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Alimentary, My Dear

Five Easy Pièces —
Homemade Soups for Camp Cooks
Hot Stuff!

By Tamia Nelson

November 19, 2013

Anyone who thinks that winter begins on December 21st hasn't lived in Canoe Country. In fact, and notwithstanding the journalistic convention to the contrary, the 21st of December is Midwinter's Day. It's not "the first day of winter." And sure enough, winter has already come to the Canada–US borderlands. Summer is but a distant memory. Days are cold now. Not chilly. Cold — and nights are colder still. Hot meals have never been more welcome, both in their own right and as guarantors of a warm night's sleep.

In other words, this is the season when soup takes center stage. So I scour the shelves of the local HyperMarts for any canned soups and packaged soup mixes that are suitable for camping, squirreling my finds away in the bug‑out box. These industrial foods aren't haute cuisine, of course, but they're convenient and tasty, and with just a little effort each one can be made to serve as the nucleus of a hearty meal. As such, they'll appeal to everyone from "man cooks" to foodies — anyone, in short, who doesn't have the time or inclination to cook when hunger strikes.

All of which being said, it really isn't a big deal to make soup from scratch in camp, using fresh ingredients that you can easily find a place for in your pack. (And that's one advantage of cold‑weather camping: fresh foods stay fresh longer. You can leave the cooler at home.)

Want to give it a try? Then join me as I …

Make Homemade Soup in Camp

Home is where your hearth is, after all, and during the long, chill evenings in late autumn and early winter, soup‑making is a good way to keep warm. It may not be much fun to spend an hour hovering over a stove or campfire in August, but you'll welcome the chance in late November.

First, let's address a few soup‑making basics. beginning with a discussion of …

Liquid Assets.  Canned and shelf‑stable liquid soup stocks are a great convenience at home, and if you don't mind toting the extra bulk and weight, they're terrific for camping, too. You'll want to keep them from freezing solid, of course, and any empty cans or retort packs will have to be washed, collapsed, and carried out. You won't want to return leftover stock to the pack, either, so you'll need to judge quantities accurately. But if you're making a large pot of soup for a big gang of hungry buddies, ready‑made stocks might be just what you need. Failing that, you can always turn to bouillon cubes (or powdered bouillon). Or just use clean water and trust to your other ingredients to contribute flavor to the simmering soup.

And speaking of these "other ingredients," you'll have to answer the perennial question:

Do You Peel Lucky?  I wash all vegetables and let them dry before packing, but I don't peel potatoes or carrots: A little extra fiber is always welcome in camp. I do peel onions, however, though not until I'm ready to put them in the pot. The peels go into the garbage bag in my pack, or — in truly remote and little‑traveled areas — into a shallow gash‑pit, located at least 30 double‑step paces (150 feet) from camp.

Next, there are a couple more questions to consider:

How Much? And How Long?  Anytime I speak of a potato (or a carrot or an onion) it's a "medium‑sized" potato or carrot or onion. And the quantities in the recipes that follow will yield enough soup for four to six hungry paddlers. A 3‑quart pot is about the smallest size you'll want to use. Which isn't to say that you can't adjust the indicated quantities up or down to suit your own circumstances. Nor is there any reason why you shouldn't substitute or omit ingredients at will. Soup‑making is a broad church. There's a place for all creeds and convictions.

Now to the most important question of all: How long before we eat? That depends on (1) your skill (experienced cooks work faster than novices), (2) your stove, and (3) the weather (a howling gale slows everything down, as well as whipping heat away from the pot). That said, on all but truly arctic days, you should have soup ready to dish up in 30 minutes or so.

Let's get started. While the soups I describe make use of a variety of ingredients, their preparation doesn't vary all that much. Unless a recipe says something to the contrary, therefore, you won't go wrong if you follow this advice:

  1. Have all your ingredients ready before you start cooking.

  2. If a soup requires that you sauté ingredients in fat at the start, do this in the pot. Do not use a separate skillet or pan. You can use any fat or oil, including extra virgin olive oil and butter, both real and ersatz. There's good news for butter lovers, by the way: Saturated fat is now getting a clean bill of health from some experts. Be sure that you make the most of this window of opportunity before the wind shifts again.

  3. Chop all vegetables small: between ¼ inch and ½ inch in size. The pieces can be any shape, though, so if you want to carve smiley faces or jack‑o'‑lantern grimaces in each one, be my guest.

  4. I say potato. Period. You should choose whichever variety you like best. Yukon Gold potatoes are my favorites for soup‑making, but that's just me.

  5. Sauté vegetables and meat — if you're using it — over medium‑high heat. Experiment with your stove (or a wood fire, if that's your choice) to see just what this entails. And do it before you head for the put‑in. A pinch of salt added to the sauté makes the soup taste better.

