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The Portable Pantry

Building a Menu

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

June 17, 2003

Departure Day for your Big Trip is fast approaching. You've made most of the hard choices already. Your "jewelry" (aka your batterie de cuisine, or pots and pans) is ready to go. You've decided whether to pack heat or rely on open fires. You know what all your friends like to eat — and what they hate. Now the fun begins: you've got to build a menu.

Ask experienced camp cooks how they go about putting together a menu and you'll get almost as many answers as there are cooks. Some folks work entirely with freeze-dried entrées. This isn't cheap, but nothing could be easier. Others spend long winter nights carefully assembling portable banquets for every day of their summer trips, lovingly prepackaging the dry ingredients for each meal in individual heat-sealed bags. These paddling gourmets always eat well, but their method isn't practical for people with busy schedules.

Most paddlers fall somewhere between the two extremes. I'm no exception. I use freeze-dried entrées sparingly, and I almost never prepackage individual meals. Instead, I draw up a seven-day master menu, then repeat that menu (with minor variations) every week I'm away from home base. I try to balance economy with convenience, while never losing sight of the fact that meals can be more than just fuel for the engine. Here are the building blocks I use in crafting my menus:

  • Low-Moisture Staples  Rice, pasta, and couscous. Cereals, crackers, flour, and sugar. Prepared mixes: pancake, biscuit, cake, and cookie. Coffee and tea. Salt.

  • Dried and Dehydrated Foods  Pasta sauce, gravy, and soup mixes. Dried potatoes and other vegetables. Dried fruits. Prepackaged entrées. Dried whole eggs and milk powder. Juice crystals and gelatin mixes. And, of course, dried herbs and spices.

  • Meat, Fish, Cheese, and Nuts  Tinned (where permitted), dehydrated, or freeze-dried chicken, ham, and beef. Tuna and sardines. Cured meats (dry sausage, jerky, and chipped beef). Hard cheeses like parmesan and cheddar. Peanut butter and whole nuts.

  • Oils and Condiments  Corn and canola oils. Olive oil. Margarine. Jams, jellies, and marmalade. Maple syrup. Honey. Preserved lemon and lime juices.

These categories overlap, to be sure, but they're still useful. Now it's time to build your menu. By combining elements from each of the four building-blocks, I construct a plan for simple, easy-to-prepare meals. I always include at least one supper meal each week that will go together in just a few minutes. (Hard-chargers will want more than one.) This generally means a quick-cooking couscous dish. I also plan one or two elaborate meals for layover days. These are good times for pancakes or baked treats like pizza and bannock, or long-simmering soups like split pea.

Let's look at each meal in turn.

Breakfast

Morning's usually a busy time in camp, so breakfast is either a quick-cooking cereal (like oatmeal) or cold granola. On layover days, I make scrambled eggs, stewed fruit, or pancakes. One thing never changes, though: even in midsummer, breakfast isn't done till I've gotten at least one mug of hot tea down my throat.

Lunch

On a weekend picnic, you can make a meal of having lunch, but if you're four days into a week-long trip, lunch is usually a movable feast. Since it's sometimes eaten in the boat — I've even had lunch while parked in an eddy in the middle of a long rapids — simple and good are the watchwords here. Crackers and cheese, or cold bannock slathered with peanut butter and jelly, followed by a handful of chocolate chips or M&Ms and raisins. Want something to wash it down with? Of course you do! Powdered drink mixes are welcome thirst-quenchers. Tea, too, if possible. (With a well-behaved stove and a great deal of care you can brew up a cuppa in your canoe, at least in calm water. Practice this on home waters first, though.)

Midsummer heat sometimes makes a long noon break desirable. Then you'll have time to simmer soup or even bake a bannock. Save some bannock for tomorrow's lunch.

Supper

'Tis a puzzlement. You usually have plenty of time at the end of the day, but you're often too tired to cook an elaborate meal. Pasta, rice, and couscous dishes are probably the easiest to prepare, with stews and soups coming in a close second. If you're feeling energetic, pizza is a favorite. Once again, tea is usually my beverage of choice. If you like a glass of wine or a tot of rum, however, and if you're not camping in a park that bans "open containers," supper's the time to indulge. Rum and brandy are the traditional waterman's tipples, but I prefer wine with my meals. The box wines are cheap and drinkable, and they travel well. They're not light, I admit, but there's a bonus — once rinsed out, the empty bladders make good water bags. (They can even double as air pillows.)

