Saturday Night at the Campground
It’s Saturday night and there is a definite chill about as the sun sets. Campfire smoke wafts through the air. It’s the weekend before Halloween and we’ve spent the afternoon trick or treating around the campground at the Kentucky Horse Park. It’s also closing day at Keeneland, the last live races run until spring. The Breeder’s Cup simulcasts have been on all day, and Kentucky played football against Florida (never a pretty thing to watch). It’s just the kind of fall weekend that I love. What makes it even better is I’m standing over the grill cooking dinner. I couldn’t be more relaxed. After a dizzying week spent jet-setting to Chicago on business, it felt good to be home and back in my natural element. The whole time I was in the Windy City eating and drinking along Michigan Avenue, the one thing I really wanted was to be back in my kitchen with my knives, cutting boards, spices, recipes and friends. While I love the preparation of a well thought out meal, what makes being in the kitchen fun to me is the improvisation that goes along with it. That’s probably why I like the art of cooking rather than the more precise science of baking. Sometimes it is the dishes born of necessity and creativity that turn out to be the best. More often than not these dishes are some of the best in a cook’s repertoire – utilizing simple, quality ingredients.
Ok, this is all leading up to a bratwurst recipe, so forgive me for using “quality” and “brats” in the same post. Hey, I may be a foodie, but I’m not a snob. Campground brats done my way have become the stuff of legend around here. I’ve got a group of friends that love to camp. While not exactly the primitive tent-pitching bunch, they have yet to graduate from “campers” to the larger, more expensive “RV’s”. There are always kids running around and dogs doing their best to not get in the way. The cornhole boards – that drunken recreational sport which over the last few years has gone from relative obscurity to a cottage industry – are set up later. Not familiar with cornhole? Then you’ve never been to a mid-western college fraternity party, you’ve never attended a Jimmy Buffett concert, and you haven’t spent a weekend camping with this bunch. As to why they are all camping is unclear. Everyone lives within 20 minutes of the Horse Park, so it’s not like this is the family’s fall vacation. No, this bunch just likes to get out of the house on weekends, and the Horse Park with it’s basketball courts, playgrounds, pool (currently closed for the season) and over 200 spots with electric and water hookups makes for an easy, accessible, and fun weekend getaway at very little cost. That means we can all spend money on the important things. Like dinner. Datil pepper rubbed pork tenderloin, Creole shrimp, bourbon marinated ribeye’s – you name it, chances are good that we’ve cooked it.
About a year ago we found ourselves in a pinch – it was getting late, no one felt like driving to the grocery. We were going to have to cook dinner based on what we could find in the camper’s fridge. The brats were the only meat we had, but we had no buns. This wasn’t one of our proudest hours in terms of advance planning. We needed to come up with something to do with the brats other than simply grilling them and throwing them on a plate. The veggie drawer revealed yellow onions, bell peppers in red, yellow and green along with some other assorted chile’s, garlic and some fresh cilantro. We also had on hand some homemade Cajun seasoning. The bell peppers went into cast iron skillet with a little olive oil. Once they started to soften we added the onions, a little of the seasoning and some beer. We might have been short on food, but we definitely had plenty of beer. Come to think of it, the prevalence of beer may have been the reason we failed to have a full supply of food on hand. Once the onions and peppers had simmered for a bit, in went the garlic, other chile’s and finally the brats. The now bubbling skillet was topped off with the rest of the seasoning and more beer.
The night, then as it is now, was cold and you could see the steam coming out of the skillet on the grill. The dead calm in the air meant the steam wafted across the campground – you could smell what we were cooking ten sites away. Our improvised dinner turned into a camping favorite which has been replicated many times since. We’ve added shrimp, cooked it in a cast iron pot suspended by tripod over a wood fire, played around with different veggies, and substituted chicken for the brats. Regardless of the ingredients, there is something about the method and combination that just screams fall outdoor cooking.
Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t even have to be planned as we’ve discovered time and time again. A few necessities is really all it takes to stock a kitchen, even the portable kind like my friends have in their camper. Add some fresh produce, a little meat, and more often than not you have everything you need. The creativity is half the fun, and on chilly fall nights most of us aren’t in the mood for fancy meals anyway. That’s when comfort food comes into play. Simple, tasty and something everyone will remember. Food can produce strong memories and associations in the mind. Ultimately, I think that is what is at the heart of cooking and why people like me enjoy it so.