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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Bruschetta? You Betcha!

By Tamia Nelson

June 19, 2007

A day on the water is more than a welcome break. It's also a great workout. But no engine can run forever without refueling, can it? Sooner or later, you need to top up your tank. That's why you'll probably have one thing uppermost on your mind when you put your paddle down at day's end — food. Luckily, you have plenty of choices. You can build a meal on pasta, rice, or couscous. All are satisfying, tasty, and easy to prepare. But there's another way to fill 'er up. Bread. Anthropologists used to argue whether it was bread or beer that persuaded wandering bands of hunter-gatherers to settle down on the farm, and for all I know, they're still at it. No matter. We can leave that question for the experts to decide. This much at least is certain, however: bread has been part of our diet for a long, long time. There are lots of reasons. Bread is filling, nutritious, delicious, and versatile. Even today, with neighborhood bakeries almost as hard to find in most towns as blacksmiths, and with a corporal's guard of nutrition gurus damning "carb" as just another four-letter word, bread remains a cornerstone of the Western diet. That doesn't mean it's always easy to buy good bread, of course, but things are improving. "Artisan breads" and "rustic loaves" are now crowding the squishy pillows of Marvel Mush off the shelves of many HyperMarts. And many of these new boutique breads are perfect additions to paddlers' menus.

Let's face it, though, bread isn't always a good traveling companion. The rough-and-tumble of pack and portage can quickly crush the life out of almost any loaf, and no bread can survive a dunking. But don't despair. With just a bit of care, you can have "soft tack" at every meal on every weekend — if that's what you want. And no, you don't need to become a backcountry baker to do so. Sure, you can make your own flatbread, bannock, or biscuits in camp, but it's wonderful to have a crusty loaf (or two) in your pack, ready to eat without any fuss or bother. Foodies will tell you that bread is at its best on the day it's baked. They're right, too. But hungry paddlers aren't quite as fussy as finicky foodies, and good bread will taste plenty good enough right through any weekend adventure. The key? Start your trip with a fresh loaf. OK. Does this mean you have to get up early on the morning of the day you leave to catch a baker at the moment she lifts her loaves out of the oven? Nope. It just means you have to …

Put a Couple of Fresh Loaves on Ice

The next time you go shopping, buy two or three freshly baked loaves. But don't think that any bread will do. It won't. Leave the yard-long pillows of Marvel Mush on the shelf. Get your bread from a HyperMart with an on-site bakery, instead. Talk to the baker first. Find out when the loaves are lifted, and be on hand shortly after they come out of the oven. Knowledgeable bakers cool their bread on racks where air can circulate freely. This yields a crispy crust and tender crumb (that's the name bakers give the soft interior). If the oven-hot bread is bagged too soon, however, steam is trapped inside, softening the crust and toughening the crumb. Check before buying, then bring your bread home in an open-ended paper sack or — second-best — a perforated plastic bag. Shun impermeable plastic bags. They're doubleplus ungood.

I take no chances. Even though I select and bag loaves with care, I leave newly purchased bread on a rack for a couple of hours after I bring it home, then pack it in doubled plastic freezer bags, expelling as much air as possible and sealing the package tight before popping it into the deep freeze. And there it sits, until day dawns on the morning of a trip, when I pull a loaf out of cold storage and stow it in the top of a pack, freezer bags and all. By lunch time, the bread has thawed and is …

Ready to Eat

And not a moment too soon. After all, few trail lunches can equal bread and cheese. Eat them on a rock at the water's edge, or wolf them down while parked in a mid-river eddy. The choice is yours, and this simple lunch is delicious in any setting. Later, though, at day's end, when your fuel stores are at low ebb, you'll want more. So serve bread up with soup or stew, or just about any canned or dehydrated main course. And feast to your heart's (and stomach's) content. Then, at breakfast on Day Two of your trip, it's bread's turn to take the starring role — as French toast, perhaps, or simply smothered in peanut butter, jam, or honey. Or it can continue in the supporting cast, if you prefer, served up alongside oatmeal, eggs, and sausages.

