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Alimentary, My Dear

Lift Your Spirits!

Hot Treats for Cold Paddlers

By Tamia Nelson

January 16, 2007

Let's face it, life can sometimes be hard, and you won't find many things harder than ice. Try paddling across a frozen bay sometime to see what I mean. No, on second thought, don't. Some things are better when they're experienced vicariously, rather than in the flesh. Still, why daydream about ice? Why not dream about languid summer evenings on high mountain lakes, instead, or indulge in warm fantasies about sunny beaches on tropical shores? Of course, Canoe Country paddlers don't really have a monopoly on winter cold. Chill winds and icy waters are familiar companions throughout the so-called "temperate" zones — or at least they are during the long months of winter.

Not even the returning sun can always be relied on to bring relief. Time and time again, the warm promise of a sunny spring morning is betrayed later in the same day by a deluge of cold rain or a late-season snowstorm. That's when paddlers turn to food and drink for comfort. It's not hard to see why. After hours spent battling the boisterous current of a runoff-swollen river, few canoeists or kayakers will turn down a chance to warm up by a flickering fire, particularly when the heat radiating from the glowing coals is a prelude to a fireside treat.


Sound good? It is. And it needn't be difficult. You can always start with a big bowl of…


Surprise! There was popcorn before there were any microwave ovens. In fact, popcorn's history goes back 7,000 years, so it might just be the original campfire snack. But making popcorn from scratch is fast becoming a lost art. Don't laugh. At best, a botched batch will be tough and leathery. At worst, you'll have a bowl of unpopped kernels or — worse yet — hard nodules of carbon to scrub out of a scorched pot.

The secret to great popcorn in camp? It's all in the details…

  • Use fresh popcorn. Last year's leftover corn is best left in the cupboard.

  • Choose a pot of the right size. You want to cover the bottom with a layer of corn no more than one kernel deep.

  • Add enough oil. Canola or corn oil works best. But don't go overboard. You want to wet the kernels' feet, not drown them.

  • Pop over moderately high heat. Coals are better than flames.

  • Keep a lid on your pot. You don't want too tight a seal, however. Leave the lid slightly ajar to allow excess steam to escape.

  • Shake it up! Once the corn starts popping, keep the pot in constant motion.

  • Have something to protect your hands from the hot pot. Heavy leather gloves work fine, and they have other uses, too.

How will you know when you've succeeded? Easy. Perfectly popped corn is tender and fluffy. It also has a subtle, sweet corn flavor. And if that's not enough, drizzle melted butter (real or ersatz) over the corn and add salt to taste. Want something even more assertive? Then sprinkle Parmesan cheese on your corn, or add a dash of seasoned salt from the spice display at the HyperMart. (A hint: You can make your own seasoned salt by blending coarse kosher salt, Hungarian paprika, garlic and onion salts, and — for the brave — ground cayenne.) Some folks like really sweet popcorn. To find out if you're among them, just toss buttered popcorn with brown or granulated sugar.


OK. Popcorn is a satisfying quick snack, but it doesn't do much to warm you up on a cold day. For that you want a hot drink, and for a lot of paddlers, this means…


I used to gulp down as many as 20 cups a day. No more. Nowadays I'd rather savor a single mug of really good coffee than throw back countless pretenders. But don't expect me to tell you what makes a good cup. Every java junky has his or her own favorite bean, roast, and brewing method. What's mine? One-hundred-percent Columbian roast, brewed for four and one-half minutes in a French press, and then poured into a heavy, pre-warmed mug. Most of the time I drink my coffee black. Sometimes, though, it's fun to experiment. At other times it's a matter of necessity — or a happy accident. And occasionally this leads to a revelation. A case in point: In a state of exhaustion on a long road trip I mistakenly squirted French vanilla half-and-half into my steaming hot mug of coffee. To my amazement, it hit the spot. I've since learned that other folks pack flavored powdered coffee creamer along on every trip. It's definitely worth a try.


Of course, some paddlers don't like coffee in any guise, and not everyone wants to load up on java before hitting the sack. That's when an old standby comes into its own —

Hot Cocoa

It's a traditional camp drink, and nowadays it's easy to make. Just add boiling water to one of the packets of instant cocoa in your meez bag. This is only the beginning, however. There are many variations. Here are a just few:

Minty Hot Cocoa  Put the contents of a packet of instant cocoa into a mug. Then add a heaping tablespoon of mint chocolate chips. Now pour boiling water into the mug and stir. And where can you find mint chocolate chips? In the baking aisle at the HyperMart, right next to regular chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and toffee chips. No luck? No problem! Crumble a couple of wafers of mint chocolate candy (André's® is one widely distributed brand) into your mug, instead. Or add 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract. Or just use a peppermint candy cane as a stirrer. You'll get two treats in one.

Nutty Hot Cocoa  Add 1/8 teaspoon of almond extract to each mug of cocoa, sprinkling toasted almond slivers on top if you like your cocoa crunchy.

