Alimentary, My Dear
BagelsFrom the Deli to Your Belly
By Tamia Nelson
June 17, 2008
Bread is rightly named the “staff of life.” For one thing, it’s loaded with complex carbohydrates. That’s just what you need to keep your engine turning over. But all breads are not created equal. Some are too fragile for paddling—croissants, for instance. They’re wonderfully airy and buttery, but they wouldn’t last five minutes in a food pack. Italian loaves and French baguettes are a bit more durable. They can weather short trips in style, but they won’t fare well on longer excursions. The upshot? When planning paddling menus, I look for robust breads that will survive hard knocks. Artisan loaves, ryes, and dark breads like pumpernickel all fit the bill. Irish soda bread is a survivor, too, as are some kinds of Scottish buns. And tortillas will last a long time if care is taken to keep them flat and well-wrapped. But there’s a dark horse in the backcountry stakes. It’s that emblem of cosmopolitan urbanity: the bagel
Like so much else, my fondness for bagels has its roots in my childhood. When I spent weekends with my grandparents in New Jersey, our Sunday morning routine included a stop at the local bakery, and bagels were among the aromatic treats we carried home. It was all I could do not to tear open the white paper bag immediately and start eating then and there. (This never happened, I hasten to add. My grandmother did not approve of eating on the street, and my grandmother was a formidable woman, a model of quiet authority.) On one memorable occasion the baker invited us to step behind the counter, and I saw how bagels were made. The yeast dough was shaped into plump rings and set aside to rise, after which the doughy Os were tipped into a cauldron of vigorously boiling water. Here they rolled and bobbed for a short time before being fished out, placed on large sheets, and slid into the gaping maw of an enormous oven, where they baked till they were golden brown. Much later in life I learned that this marked them as “New York” bagels. “Montréal” bagels are brushed with an egg or sugar-water wash before baking. Some are even made from an eggy dough. My grandparents preferred New York bagels till their dying days, but for my part I like them all.
What’s that? You don’t have a local bakery? Well, neither do I. Now. But all is not lost. You can find bagels in the freezer section of the nearest HyperMart, though the best still come from a baker or an old-fashioned deli. A full-sized bagel is nearly the diameter of a saucer (and a couple of inches thick), while mini-bagels are about the size of a squashed plum—or a teething ring. In fact, moms sometimes give mini-bagels to their babies. Bagels taste better than plastic, I guess.
And just what makes a good bagel good? It has a dense, chewy core (“crumb” in the jargon of the trade), and either a crispy or a chewy crust, depending on the style. New York bagels have a crispy crust; Montréal bagels are chewy. Whatever their origins, though, bagels are first-rate travelers. They cope well with crushing and jostling. Just stack them in a freezer bag, expel the air, and seal. They’ll last as long as a week in your pack. They also hold up well under hearty toppings and sandwich spreads. Durable, filling, tasty, and versatile—there’s no doubt that this is a winning combination.
Is all this talk about food making you hungry? Me, too. So let’s look at what’s on the menu:
A Matter of Taste
Plain bagels have an understated yeasty flavor. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It won’t compete with robust accompaniments, or dominate subtle ones. Want something more assertive? Piece of cake. You can ring the changes. Onion, garlic, coarse Kosher salt, poppy seed, sesame seed, hot peppers… Then, for the truly indecisive, there’s the “everything” bagel, with a little bit of, well, everything. Most bagels are made from white flour, but you can get whole wheat bagels, too, not to mention pumpernickel. And for paddlers with a sweet tooth, there are cinnamon-raisin, blueberry, and chocolate bagels. The choice is yours.
