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Alimentary, My Dear

A Whole in One — One-Pot Meals Made Easy

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

January 17, 2006

When I makes tea I makes tea, as old Mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water. …  Begob, ma'am, says Mrs. Cahill, God send you don't make them in the one pot.

    James Joyce, Ulysses

I'm with Mrs. Cahill here, though Farwell delights in telling anyone who'll listen how he once made a Sigg pot do double duty when repeated bouts of dysentery struck him in midriver while he was paddling Down North. Of course, like all good stories, this tale has evolved somewhat in the telling. Farwell's punch line is always the same, however: "Believe it or not, they were the best one-pot meals I ever ate."

But that's Farwell's story, not mine. My tale begins with the goops, glops, mulligans, and hooshes of my early years on the trail, many of which looked (and tasted) like … no, I've said that was Farwell's story, haven't I? And so it is. Still, the names tell you everything you need to know. Glop. Goop. Hoosh. All of them were stodgy, dodgy messes of instant mashed potatoes, instant rice, or overcooked noodles, with just a few scraps of barely reconstituted dried vegetables and a little shredded beef jerky or crumbled dried beef thrown in for luck.

Needless to say, my luck was usually bad. Then, out of necessity, I learned the art of backcountry cooking. I was in the middle of a month-long climbing trip in the Cascades at the time. My companions thought a hearty stew of peanut butter, cheese parings, half-cooked oatmeal, and cherry Jell-O® was gourmet fare. I didn't. It was put-up-or-shut-up time, and I knew it. I had to do better. Or starve. That's when my education as a backcountry chef began in earnest. Lesson Number One? Quick and easy doesn't necessarily mean bad. The modern food industry takes plenty of hits in the press, and many of them are warranted. But there's a lot that's good on the shelves of your local HyperMart, too. With just a little planning and a bit of effort, any paddler can eat well out of a single pot. The advantages are obvious: simplified preparation and easy clean-up. In a word, convenience.

 

Yes, the best meals are the ones you make from scratch. Unless you're adept at living off the land, however, that's a mighty tall order in the backcountry. But wait! You really don't have to give up convenience to get good meals. One answer lies in what I call … 

Self-Catering

Just heat and serve. Cooking doesn't get any easier. What's the catch? You have to prepare your meal at home, before you head for the put-in. And you have to keep it from spoiling until you're ready to heat it up and eat it. Soft coolers and freezer blocks help. (Freezing the meal ahead of time will extend its "pack life" still further.) This has obvious limitations, but it works on many weekend adventures. Even on longer trips it's a good way to make sure that dinner on the first night in camp is a truly memorable one.

Not practical? Then how about packing pre-measured dry (or fresh) ingredients for each meal in plastic bags or tightly-sealed containers? Just be sure you label everything with a waterproof marker and include cooking instructions where necessary. (You won't want to open cans or retort pouches in advance, of course. Simply bag them together with the other ingredients — and don't forget the can-opener!) Unlike the heat-and-eat approach, this one can be extended indefinitely. And though I usually prefer a more flexible menu, myself, I've known paddlers who preplanned and prepackaged every meal for month-long expeditions, with many of the meals being one-pot affairs. These careful planners always ate well, too.

 

OK. Every one-pot meal needs to start somewhere, and for many years that point of departure was something that came … 

In a Can

Sometimes it still is. When foods in tin-lined, sheet-iron cans first appeared, early in the nineteenth century, they were immediately adopted by military quartermasters and expedition planners alike. But this early enthusiasm was premature. The necessary processing, though it frequently destroyed both nutrients and flavor with devastating efficacy, sometimes failed to sterilize the contents of the can, and the imperfectly preserved foods subsequently spoiled. Moreover, early cans had soldered seams, and lead poisoning probably contributed to several arctic tragedies, including the loss of all the members of the 1845-47 Franklin Expedition. Nowadays, of course, canned food is both safe and palatable, if somewhat heavy. Ah, yes. Heavy. And many backcountry travelers seem to find that the cans grow even heavier once emptied of their contents. The resulting informal camp dumps are as unsanitary as they are unsightly, and that's why canned foods are now prohibited in many parks and wilderness areas. In places where they're still permitted, however, they make fine starting points for heat-and-eat one-pot meals, especially when the cook makes good use of spices and herbs. A little curry powder or dried marjoram (crumble the leaves between your palms before adding it), for example, can transform an everyday can of beef stew into something quite out of the ordinary. Or try garlic powder — not a favorite of mine, I admit, but many cooks like it — or a dried bay leaf, or add some ground cumin. Your choices are as wide as your spice rack is long.

Dumplings also improve many canned soups and stews. Make them with commercial biscuit mix. Before leaving on a trip, measure out the quantity of mix you'll need for each meal and place it in a large zip-closure plastic bag, adding dried herbs and spices to taste. In camp, add the amount of water specified on the biscuit mix package, close the bag again, and knead. When the batter reaches the proper consistency, drop it into the simmering soup or stew one spoonful at a time and cook according to directions.

Want a meatless meal? Empty a can of black beans into a pot and set it over the fire. Stir in some salsa, cinnamon, cumin, and oregano. Once the beans are heated through, dish them out into bowls and top with grated cheddar or Monterey jack cheese. If you're willing to stretch the notion of "one pot" a bit, you can sop up the juices with flour or corn tortillas, or — if you want to cut down on dirty utensils — use tortilla chips to scoop up the beans. To carry this idea to its logical conclusion, bring along as many small rounds of unsliced rye bread as you have mouths to feed. Cut off the top of each round and set it aside for tomorrow's lunch. Then scoop out the centers in what remains — this makes excellent soft croutons, by the way — while preserving the crusts intact. The result? Edible bowls. Eat your soup. Then eat your bowl. Then lick your fingers. That's it. The only thing left to do is brush your teeth.

