Alimentary, My Dear
Secrets From the Test Kitchen—
By Tamia Nelson
July 21, 2009
Even the most enthusiastic camp cook likes to relax after a long day on the water. It's no fun slaving over a hot stove while your buddies swim in the lake, or tickle a trout's fancy with a favorite fly, or just catnap in a gently swaying hammock. That's why paddlers are always on the lookout for meals that come together quickly and fill the empty spaces in their bellies. Pasta's an obvious choice. It's hearty, tasty, and easy to pack. Almost everyone loves it, and it's rich in carbs, too—good news if you want to beat that end-of-the-day bonk. But there's a catch. Pasta can be a little fussy to prepare. You need one big pot to boil the water for the pasta itself, plus another, smaller pot for the sauce. It's a lot to ask of a typical camp stove, and juggling two pots on a wood fire isn't much easier. The result? After a couple of less than satisfactory meals, pasta often gets scratched off the backcountry menu.
Luckily, it doesn't have to be that way. All you need to do is…
Cook the Pasta and Sauce Together
It's that simple. In camp, when appetites are huge but stoves are small, you can dish up perfectly acceptable pasta in 30 minutes or less, without dirtying more than one skillet or pot. The upshot? A culinary hat trick: simple preparation, satisfying eating, and easy clean-up. Does this sound too good to be true? It's not. I spent a few days in my test kitchen experimenting with a variety of recipes, and I'm happy to report that the results were uniformly delicious.
This shouldn't have come as any surprise. Cooking is little more than applied chemistry, after all. Dried pasta has to be rehydrated, and that's achieved by immersing it in boiling liquid. Well, sauces are more or less liquid, aren't they? So why not boil pasta in its own sauce, right in the same pot? That way, the pasta cooks as the sauce thickens, while the thickening sauce infuses the pasta with its flavor. It's a win-win scenario, even if it's not likely to find its way into the kitchens of many five-star restaurants. Camp cooks have more modest goals than cordon bleu chefs. If our meals are simple, good, and filling, we've succeeded. And make no mistake about it, one-pot pasta succeeds. The secret to pulling it off is getting the amount of liquid right. This isn't mission impossible. Just look in your local HyperMart. You'll find plenty of examples of one-pot pasta meals on the shelves. Pasta-and-sauce mixes and Hamburger Helper are only two examples. In fact, such premixed meals are classic camp fare, and many of them are pretty good. But you can do even better with meals you put together yourself. It's easier than you think. Here's…
The Master Key…
That unlocks the secrets of one-pot pasta. It's the starting point for your own voyage of culinary discovery. The list of ingredients is short and to the point:
- Sauce (liquid or dried)
- Toppings and embellishments
A word about cookware is in order before we get started. It couldn't be simpler. I find that a 10- to 12-inch-wide skillet works best, though a squat pot with a wide bottom will also do the job.
Begin by making sure your pasta will be completely submerged in the sauce. Long strands should be broken in half or quartered. Thin pasta like angel hair and spaghettini will cook very rapidly. Heartier pastas—rigatoni, say, or shells—will take longer. The upside? They won't need quite as much oversight as the thinner stuff.
Now assemble all your ingredients. And don't plan on doing anything else while your pasta is cooking. It won't take very long, but it will require your full attention. If you're using a powdered sauce mix, this is the time to reconstitute it. Add water to the dried mix right in the skillet. Add olive oil, too, if that's what the package or recipe calls for. Of course, if the sauce you're using is already liquid, just pour it in. Now start heating the pot, adding your pasta to the liquid sauce and stirring to ensure that it's thoroughly mixed in. Next, top up the sauce with enough water to cover the pasta. Keep on high heat until the liquid boils, then lower the flame (or move the skillet to a cooler spot on the fire), cover (leave a gap to allow steam to escape), and simmer. Check the pasta often as it cooks. It will absorb liquid from the sauce, softening as it does. So add more water as needed, but don't overdo it. A cup (or less) at a time is about right. You want your pasta saucy, not soupy. Stir often, and take the skillet off the heat when the pasta reaches the al dente stage, neither hard nor wilted. That's it! It's time to eat.
