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Now We're Cooking!

Little Things That Mean a Lot

By Tamia Nelson Still Life With Plate

May 27, 2014

As economists are fond of reminding anyone who'll listen, human wants are insatiable. If you need proof, just spend a few minutes scrolling through any outfitter's website. You're sure to come away convinced that you have only half the gear you need. (Sticklers for subtleties will note that I've glided effortlessly from "wants" to "needs," something that's bound to bring joy to the hearts of marketers and ad copywriters everywhere.) Kitchen kit is no exception to this rule. There's always something new and shiny in the shops.

Of course, the consumer imperative runs counter to many other considerations: space (in your pack or on your shelves), weight, and cost, to name only a few. So trade‑offs are inevitable. But it's not a zero‑sum game, and today I'm going to look at some little things that make the camp cook's life easier, without adding too much to her burden. I hope to winnow the wheat from the chaff, and help other cooks in the process. I'll lay down no hard and fast rules, though. Camp cooks are a delightfully independent lot, and one cook's luxury is another's necessity. I've met paddlers who wouldn't leave home without a wok or paella pan, and others who think nothing of hauling heavy griddles, cast‑iron Dutch ovens, and two‑burner propane stoves on routes involving many portages. I've even known an inveterate backcountry baker who regards a heavy hardwood rolling pin as the Eleventh Essential. And make no mistake: her companions eat well — very well, indeed.

In fact, I was reminded of her not long ago, when I heard from a reader who'd devised an ingenious alternative to the inveterate baker's billet of hard maple:

An Improvised Rolling Pin

Thinking outside the box comes easily to paddling photographer Jan Carol Phillips. You need only look at her custom monopod to see that. But she's no less innovative when preparing meals in the backcountry:

I have a quick tip on camp cooking to share with your readers. You know how everyone is always leaving little luxuries behind for lack of space? Those things that would make camp life a little more pleasant?

Well, the other day I broke my old wooden rolling pin. It had been used and abused for years and finally gave up the ghost. I really wanted to make some bannock pizza but had nothing to roll out the dough. I searched my cupboards and nixed glasses and bowls. Nothing seemed to be able to do the job of a rolling pin.

Then I came across my water bottle. I made sure the outside was clean and dry and filled it with cold water. Perfection!

Here's a picture of it in action. Next time I go camping I'll definitely be taking along my water bottle "rolling pin."

Roll On!

The bottom line? I've had a rolling pin in my boat all these years and never known it! And this got me thinking about the other time‑ and labor‑saving tools that I do know I have in my kitchen pack. Not the essentials, you understand. Not the billies and skillets and stoves. I'm thinking of the non‑essentials‑but-nice‑to‑haves. To borrow a phrase from Jan's letter, let's call these …

The Cook's Little Luxuries

I have to confess that I was slow to yield to the siren song of the outfitters' catalogs. For a long time, my batterie de cuisine comprised a small pot, a steel canteen cup (a souvenir from an uncle's Army days), a can‑opener, and a spoon stealthily abstracted from a younger brother's nesting Boy Scout utensil set. My menu was equally simple. I ate canned food from the pot or, on the rare occasions when my dinghy had beached (I'd already given up hope of my ship coming in), I scooped rehydrated freeze‑dried meals from pouches. Haute cuisine it wasn't.

But as my culinary skills improved, many erstwhile wants became pressing needs, and my cook kit grew more elaborate. I've already described some of my new must‑haves in an earlier column. Here they are again:

That's a pretty long list in its own right. It's far from exhaustive, though. My kitchen pack contains many more little luxuries, and you can see them in this group shot:

Not Essential, But Nice to Have

The flexible cutting mat from the first list insisted on making a curtain call. It's under the plate, utensils, and steel cup. But try as it might, it can't upstage the …

Farberware Santoku Knife.  This is the most recent addition to my kit, tacit recognition of the fact that utility knives — and by that I mean the broad category of blades labeled "hunting knives" or "river knives" or even "survival knives" — aren't really designed with slicing onions and other kitchen chores in mind. My new(ish) knife is nothing very grand — just an inexpensive, compact faux santoku. It had no sheath, but I made a cardboard cover for the blade to serve until I can get around to stitching a proper leather one. You can see the pro tem sheath in the right‑hand picture below:

A Good, Cheap Blade

My other luxuries include an …

L.L.Bean Spatula.  I've had this little spatula for a very long time, but it carries its years well, and it's just the right size and weight for paddling trips. The springy stainless steel blade is an ideal companion for a small cast‑iron skillet, whether you're flipping eggs, frying potatoes, or scraping the pan at meal's end.

Steel Is Real

That said, a sharp steel blade isn't the best choice when you're using a nonstick coated pan. For such times, I make do with a …

Silicon Spatula.  I also use it with the anodized pots in my Trangia cooker. It cost only a buck, and the two beveled blades — one large, one small — are perfect for stirring scrambled eggs, turning skillet biscuits, or scrounging the last edible bits out of any vessel. The rather slimy feel of this spatula is a bit off‑putting, I admit, but the thing does the job, and does it well. That's what matters.

