Alimentary, My Dear
The Man‑Cooking Way
By Tamia Nelson
September 15, 2009
I got one of my first cooking lessons from my uncle. He asked if I'd like to learn how to make spaghetti, and when I said yes — as he knew I would — he had me follow him to the kitchen. Once there, he dumped some macaroni from a box into a small pot of boiling water, stirred it occasionally for eight minutes or so, and then poured off the excess water. Next, he emptied a can of condensed tomato soup over the cooked noodles and returned the pot to the stove, where it simmered just long enough to bring the soup to a gentle bubble. That's when he turned to me. "See?" he said. "Spaghetti! Now gimme your bowl…"
I was 10 years old. And the steaming spaghetti tasted great. Cooking, I concluded, really wasn't as hard as my mother made it out to be.
Time passes. I'd forgotten all about this early lesson until recently, when In the Same Boat reader Bob Angel got in touch. He'd been working his way through the archives, and one of my early columns ("Food for Thought") moved him to describe his signature style of cooking. Here's what he had to say:
[C‑rations] are the ultimate in what I call Man Cooking. That's anything that takes longer to eat than to prepare! Period.
Short and to the point, eh? And all the better for that. Just like "Man Cooking." My uncle's spaghetti fit the definition. It was unpretentious food — food that filled his belly without filling his day. But it had to be good food, too. Not great food. Good food. Good enough so he didn't get tired of it. My uncle ate his own spaghetti for lunch at least twice a week. It was definitely "good enough."
Of course, Man Cooking is also made to order for paddlers and backcountry travelers of both sexes. It's just right for all those times when you don't want to make a meal out of making a meal. At the end of a long, hard portage, say. Or when a big storm threatens to break, and you just want to hunker down. Or cold, wet days, when getting hot food into your stomach ASAP is Job One. Or warm midsummer evenings when the trout are rising, and you'd rather be fishing than tending a fire. Or anytime when your camera or sketchpad beckons. There's a bonus, too. Man Cooking is easy on fuel. If wood is scarce or your stove is running on fumes, Man Cooking can save the day. Which isn't to say that there won't be times when you'll be happy to spend a couple of hours preparing a meal. There will be. But it's always nice to have a choice.
I've written about fast food for the backcountry before. Still, it's a big subject, and Bob's letter gave me all the excuse I needed to take another look. Here's what I learned about…
Preparing Meals the Man‑Cooking Way
A few ground rules first: A man‑cooked meal is a success if it takes longer to eat than it does to prepare, right? But some paddlers — Farwell comes to mind here — can bolt down a four‑course dinner in less time than it took me to write this sentence. He used to eat breakfast standing up in the kitchen while waiting for his tea to steep, and I've known him to go for days without a single sit‑down lunch. No camp cook can beat that time, and few would want to try. So I'm going to assume that your meals will be eaten slowly enough to allow you to taste the food, and maybe even exchange a few words with your buddies. This means the cook will get at least 15–20 minutes to make a meal without violating the conditions laid down in the Man‑Cooking Handbook. I'm also going to assume that you're not a complete stranger to the culinary arts: that you can make tea and coffee, heat up a pot of soup or stew, and fry an egg. Lastly, I won't count the time it takes you to unpack the food bag, lay out your camp kitchen, or clean up afterwards. These chores take experienced camp cooks only a few minutes at most, though novices can keep them going for hours. Despite its lack of pretension, Man Cooking isn't for neophytes. It requires a modest standard of practiced efficiency. Is this fair? I think so. Every game has to have rules, after all.
OK. Let's begin at the beginning, with…
Breakfast This is an easy meal to throw together in a hurry. Boil water for tea or brew a pot of coffee and use the extra to make a bowl of instant oatmeal or other hot cereal, like instant Cream of Wheat. Or maybe you prefer cold cereal. Me, too. Sometimes. Granola hits the spot for me, at least when it's served with non‑fat dry milk. (Warning! Be sure the water you use to mix it up is treated first.) Add some fruit (dried, fresh, or canned) and you're done. Perhaps you lean to the other extreme, though, and you fancy a proper cooked breakfast. Can do! Just heat up a few slices of shelf‑stable precooked bacon and fry or scramble an egg or two. Or heat a slice of SPAM and make a sandwich with hearty bread, toasted or not. Whatever your choice, breakfast is served. In a flash.
Now, with that taken care of, it's time to turn our attention to…
Lunch This can be an extended snack that begins right after breakfast and ends just before dinner, in which case it's enough to graze on high‑energy foods that can be eaten out of hand. For formal lunch stops, you can ring the changes with sandwiches, crackers, cheese, cured meats, and fruit. And if you want to take the time to boil water, instant soups are a quick pick‑me‑up that's entirely compatible with the dictates of Man Cooking. Tea and coffee have their place here, too. They'll help you keep stroking till…
Day's end. You beach your boat. You're tired and hungry, and if it's been a long day or if it's late in the year, night is closing in fast. This is where Man Cooking stands or falls. Breakfast was a breeze and lunch was a snap, but…
Dinner Is a Challenge
Of course, you can always tip a can of stew or soup into the pot and warm it up. That takes no more than a few minutes. Or you can heat up a ready‑made prepackaged meal, like those in Knorr's Bistro line. It's the easy way out, and there's nothing wrong with it. But you can do better. How about skillet pasta, made with angel hair and a retort pack of crushed tomatoes? That shouldn't take more than 15 minutes. Or give "Quick‑as‑a‑Flash Couscous," "Instant Rice and Beans," "No‑Sweat Noodles," or "Take‑Away Tortillas" a try. All of these are Man‑Cooking eligible, and each is described in "The Joy of Not Cooking."
