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Alimentary, My Dear

Soup's On!

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

November 27, 2001

Cold rain lashed our camp, rattled on the canvas walls of our home-away-from-home, and hissed through the pines. From time to time, the wind opened a short-lived window in the low, ground-hugging cloud. We caught brief glimpses of white-topped rollers in a leaden lake. On the far shore, a dark fringe of spruce rose from the water's edge. The only touch of light anywhere in the landscape was the golden needles of the occasional tamarack. It was late October, winter was only a few short weeks off, and we had the scenery to ourselves.

From my place by the fire, I heard the hoarse croak of a raven. I looked up through the curtain of water pouring off the tarp. I couldn't see the raven, but I did see that wet snow was now starting to mix with the rain. I wasn't cold, though. I was warmly dressed, our tent was roomy and dry, and the tarp gave us plenty of sheltered space to stretch out in. Better yet, a large pot of pea soup was simmering over the low flames of the fire.

Farwell poured tea into our cups, while I patted a flatbread into shape and laid it into the hot cast-iron skillet. Metal bowls warmed on rocks near the fire-pan, and a steel pie-plate stood ready to receive the hot bread. In no time at all, the flatbread was cooked and the soup was ready to eat. We leaned back against a log next to the fire and cupped our hands around steaming bowls of soup. We were warm and comfortable, and we were about to enjoy a hearty and delicious meal. The weather may have been awful, but roughing it was not the order of the day.

After the blazing colors of autumn fade to subtle browns, somber greens, and deep grays, most people hang up their paddles and move on to other things. Not us, though. Autumn is our favorite time to be out on the water. Yes, wet and windy weather can drag on for days at a stretch. Days are short, and nights can be cold. And there are hunters in the woods. But if you're sensible and alert—if you wear an orange vest on the portage trail and leave your white handkerchief at home—the third season offers many rewards. The summer holiday crowds are gone, while ducks and geese raft together by the hundreds, preparing for their big trip south. The woods are fragrant with the bittersweet decay of fall, and beavers work busily among the trees, hurrying to stock their winter larders with fresh-cut birch and poplar. Best of all, the black-flies and mosquitoes have called it quits for the year.

Nonetheless, off-season paddling doesn't appeal to many canoeists and kayakers. Perhaps some of these folks have had such miserable experiences on autumn trips that they wouldn't ever consider doing it again. That's too bad. It doesn't take magic to enjoy cool weather paddling. It simply requires preparation.

I've quoted Nessmuk before, and I'll do so again: "We go to the woods to smooth it." Right on! And smoothing it means having good rain gear, plenty of warm clothing, and a sturdy tent. It also means packing a tarp. A well-pitched canvas tarp will protect your tent door, shield your cooking fire from rain and snow, and give you a wonderfully spacious living room. With your kitchen set up under canvas, you can cook and eat in comfort. And eating well is the key to enjoyable autumn paddling. Stoke your body's furnace, and it will keep you warm, no matter how cold the weather.

There's nothing better than hot soup for taking the sting out of a chilly day. Don't be fooled, though—soup is just as good in the summer months. Paddling and portaging are sweaty, strenuous work, and many paddlers are more-or-less dehydrated more-or-less all the time. This is not good. Drink regularly while under way, and get into the habit of having a big mug of soup at lunch or before your main course at supper. It will help to rehydrate your thirsty body, while at the same time replenishing depleted salts. It's also nourishing, filling, and easy to put together.

Have I convinced you? I hope so! But what kind of soup is best? That's an easy question to answer. Any kind will do. When time is short and regulations permit, canned soups are great. They taste good and they can be emptied into a pot and heated in no time at all. Of course, there's a price to pay for this convenience. Canned soups are heavy and bulky, and empty cans are a nuisance. They must also be thoroughly cleaned, crushed, and hauled out for proper disposal. And most of what you're carrying in a can of soup is water. Does it make sense to haul water into canoe country? Probably not.

What are the alternatives, then? There's the familiar bouillon cube dissolved in boiling water, for one. Still, while bouillon can be a great pick-me-up, it isn't very substantial fare. Instant soups are better bets. Packaged in single-serving packets, they're a snap to prepare. Toss the contents into a large cup or bowl, bring water to a boil, pour it over the soup mix, stir, and eat. Simple and good. Even Farwell can do it. Soup mixes are versatile, too. I often use one or two packets as the flavor base for rice and pasta meals. And because they're available in a limitless range of flavors, each member of the party can have whatever he or she likes best. (Always be sure to try any new flavor at home first, though. The best time to discover that you don't like something is before you leave the put-in!)

