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Alimentary, My Dear

Pasta, Pronto!

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

June 21, 2005

Not so long ago, the traditional menu for the first night in the backcountry was a thick steak. The meat would be grilled to perfection, while potatoes baked in the glowing coals. That was the romantic ideal, anyway. The reality was often very different. It went something like this: You reached camp long after dark, just as a swirling mist was becoming a weeping drizzle. All the wood was wet, and mosquitoes were already mounting attacks in force. Your fire, when you finally coaxed it into life, smoked and sputtered and never produced any coals. The steak came off the grill half cinders and half blood, while the potatoes either exploded or shriveled into blackened lumps. As midnight approached and the drizzle turned to rain, you and your companions crouched mournfully under a dripping tarp, washing handfuls of raisins and peanuts down with generous tots of rum.

Then somebody dropped the rain-slick bottle of rum on a rock.

 

Has this, or something like it, happened to you? Probably. And most of us would do just about anything to avoid repeating the experience. Luckily, it's easy to do better. The first evening on a paddling trip is hectic enough without attempting an ambitious meal. You need something that's both filling and quick to prepare. Of course, it doesn't hurt if it's also delicious. And what's the secret? Pasta. Just marry a quick-cooking pasta with a savory sauce, and dinner will be ready in little more time than it takes to boil a pot of water. It's simple and good. In fact, pasta is so versatile that there's no reason to limit it to the first night in camp — and there's no better main course for a weekend adventure.

OK. How do you make pasta pronto? Begin at the beginning, with a little…

Homework

Time is of the essence in camp cooking. And where pasta's concerned, long and thin is quicker than short and fat. In the race to the plate, capellini — sometimes called "angel hair" — is a champ. It's very thin. Five minutes (or less) in boiling water is all it takes. So far, so good. But you can't afford a slow-cooking sauce in a camp on the water's edge, either. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. I've got three speedy sauces in my bag of tricks, and I'll describe them all in a minute. First, though, we need to get ready.

Ask any master chef how she saves time in the kitchen, and she'll tell you that the secret lies in preparation. "Prep time" can make or break a meal plan, and nowhere is this more true than in camp. A few minutes' work today will pay big dividends later. Here are some ideas to get you started. You'll find other suggestions below. To begin with, prepare the pasta for each meal in your kitchen at home. Grab a fistful of capellini in both hands. (How big a fistful? How many paddlers will you be feeding? A quarter pound of dry pasta is a generous portion for one person.) Line up the ends to make a tidy bundle, and — keeping your hands close together — twist the bundle just like you'd flex a stick you were breaking for the fire. The result? Two bundles of more or less equal size, one in each hand. (BEWARE! Tiny fragments of pasta may shoot across the kitchen in the process. Protect your eyes.) Next, combine the two fistfuls into one fat bundle and wrap it in heavy brown paper, taping the parcel shut before placing it in a zip-closure plastic bag. The pasta is now protected from further breakage, and the shorter lengths are easier to transfer from cookpot to bowl, into the bargain.

Other ingredients can also be prepackaged by the meal. Herbs and spices for a sauce can all go into a small plastic bag, for example, while garlic cloves can be stowed in a tightly-closed plastic jar or airtight freezer bag. As useful as plastic bags are, however, they aren't ideal for everything. Olive oil and similar liquids should be decanted into narrow-mouth, food-grade plastic bottles fitted with secure caps. But don't stop there. Double-bag the oil bottle in plastic, as well. Olive oil won't do a thing for your sleeping bag.

You're not finished yet. While prepackaging is important, it's just one aspect of preparation. Every savvy cook also needs a few…

Tools of the Trade

It takes a lot of boiling water to cook pasta properly. That means a big pot. But camp cooks don't have unlimited storage space, and fuel is often in short supply. So a compromise is in order here. Since I seldom cook more than half a pound of pasta at a time, I get by with a three-quart covered aluminum pot. If you're cooking for a crowd, however, you'll want a four-quart pot, or maybe even a larger one. A second, smaller pot is also useful for making and heating sauce. It should be stainless steel (or another less-than-reactive metal), and it, too, should have a lid. This sauce pot can be as small as one quart, but I prefer a larger two-quart kettle, both for its versatility and for its squat, stable profile.

Of course, boiling your pasta is just the first step. Next you've got to drain it. Cautious cooks bring a colander along. It does the job, but it's the very devil to pack, and transferring pasta to and from the colander takes time. Include me out. Gamblers just crack the pot lid open a bit, pour off the water, and hope for the best. But every gambler's luck runs out sooner or later, along with her supper. I steer a middle course, employing a flat strainer that looks a bit like a large perforated spatula. You'll find these in cooking stores and on a few outfitters' shelves.

