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Alimentary, My Dear

Just Between You and Meez
The Camp Cook's Indispensables

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

September 19, 2006

Spend a little time around a busy professional kitchen and you're sure to hear the word meez sooner or later. And like as not, it will be intoned, not spoken — mouthed reverently, with a sort of quasi-religious awe, almost as if it were a key element in a culinary liturgy. OK. You're probably not a professional chef. But whether you're an aspiring backcountry cordon bleu, bent on whipping up a shore lunch worthy of a star in the Guide Michelin, or just Cookie for a Day in camp, trying to do better than canned pork-and-beans, you, too, need to know something about "meez."

Beginning with what it is, I suppose. No problem. It's shorthand for mise en place, kitchen French for a chef's inventory of indispensables, from her personal knives to a long list of staple foods, all of them arrayed around her workstation like a surgeon's instruments on an operating-room cart. I've written about knives elsewhere. Today I'll restrict myself to edible meez, the basic ingredients without which no camp cook, however skilled, can hope to work any magic. First things first, though. Are you wondering how to say "meez"? That's easy. Pronounce it like it's written. In classroom language tapes and CDs, mise en place comes out something like meeze awn plasse, with the words running together in much the same way as smooth, warm chocolate sauce flows. In a busy kitchen, though, it's just meez. Short and sharp and to the point, exactly like a chef's favorite paring knife.

Of course, a backcountry fireside lacks most of the amenities of a modern kitchen, and a camp cook's meez is very different from her meez at home, let alone a restaurant sous chef's long list of essentials. Chiffonaded parsley, perfectly sliced fresh chives, Normandy butter, sel gris, and truffle oil aren't found in many paddlers' packs, after all. Nonetheless, a few well-chosen ingredients can elevate camp food above the ordinary. A pinch of dried herb, a grind of black pepper, a dash of red-wine vinegar — these are some of the things that can make even Survivalists into passable cooks. Remember this: despite the fancy name, meez is just good food, staple items that you probably use every day, maybe even at every meal. They're foods you'd be very unhappy doing without, in short. But why go without? It's easy to…

Assemble a Meez That Pleases

Begin by taking stock of your favorite foods. Every cook is different. Your meez and my meez won't be the same. Do you hanker after Tex-Mex in the backcountry? Then you'll want one or more varieties of hot-pepper sauce in your meez, along with some of the dried hot peppers themselves. Or are you longing for the taste of Provence? Then dried Provençal herbs will figure prominently in your bag of tricks. Or maybe you favor fusion, with a Southeast Asian twist. If so, fermented fish sauce is a must. Or are you a "just give me some plain American cooking" type? You are? Then you won't want to leave the tomato ketchup at home. Get the picture? Your meez should reflect your tastes and those of your paddling buddies, not someone else's.

Having said all this, a few items show up again and again on good cooks' meez, whatever their culinary bent. Here's one list…

  • Salt  Most processed foods are plenty salty taken right out of the can, box, or packet, but if you make many meals from scratch — or if you bake bread in camp — you'll want salt in your meez. I prefer Kosher salt to plain table salt; its coarse texture and lack of a metallic aftertaste set it apart. Plain or Kosher, however, salt is perhaps the most nearly universal seasoning. (Many public health experts lament this fact, and for good reason, but active paddlers may need salt more than sedentary folk. Ask your doctor if you're in any doubt about how much salt to add to your food under way, particularly if you have a family history of hypertension or heart disease.) The reason for salt's popularity is simple. It makes almost everything taste better, from cooked cereal and eggs to pasta and potatoes. Unless you've been told it's medically proscribed, therefore, don't leave home without it.

  • Coffee  Not instant coffee, mind. Only the real thing will do. Long before Arabian crude became the life's blood of the world economy, the "wine of Islam" lifted Western spirits and quickened life's pace. Need I say more? Well, now that I come to think of it, I have. Make mine Columbian.

  • Tea  What evening campfire at the water's edge would be complete without "the cups that cheer but not inebriate"? Coffee may stiffen my resolve to greet the dawn, but I depend on tea to get me through the long day that follows. My favorites? Gunpowder green when the sun is high. Earl Grey as the shadows lengthen. And I don't use teabags. Ever.

  • Cooking Oil  Another don't-leave-home-without-it staple. For utility, give me corn oil or canola (rapeseed) oil. Neither imparts a noticeable flavor to food, and both have high smoking points — an important consideration in open-fire cooking.

  • Butter  Or a butter substitute with better keeping qualities than the real thing. It's mostly for flavor and savor, not cooking. Uses? Pancakes, oatmeal, stewed fruit, breadstuffs, and desserts. For the ultimate in portability, however, try substituting extra-virgin olive oil (see below). It may not be as versatile as butter, but it's probably better for your arteries. And fresh-baked bannock dipped in olive oil is a treat fit for the gods.

