Fresh Backcountry Food

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

Cooking Time

Sometimes no cooking is best. After all, you've gone to the trouble of hauling weighty produce, so why not enjoy it raw when it's at its peak of flavor? Grate beets into salad. Eat baby carrots with lunch, and try thinly sliced turnips as a refreshing midafternoon snack.

Potatoes are too starchy to eat raw, and, like all root vegetables, they are slow to cook. Save them for campfires, when you can prepare them slowly while you enjoy the sunset. If you're using a pack stove, you don't have to drain the fuel tank to cook fresh potatoes. Dice them small, cover with water, and bring to a boil while keeping the pot covered. Turn off the heat, and let the pot stand for 15 minutes. The potatoes will be tender, especially if you wrap the pot in a sweater to retain the heat.

Summer squash cooks faster than potatoes and is just as filling. Add diced zucchini to noodles about 5 minutes before the pasta is ready; the squash will be ready by the time the pasta is al dente. The same goes for broccoli or asparagus.

Weight

This is where most backpackers balk, because not only does fresh food weigh more than its freeze-dried counterpart, but if you want to cook it, you have to carry about 25 percent more fuel than freeze-dried foods require. Personally, I'm willing to carry a slightly heavier pack on

shorter trips if it means eating "real" food at day's end. I make every ounce count by going for more flavor, texture, and substance with crisp apples, crunchy cabbage, and filling potatoes. While some people tote onions and garlic, I save a few ounces with onion and garlic granules (1/4 tablespoon garlic granules = 1 garlic clove; 1 tablespoon onion powder = 1 medium onion).

The only time I stick to freeze-dried is in bear country. The weight and volume of fresh grub makes it tough to bear bag or cram into slender bearproof canisters, not to mention the smells of fresh foods that can attract hungry bruins.

Waste

To reduce waste, consider produce that's entirely edible, like sugar snap or snow peas, zucchini, or carrots, rather than weighty and wasteful things like artichokes. Some people eat the entire apple, core and all, while others cook with the seeds and membranes of bell peppers. For snacking, there's almost nothing I like better than the spicy core of a cabbage or cauliflower.

Get the most out of leeks and green onions-the dark green portions are edible and visually enhance the meal. Thinly sliced broccoli stems add texture and zing to salads and replace water chestnuts in a stir-fry.

Buy organic, and you can eat the peels of apples and cucumbers, since they're not sprayed with pesticides or treated with waxes. Even citrus peels can be grated into pancakes, desserts, and salads for a flavorful twist.

Packing Produce

Once you're jazzed about fresh fruits and veggies, how do you avoid making fruit salad inside your pack?

~ Store easily bruised or squashed items in hard-sided cooking pots and mugs. I carry lettuce and tomatoes in a 1-quart plastic container that is also my plate and bowl.

~ Wrap ripe items in loose clothing or bubble wrap, which makes for essential entertainment if you become tentbound.

~ Pack apples and oranges near the top of your pack or in side pockets, and don't overfill or cinch too tightly.

~ Perishables can also be placed in a bag attached to the outside of your backpack.

Don't forget that fresh food needs to breathe (I use a paper bag or perforated plastic vegetable bag) and should be kept out of the sun. A light cotton pillowcase allows ventilation, and in camp you can plop it in a stream or snowbank. Or simply douse the pillowcase with water, wring out the excess, and let evaporation keep your food cool.

As T.S. Eliot asked in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" My answer is, "Why not?" Whatever you find delicious at home will be sheer heaven on the trail.