Boxed, multi-serving "quick-cooking" soup mixes are worth a look, too. They're a little fussier than the soup-in-a-cup packets, but they're often worth the trouble. Supermarkets stock such a wide variety that the real difficulty comes in narrowing down the choices. So the next time you go food shopping, allow extra time to explore what's available. And don't limit yourself to the soup aisle, either. Search out the ethnic and specialty foods sections, and don't forget the shelves over the meat counter. Be sure to check the ingredients and directions, though. Some mixes are incomplete, requiring the addition of meat or vegetables.

Like their single-serving cousins, multi-serving dry soup mixes make good foundations for other kinds of meals. I like Knorr Oxtail and Lipton Chicken Noodle as stew bases, for example. I make the soup according to package directions, adding dehydrated vegetables (mushrooms, peas, corn, or carrots) and seasoning (dried thyme and parsley) right at the start. Then I whip up a dumpling batter using a buttermilk biscuit mix, drop spoonful after spoonful into the simmering soup, and cover the pot, simmering for 15-20 minutes. The dumplings soak up any excess broth, transforming the soup into a thickened stew. It's a quick and easy stick-to-the-ribs meal.

If you've plenty of time, however, and if fuel is abundant, "camp-made" soup is the best of all. It's just like its home-made counterpart—except that you need to work within the limitations of a back-country larder. This usually means you'll have to rely heavily on powdered broth and dried or canned ingredients. On shorter trips, though, it's not much bother to pack some fresh vegetables. Onions and potatoes travel well, as do carrots, leeks, and celery. If you're feeling adventurous, you can even pack along a small cabbage or an acorn squash. And don't forget to bring a few cloves of garlic and plenty of your favorite herbs and spices! With ingredients like these you can easily whip up a hearty, flavorful vegetable soup.

Of course, on trips much longer than a weekend, space and weight are at a premium. And even if they weren't, fresh vegetables won't keep forever. So you're back to dehydrated vegetables and other dry staples. If there's a food co-op near you, it's a good place to shop for dehydrated veggies and soup powders in bulk. The price is usually right, too. A tablespoon of powdered chicken-, vegetable-, or beef-broth stirred into a cup of boiling water serves the same purpose as a bouillon cube. It also tastes better.

On long trips and short, I like to include either dried split green peas or dried lentils in my food pack. They're staple foods—split peas were once a main ingredient in infantry rations—and they don't take as long to cook as either navy beans or great northerns. As we discovered on one cold, wet day in late October, pea soup really hits the spot. Wood fire or portable stove? It doesn't matter. If you can simmer your soup without having it boil over, either will do fine. Now let's make some soup!


Paddler's Pea Soup
(makes about 1 1/2 quarts)

This recipe uses fresh vegetables. If you'll be using dehydrated veggies, see the list of substitutions at the end.

1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 medium onion, diced (cut into small pieces)
1 medium carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large (or 2 small) russet (baking) potatoes, diced
1 cup split green peas
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 1/2 quarts of water, more or less
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a 3-quart pot over medium heat. (If you're using a wood fire, coals are better than flames.) Once the oil gets hot enough to sizzle when tested with a small piece, put the cut-up onion into the pot. Stir frequently until it softens just a bit. (This is known as "sautéing.") Next, put in the carrots and celery. Stir for another minute or two and then add the split peas, bay leaf, marjoram, and thyme. Finally, pour in about 2 1/2 quarts of water. Pour slowly and carefully. When the level rises to about 1 1/2 inches from the top, stop. Cover the pot.

Now bring the soup to a boil. As soon as you can see steam forcing its way around the lid, reduce the heat. (If cooking on a wood fire, move the pot to a cooler spot.) Lift the pot-lid so it's slightly ajar—use the handle of a spoon or similar tool—and allow the soup to simmer. Lifting the lid prevents the soup from boiling over.

Check the soup occasionally to be sure it's still simmering, and stir now and then to prevent sticking and burning. After about 45 minutes, the peas should have softened enough. Serve with bread.

Substitutions

If you're using dehydrated vegetables, substitute the following:

For the diced onions SUBSTITUTE 1/4 cup dried onion flakes
For the diced carrots SUBSTITUTE 1/4 cup dried, shredded carrots
For the chopped celery SUBSTITUTE 1/4 cup dried celery
  OR 2 tablespoons of dried celery leaves
For the russet potatoes SUBSTITUTE 1/4 cup dried, diced
  potatoes

Omit the cooking oil, put all the dry ingredients into the pot, and add enough water to reach to about 1 1/2 inches from the top. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer as before.


Want a change from pea soup? Try lentils. Just follow the pea soup recipe, but substitute an equal quantity of lentils for the split peas. Experiment with different herbs and vegetables, too.

Too bland? Sprinkle bacon bits (the real thing or TVP) over each bowl of soup, but beware—bacon has a strong aroma. Double-bag the "bits" and keep them separate from your sugar and coffee. And remember that bears like bacon, too. In bear country, even in late fall, keep bacon well away from your tent, and be sure to hang your food-pack high.

Cold weather? Snow in the air? No problem. Soup's on!

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

















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