Alimentary, My Dear
Rasta—A New Riff on an Old Favorite!
By Tamia Nelson
August 18, 2009
If you're like me, you'll be ready to tuck into a good meal after you've been pushing water around all day, and there's nothing better than a high-carb dish to refill a paddler's empty tank. So how about rice pilaf? Or maybe pasta? Or better yet, have both—at the same time. That's the basis for some of the most popular prepackaged main dishes on the HyperMart shelves. Rice-A-Roni is probably the best-known brand, but similar rice-and-pasta combos are sold under other names, too. Their popularity is easy to understand. They make convenient one-pot (or one-skillet) dinners, and the flavor isn't bad, either. Still, the ones I've eaten are a little on the salty side for my taste. That's why I've been testing homemade alternatives, and I think I've hit on a winner. Here's…
The Master Recipe
But first things first. It needs a name. OK. Combine rice and pasta, and what do you have? Rasta, of course. That's R as in "rice," and asta as in "pasta." And it's as easy to make as it is to spell. Just toast long-grain rice and pasta in hot oil in a skillet or pot, add stock or water, and then simmer 15 minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the rasta is tender. That's all there is to it.
I told you it was easy, didn't I? Want to give it a try? Great! Here's what you'll need to feed two hungry paddlers (the recipe can be doubled if there are four of you, or if you're very hungry):
- ¾ cup long-grain white rice
- ¾ cup angel hair or vermicelli (about one-quarter pound)
- 2 tablespoons corn, canola, or olive oil
- 2 cups water
- 1-2 tablespoons soup powder
Now let's walk through the preparation of the meal, beginning…
In Your Kitchen Most camp meals begin at home, and rasta is no exception. Choose whatever long-grain white rice you prefer. Basmati is my choice. Short-grained white rice works, too, but the resulting dish will have a rather glutinous consistency, sticky instead of fluffy. If you like sticky rice, that's good. But I don't, at least not with pasta. Brown rice is also a no-no. Unless it's been precooked (parboiled or "converted"), it will take two or three times longer to prepare. By the time the rice is ready, the pasta will be limp and soggy. And in any case, you don't want to spend the whole evening in camp hovering over a stove (or fire), do you? Me neither.
A word about pasta wouldn't go amiss here, I think. Very thin pastas like angel hair and vermicelli cook to perfection in the same amount of time as it takes to boil long-grained white rice. Thicker pastas—spaghetti or linguini, say—take longer. Since you probably don't want crunchy pasta or soggy rice, you'll likely be happiest with vermicelli or angel hair. Just remember to break it into shorter lengths before packing. This is easiest if you gather a fistful of strands together into a bundle, then snap off successive two-inch lengths. It's a little like breaking kindling to size. A hint: To avoid having to chase stray strands of pasta around the kitchen floor, work over a large bowl.
Once you've broken your pasta down to size, combine measured amounts of rice and pasta in heavy-duty plastic storage bags. (Zip-closure freezer bags are ideal.) Then measure your soup powder into one or more separate bags. Vegetable, chicken, and beef soup mixes all make good stock bases, as do many ramen "flavor packets." Your oil should travel in a small, leak-proof container. Slip this inside yet another plastic bag, in case "leak-proof" turns out to be a misnomer.
Now you're ready to go to work…
In Camp Heat the oil in a three-quart pot or 10-inch skillet. When the oil is hot, add the rice and pasta. Then stir frequently until most of the pasta has browned. You want to toast the dry ingredients, not burn them! (Toasting imparts a pleasing, nutty flavor.) Here's how the rice and pasta will look when they're ready:
The pasta in the photo has browned nicely, while the rice has become opaque and chalky. Now sprinkle soup powder over the rasta and add water, in the amount called for in the Master Recipe. Be careful! The water will steam and sputter vigorously when it hits the hot oil. Keep your hands and face out of harm's way.
Stir well before covering the pot or skillet and throttling back your stove (or moving the pot to the edge of the fire). Then simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If all the broth has been absorbed before the pasta and rice are done, add a little more water to prevent sticking. Keep a close eye on the pot. Overcooking never improves pasta, and your meal will be ready almost before you know it.
So much for the basics. Now let's look at a few…
Variations on the Theme
Are you cooking for four? For eight? Or more? No problem. Just scale up the quantities of ingredients in the Master Recipe—and be sure to bring a larger pot. Want to spice things up? Good idea. Herbs and spices improve almost any dish. Sage evokes memories of family Thanksgivings. Thyme and parsley add a breath of French air. Curry powder heats things up. Or try garlic, cracked black pepper, and lemon zest. The possibilities are almost endless. Experiment.
Perhaps you crave a protein fix. Are the fish biting? A pot of rasta will make a welcome harbor for any catch that a backcountry angler doesn't release. Just fillet your fish, cut the fillets up into small, bite-sized bits while the rice and pasta toast, and then add them to the pot before simmering. When the rasta is ready, the fish should also be done. And what if the fish aren't cooperating? Simply open a retort pack or can of tuna and stir the contents into cooked rasta, pop the pot back on the fire for a minute, and serve. (A hint to camp cooks with large spice kits: Tarragon goes well with almost any fish.)
Or are you a meat-and-potatoes type? If so, give meat and rasta a try. Ordinary dried beef works well, as does your favorite freeze-dried meat. Or crumble jerky into the toasted rice and pasta. Whatever you decide on, though, be sure to add a little extra water before simmering. You'll also find plenty of precooked meats to choose from in your local HyperMart, in both cans and retort packs. These can be added to your rasta at any point. And there's always SPAM.
Then again, maybe you prefer meatless meals. Here, too, you'll have plenty of choice. Just add your favorite vegetables and fruits to the rasta. Or TVP. Or seeds and nuts. (A reminder: Freeze-dried or dehydrated fruits and vegetables also require added water, ranging from a smidgen to a splash. Do a test run at home before heading to the put-in.) My hands-down favorite rasta is a vegetarian medley combining onions, dried cranberries, and pepitas (aka pumpkin seeds). Sauté chopped, fresh onions with the rice and pasta, then stir in a small handful of dried cranberries and a few tablespoons of pepitas before adding water or broth. Now simmer. When the pasta and rice have cooked to toothsome perfection, add fresh or dried chives. Here's what the dish looks like before the final stir:
Yes, it really does taste as good as it looks. Honest. I call it rasta. You can call it anything you want. Whatever name it goes by, however, it's a meal to satisfy any hungry paddler. And isn't that what matters?
Don't get me wrong. Most prepackaged meals aren't bad, but they aren't homemade, either. With homemade, you're in control. You decide on the seasoning and the portion size. You even control the cost. Rice and pasta are a case in point. They're natural partners, and I've been experimenting with DIY counterparts to this long-running HyperMart staple for quite a while. Now I've hit pay dirt. The result? Rasta, a rice-and-pasta dish that ticks all the right boxes. So why not give it a try? I'm betting you'll like this new riff on an old favorite as much as I do. And that's alimentary.
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