic, and ~1 t. salt. Close the envelope and place over the fire. Turn regularly. These are done when the potatoes are soft.
To roast the onions, repeat the procedure described above for the potatoes, but add a glug of red wine or red wine vinegar to the pouch before you seal it.
To roast the garlic, wrap a whole head, skin and all, in foil. Place over the fire and turn regularly. You want the cloves to turn a soft golden-brown.
Assemble your meal tostada-style, and eat with a knife and fork. Finish it off with sliced avocado and a bit of salsa (or roast some tomatillos and scoop out their pulpy interior for a yummy sauce).
Pizza with grilled vegetables and feta
Pizza is actually pretty easy to do on a grill. We topped ours with roasted zucchini and feta, or swiss and sardines (don’t ask — that wasn’t my idea!).
Use the proportions I gave for pain a l’ancienne for the dough, with a bit of extra yeast for insurance. Forget chilled water; you can use what you have access to. And forget the overnight rise. Make it just as you’re getting the fire started, and you’ll be good to go by the time you’ve finished making the sauce and roasting the vegetables. And don’t forget to oil the foil you cook it on. You may want to cook the dough a bit on both sides before adding the toppings. We didn’t, and ended up with a slightly doughy surface. The heat isn’t quite as well distributed as your oven’s.
For sauce, take along a can of diced tomatoes with basil. Mix in 1 t. of salt, 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic, and a little bit of red wine, and heat until it starts bubbling.
To grill zucchini, slice evenly and make sure you have lots of oil, some salt, and a bit of red wine in the foil pouch. You can actually cook this without closing the foil pouch; just make sure to turn the zucchini often so they cook evenly. When they’re slightly golden on the edges, you’re good to go.
Pancakes with lemon syrup
You won’t even miss the usual egg. If you have baking powder instead of soda, you don’t need the lemon in the batter. That’s just to provide the acid needed to make the baking soda work.
- 1-1/2 c. flour
- 1-1/2 t. baking soda
- 2 t. powdered milk
- juice from 2 lemons
- 1 t. salt
- enough water to form a batter
- honey or agave nectar, to taste, plus 1 c. hot water
- oil, for cooking
Heat oil in a cast iron pan or metal plate over the fire (or sterno / camp stove / barbecue — all will work). Mix all dry ingredients together. Add juice from 1 lemon, a glug of honey or agave nectar, and water. Mix until all the flower lumps are gone. Cook pancakes as you normally would, though I’d keep them small so they cook quickly. If you’re cooking on a metal plate, use lots of oil. They will stick. Keep replenishing it as you go.
For syrup, mix the remaining lemon juice, water, and honey / agave nectar together. Dip your cooked pancakes in the syrup mix.
This is more of a formula than a recipe. In your hot cast iron (or whatever cooking vessel you have available), throw in quinoa, a bit of powdered chicken broth, water, salt, some wine, sliced onions, garlic, and vegetables of your choice. Cook until the quinoa and vegetables are soft; you may need to add some more liquid (wine or water) as you go.
Oatmeal with a bit of trail mix and honey thrown in is a nice breakfast.
If you have access to a nice can of stewed cherry tomatoes, mix those with cubed, leftover damper, a bit of salt, and three or four cloves of sliced garlic. Serve with grilled cheese.
Carrots are awesome when you roast them with a bit of red wine and garlic.
Cut the stem out of a squash and scoop the seeds out (as if you were carving a pumpkin). Stuff with peeled garlic and a bit of wine; replace stem piece, and throw in the fire. Turn regularly, and remove when the inner flesh of the squash is soft. Scoop out to serve. You now have your own garlic-flavored roasted squash.
And the obvious:
S’mores! Use a stick as a skewer, for a more authentic feel. Just don’t eat the bark.
And now, for the challah recipe, which is definitely not for camping:
Whole Wheat Challah
Makes 1 large or 2 small loaves
From Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. This is probably a bit dense for me, because I really wanted light, fluffy challah. But then again, it’s my fault for expecting 100% whole wheat bread to be light and fluffy. It’s good anyway.
This recipe takes two days. Make the soaker and the biga on Day 1, and then make the dough and bake on Day 2. Or make the soaker on Day 1, realize you forgot the biga on Day 2, fridge the soaker, make the biga, and finally get around to the final dough on Day 3. I am such an airhead sometimes.
- 1-3/4 c. (8 oz.) whole wheat flour (I used durum)
- 1/2 t. (0.14 oz.) salt
- 3/4 c. (6 oz.) water
Mix all ingredients together until flour is fully hydrated. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 12-24 hours.
- 1-3/4 c. (8 oz.) whole wheat flour
- 1/4 t. (0.03 oz) instant yeast
- 1/2 c. (4 oz.) water
- 2 T. vegetable oil
- 1 large egg, beaten gently
- 4 egg yolks (use the whites to make pavlova)
Mix all ingredients together. Knead for a couple of minutes, or until the dough feels a bit sticky and the flour is fully hydrated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (up to 3 days).
Remove biga from the fridge 2 hours before making the dough.
- 7 T. (2 oz.) whole wheat flour
- 5/8 t. (0.18 oz.) salt
- 2-1/4 t. (0.25 oz) instant yeast
- 1-1/2 T. (1 oz.) agave nectar (honey is fine)
- 2 T. (1 oz.) vegetable oil
- 1 egg, beaten with 1 T. water (for egg wash)
- poppy or sesame seeds for topping, if you like. I used black sesame seeds.
Break biga and soaker up into chunks, and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add flour, salt, yeast, agave nectar, and vegetable oil. Stir until the ingredients are well combined and the dough is soft and a little sticky. If you need to adjust the flour or water content at this point, go for it. If it’s really sticky, add flour. If it’s not sticky at all, add a small amount of water (1 t. at a time). Knead for 3-4 minutes on a lightly floured surface. When it’s ready to rise, it’ll feel tacky and soft.
Form the dough into a ball and let rest for 5 minutes. Go find a clean, large bowl, and coat its surface lightly with oil.
Knead the dough for 1 minute more. Transfer the dough ball into the oiled bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise for 45-60 minutes, or until the dough is 1-1/2 times its starting volume.
Shape the loaf. I would tell you how to do the 6-braid challah, but I failed miserably, so here’s a link that might help.
Place the braided loaf on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Brush the surface with the egg wash, and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise for another 30 minutes. Brush again with egg wash, cover again, and preheat the oven to 400°F. When the oven’s preheated and 15 minutes have passed, remove the plastic wrap, and place the challah in the oven. Reduce the heat to 325°F. Bake for 20 minutes, rotate the loaf, and bake for 20 minutes. If the bread’s uneven, rotate again. If not, leave it, and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the loaf is a golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Let cool on a cooling rack. Enjoy!
Oh, and one note — if you go for the smaller loaf option, increase the oven temp. by 25°F.