Thanksgiving meal, Campfire Edition
November 19, 2022 1:41 PM   Subscribe

How do I make a delicious thanksgiving meal over a campfire without tearing my hair out too much?

So my family (four adults and one dog) is going camping in Big Sur this Thanksgiving. It’s a private campground so campfires are allowed. I’ll be working till Wednesday night and leaving early Thursday morning, but can do some prep work ahead of time. I need help figuring out how to make the meal over the fire.

I thought we would do chicken thighs over the fire as the protein but need ideas for making them taste like the cornerstone of the thanksgiving meal, maybe a marinade?

No idea how to do mashed potatoes. Could make ahead of time, but how to re-heat?

I can make and freeze gravy, but how do I do that without drippings?

Stuffing should be doable from a box in an aluminum pan, right? With boxed stock?

Anyone have easy veg ideas?

The only thing I’m sure of is dessert: a Costco pumpkin pie and an apple crumble, pre assembled and baked on the fire in a cast iron pan. Oh, and there will be a glorious charcuterie board. I want to keep this as simple as possible but want it to be special too. I have an enormous cooler, a few cast iron pans, a couple of steel grates for cooking on the fire, a jet boil for boiling small amounts of water and such, and a ton of red oak firewood.
posted by sparringnarwhal to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
We do turkey meatballs with gravy, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, and these no bake bites. It all heats perfectly over a campstove or fire in foil. We pre-make all of it.
posted by chuke at 1:54 PM on November 19, 2022 [6 favorites]

For mashed potatoes, Adam Ragusea has a video about mashing baked potatoes. You can bake them in foil in the fire and then mash.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:24 PM on November 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

Gravy without drippings is no problem. It's not exactly the same, but it's still good. A quick Google will show you many recipes!
posted by branca at 2:46 PM on November 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

chuke has it, I believe. Since Thanksgiving leftovers are the best part, make everything ahead and reheat.

Cooking over a campfire is always so much more work. Unless you have enthusiastic helpers and dishwashers, I'd do everything ahead.

One option with mashed potatoes is instant. The ones with just mashed potato flakes are surprisingly great. (Really.)

You can make gravy ahead, I just did and will freeze it for the week. I usually buy a turkey piece and maybe some chicken, make broth either in instant pot or on stove. Then stir a spoon or two of butter with the same amount of flour until the flour is not raw tasting, add the broth slowly, splash in some optional wine, simmer, taste, add a mix of cornstarch and water for thicker, add msg / accent for more flavor, add some poultry seasoning or pepper for more flavor.

Canned sweet potatoes are good doctored with butter and brown sugar or marshmallows.

Canned green beans are good with a lot of butter. Though cooking fresh ahead and reheating would be better.

Depending on how traditional you want to be, going straight to the sandwiches with a great bread, something like a soft Italian sounds amazing. Or! Gobbleritoes, make everything ahead, then wrap mashed potatoes with black beans, stuffing, sliced roasted turkey breast in a burrito-sized tortilla, heat up on fire wrapped in foil, serve with a dipping sauce of half gravy and half cranberry sauce.
posted by RoadScholar at 2:52 PM on November 19, 2022

The best meal I ever had was burned scrambled eggs and Spam over an open fire. 90% of the meal is just being there with family and friends. The other 10% is chocolate. Please enjoy chuke's suggestion, because nothing gets you out of the sack like the promise of food. And hot chocolate. Man, I would crawl out of my grave for a hot cup of cocoa first thing in the darkness.
posted by SPrintF at 3:18 PM on November 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

I am not much of a camper or a cook. But what about the possibility of doing something less traditional? Could that make the meal simpler?
posted by NotLost at 3:28 PM on November 19, 2022

My daughter is a chef and loves campfire food. I wish I could ask her advice directly, but she is not home, so I will have to recreate her strategies from memory. Thanksgiving isn't a thing here, but I can easily see how she would adapt.

For the mash, she would absolutely go with the baked potatoes. Bake them wrapped in foil in the fire and then mash them with tons of butter. I have to say that IMO the flakes are a very good idea as well.

