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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Salad Days — Greens (and More) to Go

By Tamia Nelson

December 20, 2005

No paddler has to go hungry nowadays. Nor do you have to hover over a smoky fire for hours on end to prepare a meal in the backcountry. A multi-course dinner? No problem. Anything from soup to nuts is within the well-prepared camp cook's reach. Or maybe you prefer simpler fare: bread and cheese, say — or a bowl of steaming pasta. No? Then how about some savory roasted meat? Whatever your choice, there's always dessert to look forward to, followed by a fragrant cup of fresh-brewed tea or coffee. Surely this is enough for anyone.

Or is it? There's more to being well-fed than protein, carbs, and calories. Whether I'm eating at home or under way, I always crave a crunchy salad. As much as I like pasta, bannock, and dried apricots, after a couple of days without greens even the limp lettuce and tasteless tomatoes grudgingly served up at the local Burger Palace are a lot more than a welcome change. They're a hint of paradise lost.

Is this inevitable? Not necessarily. Ever since Euell Gibbons made foraging fashionable back in the '60s, some paddlers have seized any opportunity to gather wild food, and many have become quite expert at it. But there are drawbacks. Foraging is illegal in many places, for one thing, and even where no regulatory barrier exists, it goes against both the letter and the spirit of "no-trace" camping. After all, canoeists and kayakers are only guests in the backcountry, and good guests don't take food out of their hosts' mouths. The creatures who make their home in the woods and waters need everything that nature provides. There's nothing in their pantry to spare for passing paddlers. And that's not all. Gathering food takes time, and the penalty for errors in judgment can be high. Most folks already steer clear of wild mushrooms, fearing an upset stomach (or worse), but how many would-be foragers can unfailingly distinguish between the tasty water-parsnip (Sium sauve) and the deadly water-hemlock (Cicuta maculata)? It's not an idle question. There's no ER in the backcountry, and a single case of mistaken identity could kill you. All in all, then, backcountry foraging leaves a lot to be desired. Luckily, there's another solution: pack your greens in, along with the rest of your food. It's easiest on weekend adventures, of course, particularly if you have a small soft cooler and a freezer block. That's what I'll concentrate on here.

OK. Let's take a closer look. Even lettuce will stay crisp if allowed to keep its cool. (But don't let it freeze!) Obviously, all greens should be as fresh as possible on the day you leave, and some are better travelers than others. For example, spinach doesn't stand up to hard knocks as well as romaine, iceberg lettuce, curly endive, and radicchio. Supply is another problem. Gardeners have it made, at least in summer. They can harvest their greens on the morning of their departure. But the rest of us will have to do our pre-trip foraging at the HyperMart, unless we can count on stopping at a farmer's market on our way to the put-in.

Once you've made your choice, what's next? Almost everyone understands that fresh vegetables ought to be rinsed — to remove stray grit and some pesticide residues, among other things — but when should you do it? That simple question still divides good cooks. Some think greens keep best if not rinsed till just before a meal. Others rinse everything right after they take it out of the shopping bag. If you're in the first school, be sure that you use clean water in your camp kitchen. There's not much point in rinsing food in dirty water, is there? Drying freshly washed greens isn't exactly straightforward, either, even at home. In camp, your best bet is spin drying. First, shake any excess water off the leaves. Then place them in the center of a clean, dry bandanna. (To avoid bruising delicate leaves, do small batches at a time.) Now gather the four corners of the bandanna together in one hand and spin the resulting pocket over your head. Hold tight, and be prepared for a drizzle of spray. It's worth the wetting. My improvised spin-dryer works about as well as anything else I've tried, at home or on the trail.

Is this too much trouble? Then save time in camp and eliminate the need to purify rinse water by pre-washing your vegetables at home. But be sure to dry them well before putting them in your pack. Pre-cut your salad makings if you wish, too, though juicy veggies like tomatoes and cucumbers fare much better if left whole. Rigid plastic boxes with airtight lids make the best containers for salad greens, and lettuce benefits from being loosely wrapped in a paper towel to help absorb excess moisture. Carrots, radishes, and celery are made of sturdier stuff, however. Just pack them in tightly-closed plastic bags. If time really presses, and you're willing to trade freshness for convenience, you can even pre-mix entire salads, tossing in interesting leaves like mizuna and frisée, along with some shredded radicchio for color and flavor. Once in camp, add a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper, and a splash of vinaigrette or squeeze of lemon to your DIY "salad kit" and serve it up. Still too much trouble? Buy a ready-made, pre-washed, pre-packaged kit at the HyperMart. (Don't add dressing or seasoning until it's time to eat, however. Your greens will wilt if you do.)

