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Alimentary, My Dear

Go Nuts!

By Tamia Nelson

December 18, 2001

The short days of mid-winter and nuts go together. A bowl of mixed nuts on the sideboard is one of the symbols of holiday hospitality. And where would winter menus be without nut breads, candied nuts, marzipan confectionary, and, yes, that sturdy perennial, nut-rich fruitcake. A holiday season without nuts? Impossible!

So it's no surprise that nuts often show up on holiday shopping lists. Happily, they're at their peak of freshness and availability now. But don't be deceived. Nuts and nutty treats can be as welcome in mid-summer as mid-winter, and they're particularly well-adapted to canoe and kayak camping.

OK. I admit it. I love nuts, and this influences my paddling menu. But I'm a practical girl, too. And a paddler's food choices are necessarily limited. Unless you can find a handy current bush to power your portable electric refrigerator, there's no reliable way to keep perishable foods cold in summer. The food you choose also has to withstand the rigors of packing and portaging. That's why so many paddlers settle for prepackaged meals. They're often surprisingly good—a far cry from the flavored sawdust of my early camping days!—but they still lack the variety, taste, and texture (foodies prefer the rather titillating phrase "mouth feel") of real food. That's where nuts come in.

As a cartoon that one long-time reader recently sent me noted, "You'll never outsmart the squirrels." How true! And squirrels prize nuts for all the right reasons. Nuts are easy to store, they keep well, and they're chockablock with protein, vitamins, and minerals. They also taste great, and with so many varieties, there's no reason why you need ever become bored with them.

You don't want to take a squirrel's word for this? All right, then. Take a look at human history, instead. Nuts are frequently found among ancient grave offerings in Europe, where they've long been associated with fertility and rebirth. You say you've got enough kids already? No problem. Irish folklore links nuts to eternal youth. And nuts are found in traditional dishes around the world. Better yet, some current research suggests that nuts really do have health-giving properties. So maybe the Irish were right.

History and folklore aside, most paddlers have eaten handfuls of peanut, fruit, and candy mix—often labelled "gorp"—for lunch or snacks. And peanut butter remains a favorite paddling fare. But peanuts don't agree with everyone. For some folks, in fact, peanuts are more threat than treat. And of course, peanuts aren't really nuts at all. They're legumes, close relatives of the humble bean. A quibble? Possibly. Peanuts look like nuts, and they crunch like nuts. They're also tasty, widely available, relatively inexpensive, and loaded with protein. If you can eat 'em, peanuts are good. But we're talking about real nuts here.

There's plenty of choice. Most city supermarkets stock almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, and sometimes hazelnuts (filberts), along with macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, and pistachios. If you're lucky, you'll also find pine nuts tucked away in some obscure corner or other. And while we're at it, we might as well toss in pepitas (squash seeds) and sunflower seeds, too. The edible kernel of a nut is a seed, after all.

Given this astounding variety, a little imagination will go a long way toward livening up your camping menus. To begin with, nuts and seeds are great eaten out of hand. They can also be baked into a whole range of breads and cakes. But these aren't the only ways to enjoy them. Let's consider other possibilities.

You probably take dried fruit on most trips, but have you ever tried stewing it? It's not difficult. Just put some dried fruit—apricots are my favorite—into a pot, sprinkle with brown sugar, and cover with water. Then simmer until the fruit is softened, and a sweet, sticky syrup forms. Just before serving, sprinkle pistachios or broken pecans over the stewed fruit. Pecans also go well with maple syrup. Drizzle the syrup on pancakes or fried bread and sprinkle the nuts on top. That's all. The same combination is wonderful when stirred into oatmeal, too. For a change, substitute broken macadamia nuts or sunflower seeds for the pecans.

And why not include nuts in supper dishes? A lot of people do. If you're a fan of spicy Asian cooking you've probably often eaten meals incorporating peanuts or cashews. Peanuts are also on the ingredient list for some African stews, and many South American meals are flavored with cashews. Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines make frequent use of almonds, pine nuts, and pistachios in savory dishes. Pine nuts—they're soft seed kernels from a species of pine—are native to Italy and the American Southwest, so it's not surprising that cooks from these regions exploit them. You'll also find pepitas in Southwestern dishes.

