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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Home-Cooked Meals in Camp? Why Not?
Secrets From the Test Kitchen

By Tamia Nelson

January 15, 2008

Folks paddle for many reasons, but whatever floats your boat, I bet you love to eat. Canoeing and kayaking build big appetites, and everything tastes great after a day on the water. Well, almost everything. On long trips, when your menu is limited to pre-packaged, off-the-shelf dishes, mealtimes can become downright boring. I guess that's one reason why we paddlers talk about food so much. And the longer the trip, the harder it is to ignore our appetite for the real thing. Visions of juicy hamburgers, crisp salads, and cold ice cream dance through our heads unbidden, right up till the time we load our boats back onto the car at the take-out. Often, we can't wait to get home to quiet our craving. Then it's a race to the nearest MegaBurger or FrostyKreme.

It doesn't have to be this way. With a little forward planning and some advance preparation, your camp menu can be varied enough so that no meal is served more than once, even on the longest trip. Little things make a big difference. A carefully chosen spice kit can help you ring the changes. So can a bottle of wine, a surprise dessert, or an after-dinner drink. But helpful as these all are, such embellishments aren't enough in themselves. You don't just want to dress up your store-bought dinners. What you really need is good home cooking. We're talking comfort foods here, of course. Baked macaroni and cheese. A hearty meatloaf. Spaghetti and meatballs. Even chocolate cheesecake. And when the craving for real food hits — as it often does at the end of a long day on the water — it hits hard. Which makes the evening's foil-wrapped EasyMeal even more of a disappointment.

Is this inevitable? Is enjoying home-cooked meals at the water's edge really Mission Impossible? Well, maybe not. Let's take a closer look, beginning with one of my favorites: pizza. Back when I was a kid in New Jersey, before my parents moved north to a little village in the shadow of the Green Mountains, take-out pizza was a rare and wonderful treat. Of course, take-out isn't homemade, but the owner of the local pizzeria had learned his trade in the old country, and his pizzas were very, very good. The cheese was rich and elastic, the crust simultaneously crisp and tender, and the tomato sauce delightfully tangy, its flavor enhanced by just the right amount of garlic, oregano, and olive oil. I hated to waste a morsel, and my father showed me how to fold the crust over my forefinger to stiffen the slice and prevent the hot cheese from sliding off. I never lost the knack, and the memory of these family treats stays with me to this day. Pizza — real pizza — is still the comfort food I crave most often, even in the backcountry.


Homemade and camp-made pizzas

But there's no local pizzeria on any of the waterways I paddle. And for many long years, the idea of making pizza in camp seemed an unattainable dream. The upshot? I did without, assuming that the difficulties were insurmountable. Then fate intervened — in a most unlikely guise — and I learned the truth of the old saw about "'assume' making an ass of 'u' and me." Here's how it happened. Friday night had been pizza night at home for a long time. I'd make the dough and sauce from scratch, grate cheese from one-pound blocks of mozzarella and Parmesan, chop fresh herbs, crush whole garlic cloves, and grind black pepper, after which I'd assemble the pie and bake it in a very hot oven until the crust was brown and crisp on the outside, while still chewy and moist within. It sounds like a lot of work, but with a sturdy food-prep table, a reliable oven, hot water from the tap, and a refrigerator-freezer, it was really pretty easy. Then a momma mouse decided to set up housekeeping in my oven, and I was forced to rethink my approach on very short notice. Much to my surprise, my stove-top pizza was a success. It even garnered the … ahem … Good Mousekeeping Seal of Approval. (Momma and babies did fine, by the way, and I got my oven back in due course.) I also learned a valuable lesson: You don't have to stay home to enjoy real home cooking. You just need to …

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

Begin by deconstructing your favorite meals, then reconstruct them to reflect the limitations of camp kitchens. To see how it's done, let's stick with my favorite comfort food. Traditionally, pizza was little more than leftover bread dough spread out flat and topped with whatever was on hand — and often very little of that. The topping might have been no more than a drizzle of olive oil with some sliced garlic, a little salt and pepper, and maybe a few crushed leaves of basil and slices of tomato from the garden, along with a curl or two of hard cheese or a generous pinch of mozzarella. As it happens, this simple recipe makes a terrific pizza. And it suggests how to adapt other recipes for the trail.

Consider your goals. In reconstructing my homemade pizza, I set out to retain the robust flavor and the toothsome texture. All else was irrelevant. Crust and topping were critical, however. An insubstantial or weak crust wouldn't support the topping, and any topping that was too juicy and heavy would overwhelm the crust. It was a question of balance. So I began by compiling a list of alternatives to my homemade crust:

  • Pita or pocket bread
  • Fresh flatbread (make in camp)
  • Flour tortilla
  • Ready-made crust (Boboli is one well-known brand)
  • Prepared dough (store-bought or homemade)
  • Dry dough mix (add water in camp)

And followed up by listing possible toppings:

  • Olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt, pepper
  • Tomato sauce
  • Pesto
  • Tomatoes (diced or sliced, fresh or dried)
  • Peppers, onions, mushrooms (diced or sliced, fresh or dried)
  • Cheese (grated, sliced, or cubed)

Then I mixed and matched. You can, too. But be careful to avoid overloading the crust. Use just enough oil or topping for flavor. More is not necessarily better. And be sure to tailor your recipe to your trip. On weekend outings it's no big deal to carry fresh ingredients and dough in a plastic bag. Once in camp, cut the dough into individual pieces, pull it into shape, and add the topping. On longer trips, however, a ready-made crust, a tortilla, or a dry dough mix makes more sense, as do dried toppings and hard cheese.

OK. You've built your pizza. Now you're ready to cook! And, no, you don't need an oven. I described my method in some detail in an earlier article, but here's the executive summary: Just bake your pizza in a covered skillet over your cookstove or the campfire coals. (Preheat the skillet first.) When the crust has browned and the cheese has melted — and any other toppings are hot — your pizza is ready. It won't take long. A ready-made crust or tortilla with a simple olive oil and garlic topping will be done in a couple of minutes. Fresh dough topped with cheese takes longer, but not by much. Figure on five minutes, tops. Homemade was never easier.

Moving On

Once I'd mastered the art of turning out a homemade pizza in camp, I was ready to take the next step — adapting other comfort foods for the backcountry. Experimentation was the order of the day. Not everything that I tried worked out as I planned, but that didn't matter. I got to eat my mistakes. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. You won't have to, though. Not unless you want to, that is. In future Test Kitchen articles, I'll show you exactly what I did and how I did it. The rest is up to you.

Part of the fun of paddling is leaving our everyday world behind. Some of it, anyway — after all, who among us likes missing meals? Still, between the HyperMart and specialty suppliers of freeze-dried dishes, no paddler need ever go hungry. Then again, sooner or later most of us crave meals we just can't find on the shelves. Is it really impossible to enjoy home cooking on the trail? I used to think so, but now I've changed my mind. Thanks to some pleasant days in my kitchen, I'm well on my way to bringing real home cooking right down to the river's edge. And you can, too. Trust me. It's alimentary!

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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