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Shelby Stanger: Hey everyone, I hope you're hungry. Today's show is about cooking and eating outside. We have a powerhouse team of experts on today's show including Brad Leone of Bon Appétit, Brendan Leonard and Anna Brones, authors of Best Served Wild. First, a little background. One of my favorite parts of camping and hiking is eating on the trail. Everything tastes 10 times better when you're enjoying it outside after a long day of hiking or surfing. In fact, the food I ate on a camping trip made me fall in love with camping in the first place. It was my first multi-day adventure. I was a sophomore in high school on the surf team. The mom of a teammate took us camping for three nights on the beach. We surfed all day then came in to eat homemade spaghetti and meatballs over fire, tacos, and the most delicious food. It was the most incredible thing to surf all day then fill up on the most delicious yummy food. One of my favorite memories as a kid is when my step-dad took us camping. He'd make us rocky mountain toast also known as egg in the hole or toad in the hole, where you basically cut a hole in your toast, crack an egg into it. It's still one of my favorite things to eat outside. Last year, I went on an all-women’s overnight adventure with REI. Apparently, I forget everything I learned as a kid. I've been focusing so much on this lightweight hiking training, all I brought to eat were some rice cakes with almond butter, a packet of instant soup, and some oatmeal cookies. When the other women started bursting out water bottles filled with tasty beverages and the ingredients to make fajitas, I was so embarrassed to show them what I had brought. Luckily, they were kind enough to share.
That's one of my favorite things about enjoying a meal in the outdoors, it brings people together. It's so much easier to cook a group meal for one person to man the fire and make sure the coals are hot while another chops the ingredients and another tells the stories. It's not only a long day of physical activity that makes the food taste so good, it's also knowing you contributed something to make a nourishing meal.
I'm Shelby Stanger and this is Wild Ideas Worth Living. When you've spent all day outside, you want to eat something that's fulfilling, delicious, and comes together fast. Things like peanut butter, tortillas, and spices, they're essential but what do you do with them to make them into a meal? What produce can I put into my pack that I'll keep for a few days without getting limp and bruised at the bottom of my bag? I wanted to talk to some experts about what kind of foods work best in the outdoors.
The authors of a cookbook called Best Served Wild, a book about cooking and eating in the backcountry, are sure to have plenty of tricks for making food taste great outside. It was written by my friend, Brendan Leonard, an ultra-runner, creative, and hiker who spends a lot of time thinking about food as fuel, and his friend, Anna Brones, an author and chef who's done a lot of bike touring and focuses on eating nutritious whole foods.
Anna's outlook on both food and nature was very much influenced by her upbringing in the Pacific Northwest and her Swedish mother who taught her not only how to cook but placed a lot of value on spending time outside. Now, as an author and artist with plenty of cookbooks under her belt, Anna has a passion for slowing down both our food and our lives.
Also, note, you'll hear a couple of these experts talk about umami. It's the fifth flavor, the main four being salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. It's the Japanese word for savory. When you hear them talking about umami, which, of course, is my favorite word to say, umami, think of sautéed mushrooms, miso soup, or grated Parmesan.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background in food and food writing, and what you do?
Anna Brones: Sure. I do a lot of things. I'm a writer, an artist, and a producer. I have always cooked food at home. Grew up in a household with a mother who came from Sweden and a dad from the US. My mom was just really adamant about making pretty much everything at home. I was always helping in the kitchen. I don't have any formal food training or anything. I just got into food writing as one does. I've done several cookbooks including Best Served Wild with Brendan. Also, done a book called Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. I have a book called the Culinary Cyclist which is the intersection of slow food and slow life. I just love food as a way to connect people and a way to slow down and be present. I just really like experimenting with food whether I'm at home or outside. I grew up sort of a non-traditional American upbringing. We always ate a lot of like whole grains and vegetables growing up. All of my friends were, I don't know, bringing baloney sandwiches to school and I had like sandwiches with sprouts, which were very untradeable.
Yes, I grew up in the country and just made a lot of stuff at home. I mean, I think Swedish food and Swedish cooking is very simple and down to earth, and that's just kind of like how I grew up. I was always helping my mom in the kitchen, I was always excited about that. I didn't really realize that that was like a special thing, probably until after college when I just cooked a lot and I didn't really-- I started realizing that a lot of my friends didn't necessarily do a lot of cooking or didn't really know a lot about cooking.
At that point, I started - I was working at an online magazine and I started doing some food writing and doing some weekly recipes for that blog and that grew and developed into a career in writing about food.
Shelby: Oh, that's so cool. It's funny because as you sit here and tell this story, I'm thinking the person who taught me how to cook and like finally made me realize that I was such a terrible cook was a roommate I had in Costa Rica from Sweden. She could just cook everything and she would cook like pancakes from scratch, and I was like, "How do you do that?" She would just look at me like I was crazy. She's like, "It's flour and water and some butter." I was like, "Oh, I didn't know. I just used a box when I was a kid."
Anna: Yes, it's funny. We all have different entry points for food, but we all eat, we all have to eat to survive. That's why I think food is such a great common denominator and it's really a great way to come together for people, but I think yes, we all come at it from very different backgrounds. I have a lot of friends that are really excited about cooking but did not grow up cooking. I mean, my husband, he loves to cook, loves food and he grew up on like baked bean sandwiches. He's from Australia and baked beans sandwiches are apparently a thing, which sound terrible to me. They're cold.
Shelby: That's so good.
Anna: I've never had one. Sounds awful.
Shelby: What's your relationship to the outdoors? You seem like a pretty active human.
Anna: Well, I grew up in the northwest, and like I said, Swedish mom, American Dad. I think Swedish culture has a lot of just nature in the everyday. I would say that I just grew up in the country and on a piece of property and just spent most of my-- Well, it's the northwest, so whenever it was fairly nice out, we'd be outside. Definitely, it was just like running around barefoot all summer long as a camp counselor for a long time so I was really excited about getting kids outside and being outside, this has always been part of my everyday existence.
I was just having a conversation with somebody recently about, in this world where a lot of people have very extreme outdoor routines or it's like they're climbers or rafters or whatever, there's this sort of like push for bigger, better, getting a personal record on a certain route or that kind of a thing. I think for me, really, the important thing about being outside is just that moment of presence. Whatever the activity is, it's just about slowing down and being in the moment and just being aware of my surroundings. That's kind of like, that's the most important thing to me when I'm outside.
