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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Endless Pastabilities

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

June 20, 2006

The subject of pasta is endless, delightfully endless.
     Lidia Matticchio Bastianich

Pasta and paddling are natural complements, but far too many paddlers never look further than boxed macaroni and cheese. That's a shame. Ease of preparation. Solid nutrition. Delicious flavor. How could you go wrong? And pasta travels well, too. So what do you say? Are you ready to cook outside the box? Good. There's lots of scope for experimentation. Every time I think I've exhausted the possibilities of pasta, I'm proven wrong.

And it doesn't matter whether you're planning a Big Trip or just putting together a weekend getaway on the spur of the moment. Pasta always has a place on the menu. No, make that places. Pasta can be had in so many forms, and the ways to prepare it are so varied, that no two meals need ever be the same. Its versatility doesn't stop there, either. Pasta is filling when you want something substantial in your stomach, but light when you don't. It also stows well, and it lasts just about forever if you only keep it dry. In a hurry? No problem. If it's fast food you want, pasta fits the bill. Or maybe you're looking for something elaborate for a lazy rest day. If that's the case, why not try…

Stuffed Pasta?

Ravioli, anyone? These cheese- or meat-filled treats are a perennial favorite. But there's another contender for the crown. Tortelloni and its little brother tortellini are ravioli with a college education, so to speak. They delight diners with the same delicious fillings, but their complex shape does a much better job of hanging on to sauce. In fact, the shape is so complex that it's hard to describe, though it bears a passing resemblance to a rose. Here's how these little pasta flowers are sculpted: A dollop of filling is placed in the middle of a small square of dough. One side is then folded over the other, forming a bulging triangle. Next, the mating edges of the triangle are pressed together, and the resulting envelope is rolled from bulge to apex. Lastly, the free ends are brought together to form a ring. Where the smooth, pillow-like shape of ravioli sheds sauce, the creases and pockets of tortelloni trap it. The result? Each juicy mouthful bursts with flavor.

Does this sound like too much trouble for the home kitchen, let alone a camp at the water's edge? Of course it is. And that's why cooks who didn't have an Italian delicatessen in their neighborhood contented themselves with frozen tortelloni for many long years — not a very practical alternative for us paddlers, I'm afraid. But things have changed. Today, companies like Barilla and Ronzoni market dried tortelloni. This is ideal traveling fare: the packages are lightweight and their contents almost indestructible. And what about variety? No fear. New fillings seem to appear every week. Bravissimo!

To see what's available, check the shelves of your local HyperMart. Begin the search near the spaghetti and elbow macaroni. Chances are good that you won't have to look far. Then, once you've found the dried tortelloni, check portion sizes. Remember how hungry you can get on a paddling trip. Always err on the side of having too much rather than too little. At a first guess, plan on between four and six ounces of dried tortelloni per paddler, depending on the sauce you'll be using. And pay attention to the sell-by date marked on the package. Dry pasta keeps (almost) forever, but stuffed pasta — even dried, stuffed pasta — isn't so accommodating.

To hold bulk to a minimum, repackage your find in doubled plastic bags and stow it in the middle of the food pack. Preparation is straightforward. Boil in plenty of salty water. Do not overcook! How long will it take? That depends on the size of the pasta. Tortelloni needs a longer time than tortellini. Be guided by the instructions on the package, but you can probably figure on somewhere between eight and 14 minutes. Test periodically. When the filling is heated all the way through, the pasta is done. Drain it thoroughly, and then…

Sauce It

Simple or complex — take your pick. One of the easiest sauces is butter. Just season with salt and pepper. If keeping butter will be a problem (and it will on any trip longer than a couple of days), use a butter substitute like Smart Balance® or margarine. Or simply drizzle extra-virgin olive oil onto the hot pasta, season to taste, and serve with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Too bland? OK. Add fresh garlic slices, heated in olive oil till they're golden brown (do not burn!), with or without hot pepper flakes (peperoncino). You can even add anchovies if you like.

