Copper River Record October 3, 2019
By Robin Mayo
“After a certain point, it’s mostly about the cuisine,” claimed Steve, as our party settled into camp on a small river in Utah. Awed by the desert landscape, I disagreed, but not strongly enough to refuse the king crab and steak on my plate.
“We just eat dirty rice,” said Ruth with a shrug when I asked her for backpacking recipes. “Why bother? You are out in the wilderness, anything tastes good.”
When it comes to camping food, most of us will come in somewhere between these two extremes. I don’t care too much as long as it is warm and filling, but imagining the good food that will reward me has gotten me through many a hard day of backpacking.
This fall I had the chance to try some freeze-dried meals for the first time in over 30 years. Although they have improved (Thank Goodness!) I still found the food disappointing, especially considering the premium price. My biggest beef: most of them don’t re-hydrate very well if you just add hot water to the pouch per the instructions. They work much better if you put all the ingredients in a pot and simmer them gently, which is starting to sound a lot like cooking. In which case, why am I cooking $9 Mountain House instead of $1.79 Kraft?
Even a small supermarket like our IGA in Glennallen is a fantastic source of light, tasty, quick cooking and economical staples for any sort of outdoor adventure, from car camping to multi-day backpacking. Here then are my top-ten favorites for outdoor cuisine. I’m assuming you are already acquainted with instant oatmeal, boxed mac-n-cheese, swiss miss, beef jerky, and the overwhelming assortment of bars available.
#1- Instant Mashed Potatoes. Honestly, this stuff is magic. Many foods claim to be instant, but this really does transform from a few spoonfulls of powder to a bowl of yummy taters with just warm water and a little stirring. Also super handy for thickening recipes gone wrong.
#2- Nut Butters. Surely that $3 little plastic jar of Jif is one of the best bargains around for protein, calories, and sheer comfort. As well as classic sandwiches, it is excellent added to oatmeal or ramen soup. Trust me, just try it. If PB isn’t your thing, try Sunbutter or one of the many other choices.
#3-Convenience Packed Dairy Products. Normally I avoid single-serving anything, but string cheese, Go-Gurt, and little tubes of cream cheese are awesome for camping, saving you much spoiled food and many messes. A tube or two of cream cheese is the secret for transforming box mac-n-cheese into something extraordinary.
#4- Flat Breads. Flour Tortillas and Pita Bread travel much better than loaves. As well as creating lunch wraps, they can be warmed for quesadillas or pizzas. If you want slightly less flat bread that holds up to packing, try bagels, which also make pretty good candle holders.
#5- Foil Packed Protein. Tuna, chicken, salmon, and other ready-to-serve meats add satisfying protein and flavor. We rinse out the pouches so the garbage doesn’t become a bear attractant.
#6- Stove Top Stuffing. My Mom would NEVER serve stove-top stuffing at home, but she loves to bring it camping. Lots of flavor, reconstitutes in a moment, and true to it’s name, really good at stuffing the crevices when you still feel hollow after a meal.
#7- Deli Meats. Some carnivores are content to go nearly vegan while camping, but I really crave meat. Thinly sliced pepperoni, salami layered with cream cheese, or summer sausage hacked into chunks with a pocket knife are infinitely satisfying, and have enough salt and nitrates to keep without refrigeration.
#8-Dried Fruits. Excellent for keeping one regular as well as satisfying a sweet tooth without mainlining pure sugar. Check the ingredients though, did you know Craisins contain more sugar than cranberries?
#9-Minute Rice. As promised, it makes very acceptable rice with just a minute of boiling, at a fraction of the price of freeze dried. A staple that makes the base of many meals.
#10-Coconut Milk Powder. This magic ingredient will not be found in every supermarket, you may have to track it down online. Works great as coffee creamer and milk substitute, and has transformative power when added to nearly any sweet or savory creation.
Here are some recipes to get you started.
Thanksgiving Dinner: This is my go-to meal for large groups. Each person makes it just how they like it in their cup or bowl, so no large pots are needed and special diets are easily accommodated.
Mix up and simmer a packet of Turkey Gravy for each 4 diners. In individual cups or bowls, place ¼ cup of dry instant mashed potatoes and a spoonful of stove-top stuffing. Reconstitute with water and mix well. Add foil pack chicken and craisins, then top with hot gravy. Repeat as many times as necessary until everyone is full. When packing for this meal, disregard the suggested serving size on the mashed potatoes, just pack a lot. If there are teenagers involved, pack even more.
Chicken Curry: I’ve never had a kid dislike this, even if they say they don’t like, or have never had, curry.
Cook ½ cup minute rice per person according to box directions. Add some extra water, a spoonful of dried coconut milk, and a spoonful of peanut butter per person. Add curry powder to taste and mix very well. Add foil-pack chicken and mix gently.
Pita Pizza: Layer Pita bread with Pizza Sauce (put it in a squeeze mayonnaise or jam bottle for easy packing and dispensing) pepperoni or other toppings, and grated mozzarella cheese. Warm in an oiled pan with a lid, add a few drops of water on the side to make steam and melt the cheese.
Still hungry? I’ll give you a bonus for this top-ten list. Drumroll please…..Jell-O No-Bake Cheesecake! If you tend towards the “Steve” or gourmet end of the camp-cook spectrum, find and appropriate receptacle of approximately pie-pan dimensions, and layer the ingredients according to instructions. You’ll need to bring some butter for the crust, and dry milk for the filling. You have an impressive and delicious treat or backcountry birthday cake.
If you are more of a practical “Ruth” type, put the contents of all the pouches in a ziplock bag, add water, and knead until combined. Snip off the corner of the bag and dispense directly into mouths. You’re welcome and Happy Backcountry Cooking!
Nothing builds up an appetite like carrying a heavy pack! Geology Camp 2019, WISE Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.