Alimentary, My Dear
Diet for a Small
PlanetBoat— Eating Well in the Backcountry Without Meat or Milk
By Tamia Nelson
June 16, 2009
When I was a kid, camping meant eating lots of meat. We had bacon or sausage for breakfast, bologna or ham sandwiches for lunch, and SPAM®, hamburgers, or hot dogs for supper. Mom believed that no meal was complete without meat, and she also believed that growing kids needed plenty of milk and eggs. She wasn't alone in thinking this way, of course. My friends' Moms all clung to the same beliefs.
But times have changed. Tastes have changed, too. And there's a growing consensus that our planet can't feed an expected nine billion-plus people on a diet of meat and milk and eggs. Don't get me wrong. I'm not exactly a convert. I'm not yet ready to go the whole hog, so to speak. But my diet has evolved over the years. I eat a lot less meat than I used to, for one thing. As my circle of friends and acquaintances has expanded, so has my knowledge of culinary traditions. Readers of this column have helped. In fact, it was a letter from a reader that got me thinking about the challenge of preparing meatless, eggless, and dairyless meals for the backcountry. At first glance, it doesn't seem like this would be particularly hard to do. Just…
Eat What You Eat At Home
And it works. Up to a point. Packing for a day trip is a cinch. Overnighters and weekend getaways pose few difficulties, too. Bring what you'd eat at home, but figure on larger portions—paddling builds big appetites—and be sure to keep any perishable foods cold. Soft coolers make this possible.
The problems begin when a trip stretches on into the third day. Freeze-dried or dehydrated fruits and vegetables can pinch-hit for fresh. So far, so good. You can even dry your own, and why stop there? Soups and sauces are candidates for home drying, too. Or you can go shopping. The local HyperMart is a good first stop. Just graze the aisles, menu in hand, paying close attention to the fine print on the packages. Lists of ingredients and "How to Prepare" instructions can be very revealing. (Microwave ovens are rare in the backcountry.) Food co-ops and ethnic markets broaden the range of choice even more. And don't neglect online sources of supply. Outfitters are now offering an ever-expanding range of meatless, dairy-free dehydrated and freeze-dried meals.
But what about specific meal options? Well, let's begin at the beginning—with breakfast. Hot or cold cereal (oatmeal and granola are favorites) is an obvious choice. Instant soy milk powder stands in for powdered cow's milk. Want something more? Dairy-free breadstuffs like bagels, flatbread, bannock, and journey cakes will fill out any odd corners, particularly when topped with jam or jelly, nut butter, or marmalade. And pancakes? What about pancakes? Well, why not? Make them from scratch or use a non-dairy mix and serve with maple syrup. There's no better breakfast for a rest day in camp.
Of course, breakfast is only a curtain-raiser. Lunch is the next act in the day's culinary drama. And it may be the easiest meal of all to plan for and prepare. It's probably best viewed as a moveable feast, a never-ending snack that spans the interval between breakfast and dinner. Handfuls of nuts and dried fruit are always welcome, as are bread and crackers, and on cold days a mug of instant dried soup goes down a treat. Make it with water heated on your stove or storm kettle.
OK. It's dinnertime. This is the main meal of the day, and it's at the other end of the fuss-and-bother scale: if breakfast and lunch are pop singles, dinner is a classical symphony, an intricate integration of complex elements. That's how it often seems, at any rate. So I've put together…
A Simple Supper Sampler…
In the hopes of making things easier. Some considerations don't change. Carbs are king, whatever the time of day. When you're the engine, you have to keep fuel in your tank. But dinner ought to be a well-rounded meal, too. And it's usually a social occasion, a time to kick back and relive the highlights of the day—and look forward to the day to come. It's a meal you'll want to linger over, in other words. Here are a few suggestions, beginning with a dinner for your first night out:
Tofu and Veggies with Rice Tofu is simply soybean curd. It's a staple in many meatless menus, and there's no reason not to take it camping. Dehydrated and freeze-dried tofu can be found in many ethnic markets, not to mention the virtual market stalls of online retailers. But fresh tofu is no trouble to pack for your first supper in camp. I buy "extra-firm" tofu, and I carry it in a rigid, airtight container. A selection of fresh vegetables comes along in a second container. To save time, I cut the tofu into bite-sized cubes and slice the veggies in my kitchen at home.
