The Outdoor Gourmet: A Fancy Freeze-Dried& Feast
When you’re enjoying roughing it out in the wild on a camping trip, there’s no reason you have to eat rough, too. Whether you're hiking from campsite to campsite – or merely parking your Subaru at a designated campground spot and pitching a tent – you're going to have to eat, so you might as well savor the moment. And if you’re savoring the moment, why not do it in style?
Unless you have the luxury of being able to lug around fresh ingredients, you’re typically restricted to packing light, nonperishable food items in your backpack. That usually means relying on those freeze-dried or dehydrated food packs purchased at camping supply stores. Fortunately, with a few creative camp cooking tweaks, you can transform these pouch meals to look – and even taste – more like gourmet cuisine.
To illustrate this idea, let’s consider a mash-up of some popular food pouches to make a Southwestern chicken mole and rice dish. Start with a pouch of freeze-dried chicken breasts with rib meat and mashed potatoes, and a pouch of your standard-issue Louisiana red beans and rice, both found at camping stores everywhere. First, remove the bag of powdered potatoes from the chicken pouch, and hydrate the chicken breasts with boiling water. While the freeze-dried poultry is “cooking,” prepare the rice: Add boiling water to the beans and rice pouch as instructed, but add about half a cup more water so that you have extra liquid to use as a sauce.
S’Mores the Merrier
Now here’s where a little creativity comes into play. Obviously if you’re camping, you're going to have chocolate with you. I mean, what's camping without s’mores around the campfire? Take about 3 to 4 squares of chocolate – about a third of the bar – and add it to the rice pouch while it’s still steaming hot. What kind of chocolate you use is up to you. Regular milk chocolate works fine – it does the job for s’mores – but if you’re like me and want a more authentic-tasting makeshift mole, go with a darker, more bitter chocolate with at least 80 percent cocoa.
The chocolate will melt and fuse pretty easily with the powdered chilies already in the pouch. If you want to bring in a little more heat, add some hot sauce to the pouch. Hopefully you’ve packed a little hot sauce or sriracha with you in a camping spice rack. I like to use piri piri pepper – a hot chili oil from Rwanda that is available online – and frequently comes packaged in tiny, lightweight, easy-to-pack eyedropper bottles. After all, you need only one or two drops of its concentrated heat to really bring a fire to the camp, if you know what I mean.
Mix the ingredients in the rice pouch well and let it cook. When the rice is soft enough, you’ll have some extra brownish liquid. Drain it into a bowl or mug. It will be watery, so thicken it using the powdered potatoes from the chicken meal. Gradually stir in some of the starchy powder until you have a thicker consistency, like gravy. Then drain the water from the chicken pouch. You’re ready to start plating the meal.
Blue Plate Special
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It’s all about the presentation, so start with the plate. Chances are you didn't pack the fine china, but by simply flipping over your (thoroughly cleaned) Subaru Dog Safe Flyer, you can transform that ordinary camping meal into a “blue plate special.” In the center of the clean flying disc, add a portion-sized dollop of the rice and beans. On top of that, place one of the chicken breasts. Then delicately pour the makeshift mole sauce over all of it.
I’ve always believed that green garnish enhances any meal presentation, so if you just so happen to have some cilantro or coriander, add that on top. If not, some chopped-up, hydrated green beans should do the job of adding a splash of color.
Voilà! Now you can dine outside with a dish as great as the environment you’ll eat it in – and still have some chocolate left over for s’mores.
Additional Recipes from the Outdoor Gourmet
Prelude to a Quiche
Here’s how to use a little culinary creativity and a little powdered-food goodness to make a quiche to build a dream on, even in the middle of nowhere.
Let’s start with the crust. Take a pouch of just-add-water pancake powder and add clean, air-temperature water to it. Don’t pour in as much water as instructed on the pack. Gradually add the liquid in, mixing the powder thoroughly so that there’s nothing dry left in the pouch. Ultimately you want a consistency that isn’t too runny – a texture in between raw brownie mix and sour cream.
Spread the resulting doughy mixture in a lightly greased camping pot so that it's about 1-inch thick from the bottom, and place it over a low heat on a camp stove. Science will tell us that the hottest parts of the pot will cook faster – i.e., the bottom and the sides – which is perfect, because that's the part of the crust we want to keep.
While that’s “baking,” prepare the filling. First, the vegetables. Hydrate vegetables of your choice by adding boiling water to them and waiting a few minutes, as instructed on the package. After draining the veggie pouch, add clean, air-temperature water to a powdered egg/omelet pouch, as instructed. Try to find one with bacon because, well, bacon makes everything better, even if it does come in powdered form. Stir about half of the pouch of hydrated vegetables into the eggs.
