Ragu and Ragogu

Ragu to goHaving spent a couple years in southern Italy, and having a great-great-great-grandpa Antonio who immigrated here from Palermo in the late 1800s, I’m pretty much cosa nostra, and jarred sauce is an abomination in my sight. Only homemade, capice? My fave is the ragu, which works especially well as a camping or backpacking dinner over precooked ziti or rice.

A ragu is a meat and tomato based sauce, and the ingredients, including the type of meat, vary widely. I’ve had ragu alla Barese, made with horse, and Bolognese, with beef, chicken, and pork. If papa Corleone were to join us for dinner I’d prepare it as follows.


  • Some olive oil
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • 1 lb beef, ground or in small cubes
  • 1 large onion, some shade of white or yellow
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1 bell pepper, any color
  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 28-oz can petite diced tomatoes
  • 1 large chicken breast, whole
  • Some basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pep


The amounts above are only estimates of what you should probably bring home from the store. Here are the sauce ratios by which I cook:

  1. Excluding tomato, 1 part meat to 1 part vegetable
  2. For the veggis, excluding tomato, 1 part each (err toward less onion)
  3. Overall, 1 part meat, 1 part veg, 1 part tomato (err toward more tomato)

Drop things into the pan, on medium heat, as you cut them. Once the beef is brown and the veg aren’t crunchy, add the tomatoes, chicken, and spices, and simma down. Simmer time depends on how much the tomatoes have already been processed, or precooked.

The tomato processing spectrum starts at the vine and ends in tomato paste. The more cook time you have, the lower on the spectrum you can go, and the better the sauce. Simmering all day, use fresh tomatoes when available, otherwise, canned whole or diced. For a last minute ragu, you might go with crushed or sauced. In the end, use paste and water to get the right consistency.

On the Go – Ragogu

Freeze it in baggies and they’ll thaw by the time you set up camp and heat the noodles. In an ice chest they’ll last another day. To reduce the carry weight and pack size, cook everything fully, excluding the chicken and tomato, then stir in a can of tomato paste. Reconstitute with water when you’re ready to eat. Bam!

Let me know what you think.

State Forest Campgrounds

Frog huntBack before the shut down of our state government and DNR, a huge crew of us dads and kids spent a night at Kruger campground, just off the Mississippi on the Zumbro river. With our uncoordinated efforts combined we probably had a hundred hot dogs and enough marshmallows to sculpt a life size Micheline man. As should always be the case when car camping, it was a veritable smorgasbord.

Campfire at KrugerAfter the food frenzy we went on a night hike in search of frogs and fireflies. Then, we spent a few hours around the campfire. The younger kids started getting delirious, begging for bed, around ten o’clock. The dads were spent, from chasing mallow-fueled children and from finishing off the hot dogs. My son and I pushed it to midnight – the last ones to hit the sack.

Anyway – here are three things about state forest campgrounds that make me a happy camper:

  1. The price is right – the going rate is $12 per night per non-reservable site. State parks range from $20 to $30.
  2. There’s more space – a site typically maxes out at 8 people in 2 tents, though we fit 18 people, 6 tents, in 2 sites and the ranger didn’t mind. State parks usually draw the line at 6 people, 1 tent.
  3. Fires are ablaze – you can gather wood, and it’s usually in abundance.

S'moreeseoKruger is one of many MN state forest campgrounds. The DNR refers to them as primitive, where only the basic needs are met – a picnic table, fire pit, tent pad, and toilets. Usually there’s access to potable water as well. Besides hotdogs and s’moreos, maybe a s’moreeseo or two, what more do you need?

Ann Lake Parts I and II

three hikers

This month we nearly got the entire family of five, with one on the way, into the woods for a campout. It wasn’t until we pitched the tent and set up camp at Ann Lake, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, that we realized we had forgotten one of the most crucial items – pullups. Crap.

I was ashamed to call myself a boyscout. So much for my 5 kid-camping essentials.

What to do? Our two oldest are potty trained, but only by day. I was willing to get up every two hours, all night, to avoid an accident in the tent, but we had also brain-lapsed on the baby’s diapers. Could I fashion some out of leaves and sticks? Does mother nature provide nothing that’s waterproof on the outside and absorbent on the inside? Moss? Lichen?

What did parents do before pampers? After 20 minutes of debating with myself I reluctantly struck the tent and packed the gear. We had dogs and s’mores and sat by the fire until 10 before returning home.

The next week we were back for a sequel – the Batman Begins kind, not the Batman Forever or Batman and Robin kind. We had a stockpile of pullups and diaps, enough for Jon plus Kate and 8. But this time my wife couldn’t join us, so it was just me with the three kids.

