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Alimentary, My Dear

Fruit for Thought

By Tamia Nelson

June 18, 2002

Fruit's good for you, right? No surprise there. Horrible things happen to people who don't eat fruit. Take scurvy, for example. It's all but unknown today, thanks to orange juice concentrate and multivitamin pills, but it was the common lot of mariners and explorers well into the nineteenth century. And it took an awful toll: sixty-one sailors accompanying Danish explorer Jens Munk to Hudson's Bay in 1619 died of its effects, writhing in agony "as if a thousand knives had been thrust" into their joints. Even three centuries later, members of the Franklin Expedition—the best-equipped arctic expedition the world had ever seen—fell victim to the same awful scourge. It probably didn't kill any of Franklin's crew outright, but it made them weak just when they needed all their strength to survive. That was enough. None of them made it home.

Tales like this are ancient history now, of course. No modern canoeist or kayaker is likely to suffer from scurvy. Still, there are other good reasons to eat fruit. It tastes great, for one thing, and that's enough for most of us. I know it is for me.

Unfortunately, fresh fruit doesn't travel well. Taking fruit along on a day trip is easy, though, and it's not much more difficult on a weekend paddle. Apples and oranges are obvious choices. (But orange peels don't biodegrade readily in most climates. Pack them out.) With a little care, you can even bring delicate fruits like bananas, peaches and pears. Just be sure to pack them carefully, so they won't be crushed by heavier items.

On longer trips, your best bet is dried fruit. Yes, you can forage for berries and other wild foods. It's fun, to be sure, but you shouldn't count on finding a berry bush at every meal stop. And the resident wildlife depend on the fruit of the land to survive. They can't go the supermarket. We can. So it's best if we bring our own food with us when we visit the backcountry. Happily, there are more kinds of dried and dehydrated fruit available than ever before. Even rural supermarkets stock the "old reliables": raisins and currants, apricots, banana chips, prunes, apple rings, "mixed fruit," dates, and figs. All these are available in sealed packets, and most are good. You can even find coconut flakes in the baking aisle.

And don't neglect the produce section, where you'll find such previously unheard-of dried delicacies as cherries, cranberries, and blueberries. They all taste wonderful when eaten out of hand, either on their own or added to your favorite trail mix. Do you crave backcountry fast food? Then scan the snack and cookie shelves for fruit bars and fruit leathers.

Want even more choices? Head for your local food co-op or health food store. Our co-op carries dried papaya, pineapples, and peaches, along with dried lime, orange and lemon peel. These dried peels are sometimes called "zest," and they're aptly named—they're unmatched flavor-enhancers.

There's no limit to the possibilities of fruit. Eaten straight, probably nothing has more appeal on a hot summer afternoon than an orange. A banana is another quick treat. (Bananas, too, have slow-to-biodegrade peels. So pack 'em out.) Too dull? Then let your imagination off the leash! Have you ever tried fried bananas? Peel a banana, roll it in sugar, and then sauté in butter or margarine. Sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg and serve. If you're really adventurous, drizzle some rum over the banana while it's still in the skillet—but step away from the fire first!

Fruit kebabs are another fireside treat for overnight trips. Begin your preparations at home. Put any or all of the following into a sealed plastic container: large chunks of pineapple, orange segments, halved apricots, quartered peaches, unripe banana slices, and wedges cut from apples or pears. Now squeeze a little lemon juice over the cut fruit to prevent discoloration. Once in camp, thread the fruit onto skewers, sprinkle with sugar, and hold over hot coals for 5-10 minutes, turning the skewers occasionally. The heat of the fire will caramelize the sugar. Delicious!

Longer trips mean dried fruit, and dried fruit has a bad rep. That's too bad. While it's not as succulent as fresh, it's every bit as versatile. Stewed dried fruit is especially good, and it's easy to prepare, too. Just choose whatever fruit—or combination of fruits—catches your fancy. Once you've made your choice, put 2 or 3 ounces per person into a pot and add enough water to cover the fruit to the depth of one inch. If you can, soak overnight to reduce cooking time, but if this isn't practical, simply put it directly on the stove. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until a thick syrup forms and the fruit is tender. Now remove from the heat and allow to cool somewhat before serving, adding maple syrup or chopped nuts to taste. (Try pistachios or walnuts.) Stewed fruit is great at either end of the day: it makes both an energy-enhancing breakfast and a delicious dessert.