Want something tried and true? Tomato sauces are old stand-bys, but even in parks and reserves where cans and bottles are allowed, prepackaged sauces are often prohibitively heavy. You can make your own, of course. Whole cherry or grape tomatoes will keep for a day or two if you stow them in a rigid plastic box in the center of a food pack. In camp, just stir the whole tomatoes into the hot pasta along with a drizzle of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and finish off with grated cheese. If you prefer a cooked sauce, place whole or halved fresh tomatoes — be sure to pierce them if you leave them whole — in a small amount of olive oil in a pot or skillet, adding slices of fresh garlic if desired. Season with salt and pepper, then heat over a moderate flame on your camp stove (or on a gentle fire) until the tomatoes are hot and the garlic is golden brown. This sauce takes only a couple of minutes to come together, so plan on keeping it warm until the tortelloni are heated and drained. Now stir the sauce into the pasta. Dinner is ready.

Dried tomatoes, whether or not they're sun-dried, are wonderfully tangy, and they're a welcome treat on long trips. You'll find them in retort packs on the shelves of the HyperMart, or you can dry your own. For a classic Mediterranean dish, mix sliced dried tomatoes with pitted Kalamata olives and stir into hot pasta, adding olive oil and sausage to taste. Make sure the sausage is first cooked thoroughly, however. Are weight and space critical? Powdered sauce mixes are one answer. Browse the offerings at your local HyperMart and try anything that appeals. Read the package instructions before slinging your find into the cart, though. If you're told to add milk, for instance, you'll need to bring enough powdered milk along, or you'll have to settle for plain clean water. To avoid unpleasant surprises, try any improvisations in your kitchen at home before you leave for the backcountry, just in case.

The bottom line? Where sauces are concerned, give your imagination free rein. Adapt old favorites. Try new things. Experiment. And don't stop with hot pasta dishes, because pasta also makes…

Delicious Salads

There's a lot more to salads than lettuce and cucumber. In fact, a pasta salad makes a refreshing lunch on a day trip, as a friend once demonstrated on an Indian-summer excursion to an Adirondack river and lake chain. The evening before we drove to the put-in, Jane mixed chopped raw vegetables with cooked acini de pepe, tiny pasta spheres somewhere between poppy seeds and peppercorns in size. Then she dressed the salad with extra-virgin olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon juice, along with a pinch of salt and pepper for seasoning. It spent the night in her refrigerator. Later, on the river, it traveled in an airtight plastic box in a soft cooler. Served up with hot tea from a vacuum flask, hunks of crusty bread torn from a baguette, and Granny Smith apples for dessert, this was a lunch I'll long remember. Thanks, Jane!

A cautionary note: Pasta salads can be bland and limp if you don't follow a few simple guidelines, and they'll leave you hungry if you don't bring enough. Allow between two to four ounces of dried pasta per serving, adjusting for varied appetites and any additional ingredients. Pasta should never be overcooked, especially salad pasta. If it's al dente it's done, after which it should immediately be drained and rinsed with cold water. Add oil, acid juices, and salt as soon as the pasta is freshly rinsed to allow time for the flavors to be absorbed more completely. Then chill the salad or keep it at room temperature, depending on the ingredients you've used. Safety first. If in doubt, chill out.

Tortelloni makes a great pasta salad, too. Once it's cooked and rinsed, dress with extra-virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt, and pepper. When thoroughly cool, adjust the seasoning to taste. You don't want your salad to be too oily or too juicy, just moist enough, and with a hint of salt. Now add chopped vegetables. Possibilities include cucumber, red onions, scallions, corn kernels (use frozen ones directly from the bag — they'll thaw quickly), bell pepper, radishes, grape or cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and curly endive (also called chicory). Finally, chill the mixed pasta salad in a plastic box with a tight-fitting lid, and keep it cool while paddling by carrying it in a soft cooler with a freezer block.

Want more variety? Nothing could be easier. How about dried tuna, chopped celery and onions, or plain yogurt? Or crisp cooked bacon and crumbled blue cheese. A dead simple salad can be made by stirring your favorite dressing into warm, rinsed pasta. Chill and enjoy later as is, or sprinkle something crunchy on top before serving. Bacon bits, croutons, nut meats, even crumbled Triscuits® — they're all good choices.

If there's such a thing as perfect paddling fare, it must be pasta. Better yet, it's a food with infinite possibilities. So why resign yourself to more of the same old thing? Think beyond the box. You won't be sorry. Buon appetito!

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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