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Alimentary, My Dear

Packing a Punch with Spices and Herbs

By Tamia Nelson

August 20, 2002

I blame the voyageurs. To be fair, though, they really had no choice. Forced to race the sun through the short northern summer, they faced two months of 16-hour days, broken only by brief hourly respites to smoke a pipe of tobacco. It was a killing pace, and the voyageurs needed plenty of fuel to keep them going. They found it in rubbaboo, a calorie-rich potage of flour, water, and buffalo pemmican. It wasn't haute cuisine, but no one cared. Hunger was the best of sauces. It still is.

Of course the voyageurs are long gone, but even today canoeists and kayakers are likely to see meals as a necessary evil, something to be got through, rather than enjoyed. True, rubbaboo has given way to freeze-dried entrées, but the difference may be more apparent than real. John McPhee once described freeze-dried meals as creating "a sense of hardtack and pemmican within a gourmet context," and I think he was on to something. The notion that paddlers can live to eat, as well as eat to live, has yet to gain much ground.

It doesn't have to be like this. Are you still just gettin' by as a camp cook? Then here's the good news: You don't have to be a graduate of the CIA—that's the Culinary Institute of America, by the way, and not the other one—to turn ho-hum camp meals into something to look forward to. You just need to pack a bit of a punch. And you don't have to sign up at the gym or dojo to do it. Simply stop by your friendly neighborhood food store and head for the spice section. Dried herbs and spices are just the "punch" you're looking for.

Actually, a food co-op or ethic market may be a better bet than the local HyperMart. While co-ops are often frequented by the sort of folks that George Orwell dismissed as "fruit-juice drinkers," "sandal wearers," and "food-cranks" (I score three out of three here, I'm afraid!), they're also great places to buy dried herbs and spices—and to buy them cheap. Check it out. Whatever you do, don't buy one of the pre-filled "spice shakers" that you'll find on almost every outfitter's shelves. Not only does the selection of spices leave much to be desired—the spices themselves are often stale—but the shakers do a poor job of protecting their contents from moisture. It's a lose-lose scenario. You can do better.

Once you've made your selection and got it home to the kitchen table, decant the amounts you'll need into separate, doubled plastic bags or small, unbreakable containers. (Nalgene® polypropylene jars are good.) As you pack, be sure to label the contents of each bag or jar in waterproof ink, and carry your store receipt with you, too, particularly if your trip will take you across an international border. Unless you can set Agent Everclear's suspicions to rest immediately, she may think your oregano is something else.

And just what spices and herbs should you bring? That's easy. What do you use at home? Back-country trips are no time to experiment with a radically-altered diet. Take what you know you like, and what you're sure you'll use. That's how I arrived at the contents of my own "punching bag," in fact. Here's the list. Unless otherwise noted, everything is dried.

Salt… I know. Salt's a mineral, not a spice. But it's also an essential weapon in any cook's battery. With judicious use, salt enhances the flavor of fried trout, and a pinch stirred into bubbling oatmeal improves the taste.

Black Pepper… Peppercorns stay fresh longer than ground pepper, particularly in hot, humid weather. (A pepper-mill need weigh only an ounce or two.) You may also want to experiment with so-called "gourmet" blends of white, red, pink, and black peppercorns, but try them at home first.

Thyme… I've always got time for thyme. It's excellent in meat dishes and stews, and great with dried bean, pea, and vegetable soups. Sprinkle a little on fish before cooking. It's wonderful with potatoes, too. A variation on the theme is lemon thyme. As you might guess, it has a distinct citrusy note.

Oregano… A necessity in many Italian and Mexican dishes, oregano is also combined with ground cumin and ground cinnamon to season refried beans and other Mexican fare. And what about fresh fish, sprinkled with oregano and moistened with a squeeze of lemon? Delicious!

Basil… It's a must in pizza and tomato sauce. You can whip up camp pesto, too, using dried basil. Here's how: Cook the pasta of your choice. Drizzle olive oil into the hot, drained pasta, then mix in grated Parmesan cheese, a teaspoon or more of dried basil, salt, and pepper. Good? It's great! Meals don't get much better. What's that? You want even more? OK. Add toasted pine nuts or walnut pieces.

Fresh Garlic… That's fresh, not dried. Garlic really isn't an herb or a spice. It's related to the onion, and a head or two—fresh garlic comes in heads—fits nicely into my punching bag. (Garlic powder? Not for me, thanks. I'd rather do without.) Add minced or crushed garlic cloves to fish, stews, and soups. Folklore even has it that eating garlic will keep biting flies at bay, but I wouldn't count on it. It repels vampires, though.

