Even today, all over the internet you can find a gazillion different "recipes" for foil packet cooking, and 99% of them include ground beef or a sliced sausage thing, a cut up potato, an onion, and maybe a few green beans. Sorry, but you can do better. Much better.
I realize that foil packet cooking, or "Hobo dinners," are simple, require minimal clean up, and allow for kids to include whatever they're willing to eat (that assumes that you actually let your kids make these choices -- more on that in a future post). These three things are important to me, too -- but that doesn't mean I have to settle for some warmed up hotdogs and a semi-raw onion and call it dinner, especially if I'm in the woods.
So if foil cooking is your go-to method for a weekend camping trip, here are ten things to include that can help turn a boring Hobo meal into something more worth the effort.
2. Olives. Olives that have been heated, especially with some decent spice, take on an entirely new persona. Don't use the canned black olives, void of all flavor. Splurge a bit on some Queen Sevillanos, or oil-packed Italian olives, or even high quality Kalamatas. Even better, mix them all together, add some red pepper flakes, a drizzle of olive oil, and some cracked black pepper, and even those under-cooked potatoes will be rendered amazing.
3. Garlic. Throw in the whole clove, or better yet, cut an entire head of garlic in half, drizzle both halves with olive oil, and wrap them in foil by themselves. Throw them in the fire, and when they're done (1/2 hour-ish, depending on how hot your coals happen to be), add them to whatever you're cooking. Or just spread the garlic cloves onto fresh, crusty bread and skip the rest of the packet.
4. Fresh herbs. Rosemary and thyme work best, though sage is a very close runner-up. Throw in the entire sprig or branch -- don't waste time trying to remove each leaf. When your packet is done, discard the herb (or, if you're my husband, eat it stem and all) by throwing it back on the fire for a bonus herb-scented dinner aroma.
5. Pumpkin seeds. These will add a nutty, rich element to an otherwise flat and boring Hobo packet. They're especially good with peppers, tomatoes, and beets, but try them with fish and other vegetables, too.
6. Shellfish. Still in their shells. No really -- clams, mussels, and shrimp are fabulous in a foil packet. Add some capers, lemon, fresh tomatoes, herbs (basil leaves are terrific), and a swizzle of balsamic vinegar (see #7), and not only will your dinner be amazing, but it will be ready before all your sausage-and-meatball-packing friends' dinners, too...
7. Balsamic vinegar. Good vinegar, not cheap vinegar. We have one small vial of really good balsamic vinegar that my husband received as a Secret Santa gift last Christmas, and we're just about to the end of it -- that means it's lasted us an entire year, so go spend $15 on a small bottle and you'll be glad you did. We use cheaper stuff in recipes, but when it comes to drizzling over food after it's been cooked, we opt for the good stuff. A teaspoon or so of really nice balsamic vinegar in your packet, especially if it contains acidic ingredients, is fantastic. Try it on fish, meat, and vegetables -- a good quality balsamic will go with just about any spice or herb, so experiment a bit. Go the extra mile and replace your camp ketchup bottle with balsamic vinegar, too.
8. Panko. Panko is Japanese bread crumbs, and they'll help even the most basic Hobo meal. Sprinkle a couple tablespoons over the top of your ingredients, along with a drizzle of olive oil and some extra dried herbs and cracked black pepper. As it cooks, the panko will absorb the olive oil and any other cooking liquids, soften a bit, and thicken the drippings into more of a sauce-like consistency. Panko is especially good for quick-cooking packets, as it stays crispier and adds a nice crunch to your vegetables.
9. Celery root. This is most readily available in the fall, but smaller bulbs are usually available year-round. Peel the root, cut it into small cubes, and add it to your packet. As it cooks, the celery root softens and takes on the flavors of whatever else is in the packet. When finished, it can be eaten as-is or mashed, just like potatoes. It has a slightly spicy celery taste, and a luscious, creamy texture. Don't throw away the leaves that come attached to the root, either -- throw them in your packet for extra celery taste.
10. Sliced citrus. Anything will do -- we love kumquats, but they aren't always available. Slice lemons, limes, even oranges thinly and add to packets of vegetables, fish, or other protein. As citrus cooks, the chemistry changes. I won't get too science-y here, so just be aware that you'll be able to eat the entire slice, peel and all, if they're cooked thoroughly enough.
And a bonus: one item to leave OUT of your packet:
1. Chicken. Yes, I know that there is a never-ending supply of Hobo packet chicken dinners all over Pinterest. Yay for them. However, I've seen too many people attempt to cook these foil packets who don't have a clue how long they must cook, and how hot chicken must get (and how long it has to remain at that temperature) to be considered safe to consume. Therefore, for a camping trip, unless you are very secure in your food safety knowledge, leave the raw chicken out of your packet. A better option would be to cook all your chicken together in ONE packet, and place your other ingredients in another packet. This way, your chicken can share it's chicken-y not-safe-to-eat juices with its fellow chicken parts, far away from your mushrooms and artichoke hearts and peppers.
By the way, I'm over-certified by various food safety councils, boards, and governing bodies. So I offer this advice not as someone who fears chicken, but as someone who knows enough to know how easy it is for chicken that's been kept in a camp cooler all day to become tonight's nightmare (and tomorrow's nightmare, too). Personally, I'd rather be uber-safe than painfully sorry. But that's just me.