I am a native urbanite and a city girl through and through, but every few months my tiny apartment and the crowded Manhattan streets begin to feel oppressive and I start itching to be out in nature. My fear of bears and tornadoes aside, sleeping and cooking under the stars is one of my favorite summer activities. Most (normal) campers subsist on easy sandwiches and canned goods while out in the wilderness. For me, though, part, or even most, of the fun of camping is preparing from-scratch meals that taste best cooked over an open fire, the way they have been for centuries.
A hearty rice casserole, paella is ideal camping cuisine, as it is easily adaptable, requires minimal intervention once prepped, and showcases the complex smokiness you can only get from a real wood fire. Traditional paella originated in 18th-century Spain as a one-pot feast served during open-air celebrations on Lake Albufera. My version was served a couple thousand miles west on Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks, and features local produce rather than seafood and fowl, but I assure you it is every bit as delicious and fun to make as the original.
Since this recipe is intended to be prepared without access to measuring tools and over an unpredictable wood fire, the quantities and cooking times are meant to be eyeballed and taste-tested as you go. (And IMHO, this is the best and most enjoyable way to cook, even if you’re in a fully stocked modern kitchen). Enjoy!
Campfire Paella Primavera
- 2-3 cups (at least) fresh vegetables, ideally including red bell or pimiento peppers
- 1 generous glug of olive oil (see note in step 2)
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 small onion or a few scallions, chopped
- 8 ounces (1 package) seitan chorizo crumbles or chopped vegan protein of your choice
- 1 cup rice, preferably short grain, but any kind will work
- 1 32-ounce box of vegetable broth
- a splash of wine (optional)
- a pinch of saffron (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- If you have the time, it’s not about to rain, and you want to pull out all the stops, begin by grilling the veggies whole on a grate over the fire. If using peppers, cook until the skin is black and charred. Once cool, wipe off the charred skin with a paper towel, remove seeds, and cut into strips. For other veggies, grill until tender, with blackened grill marks, and chopped into bite sized bits. Set veggies aside. Or, if you want to keep it simple, just chop raw vegetables and set aside.
- Add olive oil to a cast iron skillet until about 1/8 inch deep all around and set on a grate over the hottest part of the fire. Add garlic and onions and sauté until soft, moving the pan to a cooler part of the grate if they start to brown too quickly.
- Add chorizo or other protein and cook until starting to brown, then stir in uncooked rice. Cook for a few minutes until the rice is coated in oil, and becoming opaque in some spots. Add a splash of wine, if using, and stir until mostly evaporated.
- Pour in about half the box of broth and add the veggies, if using raw. Stir and season with saffron, salt, and pepper. Place over the hottest part of the fire, and move around the grill as needed to keep it at a simmer, but not a rolling boil.
- Allow to simmer uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated or has been absorbed by the rice, usually about 15-30 minutes. Stir in the grilled veggies, being careful not to disturb the bottom layer of rice, which will stick to the pan and burn slightly in order to form the socarrat, or smoky, crunchy crust.
- Add more liquid in roughly quarter-cup splashes as needed until the rice is soft, but toothsome, and then continue simmering until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Adjust seasoning to taste.
- Scrape up the socarrat using a wooden spoon, and mix throughout the rest of the rice.
- Serve in paper bowls and devour around the fire while sipping a glass of white wine.