Have you decided on your favorite? Great! And if you’re anything like me you’ve picked several. One of the best things about bagels is that they’re perfect with every meal. Most of us have toasted a split bagel and then slathered it with butter or cream cheese. But that’s just the start. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy bagels. Need a for-instance? Easy. Begin with
Bagels lend themselves to open-faced sandwiches. Split a bagel in half lengthwise and garnish each half. Cream cheese is the most familiar spread, I suppose, and it’s popular for a good reason. Its mild flavor makes it a good base for other ingredients. (Of course, it’s important to keep soft cheeses cool and safe when you’re in the backcountry. You don’t want to court a digestive upset.) To spice up your bagel, try mixing fresh chopped herbs like chives, mint, oregano, or thyme with the cream cheese. Or blend in chopped green onions (scallions) and roasted garlic—or chopped chilies, jalapeños, olives, or pickles (dill or sweet). Buy prepared pesto (basil or sun-dried tomato, say) and stir it into cream cheese. Or purée bottled roast peppers (drain them first) with the cream cheese. Pâté, bacon bits (real or soy), deviled ham, tuna, smoked salmon…all these can be blended into the cream cheese if you hanker for meat.
Do you prefer sweet things to savory? Then mix your cream cheese with chopped fresh or dried fruit like cherries, grapes, or even mashed bananas. Or blend cream cheese with chunky marmalade, jam, or preserves. Want something livelier, something with a bit of a bite? Stir chopped, candied ginger into the cheese.
Or maybe you’re looking for an alternative to cream cheese. If so, give goat cheese a try, or even Limburger. There’ll be few takers here, I’ll bet, but I’m a Limburger fan, particularly when the strong-flavored cheese is mixed with smoked meat, horseradish, garlic, or onions. If you’re tempted by this litany, one thing’s for sure: you’ll soon find out who your real friends are. All things considered, blue cheese may be a safer bet. It has a wider following. Spread it on bagel halves and eat as-is, or mix it with chopped walnuts and dried apricots or other fruit. A word of warning is in order here, however: If you take strong-flavored cheeses into bear country—and most of Canoe Country is bear country—be sure to pack it in an air-tight container. Otherwise, you just might have unexpected guests for dinner. Bears have very good noses, and they like cheese.
Does the prospect of a bear as a dinner guest put you off cheese? Then consider spreading straight pesto on your bagels. Buy it at the HyperMart or prepare your own. I make it with fresh spinach, walnuts, olive oil, Romano cheese, and a dash of salt and pepper. (It’s difficult to renounce cheese entirely, even in pesto, whether it’s home-made or commercial. But at least the cheese is a subordinate ingredient in pesto. A bear may have other ideas, however. That air-tight contain still makes sense.) A boldly flavored alternative to pesto is tapenade, an olive spread that you can find in the “international foods” section of many HyperMarts and in some ethnic markets.
More? Well, hummus is a favorite filling for pita breads, but it’s great on bagel halves, too. It’s available ready-to-eat, or you can make your own at home. Blend it with pesto for a fusion twist. Or stir in some curry powder and top the hummus with raisins and chopped almonds. Chopped chipotle chilies are good, too, and mashed beans flavored with herbs and spices also make a tasty spread. Try crushing black beans with chopped garlic, cumin, cinnamon, and oregano. Or mash cannellini beans with pesto and garnish with pine nuts.
Are you in the mood for something less exotic, perhaps? Then try peanut butter, or one of the many other nut butters. For a new take on the familiar PBJ, mix chopped nuts, raisins, dried fruit, or marmalade with the nut butter. Others may find chopped chives or green onions more to their taste. Experiment. Chocolate chips and honey are also worth trying.
Closed-face bagel sandwiches, anyone? Nothing could be simpler. Anything you like as a bagel topping or sandwich filling can be used to turn a split bagel into a sandwich that you can eat out of your hand. For day trips, make your sandwiches at home and bring them along. This is backcountry meal preparation at its simplest, but be sure to keep your bagel sandwiches cool if they contain cheese or any other perishable ingredients.
You might also want to…
Make Bagel Chips
You can buy these ready-to-eat, but they’re not hard to make at home. Then you can tailor them to your own particular tastes. Maybe you like them thick—crunchy on the outside but chewy in the middle. No problem. Or thin and crunchy through and through? Go for it. Or do you prefer little chips to large rings? Just do it!
