Alimentary, My Dear
Where’s the Beef?
Building Meatless Backcountry Menus
By Tamia Nelson
August 19, 2008
Where’s the beef? Bringing home the bacon. A chicken in every pot… Do these sound familiar? I’ll bet they do. Meat occupies a privileged place on Western tables. And like most North Americans of my generation, I was raised on the stuff. It was the centerpiece of almost every family meal. Sausage or bacon (or both) at breakfast. Bologna sandwiches for lunch. Hamburger or chicken or pork at dinnertime. There was only one problem: I had a lot of brothers and sisters, and sometimes there wasn’t quite enough meat to go around. That said, I didn’t often do without. Thanks to an opportune combination of assertiveness and guile, I usually managed to get my share—sometimes, to be honest, a little more than my share. But later, as an adult, with the Darwinian struggle around the crowded family dinner table already fading into memory, I realized that less is sometimes more. In short, I learned that you could make a meal without meat. Better yet, many meatless dishes were delicious, satisfying, and easy to prepare.
My gustatory epiphany took place high in the North Cascades, during a month-long mountaineering jaunt. The job of duty cook rotated through our climbing party, and one evening the cook for the day made a curried stew. As luck would have it, I’d never eaten curry before. No matter. I was an instant convert, entranced by the exotic aroma, subtle sweetness, and spicy warmth. It was both mouth-wateringly good and let-your-belt-out-a-notch filling, a perfect meal at the end of a hard slog and the start of a cold alpine night. Yet the curry contained no meat, only chopped dried vegetables, raisins, dried apples, rice, and spices. Who’d have thought this possible? Not I, at any rate. It was the beginning of the postgraduate phase of my culinary education, a course of study that continues till this very day. Mind you, I still love meat. But now it plays a supporting role in my meals. It’s no longer the star.
I’m no trend-setter here, of course. Dr. Atkins notwithstanding, a lot of folks are cutting back on the meat they eat. For some it’s a response to rising prices. For many others, it’s a question of health. And for a small but growing minority, it’s a matter of conscience. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: for quite a few paddlers, meat is no longer a must-have item on the menu. So it’s not surprising that in the decade I’ve been writing “Alimentary, My Dear,” I’ve gotten many letters asking for help…
Planning Meatless Meals
It’s not hard to do. Day trips and overnighters are a piece of cake. Weekends? No problem. But what about week-long trips and expeditions? Now we’re talking Planning with a capital “P.” The hard part isn’t finding delicious meatless dishes, but in adapting those dishes to the limitations of the portable pantry. On overnighters you can pretty much carry whatever you like to eat at home—only your appetite, ambition, and skill limit the menu. Bring fresh vegetables if you wish. Or pack a commercial take-out if that floats your boat. Or make your own take-aways in your kitchen before your departure. The only caveat? Be sure you take steps to keep prepared foods fresh underway. Nothing spoils a trip faster than a troubled tum. And what about weekend excursions? You’re still on pretty easy ground here, though the challenge of keeping foods safe grows with every hour you travel away from the put-in. By the time the third day of a trip dawns, your menu will have been whittled down to shelf-stable staples, dehydrated and freeze-dried foods, and meals put up in cans or aseptic packages.
Happily, breakfasts pose few challenges to the meatless meal-planner, no matter how long the trip. Hot and cold cereals like oatmeal and granola are part of most folks’ everyday diets, as are breadstuffs like bagels and pancakes. Add dried fruit (chopped into cereal or stewed), meatless break-the-fast sandwiches, nut butters, jams and preserves, and you’ve pretty much got breakfast licked. (Tea or coffee? Yes, please!) Lunches aren’t much harder, though uncompromising carnivores will probably miss their sausages. Meatless sandwiches (open-faced or closed), crackers, and chocolate are just the beginning, leaving a wealth of choices from vegetable soup to nuts. So lunch, too, is in the bag.
That leaves dinner. If your wallet can stand the strain, many of the companies which make freeze-dried “camping” meals offer meatless alternatives, and some of these are dairy-free, into the bargain. (This will matter most to vegans, who eschew milk and other foods obtained from animals, in addition to foregoing meat.) But what if the cost is too high, or you don’t find any of the offerings to your taste? You’re in luck! Today, even rural supermarkets stock boxed meatless entrées, and the variety increases with every passing year. Rice, pasta, potato, bean, and couscous dishes are commonplace, and some of these are also made without dairy products. One cautionary note: Not everything on the shelves is what it seems. Bring your glasses when you go shopping. You’ll want to read the fine print. And don’t forget to check out any local food co-ops or ethnic markets. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Still not satisfied? Me neither. Most boxed entrées can use a little help. My usual tack is to enhance them with dried herbs and spices, chopped nuts and dried fruit. Want more protein? You can get it by adding cheese, “texturized vegetable protein” (aka TVP), dried or canned beans, or freeze-dried tofu. (Commercial tofu is a sort of soy-milk cheese, though it can be made from black beans, as well. Freeze-dried tofu, or Koyadofu, can be found in Japanese markets.) Anglers have another alternative: fresh fish.
And don’t forget that there’s more to dinner than the entrée. A glass of wine is often welcome, as are bread or crackers, and (to hear Farwell tell it, anyway) no evening meal is complete without dessert, or at least a steaming mug of hot cocoa. With this in your belly, you’re sure to sleep warm and well.
