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The Best Recipes: REI/BACKPACKER Camp Cook-off

The best gorp, breakfast, entree, and dessert recipes from our cooking contest: 200 contestants, eight finalists, one culinary king

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Angry Red Lentil Tortilla soup. High Country Beef Curry. Drunken Choco-Berry Fondue. It sounds like a menu straight out of a four-star eatery, not the stuff you’d expect to eat while perched on a rock in the woods. But the eight chefs who attended our first annual Camp Cook-off proved that backpacking and gourmet dining are not mutually exclusive.

Surrounded by Food Network camera crews shooting a 1-hour special, the finalists (selected from 200 entrants) descended on Chatfield State Park outside Denver to compete in four field challenges designed to test their backcountry culinary acumen. (Think Iron Chef meets Survivor.) The chef with the most points for creativity, simplicity, packability, and taste would win.

Stoves flared, whisks whirled, and the judges-including BACKPACKER executive editor Jonathan Dorn and myself-savored each bite. At the end of the pancake, s’more, and gorp challenges, Derek Sullivan and his Pretzel Gorp led the pack. But as in all good reality television, a darkhorse made a late charge. In the main dish finale, local favorite Chris Gilliam galloped into the lead with his Angry Red Lentil Tortilla Soup, a zesty stew that had the judges fighting over the last spoonful.

But don’t take our word for it. Try these triumphant recipes for yourself.

The Winner

America’s Best Camp Chef

Chris Gilliam, a 32-year-old Coloradan, country club chef, and avid backpacker, is the kind of guy you want as a hiking companion. He can spin stories and saute spinach with equal aplomb, and he’s a master of the one-pan meal; just check out his winning recipe on the next page.

Pretzel GORP

First Place Gorp Contest

Derek Sullivan, Seattle, WA

Combine 1/2 cup each in zipper-lock bag:


dried tart cherries


spicy cashews


Reeses pieces

dried edamame

Mix with:

1 cup Snyder’s Honey Mustard & Onion pieces

Blue-Apple Pancakes

First Place Pancake Contest

Christine Woo, San Francisco, CA

4 ounces pancake mix (Krusteaz or other add-water-only brand)

1 ounce water

4 ounces applesauce

1 tablespoon granola, plus extra for garnish

1 teaspoon chocolate chips, plus extra for garnish

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup fresh blueberries

2 ounces maple syrup

pecans for garnish

In camp

Combine pancake mix, water, 1 ounce applesauce, granola, and chocolate chips. Melt butter in a skillet and cook three small pancakes on one side of the pan. Use the remaining pan space to make topping. Cook blueberries in butter until soft. Add rest of applesauce and stir. Pour sauce into bowl and add syrup. Plate the pancakes, top with blueberry mixture, and garnish with pecans, remaining granola, and chocolate chips. Serves one.

Angry Red Lentil Tortilla Soup

First Place Entree and Overall

Chris Gilliam, Greenwood Village, CO

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup minced onion

1/4 cup minced carrot

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 habanero pepper, minced

1/3 cup red lentils

2 cups water

salt and pepper to taste

2 6-inch stale flour tortillas

2 tablespoons dried chives

6 tablespoons grated Manchego cheese

2 lime wedge

In camp

Heat oil in a saucepan. Saute onion, carrot, garlic, and pepper until caramelized. Add lentils and cook for about a minute. Add water, cover, and simmer (stirring occasionally) for about 15 minutes until lentils are soft. Mash the lentils with a fork. Add salt and pepper. Rip tortillas and place them in the bottom of two bowls. Add soup, then garnish with chives, cheese, and lime. Serves two.

High Country Beef Curry

Second Place Entree

Derek Sullivan, Seattle, WA

2 cups water

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/2 cup beef jerky, cut into small pieces

2/3 cup dehydrated veggies (like mushrooms, onion, and carrots)

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 beef bullion cube

1 2-ounce packet powdered coconut milk

1/4 cup raisins

1/2 package (6 ounces) vermicelli rice noodes or angel hair pasta

In camp

Place all ingredients, except pasta, into a pot and bring to a boil. Cover and remove from heat. In another pot, cook pasta, following package directions. Drain pasta and add to curry pot. Return pot to stove, reduce heat, and stir until well mixed and bubbling (if it seems too dry, add water). Cover and let stand 5 to 7 minutes to thicken. Serves two or three.

