Alimentary, My Dear
The Middle Way—Minimalist Cooking
By Tamia Nelson
May 20, 2008
Paddling makes me hungry. I’ll bet it makes you hungry, too. After all, food never tastes quite as good as it does in a waterside camp. Cervantes said it first: “Hunger is the best of sauces.” And it’s true. But preparing meals is something else. For most of us, cooking is work, not pleasure, and even diehard foodies find little joy in cleaning up after a meal. There are no automatic dishwashers in the backcountry, after all. The bottom line? There’s a lot to be said for keeping things simple. Some paddlers go the whole hog, dispensing with cooking altogether. It’s certainly a valid option. But on any trip longer than a couple of days, it’s also perilously close to roughing it, and that’s not good. What’s left, then? Do you have to choose between extremes? Or is there a middle way?
I think there is. The secret lies in…
In other words, less is more. The recipe for success is simple. Use a few well-chosen ingredients and prepare them with as little fuss as possible. The goal? A quick, tasty, hearty meal. Does that sound good to you? Me, too. That’s why I took a few days to explore the limits of minimalist cooking this winter. It was time well spent. Now that paddling and cycling weather has returned, I’m ready!
You can do it too. Begin at the beginning, with no-cook menus. (You’ll find some hints in “The Joy of NOT Cooking.”) Tortillas and other breadstuffs, along with pre-cooked, shelf-stable bacon and, yes, Spam®, plus cheeses and condiments, are all you’ll need to make great sandwiches. You’re not a sandwich person? Then gorge on nuts and dried fruits, dry sausage and jerky, applesauce and fruit in syrup… And don’t forget cookies or cereal bars. You get the idea, I’m sure.
Too restrictive? Don’t be afraid to stretch a point. No-cook doesn’t have to mean no-heat or no-boil. It doesn’t condemn you to boring and repetitious meals, either. The shelves of your local HyperMart groan under the weight of suitable packaged dishes. If you can boil water and stir, you’ve got the necessary skills. (It doesn’t hurt to own a pot or two, however. There are limits to minimalism, as well.) And this is just the start. We’re minimalists, right? We’re not no-cook purists. So let’s…
Baking is a step up from boiling, and it doesn’t have to be a big step. You can “bake” pizza, breads, and cakes in a pan on top of a stove or campfire. Choose your recipe carefully, and you can have a baked treat in minutes. Many quick breads can also be used to top simmering stews for a savory stove-top pot pie. If you’ve ever made a hot apple dessert in camp, you already know how it’s done.
Of course, good eating begins with a good shopping list, and the minimalist could do worse than to start with the list from “The Joy of NOT Cooking.” But don’t stop there. Add…
- Dried soups
- Sauce and gravy mixes
- Complete meals-in-a-box
- Rice-and-sauce mixes
- Pasta-and-sauce mixes
- Ramen and other Asian noodles
- Thin, quick-cooking pastas
- Converted rice
- Lentils (reserve these for “thermos cooking”)
- Biscuit and cornbread mixes
And this, too, is only a start. Expand your culinary horizons at ethnic markets and food co-ops. Then, once you’ve assembled your ingredients, it’s time to…
Mix and Match
Relax. It’s easy. Begin with breakfast. Hot or cold cereal. Fresh or dried fruit. Quick bread or bannock. That’s all there is to it. Lunch comes next. A sandwich or a mug of instant soup, plus fruit and nuts. No problem, right? Before you know it, though, it’s dinner time. This is the cook’s greatest challenge, but minimalists don’t need to worry. We’re up to the job. Once again, you can’t get off to a bad start with bread. A hunk of hearty rye is terrific with soup, a folded tortilla can’t be beat for sopping up the gravy of a rice-and-sauce meal, and there’s no better companion for spaghetti than hot bread dipped in olive oil. Better yet, pack in a dense artisan loaf and make bruschetta to go along with dinner. I guarantee that you won’t leave your backcountry table hungry!