Shelby: Well said. I mean, that's what we're trying to push right now, is we're trying to expand at least this year for me, I had a lot of really extreme rock climbers and ultra-runners on the first and second year and this year, I've just wanted to expand the definition of adventure, but part of adventure is eating, and I'd love to talk with you about food outside because that's what the show is about. It's about cooking outside. Talk to me about your experience cooking outside and your cookbook, and then I want to get into the details.
Anna: Yes, well, I think like with anything that we do, if we do something fairly regularly and it's just part of our normal activity, we don't really think of that as special or particularly different, and I think just like I grew up cooking food, I think making food outside and just experimenting with food outside has always been something that I've done. I have a lot of friends now that are like, "What should I make outside?" and I'm like, "I don't know. What do you have with you? Just experiment," but it's such a-- For me, that's just always been- I've always loved experimenting at home. I think spending a lot of time on camping trips with my parents when I grew up, I mean, we'd always have really good food.
I remember specifically on a trip along- I think we're on the Oregon coast and my mom had made this like, it was like a pine nut, couscous, apricot salad thing that she made like on trail, and I just have that really, yes, I just have this really distinct memory of that meal, which I love. Then there's a few other sort of as I was younger, there's things that stick out like I--
I went to this YMCA camp for a long time. When I was in the sixth grade, three days of that two weeks, you got to go on this overnight backpacking trip. I remember that one of the things was pancakes. It was like a really just common backpacking camp food, it's like a mix and add water. One of the counselors had M&Ms with them. That was like the special thing was you got to put the M&M's in the pancakes. In sixth grade, you're actually technically not allowed to be on the stoves, the counselors are supposed to do it, but I was like, "I have grown up camping and I know my way around the stove." They're like, "Well, if you want to make the pancakes, Anna, have at it. I was just making all the pancakes for everyone on the trip, which is just a memory that sticks out.
Shelby: M&M's and pancakes. That's a really good addition. I'm going to have to try that one.
Anna: Yes, it's pretty simple, right?
Shelby: Yes, and it sounds delicious.
Anna: It's not complicated. It's like that's my strategy for cooking outside is, if you can just find the one simple thing that is a game changer, those are the things that take outdoor food, I think to a different level than just throwing together something super simple. The thing about food outside though is anything tastes good. Any mediocre meal at home, if you make it outside, even if you're just at a picnic on a day trip, it's still going to taste better than it does at home. That's the beauty of it, so true.
Shelby: I'm really curious. What are some of your favorite meals and recipes from the book?
Anna: Well, it's really funny because I get asked a lot by friends, "What should I make outside?" When I cook on trips, I am usually making approximately the same thing or a variation of the same thing. I have, there's a peanut sauce recipe in the book that I make a lot and I usually don't measure when I'm on trail. That sauce can taste different at different times.
Shelby: What's in the peanut sauce?
Anna: It's peanut butter and some soy sauce and some sesame oil, a little bit of rice vinegar if you have it. Then if you have it, some chopped garlic and fresh ginger. You do that up and then at the end, you add water to it which helps to making that thickened sauce situation. Yes. That's great on noodles, that's great on vegetables, that's great in a spoon.
Shelby: Yeah I was just going to say I’d eat it plain.
Anna: Yes. I even make that one at home too.
Shelby: We love making spring rolls so I'll have to try that with those.
Anna: No, that's a great one. I also feel the book and even just outside of the book, but how I cook normally if I'm outside, it's just about what ingredients are you going to have with you normally. Because I think sometimes it's easy to be, "Okay, I'm going on a trip, I want to make a fancy thing," then all of a sudden, you have 10 ingredients that you one, don't cook with regularly or two, would never have with you on a trip. I think it's fun to play around with things. Like peanut butter is such a base staple for a lot of people, I think. Same with trail mix, right? There's a couple of recipes in the book that use trail mix in a variety of ways like tossing some in in pancakes because you have it there with you.
Shelby: Tell me a couple more recipes that you love.
Anna: There's a red lentil dal recipe in there. I do a lot of bike touring. When you're bike touring, you can get away with a little bit more weight than you can when you're backpacking. Yes, that one, I love that one because those red lentils cook up pretty quickly.
I really like having dried mushrooms with me when I'm traveling because they're lightweight and you can do a lot with them. There's just some dried mushrooms in a pasta recipe in there, that one's kind of fun. The other one that I like which is one of these ones that I just came up with one time, because I was trying to use leftovers as I think most of us have done on trips. When you're at the bottom of this stuff sack and you're like, "What in God's name can I do with these dried crusts of bread?" or whatever. On one of those types of trips, I had a bunch of leftover tortillas, corn tortillas. They were just kind of gross, just dried out and yuck. You just drizzle them in a ton of olive oil and then fry them up and they actually end up becoming crispy. We have this- I don't remember what the exact title is in the book, it was something trail nachos or something. It's just those plus whatever hunk of cheese that you still have left and then some red pepper flakes on top.
Shelby: There are some game changer ingredients that you can take with you to basically make your food taste a little bit better. One of those was peanut butter. Can you give us a couple of more of these game-changing ingredients?
Anna: Yes. I think that the best place to start depends on what you cook at home. I think that the best place to start is by identifying what your favorite things are to make at home. If you make a lot of Asian-inspired stir-fries at home, well then something that you can have with you is some soy sauce or some fresh ginger or some even sesame oil if you want to go a little above and beyond.
If you make a lot of more like, I don't know, Italian-inspired foods at home, then maybe you have the spice kit that is a little bit more in that direction. I think it's always about identifying what you make at home and kind of what you're comfortable making at home because the trail is not the time and place to start with an absolutely new recipe.
I also think the other, because you asked about different ingredients or special ingredients, there's a recipe in the book that I make a lot which is you toast up- I usually use almonds, but you can use whatever nuts you want. You toast up nuts at home or just do them in a dry frying pan and then you add salt and you can even add some spices. You put that in the food processor and you grind it really finely. It's just a nice thing to put on top of essentially anything. Just has this nutty salty flavor to it, which I feel is sort of that umami flavor that we crave when we're outside and really hungry.
Shelby: Okay, so here's my problem. My favorite food to eat is salad and salsa, and avocados and guacamole. Those things are really tough on the trail to take with you.