By now, the sides and bottom of our bloated pancake should be half-baked, leaving the middle soft and a little runny. Scoop out the insides with a spoon so that only the developing bottom and side crust remains – you can put it back in the pancake mix pouch and save it for later – and then pour the egg and vegetable mixture into the crust. Cover the pot and continue to cook it under a low heat until you see that the upper layer of the egg mixture is cooked.
In a few minutes, voilà! The quiche is ready! Transfer it from the pot to a plate, and cut it into portions to serve. If you don’t have a fancy white plate, a clean Subaru Dog Safe Flyer will do the job. Bon appétit!
Master the Art of Kung Pao Chicken Bao
Unlock the secret of making spicy, Chinese-inspired chicken dumplings
First, the filling. Add boiling water (as directed) to a pouch of the kind of standard-issue Kung Pao Chicken with Rice you’ll find in most camping supply stores. It should go without saying that you should first remove the little moisture absorber, and the little plastic packs of red pepper flakes and peanuts. The peanuts you don’t need – you can save those to add to trail mix – but add some red pepper flakes to the pouch to give a little “pow!” to your kung pao.
While that’s cooking and hydrating, let’s make the dumpling wrappers. Take a pouch of just-add-water pancake powder and first pour about a quarter of the dry mix into a bowl. Make sure you keep it dry! To the pouch, gradually add clean, air-temperature water, stirring frequently, until you get a consistency of soft modeling clay.
Now, let’s play with that dough. First, take some dry pancake powder that you saved and rub it around your hands so they don't get too sticky. Then, using your hands, pull away about a golf-ball-sized wad of the dough from the pouch. Roll it into a ball firmly.
Next, find a smooth, hard surface (flip your well-cleaned Subaru Dog Safe Flyer upside-down and – voila! – you have a new food preparation area), and sprinkle some dry pancake powder around so it, too, doesn’t get sticky. Place the ball of dough on it and squish it flat. Then, using your fingers, push out the edges so it expands into a bigger, flatter circle. When it’s about 5 inches in diameter, pull it up and twirl the dough around your knuckles, like you're making a little pizza pie.
The resulting flat flour “tortilla” should fit in the palm of one hand. With your free hand, scoop out a spoonful of the kung pao chicken rice and place it in the center of the tortilla. Then, fold up the edges of the tortilla to the center and pinch it closed. A dumpling is now in the palm of your hand.
Repeat this process for as many dumplings as you want to make – or as many as will fit in a portable steam basket. I usually keep a soft silicone one in my camp cooking kit, which is great for steaming veggies, or in this case, handmade bao.
In your pot, add a small amount of water and make it boil. Then insert the steam basket full of dumplings. Cover the pot with a lid, and let it steam for about 12 minutes.
When the dumplings are done, pull them out and place each one on a plate – or your aforementioned (and now cleaned) Subaru Dog Safe Flyer. For a splash of color, garnish them with chopped green beans that you might have left over from the Southwestern Chicken Mole and Rice dish.
There’s enough spice in the filling from the red pepper flakes to pack each dumpling with flavor, but if more saltiness is what you crave, add some soy sauce from the little extra packets that you get whenever you order take-out. It seems everyone has these soy sauce packets lying around the house, so you might as well keep some in your pack for makeshift Chinese food eating/camping experiences like these. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “take out.”
Follow these helpful tips to keep our parks beautiful
When backpacking or camping in the hinterlands of America’s great national parks, make sure you do so responsibly, so that the next person can enjoy them as much as you did. The folks at the National Park Service encourage its visitors to embrace the principles of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which strives to keep the “wild” in wilderness, with as little human impact as possible.
As the mantra goes, “If you pack it in, pack it out.” It should go without saying that whatever you bring into the park, you take with you on your way out, so that you can dispose of it properly. To reduce waste, think about what you bring before you go. Don’t bring disposable junk; pack cooking tools, utensils, and anything else that can be reused. Wash them as needed – responsibly, with biodegradable soap – away from water sources.
As tempting as it is to build an open campfire to cook your food – what some people believe to be the ultimate expression of the camping experience – refrain from doing so, unless in a designated fire pit. Camp stoves are lightweight to carry and easy to use, and leave no trace, as a pile of charred branches would.
If you’re in bear country, take the Leave No Trace philosophy a step further. Cook away from your tent, so that the odors don’t get trapped in any fabrics. Bears will definitely find a trace and track you down if your food isn’t managed properly. At campsites in many national parks where bears inhabit, there are designated bear-proof lockers where you should not only store your food, but anything else that has an odor – including toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, any garbage, and any clothes you’ve worn while cooking that may have retained some strong scents of food. If a locker isn’t available, make sure you put your odorous things in a pack and hang them from a tree branch 14 feet from the ground and 10 feet from the tree trunk.