Or maybe you like a cooked breakfast. If you don't fancy playing with hot fat early in the day, try canned corned-beef hash and eggs. Sauté the hash over a medium fire, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and ensure even heating. Then sculpt hollows in the surface of the hot hash — one for each member of your party — and crack eggs into the newly-formed craters. Cover the pan, move to the edge of the fire (or lower the flame on your stove), and cook till the eggs are done just the way you like them.

 

But what if canned foods aren't permitted where you're going, or if you simply don't welcome the extra weight? No problem. There's a lot more to be found … 

On the HyperMart Shelves

As fast food moved out of the corner Burger-'n'-Fries into the home kitchen, the industry has responded. Convenience foods that don't require refrigeration now come in everything from foam cups to laminated retort packs. A quick tour of a nearby HyperMart is always instructive. Take dried potatoes, for instance. They're filling, they taste a great deal better than they did when I was first cooking over fire, and they go well with lots of other foods. As a base for one-pot meals, they have few equals. Choose a packaged instant mashed potato mix, add sliced or chopped precooked sausage, and then prepare according to the stove-top directions. (CAUTION! Sausages vary greatly in their keeping qualities. Check first.) Not a sausage fan? Simply substitute another cured or dried meat. Or leave it out altogether. Dish up the potatoes and top with a generous helping of grated cheddar cheese, instead, adding crushed, ready-made croutons for a sort of no-bake gratin. Packaged rice or noodle mixes also make good bases for one-pot meals. Eat them as is, or add other ingredients to enhance the flavor and bulk up the servings. As with potato dishes, grated cheese makes a tasty garnish. In either case, however, it's best to add it after the dish is cooked and off the fire. (Cheese sauces are the exception here.) For a quick meal you can eat on your feet or under way, wrap cooked rice, cheese, and salsa in tortillas. Mouth-watering!

Don't ignore the myriad of dried soup mixes, either. Whether you eat them straight or use them in making stews or camp-stove-top casseroles, they're a staple of the outdoor cook's pantry. Want an example? Prepare dried cream of mushroom soup according to package directions. When the soup comes to a boil, stir in some egg noodles, and when the noodles are tender, fold in some soft-pack tuna. Keep on the flame for a few minutes, then serve, sprinkling croutons on top for added texture. If you want to call the resulting meal tuna-noodle casserole you won't be far wrong. Need more options? A boxed stuffing mix can be a delicious base for a meal, too. Make according to directions, but toss in the contents of a retort pack of chicken when you measure the water into the pot. Canned peas are a happy addition as well — if you have them. Then continue cooking as directed on the package. In little more time than it takes to boil water, your chicken-and-stuffing dinner will be ready to serve.

Breakfast always repays careful consideration. Stewed, dried fruit is easy to prepare and very tasty. It also helps to keep your internal plumbing from seizing up. Choose whichever packaged dried fruit (or fruits) you fancy. Cover with water, add sugar to taste — and maybe a cinnamon stick or pinch of cardamom — then cover the pot and simmer over a moderate flame. When the fruit starts to cook down into a thick sauce, breakfast is ready. For a little something extra, top with pistachios, walnut meats, or other nuts.

 

Of course, if you'd rather not rely entirely on processed foods, you're in good company. But the burden born by any waterside chef is a heavy one. It's not easy being … 

The Paddling Gourmet

Food lovers approach the challenges of camp cooking with a mixture of eager anticipation and gnawing dread. Their fears may be unwarranted. While a riverbank camp is no substitute for a home kitchen, you can make great one-pot meals just about anywhere. A simmering kettle of split pea soup only needs time and a watchful eye, for example. Want added savor? Then stir in some diced Spam® — no, it's not a dirty word — or chopped, precooked bacon. Both are now available in soft packs that require no refrigeration. Can't find what you're looking for in the HyperMart? Don't despair. Take time to check out smaller ethnic markets and food co-ops. And while you're at it, learn to dry your own fruits and vegetables, jerk beef, and cure sausage. You'll like the results. After all, an open mind and a willingness to experiment are a cook's best allies.

There's more good news. In some ways, camp meals can be liberating. You won't need to count calories after a hard day's paddle, for one thing. The out-of-doors is the place for hearty country fare. Perhaps a variation on the classic white bean and sausage cassoulet is just what you need to keep you warm while you hold an evening vigil under the northern lights. Or how about choucroute garnie, a robust sauerkraut, potato, ham, and sausage stew from the Alsace? Both can be adapted for the camp kitchen, as can other more familiar stews, fricassees, and chilies. Think what you could do with small squares of beef tenderloin or sirloin, a cubed potato, and a handful each of button mushrooms and baby carrots, for example. Test all new recipes at home before including them in your camp menu, however. And make notes where needed to prompt your memory later. The back of beyond is not the place to risk unpleasant surprises. Just ask Farwell.

It's true. You don't have to have a battery of saucepans to make a good meal. One pot is all that's necessary. The only other tools you need — other than your knife and spoon, that is — are a repertoire of tested, trusted recipes and a willingness to try new things. Once you have these in hand, so to speak, good eating on the trail is … well … alimentary.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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