Eating Way Out
There's more to cookstove cuisine than ramen and potato flakes
Image: Michael Tonn
After a lengthy hike on the Long Trail in the blazing sun, there's nothing like (A) chowin' down a package of rehydrated Hurry Curry Chicken before dropping off to sleep. (Gotta be up with the sun, after all.) Or (B) uncorking a hard-earned bottle of wine and rolling out pasta dough for your famous sun-dried-tomato-and-wild-greens fettuccine, then talking and laughing with friends until the wee hours of the morning.
When customers come to the Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington looking for cookware and road food, Brian Drourr can peg 'em. Those who'd choose (A) are the "calorie counters." "They're the ones who saw the handles off of their toothbrushes so they don't have to carry the extra weight," he explains. For a CC, food is merely fuel, and she'll analyze every ounce for nutritional value and caloric content.
Group (B) are the "back-country gourmets." While showing off a set of lightweight, screw-top containers, Drourr explains, "the back-country gourmet would never use a regular Tupperware, lest his balsamic reduction end up in his backpack." Yep, a BCG is willing to cart around some extra weight in order to enjoy al fresco dining to the fullest.
Either way you like it, modern technology has made for yummier trailside meals. Freeze-dried dinners, in flavors such as Kung Pao Shrimp and Dijon Chicken, taste better than ever. And every year, more and more culinary gadgets grace the shelves of gear shops. A few exotic items: $20 collapsible, titanium chopsticks and multi-compartment shakers pre-filled with herbs and spices. We've come a long way from the days when a mess kit and a Swiss army knife were all you packed.
Derek Doucet, director of the Middlebury Outdoor Programs at Middlebury College, can appreciate both approaches to wilderness cuisine. "When I'm climbing," he says, "it's Ramen noodles and potato pearls . . . if it requires more than hot water to prepare, I don't bother." But when he's planning a trip for 300 hungry frosh during fall orientation, good cooking is key. "When I'm teaching students and have lots of strong young backs to carry stuff, I spend a great deal of time cooking elaborate meals," claims Doucet. Why? Many of the students have never learned to cook at all, and he considers the lessons valuable. Plus, many of the youngsters are new to the outdoors. Good food increases the likelihood they'll want to repeat the experience. Basically, "it teaches people that the food [on a camping trip] doesn't have to be terrible," muses Doucet.
During orientation, the students are divided into groups of seven to ten, with a carefully chosen "team leader" in each. These leaders, students themselves, receive extensive instruction on camp-stove cooking before the trip. Boasts Doucet, "We teach them to bake, so they can have things like fresh pizza dough and cinnamon rolls . . . we don't use any freeze-dried foods." On shorter trips, carefully packed fresh veggies add a few much-needed vitamins to the mix. After dusty days on the trail, the kids get to relax with rice and bean burritos with cheese, or big bowls of couscous pilaf laced with veggies and spices.
For less experienced outdoor enthusiasts, the National Outdoor Leadership School cookbook can be a lifesaver — literally. Both Doucet and Drourr recommend it for the detailed chapters on back-country nutrition and ration planning. It also has a brief explanation of how to determine cooking-fuel needs in both summer and winter. NOLS recipes range from "meal-in-a-mug" — a gross-sounding concoction that combines a hot cup-o'-soup with potato flakes and cubes of cheese and meat — to an elaborate calzone filled with fresh fish and wild onions.
Some BCGs go to great lengths to avoid gastronomic disasters like the aforementioned mush-in-a-mug. Meal-repair kits, as Doucet calls them, may contain flavor-enhancing rescue ingredients such as fennel seeds and dried orange peel. Repackaged in a lighter container, a small bottle of hot sauce goes a long way. And toting small amounts of reduced liquids, such as tomato sauce, vinegar or wine, can spice up regulation rice or pasta.
Another trick: drying wholesome foods in a dehydrator, or even in a slow oven. It's one way to ensure that your tasty treats don't weigh you down. The Internet abounds with recipes for fruit leather and instructions on desiccating everything from beets to cauliflower to zucchini. On the morning of your feast, dump the dried veggies into your Nalgene bottle. By evening, they'll be soft and simmer-ready. The same trick works for soaking lentils.