If you're using a single-burner stove, steam the rice first—I use white basmati—then set it to one side, swathing it in a towel or wool shirt to keep it warm. If you're cooking over a wood fire, however, you can multi-task, letting the rice steam at the fire's edge while you prepare the stir-fried veggies and tofu over the flames. Begin by heating a small amount of canola or corn oil in a skillet. As soon as the oil is warm, toss in the cubed tofu, letting it brown while you stir it with a spoon. (Fresh tofu is very moist. That's OK.) Once every cube is fully seared, spoon the tofu into a bowl or plate and get on with the rest of the meal, sautéing sliced onions and fresh broccoli florets in the (now-covered) skillet until they begin to soften, then adding good-sized chunks of red and green bell pepper. Next, when the peppers are almost done, add some edible-pod peas, a couple of tablespoons of both flax and sesame seeds, and a goodly handful of whole cashews. (Warning: Don't let the veggies burn! At the first hint of charring, move the skillet to a cooler region of the fire or turn down the flame on your stove. Add a little water if you have to.) Then, when the veggies are ready, ladle the cooked tofu back into the skillet, finishing the dish off with a dash of soy sauce and a couple of tablespoons of either marmalade or plum sauce. Serve over the steamed rice. A lot of effort? Yes. But it's worth it.
Of course, if carbs are king, then pasta wears the crown. So here's a…
Creamy Cashew Pasta What's that? You think "creamy" means dairy? No way! This pasta is as creamy as it gets, but it's dairy-free. Honest.
Bring salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. I used linguini here. You can use whatever you fancy, however. Now drain the pasta, but keep about a cup of cooking water in the pot. Next, stir in cashew butter—half a cup to each pound of pasta. Buy it ready-made or make it yourself. The result is a creamy sauce. Eat as is, or season with ground black pepper, bruised dried sage, or a dash of tamari sauce. Add more texture with a garnish of crumbled crackers or whole nuts. Or lend a hint of smokiness with bacon-flavored soy crunchies and call it pasta carbonara. Bread is always a welcome accompaniment. Looking for variations on the theme? Try peanut or almond butter instead of cashew butter. Need help on portion sizes? Figure on a pound of dry pasta for three or four hungry paddlers.
Then again, maybe you have some fresh tofu left over after your first-night supper. If so, you've got tomorrow's supper in the bag, so to speak. It's a…
Tofu Scramble You can also use dehydrated or freeze-dried tofu, but you'll have to reconstitute it first. Begin by crumbling your fresh—or freshly reconstituted—tofu. (A reminder: Don't worry if it seems very moist.) Now sauté chopped onion, diced bell peppers, and a finely chopped potato or two in a covered skillet over a medium-high flame. (Grease the skillet with a film of canola or corn oil first.) When the vegetables have cooked through, stir in the crumbled tofu and keep the skillet on the heat until the moisture has steamed away. Season with salt and ground pepper, dried thyme, and rosemary.
Serve with bread. On longer trips, use reconstituted dried veggies instead of fresh. Vary the flavor by using chili powder rather than dried thyme and rosemary. Or use chopped chilies if you like things hot, then roll your spicy scramble into large tortillas, adding salsa and guacamole.
Tofu is versatile stuff, to be sure, but too much of a good thing isn't always wonderful. Do you miss traditional campfire fare? Is it possible that you're hankering for…
Sloppy Joes? Problem solved! Texturized vegetable protein (aka TVP, a registered trademark that's well on its way to becoming a generic label for soy-based meat substitute) comes to the rescue.
To make enough for four typical paddlers, heat oil in a skillet over a medium-high flame (or moderate fire) and sauté an onion, a stalk of celery, and a bell pepper, all of them chopped fine. If you're using dehydrated diced vegetables, however, forget about the oil. Instead, put a quarter cup of each veggie into the skillet (or a pot), cover with water, and simmer till softened. Now season the veggies (whether fresh or dried) with salt, ground pepper, and dried oregano. Then add a large handful of TVP granules, a couple of tablespoons of barbecue sauce or ketchup, and a 14- or 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes or tomato sauce. Alternatively, use a retort pack of diced tomatoes, or rehydrate enough dried, powdered tomato to make about one and one-half cups of tomato sauce. Finally, stir the tomatoes into the skillet or pot and simmer until the TVP is softened and the sauce is thick. Serve over split rolls or thick slabs of hearty bread—and garnish with fresh lettuce if you're lucky enough to have any.