  • Nonfat Dry Milk  You'll never mistake this for the thick, rich liquid that comes right out of the cow, but it's not too bad. Just be sure that the water you use to reconstitute it is clean. Use it in all the places where you'd use milk at home: hot and cold cereals, coffee and tea, pasta sauces, and baked goods. And don't forget your bedtime cup of hot cocoa. If you make it from scratch, you'll need milk as well as cocoa powder (more about this later) and…

  • Sugar  I use the plain granulated stuff for most purposes. Spoonful for spoonful, it's sweeter than brown sugar. Still, brown sugar — dark or light — has a flavor which can't be beat. You may find it worth carrying. Farwell, taking his lead from the old woodsmen who swigged sweetened condensed milk straight from the tin on hard days, now drinks a mixture of sugared, reconstituted nonfat dried milk whenever the going gets tough. He says it tastes like cheap soft ice cream. I'm not convinced, I'm afraid, but he likes it. And it does seem to recharge his batteries.

  • Spices and Herbs  First, a warning. Used with too heavy a hand, spices and herbs can make great food almost inedible. And now the good news: Used judiciously, the same herbs and spices can enliven even the drabbest fare. That's why every cook has a roster of favorites. I've listed some of mine in an earlier column, and I won't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that a well-stocked spice kit will go a long way toward transforming one-pot dishes into memorable meals.

  • Garlic  Whole cloves only, please! Garlic powder — or worse yet, garlic salt — is a delusion, a mockery, and a snare. Luckily, fresh garlic travels well. And so will you, if you use it in your meals.

  • Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour  Bread is the staff of life, and you need flour to make it. All-purpose flour does the job, and more besides. Much more. I use bread flour at home for most breadstuffs, but I've never bothered to take two kinds of flour into the backcountry. Fortunately, all-purpose flour lives up to its name.

 

That's my basic meez. But when space permits and the meals promise to be the highlight of a trip, rather than a sidelight, I'll add some other items, including…

  • Olive Oil  I've mentioned this already as a possible butter substitute, but it's far more versatile than that. To be sure, it's not a great frying oil — the smoking point is too low — but the subtle yet distinctive flavor of extra-virgin olive oil complements everything from pasta to pizza.

  • Balsamic Vinegar  No, it's not just for dressing green salads. Are satays on your menu? Then be sure to add balsamic vinegar to the marinade. Or drizzle it into stews and soups, where the assertive, complex flavor of balsamic vinegar is almost always a plus. Want more? Then try it in pasta dishes. Delicious!

  • Cocoa Powder  Before the days of instant everything in little foil packets, folks made hot cocoa from scratch, using only milk, sugar, and…you guessed it…cocoa powder. And do you want to know a secret? It tastes better than instant, even when you make it with nonfat dry milk. Try it and see for yourself. Moreover, cocoa powder can also be used in desserts. Or sprinkle some on apple crumble, hot coffee, or buttered bannock, or mix it in pancake batter. Versatile as well as delicious, eh? Sometimes it pays to go back to basics.

  • Mustard  An underutilized condiment, mustard is a welcome addition in salad dressings, dipping sauces for meats (including sausage), and in marinades and stews. In fact, the best mustards, like grainy English or fine Dijon, are delicious all by themselves. Just spread on bread and enjoy.

  • Brandy  Alcohol doesn't belong on the luncheon menu, but a nip at the end of a long day warms both body and soul. (WARNING! The warmth imparted by brandy is an illusion, alas. Alcohol has no place in the treatment of hypothermia.) It also enhances many desserts and hot drinks, and even improves some stews. Try a dash in a creamy potato soup mix, too.

Now that is the lot. But it's my meez. Don't treat it as gospel. Yours will be different. Be guided by your own tastes and preferences. Then, when you've finished assembling your meez, it's time to…

Pack It In

Unless you pack carefully, much of your meeze will be mush by the time you get into camp. Double-bag each dry item, and carry liquids in small plastic bottles with leak-proof caps (test them before you leave for the put-in). Belt-and-suspenders types will also want to double-bag the bottles. Refillable plastic squeeze tubes — they look like large toothpaste tubes — were much in evidence years ago. Now they're rare, probably because the clip-on closures often slipped off, releasing the contents. This happened to me once too often, and I never trusted them to keep liquids contained for very long. I have found them useful for storing dry staples like nonfat dry milk and sugar, however. You might want to try them yourself (if you can find them, that is), though I'd still double-bag the filled tubes, just to be safe.

Since my meez is used at almost every meal, convenience and efficiency dictate that it travel in a bag of its own, along with separate bags for breakfast, lunch, and dinner items. A single waterproof sack will hold all the food bags for a weekend adventure, and this fits nicely on top of the gear in my rucksack. On longer trips, however, there's just too much food for one sack to hold — dry food for one person for a week weighs in at nearly twenty pounds when packed, with a volume to match. Each meal bag therefore gets a waterproof sack of its own, as does the meez bag. All of the sacks are then collected in Duluth packs or large dry bags for transport.

Meeze. Now you know. It doesn't matter that you're not a Foodie or an aspiring backcountry cordon bleu chef. In fact, even if you're only Cookie for a Day, you need meez. So jot down your own list of indispensable ingredients and start stocking up. Between you and meez, nothing else will contribute more to good eating, both in camp and under way. That's worth a little time and trouble, isn't it? Sure it is. Bon appétit!

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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