Anna: [chuckles] My guideline is always to figure out a couple of fresh ingredients that are going to keep longer, that you can take and add because I think even when you're using dehydrated or dried meals, it can be really nice to have something fresh with it. My things that I tend to have are carrots, they keep for essentially forever, even if the bottom of your backpack and in 90-degree weather for a week. They're going to be fine. Like I mentioned, fresh ginger is a really good one too. That one keeps pretty long. Fresh garlic, onions can be really good. Those can keep for a while. Unfortunately, salad does not do well but I feel like you can have that freshness flavor from carrots, for example. I think identifying a couple just fresh items that you can add that will change up a meal a little bit and make you just feel a little bit better about what you're eating.
Shelby: I find that dried veggies do the trick. I can find dried peas, dried carrots, but probably dehydrating them yourself is probably the way to go.
Anna: Yes. I don't have a dehydrator and I haven't really experiment-- Because there's actually, I know a lot of people that do their own. They'll make chili at home and then dehydrate it or hydrate it back on the trail, that's pretty nuts. The one thing that I do at home pretty often is I make my own dried apples. I just do those, I don't have a dehydrator, but those you can do in the oven pretty easily. Just at a really low temperature, slice them really thinly. That's another thing that-- I agree with you that those dried vegetables, even if you just have one of them, that adds a little bit of extra flavor.
Shelby: So with apples, you just slice them thin and then you put anything on them or you just--?
Anna: You can put something on them. I usually do mine on their own, but you could put cinnamon on them. You could even do cinnamon sugar. You could do cinnamon and powdered ginger and you slice them pretty thinly and then put them on a baking sheet either on parchment paper or a silicone baking mat just so that they're easy to pull off. Then you do them at like 200 degrees for- time wise, it just depends on how thick you slice them but usually, I do mine for somewhere in between an hour to two hours and you just flip them over halfway through. If you really don't want to pay attention to them, you do them for like an hour at 200 at night and then just turn off the oven and come back to them the next morning. Then they're a little bit crispier than they usually are.
Shelby: Yum. I usually just buy mine already made at the farmers' market but I like your style. What about camping? You're camping outside with friends and you're just car camping or maybe you're just hiking in a couple of miles and then you're going to camp for the night. What's a winning recipe or winning meal to bring to share with friends?
Anna: Well, so if I'm car camping or just doing a shorter thing, I really like having an appetizer. Not just the main meal because I think we get so in this like, "Here's a one pot meal that we're all going to just slop into our bowls and that's that." Even if you just have even like dried bread, you can slice that up, pour some olive oil on it and just grill it up pretty quickly. Then if you have a little bit of cheese, you can put that on top and just serve it as little squares.
Or in the book, there's a little panini recipe so just melt basically any bread that you have, whether it's flatbread or sandwich bread or tortillas. Just putting a little bit of cheese in there with whatever like apples or bell pepper. Just playing around with that and then just serving that ahead of time. I like that. I think that that makes people-- When you put out an appetizer at camp, they're like, "Whoa."
Shelby: That's good advice.
Anna: One of my favorite ones that we ever had was on a bike trip a couple of years ago. We biked down the Pacific Coast. We've been at a farmers' market in Mendocino and we bought shishito peppers, which are those small, green ones. We just fried those up and some olive oil. I always have sea salt with me so we just put some sea salt on top of them.
There was some other bike travelers next to us and we're like, "Hey, do you guys want some of this?" They were just like, "What?" Which is not a complicated dish. It's just that we happen to pick up some good ingredients on the way.
Shelby: The book, how did the book go and what's the feedback you guys have been getting from the book?
Anna: I always think it's really fun to collaborate on projects. I think with any creative work, we never create in a vacuum, we're always inspired and influenced by people around us. It can always be so nice to collaborate with someone because you just get to be pushed and challenged and always think out of the box a little bit more. It's so fun to work with Brendan. The whole idea for the book was we both love cooking food outside and just wanted to share that but in a really down to earth way. Brendan is a really funny guy and so we took this slightly snarky, slightly humorous, not taking ourselves too serious approach to the book.
I won't speak for Brendan, but I know that for myself, I've never had a recipe in front of me when I'm cooking outside and I've never had a measuring cup with me. To actually write a cookbook about cooking outside is just humorous just in the sense that that's not how I roll when I'm outdoors. It was just a fun process to do that together. Then we did a multiple day trip where we just made a lot of recipes and shot a lot of photos and by the end of it, we were just like, "We can't eat anymore." We would make a recipe and then we'd be like, "Okay, we've shot it but now we need to eat it." We just overdid it, but it was fun.
Shelby: That sounds really fun, the eating part of it and the making of it. It all sounds really fun. I don't ever take recipes with me or look at them when I'm cooking, but I'll read them at night when I'm hungry and then close the book and I get so inspired and make things up. I think that's how most people are though. I think they would read it, they would not carry it in their backpack but they would be inspired.
Anna: The one thing that I've actually been debating on making because I think that the one thing that makes it easier to cook outside is knowing basic ratio guidelines. I've actually been thinking about making a little card that you could just slip in your wallet, or on the side of your backpack. You know how they have those hand tags for Leave No Trace? The Leave No Trace principles so you know what they are. To do the same thing but for ratios, for different stuff for cooking it because I think that's super helpful. You're always like, "Oatmeal." How many times have you made oatmeal and then you're like, "Wait, how much water do I need?"
Shelby: I totally agree. Making it doesn't always work especially when you're messing up quinoa or rice. You can ask Johnny, my partner, in the kitchen how much I mess up rice. I'm one of those people that will pick rice up halfway through and stir it.
Anna: I do rice so rarely I always have to look. I just don't even--
Shelby: Looking is fine.
Anna: Then I'm like, "Am I doing it right?"
Shelby: Then I stir it, which is we're not supposed to do.
Anna: I think though when you're cooking outside, it's better to err on too much water than too little. The other thing that you can do when you're cooking pasta or grains, I do a lot on trips, is you can pour that water off into a container or a mug and it makes really good hot chocolate because it's really nice and starchy afterwards. Then you're not wasting that water.
Shelby: You just add your cacao and your stevia or whatever to it.
Anna: Yes, I even made it once with leftover water that I had rehydrated dried mushrooms and it was really good.
Shelby: When it comes to cooking outside, just one piece of advice that was either given to you or that you like to give to people. I love the advice, if it's outside it just tastes good but anything else?
