This is a first of a series of posts from writer, adventurer and friend of MiiR Anna Brones. In this first installment Anna discusses meal prep for adventures. Stay tuned for future posts that will include recipes and additional tips for cooking in the wild and eating real food during your adventures. Anna has also recently published a new book of recipes, Best Served Wild. Join us at MiiR Flagship for a book release party on September 28.
My Life as The Wild Cook
“How much oatmeal do you think we should take?” I’m in my kitchen holding up a gallon-sized bag of oatmeal. I stare at it as if it was a foreign object.
In my early thirties, after decades of trips and outdoor meals, you would think that I would know the answer to this question. And yet every time I pack for a trip I stare at the bag of oats as if it was my first time, inevitably reminding myself to look up what the standard serving size of oats is and then do a little math to multiply what exactly that comes out to for the number of people and days. But in the end, it always works out.
In my kitchen at home, I am not much of a recipe-follower, nor have I ever written out a meal plan for the coming week. When it comes to planning meals for trips, and then inevitably making them while I am out, I bring a very similar wing-it approach. Granted, this comes from a little practice. It comes from being comfortable in my own kitchen, from having built up of go-to recipes that I love and can do off the top of my head no matter what campsite I am in, and from a willingness to get creative no matter what ingredients I have on hand.
The Reality of Cooking in the Wild
The reality of cooking outdoors is that almost anything you make is going to taste fairly decent. While a meal may be bland at home, after a day of physical activity, whatever you decide to stuff your face with is probably going to be satisfying. This makes it difficult to truly fail at an outdoor meal (entirely burning the bottom of a pot and all the grains in it the one exception).
It’s easy to use this to your advantage; the simpler the meal and the preparation, the better. Start small, with easy recipes that you can replicate on the trail and work your way up to more complex things. Even when you feel comfortable cooking outside, you might revert to those simple meals anyway.
My methods are what work for me, and depending on your approach to cooking at home and trip planning in general, yours might be a little different. I have a friend for example who has a spreadsheet to calculate out this kind of thing depending on how many people are on a trip.
Regardless of how detailed or how loose you want your meal planning to get, here are some guiding principles for both at home and on the trail.
Prepping at Home and Cooking in the Wild
Figure out Your Base Ingredients and Meals
If you don’t want to plan every single meal out exactly - which you may want to do, particularly if you are on a trip where weight is of concern - figure out a few base recipes that you can riff off of while on the trail. I have a few staple meals that I cook regularly - red lentil dal and peanut sauce being two of them - so I make sure to always have those ingredients along. Put your favorite dish in an airtight food canister for the journey.
A few staple grains and ingredients, dried fruit and nuts, and some longer lasting fresh stuff like garlic and onions are a good place to start.
Spend a Little Time Doing the Math
Figuring out portion sizes and calculating how much oatmeal you are going to need really is worth it. It’s also worth thinking about portions in terms of a measuring device that you will have with you - because most people aren’t bringing their kitchen measuring cups with them into the outdoors. A camp cup works great for this. And always add a touch extra; for surprise moments of hunger and serendipitous on-trail culinary creations.
Make a Good Spice Kit
You can do a lot with spices, so having a solid spice kit that’s versatile for aiding a variety of meals - both sweet and savory - is worth your time. Mine always includes the following: salt, pepper, cinnamon, cumin powder, chili powder, cardamom, olive oil and soy sauce.
Think About What can be Pre-cut and Pre-mixed
For shorter trips, you can save yourself time by pre-cutting and pre-mixing ingredients; like minced garlic and chopped onion for the evening’s meal. Spice blends are another great thing to make ahead of time if you have a meal that requires something above and beyond what you usually carry in your spice kit.
Pack Ingredients by Meal
When cooking in the wild, a little bit of organization can make your camp kitchen more efficient, and if it’s helpful to you, consider bundling your ingredients together by meal.
Best Served Wild: Cooking on the Trail
Start with the Base and Work Your Way Up
I always start with a grain or legume. Fast cooking ones are ideal, which is why I like things like red lentils, couscous, and buckwheat. From there, add something a little more substantial, like chopped nuts, dried mushrooms or whatever your protein of choice is.
I often like to compliment those savory elements with something sweet, like a dried fruit. If you’re on a trip where you can carry some fresh ingredients, add one or two of those in as well.
Think of the Small Things that Make a Meal Better
Small changes and additions can often help to bring a lot of flavor when cooking in the wild.
Would the bowl of oatmeal you’re about to eat taste better if it had some toasted almonds on top? Probably. Toss those in the pot to brown them before you make your oatmeal, and set aside while you cook the oats. Would that piece of bread taste better if you grilled it in olive oil and rubbed it with garlic? Definitely.
Plan for Serendipity
Some of my favorite meals that I have had outdoors were things I made up on the fly (hence the term, best served wild). The kind of thing where you think to yourself “I don’t know if this is going to work, but what the hell.” That’s why I like not having every single meal planned out in advance. Challenge yourself to be creative.
If one of those serendipitous meals or snacks works out, you might want to remember how to make it again. Jot down a few notes and keep a small notebook of haphazard camp recipes to take with you next time you’re out adventuring.