You also have to mix pasta with sauce and serve it up. A regular fork will do the job, though a small pair of tongs or a spaghetti fork — a slotted ladle with long tines — makes the job much easier. And don't forget that each hungry paddler will also need a bowl and a fork.

Speaking of tools (or is it an ingredient?), you'll need…

Lots of Water

Happily, this is the stuff that floats your boat. You shouldn't have to go far to get all you need. Still, it's by no means certain that the water on your doorstep is fit to drink, or fit to cook with, for that matter. But you're in luck. You boil pasta, right? And boiling water for a couple of minutes should knock out any microbial menace. Medicine for Mountaineering echoes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency in recommending that water be brought to a rolling boil for a full minute in order to eliminate the threat from cryptosporidia. (If you're paddling in the mountains, increase this to three minutes whenever you're above 6,500 feet.) That's all it takes. It won't do a thing for chemical pollution, though. If in doubt, doubt. Then look for a safer source. Be sure to filter turbid or muddy water, too. Boiling may kill the bugs, but pasta cooked in mud will taste like — you guessed it — mud. And the cook's name will be mud, as well. So filter first. (A hint: If you have time to spare and a second big pot, you can let the mud settle out instead. Then you just pour off the clear water on top. This saves you the trouble of filtering. But don't expect glacial "flour" to settle out. It won't.)

Is all this talk about food making you hungry? Good. Let's begin…

Putting it All Together

The following recipes will feed four to six average paddlers. Then again, no paddler is average, is he? Adjust portions (and proportions) accordingly. A friendly warning is probably in order here. Leftover pasta may not interest you, but any passing bears, skunks, or raccoons will think it really hits the spot. The moral? Make portions generous, by all means. No one wants to go to bed hungry. But unless you like having strangers drop in for a late supper, don't go overboard. Once you're in your sleeping bag, you'll want to stay there. Being wakened from an exhausted sleep at one in the morning by a grumpy bear looking for second helpings isn't much fun.

 

Ready? Then let's get cooking! I'm going to assume that you've boiled pasta before, but I'll still give the basic recipe for cooking capellini. This is not your average noodle. Forget all that business about a watched pot never boiling. Capellini cooks up fast. Don't take your eyes off it, even for a second.


Boiled Capellini
Serves 4-6

1 pound capellini or angle hair pasta
1/2 tablespoon salt (optional)
Water

A preliminary note: If you're cooking over a fire or have a two-burner stove, you can get the pasta water boiling while you cook the sauce. If not, start the sauce first and put it someplace warm while you cook the pasta.

Add salt to a large pot of water, cover, and bring to a boil. Pasta tastes best when it's cooked in salt water, but if you're salt-sensitive — or simply forget to add it — don't worry. Once the water comes to a vigorous, rolling boil, add the pasta. Now cover the pot again, but leave the lid ajar to allow steam to escape. Stir occasionally, and keep your eyes on the pot between whisks! (If the pasta boils over, just lift the lid.) You won't have long to wait: in three to five minutes your pasta should be ready. Test a single strand between your teeth to make sure. If it's firm but not brittle, it's done. Cooks call this al dente, "to the tooth."

Next, drain the pasta. (NB You may want to set aside a couple of cups of this cooking water to make the sauce. See below.) Don't worry about getting rid of every last drop of water. Any excess will be absorbed. Just pour off as much as you can. Then, with the pasta still in the pot, stir in the sauce. Use tongs or a pasta fork if you have them, a regular fork if you don't. Serve.

A final caution: Do NOT overcook capellini. If you do, you'll end up with a glutinous tangle.


Now for the sauce. How about Garlic Olive Oil Sauce with Pine Nuts? Nothing could be easier. It isn't a dish for the faint of heart, though, and if you (or your companions) don't like garlic, it's definitely not for you. Do you happen to have some Italian bread sticks in your pack? Excellent. They'll go well with this sauce. No? Then Triscuits® make a good accompaniment. Just crumble some on top of the pasta and sauce after dishing it up.


Garlic Olive Oil Sauce with Nuts
Serves 4-6

1 pound capellini

Sauce:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts OR walnut pieces
4-6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper and salt to taste
2 cups (approx) cooking water from pasta

Optional Accompaniment:

Italian bread sticks OR
Triscuits®

Homework. To save time in camp, toast the pine nuts a day or two before you leave for the put-in. (There's no need to toast walnut pieces.) Here's how you do it. Spread the pine nuts thinly over the bottom of a large skillet (you don't need oil) and place the skillet over medium heat. Watch the nuts carefully so they don't burn, shaking the pan from time to time. When they begin to turn golden-brown, remove the skillet from the heat and pour the pine nuts out onto a paper-towel-lined pizza pan or cookie sheet to cool. Once they're at room temperature, store in an airtight plastic bag. Now put the garlic cloves — still in their peels — and the pepper flakes in separate bags. Lastly, measure the olive oil into a food-grade plastic bottle with a snug-fitting cap, then double-bag it as already described.

