PREPACKAGED MEALS – Quick and Easy Chow
Many backpackers only eat boiled water only cooking systems. No doubt freeze dried meals are convenient. Pour boiling water in a bag, squish it around, let it set and eat it. No dishes. But what do you do with the stinky bag? Or many bags if you go out for longer hikes. Do you “wash” it out, or just carry it and enjoy the odors along the way?
Most of the freeze dried meals are also very expensive at $6-8 per meal especially if eating two per day. And bulky. Most of the meals are fairly light at about 5-7 ounces each but their bulk takes up a lot of the limited space in a backpack. Some of these meals even taste pretty good but read the nutrition labels and many are full of sodium, often close to the recommended maximum of 2,400 mg/day.
I even use them as my backup food sometimes, but there is an alternative plan. Dehydrate your favourite home-cooked meals.
We sampled nine prepackaged backpacking meals. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly. Freeze-dried foods are definitely an easy choice for their convenience and light weight. The downside of them is the high cost, and if you normally cook from scratch, you will want more flexibility.
1. Mary Janes Farm Couscous and Lentil Curry (Vegetarian). A good all-around meal with a nice curry flavor (but not too strong or spicy) and a good mix of textures.
2. Backpacker’s Pantry Katmandu Curry
3. Mary Janes Farm Santa Fe Pasta (Vegetarian). Results were mixed on this one — one tester thought this was her favorite of all
the meals we tested. “It scored big points for just being good, simple, cheesy pasta.” We all agreed there wasn’t much southwestern
about the dish, but it was very edible, and the noodles were tender.
4. Alpine Aire Santa Fe Beans and Rice. The jalapeno spice only served to cover up what was essentially “just rice with dried peas, corn and peppers.”
5. Inferno Self-Heating Chicken Pasta Parmesan. This was a novelty: you heat this meal by pulling the “rip-cord” and letting
the mysterious chemicals heat things up. The Inferno was heavy and the food wasn’t exactly piping hot. Taste was bland. A can of Chef Boyardee warmed in your coat pocket would give you about the same taste experience.
6. Natural High Thai Shrimp. Do not buy this product. The mushy spaghetti noodles were bathed in a glue-like sauce that was extremely fishy.
7. Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai (Vegetarian). This meal comes with some neat additions: real peanut butter and peanuts get
added to a mix of Thai noodles. But that’s where the authenticity ends. Unfortunately, the veggies in this prepackaged meal are the usual suspects: corn and carrots. It did, however contain textured vegetable protein (TVP) which helped the meal seem filling.
8. Backpacker’s Pantry Katmandu Curry (Vegetarian). This was a winner all around: we liked the range of textures, the complex curry
flavor (but not too strong) and the authenticity of the dish. The spiced lentils and firm potato chunks provided a great break from the usual rice-or-noodle backpacking fare.
9. Cajun Salmon Inferno. This rice-based dish included a foil packet of salmon, which was flavorful and not too fishy. This dish is not for those who can’t handle a little heat—it’s got quite a spicy kick, and also a tasty, complex mix of flavors and textures.
The Asian section and the pasta aisles are good places to start. Second, pick up a book or two on the subject, at least to use as a starting point.
Recipes can be as simple as a package of instant noodles with sauce, dried milk and a bit of real butter, with maybe a handful of pine nuts, to something more complicated that might require pre-soaking dehydrated foods. Let your normal food tastes be your guide. If you’re partial to Mexican food, try something with dried corn, ground beef, and beans, tortillas and maybe a little cheese and taco sauce packages. Curry makes a great addition to even the blandest of dinners, and olive oil adds body and richness when you need the calories the most.
Asian specialty stores (such as Seattle’s Uwajimaya) offer a wide array of lightweight and dried ingredients that add variety to your backpcacking meals. Soup mixes, dried mushrooms and dehydrated coconut milk are just a few.
Top five favorite grocery store foods for the pack:
1. Shin Yum Spicy Ramen. Best ramen ever. Noodles have a wonderful texture, and the spicy broth hits the spot.
2. Idahoan Loaded Baked Flavored Mashed Potatoes
3. Jello. A cup of hot Jello will warm you and pep you up.
4. Minute Rice. Add this to any meal to “stretch” it. Also available in brown rice.
5. Mexicali Rose Dried Refried Black Beans. Tough to find, but hands down the best refried beans out there. Great foundation for backcountry
6. Or, there’s always that enduring classic: mac and cheese.
GROWING GREENS ON THE TRAIL
Materials: Plastic 1- or 2-liter wide-mouth bottle, 2 x 2-inch swatch of cheesecloth or mosquito netting, rubber band, 1 cup dried beans or lentils, or radish or alfalfa
Step 1: Wash the beans or seeds, place in the bottle with enough water to cover. Screw on cap and keep in a warm, dark place until they begin sprouting, usually one to two days.
Step 2: Once the beans have sprouted, drain the water and cover the bottle opening with the cheesecloth or netting; secure with the rubber band. Keep the
bottle in the sun on the outside of your pack if you can.
Step 3: Twice a day, rinse the sprouts by pouring water into the
bottle, shaking gently, and then draining.
In about three days the sprouts are ready to eat. Rinse and drain every day, and your sprouts will last up to a week.
In the North West, the first warm rains in the fall bring the mushrooms. In a good year, one that is warm and wet and the rains arrive in the weeks before Halloween, even inexperienced and accidental hunters can come home with armloads of edible wild mushrooms in just a couple of hours. A good year makes a walk in the woods something more akin to a treasure hunt. A good year gives us reason to get outside during the shoulder season.
