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; kingarthurflour.com.
> 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.
Coconut Chocolate Mango Fondue
7-ounce premium dark
chocolate candy bar
2 ounces coconut milk
15 to 20 pieces dried mango
In camp: Melt the chocolate in a saucepan over low heat with coconut milk (if you've already used a can of coconut milk for dinner, just save some for the fondue). When the chocolate is thoroughly melted, remove it from the heat. Use forks or sticks to skewer mango pieces (or other dried fruit) and dip them in the chocolate. Serves four.
1 cup dried porcini
1 cup sun-dried
1/3 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup fresh basil
salt and pepper
7 1/2-ounce package crostinis
In camp: Soak mushrooms and tomatoes in hot water for 5 minutes, then saute them with olive oil, garlic, and pine nuts. Stir in basil just prior to removing from heat, add salt and pepper to taste, then serve as dip with crostinis. If you're drinking wine, add a splash to the ingredients while cooking. Serves four as an appetizer.
3/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
3/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 cup dry white wine
1 pound penne pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
6.5-ounce can whole or chopped clams (double if desired)
salt, pepper, and crushed red chilies
1 cup grated mild white cheddar
1/4 pound parmesan cheese
At home: Get the freshest parsley and basil available. Pour the wine into a plastic container. Package ingredients separately.
In camp: Boil the pasta according to the package directions. In a separate saucepan, briefly saute the olive oil, garlic, and clams with a little salt, pepper, and crushed red chilies. Over a low flame, add wine and heat, but don't boil. For a creamy sauce, add cheddar cheese. Drain pasta and combine it with the sauce, plus parsley and basil. Serve with freshly grated parmesan. Serves three or four.
1/3 cup water
2 teaspoons instant espresso
2 tablespoons Kahlua
3.4-ounce package white chocolate
or chocolate instant pudding mix
powdered milk to equal 2 cups when reconstituted
1 tablespoon cocoa powder or
At home: Measure Kahl?a into an empty clean film canister. Package espresso in a separate zipper-lock bag.
In camp: Heat the water. Combine the water, espresso, and Kahl?a and mix well. Reconstitute the milk. Make the instant pudding according to the directions on the box. Layer half the ladyfingers in the bottom of a pot, drizzle with half of the coffee mixture, then spread half the pudding over top. Repeat with another layer of ladyfingers, coffee, and pudding. Sift cocoa powder or chocolate shavings over top. If you have access to snow or cold water, make this dessert well before dinner and chill before serving. Serves four.
1/2 cup cognac, Amaretto, or Cointreau
1 thin bar flavored dark chocolate
(orange, hazelnut, espresso,
or dried raspberry)
8 graham crackers
(or 16 fancy cookies)
In camp: Soak the marshmallows in the liquor for 5 to 10 seconds. Toast the marshmallows over an open flame. Sandwich the marshmallows with chocolate squares between graham crackers. Serves two.
2 cups instant rice
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1 package nori (seaweed sheets, about 10)
2 ounces sesame seeds
1 can shrimp or crab meat
soy sauce (to taste)
dried wasabi powder
6 ounces pickled ginger
At home: If you've never made sushi before,
practice at home. You'll need a sushi mat (most weigh just a few ounces and cost about $2).
In camp: Cook rice, then add vinegar to the rice to make it sticky. Let the rice cool completely before rolling sushi. Place a nori on top of a sushi mat, and layer rice, veggies, sesame seeds, and seafood on top, then roll and cut to your desired length. Serve with soy sauce, reconstituted wasabi, and ginger. Serves four as an appetizer. Can't find sushi makings at your local store? Go to
asiafoods.com for online shopping.