  6. Once you've assembled and prepped all your ingredients and emptied them into the pot, bring the water or stock to a rolling boil. (Leave the lid ajar to reduce the likelihood that the pot will boil over.) Then throttle your stove back or move the pot to a cooler part of the fire and continue cooking at a lively simmer.

  7. Stir the pot from time to time, and add more stock or water if the soup shows signs of becoming a stew.


That's it. Now …

We're Cooking!

And we'll start with one of the simplest soups you can make. But don't let that stop you from trying it. It's simply delicious, and I call it …

Maimeó's Irish Soup.  My maternal grandmother came of age in County Mayo. This is her recipe. Adapted to the limited larder and rudimentary kitchen facilities of a laborer's cottage, it's perfect camp fare. Chop an onion, two potatoes, and two carrots. Quarter a small head of green cabbage and slice one of the quarters into shreds. Sauté the onion in a little fat until it's soft, then toss in the other vegetables and add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Cover to a depth of one inch with vegetable or chicken stock, if you have it, or just use water. Stir in some dried chives (they don't take up much space in your pack), bring to a boil, and then simmer with the lid ajar. The soup is ready when the vegetables are fork‑tender. If you like, top each bowl with grated cheddar. Bain taitneamh as do bhéil!

Do you think something's missing in Maimeó's Irish Soup? It is. There's no meat. It was a scarce commodity in Irish laborers' cottages in my grandmother's day, and her recipe reflects this fact. So if you're hankering for meat, you might find my Slovak grandmother's recipe more to your taste. Call it …

Nanna's Cabbage and Sausage Soup.  Nanna first made the welkin ring in the middle of a potato field in what was then the Austro–Hungarian Empire. Despite this, her cabbage and sausage soup bears more than a passing resemblance to Maimeó's Irish Soup, with the addition of caraway seeds and kielbasa, a garlicky smoked sausage made from beef, pork, or turkey (your choice). Chop the kielbasa into bite‑sized chunks and sauté with the onions in the pot. When the meat is sizzling, stir in about a teaspoon of caraway seeds and then add the other ingredients. Now proceed as before. When the vegetables have softened it's time to eat.

OK. We've dined on country fare from Ireland and Central Europe. Now we're off to France for a bowl of (what else?) …

French Onion Soup.  This is traditionally made with beef broth, but vegetable broth can be used as well. The dash of red wine is obligatory, however. (I'm kidding.)

Chop two onions, mince two cloves of garlic, and add a tablespoon of granulated sugar. Then sauté in a covered pot over a medium‑low flame for five to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Add more fat or oil if needed.) When the onions become soft and golden‑brown, dust with a tablespoon of flour. Mix. Now add ¼ cup of red wine. Blend. Next, add six cups of broth or water. Whisk with a fork. Crumble some dried thyme, add it to the pot, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for five to 10 minutes. Serve with toasted cubes of some hearty bread, garnished with melted cheese.

What's our next stop in this international culinary tour? Italy, the home of …

Tortellini Tomato Soup.  Sauté a chopped onion in a little olive oil in the pot. When the onion has softened, add dried tortellini, then cover to a depth of two to three inches with water or the broth of your choice. Bring to a boil and simmer until the tortellini are cooked al dente. (Add more liquid if needed. You don't want the pot to boil dry.) Now add a 15‑ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes. Rinse the can with a little clean water and add the rinsings to the pot, then stir in some dried rosemary and ground black pepper before returning the pot to the flame. Simmer till heated through. Serve garnished with grated Parmesan.

Finally, it's back across the Pond, for a thoroughly American dish, straight from a farmhouse cookbook:

Chicken and Rice Soup.  This is your basic chicken soup. Chop an onion, two carrots, and two sticks of celery. Sauté the onion in a little fat. When it's soft, add the other vegetables, as well as the contents of a five‑ to eight‑ounce can of chunk chicken. (Use two cans of chicken if you like.) Rinse the can with some clean water and add this to the pot, as well. Crumble some dried thyme or sage, or both, and add that, too. Now add about six cups of chicken broth or water and bring to a boil. Add ½ cup of long‑grained white rice. Simmer until the vegetables are soft and the rice has cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Serve. For an extra‑special treat, whip up some skillet biscuits while the soup is cooling.

That's it. Five meals to warm the heart and limbs of any chilly paddler. After all, there's no announcement more welcome at the end of a cold day than "Soup's on!" is there?

Soup's On!

Hot soup is the ideal meal for the cold days of late autumn and early winter. It warms you, rehydrates you, and refuels your engine, all at the same time. And no store‑bought soup equals homemade. But maybe you think you can't enjoy homemade soup in camp. Then think again. I've given you five easy pièces to practice on. The rest is up to you.

What's that? Your favorite homemade‑in‑camp soup isn't on my list? Then there's not a moment to lose. Drop me a line and tell me all about it, so that I can pass the word along. There are lots of chilly evenings to come.



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