Desserts and Other Treats

No supper is complete without dessert. Fruit is always good, but when fuel supply, time, and weather permit, it's nice to have a baked dessert or campfire snack. Bannock's a good choice, and any Sweet Teeth in your party can be appeased with apple crisp or a cheesecake from a boxed mix. Instant cocoa's good, too, and popcorn is another favorite after-dinner treat. Remember to wash out all your dirty pots before hitting the sack, though. Uninvited guests are a pain at any time of day, but they're particularly unwelcome at 0-dark-thirty. A clean camp is the only way to insure an unbroken night's sleep.

  

Does all this seem too complicated? Thinking about living off the land, instead? A word to the wise: Don't. Even where (and when) it's permitted by law, hunting and gathering's a full time job, and it's mighty hard work, too. Fishing is fun — well, fun for the angler, at any rate; the trout I've caught haven't been very forthcoming on the subject — but the fish aren't always biting, and these days a lot of them are carrying a heavy load of toxic contaminants in their fat and flesh. Poached PCBs with mercury sauce isn't my idea of a treat, I'm afraid.

Except for hard-core survivalists and commandos in training, therefore, most paddlers will find it better (and easier) to bring their own food along. In fact, it's best to bring a little more than you'll think you'll need. It's hard to starve to death, but it's not impossible, and missing even a couple of meals will take the fun out of any trip.

OK. You've built your menu. But you're not done yet. You still have to pack all your food.

It's in the Bag

Glass bottles break at the least opportune times. Cans are a pain in the back. And both are now illegal in many parks. The only glass containers I carry are the tiny bottles that hold my water-purification tablets, and even where cans are allowed, I save tinned meats for a rare treat. Retort packs are lighter than cans, and they're surprisingly durable, but MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) and other retort-packed meals aren't dehydrated. Water weighs a lot. Where possible, I prefer to rely on dry ingredients and "harvest" my water locally. That's one type of living off the land that (usually) makes sense.

But if cans are too heavy and glass is out of the question, what's left? Plastic. "Zip-lock" storage bags, freezer bags, and heat-sealed bags. All of them work. Repackage any foods that come in cardboard boxes in plastic bags. (Do NOT repack canned food. If you take it, keep it in the original, unopened can, and plan on eating the entire contents of any newly-opened can at one meal. Food poisoning isn't much fun at home. It's pure hell in the backcountry.) Once you've filled a bag — and half full is full enough — squeeze out as much air as you can, then tie securely. If you close freezer bags with overhand slip knots, rather than twist-ties, you won't pierce the bag. You'll also have one less piece of garbage to haul back home. Double bags are less likely to spring untimely leaks, but only if you remember to knot each bag separately.

Some folks heat-seal their food in sturdy plastic bags, and these work well. (Heat-sealed bags usually can't be reclosed, though.) The bladders from box wines — once they've been rinsed and thoroughly dried — also make sturdy bags for grains or any other bulk foods that can be funneled in through the narrow pour spout. Whatever bags you use, don't forget to label the contents clearly, placing any special instructions in the bag, where they won't get lost.

Plastic bags won't work for all foods, of course. What about liquids? The plastic bottles that cooking oil and maple syrup often come in usually travel well, though you'll want to double bag them, just to be on the safe side. On the other hand, semi-solids like peanut butter, jams, jellies, and stick margarine often have to be repacked. Refillable tubes once enjoyed a certain vogue for these hard-to-pack items, but I never had much luck with them. The clips were always coming undone, and the plastic tubes were hard to scrub out. I preferred rigid plastic containers with press-fit lids, secured with rubber bands and then double-bagged. I still do. They're easy to clean, too. (Wash all rigid containers before filling, then scald with boiling water and allow to air dry.) You'll find suitable boxes in a wide range of sizes in nearly every supermarket. Failing that, you can always host a Tupperware party.

Once all your food is in the bag, it's time to get organized. I put supper and breakfast items in separate packs. Stuff sacks work fine on weekend outings, but you'll want larger packs for longer trips. A spice kit goes into the supper pack. Lunch gets a third sack all its own, stowed where it's easy to grab underway. Bulk supplies of staple foods (e.g., flour, sugar, coffee, and milk powder) are double-bagged and then stored in a separate "staples bag." On short trips, the food bags travel in our personal packs. On longer trips, or on a any trip in bear country, they get packs of their own. The "family jewels" (my pots and pans) are packed with the food. On every trip, long or short, waterproof packs (or pack liners) are worth the cost.

* * *

Got your packing done? Bags stacked by the door? They make a pretty big pile, don't they? I'm always surprised at how much we eat. Still, it's better to have a little too much food than not enough. Happy water trails — and Bon appétit!

Does reading about food make you hungry? Then whether you live to eat or only eat to live, you'll want to check out our "Alimentary, My Dear" archive.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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