Alimentary, My Dear
Frozen Assets: An Unlikely Source of Camping Fare
By Tamia Nelson
February 18, 2014
After three days on a little river that was forever winding its way between steep, wooded hills, my friend Roxy and I were rewarded by a broad vista of open water just ahead. But our rapture was somewhat modified when we saw the whitecaps on the lake. We'd been out of the Old Woman's reach when we were on the river, but now we'd have no protection from her wrath. And sure enough, for the next few hours we paddled for all we were worth, pausing only to bail whenever the water sloshing around in the bilge of our canoe threatened to roll us over.
Happily, our luck held, and at long last we found shelter on a public beach in the lee of a sandy spit. Another hour would bring us to the campsite where my Jeep was parked, but we were both too exhausted to continue. We needed a break before we'd be ready to push on. And we needed something for dinner. Our pantry was nearly bare. We still had one can of beef stew, but we were tired of mushy tinned stuff. We wanted something we could get our teeth into. We wanted vegetables — firm, fresh‑tasting vegetables. So while Roxy stayed behind to keep an eye on our boat and gear, I laced up my boots and hiked into the nearby hamlet, hoping to find a store.
Luck still hadn't deserted us. There was a general store in the little town, and it sold more than the usual tourist fodder of hot dogs, beer, and Cheetos, though there wasn't much in the way of fresh vegetables. I did find a head of iceberg lettuce and an onion, however. And when I saw the freezer, with its treasure trove of frozen peas, mixed vegetables, and french fries, I didn't hesitate. I grabbed a waxed carton of peas — bagged vegetables were still a rarity outside big‑city supermarkets in those days — and headed for the cash register, stopping just long enough to pluck a half‑dozen eggs from an adjacent cooler.
By the time I'd retraced my steps to our landing place on the beach, Roxy was rested and ready to go. And wonder of wonders, the Old Woman had moved on. The whitecaps had subsided into ripples. So there wasn't a minute to be lost. Into the boat we went, and in less than an hour my Jeep came into view. Now it was time to make supper. I sautéed chopped onion in a skillet with melted butter, then added the by now partially thawed peas, and when these were hot, I scrambled two eggs in the same pan. (I saved the four remaining eggs for breakfast.) We ate right out of the skillet, wrapping our egg‑and‑pea "omelets" in leaves torn from the head of iceberg lettuce. With hunger as our sauce, it was the most successful meal of the trip.
I learned a lesson that day, too:
Frozen Vegetables Do Have a Place in Paddlers' Menus
This lesson is no less apt 30‑odd years later. After all, many little rivers in the Great North Woods still wind their way from small town to small town, recapitulating their earlier role as arteries of commerce and highways into a (then) sparsely populated hinterland. And while the mom‑and‑pop grocery stores that could once be found in every crossroads hamlet are mostly gone — transformed into art galleries and holistic health clinics, or knocked down to make way for "visitor centers" — their place has been taken by convenience stores. Touring cyclists regularly shop for their supper in these modern equivalents of the old ser‑sta‑gros, of course, but there's no reason why paddlers can't do so, too, since convenience stores are frequently sited near the bridges that carry state highways over small rivers. The explanation for this phenomenon escapes me, by the way. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that river crossings are often located well away from town centers, where the convenience stores' constant in‑and‑out traffic won't detract from the Mayberry ambiance that's so important to the success of Main Street real estate sales offices and soft ice cream stands, now the mainstays of the rural economy in much of North America.
In any case, a convenience store is a good place for any waterway rambler or amphibious paddler to replenish her larder. And the store's freezer is one of the first places to look. Why is this? Well, it's not because current bushes are sprouting up in riverside campsites. I've yet to find one that would accept the plug of a portable cooler, and I've been looking for a long time. But it's a fact that fresh vegetables are notable by their absence in many convenience stores, with the possible exception of small bags of onions and potatoes.
Frozen vegetables can fill the gap in your meal plan, however. All it takes is a lightweight soft cooler, or, failing that, a wodge of paper bags or layered copies of the local freesheet (typical headline: "Centenarian Enjoys Fruit"). Any of these will keep a few packs of frozen peas or mixed vegetables in good shape for your evening meal — or even the next day's dinner, come to that. And the vegetables can be much more than side dishes or adjuncts to soups and stews. With a little imagination on your part, they can become the main dish itself. You won't even have to wait for them to thaw. The hours they spend in your pack will take care of that.
Now let's take a look at some of the alternatives, beginning with …
Peas Porridge, Please
Peas are sweet to the taste, and their cheery electric green is just what's needed to brighten up the evening meal after a drizzly gray day on the river. Consider the possibilities…
Minty Pea Soup. Sauté a chopped onion in butter (real or ersatz) or oil. When the onion has softened, empty a bag of peas into the pot and stir. Add a teaspoon or two of dried spearmint or peppermint and season with salt and pepper. Now add water — or, better still, vegetable or chicken broth — until the peas are fully immersed. Bring to a boil, throttle back to a simmer, and cover the pot, leaving the lid ajar. When the peas have cooked through, mash enough of them with the back of a spoon to give the dish a little body. The soup is then ready as is, but you can make it even better by stirring in some milk (cow or coconut) or cream.
