Chef Corso: How to Make Backcountry Cooking Delicious

One of the best parts of camping or backpacking is when you get to settle in for a meal. Whether you’re soothing you’re warming up after a long rainy day with the thick broth of a warm tomato soup, or laughing and smiling with your friends while you roast hot dogs, eating outdoors is always a real treat. Just because you’re outside doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a nice ‘home-cooked’ meal; with various recipes and even more portable ingredients available to the modern outdoor enthusiast, the options for food are seemingly endless. Mappy Hour sat down to chat with Chef Steve Corso, the founder of  MONTyBOCA, a community that introduces people to delicious food that you can prepare easily in the outdoors. We learned a lot about just how many things you can eat outdoors, and the best ways to prepare for cooking and meals on the road.

Give us your 30-second pitch!

My name is Chef Corso, and I’m head chef and founder of MONTyBOCA, company and community that I started to help us all eat better outside. Whatever outdoor activities you’re into, I want you to be able to cook something tasty, so we provide quick and easy recipes that are ten ingredients or less, ready in thirty minutes or less. We also offer full trip meal plans if you’re going on a longer trip, and we also offer handy pocket-sized cookbooks that you can take along with you. The idea of MONTyBOCA is to get us all outside wherever we can go in this interesting, challenging time, and be able to cook something, and have some fun with it.

What got you into cooking in the first place?

Food has always been a big component of me and my family, I was lucky that my family all enjoyed food and trying new recipes. I also had two grandparents who were very very big into cooking, so it was always just around. I eventually got a line chef job and started working at a bakery as a stock boy when I was in high school, and got some more experience in the kitchen. I went to culinary school in Napa Valley and in Italy to get some more training, but it all started at a really young age when cooking was just around.

Cooking at altitude

How did you start developing the outdoor recipes?

Once I started backpacking, I noticed that the food options were a bit lacking. You’re either going to pack a bunch of bars, or you’re going to eat dry, salty packaged meals. They can also get pretty expensive when you’re packing for a longer trip. So I started testing recipes to see if we can make real food with our camp stoves and a few simple ingredients, but still have that freshness, texture, and flavor difference rather than just mashed up pasta and rice in a bag.

What are the main differences between cooking inside and outside?

There are definitely a few factors to consider, and one of them is overall weight. It’s always a concern when you’re packing and if you’re car camping or front country camping, it’s a little bit easier but still something to be mindful of. Perishability is a huge concern for safety, like if your trip gets longer over Days 2, 3, and 4, are those ingredients going to be able to last and still be usable? The last thing is space, where it’s just really important to know what you’re packing; your food and meal planning needs to fit into your camping checklist. The interesting thing about cooking outdoors is that you don’t have your whole kitchen, you don’t have the space for two or three cutting boards, and putting your pots and pans. You have to be really mindful of your outdoor camp kitchen, whether that’s setting up on a picnic table or a random rock or stump, you only have so much space to work with, so that’s where having a fast, easy recipe is really helpful. 

But there are also some similarities. One, you’re trying to make something really tasty for you or your group. There’s a term called mise en place, which means having everything in its place. If you’re making a fried rice dish inside, it’s important to have all your vegetables already chopped up, your ingredients already pulled out of the pantry and having your recipe ready. Outdoors is no different, you need to have your recipe and your ingredients.

Vegetables with mountain background

On a hiking trip, would you rather cook a healthy, energizing meal even if it means you have to carry a lot, or a simple, lightweight meal?

I say you can do both! I think a lot of folk think it just has to be super lightweight, no flavor, no fun, but I’m here to tell you that you can cook some really amazing things with just a few ingredients. Maybe every meal isn’t going to have 8-10 fancy ingredients, but my suggestions are:

  1. Easy-to-use pantry ingredients as building blocks: rice, instant noodles, ramen, oatmeal, dehydrated beans
  2. Flavor: spice mixes, vinegar, a little bit of lemon and lime
  3. Freshness: Red pepper and peas travel really well. I know we all think about refrigeration for all of our items, but a lot of these vegetables can last for multiple days.
  4. Protein: packaged tuna, chicken, smoked salmon. Also pack some beef jerky, which hydrates surprisingly well in soup! Also, some of the fake meat options, like FieldRoast, Boca Burgers, or Morning Star Farm breakfast patties, they’re already pre-cooked, and there’s a bunch of protein in them, so even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, they can be really great sources of protein rather than just your standard options.