Anna: I think the best thing that you can do to improve your outdoor cooking game is just have a spice kit that is more than pepper and salt. Even if you just have one other thing in there, just find a couple of spices that you really enjoy and spices that are multi-purpose so can do both sweet and savory. Like cinnamon and ginger work really well for either and I think that whatever you're making, you can always add a couple of extra spices to it, it's going to taste a lot better.
Shelby: Anna’s co-author Brendan has been on this show before. He's the creator of semi-rad, a website and Instagram account featuring essays and cartoons about adventure as well as the humor in everyday life. What does this guy know about food? Well, Brendan runs a lot, trains a lot, does ultra-marathon and he eats a lot. No surprise, I caught up with him while he was out adventuring so the audio quality is a little rough.
I'm curious you wrote this great cookbook, what inspired it?
Brendan Leonard: I actually had wanted to do a project with my friend Anna. I respect her work in a lot of ways and we don't really have a lot of crossover in the things we do. I do a lot of climbing, mountaineering, ultra-running, and stuff and she doesn't do those things. She does a lot of backpacking and bike packing and she's a phenomenal cook and just comes at it. She's written a couple of other books about food and she's good at baking and knowing what ingredients you use and what things tastes like and also just very confident, just like one of those people who just starts to throw things together.
We co-wrote a cookbook called Best Served Wild. It's like single day things to snacks you take with you to big things you can make while car camping and then ultra-light or backpacking food.
I guess maybe one of the stories that sort of inspired it, as I was out just on a day hike with a group of friends one time and my friend Mitsu was with us and we sat down at like, I don't know, halfway to eat some lunch and I had brought something pretty basic, maybe like cliff bars or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and he had like, I want to say smoked salmon, maybe like capers. It was the same situation you're talking about earlier where you are eating and you're just trying to get some calories and you look over at somebody else's food and you go, "Wow, I'm really an amateur," and he is a long time Outward Bound instructor and has spent hundreds of nights in the wilderness and he said, "Oh, I've been doing way too much of this stuff to just eat like energy bars." I’ve sort of brought that inspiration with me and thought, "How can I work better food into my life in the outdoors?"
Shelby: How hungry you really are and how picky you are. When you did this book, what did you hope people would get out of it?
Brendan: Just more joy about food, I think. I think for a lot of people, food is one of the last things they think of when they're getting ready to go on a trip. Maybe they grab some like freeze-dried stuff when they're at the gear shop and they're like, "Do I have my tent? Do I have my sleeping bag? Do I have this? Do I have that?" Then food, "Oh, what are we going to do about food?" It can be a little daunting, but I don't think it has to be.
I always think of like what did you cook when you were a sophomore in college or the first time you were living on your own. Like it was probably really simple. Just make that when you go backpacking. The first thing everybody cooks is macaroni and cheese and like, of course, yes, take that backpacking. It's like 800 calories and all you need is the box, some water, and I think you're supposed to put-- I think the recipe probably says milk and butter, but I just take out a little jar of olive oil with me, a little plastic, like two ounces of it and it's great.
Shelby: What are your favorite recipes? Like I'd love for you to start diving in and telling us like breakfast, lunch, dinner, an ideal day. Give me a little mix, like a little car camping, something more elaborate, something for really easy lightweight.
Brendan: For long trips, for backcountry trips that are a couple of days or more, I'd always have relied on oatmeal to keep it light, but also so you're not just like grudging your way through regular oatmeal, I always add powdered peanut butter, which is in a lot of grocery stores these days, super light but very high in protein. Take a big bag of that, some plain or flavored oatmeal packets and then some dried fruit. I take goji berries a lot, and then I add walnuts or pecans or something else to it, it becomes this that you can get it up to probably close to 700 some calories. That's a solid breakfast for a morning in the backcountry with not very much weight.
Shelby: Yes. Goji berries tastes like Nerds, they're so good.
Brendan: Yes, I mean, dried cherries are really awesome too. If I don't do powdered peanut butter, if I'm only out for a couple of nights, I will take like packets of peanut butter, like Justin's nut butter or trail butter is amazing stuff. I haven't eaten oatmeal without peanut butter in it for like probably a decade now.
Shelby: And more yummy. That sounds so good.
Brendan: Oh, it's so good, yes.
Shelby: My whole life, I've been missing out. Sometimes I put almond butter, but what am I doing every time now?
Brendan: I mean, cashew butter if you're really fancy.
Shelby: I'm pretty fancy. I like that. We got a breakfast. We got oatmeal with peanut butter and some goji berries.
Brendan: Well, we should talk about coffee, I suppose.
Shelby: Oh yes.
Brendan: Do you drink coffee?
Shelby: That's the most important meal of the day. It's pretty much all I eat for breakfast.
Brendan: A lot of people will do a lot of different things with coffee and in the backcountry, I'm pretty lazy. Also, instant coffee come leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. I'm really into Alpine Start, which is a Boulder company and they make-- It's similar to Via, it's just good coffee, micro-ground and freeze-dried, so tastes really good, but they have a coconut cream or latte. They're kind of big packets. I always say it's the size of a tampon which is like-- That's pretty much how big--
Shelby: It so random hearing this from you.
Brendan: I know, but that's what it looks like when I throw it in the bag. I'm like, "What are these things?" but that's one of my favorite things right now. Some people will take milk in the backcountry but I think it's not a great idea. I use half and half in my coffee but Laird Hamilton has this like--
Shelby: I was just going to say superfoods Laird Hamilton. For those who don't know, Laird's a pro surfer, husband of past guest Gabby Reece and he has this line of plant-based creamers, coffees, and other yummy stuff.
Brendan: He has a coconut creamer that works pretty well too but so far as far as simplicity goes, I go the Alpine Start Coconut Creamer Latte. That's coffee. Lunch, in the backcountry, it can sort of be anything. It might be a variety of sort of like trail mixes or tortillas and other things. My favorite thing to do for single day things, well, there's two things now is to take a frozen breakfast burrito from just like the freezer section of the supermarket or say at 7-11 and just keep that in my backpack and let it thaw throughout the day.
Shelby: Isn't it soggy?
Brendan: No. By the time you're on top of peak or whenever your lunch point, you have this lukewarm breakfast burrito which I think is phenomenal. I love it. I eat those actually when I do super long trail runs as well or ultra-marathons. I'll pack just thawed breakfast burritos and eat them a half a burrito at a time to get some real calories.