There's more. If you're an angler, try a hazelnut garnish with your next trout. Fry the fish in butter or margarine, and sprinkle chopped, shelled hazelnuts into the pan just before the fish is done. Serve the trout with the toasted nuts and pan juices. Does that sound good? Then try other nut and fish combinations, too. One favorite: fish stuffed with a mixture of chopped nuts, reconstituted dried mushrooms, and herbs.

You're not a fisherman? How about noodles and cheese instead? Walnuts taste great with all sorts of cheeses, and so do almonds. There's no better way to jazz up a boxed noodles-and-cheese dinner. Just stir in a handful of chopped nuts. The same trick works well with boxed rice or couscous mixes, too. A wonderfully convenient one-pot entree can be made using one of these as a base. Prepare the rice or couscous according to the instructions printed on the box, but add some dried fruit (chopped, dried apricots, say, or raisins), your choice of nuts (cashews, pepitas, almonds, or pistachios), and maybe a can of chicken. Feeling brave? Then sprinkle cardamom or cinnamon into the pot while the meal is cooking. Now sit back and enjoy a feast.

And don't forget pasta. You'll find lots of pasta sauce mixes at the supermarket. Many of these can be improved by adding nuts. Hot, cooked pasta, tossed with Alfredo sauce, for instance. It tastes wonderful when you stir in some extra Parmesan cheese and a mixture of chopped hazelnuts and Brazil nuts.

Pine nuts. Remember pine nuts? They're the keystone of the popular basil pesto sauce. It's impractical to make this sauce in camp with fresh ingredients, but don't despair. Simply tote along a packet of basil pesto mix, whip it up per package directions (check the ingredient list to be sure you bring what you need), and enhance the final dish with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts.

How do you toast nuts? Easy. Simply place them in a single layer in a frying pan—there's no need to use oil or butter—and hold it over a low flame or bed of coals for a minute or two, shaking the pan occasionally so the nuts don't burn. Toasting gives the nuts a robust flavor, but don't overdo it. If you cook them too long, they'll become bitter.

Back to pesto. The word means sauce, and it's possible to concoct all kinds of delightful combinations with widely-available ingredients. Even our rural supermarket stocks a full range of Knorr pesto mixes in a variety of flavors. Here's a great camping recipe using one of my favorites:

Pesto Pasta Pronto
(makes 2 generous servings)

3-4 cups water
8 ounces capellini, broken in half*
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 package Knorr Red Bell Pepper Pesto Mix**
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup chopped, shelled walnuts

First, assemble your batterie de cuisine. You'll need one cooking pot, as well as another, smaller pot of at least 8-fluid-ounce capacity—a measuring cup or Sierra Club cup will do. Have a couple of bowls or plates ready near your workspace, too. You'll need these bowls to hold the pasta after it's cooked, while you're waiting for the sauce to simmer. Note that you can double this recipe to feed more people by using twice as much of each ingredient—you'll need larger pots, though.

Put 3-4 cups of water in a 2-quart pot, cover, and bring to a boil over a high flame or hot fire. Once the water is boiling, add the capellini to the pot. Keep the water at a rolling boil and stir the pasta occasionally to prevent strands from sticking together. Boil the pasta for 4 to 5 minutes, or until done. How will you know? Tease a strand out of the pot with a fork and bite through it. If it bites "clean," with just a bit of resistance, it's al dente—done. And that's the tooth…er, sorry, truth. If you prefer a slightly more tender texture, just cook the pasta another minute. Don't overcook it, though.

Now remove the pot from the flame. Lift the pasta out of the pot by the fork-full and place it in one of the waiting bowls. Continue doing this until all the capellini is fished out of the pot, dividing the pasta more or less evenly between the bowls. Next, pour about 1 cup of the water you used to boil the pasta into your smaller pot (or large cup). Discard any water that remains, and then pour the saved "pasta water" back into the cooking pot. (If your pasta absorbed so much water during cooking that you don't have at least 1 cup, make up the difference with cold water.)