For the main, make a stew. Most people are very focused on grilling on camp fires, but a stew is much better. They probably had a stew back at the first Thanksgiving. If you really need som form of roast, then make a stew of the legs and put the breast on sticks to roast over the fire. To do that: cut up your turkey or duck or goose* and make a good stock out of the carcass and wings with some onions, carrots and celery. Freeze the stock and use the block of stock as a cooling element in your cooler. Cut the breast meat into big dice, and marinate them in a mix of wine, olive oil, cloves, garlic, thyme and bay leaves. If you can, vacuum pack them, or just put them in a plastic bag with the marinade. When you are ready to grill, put them on metal spears or wooden sticks you have soaked in water, and then place them on a wire rack till they are cooked through, turning every five minutes.
Separate the legs into thighs and drumsticks, and put them in their own bag, with salt, pepper and whatever other seasoning you like. Prep the vegetables for the stew and put them in bags according to when they go in the pot, onions and carrots go together, squash come in later.
Put your pot over the fire and begin with browning the meat on all sides. Maybe you got some fat out of the bird during your prep, that would be amazing, otherwise use a bit of oil or butter. When the meat is browned, add in the onions, carrots and celery, and soften them, without browning. Add in chopped garlic (or just a head of garlic, you are camping). When the garlic is softened, not browned, add a tablespoon of flour. Stir well. Then add in a glass of wine. Let it simmer for a moment, then add the stock. Its probably still half frozen but that is OK. Let it simmer for 15 minutes, then add in whatever other vegetables you want. Cook till the meat falls off the bones. Eat with mashed potatoes and those grilled pieces of breast meat.

In place of both stuffing and traditional vegetables, I'd go with the roasted celeriac I was recently recommended here on the Green. It seems to me to be ideal campfire food. We didn't make the sauce then, and I haven't tried it yet, but the celeriac will work just fine with the gravy from the stew.

* A more gamey bird works better than chicken for this.
posted by mumimor at 3:49 PM on November 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

Car camping, right? You can bring stuff like a potato masher, though a fork does a decent job.
Add a little white wine or sherry to the gravy.
Bring a meat thermometer to make sure turkey if fully cooked.
Mashed potatoes: Cook peeled potatoes in water, drain, mash with butter and milk(sour cream).
Wrap sweet potatoes in foil, cook in slow coals.
Make stuffing ahead of time, freeze, warm in a covered pan, unless you prefer boxed. butter, broth, sauteed onions and celery make great stuffing.
Frozen whole green beans - cook in a small amount of water, drain, add butter, top with those fried onions.
Do not forget canned cran jelly.
Keeping food warm may be a challenge. A spare cooler to use as a warm box might work. Add a hot water bottle.

Leftover stuffing and gravy for camp breakfast sounds so good.
posted by theora55 at 3:57 PM on November 19, 2022

Brussel sprouts in a cast iron pan over a campfire works well. Use something with a high smoke point as the fat. You can also fry green beans in cast iron easily. Throw in a little chopped garlic 30-60 seconds before finishing it and transfer to a different vessel so that it doesn't burn.

No idea how to do mashed potatoes. Could make ahead of time, but how to re-heat?

You can find dehydrated mashed potatoes at camping stores. Do you have a camp stove to boil water? Not as good as the real thing but easier than trying to reheat real ones. If you're not an absolute traditionalist, I'd suggest switching to baked regular or sweet potatoes. If you really want something like fresh mashed potatoes you can bake them and then use a hand cranked beater to turn them into fluffy goodness.

I thought we would do chicken thighs over the fire as the protein but need ideas for making them taste like the cornerstone of the thanksgiving meal

You could buy turkey breast cutlets and/or legs and use those instead. The classic Thanksgiving seasonings I'm used to from the Midwest and East Coast is rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, and salt and pepper. With either choice of fowl, I'd be inclined to marinade it in chardonnay.

Bring a good rapid meat thermometer. With a campfire, the line between "not safe to eat" and "overcooked or burned" can go by fast.

how do I do that without drippings?

