For the first time in a very long while, chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi have a lot of time on their hands. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, their two restaurants — Trove and Joule — are only open five days a week, three hours a day. And while they have always enjoyed camping as family anyway, this summer there’s been nothing for them to do with their kids other than “going out in nature,” Yang says.
So what do chefs cook for dinner while camping?
During a recent camping trip, Yang decided to forgo burgers or hot dogs and made banana leaf rice packets instead. “Camping is such an American thing,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean you have to have the same food every time.”
If you, like Yang, are squeezing in more camping trips this summer and you are looking to go beyond skewering a hot dog on any available stick (though that’s delicious in its own right!) but don’t know where to begin, we’ve got you covered. Read on!
Making a plan
“A little bit of planning goes a long way, especially when you don’t have your usual setup,” Yang says.
This means meal planning — not only how many meals total, but what you’ll eat for each.
Maria Hines, owner of Wallingford’s Tilth restaurant and co-author of “Peak Nutrition: Smart Fuel for Outdoor Adventure,” says people might be hesitant to create gourmet meals while camping because “they think it’s going to be complicated and it’s not.”
“The barrier is, ‘I don’t have my refrigerator, I don’t have my stove, how can I cook real food? You have to think about a dish that will execute well with one burner,” Hines says.
Once you have a menu, figure out what tools you’ll need. Yang’s suggestion: If you’ve been getting takeout, chances are you’ve got some nice stackable takeout containers that can be reused to create a campsite mise en place with prechopped vegetables, lettuce or even precooked beans or rice.
When it comes to cookware, Hines says to bring as little as you can: “One sauce pot, preferably a Dutch oven that allows you to cook on your stove and directly on coals, and a saute pan, something to cook scrambled eggs in.”
In addition to packing cooking oil and maple syrup or honey, Hines says a spice kit is a must-have. Hers includes kosher salt and a finishing salt like San Juan, and she always brings cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, red chili flakes and sumac.
“Sumac is my go-to interesting spice that you can put on everything. All your friends will be like, ‘What?’ And you just made their day,” Hines says.
Making it work for you
Figure out how your menu can work to your advantage, packingwise. Yang made her rice packets in advance and froze them.
She says consider making a soup or stew beforehand and freezing it in a flat layer in a Ziploc bag. The frozen stew can now help insulate your cooler, freeing up space and the need for ice, which Yang calls “dead weight.”
Hines makes a spatchcocked chicken with ratatouille.
“You’re bringing a lot of items that don’t need to be refrigerated — the tomatoes, the onions, the garlic. The zucchini can hang out for a day or two without refrigeration,” Hines says.
If you’re planning to cook the bird on Day 2, freeze it beforehand to help with insulation. It will be thawed by dinnertime.
Brendan McGill, chef and owner of Shady Acres Farm and the Hitchcock Restaurant Group that includes Bar Taglio, Bruciato and Hitchcock, says he likes to make the fire work for you.
“What I’ve been enjoying is grabbing vegetables you can bury in the coals, winter squash, beets or sweet potatoes,” McGill says.
He pairs those vegetables with a large piece of meat like a côte de boeuf or large fillet of fish, and uses twine and a bacon hook to suspend the meat over the fire and allow it to slowly roast.
“You gotta do your Neanderthal thing, watch your steak come up to temp and tend your fire,” he says.
He recommends wrapping smaller vegetables, like carrots, in foil, while beets or sweet potatoes can be buried directly in the coals around the perimeter, with more coals shoveled on top.
“Bring a cake tester for testing — you know how a potato feels when it’s done. It gives you something to do while you sip on beers and jump in and out of the river,” McGill says.
Find joy in simplicity
No matter the menu, remember that at the end of the day, you’re in the great outdoors, where simple things can provide an immense amount of joy.
McGill says oysters are his favorite camping food. Freshly shucked and eaten raw or thrown on your fire for a quick grill, there’s “nothing better” he says.
