Dinner Under the Stars Made Easy


When I think about camping there are a lot of positive memories that come up – watching the sunset, the smell of a smoky campfire, long hikes with beautiful views. But hardly ever do I think of delicious food being associated with camping (besides s’mores, arguably one of the most delicious processed food combinations ever). I wanted to disprove the idea that camping means eating beans and weenies out of a can hunched over a campfire. So with leg work and a bit of planning ahead I managed to make a delicious meal using just a cast iron skillet over a campfire, and it was surprisingly easy. At the end of a day of travel and camping set-up, my girlfriend and I indulged in a big hot bowl of polenta and lamb meatballs smothered in homemade tomato sauce. I even packed some thickly cut ciabatta bread to sop up the delicious tomato sauce and I highly recommend going that route.

If you’re anything like me, you travel to eat. Wherever we go I’m always looking for the local favorite, whether it be the diner in the middle of a proverbial ghost town or a hidden gem of a high-end restaurant in the middle of Manhattan. I go to new places just so that I can find new foods. On this trip we’d driven 30 minutes from where we live in downtown Portland, Oregon, but even a tiny trip is an adventure if you choose to make it one.

When I was planning our meal I thought about the number of tools and pieces of cookware I wanted to take with me (not more than three) and I thought about how to eliminate cross-contamination since I knew I wanted to utilize meat in our dinner. I made the tomato sauce from a bunch of tomatoes that I had lying around; I had tiny cherry tomatoes and big hearty ones from a friend’s garden and I just decided to throw them all together and see what happened. The result was well beyond my expectations–a super-summery, bright sauce emerged from my hodgepodge of ingredients. Homemade tomato sauce is one of those things that is so worth the effort and you can make an enormous batch of it, can or freeze it, and have sauce for those pasta dishes and lasagnas that you make all winter long.

The lamb meatballs were perfect for traveling, too. I made them at home, baked them, let them cool, then froze them in a plastic container. I cut thick slices of a polenta log and put them in another container, drizzling them with more olive oil than necessary so I could heat the excess oil in the skillet. I sliced up the bread and put it in a resealable bag to eliminate the need for a cutting board and a bread knife.

Make this while you’re camping or just for a quick and easy weeknight meal!


Photo credit: Sarah Hopwood

Tomato Sauce
Makes about 3 cups

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large cloves garlic, finely diced
  • 1 sweet onion, diced
  • 4 pounds fresh tomatoes, with the skins, chopped coarsely
  • 2 fire-roasted red peppers packed in oil
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  1. In a large saucepan or a medium stock pot, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and onion. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until very soft, 20-30 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer uncovered, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan occasionally, until the liquid is reduced and the mixture is thick, about 1 hour.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor. Add roasted peppers, pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, basil and vinegar. Season to taste with more salt, pepper and red wine vinegar. Refrigerate until needed, or can, or pack into containers and freeze.

Photo credit: Sarah Hopwood

Lamb Meatballs

  • (1 1/2 pounds) ground lamb
  • 1/2 cup chopped white onion
  • 1 large clove garlic, finely diced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  1. Heat the oven to 190° C (375° F). In a medium bowl, combine all of the ingredients. Mix with your hands to blend well. Shape into 20-25 small balls, using a tablespoon to measure if desired; the meatballs should be roughly the same size to ensure even cooking.
  2. Place meatballs evenly spaced on a baking sheet with even space between them. Bake until there is no pink in the middle when one is cut open with a knife, 15-18 minutes.

Photo credit: Sarah Hopwood

The day before camping:

  1. Make the tomato sauce, allow to cool, then freeze in a plastic container.
  2. Make the lamb meatballs, allow to cool then freeze in a plastic container.
  3. Slice polenta log into 2.5 cm (1-inch) thick slices, place in a plastic container, douse with olive oil and refrigerate.
  4. Slice thick white bread for sopping up all that delicious sauce! Place in a resealable bag, leave at room temperature.

To take camping:

  1. Fill ice chest with ice.
  2. Place all ingredients except the bread in the ice chest. Carry the bread at room temperature.

Prepping for dinner:

  1. Make the fire.
  2. Take ingredients out of the ice chest if they’re still frozen. If not frozen, allow them to stay chilled in the ice chest.
  3. Once the fire is roaring, put the cast iron skillet on the heat with a bit of olive oil from the container holding the polenta slices.
  4. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle when you flick water on it, add the polenta. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Transfer the polenta to individual serving bowls.
  5. Add the meatballs to the hot skillet over the fire, and let them heat all the way through. Add the sauce and heat thoroughly. Serve over the polenta slices with bread for sopping.



Sarah Hopwood

Sarah Hopwood is a photographer, bread baker, freelance writer, avid wine drinker and an all around cynical optimist, currently living her dream in Portland, Oregon. She writes about food, travel and her cat on her blog,... Read More