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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Of Tortillas, Salamanders, and Pie Irons —
Still More Ways to Make Pizza in Camp

By Tamia Nelson Minipizza, Anyone?

May 20, 2014

For the past 30‑odd years, Friday night has been pizza night chez Tamia. The tradition — and that's what it is, I suppose — got started during my stones‑and‑bones years. It always involved a certain ceremony, marking as it did a happy return to home comforts after a workweek spent digging holes in the ground, sleeping on musty motel mattresses, and subsisting (barely) on microwaveable meals and Cup‑a‑Soup.

Well, I no longer sift dirt for a living, but Friday night is still pizza night at my place, even when that place is a backcountry campsite. Which will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column, who've endured quite a few pizza paeans over the years, each of them reporting a small step in my progress toward perfecting the art of running an alfresco pizzeria. (Any readers who haven't yet had a chance to test their mettle in this way are invited to explore the links to be found at the bottom of the page.)

Of course, I wouldn't have kept writing about pizza if readers didn't encourage me to continue. My In‑Box is my substitute for a focus group, and two recentish articles elicited a particularly robust response. One concerned the making of minipizzas using English muffins. The other was a more general piece on pizza as a breakfast dish. Each generated so much mail that I figured I was duty‑bound to pass along what I'd learned. And that's exactly what I'm going to do now, beginning with an idea that combines two of my favorite things:

Pizza Quesadillas

These are the brainchild of Lynn Vanderheyden, who discovered that tortillas make excellent foundations for pizza‑building. But why not let her tell her story in her own words?

Pizza has always been a favorite of my paddling companions while in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Bulk, weight, and freshness are all issues that we need to overcome, but most important is how to satisfy the appetites of hungry adults and teenage boys.

Pizza quesadillas have been my answer to this problem. Burrito-sized flour tortillas pack well and fit the appetite quite satisfactorily. I use store-bought packaged pizza sauce (Boboli brand) which is sold in clear plastic packs intended for a large pizza. One pack can make four quesadillas. If I have a larger group, a plastic bottle of store-bought pizza sauce works well. Pepperoni slices don't need refrigeration and can be purchased in different sizes to satisfy your group's needs. A small fresh onion can be chopped for veggie additives, and I bring along dried green peppers to rehydrate as my group desires. Add a vacuum-packed chunk of mozzarella to be shredded on site. This will keep well if the bag is not opened until immediately before use. Other dried seasonings — oregano, garlic, Parmesan — can be added if desired.

The method is easy:

  1. Spread two tablespoons of sauce over half the tortilla.

  2. Arrange approximately 15 pepperoni slices in a single layer on top of the sauce.

  3. Add vegetables and seasoning as desired.

  4. Top with approximately two ounces of shredded mozzarella cheese and fold the unadorned tortilla half over the top to make a half-circle.

  5. Place the halved tortilla on a Teflon griddle or large skillet (sauce side down and cheese side up) and cook over medium heat.

  6. Turn over when the bottom starts to turn a light gold color. Now the cheese side is closer to the heat, so watch it carefully for melting and spillage.

  7. Remove from heat when both sides are slightly golden brown. I can fit four on a griddle or two in a large frying pan. (Hint: It's easier to flip halved tortillas than a pizza made in a circle topped with another tortilla.)

  8. Cut each pizza quesadilla into pie-shaped pieces to share, or, alternatively, eat it whole. Be careful, though. It's delicious, but it's hot!

I find that, depending upon the appetite, one or two tortillas have been enough for an adult.

We save this easy, lightweight meal for later in the week after we have had some of our freeze-dried meals. The gooey, hot pizza with a thin flour tortilla crust really hits the spot. We don't even feel a need to go out for pizza at the end of our week-plus canoe adventure!


After rounding off the week like that, I don't think I'd need to go out for pizza, either. In fact, I've been a fan of quesadillas for some time now, and I imagine I'll be giving pizza quesadillas a try very soon — like next Friday, say. But as the following letter from Mary Davis shows, we haven't exhausted the tortilla theme yet. Mary has …

Another Take on Tortilla Pizzas

Did you think that convergent evolution was confined to the realm of biology? Then Mary's letter will make you think again:

We used to make English muffin pizzas in the toaster oven when I was a kid back before the Jurassic. My camp favorite, though, is very similar but with a different crust: flour tortillas. The crust is thinner, but doesn't require oil. Another good thing about the tortillas is that they come in a variety of sizes from about four inches up to 10 inches.

I like to make mine rather like the fast-food Taco Bell pizzas. Toast one side on the cast-iron skillet (really quick), then turn it over and add your toppings. Put another same-size tortilla on top of it and heat a few minutes. No need for a skillet lid. After the bottom of the tortilla is done — pretty quick, again — flip it over and let the former top tortilla brown. To hasten cooking of the filling, gently press down on the top tortilla. Remove from the heat, and there you have it.

In addition to the veggies and cheese, small cans of chunk chicken, ham, or even bacon bits can be added to the topping (filling?). I've found that pepperoni — one of my staples for camp pizza — travels well in a cooler with Blue Ice, those sealed plastic packs which keep things drier than actual ice.

My tortilla pizza is really a sort of giant pizza-flavored quesadilla, but it floats my pizza boat.


It's obvious that Mary isn't intimidated by the challenge of flipping stacked tortillas — I would be, I'm afraid — and she's more conservative than Lynn, in that she refrigerates her pepperoni. But the two cooks obviously share a genius for invention. For what it's worth, I'm happy to carry some hard sausages without refrigeration, at least in temperate climes. (I look to the label for guidance.) But I'm a little leery of according presliced sausage the same treatment. Unless it's in an unopened retort pack, that is, and clearly labeled as not requiring refrigeration.