OK. So much for the Big Picture. Let's look next at a couple of specific recipes. A word of warning: These work for me, but be sure to try them at home first, before you rely on them in the backcountry. Surprises are a lot easier to cope with when you have a full refrigerator at your elbow than when you're in a riverbank camp in a rain storm, surrounded by hungry companions and equally ravenous mosquitoes. I'd suggest beginning with…
Pasta in Tomato Sauce You'll need a packet (or can) of commercial tomato sauce. I used a 13.5-ounce, shelf-stable, aseptic pouch of Bertolli Premium Sun Ripened Tomato and Olive Pasta Sauce, along with half a pound of rigatoni. I also used a three-quart pot, though in later trials I substituted a skillet with equally good results. (As I've already noted, I prefer the skillet in camp.) Preparation follows the steps outlined in the Master Key. Heat the sauce over a medium-high flame or a hot fire, and mix the pasta into the sauce. Don't put the pouch in the trash bag as soon as you empty it, though. First pour about a cup of water into it and slosh the water around to harvest any remaining sauce. Then pour the extra water into the pot. Now stir pasta and sauce together thoroughly, coating each piece.
If some of the rigatoni is still high and dry at this point, add a little more water. This is what you want to see:
If that's how yours looks, you're good to go. Cover the pot (leave a small gap) and simmer until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has thickened. As I mentioned earlier, you'll want to add more water as needed to prevent sticking. Now here's the finished product, ready to serve, perhaps with grated cheese:
Looks good, doesn't it? And it is good. Trust me—testing this and the other one-pot recipes wasn't a chore. Still hungry? Are you ready for more? Then let's move on to…
Pasta With Dried Sauce Dried sauce mixes have obvious advantages for the paddling cook: they're not bulky, they don't weigh very much, and the water needed to reconstitute them is right under your keel. For this test, I chose a packet of Knorr Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto mix along with half a pound of angel-hair pasta. (Angel hair cooks fast, but you can use another pasta if you want.) That's about enough to feed two hungry-but-not-famished paddlers. It might even stretch to three, if it hasn't been too hard a day. Because the strands of angel hair were too long to fit easily in my pot, I broke them in half first. Here's how: I gathered the pasta into a bundle, grasped the resulting "log" in my fists, and then snapped the log in two, right down the middle. Easy, isn't it?
Setting my downsized angel hair aside for a minute, I poured water into a skillet. I began with the one cup (eight fluid ounces, or about 250 ml) that the pesto package called for, then blended the dried sauce into the water. Next, I poured olive oil into the skillet, using a fork to mix oil, water, and any powdered sauce that had somehow escaped my first efforts. Now it was time to place the broken pasta strands in the reconstituted sauce, pressing them down to ensure that each strand was fully covered. I could see I'd have to add more water, so I did. Then I brought the contents of the skillet to a boil, fitted a loose cover, and reduced the heat to a simmer. The few minutes that followed were spent in watchful waiting, adding water as needed and stirring the pasta repeatedly to discourage it from sticking. I was rewarded with a thick, rich sauce and al dente pasta. Best of all, it took no more than five minutes to go from boiling to serving. (Would more detail help? Just check out "One-Skillet Pesto Pasta.")
Want to go the whole hog and try your hand at a homemade sauce? No problem. Many simple sauces that you can make from scratch taste as good as prepackaged commercial dried mixes. And some taste even better. See my "Garlic Pasta" for one example. Or maybe you're not as fond of garlic as I am. Perhaps you'd rather have…
Skillet Noodles Noodles are just pasta by another name. Use your favorite commercial sauce or make it from scratch, tailoring the ingredients to your taste. You can even use fresh meat on overnight trips—if you're careful to keep it cold under way, that is! Substitute canned, retort-packed, or dried meat on longer trips. Or go meatless, using "steak cut" texturized vegetable protein (TVP) instead of meat. Canned or powdered broth, thickened with a tablespoon or two of corn starch, can serve as the base for your sauce. It's hard to go wrong if you follow just two rules: Pick noodles that will hold up under the rough and tumble of life in a food pack. And test your recipe in your kitchen at home first. That couldn't be much simpler, could it?
Now it's over to you.
One-pot pasta isn't a new idea, but far too many backcountry cooks think it's limited to prepackaged entrées straight from the shelves of the HyperMart. Don't be fooled. You can do better than that. If you spend just a few hours in your test kitchen at home before your next trip, you too can enjoy a scratch meal that's both delicious and easy to prepare. Plus, you'll get to go swimming before dinner! It's a win-win solution to the backcountry cook's perennial dilemma.
And that's alimentary.
Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.