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Alimentary, My Dear

Use Your Noodle

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

A Note to the Reader

Are you a foodie? Or are you happy to chow down on whatever comes out of a can? No matter. Whether you live to eat, or only eat to live, you'll want to check out our Alimentary, My Dear archive.

September 24, 2002

Ask any paddler about her favorite main dish and the odds are good that pasta is the principal ingredient. Spaghetti with tomato sauce, macaroni and cheese, lasagna…the list goes on and on. This isn't hard to understand. Pasta is a treasury of all the virtues—and their opposites. It's tender, yet firm. Robust, yet delicate. Flavorful, yet understated. In short, pasta is versatile: it makes a wonderful base for a whole menu of meals. It's also inexpensive, compact, and slow to spoil, as well as being available almost everywhere, even at the solitary Ser-Sta-Gro on your favorite long, empty road.

Still not convinced? Then take a look at the testimonials. Sweaty, hard-paddling jocks swear that pasta's carbohydrates boost their energy without weighing them down, while—at the other end of the spectrum—self-indulgent backcountry epicures sing the praises of pasta's delicate flavor and "satisfying mouthfeel." Wherever you fall in this continuum, if you eat, pasta has something to offer.

Pasta meals aren't restricted to spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and lasagna, of course. Despite the limited resources of a paddling pantry, no cook need repeat a meal, even on month-long expeditions. You say you don't take a cook with you on your trips? No problem. Everyone can tackle pasta dishes.

How? Let's find out. Take a walk through any moderate-sized American supermarket. What do you see? A bewildering array of pastas. They're found in the main aisles, as well as in the refrigerator and freezer sections. Most will be boxed and based on wheat, but larger stores will have fresh wheat-based pastas on offer, too. You'll also find Oriental pastas made from beans, potatoes, rice, or even acorn starch.

Too much choice? Maybe. But we can narrow the field. Skip the frozen ravioli and the fresh pastas from the cooler, to begin with. They're not practical for voyages outside the suburbs. Seek out the dried pasta, instead. Most likely you'll find it shelved near the canned tomato sauces, not far from the dried sauce mixes.

Prepare to be overwhelmed! Boxed pasta ranges in size from tiny beads called acini di pepe to the familiar deckle-edged sheets of lasagna, with dozens of "stick" pastas in between: angel hair, vermicelli, spaghetti, linguine, and fettuccine, to name only a few. And then there are the tubular pastas, from macaroni and mostaccioli to ditali and ziti, not to mention "shells" in four sizes and the magnum tubes of cannelloni. Is that all? No. There are more shapes of pasta than there are forms in Euclid: spirals like rotelle and fusilli, bowties and butterflies (farfalle), the twisted strands of gemelli, "little ears" (orecchiette), and cartwheels (rotelle). You can even find dried ravioli and tortellini. And that's only the beginning.

Next to the dried wheat-based pastas are the egg noodles, from thread-like to hefty. (Can't take a yolk? You'll find egg noodles modified to suit.) A little further down the aisle, you'll come to couscous, a wheat pasta hailing from North Africa. Couscous is always worth taking along on a trip. It's ideal for a quick supper at the end of a hard day, especially now that you can buy quick-cooking varieties that eliminate the need to steam and sieve.

But why stop here, with pallid, cream-colored pastas? Put a little color on your plate: green spinach pasta, say, or chestnut-colored whole-wheat spaghetti—or maybe tomato and artichoke will appeal.

Once you've finished your reconnaissance and made your choice, you'll want something saucy to complete your dish. And I'll bet that you'll find sauce mixes not far from the dried, boxed pasta. Some of my favorites are produced by Knorr, but I'm sure there are other brands just as good. Pesto, creamy pesto, sun-dried tomato pesto, red bell pepper pesto, Alfredo, carbonara…. (Pesto, by the way, means "pounded" in Italian.)

All these sauces are easy to prepare, but be sure to read the directions on the packet before you toss it in the cart—you may need to buy other ingredients. If the packet calls for milk, for example, be sure to buy some powdered dry milk. Or substitute an equal amount of water. Don't be afraid to experiment, but do it at home first.

Too much trouble? Then continue exploring the aisles. You'll find lots of prepared mixes combining pasta and sauce in one convenient packet. Pound for pound, these prepackaged meals are much more expensive than pasta and sauce bought separately, but they take some of the fuss out of packing for a trip. They usually cook up fast, too. Always study the directions carefully before buying, though. You won't find many AC current bushes in the backcountry! You'll also want to figure out the likely yield. One package might provide a filling meal for four nibbling noshers in the 'burbs, but still leave two hungry paddlers feeling empty. So try any new mix at home (and on short outings) before adopting it as a menu staple.

