Chef in Your Backpack: Gourmet Cooking in the Great Outdoors

by Nicole Bassett

Published by Arsenal Pulp Press

141 pages, 2003




Dinner (Way) Out

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


Picture this: you're in the middle of a seven-day backpacking trip with 14 of your closest friends. Today was amazing. First thing in the morning you trekked through some of the densest and most beautiful old growth forest you've ever seen, all afternoon you've been following a mountain trail higher and higher, passing no other groups of campers and certainly nothing that looked like cars or stores. At dusk you stopped, made camp and prepared dinner: you sat down to Tomato & Lentil Soup followed by Orange Lentil Salad and Rosemary Mushroom Risotto. You would have had one of the Carrot Muffins that everyone else was eating, but you just didn't have room.

Wait a second. Hold the phone. Backpacking. Risotto? Camping. Orange Lentil Salad? This is not the type of food I've ever gotten while backpacking. Author Nicole Bassett concurs. In the introduction to Chef in Your Backpack, Bassett writes:

I had always thought that camping food was special for all the wrong reasons: usually dry, not particularly appetizing but high in carbohydrates.

Her own foodie inclinations put her on the right road:

And then it occurred to me that there was no reason why camping food had to be bad food; that with a little know-how and creativity, you could eat well while enjoying the great outdoors.

The other salient ingredient that Bassett fails to mention, but that is illustrated time and again in her excellent book, is planning. Clearly, one does not partake of Smoked Salmon and Asparagus Pasta, Sweet Curried Couscous or any of the other recipes in Bassett's book without some thought in advance. And while this may be true for most of us at home, it is even more important when everything you will cook with and eat with must fit on your back. For this reason, all of the recipes in Chef in Your Backpack include two icon-indicated sections in the instructions: In the Kitchen and At Camp. For example, in the aforementioned Rosemary Mushroom Risotto, Bassett has you "Combine the mushrooms, rosemary, cumin, and garlic in a plastic bag," and then "store rice and cheese in their own plastic bags." At camp all you're really doing is cooking the rice, adding the "mushroom mixture" while the rice finishes cooking, then finishing with the cheese. The result: something that clearly wouldn't pass muster as risotto on a mediocre day in a good kitchen, but that is heavenly, satisfying and blessedly additive free on the trail.

Like most in the book, this is a strikingly simple recipe: haute cuisine brought down to its simplest form. And, again, a lot of the action takes place before you ever leave the house. After a day on the trail, who wants to spend hours bending over a hot fire or slaving over a single burner cook stove.

Some recipes only have instructions for In the Kitchen. This is true for everything that must be baked and for some of the dips -- hummus, eggplant dip, white bean dip -- that are great to eat on the trail but are really best made in a food processor or blender. However, other types of on-the-road cooks might consider making all of the recipes in the great outdoors. If, for example, you do your camping in a Winnebago or a galley-equipped boat, you will still have reason to appreciate the scaled-down versions of full recipes. After a day of having fun -- whatever the flavor -- it's pleasant to be able to enjoy a meal made by your own hand with the freshest possible ingredients. But, at the same time, even RV-housed campers don't want to bring the whole kitchen. Chef in Your Backpack has answers for those campers, as well.

If you are cooking, literally, out of your backpack, the earliest sections in Bassett's book will be of interest. Bassett talks about gear, packing, spices, packaging your consumables (and repackaging in order to have minimal effect on the environment), she also offers words of wisdom on interacting (or not!) with wild animals, setting up the cooking area and washing up.

An outdoors enthusiast, Bassett has hiked and biked throughout much of the world. She works in film and television and lives in Toronto where, unsurprisingly in the era of FoodTV, she is at work on a television series based on Chef in Your Backpack. If the book is any indication, the show will be a hit. | June 2003


Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.