Slippery Customer

Much the same thing can be said for this …

Corkscrew.  It's not much to look at, but it works. And if you occasionally like a bottle of wine with your evening meal, it's necessary. While screw caps are replacing corks on many bottled wines, it will be some time before they're universal. (And a sad day that will be, too, since the wine trade is pretty much the only thing that keeps European landowners from felling their cork forests and selling the land to holiday‑home developers.) Farwell has a Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew, but that knife goes missing for months on end, and even when he can find it, he doesn't always remember to bring it with him. Which is why I've gotten into the habit of packing this corkscrew along. It's light. It gets the job done. And the hollow handle serves as a sheath, protecting your dry bag from the sharp point. What's not to like?

Cheap and Cheerful

Utensils warrant careful consideration, too. And while it's perfectly possible to get by without a fork — or a spoon, come to that — utensils make eating more pleasurable. In the past, I've used steel cutlery, including an elegant set of nesting utensils crafted from polished stainless steel and destined for the Bundeswehr. Such elegance always comes at a price, however, and in this case, the cost was measured in supernumerary ounces. So now I set my backcountry table with …

GSI Stackable Cutlery.  It's very light, not too expensive, and entirely functional — a far cry from the friable plastic picnic ware of old. You can even cut meat satays with the knife. Best of all, two complete settings of Stackable Cutlery weigh less than my old Bundeswehr Löffel (spoon) alone.

Why Eat With Your Fingers?

I haven't renounced steel altogether, though. Take this …

Stainless Steel Mug.  Like my old Sierra Club cup, it holds a full eight ounces. But unlike the Sierra Club cup, it's deep and straight‑sided. Which means it's a lot harder to empty a mug of hot tea into your lap while swirling it absent‑mindedly. And because it's steel, you can heat it right on the stove. That's perfect when you want one last cup of tea at lunchtime — after you've already stowed the billies away. It also does double‑duty as a measuring cup, and since the graduations are stamped into the steel, they can't rub off.

How well will it hold up? See for yourself. This mug is 30 years old. Doesn't look it, does it? But if I lose it, I'm out of luck. The mug disappeared from the catalogs years ago, when the Internet was still young.

Mug Shot

Back to cutlery for a minute. There's another alternative to steel forks: bamboo …

Chopsticks.  I like them. Farwell doesn't. He has his reasons. I have mine. Bamboo chopsticks are light, cheap (I bought a pack of 24 for two bucks), and versatile. And while they can't substitute for spoons — you'll have to slurp your soup directly from the bowl — they can easily double as stirrers. I've even used one to nudge the simmer ring on a Trangia spirit burner closed without singeing my fingers. But unless you've grown up using chopsticks, you'll need to learn a new way of eating. If you prize light weight and versatility, however, you may decide it's worth it.


And speaking of bamboo, its uses are legion. Just a few months ago, I happened on some …

Bamboo Plates.  Though in truth, they're made from a bamboo‑melamine composite. The resulting plates are both light and tough, ideal for backcountry dining. I like them, particularly for stuffed bannock and other sloppy dishes, but you may not. Under the right conditions — high temperature, low pH, long exposure time — melamine residue can leach from dinnerware and contaminate food. On the available evidence, the risk is very small, and it can be made even smaller by using the plates only as serving dishes. But then you wouldn't put a plastic plate on a burner, anyway, would you? And there are no microwaves in the backcountry to tempt you to heat food on the plate. Still, you may wish to avoid the stuff altogether. It's your call.

Plat du Jour

Lastly, there's my collection of …

Soft Coolers.  The one pictured below is the smallest. These are especially welcome on amphibious treks or on inn‑to‑inn excursions near sivilization, where it's often possible to stop in at a store that sells frozen and refrigerated food every couple of days. (Coolers can also be used to protect temperature‑sensitive medications.) Relatively lightweight and easily collapsed, soft coolers combine cheap insurance with convenience. But you won't want to bother with one on an extended wilderness trek.

It's Frosty, Man!

Now for the Big Question: Do I burden myself with all of these little luxuries all of the time? No way. A corkscrew isn't needed if you don't have a bottle of wine in your pack, and a steel spatula is wasted on a nonstick skillet. (Actually, the nonstick skillet will likely be wasted by the steel spatula.) And as I've just mentioned, you probably won't find much use for a soft cooler on a three‑month expedition in the tropics. But it's a rare trip when several of the items I've described don't find their way into my kitchen pack. After all, a little luxury is always welcome, even in the backcountry.

On the Boil

Spartans and hard chargers will disagree, of course, but most paddlers find that a few less‑than‑essential items make the going easier and trips more rewarding. This is nowhere more evident than it is in the camp kitchen, where small tools can make a big difference in the ease and efficiency of meal preparation. (Try opening a wine bottle without a corkscrew, for instance.) So if you're planning a trip where you don't need to make every ounce count twice, give some thought to the little things that I've described. They mean a lot.


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