At Least the View Is Nice 

Gourmet backpacking is no picnic, but we're here to help.

Page 2 of 2

* Quick-cooking pastas, such as orzo or angel-hair pasta

* Quick-cook rice (both white and brown)

* Quick-cook couscous

* Split pulses for dal or soup

* Bulgur

* Rice-a-Roni

* Instant Cajun-style rice and beans

* Asian ramen (Korean brands are my favorite)

* The perennial standby, mac 'n' cheese.

Many natural-foods stores also stock bulk bins of just-add-water falafel mixes, veggie burgers, split-lentil soups, and black beans.

As for protein, the best invention for campers just might be the new shelf-stable vacuum-packed foil pouches of tuna, salmon, chicken, and ham. The pouches weigh as little as three ounces, making them easy for weekend hikers to stock up on and for hardcore trekkers to bring along for special occasions. For day one and two, a smoked sausage such as linguica or kielbasa will keep for a while outside the refrigerator. If you've brought along dried salami for lunch, sparing a couple slices to add to a stew will add richness, though the cooked sausage may no longer be particularly edible. Chinese dried sausages, lap chong, keep just about forever, and add a wonderful five-spice flavor to rice. Vegetarians may want to pack in a bag of textured vegetable soy protein, which doesn't add much flavor but can up the protein content of stews and rice dishes.

Vegetables are the trickiest element of the camp meal. For two-to-four-day trips, you can chop up and bag heartier vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, onions, and carrots for sautéeing or adding to stews. But fresh fruits and veggies are simply too heavy and low-calorie to justify packing in for longer trips. REI and other camping stores sell freeze-dried carrots, peas, and corn, which are easy to chuck into anything you're cooking. In addition, most grocery stores carry dehydrated onions, green peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes. Ritts, like many lifelong backpackers, has invested in a dehydrator to dry vegetables, soups, and fruits.

A few other things you may want to put in the pack: Butter (or margarine) won't go rancid for several days (although it will melt in a hot pack), and if you're avoiding prepackaged meals, small containers of olive oil for frying and Asian sesame oil may prove worth the weight. Small amounts of spices, herbs, and other flavor-enhancing dried ingredients can make all the difference. Pack up a flavor kit that includes some of the following:

* Salt and pepper

* White and brown sugar

* Garlic powder or freeze-dried garlic (Trader Joe's)

* Curry powder, Japanese curry cubes, or your own masalas

* Cumin, coriander, or paprika (or smoky Spanish pimenton)

* Dried chipotles or other chile peppers, or chile flakes

* Thyme, sage, and oregano, or Italian seasoning mix

* Sweet spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, or a blend

* Bouillon cubes or vegetable bouillon packets

* Porcini powder and dried mushrooms

* Sun-dried tomatoes

* Tiny dried shrimp

* Salt-packed capers

* Tubes of Italian tomato paste (Gia makes a tomato-garlic paste that I added to everything)

* Small container of grated Parmesan cheese, though not the Kraft stuff

* Small knob of fresh ginger.

Here are a few dishes you can make from scratch:

* Cook split-lentil dal with curry powder, chile flakes, and freeze-dried garlic, served with minute rice.

* Make "jambalaya" starting from a base of quick-cook Spanish rice pilaf, amped up with dehydrated onions and peppers, a packet of chicken, tomato-garlic paste, chile flakes, and dried shrimp.

* Boil angel-hair pasta along with sun-dried tomatoes (to plump them up); toss the cooked pasta and sun-drieds with olive oil, freeze-dried garlic, tuna packet, and capers. Top with Parmesan.

* Boil instant couscous with raisins, almonds, chicken or TVP, and a little curry powder.

* Flavor a split-lentil and bulgur soup with dried porcinis, a vegetable bouillon cube, dehydrated onions and carrots, bay leaf, and thyme.

* Crack white rice with a rolling pin so it cooks more quickly, and boil to make congee (Cantonese rice porridge), adding sliced ginger, lap chong, dried green onions, and a little sesame oil.

And don't forget that hunger and exhaustion are the most powerful seasonings. Something strange happened during my two-day test hike in Mendocino County. Maybe it was the linguica I slipped into my instant rice pilaf; maybe it was my new best friend, tomato-garlic paste; or maybe it was the view of the mist flowing in from the ocean to obscure the hills just as they darkened from periwinkle to indigo. But I ate. And ate. And ate. Wynden's number-one bit of cooking advice suddenly rang true: "Everything tastes better out there."n


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