Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Back Country Pantry

I hope you got the idea from the Dispatch two weeks ago that I put a premium on cooking real food over saving weight when I’m in the wilderness.

It’s no contest; I love to eat well when I camp, no matter the circumstances.

Admittedly Lost Brook Tract affords me a real advantage because we have a lean-to and a fire ring with which to maintain a permanent base camp.  In fact during our first summer trip there, in addition to lots of tools, supplies and the makings for Shay’s Privy, we hauled in a primo cooking setup.  It consisted of a large, heavy-duty two-burner stove, tubing, a propane gas distribution pipe and a screw-on lantern at the top.

Some hiker noticed my load at the trail head when I hauled in the propane tank, one of those deals you usually see mounted on the front of an RV.  Their look of scorn and derision was forgotten as soon as I fired this deal up for the first time.

Along with the stove we brought in all of the utensils, dishes, silverware, classes and cups one would find in a typical kitchen.  We also brought in large water containers and a dry bag with which to store and submerge perishables in one of Lost Brook’s beautiful pools, where the temperature never exceeds the low fifties.

The sum total of our Lost Brook cooking setup has a utility close to my kitchen at home (though no oven, sadly).  But truth be told you can get really close with a typical backpacking setup.  You do need to sacrifice a little in the pack weight department in order to have the right cooking gear, for you need more than the single small water pot required when using freeze dried packages.

It is really helpful to have two stoves.  Although not absolutely necessary, two burners are invaluable.  In this era of ultra-lightweight stoves, it is not that great a weight cost.  It is good to have a larger pot for water and a large, wide sauce or sauté pan, which can be used for a variety of cooking.  I don’t bother with plates or silverware when backpacking, but a couple of spoons and a can opener make the cut.

A few items depend upon the circumstances of your trip.  If you are going to establish a base camp from which you will take day hikes then it is worth it to pack a dry bag in order to refrigerate those items that will last longer with a reasonable drop in temperature.  Submerging a dry bag works very well.  I wouldn’t leave one at a bear-friendly camping area, but well back in the wilderness it is unlikely to be disturbed (I’ve never had one touched).   A sealable container for soaking beans makes the cut in a base camp situation.  However if you are on the move every day with a full pack then neither using a dry bag nor soaking beans makes any sense.

Before we get on to the food, it is probably a good idea to deal with one of the objections I frequently hear about cooking in the back country: dirty dishes.  When you go the freeze dried route your pot only boils water.  Your prep dishes and your plates are all the same thing, a pouch packed out as trash.  You lick your spoon clean and that’s that.  On the other hand if you actually cook, then washing dirty dishes, which is an awkward and unpleasant chore everyone tries to avoid, becomes necessary.

Or is it?  I’ve seen hikers with collapsible dish pans, soap, rags, towels, scrub pads, the whole kit and caboodle.  I have none of those things because I have learned about the most amazing cleaning/scrubbing/grease-removing substance on earth: Adirondack soil.  It’s incredible, far better than dish soap.  You simply rub your dirty dishes with dirt right from the first inch or two of the ground, leaves and soil and all.  You scrub with this until you feel the grease or oil in the food get absorbed or scraped away – you can clearly sense this happen.  Then you pour a little water to rinse the dirt away and voila!  Sparkling clean dishes.  That clay-free Adirondack soil absorbs all the crap and easily washes completely away.  Soap and pans and all that are completely unnecessary.

Don’t do this near a stream!  One water bottle will rinse a whole passel of dishes.  Keep away from water sources.

Now you have the means to cook and clean real meals, all that remains is the food.  Let me share a typical “pantry” for a one-week summer trip with four hikers (winter changes the deal and makes a lot more possible).  The list does not include snack foods such as trail mix, granola or dried fruits.


A small quantity of powdered milk.  Powdered milk makes a good cream sauce but you have to make it strong and then cook it for a while.  If you cook it long enough the “afterburn” taste powdered milk typically has will largely disappear.  Powdered milk can flavor coffee and oatmeal too.

The quality of the powdered milk matters a whole lot: get organic if you can..

Instant mashed potatoes.  Versatile, filling, nearly as good as the fresh version.

Dried pasta.  Many of my dinner meals are pasta since they’re easy to do, versatile, high-carb, and offer unlimited opportunities to be really flavorful.   I choose dense, bite-sized pastas since they are easy to repackage and pack, easier to cook, hold up better to the rigors of a trip and are usually more filling.  For a week-long trip for four I’ll have three one-pound packages in some combination of penne, farfalle and gemelli.

Rice.  Rice is heavy even when dry and takes a while to cook.  But what can’t you do with it?

Dried beans.  If you have a base camp setup where you can leave beans to rehydrate, dried beans are a great deal, flavorful, filling and loaded with protein.  I often bring garbanzos, which can work well in so many dishes.  Just beware, it will take twice as long to reconstitute them as the packaging says.  The use of beans takes a little planning

Olive oil.  A small plastic jar will do it.  You can easily halve the amount of olive oil you think you need to cook something, so it will last.  Get high quality oil, as its superior flavor intensity will allow smaller quantities to go a lot further and have a greater effect.  I prefer olive oil over other oils because of its great flavor but it does not tolerate heat like a peanut oil or canola oil.  Therefore you must be careful when you cook with olive oil; it is very easy to overheat it.  A small amount of olive oil will heat on a backpack stove in five seconds.  I often add the other ingredients to the oil before heating, just to avoid trouble.