Sound good? Or are you even more ambitious? Great! Then you may be drawn to the idea of…
DIY Meal Kits
Take the couscous salad shown on the right, for instance. Simmer a medley of dehydrated veggies in a vegetable broth till they soften up. (Use vegetarian bouillon cubes to make the broth.) Then stir in a generous helping of couscous. Cover. Wait a few minutes. That’s it. Dinner’s ready—though you might also want to chop in some fresh red onion and radishes as a garnish. If you have them, that is. I did. Either way, it’s a delicious and filling dish. Best of all, though, it’s dead easy.
And where can you find the ingredients for your own “kits”? In the same places you buy prepared boxed meals: your local HyperMart, a food co-op, or a neighborhood ethnic market. (An online search will turn up sources for hard-to-find speciality items like powdered dairy-free sauce mixes, dried tofu, dehydrated beans, and shelf-stable dairy substitutes.) You can even dry your own vegetables and fruits, not to mention soups and sauces. It doesn’t get much more DIY than that!
Need inspiration? Look to the world’s great vegetarian traditions. You’ll find plenty to choose from. Asian rice, Mesoamerican corn and beans, the falafel and couscous of the Middle East and North Africa… And don’t be afraid to experiment. Mix and match at will. There’s only one hard-and-fast rule—try out new dishes at home first. (It’s a hard job, but someone’s gotta do it.) Now here are a few ideas to get you started:
Pissaladière Think of pissaladière as French pizza. For the crust, use tortillas, flatbread (homemade or store-bought or baked right in camp), pita bread, or a prepared pizza shell like Boboli. Reconstitute dried sliced bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms in boiling water. (Drink the broth when the veggies are reconstituted. Waste not, want not. Right?) These are your toppings, along with strips of sun-dried tomato (dry or packed in oil—use the oil for flavoring the pizza) and chopped or dried garlic. Season to taste with dried thyme, salt, and pepper. Add anchovies if you want, or do as I do and crumble goat cheese over your pissaladière. Bake according to the directions in “Home-Cooked Meals in Camp.” Variations on the theme? Sure. Dress the crust with pesto, as in the picture—this crust is made from a whole wheat tortilla—or spread with tapenade (an olive, caper, and anchovy paste) before garnishing.
Let-Alone Lentil Tortillas I described these in an earlier article, “The Middle Way.” You can stick with the original recipe’s Tex-Mex theme, or give it an Eastern flavor with curry powder and green curry sauce. No? Then how about a sojourn on the Continent? Add herbes de Provence (dried thyme, bay leaf, marjoram, basil, rosemary, and sometimes lavender), and eat with breadsticks, bannock, or flatbread, instead of tortillas.
Meatless Shepherd’s Pie Cook the vegetable or bean-based stew of your choice. While it’s heating, reconstitute instant potato flakes. Keep the potatoes warm while the stew simmers. Then, once the stew is hot and bubbling, top with mashed potatoes and serve.
Potato and Pea Curry in Pita Place dehydrated cubed or sliced potatoes, dehydrated or freeze-dried peas, dehydrated onion, and the curry powder of your choice in water or vegetable broth. Cook until the vegetables are tender, then spoon into pita halves and garnish with sweet chutney.
Golden Fragrant Rice Steam basmati or jasmine rice in water or vegetable broth. Stir in curry powder (hot or mild), some turmeric, a pinch of saffron threads, and some dried chives or scallions. When the rice is tender, add a squeeze of lemon juice (either fresh or from a plastic lemon), a drizzle of honey or other sweetener, chopped candied ginger, a small handful of dried cherries, and a similar quantity of chopped mixed nuts. (Almonds, pistachios, and cashews are especially good.)
Caraway Cabbage and Noodles Add dehydrated chopped cabbage and dehydrated onions to pasta or noodles as they cook. When the pasta is tender, drain off the cooking water, leaving only enough to make it saucy. Now stir in caraway seeds, salt, pepper, and olive oil (or another butter substitute) to taste. Serve with crushed crackers or chopped walnuts. Boost the flavor further by sprinkling the dish with imitation bacon bits.
Meatless Burgers Two of my favorites are black-bean burgers and portobello burgers. Be warned, however: I’ve never managed to cook black-bean burgers over an open grill. (They crumble.) I use a skillet, instead, and I begin by reconstituting dehydrated black beans. You can also cook dried beans in camp or use drained canned black beans. No matter how you prepare them, though, the beans should be relatively dry. Mash them, add dehydrated onions, dried ground cumin, and chili powder, then bind them together with bread crumbs. Next, moisten your hands with water and form the beans into three-inch patties with a minimum of handling. Now fry in a film of hot olive oil until one side is crispy (about three minutes), then turn them using a spatula or two spoons. Warning! Extra-virgin olive oil has a comparatively low smoke point. Be careful. Sauté the other side for another two to three minutes. Serve on toasted rolls or in pita halves. Garnish with salsa, sun-dried tomatoes in oil, or a drizzle of plain yogurt. (Want to know what a bean burger looks like? See the picture on the left, below.)
For portobello burgers, use large, patty-sized mushroom caps, the thicker the better. These can be grilled over an open flame, but I prefer to use a covered skillet so they remain juicy. Heat some olive oil and sauté the mushrooms gill-side down. After about three minutes, turn the mushrooms, sprinkle the gills with a bit of coarse salt, and cover again to finish cooking. When the caps are heated through, they’re ready to serve on split buns or in pita halves. A hint: Keep the caps gill-side up to retain the flavorful juices. And I like to press the cut sides of the rolls into the skillet to toast them. You may also want to cook the mushrooms with crushed whole garlic cloves for more flavor. Put the cloves into the gills after turning the caps. Generous dollops of goat cheese placed on the gills and allowed to heat and soften add a further tangy note. The photo on the right shows you the result. Burgers don’t get any better than this!