The basic idea is straightforward. Using a serrated knife, cut bagels into thin slices—transverse rounds or longitudinal rings, the choice is yours—and toast them in the oven till they’re as crispy as you like them: thin slices (one eighth of an inch, say) will toast all the way through; thicker slices (one quarter of an inch or more) will have a chewy core. Then flavor your rounds and rings with a sprinkling of herbs, spices, or other toppings. Add olive oil to make them even tastier. Once you’ve prepared as many as you think you can eat, bag them and put them in your pack. You’re good to go. On the trail, eat the chips as a snack. Or make a meal of them by using them to scoop up dip or fondue. Small, coin-shaped rounds also make delicious croutons in backcountry salads and soups, or crumble them over pasta dishes for a bit of crunch.
Feel like experimenting? How about garlic parmesan bagel chips? Slice a garlic or onion bagel, then place the slices in a single layer on a lightly oiled baking sheet (use two sheets if you need to). Next, blend olive oil, minced garlic, and grated parmesan cheese in a bowl. Now drizzle the flavored oil over one side of your bagel slices. Sprinkle with coarse salt, ground pepper, and dried oregano. Finally, bake in a preheated 375-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 10 minutes, or until the chips are lightly browned. (Warning! Don’t leave them in the oven too long or the topping will burn.) Cool the chips thoroughly before packing up. They’ll become crispier as they cool.
Not a garlic fan? Then brush the exposed sides of your slices with melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Bake as before until fragrant and golden brown, then cool thoroughly. These are delicious eaten with hot stove-top apple crisp.
Once again, experimentation is the order of the day. Try your favorite barbecue sauce. Or use either home-made or commercial za’atar for a Middle Eastern treat. What’s za’atar? It’s a potent blend of thyme or savory (a mint-like herb), sumac, salt, and sesame seed. It’s said to improve brain power and increase energy, and while I can’t vouch for this myself, I can say one thing without reservation: it sure tastes good! Serve za’atar bagel chips with a bowl of chili and stand back.
OK. Sandwiches and chips are terrific, but there are times you really need hot food. And for times like these, there’s nothing like a…
Bagel “melts” are very popular, and there’s no reason not to have them in camp. Heat a bagel sandwich in a reflector oven, on the coals (wrapped in a jacket of aluminum foil), or on your stove top. Pizza bagels are a favorite of mine, and the method for making them can be used for all melts. Slice bagels in half as if making an open-faced sandwich. (Garlic or onion bagels are good choices here.) Cover the cut sides of the bagels with the pizza toppings of your choice. Then place the bagels in a preheated, lightly oiled, cast-iron skillet—or on a square of aluminum foil, either on a grill over coals or on a reflector oven shelf. If using aluminum foil over the coals, make sure the foil is large enough to form a tent over the top of the bagels. Do not push the foil onto the toppings. The same caution applies to the lid of your skillet. (And be sure to carry out any waste foil. Don’t try to burn it in your fireplace.) Now heat your bagels over a gentle flame or coals, or bake in the reflector oven until the toppings are hot and the cheese has melted. That’s all there is to it. Backcountry pizza bagels. Enjoy!
Sometimes, however, less is more. When time presses, try the simplest hot treat of all. Just toast bagels over coals (or in a hot, oiled pan). To toast over the fire, cut bagels in half and then spear the halves on a forked stick or on a pair of kebab skewers. Hold over the coals or place on a grill so the cut sides are facing the heat. (If using a skillet, place the cut sides of the bagel face down in the hot pan.) Toast till done, then spread with butter substitute, nut butter, or honey sprinkled with cinnamon. I can’t think of many better ways to start the day—after I’ve had my coffee, that is.
Bagels and breakfast. It’s a natural combination. Like bagels and lunch. Or bagels and dinner. Or…
Bagels are hardy, hearty, and delicious. Eaten as-is out of hand, sliced in half for sandwiches, toasted and slathered with your favorite spread, baked into crisps, or made into melts… However you eat them, bagels are tailor-made to fill the empty corners in your belly. What more could any hungry paddler want?
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