Alimentary, My Dear
Use Your Bean!
By Tamia Nelson
October 16, 2007
I grew up among cooks. All the adults in my
family, men and women alike, worked together in preparing holiday meals, and
more often than not, the men did the heavy cooking. But when the time came to
stock up for trips to camp, my mother shopped alone. And she played it safe,
choosing foods she knew were sure to please everyone. Hot dogs were always on
the menu, and that meant cans of pork and beans were, too hot dogs just
weren't considered enough to satisfy a hungry camper without a serving of pork
and beans on the side. Our meals at camp couldn't be described as haute
cuisine, obviously, but this suited me just fine. I wanted to be a cowboy back
then, and even at the tender age of five I'd learned that beans were a chuck
Later, my hankering for the open range gave way to dreams of wilderness
adventures among the high peaks and big rivers of the North, dreams nurtured by
reading every book of explorer's tales I could get my hands on. And it wasn't
long before I'd noticed something remarkable. However great the distance
separating Lonesome Dove from Hudson Hope, and despite the time-and-trouble
factor Horace Kephart, one of the earliest camping writers, once quipped
that beans needed to "soak all day and cook all night" beans figured
prominently in Canoe Country meal plans, alongside such perennial
staples as hardtack,
oatmeal, salt, and flour. This got me asking myself
Just What Is This Thing About Beans?
Clearly, history played an important role. Beans have been a foundation food
in both the Old World and the New for many millennia. It's easy to see why.
They're excellent sources of protein, carbohydrates, iron, and other nutrients.
And while early farmers didn't have nutrition labels to guide them, they must
have known what they liked. They'd certainly have been quick to pick up on
beans' hearty flavor and meaty texture, not to mention their happy
"collegiality" beans' ability to bring out the best in other foods,
particularly when enlivened with herbs and
spices. Dried beans also keep well in storage, a great virtue in a world
without refrigeration, where the ability to preserve stores of food from one
harvest to the next could mean the difference between life and death. Beans
were even thought to help souls survive the rigors of the afterlife, as the
evidence of many Egyptian tombs attests. Of course, dried beans travel well on
earth, too, a quality which endeared them to early explorers.
OK. Canoeists and kayakers today have far more choices than their
nineteenth-century counterparts, but beans still warrant our consideration in
backcountry menu planning. And while we're speaking of choices, consider just
how many kinds of beans there are, beginning with
The Common Bean
The common bean (botanists know it as Phaseolus vulgaris) and its
close kin appear on the shelves of your local HyperMart in many guises. Navy
beans. Northern beans. Lima beans. Pinto beans. Kidney beans. Black turtle
beans. No two of these look exactly alike, but all are members of the same
tribe. And there are others, as well, each with its own personality and
properties. So it's important to choose the right bean for the job. Are Boston
baked beans on the menu? Then you'll want to start with navy beans. They hold
up well under long simmering. On the other hand, lima beans turn to mush when
the heat's on. You'd better save them for the soup!
Speaking of long simmering, let's get back to Horace Kephart for a minute.
Can something that needs to "soak all day and cook all night" really be
suitable backcountry fare? Well, as is so often the case, the answer is, "It
depends." If you're traveling fast and hard, stopping only when you have to in
order to bolt a quick meal and get a few hours of shut-eye, then dried beans
don't have a place in your pack. But if yours is a more leisurely trip, with
occasional time off for good behavior (or bad weather), every option is on the
table, including beans. Moreover, not all beans require long cooking. First
things first, though. Consider the many ways that beans can figure in your
- Refried beans
- Sandwiches and wraps
- Beans and rice
- Bean dip and bean spread
- Baked beans
- Chili (meatless or con carne)
Now imagine a few scenarios. Day-trippers
don't often take time to cook under way, but they still have to refuel, and
they frequently eat their evening meals at home. A steaming pot of chili con
carne or a bubbling bean soup is just the ticket after spending a brisk autumn
afternoon on the water. Cook your bean supper ahead of time and simply
reheat it when you're ready to eat. Or use a slow cooker and let the meal
simmer through the day while you play. Then, when you return home, pleasantly
tired and ravenously hungry, all you have to do is wash up and sit down at the
table. It beats spending an hour banging pots around in the kitchen, doesn't
adventures and longer trips demand different strategies, of course. If firewood or
plentiful and you're in no hurry, it's not much of a hardship to keep a pot
simmering through a lazy, drizzly day, while lounging under the cook tarp
with a good book and watching the mist swirl over the water. After all, this is
a lot more fun than getting soaking wet on a muddy portage. (But reader Len
Cowan has a clever solution
to this problem, too. So if you have to travel in a
Now let's explore a few more possibilities.