Mary and Lynn share something else, too. Both do their baking in a skillet, as do I. But there are other approaches, and some of them have a considerable weight of tradition behind them. You can, for example, …

Go Dutch

That's Dutch as in "Dutch oven," by the way. Few cooks' tools are more redolent of woodsmoke, and Ric Olsen, a frequent contributer to In the Same Boat, is a Dutch oven enthusiast, something that comes across even in this brief note:

What we have done in the past is make pizza in our Dutch oven using store-bought refrigerator biscuits, the kind that burst from the tube when you pierce it. Just press the biscuits all around the bottom and flatten them into a thin crust. Then cover them with sauce, meat, and other toppings. Cover, cook, cut, and eat. These make great camp pizza!


Ric doesn't waste words. His advice is succinct and to the point. And his use of readymade biscuit dough is wonderfully imaginative. I've also seen similar tubes of pizza dough in HyperMart refrigerators, and these might be worth trying, too, at least on short outings. (Anything requiring refrigeration is probably limited to weekend trips, of course.)

Now here's a letter addressing a particular concern of mine when making pizza in camp —

Getting the Cheese Topping to Brown

It involves an improvisation on the Dutch oven theme, as outlined by Bob Wiedenbeck:

Here's something to consider regarding browning of your minipizzas, or any other dish that screams for a sizzled or browned top.

After toasting the muffins, and while you are assembling the pizzas, remove the skillet from the fire as you indicated in your article. But place a second matching-sized skillet — without oil inside — on the fire. When you place the minipizzas back in the original re-oiled skillet, cover that skillet with the recently well-heated skillet, inverted "clamshell" style to provide clearance for the food. You can also load coals on top of the covering skillet to keep it hot while your pizzas bake.

By providing the heat from above, you can achieve a top crust. It's like a mini oven. A Dutch oven is too deep for instances like this, but could be used in a pinch if that is all you pack, or if you don't want to pack two skillets. Just load the Dutch oven lid with lots of coals to get a deep heat zone. If you limit your kitchen gear to either a Dutch oven or a skillet, make sure that your skillet is sized to accept your Dutch oven lid, then you are really outfitted nicely. Just leave the Dutch oven base at home, but take its lid and the skillet.


There's no doubt that paddlers — especially the camp cooks among them — are an ingenious lot. And cast‑iron cookware (most Dutch ovens are cast iron, as are the best camp skillets) is wonderfully versatile, well worth carrying on that account alone, notwithstanding the burden it poses on the portages. But we're not done extolling its virtues. Another reader, Taj, has only good things to say about a somewhat exotic example of cast‑ironmongery, …

The Salamander

For those of you who aren't familiar with this species of cookware — and I admit I was not — Michigan State University's Historic American Cookbook Project has a helpful gloss. Taj still has the last word on the subject, though, at least where backcountry cuisine is concerned:

The minipizza article is inspirational. Some people get good results using flour tortillas in place of pizza dough (or English muffins). [Lynn and Mary would certainly second that!]

You said something about not getting nicely browned bubbly cheese on the muffin pizzas in your skillet. I've some limited experience browning biscuits in my cast iron that has worked satisfactorily. My favorite cast-iron set for camping, when not carrying the Dutch ovens, is a Lodge combo cooker, sometimes referred to as a chicken fryer. The combo cooker has substantial handles for both the top and bottom heavy lids. So, what is my browning secret with this stuff?

Browning in a camp Dutch oven is a matter of putting enough coals on top to radiate browning heat to the top of your baked items. As a sidelight, [consider] a device used many years past to accomplish browning: the iron salamander. How does this relate to the combo cooker? My simple solution is to use the lid of the combo cooker in a similar fashion to the iron salamander. I don't heat it red-hot, but I preheat the lid good and hot, though not hot enough to destroy the iron's seasoning. With the bottom somewhat preheated I put in the biscuits and cover with the heated top. Ten minutes or so on low heat and the cast iron has done its job. The heat and timing is fuzzy logic related to practice and conditions. Now I will have to experiment with pan minipizza.


And I will now have to experiment with Dutch ovens, clamshell skillets, and, yes, salamanders. These don't exhaust the possibilities, however. Lynda Payne has yet another approach to the "top‑browning" problem, one involving the toasters‑on‑stalks commonly known as "pie irons." She's obviously a woman with many …

Irons in the Fire

Proving — if any proof were needed — that great minds (and good cooks) delight in not thinking alike:

Good article on breakfast pizza. I take leftover pizza for first day's dinner because it's quick and easy. And I have found it works for any meal.

Have you tried pie irons? I put English muffins on top and bottom with ingredients in the middle, close the pie iron and put it on the stove or in the fire close to the coals, turning once. The buns toast and the iron seals them up with warm stuff inside for a tasty treat. I use pie filling or cheese, egg and bacon, or do a wrap with stuff inside. Possibilities are endless. Pie irons are available in most sporting goods aisles.


That's another thing for me to try! Vita brevis, ars longa, as Hippocrates didn't say (after all, he wrote in Greek). My less than idiomatic translation? The art [of cooking] takes a lifetime to master, and life is short. But it sure is fun trying to beat the clock. Especially when you get to eat your mistakes — few of which are as bad as they seemed at first, anyway.

My thanks to the readers whose letters I've reproduced, and to everyone else who shared their secrets for perfect portable pizzas. I've learned something from all of you.

Is it lunchtime yet? Or doesn't that matter?

Make It Two, Please!

Whether I'm afloat, ashore, or at home, I just can't get enough pizza. And I'm not alone. A fair number of readers wrote around my earlier "pizza pieces" for In the Same Boat, drawing my attention to things I'd overlooked — or given short shrift. So I figured I'd revisit the subject one more time. I'm glad I did, too. Even if it has made me hungry. Friday can't come soon enough!


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