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Sabato Sagaria | Photo: Rebecca Stumpf | July 8, 2013
A group of Aspen professionals finds that luxury is taking a backyard escape and going car camping—with great food and wine as the top essentials.
Glasses of rosé in hand, my friends and I spread out around the fire, surrounded by groves of aspen trees, their trunks gleaming in the late daylight. We love living in paradise, but, even here, busy professionals like ourselves need an escape to reconnect with Mother Nature—to shut out the real world and catch up with one another.
None of us has the time to go on long backpacking trips, nor do we want to. Amazing places exist in the wilderness surrounding downtown Aspen that provide easy escapes. For us, there’s a certain luxury to Aspen-style car camping that we love: the crackle of the fire and the starry skies overhead, mixed with laughter and stories, and, of course, great food and wine. We feel far away from downtown Aspen, without actually being very far away at all.
After 20 years of working in the restaurant industry, I know that life is too short to ever waste a meal. And I love nothing more than feeding friends and loved ones, and pairing meals with great wines—especially in the great outdoors. As a child, I survived family camping trips on charred hot dogs and store-bought potato salad. These days, I take the reins and volunteer as campsite caterer. By employing many of the timesaving techniques that restaurateurs use, and those I use when I entertain at home, anyone can rough it without compromising on great food and wine.
However, the fact that you’re several miles off the grid, with a fire pit and no running water or electricity, makes planning ahead and being organized crucial. Getting a jump start on your prep by doing as much slicing, dicing and marinating ahead of time not only reduces cooking time, but it also eliminates stress and mess. Chances are, if you’re the chef, you’re also the packhorse. So pack equipment that serves multiple purposes: cast-iron pans, knives, cutting boards and bowls. Prep side dishes in containers that the dishes can be both stored and served in. Once at the site, set up your cooking station while it’s light out, and stay organized. Wearing a headlamp also helps you pack everything back up—and you can see if your meat is too raw or about to be charred.
If your friends have been hiking while you set up camp, serve appetizers before you fill them with cocktails. I start with snacks requiring zero prep on-site. Cured meats, goat and cow cheeses with crackers, or prosciutto and melon all pack a protein punch. I also make a delicious spread with store-bought ricotta, and mix in chopped herbs, roasted garlic, lemon zest and a splash of olive oil.
Keeping your guests in high spirits is next. I’m a fan of pre-batching a civilized “proper” cocktail to get the evening going. Negronis and Pimm’s cups are two of my all-time favorite drinks that travel well. They can be made in advance and can be poured right back into the bottle for easy transport. As for wine, I keep it simple with a crisp white or a delicious bottle of red that will make for good drinking throughout the meal. Bottles are heavy though, so, lately, I’ve been using a platypus, which allows easy decanting and transferring of a bottle into a sealable and pourable pouch that can be thrown into your backpack or cooler. It lightens your load by about 2 pounds per bottle. When it comes to after-dinner libations, great bourbon is a manly campfire tradition in most circles, but I sometimes reach for something a bit more exotic and unexpected. Amaro Nonino is an Italian digestif infused with alpine herbs, with hints of caramelized orange: I can’t think of a better stargazing accompaniment. A couple fingers of Nonino and two ice cubes—yes, I pack ice—to finish the night off will make your sleeping bag feel like a pillow-top mattress.
The main meal is the star, of course. I’ve learned a lot from my good friend and man of the mountains, Jim Butchart. As the executive chef for the Aspen Skiing Company’s Mountain division, he is an avid outdoorsman and a hell of a cook, just the kind of friend you want on a camping trip. One of Butchart’s specialties is Colorado lamb T-bones. He preportions them, which results in the meat cooking relatively quickly. The night before, he places the T-bones in a ziplock bag with fresh herbs, crushed garlic, olive oil, Dijon and honey. When we are ready to cook, he tosses them on the grill. Pork chops, chicken thighs, tenderloins and flank steak are also fast, easy and satisfying proteins to grill. A simple puree of flat-leaf parsley, assorted herbs, lemon zest, garlic, chili flakes and olive oil yields Butchart’s signature Jimmy-Churri—a sauce that brightens any meat as it comes off the grill.
To accompany the carnivorous creations, a chilled grain salad is light, healthy and refreshing. Not to mention, it’s very durable so it can be made ahead of time and transported in Tupperware. I love the combination of quinoa and finely chopped kale, but also suggest you improvise and mix in your favorite vegetables, pickles and herbs. Make a vinaigrette at home, and, when it’s time to serve, pour the dressing and shake it all up in the Tupperware. Fingerling potatoes make for another great side and can be marinated in olive oil, garlic, onions and herbs at home, too. When it’s time to cook, wrap them in two to three layers of foil, and place them right in the fire’s hot coals while you’re preparing everything else—or, in my case, sipping negronis and telling tales of scaling mountains and fighting off bears.
And what would camping be without s’mores? My 2.0 version reinvents this campfire classic; I supersize them, using mini cream puffs slathered with Nutella and stuffed with molten marshmallows. These are sure to attract envious glances from creatures lurking in the woods, so watch out. Happy trails!