How much is enough? That's hard to say. How high is up? It depends. Farwell and I each need a quarter-pound of pasta (dry weight) to slake our normal outdoor appetites, but if our meal is supplemented with bread or a dessert, or if we're adding meat to the dish, than we can get by with a bit less—3 ounces, say. Expedition trippers and athletes will need more—sometimes much more—while Twiggy will be happy just sniffing the steam rising from the pot. The moral? Experiment! Just remember that it's much better to pack more food than you can eat than it is to run short. Hungry paddlers aren't happy paddlers. (If you need to be convinced of this, read Eric Sevareid's classic Canoeing with the Cree. And leave your ax and knives at home.)

While you're still at the HyperMart, don't forget to check out the soup aisle. Among other offerings, you'll find cheap packets combining soup powder and bricks of crinkly noodles. These are sold under the collective name of ramen, and students have been subsisting on them for decades. Ramen is available in an infinity of flavors, from basic chicken to exotic seafood blends. They all taste pretty much the same to me at home, I admit, but it's mighty hard to say no to a mug of hot soup at the end of a long, cold day, particularly when it's ready in 15 minutes or less.

More adventurous foodies will want to make their own sauces, using the best ingredients. One of the wonderful things about pasta is that even simple accompaniments can make great meals. Sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, fresh minced garlic, flavorful herbs, chopped fresh shallots, black or green olives, reconstituted dried mushrooms, even wine and truffles (for paddlers with deep pockets, strong backs, and big boats)…all of these make terrific additions to a pasta meal.

Just look through your recipe files if you're so inclined. Flip through the pages of your favorite cookbooks and foodie magazines. Modify and adapt home recipes. Experiment. Improvise! It's hard work, to be sure, but at least you get to eat the results, and even your mistakes can sometimes be surprisingly good. The ingredient list for a pasta meal needn't be long. One of my favorite dishes is nothing more than fresh-cooked pasta garnished with crushed garlic in heated olive oil. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, add salt and pepper to taste, and eat. Delicious!

And while you're feeling adventurous, don't ignore the wisdom of the East. Oriental cuisines have relied on pasta for many thousands of years, and more and more supermarkets are stocking Asian noodles. If yours isn't one of them, widen you search. Visit food co-ops, natural-food stores, and ethnic markets. You'll find it's worth the effort.

What will you find there? Cellophane noodles, for one thing. Also known as bean thread noodles, these are made from ground mung beans, and they're the base for a dish known as "Ants Climb a Tree." (You won't discover any ants in your bowl, though. Just minced beef or pork. The shreds of meat cling to the noodles, looking for all the world like…yes, you guessed it…ants climbing a tree.) You'll also find rice sticks, rice noodles, and rice vermicelli—three names for noodles made from rice starch. Like potatoes? Then try long, thin, translucent Japanese harusame noodles, made from potato starch. Koreans even make a translucent brown noodle using acorn starch.

CAUTION! Starch-based noodles require a different cooking method than typical boxed pasta. Instead of plunging them directly into boiling water (where they'll only become rubbery), starch-based noodles must first be softened in hot water for 30 minutes or so. Once softened, they're usually fried or simmered with other food, absorbing the flavors of the main ingredients. They're eaten in soups like the now-popular Vietnamese pho and Chinese hotpot. If you've ever had any of these soups at a trendy restaurant or bought some from a street vendor, and if you liked what you got, don't hesitate to try adapting it for camp.

Not all Asian noodles have a starch base, of course. The Japanese udon is a thin, flat, wheat noodle resembling Italian linguine. Somen are even thinner: they resemble angel hair or capellini. The Japanese also use a buckwheat flour to make soba, whose delightfully nut-like flavor goes well with sweet-and-sour sauces. The ubiquitous bricks of ramen are also adapted from Chinese wheat noodles. They're sometimes available as egg noodles, too, and I find them tastier and more satisfying than their American counterparts.

OK. It's time to head for the check-out. Don't forget to pick up some sturdy plastic bags along the way. You don't want your noodles getting wet in a dunking or a downpour, do you?

Still having trouble making a choice? Macaroni, ziti, and twists are easy to pack, but they'll take longer to cook than thin pastas like capellini. On the other hand, long, thin pasta strands will be crushed if they're not packed very carefully. Long pasta is also awkward to cook in small pots. The solution? Break long strands into more manageable lengths before packing, and then protect the pasta with a paper wrap.

Here's how. Make up a cylinder with half a pound of spaghetti, then grasp the bundle firmly in both hands, holding it like a piece of kindling that you want to break. (Keep your fists about an inch apart.) Now rotate your hands away from you, holding the bundle parallel to the table-top. Done sharply and smartly, this will snap the bundle in two. (Watch out for pasta shards!) The result? Two quarter-pound bundles of 4-inch spaghetti. Wrap the bundles in brown paper—lunch bags work well—and seal in a plastic bag. Spaghetti to go!