In Camp. Peel and slice garlic into a small pot (or skillet) and cover with olive oil. Cook over a medium flame until the garlic is a light golden-brown color, remove from the heat, and stir in the pepper flakes. Next, when the pasta is just about done, pour two cups of the cooking water into another bowl or pot, then finish draining. Now add the garlic, oil and Parmesan to the pasta, and mix thoroughly. (Do NOT return the pasta to the burner or grill.) Finally, drizzle cooking water over everything, 1/4 cup at a time, until the individual strands of pasta slide smoothly over each other. Add the pine nuts (or walnut pieces), salt, and pepper. Serve.


Want something a little less garlicky? No problem. How about Marinara Sauce? It's related to the thicker, slower-cooking tomato sauces, but this one is a snap to make. If you don't mind hauling a can of tomatoes — and if the authorities allow cans — you can prepare it in camp. Just don't forget the can opener. Or, if you prefer, you can cook the sauce at home and freeze it in portion-controlled plastic containers. Then, just before leaving, pop the frozen sauce into doubled plastic bags. In camp, put the sauce in a covered pot and heat it up. That's all there is to it. (If the sauce is still frozen, put a little water in the pot before heating it, breaking up the lumps of sauce occasionally as it thaws and warms. But don't let it burn.)


Marinara Sauce
Serves 4-6

1 pound capellini

Sauce:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2-4 cloves peeled, sliced garlic
1 small, peeled onion (optional)
1 14.5-15 oz. can diced or crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 pinch hot red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
4-6 tablespoons grated Parmesan (optional)

A reminder: Start the sauce before boiling the pasta, then set it to one side where it will keep warm.

Begin by heating the olive oil in a two-quart pot. Slice each garlic clove lengthwise and drop the pieces into the oil. If you have an onion, chop it into the oil, too. Cook uncovered over medium heat until the garlic is lightly browned (about two minutes) or the onion is soft (about five minutes). Don't allow the garlic or onion to burn. If you do, the sauce will be bitter. Next, open your can of diced or crushed tomatoes and empty it carefully into the pot, stir, and season with basil, adding pepper flakes, salt, and pepper as desired. Simmer the sauce in the pot with the cover ajar for five to ten minutes, or until slightly thickened. Then remove from the heat. Now drain the pasta, pour the sauce over the capellini, mix thoroughly, sprinkle with Parmesan, and serve.

An alternative: Cook as above, but stir in a package of tuna (or a can of chunk tuna packed in olive oil) when the sauce is almost done. Add the oil, too.


And now, for something completely different, try Spicy Peanut Sauce. The best part of this sauce is that it requires no cooking at all. The basic recipe is good as is, but if you like to experiment, add some of the optional, no-cook ingredients.


Spicy Peanut Sauce
Serves 4-6

1 pound capellini

Sauce:

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (NOT fresh ground)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 half-inch piece peeled fresh ginger, minced
2-3 tablespoons lime juice (juice from 1 lime)
3 tablespoons tamari OR soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
2 cups (approx) cooking water from pasta

You may also want to add:

Thinly sliced fresh red or green peppers
A thinly sliced red onion
Chopped green onions (scallions)
1/2 cup low-salt or unsalted dry roasted peanuts

Homework. Put all the ingredients (except the water) into a two-quart pot or bowl. Mince the garlic or ginger, but do NOT precook. Blend using a fork or small whisk. Be patient — peanut butter is a poor mixer. If you have a food processor, you can use it to hurry things along. Once you have a smooth, well-mixed sauce, taste it. If it's too tart or too sweet, adjust the flavor by adding more sugar or lime juice. Now store in a tightly sealed plastic jar.

In Camp. Boil the capellini. When the pasta is just about done, pour two cups of the cooking water into another bowl or pot, then finish draining. Next, spoon the peanut sauce over the pasta and add 1/4 cup of cooking water. Blend sauce, water, and capellini using a fork or tongs. Now add more cooking water a little bit at a time while mixing. When the clumps of pasta break up and each strand has a light coating of creamy sauce, you're done. Add any extra ingredients that suit your fancy, mix, and serve.


At the end of a day on the water there's nothing like a generous helping of steaming pasta to sooth the soul and feed the body. And it's easy. Armed with a ready repertoire of recipes, you can have pasta every evening and never have the same dish twice — without a lot of fuss and bother. Sound good? Then, to borrow the signature line of Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, a great Italian cook, Tutti a tavola a mangiare. Come and get it! Buon appetito.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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