When most of us pack the cooler for a camping trip, we expect to be living on hot dogs and canned beans. Or maybe we plan to boil some water and rehydrate a foil packet of pasta. When Mary Brent Galyean goes camping, there’s prime rib, duck confit, roasted corn orzo and red bean cheesecake.
Galyean is an expedition chef (and a formally-trained sushi chef, and a former contestant on “Chopped”) who creates gourmet meals without the help of electricity, propane or running water. She’s cooked in remote locations all over the United States, Kenya, Chile and New Zealand – pretty much anywhere you can pitch a tent and build a fire.
“I cook in exchange for getting to do things way above my pay grade,” Galyean says. “If you let me come do this awesome thing with you, I’ll do all the cooking and make sure you’re well-fed.”
For six weeks every fall, Galyean’s back in her native West Virginia, in the outdoor kitchen where her career began. She’s the revered chef at Canyon Doors – the overnight camp of Adventures on the Gorge, a resort and outfitter that guides guests down 17 miles of raging class V whitewater on the Gauley River to reach Galyean’s remote kitchen.
Galyean’s a seasoned pro, but she also thinks anyone can up their campfire cooking game with a few simple tips. And seriously, leave the hot dogs at home.
Plan ahead and get creative
“Don’t be scared to cure your own meats at home,” Galyean says. She suggests making more upscale ingredients into hams and bacons that will add tons of flavor and protein without requiring refrigeration. “Try lamb or duck bacon,” she suggests. “It will last way longer than trying to bring fresh stuff, and you can use it in anything. Plus, if you salt-cure it, it’s adding that much more flavor to your food.”
Make the most of your ingredients
“Absolutely everything has more than one use,” Galyean says. “Bring citrus fruits like oranges, lemons or grapefruits. Eat the fruit, drink the juice, or use it to flavor something. Save the rind, hollowed out like a bowl with a little bit of pulp left in it.”
Those leftover rinds, she explains, are the perfect poaching vessel. “It’s especially great if you’re on a fishing trip. Roll a fillet up inside with a little bit of oil, some salt and pepper, wrap the whole thing in tinfoil and throw it on your coals. You’ll get a perfect poach, plus the flavor from the citrus.”
Galyean also recommends bringing fresh herbs. “Use the leaves the first night, because they’ll go limp and black fast,” she says. “But save your stems and seeds; they have a ton of flavor. Maybe throw them in your oil bottle, and it’ll instantly bump up the flavor of whatever you’re making.”
Don’t forget the must-haves
Galyean has proven over and over that she can make a gourmet meal anywhere, out of anything. No flour? No problem. She’s been known to turn bread into fine crumbs and mix them in a pan with some butter to make a roux. But there are a handful of things every backcountry chef needs, and at the top of the list is a rubber spatula.
“It’s more important than a knife,” Galyean says. “You can tear things into pieces if you have to, but you can’t make it work without a cooking tool.”
Other must-haves include tin foil, butter, dehydrated milk and just-add-water pancake mix.
“Pancake mix is for so many things,” Galyean says. “It makes a great cobbler base. Or add flavored yogurt and some kind of soda water, then mix and fry and you’ve got amazing donuts.”
Power up with protein
If you’re paddling a wild river, climbing a cliff face, or embarking on a long-distance hike, how you fuel your adventure is important – and granola alone isn’t going to cut it.
“If you’re in the woods for more than a couple of days, make yourself a stock,” Galyean suggests. “You can use whatever scraps of meat and bones and veggies, so that’s less stuff you have to pack out or throw away. Plus, drinking broth in the morning gives you a huge electrolyte boost, and sets you up to keep going all day.”
An easy (and delicious) way to add protein to your breakfast is with leftovers from the night before. “If you have a grill, you should cook extra of whatever your dinner meat is,” she says. “Wrap it in tinfoil and just leave it on the dying coals overnight. You’re continuing to slow-cook that meat and in the morning it’ll be incredibly tender.” Mix in some scrambled eggs, and you’ve got breakfast fit for a mountain man (or woman).
Make cleanup easy
No matter your mastery of campfire cooking, one thing never gets easier: doing the dishes. If you prep and cook in a practical way, you can reduce the number of dishes you’ll have to wash, and the number of heavy pots and pans you have to lug through the woods.
“I basically cook backwards,” Galyean says. “I try to make it so I don’t have to sanitize anything, so the meat or anything that goes in raw is the last thing that hits the cutting board and the pan.”
And once you have a pot of hot water, there’s no need to dump it between dishes. Once the potatoes are boiled for Galyean’s famous sweet potato au gratin, she often uses the same water to cook rice or orzo.
“I make way fewer dishes, because nobody likes the clean-up, and it’s a pain when you’re out in the woods,” she says. But being an adventurer and loving great food aren’t mutually exclusive. “Just because you’re way out in the middle of nowhere,” Galyean says, “doesn’t mean you can’t eat really, really well.”