Also, I learned this trick from a mountain guide in the Sierras. I did this four-day Mount Whitney climb for a fundraiser, it is a bunch of us and not a guided trip. We were there and in day three or four, I asked this guy Chris like, "Every day I look over here at lunch, I see you eating a slice of pizza. What did you do? Did you just pack a whole pizza back here?" and he goes, "Yes. The night before these four-day trips, I will just buy a frozen pizza at the supermarket, bake it, and then I'll cut it into four slices. Then every day, I have a slice of pizza on this trip". I thought, "Oh, my God, this guy's a genius." So I did this on my last ultramarathon. I made two vegan pizzas cut them in half and folded them into like basically quesadillas and put them in plastic bags. Every time I met back up with my wife at an aid station, I'd grab one and just walk off eating pizza. I'm like, "This is fantastic," and it's 400, 500 calories for that. That's one of my favorite lunch things to do.
Shelby: Dinner, this is the one that I think- it's the hardest one, I think, for most people.
Brendan: Yes, there's a lot of things. We typically go to pasta as far as what we're going to use like rice or some sort of pasta noodles or anything and you look at the directions on a bag of pasta and it says to boil it for 8 to 11 minutes for al dente pasta and you think, "That's a lot of gas I have to take backpacking." It could get pretty heavy if you were just going to boil your pasta all the way through but I learned a trick from a friend. I think my first camping trip ever, he had through-hiked the Appalachian trail and he was cooking and his macaroni and cheese for dinner and he's like, "Just bring it to a boil. Boil it for one minute, turn the gas off, leave the lid on, let it sit for nine minutes and then it's done." It was a revelation for me like, wow, you don't actually have to cook it. It's literally soaking in warm water and it's totally fine.
Shelby: Genius. That's a good hack. I appreciate that one. Most of your dinners are pasta or rice. How do you make it really yummy?
Brendan: You can add soup vegetables, pieces of cheese. I always take hot sauce or--
Shelby: You take hot sauce with you on your trips?
Brendan: Totally. They actually are selling like single servings Sriracha packets at REI now, like you can buy a bag of like 50 of them.
Shelby: Well, that's good to know. REI for the win and Sriracha, well done on making those. How about dessert? I've got a chocolate sweet tooth always for pretty much every meal, I want a chocolate afterwards. Do you have any dessert recipes?
Brendan: I will do like hard candies or we have recipes make cookies and stuff in our cookbook, but I usually will get things that can't break very easily like Paul Newman's miniature chocolate chip cookies. Those things are incredibly durable in a backpack. Harder chocolate candies like dark chocolate M&M's and stuff like that. We'll rely on those.
Shelby: Any tricks for gear and cooking tools?
Brendan: As far as little containers to pack stuff in, Nalgene makes this like a kit of, I want to say five or six really small bottles and that works pretty well to pour olive oil into and I still really never found like a 100% watertight olive oil container. I would end up doing is a small plastic jar with a screw on lid and then put that inside a plastic bag because it's going to leak anyway.
There are these old school, the company that makes them is Caghlin’s and you'll see them in REI. They make all kinds of stuff. I think they make a campfire grilled cheese maker thing but what I use is these refillable tubes. It's essentially like a toothpaste tube with no closure on the back end and you put this little pinching thing on it and you can take a ton of peanut butter in the backcountry with those.
Then I do everything with the basic one-dollar REI Lexan spoon. I will saw off the end of the handle so it fits in my pot set so I don't lose it. I have this basic MSR pot set that I got when I was working in a nonprofit 10 years ago. I’ve had this pot set for 10 years. It's two pots and that's it. One handle that's shared between the two pots, one lid that's shared between the two pots and depending on the complexity of the trip I'm going on, I just take that.
Then stoves I have been using the MSR Whisperlite Universal. It takes canister fuel butane and also white gas. I like it because it's freestanding, it doesn't sit on top of the gas canister. The little stoves you can buy that will perch on top of a gas canister are fine but they're really, in my opinion, inefficient because you can't even build a windscreen for them so you just have this canister sitting out with a pot on top of it. The wind's blowing by and it's just sucking all the heat off of your stove so it's tough to cook with.
Then car camping. I know people make really nice two-burner stoves but I will stand by the two-burner Coleman stove that I think is maybe it's $55 but yes, you can spend a couple hundred bucks on a camp stove or you can get this Coleman stove that's worked for, I don't know, 30 years for $55. They sell those green gas canisters at every hardware store and Wal-Mart in America. If you're in the middle of nowhere and realize you don't have any gas, you need more gas, you can go get some. Those things for my needs have worked for years.
Shelby: Any tips you can give to people who just want to make their own food for a multi-day backpacker camping trip that you're just like, "Here's a couple of tenets to remember."?
Brendan: Yes. You can take a pretty basic recipe for a lot of different things and just make it work for the backcountry. You just have to think of, "Can I dehydrate the vegetables?" or, "Can I buy dehydrated vegetables?" or, "Can I substitute something that I can carry without having to weigh 10 pounds," and pot sets are always good. You can always find dried soup vegetables, things like that. I think the number one tip I would have is even if it doesn't look like it's that good if you make it at home, when you are 10 miles from any road, it's going to taste pretty good.
Shelby: I love that Anna and Brendan's book Best Served Wild doesn't take itself too seriously because it's true. I certainly don't want to bring a cookbook and look at recipes when I'm cooking in the great outdoors. It's all about finding inspiration and putting it to use in the ways it works best for you. When we come back, we talk to Bon Appétit magazine editor and YouTube star Brad Leone about getting the best ingredients and making the perfect camp kitchen setup.
Announcer: When you spend time outside, there's things you just can't find anywhere else like the whistle of wet wood on a bonfire, the feeling of belonging you have just by being out there or a river rock that surprisingly looks like the station wagon your parents drove when you were a kid. REI is here to help you find those things and more, to ask big questions and discover more answers outside wherever you are. Visit your local store or rei.com for inspiration to get outdoors and tools to make it easier. Then go find out.
Shelby: Brad Leone has had quite a career; from working in his grandfather's catering company to carpentry, to deciding to go to culinary school. Out of school, he got a job as a prep cook and dishwasher at Bon Appétit magazine's Test Kitchen and he's been there ever since.