Finally, place the pot containing the pasta water back over a high flame, and stir in the olive oil and the contents of the Knorr sauce package. Once the pot starts to boil, reduce the flame—or move the pot to a cooler spot on the fire—and allow the sauce to simmer for about 3 minutes, or until it thickens slightly. Now remove the pot from the heat, slide the pasta out of the bowls and into the pot, and "toss" the pasta in the sauce until it's evenly coated. Next, add the grated cheese and chopped walnuts to the pasta and toss again. Then dish the pasta back into the bowls. If you're really hungry, serve with flatbread.

* Sometimes called "angel hair" pasta, capellini is similar to spaghetti, but very, very thin. That's why it cooks so quickly. You can substitute an equal amount of spaghetti or other pasta, but plan on longer boiling times. Capellini and other long, thin pasta is difficult to pack, but you can minimize breakage by snapping the strands in half.

Here's how:

In your kitchen at home, measure out half a pound or so of capellini and set the long strands parallel to one another on the counter. Even up the ends, and gather the pasta into a "log." Now grasp this log with both hands, holding them close together near the midpoint. Then, keeping your hands down near the work surface, break the entire log of pasta in two, just like you'd snap a stick of kindling. Push the center away from you. The outer ends should move toward your body. But be careful! Small pieces of pasta will shoot away from the breaking strands. You don't want your eye to stop one.

Once the long log has been broken in two, gather the smaller lengths together into one thick, short log. Now put the pasta in a resealable plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and close it up. Then place the plastic bag in a paper lunch bag, rolling the paper around the pasta. Your pasta is now protected by a jacket of plastic and paper, and because it's reduced to a manageable length, it'll be a lot easier to pack—and cook.

** Can't find Knorr Red Bell Pepper Pesto mix? Simply substitute another pesto mix: Knorr Rosa Pesto, say, or Creamy Pesto, or Sun-Dried Pesto. Your supermarket will probably stock different brands, too—give any (or all) of them a try.

Are you convinced that it pays to go nuts? I hope so. If you'd like to explore the possibilities yourself, just take a little time to see what your local supermarket stocks. Be sure to check all the aisles, too, particularly the "ethnic" foods section, the produce department, and the baking supplies. And don't forget the snacks. Compare prices—I've found identical products in two different displays, with widely divergent prices.

Got a real deal on a bulk nut buy? Don't worry about storage. Even shelled nuts keep well. Once you've opened the pouch, can, or jar that they came in, transfer the nuts to a tightly-closed container and store in your fridge or freezer. On a trip, just wrap nuts in doubled plastic bags, seal the bags tightly, and then bury them deep in your pack, out of the heat of sun. I've never had any trouble keeping nuts fresh under way, even on trips as long as two months.

In-shell nuts keep for an even longer time, especially if they're stored in a dark, cool place. It can be hard to find bulk in-shell nuts outside the holiday season, though, and you won't want to take them on a trip. The shells usually weigh as much as the kernels, after all. Why carry the extra weight? But if you don't mind the labor of shelling them, and if you have a place to store them, they can be a real bargain when bought in bulk. Some specialty stores will sell in-shell nuts in lots of fifty pounds or more. That's a lot of meals.

One final caution: Squirrels like nuts, right? So do mice and voles and raccoons, and even skunks and bears. Both in the field and at home, therefore, store your nuts securely. In our house, we use cheap stainless-steel stockpots, lashing the lids down with bungee cords. In the bush, we hang our food bags high. Sharing is good, but you're just plain nuts if you feed the wildlife. You'll never outsmart all the squirrels, of course, but you gotta try. Keep your nuts safe. And bon appetite!

Like what you've just read? There's plenty more where this came from. Just visit the In the Same Boat Archives and read whatever catches your eye.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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