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Advice From Chef Slacker

Boil, pour, stir, eat. Camp food doesn't get any easier than this.

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Some people open a can of tuna, add a pinch and a dash, and the result is so darn tasty that usually-placid folks are drooling like dogs and willing to crawl across briers just to lick the spoon. These backwoods Chef Boyardees are to be worshipped and camped with whenever possible for the good eats they guarantee.

Then there are those who can’t cook an edible scrambled egg or for whom mastering the art of trail cooking isn’t of interest. If you fall into this category, you know the results: food that offends the taste buds. It doesn’t have to be that way. To make your meals better or easier to prepare, read the following four options, then compare “The Slacker Factors” to see which is best for you. Most require no more skill than knowing how to hold a spoon.

Food Without Fire

No stove means no bother. It also means no hot food, but that’s okay for a two- to three-day trip in mild weather when you don’t need the psychological lift and restorative warmth hot food provides. Cold camping doesn’t mean you have to miss out on taste and nutrition, either. For breakfast, you can munch on the same foods you do at home: bagels and cream cheese or cold cereal like Grape-Nuts or granola topped with rehydrated powdered milk, for example. Add dried fruit for flavor and a nutritional boost.

Lunch can be an all-day feast of gorp, energy or fruit bars, fresh fruit, jerky or meat sticks, cheese, crackers, and even more bagels (see Moveable Feast, September 1996, for additional suggestions). Make a sandwich by topping a bagel with mustard, salami, and cheese. Or spread peanut butter inside pita pockets, then stuff them with fresh apple slices. Peanut butter makes just about anything taste good.

For dinner, try an appetizer of instant hummus and pita bread, with a main course of chopped fresh shittake mushrooms, tofu, and sprouts rolled in a tortilla. Dessert is from the candy and cookie isle: Snickers bars, M&Ms, pecan sandies, or chocolate chip cookies.

Be sure to drink lots of water, or throw in some powdered fruit or energy drinks for variety and much-needed, energy-producing calories. And remember that high temperatures and certain foods aren’t always a good mix, so pick wisely. Reduce your risk of getting salmonella by choosing hard cheeses over soft and cured meats over fresh.

Before your trip, check your fridge for leftovers with a low-spoilage factor. An already-baked potato cut open and filled with cheese will do for a weekend trip. Precooked rice, carried in a plastic bag, can be stuffed into a green pepper or a pita pocket and topped with cheese. Or grab a can of tuna from the pantry to make a sandwich.

If the weight makes you hesitate, remember that you’ll enjoy the benefits of convenience and minimal food prep time.

Military Intelligence

No time or patience to plan a multiday menu and shop for all that food? The military has your dinner waiting in the form of Meals, Ready-to-Eat, also known as MREs. Inspired by astronauts who were tired of sucking their meals from a toothpaste tube, MREs contain everything a meat-and-potatoes kind of person would dream of: an entrße (chicken chow mein, chicken with rice, beef stew, and chili macaroni, for example, plus vegetarian fare), bread, dessert, snack, powdered juice, instant coffee, gum, spoon, and napkin, all in an indestructible plastic bag.

The food is precooked, so you can eat it right out of the bag, or use the lazy man’s style of heating: Carry the entrße in one of your inside pockets for a few hours and let your body warm it. You can also pay more and get MREs prepackaged with a warming element that puts off an amazing amount of heat with just a dash of water. Of course, you could just drop the laminated bag into a pot of boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes for hot food.

The downside to MREs is the weight. The food itself can add up to a pound-even more if you add in the heating element. Then again, remember that you’re leaving a few pounds of stove and fuel at home.

You’ll find MREs in Army & Navy stores and sometimes in outdoors stores. The simplest shopping method is via the Internet (search word: MRE). Or check out Long Life Food Depot, which sells the individual parts for up to $4 each or by the case for $45 to $75. Brigade Quartermasters offers full field package MREs individually for up to $7.50 or as a case of 12 for $70.

Civilian MREs, or “retort” foods, are available in some supermarkets. They come with the heating element plus the water needed to set the warming process in motion. Heater Meals, Inc., provides a tasty meal in 14 minutes, but at $3.99 and more than a pound each, you have to consider if it’s worth the money and weight. AlpineAire, known for its freeze-dried food, recently introduced a retort line of entrßes and hot drinks. Pull the cord and after 15 minutes of steaming, bubbling, and shaking, you have what looks like airline food but tastes like warmed up homemade leftovers.

Just Add Water

Okay, so you’re not a total idiot in the outdoor kitchen. You can at least brew up a quality cup of hot chocolate. But when it comes to menu planning, you could use some help. Here’s where freeze-dried and dehydrated meals come in. Both have long been staples in the backpacking world because of their light weight and variety (see April’s Moveable Feast for more on the processing differences). With options like granola with milk for breakfast and dinners of seafood chowder or peach and pecan chicken, you have more choices than you do with the weightier MREs. Simply pour boiling water into the tough, resealable bag and stir. When your meal is over, you’ll have an instant package for leftovers and no cleanup. Richmoor and Backpacker’s Pantry provide complete meals consisting of an entrße, side dish or soup, dessert, and a drink.

Since our freeze-dried taste test in December 1997 (“Finger Lickin’ Good”), we’ve discovered a company that offers organic trail food. Paradise Farms’ Backcountry Organic line is available via mail order for $3 to $6 per meal. Mountain Safety Research distributes the same foods in outdoors stores under the label Ecocuisine ($5 to $8 per meal). Although it weighs more than traditional freeze-dried meals, this organic fare is still lighter than fresh and is outstanding in taste. On the downside, preparation takes about 15 minutes of watching and stirring, and some entrßes require cleaning up a very messy pot. The two-serving organic chilimac I tried went down easily and quickly, as did the lentil curry couscous, and alfredo pasta and cheese with garlic and basil.

Ready In An Instant

Go to your local grocery store and look beyond the milk, bread, and Ben and Jerry’s. You’ll find lots of quick, just-add-boiling-water options, such as instant oatmeal and Cream of Wheat (throw in some nuts, powdered butter, and dried fruit to add flavor). There’s instant tea, coffee, and powdered milk for hot drinks, plus tons of soup in packets. And don’t forget the perennial favorite: tried-and-true Ramen noodles.

Or pick up a few varieties of dinner-in-a-bag. I like Lipton’s dinners with options like Rice & Sauce (creamy chicken is good), Pasta & Sauce (creamy garlic is another winner), and Noodles & Sauce (try the chicken broccoli). They take about 10 minutes of boiling, and the manufacturers suggest adding milk (powdered works fine) and butter or margarine (the milk and butter are optional, but do add taste). Use only half the flavor packet because they’re usually quite salty.

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