Drunken Choco-Berry Fondue

Third Place Entree

Rick Mickelson, Minneapolis, MN


10 ounces mixed berries

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1/4 to 1/2 cups chocolate chips

pinch of cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon cornstarch

11/2 cups water

Assorted dried fruit (figs, bananas, apricots, pineapple)

1/4 cup sugar (optional)

1 tablespoon rum

Graham crackers, favorite cookies, rice cakes

At home

In a blender, puree fresh or frozen mixed berries with as little water as necessary to liquefy. Dehydrate puree until crispy. Combine dried berries, sugar, cocoa powder, chocolate chips, cayenne pepper, and cornstarch in an airtight bag or bottle.

In camp

Boil water (if reconstituting dried fruit for dipping, add an extra cup water, then remove it from the pot after boiling). Add dry berry-cocoa mixture to remaining water. Stir and cover. Let set 5 minutes off heat. Pour extra water over dried fruit, add sugar, and cover. Let reconstitute. Bring berry mixture to a boil, then simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, pour in rum. Return to heat, tilting pot into flame to flambe fondue. Stir. Dip with fruit, crackers, cookies, or cakes. Savor.

Green River Dumplings

Fourth Place Entree

Kate Allen, Westfield, WI

2/3 cup Bisquick

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 1/4 cups water

2 large Macintosh apples

At home

In a zipper-lock bag, combine the first three ingredients. In a second zipper-lock bag, combine the next two ingredients. Shake the bags until ingredients are well mixed.

In camp

Add 1/4 cup to the bag with Bisquick and knead gently in the bag until well mixed. Boil 2 cups of water in a pot over medium-high heat. Seed, peel, and cut the apples into 1/8-inch slices. Add apple slices to the boiling water. Stir in contents of the cinnamon-and-sugar bag, and bring to a boil. Cut the bottom corner of the Bisquick bag, and squeeze 1-inch chunks (like using a pastry bag) into the pot. Try not to let the doughy dumplings touch. Cover and cook at a moderate boil for 10 minutes, gently pushing the dumplings back under the water every 2 to 3 minutes. Lower heat and simmer uncovered 3 to 5 minutes, stirring gently while making sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Serve when the liquid has thickened. Serves two.

Smoky Mountain Paella

John Combs, Louisville, Kentucky

2 1/2 cups Water

1 tablespoons olive oil

1 package dry Spanish Rice Mix (5.6 oz.)

1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes, quartered

1 can smoked oysters, do not drain (3.75 oz.)

1 can medium size shrimp, do not drain (6 oz.)

1 pouch pre-packaged, chopped chicken breast (7 oz.)

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/8 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 teaspoon oregano

In camp

In a 2 quart pot, bring 2 cups of water and oil to a boil. Add rice mix, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients including juices from the oysters and shrimp, simmer approximately 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook a few minutes longer if rice needs it. Add remaining water a little at a time if sauce becomes too thick. Be careful not to overcook the rice to where it becomes pasty. Tear off a piece of french bread, pass the Sangria.

Sierra Sushi

Kelly Ogle, Columbia, California

2 cups short grain sushi rice

1/4 cup rice vinegar

dash salt

2 tablespoons sugar

1 package kanpyo (marinated gourd strips)

1 tin unagi (broiled eel)

1- 4oz. pack smoked salmon

4 inari skins (fried tofu pockets)

2 sheets nori (dried laver seaweed)

1- 10 oz bag spinach

3 tablespoons miso paste

4 packets soy sauce (from Chinese takeout)

1 tablespoon wasabi powder

1 small packet bonito flakes

wild onions (if available)

1 small bottle saki (of course!)

