By Anne L. Desjardins
Can you name just one relative who isn't fond of pasta? Difficult, isn't it? So why, you may ask, haven't I ever written about them before in my favourite paddling magazine? Because I really thought I had… but looking back through my archives, I realize I haven't! It's amazing that I neglected the topic, since I am a such a slave to pasta that I can't spend more than two days without getting my fix and since I am probably the one person on earth who has been through the most reincarnations without leaving Italy, despite the fact that we all know that every being must reinvent himself in a different part of the world with every new incarnation. The reason is simple: I would not have survived in another country; I needed my daily bowl of pasta to bloom! And things haven't changed in this life: I still need my (almost) daily fix of noodles in order to be happy. But this time, in this incarnation, my purpose on earth is to spread the good news and to teach the importance of pasta to cultures other than Italian. This includes paddlers, apparently. Which is very good news.
Pasta means variety and good nutrition
From a paddler's perspective, pasta is the most incredible food staple because it offers a vast array of camp cooking possibilities. You can serve them hot, lukewarm or cold and they will always be delicious. They have dozens of shapes and colors that allow for endless plate presentations and recipes. They cook in a breeze, they even accept sharing the pot with vegetables while they cook and they can be easily prepared either for vegetarians or meat lovers. They are excellent in a supporting role in a soup; not to mention the fact that they are also very filling and have a good health track record, being known to provide satiety quickly and for a long time, which is crucial for anyone who likes to play hard in the great outdoors. They are inexpensive, and no, pasta won't make you fat: only the sauce that you dress them with, maybe… Avoid butter and cream, cut the amount of meat, double the amount of veggies, go easy on cheese and everything will be perfect!
Best pasta shapes for paddlers
Of course, the best pasta for canoeists or kayakers are the quickest to cook: orzo is a favourite (small pasta made in the shape of a grain of rice), as are vermicelli, spaghettini (pre-cut in shorter pieces) and orechiette (small pasta shaped in the form of ears). Macaroni (the ones we use for mac' and cheese, not the long and wide tubular ones used in Italy) are a good option, as are the smallest versions of fusilli and of farfalle (bow pasta). Leave your fettuccini, rigatoni and cannelloni at home. They take too long to cook, and waste precious fuel. They also need a lot of boiling water to avoid sticking together, which is less of an issue with shorter noodles. Very long pasta like buccatini or spaghetti also make a mess at the camp and should be avoided; the same applies to Angel hair pasta: too thin!
This being said, pasta loves a big pot of boiling water. When camping though, it's a good idea to compromise on quantity of water used for cooking. So forget the usual rule of 1 gallon (4-5 litres) of water for each 2-4 servings of pasta. Cut this amount in half and you will still obtain decent results, especially with smaller pasta. But make sure you bring along a big enough pot in order to avoid boiling over. And a collapsible strainer is also crucial.
Hot pasta for campers
When I'm camping and I've been paddling all day, I like to make things as simple as possible by creating one-pot pasta dishes. This may sound limiting, but it's not. Let's say you want to eat pasta with tomato or meat sauce: boil the pasta, drain it in a collapsible colander and use the same pot to quickly reheat the sauce. Your noodles won't be waiting in their strainer for more than 2 or 3 minutes before you put them back in the pot to coat them well with sauce. That's one simple option.
But it's also fun to cook everything together. You boil the water, add salt and a bit of oil to avoid water spills; in the last 2 or 3 minutes of cooking, simply add a very generous handful of raw vegetables for each serving (green onions, broccoli, cauliflower, finely chopped carrots, bell peppers, zucchini work well and cook quickly). Strain, put back in the pot, and add whatever is at hand: grated parmesan or cheddar, lentils, kidney or garbanzo beans, diced tomatoes, tuna, crab, shrimps, dried sausage, pesto and the like and you're in for a fiesta! Make a filling soup in a similar fashion by cooking in broth one third of the amount of pasta required for a full serving (the smallest pastas work wonders), add chopped vegetables, canned or dried tomatoes, canned chicken or scrambled eggs just before serving and voilŕ! If you like something with an Asian flair, it's also very easy to fix: chose Japanese noodles or yet-ca-mein (Chinese noodles made with wheat flour) that you cut into small pieces. Add chopped bok choi or Nappa cabbage in the last minute of cooking along with green onions and grated carrots; drain, return to pot, flavour with toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, maybe grated ginger and grated garlic (at the last minute). Then toss with chopped cashews and cubes of tofu. This is an excellent way to make sure that your friends always invite you on their paddling trips, no matter if it's a honeymoon or a large family gathering. But don't forget hot sauce!
Pasta salads: perfect picnic!
I am also extremely fond of pasta salads because they are so satisfying and easy to prepare for lunch. Try cooked farfalle mixed with garbanzo beans, shredded carrots, green onions, black pitted olives and cucumbers. Add olive oil, balsamic vinegar and dried basil or pesto. Another favourite is made with cooked orzo, tossed with blanched asparagus, shaved fresh fennel (also called anise, with leaves), canned salmon and capers. Add lemon juice and olive oil (or mayonnaise if you have access to a cooler).
Delicious! Greek pasta salad is another pleaser: mix cooked fusilli with halved baby tomatoes, chopped baby cucumbers, red bell pepper strips, red onions, Kalamata olives and cubed Feta cheese. Add olive oil, red wine vinegar and oregano and toss well.
Pasta all day long!
Believe it or not, pasta also makes excellent breakfasts and desserts. When you're making supper, double the amount of noodles you cook if the pot allows it; then store away 1/2 cup for each member of the party. The next morning, make a lovely Italian omelette by cooking the pasta with some beaten eggs, chopped onions, some other quick cooking veggies (like broccoli or zucchini) and cheese. Or simply pour some unsweetened soy milk over your leftover pasta, sprinkle with dried cranberries, maple syrup and some toasted nuts and you'll have a filling breakfast in no time. For dessert, try reheating pasta in a bit of almond milk, add chocolate chips to taste, dried apricots or cherry (or both), toss gently until chocolate is melted and you will make people happy!