Alimentary, My Dear
By Tamia Nelson
April 19, 2011
If you've been following my "Alimentary" series for very long, you'll know that I'm fond of pasta. In fact, I wouldn't think of leaving home without it. It's perfect paddling fare, suited to trips of any length, from weekend adventures to season‑long expeditions. Pasta has everything I look for in a backcountry staple. It's a snap to prepare, incredibly versatile, and an ideal source of easy‑to‑assimilate carbohydrates. It's also tasty and filling. And it travels well. So it's no surprise that pasta has a permanent place on my backcountry menu.
But I'm not content to let matters rest there. I'm always on the lookout for new ways to use pasta, and, sure enough, on a recent visit to the local HyperMart I happened on a product that seemed tailor‑made for paddlers:
Tortellini to Go
If you've ever eaten in a good Italian restaurant — or better yet, been invited to share a meal prepared by an accomplished cook with a fondness for Mediterranean cuisine — you may well have been treated to handmade tortellini or tortelloni. These little packets of pasta‑wrapped cheese and other good things resemble ravioli. Unlike ravioli, though, each is made from a single square of dough, folded back on itself. The resulting twists and crannies trap small amounts of sauce or broth, ensuring that every mouthful is a blend of flavors and textures. And what's the difference between tortellini and tortelloni? Tortellini are smaller. That's all. Preparation, saucing, and cooking times are identical. So what I say about tortellini in the paragraphs that follow also goes for tortelloni.
Now for the bad news. Freshly made tortellini is wonderful stuff, but it's not practical on any trip longer than an overnighter. Dry tortellini is something else, however, and on a recent voyage down the waterless canals at the local HyperMart I spied a brand that was new to me: CoraBella. Of course, shelf‑stable tortellini has been around a good while, though it has to be said that some of the early versions were pretty off‑putting, with adamantine fillings and flavors that (happily) defied description. Then, a couple of years back, I stumbled on Barilla tortellini. It was pretty good, but it was also a tad pricey. Suitable for the occasional treat, perhaps, if a little too dear to become a menu mainstay. But the CoraBella was on sale at USD1.50 a package. This was too good a deal to turn down, so I grabbed a package in each of three flavors: Ricotta & Spinach, Four Cheese, and "Tricolor" Four Cheese. The copywriters had done their work well. The last‑named flavor in particular pricked my curiosity, and I lost no time in opening the package when I got back to base. Here's what it looked like (the unopened packages are on the left):
Green, white, and red. The colors of il Tricolore, the national flag of Italy. Clever, clever copywriters! But back to business. The original packages are made of sturdy stuff, more than equal to the rough and tumble of life in a pack. That said, for all but the longest trips I prefer to decant dry staples into heavy‑duty ziplock bags, and this is what I did:
As you can see, dry tortellini packs well, cramming a fair number of calories into a small space. It takes a lot of hammering to pound it to powder, too — and adjusting portion sizes is a breeze. Had the package instructions been complicated or difficult to remember, I'd have cut them out and placed them in the bag, but (as you will see) preparation is as straightforward as can be. And that brings us to the critical test:
Will Dry Tortellini Cut It in a Camp Kitchen?
The executive summary: You bet. Now for the details. First off, while some pastas cook up in as little as 2–3 minutes, tortellini requires 10–15 minutes on the boil. It's not a dish for days when time is of the essence (or your last fuel bottle is running dry). But if you've got a few minutes to spare and plenty of fuel, it's a winner. Even man cooks can manage it. (Lest you think I'm drawing invidious distinctions here, note that plenty of women embrace "man cooking," at least on the trail. I often do myself.) Caveats? Just one: If your stove is hard to throttle down, you'll have to keep your eye on the pot to prevent boil‑overs and sticking. This is only a minor nuisance, however. It isn't mission impossible.
What's the secret to success? Use enough water. Some pastas do fine with only their heads covered, so to speak, but tortellini isn't one of these. It needs a proper drench. I put the dry tortellini into a big pot (mine holds three quarts), and cover it to a depth of 2–3 inches. Then, once the pot's on the boil, I moderate the flame so as to maintain a gentle, rolling bubble, topping up the water as needed to prevent sticking. The tortellini is ready when the individual twists are tender to the tooth. Now pour off any excess water and you're good to go. Pretty simple, eh? But pasta purists will frown on my approach, preferring to bring a very large pot of water to a boil before tipping in the tortellini, then draining the excess water off as soon as the pasta has cooked through. I think this is just too much trouble in camp, however, not to mention too profligate of fuel. (I don't fancy hauling a 6‑quart pot around, either.)
OK. How much is enough? Assuming that you'll be adding a hearty sauce — and maybe some sort of breadstuff, as well — I'd start out with one 8‑ounce package of dry tortellini for every two paddlers. And speaking of sauce …
How Do You Dress Your Tortellini?
