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The Hiking Gourmet

The hungry hiker's foolproof plan for eating like a king in the backcountry.

The first rule of backcountry cooking: Everything tastes great after cranking out a big-mile day in the wilderness. Dehydrated cardboard? No problem, just stir in equal parts sweat, dirt, and views. Bon appetit. The second rule of backcountry cooking: Don’t settle for blah food just because of rule number 1. If you enjoy fine dining, there’s nothing better than preparing a delicious meal in a mouth-watering setting. But going gourmet requires more planning and pack weight than prepackaged meals, right? Yes, it does, especially if you favor fat steaks and fresh veggies. But there is a middle ground: Just a few extra minutes and ounces can turn your simple noodle dishes into four-star feasts.

To prove that regular hikers can prepare and enjoy haute cuisine in the backcountry, I challenged three friends to a cook-off. We would pack the lightest but tastiest meals we could manage on a 40-mile trek through Utah’s Paria Canyon. Every evening, after exploring the slots and springs that dot this red-rock wonderland, we would compete to see who could fix the fanciest dinners.

What follows are lessons we learned for improving any backcountry meal, plus the contest’s best recipes. Who won? Let’s just say that by the time I put the finishing touches on a three-course Italian dinner, then pulled out my one-pot tiramisu accompanied by cigars and port, my fellow chefs had laid down their spatulas.

Chefs, Start Your Stoves

To get beyond freeze-dried, you need to think outside of the pouch. Follow these tips for better backcountry dining.

> Consider the French connection. Ask any French chef if there’s one ingredient that makes for five-star cooking, and you’re bound to get this answer: butter. For rich, flavorful dishes, there’s no substitute. Use the real thing on short trips, margarine or powdered butter on long ones. Other ways to boost flavor include: whole powdered milk (better than nonfat); powdered eggs; and cheese (makes a fine substitute for cream in some recipes). Contact: The Baker’s Catalogue, (800) 827-6836;

> Be creative. Give old standards like mac-and-cheese a gourmet twist by adding delicacies such as dried mushrooms (porcini or shitake), sun-dried tomatoes, precooked ham (lasts well in the sealed plastic packaging), dried berries, or wine.

> Keep it fresh. Fruit, vegetables, and many cheeses last a week in all but the hottest temperatures. Buy fresh ingredients right before the trip, keep them cool on the way to the trailhead, and pack them in the center of your pack, away from direct sunlight. A favorite: fresh mozzarella vacuum-packed in plastic; it’s lighter and lasts longer than mozzarella in water.

> Allow time. Plan good meals for days when you won’t be hurried. A recipe that requires lots of prep time is more fuss than fun if you get to camp tired, hungry, and late. Make sushi on your layover day, and have ramen when you hike till dark.

> Spice it up. Bring the regulars (salt, pepper, sugar, crushed red chili pepper), but add cinnamon, cumin, coriander, rosemary, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh basil, cilantro, and ginger.

> Think frozen, not freeze-dried. Have a hankering for a steak dinner under the stars? No problem. Freeze meat before starting. It’ll thaw out just in time for your first night’s dinner. Another trick: At home, double your sauce recipes. Freeze or dehydrate the leftovers to pack on your next hike.

> Take your tools. Don’t bring all the best ingredients and skimp on the utensils. Make sure your stove simmers, pack extra fuel if your recipe requires long cooking, and carry all the pots and pans you’ll need. Bring a mini cheese grater for freshly grated parmesan. Add extra plastic plates for serving and cutting board use.

> Study standard cookbooks. Everything we made in Paria-even the sushi-came from home-based recipes.

> Feast on finer finger food. Try dried wasabi peas instead of nuts, dried papaya instead of apricots, smoked salmon instead of jerky, chocolate-covered espresso beans instead of M&M’s.

See next page for recipes.

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