Want more options? No problem. Give this a whirl:
Oriental Noodles and Peanuty Broth Start with ramen from the HyperMart, but ignore the suggested servings. You'll need one package for each hungry paddler. Plus peanuts, peanut butter, and any vegetables that tickle your fancy. A packet of soy sauce or duck sauce won't go amiss, either. Boil the amount of water called for on the package. (Hint: If you're using dehydrated or freeze‑dried veggies, put them in the water before you put the pot on the fire. Add a little extra water, too.) Then, once the pot is boiling, add the noodles and cook. This usually takes less than three minutes. Now remove the pot from your stove or take it off the fire and stir in the flavor packets from the ramen, adding one heaping tablespoon of peanut butter for each serving. The resulting soup will be thick and creamy. The final touch? Season the dish with the packets of soy sauce or duck sauce (or both), before stirring in sliced, fresh vegetables — if you have them, that is — and garnishing with a handful of peanuts. Serve.
Here's what it looks like. The base was "creamy chicken broth ramen," to which I added peas and corn, topping it off with sliced red bell pepper as well as peanuts:
Or how about a quick casserole? A contradiction in terms? Not at all. Consider…
Creamy Tuna Noodle Casserole Pick up a packet of noodles and sauce. I used Knorr's Pasta Sides Alfredo. One package should feed two paddlers, though if you're famished you may want to double the ration. You'll also need a small can of tuna — or chicken, if you prefer — and whatever vegetables you can lay your hands on. (The instructions on the Knorr's package call for milk. I substituted water, but I could have used reconstituted dried milk if I'd felt ambitious.) Toss in any dehydrated veggies you like and bring the water to a boil. When the pot is steaming, add the noodles and sauce. Stir. Then reduce the heat or move to a cooler part of the fire and simmer till the noodles are cooked through. This should take no more than five to seven minutes. Finally, just before you remove the pot from the heat, stir in the tuna or chicken. Enjoy as is or sprinkle something crunchy on top. Crushed crackers are good. Tuna‑noodle casserole has never been so easy!
Meat pie, anyone? Coming right up!
Chicken and Potato Pie This bears a nodding resemblance to shepherd's pie, but you won't need an oven, and you'll be using chicken rather than beef or lamb. Any instant potato mix should work fine. I used Idahoan Baby Red. You'll also need an eight‑ounce can of chicken as well as a few fresh baby carrots and a pinch of dried thyme. That's enough for two reasonably hungry paddlers. Bring the amount of water called for on the potato package to a boil. If adding veggies and herbs, put them in the water before you put the pot on the flame. (Be sure to add extra water if the veggies are dehydrated, and slice fresh carrots nice and thin to speed cooking.) Once the water comes to a boil, add the canned chicken and its juices, wait a minute or two for the liquid to resume boiling, and then remove from the heat. It's time to add the instant potato mix, stirring gently. Don't be too vigorous — you want the chicken to stay on the bottom. Now cover the pot and keep it warm for five minutes before removing the lid and sprinkling the potato topping with grated cheddar cheese and ground black pepper. Serve. Want a crunchy garnish? Try garlic croutons.
And here, last but certainly not least, is my personal favorite:
Skillet Pizza This can be assembled with fresh dough from the HyperMart, but it's easiest to make with ready‑made crusts such as Boboli. I've described the technique in "Pizza to Go?" and you can find photos of the procedure in "Perfect Personal Pan Pizza." The executive summary? Heat oil in a heavy skillet (I much prefer cast iron) before sliding the pizza crust into the pan. Cover. Warm the crust for about a minute, then turn it over and warm the other side. (Fresh dough will need more preparation. See my earlier article for details.) Now slide the crust onto a plate, smear a bit of sauce over the top, sprinkle with some grated cheese, season with spices and herbs, and return the assembled pizza to the hot skillet. Cover immediately and leave for about five minutes while the toppings warm and the cheese melts. Delicious!
A word to the wise: Each pizza will serve only one hungry paddler, so you'll need several skillets and stoves (or a large fire) if you're cooking for more than two people. Or you can try setting up an assembly line of pizza crusts. An assistant cook is all but essential if you go this route. In any case, be prepared to work fast.
Are you hungry? Silly question. What paddler isn't? I've yet to meet one. Both hungry and in a hurry? Then Man Cooking is the answer to your prayers. Give it a try.
There are plenty of times when it's fun to make a meal out of making a meal. But there are also times when you just want something to eat — and you want it as fast as possible. That's where Man Cooking comes to the rescue. If a meal takes less time to prepare than it does to eat, it qualifies. Simple and good and quick. Those are the touchstones of Man Cooking. Don't let the name deceive you, however. Women can do it, too. In fact, we can probably do it better. But I suppose that's alimentary, isn't it?
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