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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 wagon staple.

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 paddling menus:

  • Soups
  • Stews
  • Salads
  • 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 it?

Weekend adventures and longer trips demand different strategies, of course. If firewood or fuel is 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 downpour ….)

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 to pass.

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 reserved.

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