Chef Joshna Maharaj is the mastermind behind one of our favourite, sweet and delicious campfire recipes – Orange-Baked Honey Spelt Buttermilk Muffins.
When she’s not dreaming up outdoor recipes sure to inspire, Joshna is one of Ontario’s leading chefs and activists. She is recognized as a preeminent food rethinker and philosopher, delving into often overlooked kitchens in institutions and hospitals on a mission to overhaul our approach to the human right to nutrition without sacrificing efficiency. Less known, perhaps, is her rich personal relationship with the outdoors and camping in Ontario.
Chef Joshna and her family spent many summer weeks camping at Awenda Provincial Park, near Midland, Ontario. At home, her mother was the primary cook and access to sugary foods was limited. “When we went camping, all bets were off. My dad did a lot more of the cooking—because dudes and fire is always a thing—and we got to eat sugary cereal with milk in the morning. Camping meals were a rare opportunity for all four of us to get involved in the cooking. We favoured the log cabin build, with the starter in the centre made with dryer lint, egg cartons and paraffin wax. There was a family method, and we didn’t mess with it.”
Joshna considers herself a “full-on Girl Guide” with some of her happiest memories earned outdoors. “I have the knots and the badges and all of the things—I’m ready. I have recipes from the Girl Guide menu, jazzed up, of course. I remember putting a tarp over the woodpile to make sure the wood was dry in the morning to avoid a miserable situation. That got me tapped into the early morning on a campsite—that is the thing. We went camping as a family and my mom would always get up early to start the fire and have the coffee and the hot chocolate ready. What I love about this is making the fire, then letting it cool down and baking something on it in the early, early morning. You have the beauty of the sunrise and the sweetness of that morning in the woods, and I also like that it’s that time by yourself before everybody wakes up. It’s a lovely thing to do as people are waking up in their tents. I love that moment in the morning to welcome people. It’s just you and the fire and a cup of coffee hanging out with the trees and enjoying where you are.”
You have to plan your menu well and ahead to take full advantage of the delicious, and Joshna has plenty of tips and tricks to share. “You need to choose things that are easy to put together,” shares Joshna. “Keep it simple and choose recipes with few ingredients. I always prep the dry ingredients at home and pack them in freezer bags. That way, all you have to do is add the eggs, milk and other wet ingredients when you’re ready to cook or bake. Also, choose things that cook quickly—muffins, griddle or pancakes or skillet corn breads work really well. Things that lend themselves to a bit of smokiness.”
While many people associate camping cuisine with grilled or skillet fare, Joshna is as passionate about the potential of campfire baking. “My mom had this little tinfoil oven made out of a wine box—the kind that has the top like a door that flips open on one side. If you line it with tinfoil and put a plate of coals inside, you can bake a pizza in there or little biscuits or scones.”
Her orange-baked muffin recipe is really smart. “I like the infusion of the flavour of the orange into the muffin,” shares Joshna. “Oranges are also great to pack on a camping trip because they last and stay relatively juicy for the length of the trip. I also like the idea of using the whole thing. My environmental senses are always heightened when I camp, particularly being more mindful about waste—how we generate it, how we deal with it. It’s part of respecting the land.”
Joshna also has an ingenious method for another common challenge—keeping vegetables, meats and dairy items cool longer in the outdoors. She recommends digging a hole about one and a half to two feet deep and storing your cooler inside where the temperature of the earth helps maintain the chill and keep foods fresh and cool. Another smart move is choosing less delicate ingredients and using the most fragile items at the beginning of your outdoor trip. Joshna has made mutter paneer, a classic Indian dish, in a cast iron skillet over an open fire. “You have the Ontario paneer, some fresh summer peas and a little tomato gravy. The paneer works because it’s not as fragile and it’s usually vac sealed so you can throw it in your cooler and bury it under an ice pack for a couple of days to hang out while you camp. The cheese takes on all that fiery goodness. It’s delicious.”
One of the most unique experiments Joshna developed in her youth in the outdoors was a technique she refers to as “analog sous vide.” When their plastic milk bags were empty, they would wash them, get a pot of water simmering over the stove and refill the bags with eggs, milk and salt, tying them off with an elastic. “It’s essentially a sous vide egg on a fire, without any temperature control of course, but it coddles the eggs as they cook. The thickness of a milk bag is just like the vac bags you use for sous vide. We could do 12 eggs at a time that way and we’d just eat them with toast. It’s a weird little hack for a lovely little omelette.”
Resourcefulness and creativity are clearly among Chef Joshna’s strengths. Once, as a teenager on a rugged wilderness camping trip—the serious kind where you canoe, portage and build your own shelter—Joshna’s group’s canoe overturned, dumping their food packet in the lake. Their whole menu was wet and randomly hashed together. Hungry, they huddled together around their fire, to see what could be salvaged to eat. “Picture six teenage girls with spoons over a random pot of raspberry cheesecake. Delicious.”