SEATTLE — 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!
“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.
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 cote 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.
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.”