Cooking wheat pasta is easy. Just immerse it in boiling water and keep the pot on the boil till it's done. Many folks cook pasta too long, leaving it limp and lifeless. You want your pasta done al dente—and that's the whole tooth. If a strand of cooked pasta offers just a touch of resistance when bitten, you're got it about right. Practice at home first, of course. (Instructions on cooking the very thin pasta called angel hair or capellini can be found in the recipe for Pesto Pasta Pronto in Go Nuts!)

Has your reconnaissance left you hungry? Good! Let's have lunch. Here's a simple Asian-inspired pasta meal for two that's great at home, but easy enough for camp, too. You'll need sesame oil, udon, teriyaki sauce, and oriental chili sauce (usually stocked with the soy sauces, canned chow mien, and other oriental ingredients). If you can't find udon, substitute linguine. It's roughly the same shape, but it takes four times as long to cook as udon: twelve minutes, rather than three.


Open-Air Sesame Noodles
(makes 2 servings)

1/2 pound (8 ounces) udon
4 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons peanuts OR cashews

1/4-inch-thick slice of ginger root (about as big around as a quarter)
1 large garlic clove
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
6 tablespoons teriyaki sauce
1 fresh lime OR 2 tablespoons of lime juice (from a "plastic lime")

Optional Ingredients:

1 teaspoon oriental chili sauce (hot!)
half a small red onion
half a red bell pepper

Read this recipe all the way through before beginning to cook, and be sure you know what to do. Once the water starts boiling, things happen very fast. Assemble all ingredients in advance, and have all utensils, bowls, plates, and supplies ready to hand. NB You'll need a large pot for boiling water and a small pot or skillet for cooking the sauce. And be sure you have a safe place to drain cooking (and washing) water. It should be at least 150 feet from any water source, well away from your campsite, and pose no threat to wild plants or animal burrows.

Ready? Let's roll! Put a large, covered pot of water over a high flame on your stove—or over a hot fire—and bring it to a boil. While waiting, mince the ginger (there's no need to peel it) and garlic (remove the papery peel). If you have a lime, cut it into quarters—you'll want to squeeze the juice into the sauce. If you also have a fresh onion and bell pepper, slice them lengthwise into thin strips.

When the water's boiling vigorously, drop the noodles into the pot, stir briefly, and return to a boil. DO NOT REPLACE THE LID ON THE POT. (The water will boil over and extinguish the flame if you do.) The udon should be done in three minutes. Stir occasionally during this time to prevent sticking.

Once the noodles are ready (al dente), don thick gloves or mittens—a pair of lineman's gloves travels in my cook-kit—and remove the large pot from the stove. Next, drain the water, retaining the noodles in the pot. This isn't as easy as you might think. To improve your chances, replace the lid after taking the pot off the flame, but leave a narrow gap between pot and lid. Now carefully tilt the pot while holding the lid in place, and drain the boiling water, pouring away from your body. Once the last of the water has drained off, return the pot to an upright position. With any luck, most of the noodles will still be inside. (If this doesn't appeal—and it does require practice, not to mention a steady hand!—just lift the noodles carefully out of the water using a large fork, hold them over the pot until they drain, and then transfer them to the bowls or plates. Now discard the cooking water and return the noodles to the pot.)

Once the pot contains only drained, cooked pasta, pour 1 tablespoon of sesame oil over the noodles and add the 3 tablespoons of peanuts or cashews. (Reserve the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil.) Stir. Then cover the pot and put it down in a warm place for a moment.

WARNING! The pace picks up from here on out. Place your small pot or skillet over a medium-low flame (or on a grill at the edge of your fire). Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons of sesame oil into the pot, and then stir in the minced ginger and garlic, as well as the sesame seeds. They should sizzle immediately. If not, increase the heat or move the pot to a hotter area of the fire. Cook for only about 10 seconds, stirring all the while. Now add the teriyaki sauce and lime juice. (This is also the time to stir in the chili sauce if you're using it.) Mix the ingredients with a spoon, and simmer for about 30 seconds.

Next, pour this still-hot sauce over the noodles and nuts. If you're using raw, fresh onions and peppers, add these, too. Stir thoroughly and divide the noodles evenly between bowls. Now find a comfortable place with a good view of the water and tuck in. Luncheon is served!

Packing Tips

Fresh ginger root and fresh garlic can both be found in your supermarket's produce section. The ginger will last for about a week before getting moldy; the garlic will keep much longer. Wrap them separately and pack in plastic bags. Fresh limes keep well, too, but lime juice dispensed from "plastic limes" will work. On weekend trips, you can also bring along fresh onions and bell peppers. Sesame oil (and teriyaki and chili sauces) should be decanted into plastic bottles. Be sure the caps are tight, and put the bottles into sealed plastic bags for extra insurance. An oil spill will make a mess of your pack in no time!


That's it. There are many sesame noodle dishes, but this one is mine. Whichever dish you favor, it's easy to eat well in the backcountry if you only use your noodle. Bon appétit!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.







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