In 2016, the magazine started a YouTube series called It's Alive with Brad featuring, you guessed it, Brad and his passion for fermented foods. The show has grown quite a bit and most of his videos get around two million views and he now has a spin-off series where he travels around to meet people working in or educating others about food. Here's a clip of Brad on his most recent episode where he went to Hawaii to go spearfishing with previous Wild Ideas Worth Living guest, Kimi Werner.
Brad Leone: I am such a fan of some of the smaller fish, what the industry considers a bycatch or like a nuisance, but we can't all just eat tuna and salmon.
Kimi Werner: No, no, I think the key to sustainability is diversifying our choices, and especially when you go low on the food chain. That's the most responsible way you can be eating. Like you said, if globally we're all collectively targeting the same four fish, obviously, that's not a good idea.
Brad: We're not going to have anymore.
Shelby: If you've ever seen It's Alive with Brad, you can see the joy Brad gets from cooking his food and eating it and from just being out in nature. He even did a few episodes all about cooking over a campfire.
It's Alive is so good. It's like a cross between a travel show. A food show, a comedy show.
Brad: Yes. When we started, it's just been It's Alive, which is in the kitchen and that's a lot of fermentation and projects, and then we started to dabble a little bit with some traveling and going to different farms, and seeing where food comes from, and the people behind it and the stories behind it, and that's really where my passion lies, and how that can go.
Then being an outdoorsy guy, and all just, I don't know, it just works and it just makes me happy, and that's where our second show It's Alive: Goin' Places was born from, and that's where we go to one location or an area and do four episodes like a little mini-series, and that really dives into the travel, and the people behind the food farmers and chefs and craftsmen of different types.
Yes, we were actually just down in Hawaii, man, that was the most recent episodes that are out now, and that was fantastic. We did some spearfishing and wild boar hunt, and the tradition of a pig roast, a luau. The food almost became an afterthought and it really was about the people, and the experiences you're having with the people while you're doing it and the friends you're making, and the stuff you're learning all while being surrounded by nature. If I could do that, if I could tell people stories like that for a living, I couldn't be happier.
Shelby: You're like a legit outdoors guy; you spearfish now, you fly fish, you camp, you surf?
Brad: Jack of all, master of none basically. No, it's not true. I'm pretty good at fishing. I've caught some really fun waves, but I'm certainly no- I know my limits and my skill level. I just love doing it. It's like that old saying, "The best surfer is the one having the most fun or whatever." I'm not always having the most fun, but when I do, I get it. When you catch that wave, and you get in the right spot and you're just cruising down the line there with all that power behind you, there's nothing like it.
The more I get into different types of outdoors and sports and stuff, you find the little things in each that are getting in that right pocket when you're surfing. The more things I can do that can give me that feeling while I'm being in nature. Life is too short. I just want to do them all really.
Shelby: Yes. You've gardened and you're pretty close to land just being interested in food, and wanting to get close to the source of where food comes from, but tell me a little bit about your camping experience, and maybe eating outside as a kid growing up.
Brad: Yes. I guess my dad was a real big outdoorsy guy, so that's where I got it from. We're always going fishing and frogging and snapping turtle catching, and pheasant hunting, and deer hunting. I really got that from him.
Then cooking outside, he dabbled a little bit. He always had like the outdoor burner going, like the propane burner and he make jambalaya and stuff like that, and smoking fish and stuff. I started really to develop the outdoor cooking like building a kitchen outside on my own, just with some friends and stuff. It's one of my favorite things to do.
Shelby: Already your dad was really advanced. Most people when they cook outside, it's like hotdogs and s’mores.
Brad: Yes. I ate well. I was exposed to good food. We had hotdogs and stuff like that too. I never really liked s’mores.
Shelby: You don't like s’mores? I like the chocolate of the s’mores.
Brad: Yes, I like it all. I like it deconstructed. I like each other flavors, I even like them together. I just never really got into the whole campfire dessert activity. It was never that good. I felt like it could have been made better.
Shelby: Well, tell me really quickly about this outdoor kitchen, because I've watched an episode of you, and you built this outdoor kitchen, and it was pretty legit, there weren't too many tools that would have been hard to carry in even if you're backpacking far, but like just to make an outdoor kitchen, that concept is pretty interesting. I'd love you to share a little bit about that, and tips to making food outdoors just taste awesome.
Brad: Yes, well, it's kind of- I think the key to making good outdoor food is you can do a lot of prep at home and just have a really good solid broken down pantry of things that you can bring into the woods. That could take a piece of meat or a piece of chicken, whatever or some vegetables and can just really bring it to another level. Like some fermented chili paste or different types of soy sauce and misos or just things that have umami is always- I find to be super helpful.
Then just having the right tools. I just like things to be real lightweight cooking on like those wire resting racks. It could be as complicated as you want it to be. It starts with, you’ve got to find the right spot somewhere usually, if you can get a little wind protection, that's really nice.
Then just go gather a bunch of rocks and what I like to do is build a big U and then like a strip down the center of more rocks. It's kind of like an M I guess we'll say. Yes, almost like an M. You can have- you can build in the back, you can build a fire and then in the front of it, when you get the two channels coming down, and these are all rock structures, you can have your little fire pit. That's where you let the wood burn down because you don't want to cook over burning logs. You want hot coals.
So as that starts to burn down, you can scrape them into your two channels. Heck, you could build 15 channels if you want but two usually works or three depending on how much you're cooking or just one. I like to be able to control where you can just have a big burn pile, a charcoal factory as I like to call it, and then you can just pull forward what you need.
It gives you a great opportunity to control the heat too. I try to do that and it kind of started with just me and my buddies just hiking in and we bring all kinds of wild stuff; lobsters and shrimp and things that you normally wouldn't cook out in the woods.
Brad: Yes, you go for a good, decent little hike and you're out in the middle of nowhere and you're eating food like that that you could easily buy in a fancy restaurant and for a lot of money and yes, I just think it’s a real fun way to celebrate food.
Shelby: Doesn't food just tastes different outdoors?
Brad: Yes. Well, usually, you are working a lot harder for it. I think it's always better when you earn it, right? I think there's that element and yes, there's something just about being in nature that I think- and you're cooking it. It's usually pretty primitive or with your hands and you got your smoke, you burned your fingertips. It's like when you sit down and eat it, it's just a the food's probably awesome I hope so anyway, but again like I'm saying the whole experience I think really feeds into it too.