Some folks get pretty creative with their dehydrators — Drourr has even made his own elk jerky — but such experiments can go awry. "I've seen people try to dehydrate mashed potatoes," he exclaims. "I highly recommend that you do not try to dehydrate mashed potatoes."
Coffee, too, is a tall order on the trail. Where there is no Starbucks, dump your grounds into a pot of hot water and let them sink to the bottom as they steep. Carefully pour off the liquid, and voilà, "cowboy coffee." Don't wanna bust out the stove each a.m.? A packet of organic Java Juice mixed with cold water makes for a quick fix. If you simply can't live without latte, OGE also sells a titanium French press and portable milk foamer. They run $50 bucks each.
While he doesn't go as far as frothing cappuccino on the mountain, OGE staffer Hans Schneider can get pretty fancy with food. On the company website, he lists his favorite drink as "a three-olive martini, warm in a cold glass, stirred not shaken, heavy on the vermouth . . ." Unsurprisingly, Schneider has offered his outdoor companions such delights as antipasto platters made up of olives, anchovies, salami and cheese. His finest outdoor cooking moment: fresh-cracked sea-urchin risotto served on a beach. He confesses that, along with garlic, salt, pepper and cumin, he carries a stash of MSG.
While fancy food can make an arduous journey seem a little more pleasant, it's not appropriate for every outdoor adventure. A three-day trek through a national forest, sure. Dragging yourself inch by inch up El Cap — no way. Even a guy like Schneider knows when to cut the handle off his toothbrush, stock up on potato flakes and get back to the basics.
Trying Out the Goods
For a hearty mix of cornmeal, rice, veggies, beans and dried beef, the tamale pie is less caloric than you'd think. A single serving packs only 170 calories, which barely qualifies as a snack for somebody who's been hiking since their last meal. The overriding flavor in this gluten-free dish is hot pepper. After just three spoonfuls, my mouth felt pleasantly warm. Perhaps because of the spice, or just the nature of reconstituted foods, it was hard to distinguish between the many types of chunks in the mix. Was that a kernel of corn or a piece of diced beef? Who knows? But honestly, it wasn't bad.
At only 15 calories a serving, a $2 bag of freeze-dried green beans may not seem like a worthwhile expense, but they do contain a bit of Vitamin C and small amounts of other nutrients. That said, they're almost entirely devoid of flavor. Unless you're worried about getting scurvy, leave 'em at home. The corn, on the other hand, is pretty pleasant. I enjoyed the sweet kernels after rehydration, but ultimately ended up eating handfuls of dried corn right out of the bag.
Natural High Cherry Blast $4.25
Who knows why, but I assumed that the "Cherry Blast" was some sort of cake. Unfortunately, it wasn't. It was more like a bag of warm fruit sauce topped with a few measly streusel crumbs. It would make a great pancake topping, but don't plan to suck it down by itself.
Blackberry Cheesecake $5.39
The texture was a bit gritty and the flavor slightly odd, but after an intense workout, it might not matter.
After warnings from the OGE staff, I bit into the dark brown strip of 'shroom 'n' soy sauce with low expectations. The texture was strange, as if all the ingredients had been powdered and then glued back together, but the taste was a combo of sweetness and spice with no off flavors. I probably wouldn't eat one for fun — gimme a bag of Rosie's Jerky any day — but still, much better than I expected.
Organic Clif Shot in "Razz"
and Tri-Berry GU Energy Gel $1.29
My least favorite of all the fancy on-the-go foods, these squishy, odd-tasting packets of sweetness pack 100 calories and 25 grams of carbohydrates each. The GU is less bitter and slightly fruitier than the Clif Shot, and it's sufficiently tolerable that I'd consider packing a few for a day of strenuous activity. The Clif version? I'd slurp the stuff up if I were stranded on a desert island and the coconuts ran out, but not before.
Clif Shot Bloks Organic
Energy Chews in Cola$1.99
Surprisingly better than the plain old Clif Shots, these chewy, candy-like cubes pack a caffeinated punch. There's a tinge of bitterness along with the sweetness, but it's tolerable.