Not in the mood for soup? Then try …
Peas and Pasta. Sauté a chopped onion in the fat of your choice. Add sliced mushrooms if you have them. When the onion begins to soften, stir in the peas and let them heat through. Now spoon the peas and onions into a bowl and keep them warm while you boil pasta in the same pot you used for the peas, being sure to gauge the amount of water to the quantity of pasta. (An earlier column describes how.) Once the pasta is ready, drain all but a cup of water from the pot and remove from the heat, then ladle the peas and onions back in. Stir grated Parmesan into the remaining hot water to make a quick‑and‑easy cheese sauce. Season to taste. That's it. You're done.
Peas not your thing? Then why not …
A‑Maize Your Buddies With a Corn Chow‑Down?
Skillet Corn and Beans. You'll need canned or shelf‑stable precooked beans. I think black beans are best, but use whatever you like. Empty the beans into a skillet along with the contents of a bag of frozen corn and a can (or pack) of Mexican‑flavored chopped tomatoes. Stir. Simmer. Dinner's ready when the mélange is hot and bubbly. Top with grated cheese and fold into tortillas, or convey the hearty glop from pot to mouth with corn chips. (Can you use a pot instead of a skillet? Sure you can.)
Too spicy? How about …
Corn Couscous? Bring water or broth to a boil, then add instant couscous and corn to the pot. (Be sure to use enough liquid. Some will be taken up by the corn, in addition to that absorbed by the couscous.) Stir, and when the liquid is once again on the boil, cover the pot and remove it from the heat. Let it sit for five minutes or so, until all the liquid has been soaked up. Now fluff the couscous with a fork. Season with salt and pepper, along with a generous squeeze of lime or lemon juice (fresh or reconstituted). Serve.
Are you ready to mix it up? If so, you'll want …
Old‑Fashioned Mixed Vegetables
This is the classic mix of diced carrots, peas, corn, and cut green beans. It's perfect for …
Easy Pot Pie. Melt a pat of butter or heat a film of oil in a pot over a moderate flame. Chop an onion (if you have one) and sauté for a minute or two. If you don't have an onion, simply heat the oil and then dump in the mixed vegetables. Add some dried herbs (sage, thyme, or rosemary) and — if you wish — a can (or pack) of chicken or meat. Now add a can of soup, either cream of mushroom or potato, and heat until the liquid bubbles. Cover the pot and remove it from the flame, setting it in a warm place while you make skillet biscuits. Then dish up, placing a biscuit on top of each serving.
Not in the mood for pot pie? Then let's talk soup again, specifically …
Vegetable Chowder. Sauté a chopped onion in fat (or oil). When the onion is soft, empty a bag or box of mixed vegetables into the pot. Now add a can of cream of potato soup, rinsing the emptied can with a little water or milk. Season with a dash of dried thyme and bring to a simmer. Serve when hot, and if time permits, make some bannock or flatbread to mop up the last drops.
Lastly, there are the …
Potatoes, lima beans, and green beans — these can often be found in the freezers of rural convenience stores. And they offer the imaginative cook many choices, including …
Fried Potato and Egg Wrap. Heat oil in a skillet and add frozen cubed (hash brown) potatoes. Cover the skillet, lower the flame, and shake the pan occasionally to prevent burning. When the potatoes are slightly crispy around the edges, push them aside and crack eggs into the hot oil (add more oil if needed, giving it time to heat). Fry the eggs, remove the skillet from the flame, and add salt and pepper. Serve on tortillas or bread, topping the eggs with the fried potatoes.
Then again, maybe you wax nostalgic over "ham and mothers." (Stranger things have happened, I suppose.) If so, you can easily make …
Ham and Lima Beans. Despite their unhappy associations — Charlie rats were never haute cuisine, after all — this is a delicious dish. And a riverside camp makes for more convivial dining than a forward observation post. To renew acquaintances with an old adversary on more favorable terms, therefore, sauté a chopped onion and some chopped ham (or SPAM, if the nostalgia bug is really biting hard), before emptying a package of frozen lima beans into the pot and adding enough water or broth to keep things fluid. Heat to boiling and simmer for a few minutes, then season. Trust me: These aren't the ham and mothers of old.
On the other hand, if the remembrance of things past has put you off lima beans for life, try …
Green Beans and Gnocchi. Shelf‑stable gnocchi is available in the pasta section of most HyperMarts these days. It makes a good base for quick meals. The toothsome little Italian dumplings stick to your ribs, and they couldn't be simpler to prepare. Just boil them like pasta. Then, when they float to the top, empty a package of frozen green beans into the pot with the gnocchi and heat over a medium flame. Once the beans have softened, drain most of the liquid (but not all of it!) and remove the pot from the stove or fire. Drizzle some olive oil over the dish, season with salt and pepper, and serve with grated cheese.
Enough of this. You can take it from here, I'm sure. The small‑town general store may be a thing of the past, but today's convenience stores are good for more than gassing up the family cars. They also give passing paddlers a welcome opportunity to replenish their larders — even without the help of a handy current bush.
Not every paddling trip is a wilderness expedition. Some fascinating routes wind through settled country, and every time the river runs beneath a bridge, there's a good possibility you'll find a convenience store nearby. So don't let the chance to pick up a pack or two of frozen vegetables drift away. They may not be traditional camping fare, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take advantage of this opportunity to vary your menu. After all, why shouldn't you make a meal of these frozen assets now and again?
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- Alimentary, My Dear (This topical collection has well over 100 columns that will be of interest to anyone who has to travel on her stomach.)
And from my own website:
- "Convenience Stores and the Hungry Cyclotourist" (Don't be put off by the title. These modern ser‑sta‑gros make good reprovisioning depots for paddlers, too.)
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