Wild mushrooms are exactly that, wild. They hide dormant under the duff for most of the year, waiting for just the right conditions before pushing through the surface. Most species are persnickety, requiring a specific combination of elevation, light and growing surface, making them difficult and expensive to cultivate. Somebody has to go out and find them.
Mushroom camps are tiny village camps, some improvised, others hosted by local ski resorts – or even the Forest Service – that pop up in areas with abundant mushrooms. They teem with rubber-boot clad hobbyists, enthusiastic foodies, migrant workers with five gallon buckets strapped across their shoulders and buyers with pickup trucks. In a good year, the buyers sit in dense clusters along the highway waiting for even casual hunters to unload some of their bounty.
If you’re new to mushroom hunting, you get a great sense of where to start looking. There is a long-standing tradition of secrecy among even the most casual of mushroom hunters Good years are for learning, watching how others hunt, finding your own grounds and getting out with people who know what they’re doing.
Mushroom Hunting Basics:
Buy a good mushroom field guide, and read through it before setting out. A goog book is All That the Rain Promises, and More… by David Arora. Find out what kind of mushrooms you’re looking for before you set out, and choose your destination based on their habitat needs. Go with someone more experienced with you. Take a course. Not all mushrooms are safe to eat – make sure you know what you are looking for. Check the regulations. Some kinds of mushrooms require permits to harvest.
Be low impact. Always harvest with a knife and replace the duff cover. Don’t over-harvest. Take only what you will use and plan on coming back for a second round.
Double check. Lay your mushrooms out at home and double check your identification. If you have any doubt, throw it out.
Reduce waste. In good years it’s easy to harvest more than you can eat. Share with friends, dehydrate or saute and freeze your extra harvest to eat throughout the winter.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say that mushrooms don’t have any nutritional value. Surprisingly they do contain some essential nutrients and that varies with the type of mushroom.
In general mushrooms are a great source of B Vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, biotin, pantothenic acid, as well as minerals like copper and selenium. When exposed to UV light the Vitamin D is activated which makes them the only non-meat source of food to contain this important vitamin. Maitakes have the most Vitamin D with over four times what is in portabella, chanterelle, morel and shiitake mushrooms. Mushrooms are also full of antioxidants and when cooked they have about 2 g of protein depending on the variety. The nutritional profile can vary a bit from mushroom to mushroom. For example, Shiitake mushrooms are a good source of iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc while chanterelles contain beta-carotene.
Dried mushrooms are extremely lightweight and easy to rehydrate. I often dry my own if I have other foods to dehydrate but there are times where I visit my favorite grocery store or the Asian market. Dried mushrooms aren’t expensive and it saves time. You can buy almost any variety you can think of, like Portobello, Cremini, Shiitake, Lobster, Oyster, Morel, Chanterelles, Enoki, and Black Trumpet to name a few.
Mushrooms are nutritionally sound but not very high in calories. Luckily they are versatile so if you are using them for backpacking you’ll need to add them to something else. Here are a few ideas…
– pasta sauce
– backcountry pizzas
– soups and stews
– in biscuits or flat bread
– omelets or scrambled eggs
– shepherd’s pie
– instant polenta
When you rehydrate the mushrooms for something where you won’t be using the liquid I’d recommend drinking it. I know that sounds a little strange but why toss the nutrients? One of my readers even takes fresh mushrooms and stir fries them with garlic, olive oil, and parsley. You could do this with rehydrated dried mushrooms too. Try adding some mushrooms to an instant white sauce, such as Alfredo, and stirring it into your pasta. You can also grind them into a powder and put a tablespoon of that into a gravy, soup or sauce to add extra mushroom flavor and nutrition. The possibilities are endless.
Mushroom Burgundy Makes 4–5 servings
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter or vegan butter substitute
1 pound cremini mushrooms, diced
1 pound portobello mushrooms, diced
1/2 cup carrot, finely diced
1/2 cup yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine (use something full bodied, preferably a Burgundy)
2 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup frozen pearl onions
1 1/2 tablespoons potato flour
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Kosher salt to taste
At Home: Heat 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp butter together in a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook for 4 to 5 minutes until they begin to take on color but aren’t releasing any juices. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and set aside.
Turn the heat down to medium and add 1 tsp of olive oil. Cook carrots and onion until the onions are golden brown. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute.
Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. This will deglaze the pot. Turn the heat back up to medium-high and reduce the liquid by half to concentrate the flavors. Stir in the vegetable stock and tomato paste. Bring the mixture back to the boil and add the mushrooms along with any juices that have accumulated on the plate. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes or until the mushrooms are tender. Add the pearl onions and let simmer for 5 more minutes.
Mix the remaining tablespoon of butter with the potato flour until well combined and then stir it into the pot. Add the thyme. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes or until it reaches a thick stew-like consistency. Season the stew with salt and pepper. Let cool.
Measure the mushroom burgundy and write this measurement on a sticky note. Pour onto lined dehydrator trays and dry for 7 to 10 hours. Place the dried stew and the sticky note in a ziplock freezer bag.
At Camp: Add enough boiling water to the mushroom burgundy to equal the measurement on your sticky note. Be sure to account for and add your dried ingredients to the rehydration container prior to adding the water. You can always add more water if you need to. Once the meal has rehydrated, reheat if necessary and serve over broad noodles or with potatoes or French bread.