Ground Sage… Usually sold as a powder, but you'll occasionally find whole, dried leaves. Use sparingly on fish, and stir into wild rice pilaf, along with slivered almonds and chopped apricots. And the next time you make pasta with Alfredo sauce from a mix (Knorr makes one), add some dried sage to the sauce as it simmers.

Mint… Spearmint's my favorite, but peppermint's good, too. Both go well with fish and fruit desserts, and enhance the flavor of peas. For a change of pace, try tossing pasta with mint and reconstituted freeze-dried or dehydrated peas.

Marjoram… A mild, sweet herb, I use marjoram primarily in pea soup, but some people like it with tomato sauce. Try it with fish, too.

Bay Leaf… Bay leaves are tough and aromatic, and impart a delightful flavor to simmering soups, stews, and sauces. The next time you make a boxed soup or stir up a cheesy sauce, add a bay leaf while the liquid simmers. Add to tomato sauces, too, and to chicken and dumplings. Did you match the hatch? Then insert one or more leaves into the cavity of a freshly-cleaned fish before poaching or roasting. (In each case, remove the bay leaf once your dish is ready to serve. Its job is done by then, and the leaf is a very chewy morsel.)

Cilantro… Cilantro looks a little like parsley, but don't confuse them! Cilantro is sharp and pungent, and a staple in Mexican and Asian cooking. To get the most flavor, stir a teaspoon or two into the cook pot just before serving.

Ground Cumin… I use this along with cilantro, ground cinnamon, and oregano in chili, tomato salsa, cheddar cheese quesadillas, and black bean tortillas. You can also add it to flatbread, mixing a teaspoon or more into the flour before adding water.

Cinnamon… Cinnamon sticks look a little like parchment scrolls. (Don't try writing on them, though!) Ground cinnamon is commonly used as a flavoring in baked desserts, but it can be added to simmering chili or other Mexican bean dishes as well. I also take along a few cinnamon sticks as a treat, steeping them in cups of cocoa, tea, or coffee.

Curry Powder… This is really a blend of spices. Purists make their own, but I'm too lazy. Instead, I drink a glass of orange juice, put on my sandals, and shuffle down to the local co-op, where I buy a pre-mixed mild curry. (More stalwart souls will opt for medium, or even hot.) Curry adds "heat" and sweetness to meat stews and soups. And if you stir curry powder into rice before adding water or other cooking liquid, you'll have curried rice.

Ground Nutmeg… Whole nutmegs are olive-sized nuts, but most of us are more familiar with ground nutmeg. It spices up pumpkin and apple pies, and it's also delicious when added—very sparingly!—to egg dishes like quiche. (Yes, it is possible to make a quiche in camp.) Add just a pinch—and no more!—to macaroni and cheese, reconstituted cheese sauces, and stewed fruit. CAUTION! A little nutmeg goes a long way. Add too much, and you'll learn first-hand "How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear!"

Ginger Root (powdered, fresh and candied)… Ground (or powdered) ginger is the dominant spice in gingerbread and pumpkin pie. Try it in other camp desserts as well. Fresh or candied ginger is worth bringing along, too. Look for fresh ginger root in the produce section of your grocery store. Seal it tightly, and plan to use it up in the first few days of your trip. How? Here's one idea: Finely chop a quarter-sized slice of ginger and mince a small clove of fresh garlic, then stir-fry both in oil heated in a saucepan. Now add jasmine rice and water or broth, cover, and simmer till the rice is cooked through. Lastly, stir in some dried cilantro (see above) and chopped peanuts. The result? A very tasty supper. Candied ginger—I get mine in the dried fruit section of the local food co-op—is a tasty treat in its own right, but it also infuses stewed fruit with a wonderfully hot, sweet flavor. It's surprisingly effective in quelling nausea, too. Many sailors swear by it as a sovereign remedy for sea-sickness.

Ground Cardamom… Cardamom is a seed, but I buy it ground into a powder. It's sweet but powerful, and it's a basic ingredient in Indian curries. I like to add it to desserts.

That's it—the contents my punching bag. You'll probably have your own favorites, of course, but that's as it should be. In any case, don't be afraid to experiment with new spices and herbs at home, and then add the ones that work for you to your own bag of tricks. Food can be more than fuel, and there's more to back-country eating than rubbaboo. Spices and herbs make almost everything taste better. Bon appétit!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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