Simple and good. What could be better? Of course, even the simplest things need practice. Take slicing bread, for instance. It's almost a lost art. And the typical waterman's stubby blade doesn't make the job any easier. That's why I bought an inexpensive santoku. Think of it as a Japanese chef's knife, if you like. Mine was a promotional offer at the HyperMart, and it cost me all of a buck. Don't get me wrong. It's not a masterpiece of the cutler's art. No chef would look at it twice. But it makes a perfect bread knife in camp. It's light, and the eight-inch blade has enough backbone to cut through a chewy boule, as well as a micro-serrated edge that makes short work of even the toughest crust. Best of all, the blunt point won't poke through the canvas tool roll where the knife lives between jobs.

Whatever you use to cut your crust, though, bread is more than food. It can be also pinch-hit for dinnerware. Slice it thick and use it as a trencher (edible plate). Or gouge out part of the crumb, and use the resulting hollow as a bowl. Then, when you've finished your meal, nobody has to do the dishes. You eat them, instead. It's not a new idea, of course. Trenchers were de rigueur on medieval tables, and the idea has now been revived by modern chefs, who've brought an Italian staple to tables everywhere:

It's Called Bruschetta

Pronounced brew-SKET-ta. The idea couldn't be simpler. Slice good bread into one-inch-thick slabs, and toast both sides on a grill (or in a thin film of hot oil in a skillet), then smear one face with the cut end of a garlic clove. Now drizzle a stream of extra-virgin olive oil over the hot bread. That's all there is to it. Don't be deceived by the short list of ingredients and simple prep. If your bread and oil are high quality, basic bruschetta makes an outstanding appetizer — as if active paddlers need appetizers! — or a welcome accompaniment to any dish. But with a more substantial topping, bruschetta can be a meal in itself. And you won't have to wash the plate when you're done.

One of my favorite toppings is a boldly flavored tomato garnish. Make it in camp, or prepare it in your home kitchen before leaving for the put-in. Dice plum tomatoes and put them in a bowl. Crush a large clove of garlic with the side of your knife, then mince the garlic and add it to the chopped tomatoes. Now sprinkle with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. And if you have some fresh basil leaves, chop some of these up and add them, too. Finally, drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over the mixture, stir, and pack it into a tightly sealed plastic container. (Put the container in a bag, just to be safe.) In hot weather, carry the garnish in a cooler. At mealtime, toast your bread, then serve bruschetta with a dollop or three of your tomato garnish. Enhance it with thin shavings of Parmesan, a hard cheese which travels well and tastes wonderful with all Italian food. Or stir small cubes of mozzarella into the garnish.

Want to broaden your culinary horizons? Then think fusion! Smear garlic-rubbed grilled bread with goat cheese, sprinkle dried thyme on top, and enjoy. A little olive oil goes well with this, too, as do black olives. Treat yourself to high-quality oil-packed olives, or try oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes. Tapenade, a chopped olive condiment, is delicious just as it is on bruschetta — you'll find it in the HyperMart next to bottled artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, and the like. And while you're there, look for pesto. This versatile sauce, made from pounded pine nuts, basil, garlic, and oil, is also great with bruschetta, especially when paired with thin slivers of Parmesan. Mushrooms are worthy additions, as well. Top your basic bruschetta with marinated mushrooms, or sauté mushrooms with salt, pepper, and the herb of your choice. Then spread 'em on.

Hankering for a salad? Tuna mixed with chopped onion, capers, celery, and olive oil makes for an elegant alternative to the familiar mayonnaise-based sandwich spread. Or how about a bean salad from canned red, black, or white beans? It's a snap to make. Just drain the excess fluid from the canned beans, then add a generous squeeze of tangy lemon or lime juice, mix in chopped veggies like onions and peppers (sweet or hot), and season (salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne for a bit of a kick). Now spoon the mixture on top of bruschetta, drizzle olive oil over everything, and eat.

You get the idea, I'm sure. Bruschetta's a lot more than toasted bread. It's the foundation of an entire culinary tradition, as well as being an edible plate. So why not give it a try? What are you waiting for?

Staff of Life

Paddling builds big appetites, and bread has the carbs that active bodies crave. When the day's hard work is done, it's time to relax over a plate heaped high with good things to eat. After all, if your gut is growling you don't need an appetizer, do you? You need a meal. And for simple but hearty fare, you can't do better than bruschetta. You start with a crusty loaf of country bread, sliced thick and toasted. Where you finish is up to you. It's limited only by your imagination. And that's alimentary.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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