There's more to a salad than lettuce, of course. Sliced cucumbers, radishes, red onions or scallions, grape or cherry tomatoes.… All these are tasty additions, as is thinly sliced savoy, red, or green cabbage. Or leave the lettuce out altogether. Broccoli and cauliflower can be broken into bite-sized bits and boiled until slightly soft (but still firm inside), then chilled and tossed with extra-virgin olive oil and the juice from a freshly squeezed lemon. Salt and pepper to taste. The result? A green salad with a difference. Green beans make a good simple salad, too. Cook them at home till they break with a soft snap on bending. Then chill and store in a rigid container in your soft cooler. In camp, toss the beans with thinly sliced raw green or red onion and whole grape tomatoes, add salt and pepper, and sprinkle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Want something heartier? Slice in thin strips of mozzarella, or crumble feta or ricotta salata cheese over the top. Slivered almonds are a welcome garnish, too.

And while you're experimenting, give fennel a try. Sometimes called anise, fennel has a pleasant, mild licorice flavor. Better yet, it's delicious both raw and cooked. At home, peel off the white outer layers of a small- to medium-sized bulb and discard the fibrous stems. Only the tight inner "ball" goes into your pack. Then, when you're ready to eat, cut paper-thin wafers, working from the stem end of the ball to the root — you'll need a sharp knife — and mix with thin slices of red onion. Finish off with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, adding salt and pepper to taste. (You can also add walnut pieces or drained, canned mandarin oranges.) You won't find a crunchier or more refreshing salad.

At this point, I suppose I should say something more about dressings. Small amounts can be decanted into leakproof plastic bottles. A hint: Test any new bottle by filling it with water and giving it several vigorous squeezes. If it leaks even one drop, leave it behind. Avoid any dressing based on mayonnaise, cream, or milk, as well. (There's one exception. Read on.) Oil and vinegar are better backcountry companions, especially when judiciously enhanced with salt and pepper, not to mention herbs and spices. Experiment at home to see what you like best. As you've probably guessed by now, my favorite dressings are compounded from olive oil and commercial (i.e., cheap) balsamic vinegar or the juice of fresh citrus — lemons, limes, oranges, or grapefruit. But your tastes may differ. In any case, extend your options by adding nuts and seeds, as well as croutons or day-old "artisan" breads broken into large chunks. Drain a can of garbanzos (aka chickpeas) or black beans and toss them with your greens. And don't ignore marinated mushrooms, artichokes, bell or hot peppers, hard cheeses like Parmesan, and fruit.

Want something really special? Then consider a Waldorf salad. (But don't ask Basil Fawlty to prepare it.) Named for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, whose maître d'hôtel Oscar Tschirky is credited with inventing it in 1896, the Waldorf salad was once a staple of fashionable restaurant menus and trendy dinner parties. It's no longer cutting-edge cuisine, but this intriguing medley of fruit and veg makes mighty good paddling fare nonetheless — if you can find enough portion-controlled packets of mayonnaise of a kind that needs no refrigeration, that is. (It shouldn't be hard. Ask the deli manager at your HyperMart if you need help.)

Waterside Waldorf Salad
Serves 2 - 4, depending on appetites

2 Granny Smith apples, cored and chopped
1 small red onion, sliced thick
2 celery ribs, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup green seedless grapes
1/2 cup chopped walnut meats
2-4 portion-control packets of mayonnaise
Ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of salt

Chop apples into half-inch cubes. Then mix apples, onion and celery slices, grapes, and walnut pieces in a small pot. Add mayonnaise from two packets and stir until all the ingredients are coated. If the salad is too dry, add more mayonnaise, one packet at a time, until the consistency is right. Now season with black pepper and salt, stir again, and serve.

Variations Use raisins instead of fresh grapes. Substitute plain yogurt instead of mayo, but only if you can keep the yogurt cold (or make it fresh in camp). Macadamia nuts or hazelnuts are interesting alternatives to walnut meats — or additions, come to that. And if you prefer a sweeter apple than the Granny Smith, go for it.

See what I mean? It's easier than you might think to bring a taste of the Waldorf-Astoria to a waterfront camp somewhere back of beyond. And you don't have to give up salads when you leave the put-in behind you. We've only begun to explore the possibilities. What about water chestnuts, bok choy, sprouts, and squash? Then there are black and green olives packed in oil. Salsa-based dressings. Fresh herbs. And roasted garlic. The bottom line? If you're willing to experiment, every day under way can be a salad day. What could be more delicious?

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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