Back when the world was flat and seas abounded with serpents, Europe's finest sailed the globe in leaky wooden ships searching for a substance worth its weight in gold. What inspired such bravery? Diamonds? Platinum? No, they were after spice. If you ate turnips, potatoes, and gruel morning, noon, and night, you'd know why men risked everything for a pinch of cinnamon or dash of pepper. Then again, you may alreadyhave an inkling. The way some backpackers deprive their taste buds with bland meals built around rice, noodles, and couscous, they might have felt right at home in the Dark Ages.
Today, of course, spices are less pricey and easier to obtain. But their value to a hungry backpacker still far exceeds their nearly negligible weight. A half teaspoon of cinnamon weighs less than the grit collected in your pack pockets, but it can make a merciful difference in a meal.
Spices are botanical blasting caps-seeds, roots, flowers, or buds that have been specially dried and/or cured to concentrate their piquancy. Their power makes them perfect for demolishing dullery in Plain Jane dishes and for doctoring disasters. A dash of nutmeg or cayenne adds zip to mac 'n' cheese. Ground clove can hide the wet-charcoal flavor of scorched stew. Here are some other ways to add spice-and variety-to your backcountry cuisine.
- Pack a spice kit. Once you begin thinking of spices as condiments as well as recipe ingredients, you'll want to tote an assortment suited to your tastes and intended menu. You can buy segmented shakers filled with a selection of basic spices: Kenyon's Multi-Spice Shaker, for example, includes black pepper, salt, paprika, curry, cayenne, and garlic powder. It weighs 51/4 ounces and sells for about $3.75 at backpacking supply stores. Or, for a little more culinary freedom, assemble your own arsenal. Small vials made of food-grade plastic, also found at outdoors stores, make the safest containers.
- Use everyday spices in new ways. Add a touch of cinnamon to powdered milk, peanut butter, or hot chocolate. Sprinkle nutmeg on rehydrated vegetables. Enliven beans with cumin or cayenne. Zap popcorn with a few pinches of almost anything.
- Experiment with unfamiliar spices. Mix a pinch of anise, cardamom, or fenugreek into flat bread dough; put a pinch of turmeric in soup or first-morning-out scrambled eggs; sprinkle some coriander seed on pasta or couscous.
- Blend your own. Curry powders, chili powders, and other multiple-spice blends make great all-purpose seasonings and can save you the trouble of carrying a large number of individual spices. Contrary to what you may think, curry and chili powders are created by blending numerous spices, not derived from the "curry" or "chile" plant. There's a certain mad-scientist appeal to concocting your own combinations-and taste-testing them is pleasurable, too. Mix your blend with a dab of cream cheese, and keep sampling until you're satisfied.
- Use whole or freshly ground spices when possible. Once ground, spices gradually but surely lose their potency. For maximum flavor buy such spices as pepper, allspice, and cardamom whole, then grind them in a blender or coffee or pepper mill just before packing. Some spices, such as turmeric, are rarely available whole; others are simply easier to use powdered. Buy ground spices in small quantities and replace any older than a year.
- A little goes a long way. Spices are neither as subtle or as forgiving as herbs. A rule of thumb when adding a spice to a dish for the first time is to start with half as much as you think you need. In most cases that means about 1/8 teaspoon for a dish that serves two, or just a good-size pinch for a one-person meal.
- As for which spices or spice blends to pack, well, that's up to you. In time you'll develop a list of must-have spices and nice-to-have optionals. For a two- to three-night outing, I'd leave my air mattress behind before departing without a teaspoon or two of freshly ground pepper, ground cinnamon, ground clove (plus three or four whole cloves), nutmeg (a half to a whole seed), and one whole cayenne or chile de arbol, or half a dozen (or more!) chiltepin peppers. I also bring along salt and garlic powder.
Terry Krautwurst quests for spices at his local supermarket in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where the world is anything but flat.
Kenyon Consumer Products, P.O. Box 458, 41 Fairgrounds Rd., West Kingston, RI 02892; (800) 537-0024; http://www.kenyonconsumer.com.
From Cooking The One Burner Way, by Buck Tilton and Melissa Gray, ICS Books, (800) 541-7323. $11.95.