Christie Vanover is not your typical park ranger. During the day, she keeps watch over Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. But in her free time, she’s a recipe developer and food blogger who loves to cook sumptuous meals when she’s out camping.
Last Thanksgiving, she cooked a full holiday meal for her family, roasting the turkey in a Dutch oven. Vanover runs two food blogs, Zestuous and Girls Can Grill, where she documents her gourmet camping recipes and gives tips on how to cook outdoors.
Through her travels around the world, Vanover has learned to cook dishes from different cuisines. When she became a park ranger, she decided to experiment with dishes that can be cooked over an open fire.
“Don’t limit yourself. If you can prepare it at home, you can prepare it at the campsite,” she said.
For easy cooking, Vanover recommends first prepping as much as you can before setting out on your trip. Chop all your vegetables, precook your pasta, and pre-measure your ingredients.
For the actual cooking, bring a cast iron pan or tin foil. The latter can act as a container for a dip; just let the contents melt over a fire. Meanwhile, metal skewers are perfect for roasting meats.
Many parks are close to convenience stores, so don’t be afraid to prepare dishes involving perishables like milk or meats. Just remember to pack some ice.
Vanover has several tips for grilling. First, invest in a thermometer. That will ensure that you won’t overcook meat, and will keep the juices inside.
When cooking directly over a fire, use charcoal or hardwoods like hickory and oak. Softwoods will impart too much flavor to the food, Vanover said.
Into the Fire
The heat differs in intensity depending on the location within the fire. For making dips, place them on the outer edges of the fire, where they can melt slowly. For cooking on a stick, place the food over the center of the fire so it can cook quickly.
Finally, remember to add barbecue sauce at the very end, after the meat is cooked. Otherwise, the sugars in the sauce will burn.
When Vanover explores national parks, she likes to cook with different specialty ingredients from the region. Park visitor centers often sell special products, such as cactus jelly at Lake Mead, and elk and bison at Yellowstone. In the summer, Vanover enjoys escaping to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, where the weather is cooler.
“Why can’t you bring home cooking to the park?” Vanover asked. Take up Vanover’s challenge with the recipes below.
To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation has created a new website with resources for exploring your nearest national park, at findyourpark.com.
Fig and Brie Seven-Layer Dip
I love traditional seven-layer dip made with refried beans, sour cream, salsa, guacamole, cheese, jalapeños, and green onions, but having lived just a few miles from the French border, I also love rich, melty brie cheese, warm chèvre (goat) cheese, and figs.
So as part of my latest camping adventure, I put a French twist on my seven-layer dip.
Step one was grabbing a couple sheets of foil again; remember this was a camping adventure sans pans. All of our meals were cooked using foil and skewers over an open campfire.
I made a large cavity out of the foil and started layering the European flavors.The dip is so pleasant because it has alternating layers of rich meats and cheeses, sweetness and crunch.
I had pre-chopped some pancetta and fresh figs and layered them in the bottom. I love fresh Brown Turkey figs so much, I planted a fig tree in my front yard about six months ago. They have a soft flesh with crunchy seeds similar to a kiwi fruit. They really add nice texture to this creamy dip.
Next was a layer of chèvre (goat) cheese. I bought the log of cheese and just crumbled it on top of the figs. For sweetness, I smeared on some fig preserves and layered on slices of brie.
For the final touch, next came a generous drizzle of honey and chopped walnuts. You can add a dash of pepper and sprinkle of lemon zest, too, to really make the flavors pop.
After 30 minutes on the campfire, we opened up our foil pouch, poured a glass of wine and experienced an absolutely fantastic, rich dip. Our Canadian campsite neighbors happened to be chatting it up in French, so that really added to the ambience.
This dip is truly a gourmet campfire treat, but if you’re not hitting the trails anytime soon, layer it up in a casserole dish, pop it in a 375-degree oven for 20–30 minutes, until the cheese is melted through and serve it with French bread, crackers, or tortilla chips.
- 3 ounces pancetta, chopped
- 1 cup fresh Brown Turkey figs, chopped
- 4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
- fig jam
- 6 ounces brie cheese, sliced
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- black pepper and lemon zest (optional)
Lay out three large pieces of nonstick foil, dull side up. Place them on top of each other and shape them into a bowl. Layer the ingredients in this order: pancetta, figs, goat cheese, jam, brie, honey, walnuts, black pepper, and lemon zest.
Wrap up the foil and place the pouch over warm coals.
Cook for about 30 minutes, until the cheeses are melted. Serve with chips, bread, or crackers.
Oven Method: Layer in a casserole dish. Bake uncovered in a 375-degree oven for 20–30 minutes.
Tender Juicy Beef Ribs
You don’t have to be a die-hard pitmaster to make tender juicy beef ribs. All you need is a little time, a grill, and some foil.
