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June 1999

Fresh Backcountry Food

Rather than tearing open an envelope, wouldn't you rather slice and dice something fresh?

He was rooting around in the dirt like a pig after truffles, hungrily snatching up whatever looked edible, then clutching his prize like it was better than gold. Never mind that he’d tripped and his food had rolled around on a portion of Oregon’s Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. When a man has eaten nothing but freeze-dried meals for six straight days, he gets desperate and isn’t about to let a few twigs,or thoughts of what ungulates may have done on that very spot, come between him and his fresh salad. It’s still a gift-albeit a slightly dirty one-from the food gods.

I’ve avoided such desperate measures by including fresh food in my backcountry menus, much to the amazement and sheer delight of my companions. Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and micronutrients found in no other backwoods victuals. Plus, biting into something juicy and sweet courtesy of Ma Nature enhances your physical and emotional well-being. You should see the smiles when I add finely sliced red bell pepper to a mundane bagel with cream cheese. Happiness soars to a heavenly level.

Perishability

The downside to fresh food, of course, is its short shelf life. Take away refrigeration and factor in a cramped pack, and you have a recipe for an unhealthy mess. There are ways around this, though.

~Choose recipes and fresh foods appropriate for your trip. For instance, broccoli won’t last two days in a warm climate, but cauliflower will stay firm for several days. Here are some general rules for how long fresh foods will last in 70ºF weather.

1 to 2 days: asparagus, bananas, broccoli, cucumbers, green beans, green onions, and pit fruits (peaches, plums).

3 to 5 days: avocados, cauliflower, celery, mushrooms, pears, peppers, summer squash, and underripe tomatoes. (Note: When mushrooms’ gills, the accordionlike flesh on the underside of the cap, are open, they’re mature and flavorful, but they don’t travel well.)

6+ days: apples, cabbage, citrus fruits, garlic, onions, potatoes, and root vegetables (carrots, beets, turnips).

~ Buy only unblemished, brightly colored fruits and vegetables that are heavy for their size. Yes, they add weight to your pack, but they’re the foods bursting with flavor.

~ Smaller fruits and vegetables were harvested younger and will be superior in flavor, texture, and durability. Look for dense broccoli and cauliflower heads, and select root vegetables with healthy, fresh-looking greens.

~ Experiment with different varieties to find sturdy, long-lasting fruits and veggies. For instance, Braeburn, Fuji, and Granny Smith apples, as well as yellow Finn, red, and Yukon gold potatoes, will withstand the rigors of packing. Plum or Roma tomatoes, with their thick, meaty, almost-dry flesh, are also excellent; salad tomatoes are a good runner-up. D’anjou pears stay firm when ripe and provide a juicy, sweet change of pace from dried fruit. Fresh shiitake mushrooms’ tight, strong flesh holds up better to pack abuse than the more common white button variety. Even a small, tight head of iceberg lettuce or Romaine hearts can last up to four days in the backcountry.

~ You can extend the packlife of some foods by buying them when they’re almost ripe. Try slightly green and firm avocados, tomatoes, pears, and pit fruits. The caveat: Keep your menus flexible because when something ripens, you have to use it.

~ Don’t wash or cut food until you’re ready to prepare the meal. Once they have been cut, many fruits and vegetables discolor, plus spoilage accelerates, and flavor and nutritional value suffer. Remove excess greens, but leave an inch of stem to help retain moisture in root veggies like beets, carrots, and radishes.

~ Experiment with the exotic. Try chayote (a light green, pear-shaped vegetable), diced and boiled with pasta; fennel (which looks like flattened celery), raw in salads or cooked into pilafs; or kohlrabi (which looks like a green turnip), shredded and added to salad.

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