Shelby: What are a few recipes or meals that people can cook outdoors that might blow away their guests?
Brad: A big favorite of mine, if you can bring a walkout if you're just doing- especially if you're camping out of a car or I mean, they're not really that heavy. You could probably strap it on the side of a pack or something but going out and bringing some pre-cooked rice and some vegetables and just making like a real hot fried rice out in the woods, that's a pretty satisfying one to do. Then just less is more. I would focus more on getting really awesome ingredients and just cooking them perfectly in a simple way; some good olive oil, some good salt. A little vinegar if you want or some citrus. Just having to- letting the things that you're cooking speak for it.
Shelby: Good olive oil, good salt. Is there any other spices that just work really well outside?
Brad: Yes, you know what I always tend to bring with me is like a seedless pepper flake, like a Maras Biber or like an Aleppo-style chili flake, a seedless flake. It just goes on everything so nice and it bleeds a little color and that flavor into it. It's just a fantastic staple to bring outside. Or sometimes I'll do back home speaking about prep before, I'll make a little half-pint container or something or whatever kind of container you got and back when I'm home and I have all these different spices and I'll make a master mix. I'll put like salt, little cumin, some-- I don't hate a little garlic powder and I'll put a little seaweed in there or something whatever I'm cooking and then you have this master like thing that just kind of flash on the- pick and choose. You don't put it on everything. You don't want that the meal to be the same tone but you get my point.
Shelby: Yes. It so beats my rice cake and almond butter with a little bit of butter.
Brad: A time and place. A time and a place. I'm sure you've had that rice cake and almond butter and it was the best one you ever had your life.
Shelby: I don't know, maybe Yosemite at the top. What about your favorites to take while you're actually hiking in? Is there anything that's pretty lightweight that you've enjoyed?
Brad: Yes. One of my favorite things to absolutely bring out in the woods is tin fish. Some of the companies now do like and then there's like vacuum bags, where it's like cooked, smoked sardines or--
Shelby: Yes. Patagonia does something like that with salmon.
Brad: Patagonia does the vacuum bags. I love that. They can just bring little crackers or like a chunk of bread or something and that's pretty lightweight and it's got I think it's just good clean energy to-- I'm a big fan of dried mangoes and nuts and fruit. I'll just take a bunch of those different things and throw them in a different a pouch or something and always nibble at that if I'm trying to go super light. Different jerky I find to be pretty useful out in the woods too or if you're doing something outside where you just need a quick snack. That's a go-to. I'm not a real big sweet guy but that's probably a good thing.
Shelby: You're lucky. I was like, "Where's the chocolate in this?"
Brad: Hey, listen, I like dark chocolate.
Shelby: Me too.
Brad: I can get into that. I can nibble that a lot. Actually, that's a good point. I think that would be-- I don't do it that often because it always tends to melt in my bag or my pocket or something.
Brad: The chocolate is a fantastic one. I think it'd be pretty good fast energy for you too.
Shelby: You've played around with fermentation a lot on your show and just in your work. Is there any way to bring fermented foods to increase the flavor of food outdoors or is that something?
Brad: Yes, I think fermented products are great that bring on a camping trip, especially long-term or even short-term because the way fermentation started was a, by accident. Also, it was kind of before there was refrigeration. They wanted to make things last longer and it was to give it a shelf life so they would ferment things. To my point, you don't need to worry about a cooler, ice packs, or something. You can take some sauerkraut, put it in a bag and throw it in your pack. You're good, man, and you go cook a little food a little bit. Then you get your probiotics on you and you're doing all right. I think that's a great idea. I got to start doing more of that.
Shelby: You're awesome. Tools to bring when you're going just for like car camping or just a short hike. You said wok. I've seen you use an axe to cut wood. Any other couple of just tools that you should have on hand?
Brad: Yes, a thin lightweight hatchet is really helpful. I'm a big fan of the headlamp. You never know as stars getting a little darker, it's really nice to have your hands free. I bring one of those things everywhere. As far as a knife goes, you think of a knife, it's like this big pointy chef's knife. I like to bring a Japanese or Chinese vegetable cleaver. It's got the flat end, they're workhorses, you can do anything with them and they're easy to pack. They're my go-to knife but that is definitely my go-to next level outdoor knife.
Shelby: Fourth of July is coming up. Everybody wants to make something that's pretty exciting, maybe impress their friends or just impress themselves. Do you have any recipes that you could share just to help people have an enhanced 4th of July meal?
Brad: Well, yes, what I like to get, I'm a big fish and seafood guy by right out of the gate. I like to get a nice big chunk of fish. If you're going to have some people over and then like a big chunk of halibut. I'm on a big yellowtail Hamachi kick. That could be a little difficult for some folks to find but depending where you live, maybe not. Or you can get a big slab of it with the skin on and just cook it whole. Like I said before, less is more. Simplicity sometimes can really be some of the best dishes. So a big chunk of fish.
Shelby: A big chunk of fish and then what do you do with it?
Brad: All right. What I've been doing recently, if you can get a big piece of steel or a big cast iron and just I like to lay it down, skin down and let that skin act as a protective barrier and even crisp up. You can either finish it in the oven or just leave it out on the grill or on a flat top. It really depends on what kind of tools you got. Just getting that skin nice and crispy and just don't overcook your fish. I think that's the biggest thing people do is they overcook it.
You see salmon so often and people, "I don't like fish." It usually because I have a bad experience and it's hammered to hell. It all starts at the boat. When it comes to anything, you've got to try to get the best you can get.
Shelby: Get the best ingredients and then don't overcook it.
Brad: Don't overcook it.
Shelby: The little less is more in terms of seasoning.
Brad: With the fish, I don't go- to each their own, hey, if you want to go cover it in teriyaki sauce, knock yourself out. I'm sure it'll be delicious. I like to taste the fish or I just do a little bit of salt, little olive oil, a little lemon if you want. Sometimes, I'll do a little bit of honey if you want to get just a little hint of sweet on it. Nothing crazy. I don’t like to do nothing too crazy. Steamed fish is fantastic.
