The art of campfire cooking
Campfire cooking does not have to be mundane or flavourless. (BBC)
Pat Mac and Mike Faverman first met when they were working as touring stand-up comedians, but they really connected over their mutual love of food.
Mac had grown up cooking in his father’s restaurant in Boise, Idaho, and Faverman had worked as a chef in restaurants across the US – cooking pays better than stand-up comedy, after all. In 2005, the pair decided to combine their two loves – making people laugh and feeding people – into a travelling road show called Ultimate Outdoor Cooking. The duo also published a cookbook, Ultimate Camp Cooking, a collection of 80 recipes that prove campfire cooking does not have to be mundane or flavourless.
“The way I’ve always looked at it,” Mac said, “is when you’re camping, you’re on vacation, and when you’re on vacation, you want to eat well.”
Mac and Faverman chatted with Travelwise about their camp cooking experiences and shared tips for creating gourmet meals out in the woods.
Q: When did you first decide to up the culinary ante of your camping trips?
Mac: I’ve been camping my whole life. And as our camping group got bigger, we noticed that better food was bringing more people to the campground. People started coming up with new recipes, and then it kind of became like a competition. People totally put aside the hamburger and hot dog recipes and really came up with creative ways of cooking in the mountains.
Q: What are your favourite dishes to make when car camping?
Mac: Our Drunk’n Flank Steak is a good one, because you can marinate it ahead of time [in a sauce of Jack Daniels, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, lime juice, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper], have it sitting in your cooler, and when you’re ready, throw it up on the barbecue with our rosemary red potatoes.
Q: What are your favourite dishes to make when backpacking?
Faverman: You can make our rosemary red potatoes [sliced red potatoes tossed in rosemary and thyme and sautéed in olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper] or our grilled dill salmon [made with dill, olive oil, lemon, garlic, onion, basil, salt and pepper]. You just wrap both recipes in tin foil and cook them over an open fire.
Mac: A great backpacking recipe that I’ve taught to a lot of people is a nice vegetarian dish. You fill a Ziploc [re-sealable plastic bag] with different vegetables, like zucchini, squash, mushrooms, carrots and onions, and marinate them in some extra virgin olive oil and seasoning, and then when you get to the campsite, you sauté it all in a pan over the fire. So you don’t have any meat that’ll go bad, but you have all the nutrients that you’ll need for the next day.
Q: What are the most essential cooking tools for camping?
Faverman: I would say Ziploc bags, tin foil, tongs. We do a lot of marinating in Ziploc bags and cooking in tin foil. And also matches and a lighter.
Mac: You also want to make sure you have a good skillet. If not, tinfoil can also make a great cooking surface, because you can wrap any recipe in it and just throw it in the fire. And if you have coals, you can place it right on top of the coals.
Q: Can you share any camp cooking disaster stories with us?
Mac: A couple of years ago, I was using a Dutch oven to slow-cook corned beef brisket on a little grill. One of the legs collapsed on the grill and it sent the pot falling to the ground, and the meat fell right into the dirt. And I had been tending to it for six hours! But luckily, there’s the “five-second rule”, so I just washed it off and put it back on. It was a bit grainy, but I don’t think anyone noticed.
Then the other disaster would be taking Mike camping for the first time.
Faverman: I’m a big city guy and Pat’s like a little country boy. So he thinks just because he can live in a tent, it makes him better than me. I like five-star hotels. Or at least five-star trailers.
Q: What’s been your best-received dish over the years?
Mike: Probably our Dad’s Potatoes dish. You take a sheet of tin foil, wipe it with unsalted butter, season it with garlic powder, celery salt, salt, and pepper, and then add half a bag of frozen tater tots and lots of vegetables – we suggest mushrooms, zucchinis, onions and green peppers. Wrap it up like a burrito using another sheet of tin foil. Then grill it for 20 minutes on each side. When it all comes together, with the flavours from all the vegetables and seasoning, it’s amazing.
Q: Have you ever had to improvise and get really creative with a dish while camping?
Mac: There was one particular trip when a friend of ours brought up a nice pork shoulder. We knew the best way to cook this was to cook it all day, but we didn’t have anything to season it with. So, we looked in our packs and we had a couple packets of taco seasoning mix – so we rubbed that all over the pork shoulder, took two bottles of Corona beer, dropped it into a Dutch oven and let it cook for nine hours in the Corona. It produced a really nice flavour because the Corona had lime in it, which broke the meat down and created a great juice for the pork to marinate in.
Q: Any other tips for cooking in the woods?
Mac: The best piece of advice is, plan your meals ahead of time. Know what you’re going to be cooking the first and second days, and try to make that first meal easy, since you’ll be setting up your camp, so you don’t want to get stressed out. Also, try to make your meals flexible enough to carry over to the next day.
As for safety, Mac reminds campers to properly store food and trash to keep bears away from campsites.
… If you’ve been grilling all day, the cooking smell goes into your clothes. So if a bear goes into your tent, that’s why – they’re coming after you because you smell like a burrito wrapped up in that sleeping bag.
Faverman: Keep it clean, too. People who really like to cook know that a clean kitchen is a healthy kitchen. You can use [disinfectant] wet wipes to keep cooking surfaces clean at your campsite.
Q: Do you have any tips for camp bartending?
Mac: Every morning when you wake up camping, you’ve gotta have a good Bloody Mary. You can infuse your vodka at home with onion, green pepper, peperoncini and celery sticks, and then pour it back into the original bottle without the vegetables. When you’re camping, just add canned tomato juice and a bit of horseradish. If you want to take it a step further, at home you can puree jalapeños, peperoncini and horseradish in four cups of water, pour that into an ice tray and freeze it [to make spicy ice cubes].
Travelwise tip: Classic campside cocktails
With just five lightweight ingredients (not including water), you can adapt five delicious classic cocktails right at your campsite: the Old Fashioned, the Bourbon Manhattan, the Martini, the Gimlet and a spin on the Rickey, the Rugged Rickey. To keep ingredients cold on a hike, freeze liquors and bitters ahead of time, stick them into a cheap insulated food bag and when you reach your campsite, dunk the bag into a cold stream or river nearby.
bourbon (375ml bottle) with Angostura bitters added
gin (375ml bottle)
vermouth (375ml bottle)
lime juice (3 oz)
simple syrup (smallest bottle available)
Add 10 dashes of Angostura bitters to a 375ml plastic bottle of bourbon and shake to mix. Fill a 3oz carry-on style plastic bottle with fresh lime juice.
Old Fashioned: combine 1.5 ounces of the bourbon-bitters mix, a splash of simple syrup and a splash of water and stir.
Manhattan: combine two ounces of the bourbon-bitters mix and 0.5 ounces of vermouth and stir. If using dry vermouth (preferable for the next drink, the martini), add a splash of simple syrup.
Martini: combine two ounces of gin and 0.5 ounces of vermouth and stir
Gimlet: combine two ounces of gin, one ounce of lime juice, a healthy pour of simple syrup and stir.
Rugged Rickey: combine two ounces of the bourbon-bitters mix, 0.5 ounces of lime juice, a healthy pour of water and shake vigorously.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.