January 2012/Prepared Foods -- Where there’s smoke, there just might be some great campfire cooking going on. While campfire cooking has evolved, utilizing new equipment, recipes and cooking techniques, the basics of campfire food essentially remain the same. Campfire food is usually prepared over a roaring wood-burning campfire or, perhaps, over the hot coals for a delicious dessert, like s’mores. This type of cooking tends to involve simple, easy-to-prepare items that are quick-cooking, portable and typically are comfort foods. This tends to be the all-American fare many fondly recall from childhood, and they are tied to holidays, such as the 4th of July or Labor Day, or just wonderful, warm and sunny summer days and crisp fall evenings. 

Memories of camping as a kid may evoke the look, taste and smell of overcooked hamburgers, “flaming” hot dogs or meals that were burnt on the outside and cold on the inside. After all, cooking over an open fire tends to be a little less precise than a stove in the kitchen, where one does not have to worry about lighting the wood or battling wind, rain or the flames. Remember the ooey-gooey s’mores that made up for it all at the end of the meal? Or, the cornmeal-coated trout that was just caught hours ago, cooked in a cast-iron pan? And, do not forget the smell of fresh coffee percolating on the fire, while hot bacon sizzles and pancakes cook on the griddle for the perfect camping breakfast

One of this writer’s favorite memories of campfire food is “pudgy pies.” Pudgy pies are cooked in a pie iron, a unique device made with very long handles and a cavity that can be filled with two slices of bread and a choice of fillings. Once closed, the bread and filling toast inside the pie iron over a campfire, creating a hot, steaming toasted pocket. To have the full pudgy pie experience, one has to burn one’s fingers—because it is so hard to wait to eat it.
For chefs, it’s hard to stick to the simple fillings of the typical camp grub instead experimenting with brioche bread filled with Nutella and raspberry preserves, or Serrano ham and Manchego cheese sandwiched inside flaky biscuit dough.  No matter what the style of camping, campfire foods are tightly tied to memories—usually the happy ones of being together as a family, even if it is pouring rain outside. Perhaps this is why people love these foods so much.

From Campfire to Prepared Foods

So, how do these campfire foods translate into prepared foods?  Some campfire-inspired flavors are already quite successful in the marketplace. On grocery store shelves, a consumer can find a wide array of products inspired by campfire foods, such as the many varieties of the all-time favorite campfire dish, s’mores.  There are s’mores kits to prepare in the backyard or (shudder) microwave; Honey Maid mini s’mores graham cracker sandwiches; Kellogg’s S’mores Pop Tarts; s’mores flavored popcorn; Ciao Bella Belgian Chocolate S’mores Gelato Squares; and Hershey’s S’mores Snacksters snack mix, just to name a few.

And, do not leave out foodservice. For those who want the s’mores without the work and clean-up, there are restaurants offering s’mores dessert pizzas, s’mores chocolate fondue and even a food truck in Austin, Texas, that strikes up a fire-pit next to the trailer to offer a “toast-your-own” marshmallow for a real s’mores experience.  Just when it seems the combination could not possibly get any better than the classic, Kraft Foods has developed new, Jet-Puffed StackerMallows—square-shaped marshmallows that fit perfectly on a graham cracker for the ultimate, easy-to-make s’mores.

Just because the flavor of s’mores has taken over many market segments does not mean it is overdone. Plenty of opportunities exist for the next generation of s’mores. How about a flavored, cinnamon graham cracker with a caramel swirl marshmallow and a caramel-filled chocolate square for the ultimate cinnamon-caramel-flavored s’mores? Or, a toasted Key lime marshmallow paired with graham crackers for a Key lime s’mores edition? With the new, gourmet varieties of marshmallows and crackers available, the possibilities are unlimited.

While the s’mores flavor profile inspired by this campfire favorite has seemingly infiltrated a wide variety of food products, the key attributes of what is loved about campfire cooking lend these foods, flavors and cooking techniques to the much broader arena of prepared foods. 