Buy premade gravy or get some turkey stock. Trader Joes carries it, at least in the past.
posted by Candleman at 3:58 PM on November 19, 2022

I’m hoping you’re more experienced and a better campfire cook than me but I have a king history of burning the ever loving shit out of campfire meals while they are still raw in the middle and take about 2 hours longer than expected. I’m a good good an experienced camper, but I stick to. Y Coleman stove and jet boil. It might not be a bad idea to throw a package of hot dogs and buns in the cooler, just in case
posted by raccoon409 at 5:00 PM on November 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Turkey and stuffing meatballs, cranberry sauce, gravy in a carton, finish some green beans in the pan after the meatballs come out, add butter, sprinkle flaked almonds and/or crispy fried onions.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 5:24 PM on November 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Duck in a dutch oven , with carrots and yams , duck elevated above its own grease with potatoes. set it beside the fire turn it every so often, finish by piling coals on top to brown the bird .
posted by hortense at 6:17 PM on November 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

You should absolutely prep as many of the sides as possible ahead of time and just reheat them. The object of this trip is presumably to have an enjoyable time with the people you will be with, not to test your stress tolerance and campfire creativity. If you want to experiment with the (considerable) possibilities of campfire cookery, do it on another trip.

But if you're determined to cook as much as possible on-site (or even if you just want to make things easier on yourself).. One of these and a bottle or two of propane will give you a much more controllable cooking environment than a campfire will.

Finally, I suggest you bring a significant quantity of aluminum foil with you, by preference the heavy duty stuff. You don't have to be profligate with it, but it gives you a *lot* of flexibility in camp cookery and it sounds like you're driving to wherever you're going and a little extra weight won't matter..
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:26 PM on November 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd bake 4 turkey legs long and slow, in advance, 4 yams. I make stuffing by making a pan of cornbread with the stuffing seasonings and aromatic vegetables and celery in the moist cornbread. I would make 4 twice baked potatoes, or hasselback potatoes. I would then cool this stuff and wrap up 4 individual feasts to reheat in the fire, and serve the cornbread / stuffing on the side. The costco pies are great! I might drop by a Winco and buy their cream cheese ices cinnamon rolls for the morning, adding chopped pecans on the top from their bulk aisle. Some other things to take, deviled eggs, they might be heavenly at breakfast. Crackers galore for your charcuterie. A ripe pineapple for the next day, Panera sourdough bread and mayo for turkey sandwiches if you take some cold sliced turkey breast for the next day. I would skip the gravy, but not the cranberry relish.
posted by Oyéah at 7:02 PM on November 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

I agree that if you don't have a ton of experience with campfire cooking to keep it simple. You're going to expend a lot more energy than in the kitchen just doing the basics and fumbling in the (probably?) dark. Anything wrapped in foil is easy, anything more complicated invites the hand of fate.

But if you must cook meat directly over a fire (and I mean it's good that way!) I like drumsticks or wings better than thighs which have a lot of fat that flares up. Lots of salt and pepper and maybe sage to make it thanksgiving-sy. Wait for more charred bits than you think will taste good, then it's ready.

And yeah, baked potatoes in foil directly against the coals, it still takes 20-30 minutes so start them early.

And remember to keep feeding the fire and keep it hot! If you can leave your hand there for more than a couple of seconds it isn't hot enough.

Bring lots of charcuterie and extra snacks in case you totally screw up. It'll be fine.
posted by credulous at 9:30 PM on November 19, 2022

Coincidentally, Sunset just posted an article last week about this: Yes, You Can Cook Your Entire Thanksgiving Dinner Over a Campfire (And It’s a Lot Easier Than You’d Think). Basic points:

* keep your menu to a manageable size (they're like "just a couple of beloved dishes rather than a dozen");
* don't do a whole bird, do parts (which it sounds like you're doing re the chicken);
* make stuff ahead of time and freeze it, then use the grill to reheat it (common suggestion above that I heartily agree with);
* plan for how to use leftovers (like, bring extra rolls for Thanksgiving sandwiches the next day).
posted by Pandora Kouti at 2:02 AM on November 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

See if you can find someone who has bought a solo stove (or one of the other smokeless fire pit competitors) with all of the cooking accessories that you can borrow. The heat coming off a smokeless fire pit is much more controlled then what you get with a regular fire, and you aren’t getting smoke in your eyes the whole time you are cooking.

Also better for air quality! Ideally they also have the radiator accessory for improved comfort while sitting around the fire.
posted by rockindata at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2022

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