Total chaos, hoards of ticks, lots of fun.

Kids’ Camping Gear List

Most kid camping gear lists, including my first draft, seem to focus on what the parents should bring for their kids. Instead, here are seven basic items that every camping kid can learn to pack and utilize, on their own. They’re based entirely on the two principles of camping enjoyment.

Download the checklist: pdf

Personal Effects

  1. Gear bag – Kids need their own personal pack, whether a grocery sack or an old Jansport. Even when car camping, they can learn to manage their own stuff. Start small (clothes) and increase the load (sleeping bag, food, etc.) as they grow. My son, who’s 5, carries his own clothes and water. My daughter, who’s 3, carries all the snacks and treats.
  2. First aid – In addition to the comprehensive kit for the group, kids can carry their own personal items. Again, start small, with things they might occasionally use, like band-aids, lip balm, and a sphygmomanometer. Build the kit together ahead of time and discuss the importance of each item.
  3. Extra Clothing – For the cold, precipitation, or to replace an outfit once it’s covered in mud. This is partly for your own sanity, as kids tend to enjoy getting wet and filthy. Inclement weather can spoil a campout if you’re not prepared for it. A rain poncho is a step in the right direction – youth sizes are easy to find, but for young kids a garbage bag is perfect. [Our winter camping adventures]
  4. Sustenance – Kids can learn to be responsible for their own nutrition. A disposable water bottle, cheap and light, may suffice for H2O. On long hikes, teach about bringing the right amount of water – not too much, as it’s heavy (8.35 lbs/gal, 2.20 lbs/L) – and making it last. Plan meals together and let them carry their own snacks.
  5. Flashlight – Young kids rarely get to explore the outdoors in the dark, which may be one of the reasons they’re afraid of it, and one of the reasons camping is such a unique activity. Nighttime is more fun, and safer, with some lighting. The cheap or free keychain type is prefect, though maybe not very luminous.
  6. Sleeping gear – Good sleeping bags for young kids are hard to come by, as most are designed for youth and often weigh as much as the adult counterparts. Tailoring your own bags is feasible and fun. Liners add versatility. Around 40° and below my kids use closed-cell foam pads, which can be obtained for under $7 and cut down to child-size to make them more portable.
  7. Mess kit – This last personal item is perfect for teaching a kid to take care of their gear since losing it or failing to wash it can have an immediate consequence, i.e., hunger. [More on mess kits for kids]

Camping is also a great opportunity to teach about service, teamwork, and group responsibility. In addition to personal items there are many things to be shared – food, shelter, toilet paper, whatnot. Here are a few simple things that kids can oversee.

Items to Share

  1. Marshmallows – The true essence of the marshmallow is its cookability over a fire. It can be replaced with anything which burns or heats and is afterwords still nearly edible, but s’mores make for a nice camping tradition, and mallows are the critical ingredient. They’re cheap, light, and indestructible – perfect for a kid’s pack.
  2. Topicals – Sunscreen and bug spray. These are also items a kid can share and learn to apply themselves, with some supervision. [Beware of ticks]
  3. Activities – Last but not least are camping games and activities. As far as preparation and responsibility go, we should always include the kids in our campout planning. Discuss what they’d like to see and do, and what they’ll need to make it happen. Talk about costs, feasibility, and required equipment. Examine the trail map or research the destination online together.

Please share your comments and suggestions!

Superior Hiking Trail in the Spring

Sunset over Sonju lakeMinnesota is waterlogged this time of year. Winter has outstayed its welcome and spring has finally taken a stand, liquefying the snow much faster than the earth can soak it up. Hiking trails are soggy. Campsites are more mud than dirt. Nevertheless, in celebration of spring’s triumph, my son and I spent May 6th and 7th on the Superior Hiking Trail, in northern MN.

Sonju lake campsiteDespite the snow melt and overgrowth the hiking was great. We covered a few miles of the George Crosby section, just north of Little Marais, MN, and spent the night on Sonju Lake.

The single campsite on Sonju is on the north side of a small hill with lots of shade – most of it was either under snow or puddle and there wasn’t a single dry stick to burn. Conclusions: in the spring months, don’t camp on Sonju or plan on a bonfire. Also, watch out for ticks.

Here are more pics and a link to the Superior Hiking Trail Association. And here’s a map of the campsites, parking lots, and trail section, about 23 miles, from County Rd 6, through the state park, to Hwy 61:

View Superior Hiking Trail: George Crosby Section in a larger map