Thanksgiving off the grid doesn’t have to mean a spartan meal of beanie weenies for the holiday. Do some preparation before you leave for the wild, have the right equipment, some help from your friends, and lots of patience to enjoy what may be the best Thanksgiving meal ever.
Create an authentic Thanksgiving meal that’s more about enjoying the bounty of the country rather than the conveniences of the supermarket. Plan your menu with your outdoor kitchen in mind, remembering that everything will take longer and offer more challenges than the comfort of a modern kitchen. Keep the focus on the essential tastes of Thanksgiving, curating fewer dishes with flavors that will be intensified by outdoor cookery and leave dishes enriched by heavily processed foods off the menu.
Even a pared down menu means many time and space consuming side dishes. Assign sides to friends and family on the camp out. Even if you’re sharing a fire, divide the prep work to subtract stress. Working ahead, prep, the right equipment, and timing will be everything.
Before You Go
Settle on a menu and make a check list with dishes and ingredients to be sure nothing is left behind. Pre-measure and package seasonings oils and dry goods.
The right tools make any job easier and Thanksgiving dinner is no different. If campfire cookery is your plan, you’ll need a heavy-duty grill that will fit over the fire pit or tripod to suspend your pot or grill over the fire pit. Set out a large dutch oven and rack or metal pie plate, at least one cast iron skillet. and heavy-duty foil. Take the guesswork – and danger – out of outdoor turkey preparation; include a meat thermometer in your supplies.
Before heading out be sure suitable hardwood logs are available at your campground or pack in your own.
Slow and steady heat is key to cooking over a campfire. That means starting early with plenty of fuel the results in a big pile of hot coal. While the fire burns down, enjoy a seasonal, fire warmed spiced cider and plate of sliced cheeses and nuts. Fans of brined turkey can use this time to let the turkey soak in a small cooler. Food Network expert Alton Brown swears by a 12-hour honey and salt brine before grilling his turkey. Use a spare, or disposable foam cooler, for brining.
The trickiest part of Thanksgiving at a campfire is cooking the turkey, so consider your menu carefully. Outdoor outfitters REI recommend taking a lot of the stress out by opting for a simple turkey breast. Use a dutch oven for browning, braising or stuffing, depending on your preferences. If dark meat and legs are a must, match the weight of your turkey to the size of your dutch oven. A standard dutch oven can accommodate a 6 to 8 lb. turkey. Use your favorite preparation and herbs, then set the turkey on an inverted pie pan or rack inside the dutch oven. Either suspend the turkey with a tripod or set over indirect heat on the grill and cover tightly. With steady heat of about 400 degrees, figure about 15 minutes per pound of turkey, but don’t guess. Before putting on the lid, insert a meat thermometer into the thick meaty part of the thigh. When the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees the turkey is done. Remove from the grill and let it rest for 15 minutes before carving
Now that the hard work of getting the turkey on the campfire is done, consider sides. Keep it simple, but traditional with green beans, sweet potatoes and corn. Slather fresh or frozen cobs in compounded butter, wrap in foil and toss on the grill where a slight char will bring out their sweetness.
Pre-cook green beans before leaving home, or parboil over the fire. A little freshly cooked bacon is the canvas to finish the green beans; toss the beans into the bacon’s skillet on the grill, then add in the crumbled bacon to finish.
Sweet potatoes cook faster than their white counter parts and add a traditional touch to dinner around the campfire. Rub the potatoes with oil and wrap tightly in heavy duty foil then bury in the coals, turning frequently with tongs, until the potatoes are soft. As a more carefree alternative, dice sweet potatoes for a quick campfire hash. Make a thick foil packet and add potatoes along with favorite seasonings – sweet or savory – along with a dab of butter or touch of broth to prevent drying and sticking. Fill your packet with diced potatoes, whole pecans and butter, or make a medley of diced potatoes, red onions, butter nut squash and walnuts.
Pie may be the traditional Thanksgiving Day dessert, but don’t crumble under the pressure of expectation. Finish your feast with a fresh fruit crumble that’s easy to compile in your cast iron skillet and can cook while you’re feasting on turkey and sides, filling your campsite with tempting smells. Toss thinly sliced apples in butter, brown sugar, spices – and maybe a touch of liquor – over hot coals until slightly carmalized and softened. Cover with a crumble of granola, rolled oats, and a touch of butter and move to indirect heat to finish while you feast on the main courses.
Experience not Expectation
Put aside expectations of a traditional picture-perfect Thanksgiving feast, and accept the challenge of cooking up a new tradition with simply flavored food, cooked over the campfire, and shared with family and friends. You may just find yourself enjoying the best feast ever.