How to Make the Best Outdoor Meal of Your Life
Food writer and critic Chris Nutall-Smith shares tips from his new book "Cook It Wild"
If you like to camp but miss eating good food while doing so, you need a copy of Cook It Wild, the first book by food writer and resident Top Chef Canada judge Chris Nutall-Smith. Why? Because it will replace those sad pot noodles and canned beans with manageable but game-changing gourmet dishes like cumin lamb kebabs and puff-and-serve chapati bread.
A former news journalist and foreign correspondent, Nutall-Smith reported from the Middle East for the Canwest newspaper group and covered outdoor adventures for Esquire before joining Toronto Life (first as a food writer, then food editor, chief restaurant critic and dining columnist) and The Globe and Mail as a national food critic. But his other passion — multi-day wilderness camping and kayaking trips — couldn’t be more removed from his TV life, where he judges Bravo’s popular reality cooking competition or reviews Toronto’s newest culinary hot spots.
Growing up in British Columbia in an “outdoorsy family,” he spent summers driving down the West Coast and across the U.S. to North Carolina in a camper van, then back up to Canada. During high school, he would camp out with friends and, by college, was hitchhiking solo into the Rocky Mountains. “Camping is where I relax and enjoy the wilderness and these beautiful places with family and friends, so the whole experience is a real celebration for me. Although I had gradually started to become a great cook at home, I generally ate poorly camping through college with Mr. Noodles, BackPacker’s Pantry and Knorr Sidekicks,” he tells InsideHook.
It was a weekend trip with friends he calls “accomplished indoors people” — one of whom brought a block of frozen squid along — that not only reframed Nutall-Smith’s approach to campfire cuisine but brought his previously separate outdoor and food lives together. “I always thought good food and camping weren’t compatible, but that is not the case. My friend is a chef, had all her vegetables chopped and prepped and made this paella in 20 minutes,” he says. “It was shockingly simple and is still one of the best things I’ve eaten to this day.” The key takeaway to Cook It Wild and conquering fine cuisine in the great outdoors, even if it’s only your backyard, is simple: prep and pack everything up at home.
“There’s an entire industry around instant camp food with dehydrated dried and freeze-dried meals, [as well as] energy bars, but you can bring great, fresh food and spend less than 10 minutes making these delicious dinners in the mountains, at the beach or campsites. Among other tips, this book covers the five rules for how to do that,” he says.
To wit, you can bring lightweight foil packets of veggies to roast, small pot pasta and make-ahead risotto — but first, ditch the cast iron cookware (“awful on an open fire or camp stove”) and get a $20 carbon steel paella pan instead, which is durable and responsive to any flame. For pre-dinner sundowners? No ice, no problem. Nutall-Smith premixes and batches cocktails in vacuum bottles with one-fifth volume pre-diluted and freezes them “to pour and enjoy.” The book covers all the bases from breakfast and lunch through cocktail snacks (“campchuterie,” anyone?), sides and desserts, including gingery baked apples, but one of the most memorable recipe hacks was inspired by a beach dinner with his then-pregnant wife on the Northern California coast.
Having flown out from Vancouver, they drove south to visit family in Glendale and stopped at a seafood shop after crossing the state line. “We camped near Redwood National Park, almost on the beach. The sun was already setting by the time I’d got a driftwood fire going, but I set a foil packet of new potatoes at the edge of the coals and tossed these halibut filets in a bit of seasoned flour — in what the cookbook calls ‘Because Somebody’s Gonna Catch a Fish Mix,’” he says. Obsessed with fish fries — a bonfire on a beach, good fish, butter, lemons — Nutall-Smith says the pre-mixed seasoning, plus running good fish through butter and lemon juice in a screaming hot pan, is hard to mess up: “The dish takes five minutes from start to finish and comes out sweet and deliriously sunny-tasting from the caramelized lemon and butter, and lightly smoky from the campfire. Maybe because it was that time in our lives when everything was about to change, but even today, I think it’s one of the most sublime outdoor feasts I’ve ever had.”
Finishing a 20 Best Restaurants in Canada packet for current affairs magazine Maclean’s at the time of talking to InsideHook, Nutall-Smith was also planning his next outdoor adventure: a five-day kayak-camping trip to Haidi Gwaii, a remote island group near the BC/Alaska border with his wife and son in August. “We’re flying to Vancouver Island and taking two ferries from there, so it will be tough to bring some items, but breakfast staple the Buttermilk Powder Pancake Mix, and the Because Somebody’s Gonna Catch a Fish Mix, I promise you will be in my bag,” he says.
Because Somebody’s Gonna Catch a Fish Mix
This make-ahead flour mix comes as close as you’ll get to a guarantee of perfectly seasoned fish. It has just the right amount of salt to bring out any fish’s natural sweetness without overwhelming it, and enough sneaky background heat from black pepper and cayenne to bring the flesh alive. Simply dredge your seafood in the mix, shake off the excess, fry or sear in oil or butter, and serve.
KEEPS: Up to 6 months, unrefrigerated
Because Somebody’s Gonna Catch a Fish Mix
Servings: Coats about 4 lbs. of fish.
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1½ Tbsps. kosher salt
- 2 tspn. cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
MIX: In a large resealable bag, combine the flour, salt, cayenne and black pepper. Seal and shake until combined.
From Cook It WildCopyright © 2023 by Chris Nuttall Smith. Photographs copyright © 2023 by Maya Visnyei. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.
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