These ribs were marinated in a soy-sauce-vinegar combo with a bit of Tabasco sauce for heat and some honey for a touch of sweet. I zipped them up with the marinade in a plastic bag first thing in the morning. After a couple of hours, I flipped the bag over to make sure both sides got equal love.
Three hours before dinner, I started cooking. These ribs cook over direct heat and indirect heat. Direct heat is when you cook food directly over the fire. Indirect heat is when the fire is on the other side of the grill. With the grill cover closed, the meat still cooks, but it’s not directly over the fire, so it doesn’t cook too fast or burn. If you have a gas grill, this just means turning off the burner(s) on one side. If you have a charcoal grill, you just need to push the coals to one side.
First using direct heat, sear the ribs on all sides.
Then using indirect heat, let the ribs cook in a covered 275-degree grill for 30 minutes.
Finally for super juicy ribs, wrap the ribs in a foil pouch and continue cooking for another 2 hours over indirect heat. As the ribs cook, the juices will remain in the pouch and will really flavor and tenderize the meat.
You can put all the ribs in one pouch, or you can make individual pouches with 3–4 ribs inside, so each person gets their own foil pack of meaty goodness.
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup beef broth
- 2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2–3 pounds boneless beef ribs
In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, broth, Tabasco sauce, and honey. Place the ribs in a zip-top bag. Pour the marinade inside and rub to coat. Seal the bag and let marinate at least 4 hours.
Heat the grill to high. Place the ribs on direct heat and sear on each side for five minutes. Discard the extra marinade.
Move the ribs to indirect heat. (For a gas grill, turn the heat off on one side and move the ribs to that side. For a charcoal grill, push the coals to one side and move the ribs to the side with no coals.). Close the lid and grill for 30 minutes.
Wrap the ribs in foil and continue grilling for 2 hours. The internal temperature of the grill should be kept at 275 degrees.
Open the foil pouch and place the ribs on a platter. Pour the broth from the foil pouch over the ribs and serve.
Ribs They’ll Love
I’ve been making (or attempting to make) ribs for years. I’ve tried boiling them, smoking them, baking them, and just plain grilling them. They always turned out just okay.
Then in 2009 when I lived in Belgium, I finally came up with a technique that worked. My husband entered me into an Army rib cook-off against some burly soldiers who appeared to be true pitmasters.
I wanted ribs that were fall-off-the-bone juicy with charred, crispy fat. I read through every BBQ cookbook I had and scoured the internet for techniques. I also did a lot more testing, which my husband enjoyed … he probably entered me into the contest just for the pretesting.
Here’s all it takes:
1. Strip ’em. Remove the silverskin. It’s a membrane that is chewy and leathery. No one wants leathery ribs.
2. Love ’em. Give your ribs some love with a rub down of Zestuous rub (or your favorite rub), and bathe ’em nice in some soy sauce and vinegar.
3. Bake ’em. Take advantage of the pork fat and bone marrow. Putting the ribs in a pan and covering with foil, allows the meat to steam in its own juices and the flavorful rub.
4. Grill ’em. At this point, the meat is already fall-off-the-bone, but you want to get that nice char on the fat for finger-licking ribs.
This recipe also includes a homemade Zestuous Sauce made from the pan juices It’s really easy, but you can use any sauce or grill ’em naked. Your call. You can do steps 1–3 and make the sauce ahead of time, so when it’s time to party, the ribs are ready in 15 minutes.
I actually won the rib cook-off. Those apron-wearing, tong-yielding men had nothing on me. I was super excited, not just for the win, but because I had finally mastered ribs.
- 1 slab pork ribs
- Zestuous Rub
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Hot sauce to taste (optional)
Using a paper towel, grab the silverskin on the back of the ribs and pull off as much as you can.
If you are using spare ribs, trim the ribs to separate the top portion of meat from the rib cage, and cut into serving-size portions (about 3 ribs per serving).
Place the ribs into a 13 x 9 pan. Generously rub Zestuous rub all over the meat.
In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and liquid smoke. Pour evenly over the ribs. Cover with foil and bake in a 300-degree oven for 3 hours.
Remove the ribs from the pan and pour the juices into a fat separator.
In a small pot, combine 1 cup of the juices with maple syrup, ketchup, and mustard. If you like your sauce spicy, add hot sauce to taste. Reduce over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, until slightly thickened.
When it’s time to eat, light up the grill to medium heat. Grill the ribs just long enough to get the fat on the ribs a little crispy. Baste with barbecue sauce as you grill. This should take no longer than 10–15 minutes.
Serve with extra sauce. Enjoy you grill master, you!
(Recipes by Christie Vanover, zestuous.com)