Get yourself a big slab of fish or a bunch of little small ones. I'm just over filets is what-- I want some with the bones in it, you can cook it whole. You waste so much when you throw away the whole body, you just cut out the filet. Let it cook on the bones and some people get worried, "I don't want eat the bones." Actually, once it's perfectly cooked, the meat just falls off the bones. I’ve had more bones in fillets than I've had eaten the whole fish and so much more flavor and juice when you cook it on the bones too. Whole fish and get some other than tuna and salmon.
Shelby: Got it. That's great advice. What if you're a vegan?
Brad: Well, then, eat vegetables.
Shelby: You’re like, "I can't help you."
Brad: No, I love vegetables. Get some eggplant or something. Big eggplant guy. Fourth of July I guess might be a little early for some places. Out here, it's more of an August thing, but you're getting close. I think grilled eggplant is fantastic. I like cooking things on big flattops. Where you can get a nice even consistency, sear all over. You get some of those Japanese eggplants and just rub it with a little mirin and miso and sear it up, man. I wouldn't care if there wasn't meat if you get good vegetables and prepare them right.
Shelby: That sounds delicious. Any parting words of wisdom for people who want to cook food, but are a little intimidated?
Brad: Yes, don't be scared, do it. Have fun and don't overthink it. I feel like everyone knows how to cook, you just got to stop overthinking it. We're exposed to so much this and that and new people do all these fancy things, but it can be as simple as you want it to be. Just have fun doing it.
Shelby: As summer kicks into high gear and we all start preparing for various adventures, maybe you're car-camping with your family, maybe you're hiking the PCT, maybe you're on a surf trip, it's important to keep yourself nourished. It's also important to make every part of your trip as fun and as easy as it can be. I hope these three guests have given you some inspiration for your next outdoor meal, whether it's out of the trunk of your car, or buried at the bottom of your pack. I know I'm going to be updating my spice kit and finding those Sriracha packs and maybe even stirring some macadamia nut or almond butter back into my oatmeal.
This podcast is produced by REI with the help from Annie Fassler and Chelsea Davis. Thanks so much to Brendan Leonard, to Anna Brones, and to Brad Leone, who are all due for a surf adventure when you guys get to San Diego. Thank you so much to Diana Wade for making such yummy food on our first camping adventure with the La Jolla High surf team. Tune in the week after next for a conversation with the director of an empowering documentary about pro surfer Bethany Hamilton.
As always, we appreciate when you subscribe, rate, and review the show wherever you listen. We've been getting fantastic reviews and some of you have a wicked sense of humor. I really appreciate them and they really do help the show grow. Wherever you are, I hope you enjoy your meal and remember, some of the best adventures often happen when you follow your wildest ideas.
[00:57:48] [END OF AUDIO]
Here’s the Wild Idea
Today’s episode is a deep dive into the art of cooking and eating outside, perfect to help you up your game this summer season. For many people, figuring out portable meals that are healthy, filling, and tasty is a challenge. For others, the prospect of bringing food on the trail is an afterthought entirely. I spoke with Bon Appetit’s Brad Leone and Best Served Wild authors Brendan Leonard and Anna Brones for advice on how to eat well, cook well and impress friends with your campfire cooking.
Anna Brones and Brendan Leonard are both writers and adventurers. Anna spends her time outside on bike tours, while Brendan, who is the creator of Semi-Rad and a previous guest of this show, is an ultramarathon runner. They’ve both learned to cook delicious, nutritious food outside and agree that food always tastes better after a long day on the trail. Their book Best Served Wild covers easy vegetarian recipes (which are adaptable for meat eaters) for all kinds of outdoor excursions.
Brad Leone is the host of Bon Appétit Magazine’s hit YouTube series “It’s Alive!,” a show about preparing fermented and live foods. Brad is an active traveler and outdoorsman who has spent a lot of time not only adventuring in the outdoors but also foraging, fishing and hunting for his own food.
In our conversations, these three told me some great stories, wisdom, meal ideas, and simple tips and tricks to up your cooking game. Plus, they talk about the joy of eating food in nature, why it’s important to get outside, and shared some delicious recipes. It made me realize that eating outside doesn’t have to be boring. It can be delicious and nutritious. Don’t let food be an afterthought as you’re hitting the trails, the beach, or the mountain this year! Trust me, with a little planning ahead, you can fuel your adventures with tasty meals.
Scroll down for a recipe for the peanut sauce the Anna mentions in the episode!
Listen to this Episode if
- You think eating outdoors always tastes better.
- You’re an amateur or aficionado campfire chef and want to get better.
- You want to know how to build an outdoor kitchen.
- You could use ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and dessert!) while camping.
- You’re a fan of Brad Leone and It’s Alive! or Brendan Leonard of Semi-Rad and Anna Brones.
- 6:55 – Anna Brones’ history with cooking outdoors.
- 11:00 – Anna’s favorite outdoor meals and recipes.
- 14:10 – Anna’s game changing ingredients to take on the trail.
- 20:00 – How Anna and Brendan wrote Best Served Wild and tested recipes.
- 24:30 – What inspired Brendan Leonard to write the book with Anna.
- 27:40 – What Brendan cooks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner outdoors.
- 34:35 – Brendan’s favorite gear and tools for campfire cooking.
- 41:00 – What is It’s Alive! with Brad Leone.
- 44:55 – How to build an outdoor kitchen, Brad Leone-style.
- 47:35 – Recipes and ingredients to blow away guests.
- 52:30 – What Brad thinks you should cook for the 4th of July.
Three Ingredients Besides Peanuts Peanut Sauce
Adapted from Best Served Wild by Brendan Leonard and Anna Brones
This sauce works great on just about anything: rice noodles, stir fried vegetables or simply by the spoonful. You can glam the recipe up by adding some finely chopped ginger, freshly grated ginger or red chili pepper flakes.
Makes: about two servings
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/4 cup peanut butter
2 to 4 tablespoons water
Place the soy sauce, sesame oil and peanut butter in a pan on low to medium heat. Stir until the peanut butter softens. Add the water, going slowly until you reach the desired consistency. If you add a little too much water, just keep it on the stove a little longer until it thickens.
Episodes to listen to
Best Served Wild by Anna Brones and Brendan Leonard
Fika: Art of the Swedish Coffee Break by Anna Brones
The Culinary Cyclist by Anna Brones
Alpine Start Coconut Creamer Latte
Coghlan’s Squeeze Tubes
MSR Whisperlite Unviersal Backpacking Stove
MSR Base 2 Pot Set
Bon Appetit Magazine
It’s Alive with Brad