Many Washington state park beaches allow those with a fishing/shellfish permit ($55.35 for residents, and $17.50 for a shellfish-only permit) to harvest oysters on tidal flats.
“We’re used to ice cold oysters in restaurants, but the magic of eating a lukewarm oyster you harvested is the same as the joy from eating a piece of fruit that’s been ripe in the sun. And you only get that camping,” McGill says.
Hines says for her, “tequila with a lime wedge is quite delicious.”
“It’s been refreshing to be forced to explore nearby,” Yang says. “You do realize how beautiful Washington is.”
Banana leaf rice packets
Recipe by: Chef Rachel Yang
Makes: 4 packets
Four 14-by-14-inch banana leaves
4 cups rice, cooked
1/2 cup Chinese sausage, cut into 1/4-inch rounds*
1/2 cup shishito peppers, sautéed
1/4 cup scallions, chopped
1/4 cup fish sauce**
1 tablespoon rice vinegar plus 1 cup of water
* You can use any kind of meat such as pulled pork, leftover chili, cut-up Spam or sautéed mushrooms for a vegetarian version.
** You can also use soy sauce instead of fish sauce for a vegetarian version.
- Mix the rice vinegar and water together.
- Wipe the banana leaves with vinegar mixture.
- Spread 1/2 cup of cooked rice at the center of the banana leaf.
- Place 2 tablespoons Chinese sausage, 2 tablespoons shishito pepper, 1 tablespoon scallion on top of the rice.
- Cover the sausage mixture with another 1/2 cup of cooked rice.
- Sprinkle 1 tablespoon fish sauce over rice.
- Fold the banana leaf perpendicular to the grain (lines on the leaf) first.
- Fold the sides so that it makes a tight packet.
- Use string to secure if needed.
- Repeat same process for 3 more packets.
- Place over a medium fire for about 10 minutes.
Pro tip 1: Freeze and use an “ice block” in the camping cooler to be used on the second or third day of the camping trip.
Pro tip 2. If the rice is still frozen or the campfire is too hot, wrap the banana leaf packet in the foil. Cook the foil packet until rice is warmed all the way through. Unfoil the packet and put it back on the open flame until the outside is charred.
Grilled spatchcock chicken with ratatouille
Recipe from “Peak Nutrition: Smart Fuel for Outdoor Adventure,” by Maria Hines and Mercedes Pollmeier
Tip: For a super amped-up flavor, you can marinate the chicken overnight and pack it up so you’re only grilling at camp.
Makes: 4 servings
1 whole chicken, about 3 to 4 pounds, patted dry
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon, fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 cup diced zucchini, about 1/4-inch dice
1 cup diced onion, about 1/4-inch dice
1 cup diced red bell pepper, about 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Build a fire and allow the coals or embers to get hot, or heat a grill to medium.
- Place the chicken on a cutting board, breast side down. With a boning knife or poultry shears, cut along the entire length of the spine, through the bone, on both sides. Discard the backbone, or freeze it to make stock. With your hands, press the chicken flat.
- In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, garlic and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, stir to combine. Brush this mixture evenly over both sides of the chicken.
- Place the chicken on the grill over medium heat, with the breast side down, and cover the grill. (If you’re at a campsite, you can use foil to cover the chicken.)
- Grill for 10 minutes, then rotate the chicken a quarter of a turn (or 45 degrees) and cook for another 10 minutes. This will leave a nice grill mark on the skin. Turn the chicken over and cover, letting it cook for another 20 minutes, until the internal temperature of the thigh reaches 165 degrees.
- While the chicken is cooking, in a sauté pan over medium-high heat, warm the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the zucchini, onion, pepper and tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are releasing their liquid and breaking down slightly, 4 to 6 minutes.
- Add the garlic and a pinch each of salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables are cooked through and starting to stick to the pan, about 8 minutes more.
- Remove from the heat and toss the ratatouille with the remaining 1 teaspoon lemon juice.
- Transfer the vegetables to a serving platter.
- When the chicken has cooked through, add it to the serving platter with the vegetables. Carve the chicken and serve.