Extra Creamy Hot Cocoa  Mix a couple of teaspoons of powdered coffee creamer — either plain or flavored — into the instant cocoa. Add boiling water, stir, and enjoy.

Hot Cocoa and Marshmallows  Toast one or two large marshmallows over the fire and beat them into a cup of hot cocoa.

Spicy Hot Cocoa  Place a cinnamon stick in each mug of hot cocoa, then sprinkle a pinch each of ground nutmeg and ground allspice on top. Or substitute powdered ginger for the nutmeg and allspice.


Chocolate? Or coffee? Or can't you make up your mind? Then you'd better have both…

Coffee AND Chocolate

True joe-heads will only drink instant coffee under duress. Still, there are always times when it pays to break the rules. After returning from a recent late-season outing on the River I wanted a cup of coffee right now, so I burst the seal on a jar of instant that had been sitting unopened in my cupboard for months. To begin with, I was hopeful. Boiling water released the delightful aroma of fresh-brewed coffee. But my first sip destroyed the illusion. Then I caught sight of some packets of cocoa mix next to the jar of instant coffee. Into the cup went the contents of one packet. I took another sip, and I immediately knew I had a winner. I christened it Quick and Easy Choco-Java. But I wanted more. I wanted…

Even Better Choco-Java  So when I made my second cup I dropped in a couple of squares broken off from a large dark-chocolate bar. Success! You may want to go even further down this road, however, brewing fresh coffee and pouring it into a mug containing a chunk of chocolate or some chocolate chips. Stir well. Or maybe you'll want to go the whole hog, and take the time to make…

The Best Choco-Java  This silky, decadent drink ought to satisfy the fussiest foodie. Make hot cocoa from scratch, using Dutch-processed cocoa, granulated sugar, and fresh milk (if you can keep it from "going off" on the trail, that is). Meanwhile, brew a strong pot of your favorite coffee. Combine equal parts in a mug. Bliss!


But suppose you're one of those folks who don't care for either coffee or chocolate? Don't despair. There's always…

Apple Cider

Heated, mulled apple cider is a favorite cold-weather drink. But keep the cider chilled until you're ready to use it — not a problem in winter weather, obviously, and a thermos flask will do the trick when it warms up. Here are three delicious variations:

Spicy Cider  Simmer cider with a cinnamon stick and a few whole cloves. Strain out the cloves, then serve in a mug with a sprinkle of ground nutmeg on top.

Citrus Cider  Heat cider in a pot, then pour into mugs. Squirt some reconstituted lemon juice into each mug, stir, and enjoy. (This is the juice you'll find in plastic lemons in the HyperMart. It doesn't need refrigeration.) Another way to get the citrus tang is to pour hot cider into a mug containing a tablespoon of lemonade powder.

Fresh Citrus Cider  Pack in a whole lemon or orange. Cut the fruit into thick slices, working from one end to the other, across the grain. Reserve one slice for each mug, and put the rest into the pot with the cider. Heat the cider and fruit, then pour off the hot cider into mugs. Garnish with the remaining slices of fruit. For a true mulled cider, add a cinnamon stick and two or three whole cloves to the pot before heating. Strain out the spices and fruit when you pour.


All right. You're of legal age. It's the end of a long day, and you're done paddling (or driving). You're a little chilly, but you're not cold. A flickering fire sends shadows dancing in the gathering dark. And you've got a warm sleeping bag waiting for you. It's time to tip a bottle into your mug of coffee or cocoa and…

Raise Your Spirits

Rum is a traditional Canoe Country tipple, either light or dark according to taste. Whisky — Scotch, in other words — is another favorite. For sipping, I relish the smoky, peaty flavor of Laphroaig® or a similar Islay single-malt, but a good blended whisky like Famous Grouse is a better mixer. (You might prefer a different whiskey altogether, of course: bourbon, say, or Irish.) In any case, both rum and whisky complement hot chocolate and coffee, and while whipped cream is a rare treat once you leave the put-in behind you, powdered creamer will do in a pinch. Experiment. Liqueurs or flavored spirits can enhance a hot drink, too. Try any of these: Bailey's® Irish Cream, Cointreau®, Grand Marnier®, Kahlùa®, Tia Maria®, Frangelico®, or peppermint schnapps.

Back to rum for a minute. Grog, or watered rum, was once the traditional naval drink, as well as a staple of 19th-century arctic exploration. Make this relic from the age of wooden ships and iron men with Pusser's® dark rum. Mix two parts of CLEAN, hot water with one part rum, then stir in granulated cane sugar and fresh lime juice to taste. It's not everyone's idea of a nightcap, I admit, but if you're among the few.…

Though winter's grip on the northern hemisphere is deepening as I write, it's not too soon to think about comfort foods for early-season excursions. Of course, prudent paddlers test their recipes at home first, just to be sure. And there's no better time to conduct such a test than on a day when drifting snow is threatening to overtop your windowsills. That's when a hot treat will lift your spirits like nothing else can. I guarantee it.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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