x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Take a hint from hunter-gatherers for the perfect picnic

Once you've found the perfect secluded spot off the beaten path, here are three ways to prepare for a picnic.

Eating outdoors at a scenic spot is one of the most enjoyable activities in the United Arab Emirates for my family. We camp a lot, and we explore in our 4x4 twice as much, and so we constantly plan food for our trips.

We generally deploy one of three plans, or a combination, depending on the type of trip and how we're feeling: cook on location; precook at home and heat on location; and forget it: no cooking, no heating.

The last option is useful for busy trips, when time is tight; and it is also less costly. We simply stop by our favourite Biriyani restaurant, or Mendi place (a Yemeni traditional way of slow-roasting mutton in a pit, and served with platters of rice and a spicy tomato-based sauce and yoghurt) and for Dh25 a pair, we're set.

Since we don't normally cook this kind of food at home, nor do we eat out often, it is a real treat for us. Occasionally, we substitute sandwiches, but the children complain bitterly and clamour for their platter of "Arabic food", as they call it. Other types of restaurant food easily available in the UAE we found didn't keep as well - like the grilled kebabs, or Indian dishes, or anything with flat bread. But the Biriyani and Mendi rice stays delicious and filling even after a day bouncing around in the car.

Normally, this choice goes with daytrips where we don't plan to set up camp in one place, so we bring a large mat and eat straight out of the takeaway containers, with disposable spoons and forks, so there's nothing to do at the end of the meal but put everything back in the plastic bag it came in, and that goes into a black rubbish bag and is thrown into the back of the car to be disposed of when we get home.

The second option is to precook some or all the food at home, and then either throw it on the coals from a campfire or reheat it on a portable gas stove. This technique works well with foods that are hard to cook on the grill, like potatoes, or spaghetti. It also does not require a barbecue grill, and its accompanying coal. We rarely camp overnight without bringing wood for a fire - what are we going to do? Sit in the dark? - and so heating pre-cooked food using the campfire coals is our main method.

Simply dig a shallow hole a little bigger than the food, carefully scoop in some campfire coals, and there you have a ready-made camping oven. Plonk in the food items wrapped in aluminium foil, or in the pot that was used at home, and it will soon be hot and ready. Cover the hole with a foil lid if you need to trap the heat.

Pasta we precook until two minutes shy of al dente and then drain and rinse cold. When we reheat it at the campsite, we drop it in hot water for a few minutes. The sauce is also cooked from home and sautéed over the portable stove in a frying pan to make an excellent dish in less than 10 minutes - just add some parmigiano reggiano grated cheese.

For our longer stays and trips that focus more on the time at destination rather than the adventure of getting there, we grill on coals. This is the real thing, and both other options are almost cheating.

Marinade the meats from home, keep them in the coolbox, let the coals calm down until there's a fine layer of ash on them, and let's cook like prehistoric man.

For us and many of our friends, grilling epitomises cooking while camping; and very often our memories of a certain trip will connect to "that tenderloin that melted in your mouth" or the "time you dropped the chicken in the sand". In the next instalment, we focus on grilling perfection.