Feeling creative? Add dumplings to stewed fruit and you end up with a dessert very much like a cobbler. It's not hard to do. Just whisk up a basic buttermilk dumpling mix in a bowl or pot. Then stew your fruit as above, adding enough extra water to allow for absorption by the dumplings. When the water begins to boil, reduce the heat and drop batter into the bubbling liquid a spoonful at a time. Cover the pot and simmer until the dumplings are cooked through. (This usually takes about 10 minutes.) Test for doneness by thrusting a clean sliver of wood into a dumpling. If the sliver comes out as clean as it went in, then the dumplings are cooked through.

Fruit isn't only for dessert or breakfast, of course. People have been adding fruit to their main dishes for centuries. Pork, game, and fowl dishes often include apples, prunes, raisins, or other fruit. To get an idea of the possibilities, give cock-a-leekie soup a try. In the supermarket, look for a leek soup mix. (Knorr makes one, and there are others that are equally good. If you can't find leek, use a chicken soup mix.) You'll also need a small can of chicken and 1/4 cup of prunes. Slice the prunes into strips. Prepare the soup according to package directions. When the soup's done, stir in the chicken and prunes and continue cooking until the chicken is hot. Serve and enjoy!

For something more exotic still, try mulligatawny. Born on the Indian subcontinent, this highly-seasoned soup was adopted by the British Raj, who soon made it their own. The exact ingredient list differs depending on whom you talk to, but chicken, raisins, and apples figure prominently in most versions. So, too, does curry.

Complicated? Not at all. You'll need a tablespoon of curry powder, some dried apples and raisins, a packet of chicken soup mix (chicken noodle works fine), half a cup of white rice, and—for big appetites—a small can of precooked chicken. In camp, heat a little oil in the bottom of a pot, chop apples into the oil, and then stir in the curry powder. Prepare the soup in the same pot. Since you'll be cooking rice, though, be sure to add one cup more water than is called for in the directions on the soup packet. Then, when the soup is boiling, stir in the rice and simmer until the grains are tender. Now add the raisins and the precooked chicken, heat for a few minutes more, and serve.

As mulligatawny proves, rice and fruit go together. For a change from your usual camp fare, mix raisins and chopped, dried apricots into rice pilaf or couscous. The result? A tasty and nutritious meal. Here's a chance to use that "zest" I mentioned earlier: chopped lemon, lime, or orange peel adds a wonderfully tangy note to rice dishes like these.

And the subcontinent's gifts to the western tables don't end with mulligatawny. Try adding chutney—a sweet and sour fruit condiment—to pilafs or couscous. I like to make a wild rice pilaf, stir in some slivered almonds, and add a couple of spoonfuls of Major Grey's Mango Chutney. Delicious! Chutney also tempers the heat of curries and other spicy meals. (If you decide to follow the Major into the field, however, you'll want to repackage his chutney before you go. Glass jars don't belong in the backcountry.)

This is only the beginning. Supermarket shelves bulge with easy-to-prepare ethnic meals. Pair a Thai dish with plum sauce. Or cook up a pot of spicy black beans with rice, and garnish with chopped, dried mango and lime juice. Explore. Experiment. Use your imagination.

Now let's get back to basics. At home or afloat, apple crisp is a favorite dish, and it's as American as…well…apple crisp. Outdoor baking can be a hassle, though, so here's a stove-top (or camp-fire) crisp that'll satisfy most palates:

No-Bake Apple Crisp
(2 servings)

4 ounces dried apples
1/4 - 1/2 cup brown (or white) sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cardamom (optional)
water sufficient to cover apples
1 cup of your favorite granola

Place apples in a pot, then stir in cinnamon, nutmeg and—if you're feeling adventurous—cardamom, too. Add water until the fruit is immersed to a depth of one inch. (To reduce cooking time, soak the fruit for several hours.) Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil, and then reduce the heat or move the pot to a cooler part of the fire. Now simmer until the apples are tender and a thickened syrup forms. This usually takes from 10 to 20 minutes. Finally, stir in the granola and cook a little while longer. Serve warm.

A tip: Measure out the spices and apples at home and mix them together. Store in a double plastic bag. This will make preparation in camp easy and quick.

Apples. Apricots. Raisins. Even mango chutney. With so many delicious choices, there's no reason for backcountry meals to be dull, is there? It's fruit for thought. Bon appétit!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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