Beans on the Backcountry Menu
Are you a member in good standing of the Go-Light Brotherhood? Then
freeze-dried and precooked dehydrated beans are just the ticket. Or are you a
paddler who favors comfort over speed, and who doesn't mind toting a few extra
pounds over the portages? In that case, canned and dried beans will serve you
equally well. Either way, consider your options carefully.
The Lean, Mean Bean If price
is no object, and if watching a pot simmer for more than a few minutes holds
little appeal, examine the offerings on your outfitter's shelves. Chili mac
with beef, black beans and rice, Louisiana beans and rice, black bean tamale
pie, Black Bart beef chili
. Those are only a few of the
alternatives. Ring the changes as your fancy dictates, or scout the HyperMart
for quick-cook bean soups and boxed, easy-to-prepare bean-and-rice mixes. And
even if cooking isn't your thing, don't be afraid to experiment with spices and
herbs, or fill a
tortilla with reconstituted dried salsa, beans, and rice. Or make bean soup
with a little less water than the package calls for, and then spoon the
resulting near-stew over instant mashed potatoes, biscuits, or corn bread.
Canned Beans Yes, canned foods
are heavy, and they're not welcome in many places. (In fact, you could be fined
for bringing canned foods into some wilderness parks. Check before you go!) But
if you can freight the weight, and if no regulatory prohibitions exist, canned foods
have a lot to offer. After all, what could be easier than opening a can,
pouring the contents into a pot, and bringing it to a simmer? Not much. And
look at the choices: Black beans, white beans (aka cannellini beans), kidney
beans, navy beans, garbanzos, limas, favas not to mention refried beans
in fat-free, vegetarian, and traditional (lard) versions. And while you're
walking the aisles of the HyperMart, check out the canned soups, chilies, and
baked beans, too.
Of course, canned foods can always be improved. Start by adding herbs and
spices. Try cinnamon and oregano in chili, or marjoram and thyme in
bean-and-bacon soup. Condiments also lift many an everyday meal onto a higher
plane. Grainy brown mustard is delicious in baked beans, for example. Or add a
little smoky barbecue sauce and a can of stewed tomatoes to black beans, simmer
the mix until it thickens, and then spoon it over a toasted split hard roll.
Think of this as a vegetarian sloppy joe. In fact, beans are a natural for
vegetarians. You can even make a kind of veggie burger by draining black beans,
mashing them coarsely, stirring in a little salsa or barbecue sauce for flavor,
and mixing in dried bread crumbs to act as a binder. Then form into patties and
sauté in some hot oil or butter and serve on bread. Or if you crave real
meat, and plenty of it, combine a can of beef stew together with a can of white
beans and some chopped, ready-cooked bacon. Are you still hungry? No problem.
Supplement your canned beans with a packaged quick-cooking rice side dish. That
should quiet the pangs!
The Leisurely Bean Sooner or
later it rains. (If it didn't, what would happen to the rivers?) And rainy days
in camp are perfect for cooking dried beans. Just make your choice and set them
to simmering over a slow fire with chopped fresh or dried onions, celery,
carrots, and any other vegetables you fancy. One of my favorite soups requires
dried northern beans cooked with onions, potatoes, carrots, and two-inch chunks
of kielbasa, carefully seasoned with thyme and rosemary. I also like a
vegetarian chili made with black beans, canned diced tomatoes, onions, garlic,
peppers, a small can of chilies, dried cumin, ground cinnamon, and dried
oregano. Served with corn bread, it's difficult to beat.
And then there are those times when you have a yen for a cooked bean supper
but don't want to spend all day making it. Here's where the pressure cooker
comes into its own. Originally developed for high-altitude base camps,
lightweight models are now widely available. They dramatically reduce cooking
times. So anyone who's willing to pack the extra weight can have a steaming
bowl of bean soup or chili made from scratch, without having to "cook all
night." Sounds good to me!
Ah, yes. Sound. Not for nothing are beans known as
The Musical Fruit
While it isn't quite what D.H. Lawrence had in mind when he wrote (in "Song
of a Man Who Has Come Through") about "the wind that blows through me," there's
no doubt that beans can raise a powerful gale on even the calmest day. And the
effects of this ill wind in the confined space of a tent are better imagined
than experienced. Luckily, not everyone is afflicted to the same degree. If
you're one of the Unfortunates, however or if you share a tent with
another Afflicted Party you'll probably want to give Beano® a try.
Or you could experiment with one of the many other remedies promulgated in
foodie folklore, including the spice epazote (wormseed leaf) and the seaweed
Kombu. Then again, you could just open the tent door and wait for the problem
Beans have been on the menu for millennia. And it's not hard to see why.
They're low in fat and loaded with nutrients. Adaptable and versatile.
Flavorful and filling. Who could ask for more? So when the time comes to draw
up the shopping list for your next trip, why not use your bean? You'll be glad
you did. Just remember to leave the tent door open when it's time to turn in!
Copyright © 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights