How To Turn Your Next Family Picnic Into A Pit-Fired Meat Fest

Pine and dine.

by Jonathan Stern
Originally Published: 

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On one hand, you want your kids to experience the majesty of nature; to breathe fresh air and gesture vaguely at trees and mountains. On the other hand, your kid is hungry and — why hasn’t anyone bulldozed this place and put in an Arby’s?

That’s when you pull out this primer from Chef Jason Dady, who operates some of San Antonio’s best restaurants. He does the kind of campsite cooking that puts your franks and beans to shame, and he’s perfected his technique with his kids in the Texas Hill Country. Here are his tips on how to pack, prep, and cook like a wild man.

Fire, Good!

Don’t assume there will just be dead trees and dry logs ripe for the splitting. “We like to take our own firewood with us,” says Dady. “You can gather kindling when you’re there. I like to do little cheater charcoal and get that going first. Then small to mid-sized logs to form tee-pee style.”

Once your big fire has burned down, spread out about 30 percent of those coals to put your Dutch oven or skillet over. For anyone that has tried to hang a pot over a fire like you’re Cookie on the chuck wagon, you know this is the less complicated way to go. (Although you may still want to bring a campfire grill to keep food off of direct heat.)

Flickr / Rolfe

The Tools You’ll Need

“I used to have the full-blown camp kitchen with pots and pans and every dry good imaginable,” says Dady. “Now we try to keep it super simple. I also make a checklist and have things planned out.”

To take with you:

  • 14″ cast iron pan
  • 16 – 18″ dutch oven
  • Tongs: “For $5 you can buy a nice pair. Don’t buy a flimsy one.”
  • 10-inch chef’s knife
  • 12 x 14-inch plastic cutting board
  • Good, thick oven mitts

The Spices You’ll Need

Kosher salt is the most important thing, followed closely by black pepper, smoked paprika, and cumin. “It can add a lot of impact and they’re not flavors the kids are afraid of,” he says.

Flickr / Hailgumby

Leave The Hibachi

“I’ve taken a hibachi grill, but prefer to cook in the element of outside,” says Dady. One of his tricks is creating a sort-of country clambake that you can leave and let cook while you go and enjoy some of that natural wonder.

“I dig a hole, put some wrapped up game hens and sausages in, cover it with dirt, and come back 6 hours later for dinner.” Here are the steps for how it’s done with salmon.

Foil Wrapping Like The Pros

“Err on the side of too much foil so the food won’t char,” says Dady. “Make sure you have something in there that has a decent amount of moisture. And add a few pieces of ice that will allow food to steam.”

If you don’t want your chicken (or game hen, or pheasant, or wild turkey) to taste like boiled crap, you may want to pre-sear the bird in a skillet to add a nice secondary layer or crisp. Then double wrap it. Like in college.

Flickr / Anne Worner

Make A MacGyver Smoker

If you find yourself in front of one of those rusted out, crappy campground grills, turn it into a smoker:

  • Take a few sheets of foil and fold them in half so they’re sturdy
  • Wrap them around the body of the grill (note that the sides need to extend above the grill top for this to work)
  • Soak some wood chips or bark in water
  • Build a small fire in the grill, add the soaked chips and cover with foil
  • Add the food to the grill top and smoke ’em (because you’ve got ’em.)

Gauging How Long To Cook

Once you’ve wrapped up your food and tossed it on the coals, a big question is, ‘How long do you let it go for?’ “I think of [the fire] like a 350-degree oven at home,” says Dady. “Your fire is super hot, but it’s not burning at 500 degrees and it’s not going to be below 200. Let it go for however long it’s going to take at home. About 20 minutes for fish. About 40 minutes for chicken.”

Flickr / Colby Stopa

Camping Menu

Breakfast. Cast iron French toast. “it’s nice because you can pre-crack the eggs and put the liquid in a container before you leave. We use some local bread, add some Nutella, and put strawberries on top. It’s hard to beat french toast with Nutella.”

Lunch. BLT. “We use the cast iron to crisp the bacon, toast the bread, add Kewpie Japanese mayo.”

Dinner. Moroccan-spiced chicken. I’m a huge fan of chicken legs and thighs because you can pre-marinate and they don’t dry out. I buy a package of 16 chicken thighs, season with some Moroccan spices at home, add a little container of Greek yogurt and we grill them up on the last night.”

Dessert. Starburst S’mores. “My kids were fire-roasting Starburst and they were mind-blowingly good. Put them inside of s’mores — It’s pretty shocking.”

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