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Food for Thought

By Doug Gantenbein - October 4th, 2001

My most memorable meal in the mountains? Actually, two come to mind.

One was many years ago, in the Enchantment Lakes area in Washington's central Cascade mountains. A climbing partner and I were there for eight days, and by about day six were pretty darned tired of the oatmeal and freeze-dried food we'd lugged in. In culinary desperation, I tried to make little pizzas out of Triscuit crackers and some almost-moldy cheddar cheese. It was not a success.

Fast forward to four years ago. I was camped at the 14,000-foot level of Denali, acclimating for a few days with my friend Tim before pushing on to the 17,000-foot camp on the West Buttress route and then the summit. One evening, I made pizza again - this time with an Outback Oven and a specially prepared mix. The result: pepperoni pizza, with a nicely browned and chewy crust, while gazing up at the tallest peak in North America.

In short, the ability to eat well in the outback has improved considerably in the past 20 years. But, so too have my cooking skills, and therein lies a point: If you're a lousy cook at home, don't expect to do much better on the trail. Camp cooking has its own set of challenges - a limited number of burners (usually one, in fact), limited utensils, a shortage of ingredients and no handy Safeway. Still, with a little planning and practice, it's possible for just about anyone to come back from a weeklong camping trip complaining about the mosquitoes, but not the food. Here are a few tips I've learned about how to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Breakfast: I like to keep it pretty simple, as on most trips you want to start a climb or get packed for the next leg of the trip. Sometimes that means something as limited as granola bars, some dried apricots and hot chocolate. For a meal with a bit more substance, oatmeal is an old standby, or a multi-grain cereal. Or, for something a little unusual, pack in some couscous. For two people, figure one one cup of couscous, simmered in two cups of water for 5-10 minutes. You can add dried fruits such as raisins or chopped dates to the mix when you start cooking the couscous; a splash of cinnamon when served brightens the flavor quite a bit. Bagels also are a great breakfast item because they keep well for several days and are loaded with carbohydrates. Split them, then toast over a campfire or in a skillet and serve with peanut butter, or sprinkled with a little brown sugar and cinnamon.

For a leisurely breakfast, my long-time favorite is scrambled eggs and fried Spam. That's a luxury reserved for the last morning of a moderately short trip, perhaps 3-4 days. Another favorite that's surprisingly easy to fix is this:

Campers' blueberry pancakes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup dried buttermilk
1 egg, or dehydrated equivalent
1-2 tablespoons cooking oil
1/2 cup dried blueberries

At home, mix all dry ingredients in a zipper-top plastic bag. Put cooking oil in small plastic screw-top vial for safekeeping (it's useful for other cooking chores as well). When ready to cook, add oil and water to dry mix to make a slightly thick batter (about one cup of water should do it). Stir until ingredients are moist - do not over-stir or pancakes will be tough. Drop by spoonfuls onto a hot skillet (it may be helpful to lightly grease even non-stick pans). Wait for bubbles to appear, then flip. Serve with a little maple syrup.

Lunch: I find lunch to be the toughest meal to manage. For trips of up to four or five days, I build lunch around bagels and peanut putter. To that I'll add fresh or dried fruit, perhaps some dried Italian salami or small cans of tuna, hard cheese, and some cookies or candy bars. If you like a little spice in your life, pack some Coleman's or Grey Poupon mustard and add that to the bagels and salami. For longer trips, crackers substitute for the bagels. And yes, I make and eat gorp ("Good Old Raisins and Peanuts") - I like it simple, with a mixture of salted nuts and M&M's - no coconut or raisins.

Dinner: This is where I tend to put the most effort on a trip. A good meal is a great way to end the day, plus providing you a much-needed nutritional boost for the next day's labors. One of the things I really like to start the meal with is one of the wide range of dried instant soups now available. My favorite is the black bean from Nile Spice; I also like that brand's split pea. To save on packaging, I re-pack the soups in small plastic bags. For a main course, I'll sometimes rely on freeze-dried backpacking meals, which have come a long way in the past decade. Altrec.com carries some makes that I particularly like. Mountain House's Lasagna with Meat Sauce is remarkably tasty, as is AlpineAire's meat-free Spaghetti Marinara with Mushrooms. And MSR's new line of foods - such as the Kettle Chili - have been getting high marks from campers. Here's a nifty trick for keeping freeze-dried foods hot while they're reconstituting: Pack an insulated lunch bag, and carefully place the food container inside once you've added boiling water.

As important as the food is the seasoning supply. If you can stand the extra weight, I find it useful to pack in olive oil, Parmesan cheese, garlic and onion powder, Cajun-style seasoning and any one of several brands of seasoning salts. These add a lot of zip to menus that can start seeming bland after four or five days.

My secret weapon at dinnertime, though, is my Outback Oven. It turns most any stove (it works best on canister-fuel stoves) into an effective convection oven capable of turning out biscuits, brownies, pizza - just about anything you can create at home. Pre-mixed recipes are available, but it's possible to adapt just about anything to an Outback Oven. Cooks who are skilled with a Dutch oven can make the same things. Here's an example:

Tomato and olive pizza
One small can sliced olives
6 oz. sun-dried tomatoes
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or to taste)
1/2 package fast-rising yeast (about 1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Mix together flour, yeast, salt and sugar, reserving a small amount of flour for the kneading board. Add half the oil and about 2/3 cup warm water to flour mix. Blend with spoon into a sticky, stiff mass, then knead on plastic board (light "backpacking" models are available) about five minutes or until dough is smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place for one hour. Dough should double in bulk. Meanwhile, soak tomatoes in warm water for about 10 minutes, drain, and mix with olives, oregano and garlic salt. Punch down and knead again for about a minute. Stretch dough to fit across Outback Oven cook pan. Spread tomato/olive mix over dough. Drizzle remaining oil over topping, then sprinkle on Parmesan. Bake for 20-30 minutes in Outback Oven at "medium" setting. When this puppy comes out of the oven, you'll attract hungry campers from at least a mile away.


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