Not tired of tofu yet? Then you can substitute crumbled, extra-firm tofu for the TVP. Simply sauté the tofu with the veggies and proceed with the rest of the recipe as written.
Now it's time to take a walk on the wild side, in the company of exotic-sounding quinoa, an ancient Andean seed crop.
Quinoa Pilaf The name may be unfamiliar, but you can use quinoa in the same ways you'd use rice, and pilaf made with red quinoa is as delicious as it is attractive.
You'll need two cups of liquid for each cup of quinoa, an amount that's just about enough to feed four paddlers. You can add whatever vegetables, fruits, and nuts you like, of course, but I made the pilaf in the photo with diced dried onions, dried cranberries, and pepitas (pumpkin seeds), first toasting the seeds in an oiled pot until they were fragrant. (Careful! It's easy to burn seeds.) Then I stirred in the quinoa and toasted it for about half a minute, before adding generous handfuls of diced onions and dried cranberries, along with a tablespoon of powdered vegetable broth. Now there was only one thing left to do: add two cups of water and bring the mix to a boil, then crank down the flame, cover the pot, and simmer till all the liquid had been taken up. Simple and good.
What's that? You're not in the mood to experiment? Fair enough. Substitute rice for quinoa and make…
Risotto I've had good luck with sushi and arborio rice, but any short-grained rice ought to work.
It couldn't be easier. Follow the directions for preparing quinoa but substitute rice. The risotto is done when it has a creamy texture. If the rice boils dry before it's cooked through, however, just add a little water to the pot. Pretty straightforward, eh?
Or how about…
Skillet Rigatoni? This is pasta made simple. The good news? You only need one pot.
Place a layer of rigatoni in a skillet or pot and pour a can or retort pack of tomato sauce over it, adding just enough water to "wet the pasta's head." Now cover and simmer till the rigatoni is al dente. That's it. Spice it up with fresh or dehydrated veggies and herbs—I use onions, oregano, and basil—or even a dash of vodka if that tickles your palate. Just be sure to keep an eye on the pasta so it doesn't boil dry. Add water if the sauce becomes too thick before the rigatoni has cooked through.
How about it? Are you ready to give tofu a final curtain call? Then why not try a…
Rice and Tofu Wrap? Cook up some rice. Brown some crumbled tofu. Stir curry powder into the tofu as you're cooking it, or use another seasoning, if you like. Next, mix rice and tofu together and wrap in a tortilla.
Got greens? Then add 'em. Escarole is good, as is radicchio. I make rice and tofu wraps ahead of time and pack the rolled sandwiches in foil to eat in the boat later. It's fast food for fast water, but it can also be the centerpiece of a leisurely supper.
Speaking of wraps, it's time. But I'm going to risk one more rhetorical question before I go: Where would penny-pinching paddlers be without…
It's minimalist cooking, admittedly, but it's a favorite among campers who'd rather eat than play chef.
Heat up some ramen, then toss in a handful of your favorite dehydrated veggies, increasing the amount of cooking water accordingly. Or use fresh vegetables if you have them. Flavor with soy, tamari, or plum sauce, and garnish with peanuts or other nuts. Dinner will be ready in record time.
Want more ideas? Then read "Where's the Beef," making substitutions wherever necessary to get the dairy out. In no time at all you'll have meals for a week or more, and there'll be something different on your plate every night.
Despite growing health and environmental concerns, meat and milk are still mainstays of the Western diet. Of course, not all paddlers are content to go with the flow. Some prefer to eat lower on the food chain, eliminating meat, eggs, and dairy products from their menus. If that sounds good to you—and maybe even if it doesn't—you'll want to try some of the ideas in this article. But that's just the beginning. Experiment. Explore. And when you discover a recipe you're particularly fond of, let us know so we can share it. After all, paddlers love to eat, and even if our boats can't get much smaller, the planet's not getting any bigger, is it? So don't look at meatless and dairyless meal planning as an exercise in self-denial. Call it making the most of what we've got. Savory economy, in other words. That's alimentary, right?
Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.