Current flavor trends also are easy to tie into campfire-inspired concepts by taking a retro favorite and adding a twist—to create something more interesting and appealing to consumers’ eyes and palates. For example, corn-on-the-cob buried in the hot embers of a wood campfire to slowly char the outer corn husks, but slowly steam and smoke the inside, is a favorite, and it is very easy to cook over a campfire. For manufacturers, taking corn-on-the-cob and smoking, or even just adding a smoky element in the form of a compound butter, can recreate the experience of campfire-roasted corn-on-the-cob that could be found in the freezer aisle, ready to cook. 

To address the trend for authentic ethnic flavors and the huge resurgence of street foods, why not offer a corn-on-the-cob grilling kit—complete with fresh ears of corn ready to grill, a packet of grated Cotija cheese, cayenne shake-on and a Mexican crema sauce—to recreate the authentic Mexican street corn.

Or, take the idea out a little farther from the campfire—create a pizza topped with a zesty tomato sauce, grilled chicken and a smoky corn salsa finished with chopped cilantro. This product would be inspired by the original, campfire-cooked corn-on-the-cob, but with an added twist to create a dish that is new, interesting and in a much different form.

Pudgy pies also provide a great opportunity to capitalize on the prepared “camp style” foods market. Imagine a product that has a flaky exterior crust with sweet or savory fillings inside; is easy to prepare and heat at home; is portable and provides comfort food flavors. This is a great idea that already exists in the marketplace; now, consider the same product with the addition of those great, smoky, wood campfire flavors, the traditional flavors associated with camping. This creates a pocket product that stands apart from similar products currently on the market.

To recreate the campfire flavor in a way that is friendly for the average consumer kitchen and easy and fast to prepare, manufacturers can turn to some great flavor products that are available. Smoke flavors have come a long way since the original Liquid Smoke. Now, manufacturers can fine-tune specific smoke and grilling flavors, such as applewood, mesquite, gas grill, wood-fired, etc., to develop flavors that recreate the memories of the taste and smell of original campfire staples. Adding smoked, fire-roasted or grilled ingredients (fire-roasted tomatoes, grilled red peppers, smoked chicken, smoky chipotle peppers) is also an easy way to replicate campfire flavors. Maillose and browning products can replicate the browning/grill-mark effect in a manufacturing setting, as can fire-roasting equipment for ingredients or finished products.

With the trends of “retro with a twist” or “re-invented comfort foods” growing in the marketplace, it makes sense to revisit some unique foods that can approach these trends in a different way to create fun and unusual food products. Consumers have strong ties to certain foods and flavor profiles based on  personal and cultural memories. Campfire-inspired foods are one way to tap into the current trends, while addressing the memories, to create some new, exciting products with serious staying power in the marketplace. pf

Cowboys “On Trend”

The image of cowboys cooking over a campfire or standing in line at a chuck wagon often includes a food staple that could once again be in vogue—beans! The link between beans and cowboys is so strong that “cowboy caviar” has come to mean a condiment or side dish of black-eyed peas, vegetables, oil, vinegar, herbs and spices. Mennino Brothers’ Cowboy Caviar, distributed through Costco, lists black-eyed peas and black beans as the first two items on its ingredient statement.
Beans fall into the category of legumes or pulses. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines “pulses” as crops harvested only for their dry seeds, such as various beans, chickpeas (garbanzos), lentils and dry peas, among others. Although worldwide consumption of pulses has generally remained steady at best, pulses have two key benefits that may propel their popularity. They are good for the body and good for the environment.

In terms of their benefit to the environment, as legumes, they “fix nitrogen” in soil, which makes them key in crop rotations and, thus, land sustainability. As for nutritional benefits, according to Wikipedia, pulses are high in protein (20-25% by weight). The protein is highly digestible but low in the essential amino acid methionine. Grains and sesame seeds (the latter popular in Indian cuisine) contain good levels of methionine, thus providing a complete diet of protein when consumed with pulses. Pulses are also a good source of resistant starch, which may function as a prebiotic. One study also found consumption of legumes was the strongest predictor of longevity among elderly study participants in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia. (Darmadi-Blackberry, I, et al. 2004. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 13(2):217-20.)

So, live long and live in (black-eyed) peas!

— Claudia D. O’Donnell, Chief Editor