How do you pack for outdoor cooking?

From my experience, what’s helpful is stuff sacks. It’s really helpful to be able to pack one or two recipes right in there and just throw it in your bag. I like to pack one recipe per bag, that way I know breakfast is right here, and dinner is right there.

Fresh food in the desert

What is your favorite dish to cook outdoors?

I’ll give you two answers, one if I’m car-camping, and one if I have a lot of miles through hiking. So for car camping, I love Dutch oven cooking and cast iron cooking, I will usually make a chili pot, or a chicken-chili verde kind of situation, something that’s braised, cooked over an hour or two over the fire, and serve that with some toasted tortillas, or grilled garlic bread, that is absolutely delicious.

My favorite more lightweight packable recipe is grits. It’s a very versatile ingredient, just make sure you get the quick cooking kind, some of them cook in about five minutes. You can turn it into a polenta bowl, you can also build it into a tamale bowl, where you add some chili powder and some heated veggies with a swipe of lime on top. 

What was the easiest, and the most difficult thing to cook outdoors for you so far?

If you are unsure about how to cook outside and you just want to try something to see if it works, I’ll recommend a soup. Soups are very forgiving, they’re wet, so it means that there’s less to scorch or burn on the bottom of the pot or pan. Whether it’s an elevated ramen or a quick minestrone with leftover summer vegetables, chickpeas, and tomato paste, that’s a really good place to start. For things that are more challenging, it’s anything that you need multiple pots and steps. Pancakes, or griddle cakes, are delicious, but in a true backpacking sense they can get a little bit challenging because they’re sort of messy, you need a skillet option to be able to cook them, they’re a little bit lower and slower so you really have to watch your stove and watch your pan. If you are interested in having pancakes, it’s a matter of knowing that it’s going to take a little bit more time and attention. I think the pre-made pancake mixes are a great option, it’s just a matter of being prepared for that, but sometimes, depending on the trip plan, we maybe won’t have enough time for that.  

Chef Corso of MONTYBOCA

If you could prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner at a campground, what would be your menu?

Again, I’ll give you the car camping menu and the ultra lightweight menu.

The Car Camping Menu

For car camping, it’s actually quite luxurious because usually you are able to have fire, perishable and time.

For breakfast, I would probably do a breakfast skillet with some red potatoes and different seasonal veggies and throw some scrambled eggs on top. You could easily throw in some bacon or grill up some breakfast sausage on the side. I’m a sucker for a Bloody Mary too.

For lunch, I would do some toast. You got your fire or your Coleman camp stove going, you can toast up some nice sourdough bread or some multigrain bread, and maybe do some fancy options like grilled cheese and fig, maybe a bit of avocado, cucumber and a scoop of lime.

For dinner, like I was saying before, anything that goes into a Dutch oven is what I would love. But if you don’t have a Dutch oven, grilled sausage and peppers with some Italian garlic bread is a really fast, easy option, and maybe you can make a little Caprese salad on the side with tomatoes, mozzarella, some basil, that would be a nice option for less cleaning, too.

The Ultra Light Menu

For the longer haul, my go-to for a quick, easy breakfast is oatmeal. What I like to do is make a tropical oatmeal with dried pineapple, banana, mango and coconut milk powder, it’s a really healthy, tasty option to add to oatmeal, or add to savory soups at dinnertime. I really love it and it’s a nice change from standard oatmeal flavors.

For lunch, I’ve been doing a lot of green bowls, so we have bacon-tomato green bowls, or Green Goddess green bowls with some sliced salami.

For dinner, again, polenta and grits are delicious, great options. The other place I go to is noodle soups, a warm broth after a long day, especially when it’s chilly, is really satisfying. Ramen noodles with some fresh ingredients in there, are really lightweight packing, and they’ll be ready in five to ten minutes.

What is the most important thing to remember when cooking outdoors?

The most important thing is to pack it out, always always pack it out. Whether you’re taking packets with you or dry options, always pack it out, because you don’t want to have random peels or anything like that in whatever outdoor place that you’re visiting.

Teddy Son
Teddy Son
Teddy Son is a writer who's dabbled in a variety of different fields; local news, museum exhibits, luxury establishments, sports, and so on. Travel has always been a passion of his: he's been to eight different countries in three different continents, and has loved exploring everything different places have to offer. Outside of writing, he hails from the glorious nation of South Korea, and is a huge FC Bayern Munich fan.

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