Well, this can be as simple as drizzling a little olive oil over the cooked pasta and adding some grated Parmesan cheese. Or you can go the whole hog. Here's one example: "Tricolor" Four Cheese with chopped green onions (scallions), fresh mushrooms, and black olives, plus a retort pack of crushed tomatoes, some fresh spinach, and a healthy drizzle of olive oil.
It's not bad, if I say so myself. The tortellini is toothsome and the cheese filling delicately flavored, without being overly salty. Best of all, the intricate folds in each little twist of pasta trap a smidgen of dressing, ensuring that every mouthful has its full share of flavor. Of course, you can't keep scallions or mushrooms fresh for very long after you leave the put‑in behind, but a soft cooler opens up a whole range of possibilities for overnighters and weekend getaways, while ready‑made sauces in aseptic pouches are heavy but convenient alternatives for longer trips. Expeditions? Dried sauce mixes come into their own here.
A few ideas to get you started:
Tortellini With Walnut Sauce Stir chopped walnuts and garlic (heads of garlic travel very well) into piping‑hot tortellini, then dress with a drizzle of walnut oil. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and serve with grated cheese.
Tomato‑Olive Tortellini Add dried tomatoes to the tortellini as it boils. (Add a little extra water as well, just to be on the safe side.) When the pasta is tender, drain off the excess water. Then stir in some pitted, oil‑packed Kalamata olives (you'll find them in the deli section of the HyperMart), olive oil, and grated Romano.
Pesto Tortellini You'll need a packet of dried pesto sauce mix for this one. Make the sauce according to package instructions and ladle it over freshly cooked tortellini. Stir. Now garnish with chopped walnuts or pine nuts, ground pepper, and Parmesan.
Tuna Tortellini Stir the contents (meat and juice) of a can or pouch of tuna into hot tortellini. Add olive oil, chopped garlic, and dried rosemary.
Chicken Alfredo Tortellini While the tortellini cooks, make an alfredo sauce from a packet of dried mix, then stir it into the drained, tender pasta along with the meat and juice from a can of cooked chicken.
Tortellini and Beans Mix beans from a can or a shelf‑stable pouch into freshly cooked tortellini. (The choice of bean is up to you.) Then dress the dish with olive oil and chopped garlic, along with rosemary or another favorite dried herb.
Tortellini With Meat Sauce Cook ground beef, ground turkey, or crumbled Italian sausage and drain the fat. (Fresh ground meat can be kept safely only on short, cooler‑supported trips, but many sausages keep well for a week or more without refrigeration. Check before buying.) Stir the cooked meat into the hot tortellini and add either chopped fresh tomatoes or crushed tomatoes from a can or retort pack. Dress with dried oregano and grated cheese.
This is just a sample, of course. You'll have many more ideas of your own, I'm sure. And while you're thinking about the possibilities, don't overlook another option:
Adding Tortellini to Soup
It's not really much of a stretch. Lots of soups incorporate pasta or its close relatives, right? (Think chicken noodle or the inexpensive ramen soups beloved by college students and campers.) And there's no better way to enliven dried soup mixes. Just toss in a handful or two of tortellini along with the soup powder and simmer till the pasta is tender. You'll need to add extra water to the pot, of course. It's best to experiment at home first, but you won't go too far wrong if you start by adding 1 cup more water than called for in the directions on the soup packet. You can always add more as it simmers. Use whatever soup appeals to you — vegetable, tomato, bean, onion — even chicken noodle. I think I'd draw the line at ramen, though.
Tortellini can be also be used with canned soup, if you're paddling where canned foods are still permitted, and you don't mind the extra weight. You'll want to add more water, though. Let your eye be your guide. (Or test the proportions in your home kitchen before leaving.) Just stir in the dry tortellini and maintain a gentle, rolling boil till the pasta is cooked through, adding more water as needed to maintain a brothy consistency.
Once again, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. I've added tortellini to many canned soups, including beef barley, "Italian wedding" (actually minestra maritata, a modern take on an old meat and vegetable "marriage"), bean and bacon, and tomato. Eaten with a hunk of bread or a large handful of crackers, they're all good ways to ward off the chill of the evening and fortify yourself against the demands of a hard day to come. Buon appetito!
It's no secret that pasta is a natural for paddling menus. What's not to like? It's energy‑dense, filling, versatile, and delicious. Plus it travels well. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that pasta is one of my favorite foods, both at home and on the trail. But I'm always on the lookout for something new, and my search was rewarded recently when I rediscovered dry tortellini, little packets of cheese and other good things, all wrapped up in twists of pasta. Call it "pasta plus," if you like. Whatever you call it, though, be sure to try it. I'm betting it will earn a permanent place on your backcountry menu. And that's alimentary.
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