Now let’s go beyond bread, beginning with (almost) everyone’s favorite, ramen. Ramen-type noodles boil up in less than three minutes. That’s pretty minimal, right? And they’re versatile, too. Prepare according to the instructions on the package, then mix in the flavor packet and stir in some plum sauce, or add dried apricots or prunes or snow peas or cut green onions (aka scallions)—if you’ve brought the fresh veggies, that is. You might even want to sprinkle dried Chinese noodles on top.
More, please? OK. Let’s take a look a some quick and easy meals, beginning with a really elegant noodle dish:
Nutty Noodles Cook up some ramen-type noodles, then drain most of the salty soup into a bowl or cup as a side dish. But leave enough in the pot so you can stir in a couple of dollops of peanut butter to make a rich, peanutty sauce. Now add soy sauce (a packet saved from your last take-out, perhaps) and toss in as many peanuts as you like. Not a peanut fan? Then ring the changes and substitute cashew butter and whole cashews. Or maybe you like it hot? In that case, add a pepper sauce or pepper flakes to taste, or stir in a chopped jalapeño (fresh or canned). Are you adventurous? Use cellophane noodles, instead. (You’ll find them in the HyperMart’s Asian food aisle, and in ethnic markets.) These just need to be reconstituted in boiling water or soup. Or try other pan-Asian noodles, all of which are quick-cooking. (A hint: you’ll find more ramen noodle recipes in my “Chopsticks, Anyone?” article.)
What’s that? You say you’re in the mood for Italian fare at your favorite riverbank ristorante? Then try…
Angelic Spaghetti Bring water to a boil and then add angel hair (a very thin, quick-cooking spaghetti—break it in half before you put it in the pot). When the pasta is almost done (three to four minutes), carefully pour off the cooking water. Carefully, mind! If you’re careless, you’ll dump the pasta out with the water, and it’s better to leave a little water in the pot than to watch your dinner drop at your feet. Now stir in a small can of tomato sauce. There’s no need to put the pot back on the fire. The heat from the pasta will warm the sauce. Are cans banned where you camp? Then use a tetra pak of tomato sauce or diced tomatoes. Add herbs to taste, sprinkle with grated cheese, and eat.
Tired of pasta? Well—and my prejudices are showing here, admittedly—I think if you’re tired of pasta, you’re tired of life, but rice is nice, too. Try…
Risotto on the Run Make the rice-and-sauce mix of your choice, using a skoosh more water than the instructions call for. When the rice is tender, remove the pot from the heat and stir in a handful of grated Parmesan cheese. That’s it.
Or are you a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy (or gal)? Maybe you’d like to give this a try:
Swift Shepherd’s “Pie” Mix up a packet of instant mashed potatoes according to package directions. Heat beef stew in a pot till it’s hot. Top with the reconstituted potatoes. Delicious!
Want something spicier? Then consider…
Hurry Curry Cook a packet of rice-and-sauce (your choice). It takes ten minutes, max. Throw in some raisins. Then, when the rice is almost cooked through, stir in a can of chicken—the liquid, too—and add a teaspoon of curry powder. Mix well and enjoy. You don’t like chicken? Piece of cake. Use tuna, salmon, seafood, Spam®, or dried beef, instead. All these are available in cans or retort pouches. Or leave out the meat altogether.
And last, but certainly not least, take lentils. Please. Lentils?! I bet you never thought of dried lentils as a quick meal, did you? They can be, though. It just takes water and a thermos…
Let-Alone Lentil Tortillas At breakfast, put two cups of lentils into a quart-sized bottle and cover with water. (There’s no need to heat the water.) The lentils will soften during the day. At dinner time, put the lentils into a pot and boil until they’re soft (add water if necessary). This shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. Now stir in a container or two of ready-to-eat rice, and season with chili spices to taste. Add a can of chilies or jalapeños, too, if you want. Then spoon the mix into tortillas, along with grated Monterey Jack cheese. Fold or roll and eat.
See what I mean? Minimalist meals are quick and easy. Better yet, they’re delicious. What more could any canoeist or kayaker ask for?
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Those are Thoreau’s words, not mine. Not surprisingly, he was onto something. There is a middle way in meal preparation, and the result is worth the (minimal) effort. So even if you’re a foodie, give it a try. I bet you’ll be glad you did!
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