In camp

Rinse rice, place in pot, cover with enough water to almost reach one knuckle length (index finger, held perpendicular) above rice. Boil until water is dissolved, remove from heat, set aside. Boil another pot of water. While water is heating, rehydrate wasabi, gather and chop wild onions, send friend to find 4 downed twigs for chopsticks (after a hard day on the trail you need time away from each other). When water boils, blanch spinach for 10 seconds, remove from boiling water, leaving a few bits to add interest to miso. Add miso paste and wild onions. Cover, set aside. Place unopened bottle of saki right in the soup to warm. Mix vinegar, salt, and sugar; add to rice, fan frantically while stirring rice. Set pan in snowbank or river to cool quickly. Then form rice into sushi rice balls, top with sliced salmon and eel. Fill inari skins, roll kanpyo in nori. Cut and arrange. Squeeze as much water from spinach as possible. Pile loose clumps (artistically) of spinach, pour on soy sauce, top with bonito flakes. Serves two.

Ravioli Frijoles Negros with Cashew Lime Cream Sauce (vegetarian)

Raili Taylor, Salt Lake City, Utah

Filling (can also be used as dip)

1/4 cup black bean flakes OR 2 tbsp black bean flakes + 2 tbsp powdered hummus

dash of salt

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon oregano

4 teaspoons cilantro

1/3 cup boiling water


2/3 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 cup + 1 tablespoon water (may need to add a little more as it is kneaded)


1/4 cup raw unsalted cashews (ground to powder)

dash of salt

dash of garlic powder

2 tablespoon lime juice (about 1 lime)

At home

Mix all dry ingredients at home; carry in separate zip-locked bags.

In camp

Stir water into flour/salt mixture. Knead dough for about 4 minutes. Do this in the cooking pot to cut down on dishes, then remove. Boil water in cooking pot. While water is boiling, cut lime and squeeze juice into mixture of mashed cashews, salt and garlic powder. This is best done in the bag that everything was mixed in at home. Make little round circles with the dough (about 2-3″ across and about the thickness of a penny). Add some of the boiling water to the bag of black bean flakes, salt, cumin and oregano. Stir and let sit for about 5min.

When the black bean mixture is ready, stir in cilantro if you are using it. Place a mound of the black bean filling in the center of one of the pieces of dough. Moisten the edges of the dough with your finger and stick the top piece on. Seal it with your fingers or a fork to make a decorative edge. Drop in boiling water. It will sink to the bottom, when it starts floating, in about 3 min, it is done. Cook 3 to 4 at once. Serve with cashew lime cream sauce, and a beer. Serves one.

Thai Altitude Two-Course Meal

Christina Woo, San Francisco, California

8 fresh spring roll appetizers, and Spicy Phad Thai

8 rice dried paper wrappers

1/4 cup dried bean vermicelli

3 cups frozen precooked shrimp (will serve as ice pack)

3 cups water

2 cups dry rice noodles

1 cups bean sprouts

2 tablespoon cooking oil

2 stalks spring onion

2 cloves garlic

20 fresh basil leaves

1 cup fresh coriander

1 medium carrot, cut into thin strips

4 tablespoons peanuts

4 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

2 1/3 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon white vinegar

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 lime

1 teaspoon small finely chopped red chili (remove seeds for less lethal dose of spice)

At home

Before departing, prepare chili dipping sauce and pad thai cooking sauce. Store in small containers. Chili dipping sauce: Add 1 tablespoon brown sugar to 1/3 cup cold water and stir, adding 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon white vinegar, 1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves, and 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped red chili. Spicy Pad Thai cooking sauce: Chop spring onion into small pieces, crush garlic, and mix with 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 2 tablespoons oyster sauce, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped red chili.

In camp

Soak the dry rice noodles and dried bean vermicelli in 2 cups water while setting up camp stove.

Spring Rolls

Dip paper wrapped into water. Place 2 thawed, cooked shrimp in center of wrapper. Top with 2 basil leaves, 1tablespoon coriander. Add some carrots, a squeeze of limejuice, noodles, and chili sauce. Press filling down, fold in 2 sides, and roll up the parcel. Sprinkle with water. Repeat for all wrappers. Garnish with sauce and coriander leaves.

Spicy Pad Thai

Heat oil in largest frying pan you’ve brought over medium heat. (Approximately 2 minutes.) Add shrimp, noodles, and 1/2 cup water. Stir until soft. (1 minute) Turn heat to low and add pad thai cooking sauce. Add a few squeezes of limejuice and stir. Turn up heat to medium and add bean sprouts and chives. Cook for another minute. Remove from heat and serve with crushed peanuts. Serves two hungry hikers.

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