Aged, hard cheese.  What is life without dairy?  Of course I am slightly biased by having been in Wisconsin for a few decades, but cheese can add so much to a variety of dishes and elevate bland camping meals from boring to sexy.  Pick a hard, aged cheese (I adore aged gouda).  It will survive in the pack, needs no refrigeration and its concentrated flavor means a little will go a long way.

Pancake mix.  Gotta have breakfast!

Oatmeal.  Same thing, but for I pack it for Amy.  I hate the stuff.

Sugar and brown sugar.  Brown sugar for the oatmeal.  Or melt it for pancake syrup.

Drink mixes.  I only pack three: hot chocolate, tea and coffee singles.  Coffee singles are a relatively new phenomenon, but they’re great.  They are single serving of coffee in a tea bag, brewed just like tea.

Dried herbs and spices.   These guys are the key.  Learn how to use them and you will be the envy of the back country.  They weigh nothing, last forever and transform meals.  My pack has salt, black pepper, cayenne, parsley, oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary.  Sage gets an honorable mention, especially if you are cooking mushroom dishes.


Fresh vegetables that last for a few days.  Dehydrated vegetables are mostly intolerable.  You simply have to have fresh ones. Fortunately some fresh vegetables last a long time. I bring peppers, carrots, celery and onions.  Green onions are lighter than regular ones and can do the job but they deteriorate and get slimy quickly.  I bring good old fashioned yellow onions.

Forget anything leafy.  I’ve never figured out how to get leafy vegetables through a single day in edible condition.

Dehydrated vegetables that are tolerable.  Not many vegetables make this list but corn and green peas do.  So do mushrooms, in fact dried mushrooms are fabulous.  Just be sure to give them time to reconstitute and always rinse them to remove sand and grit.

Canned tomatoes.  Call me crazy, two cans of Muir Glen diced tomatoes go in my pack.  They are too good to leave behind; dehydrated tomatoes are terrible.

Canned black olives.  A Small can of olives can last a long time as olives pack a lot of flavor and versatility for the size.  Repack them in a sealable container with a little juice and you’re good for a week.

Small jar capers.  Capers offer the same benefits as olives, except even more flavor for even less weight.  One small jar will be useful in many dishes over the course of a week.


Jerky.  Don’t think of jerky as just a snack food.  There is a wide variety of jerky out there, made from a range of meats and fishes.  Jerky can make a rice dish a meat entrée .  Amy mixes it in potatoes.   Following a theme in this Dispatch, a little jerky goes a long way.

Sausage.  The sausage of your choice is versatile, keeps reasonably well and small quantities of it can make a large meaty meal.  However don’t try to keep just any old sausage for a week without refrigeration or you might have a menagerie of living things following you down the trail.

Canned salmon.  A three ounce can of good quality salmon can make a hell of a meal (see below).  Once again, quality matters.  Of the commercial varieties Bumblebee is quite good.  Dry salmon is doable too, but the juice in the canned salmon permeates your dish with richer flavor.

That’s it!  A basic one-week pantry!  What can you make with this pantry?  Here’s an example, to show you how fancy you can get.  This can be done with one burner and one pot, however two burners makes things much, much easier.  I’ll describe it assuming you have two burners, a pasta pot and a sauté pan.


Farfalle al Salmone with Capers, using Pete’s Back Country Pantry

Heat the pasta water.

Sauté 1 can Muir Glen diced tomatoes on high heat for 3 minutes, reducing them rapidly.  Toss in 1 small onion or ½ of a medium one, diced, 2 cloves of garlic crushed and finely chopped, and 3 tbsp capers (about a third of a jar), crushed and chopped. Sauté on high heat for one more minute, reduce to medium/low and simmer for 5 minutes.

Cook the farfalle al dente while finishing the sauce.

Add ½ tbsp oregano, ½ tsp cayenne or to taste and maybe 1/2 tsp of thyme.  Add one 3 ounce can of good canned salmon to the sauce, not drained but with the juice.  Simmer for 2-3 more minutes.

Stir in 2-3 heaping tablespoons of powdered milk, bit by bit to avoid lumps.  Add water as necessary to thin the sauce to a slightly watery consistency.  Add 1/2 tsp salt and bring the sauce to a boil, stirring constantly.  Immediately reduce heat and simmer on low 5 or 10 more minutes, letting the sauce thicken. Adjust salt to bring out the creamy flavor, add fresh cracked black pepper and toss into the pasta.

This serves four.  Total cooking time is 25 minutes, including prep.

Seriously, kids, if you cook this dish people will think they are at some snooty Italian restaurant.  Meanwhile you’ll have a lighter backpack and a pasta pot and sauté pan that a brisk scrub with Adirondack dirt and a quick rinse will clean in a minute flat.

Life is short, even in the back country.  Eat and enjoy!

Photo: Cooking Farfalle al Salmone at Lost Brook Tract.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

2 Responses

  1. Michael McGuire says:

    I made the Salmon with penne and I used a vodka sauce. It came out great. The capers are a must. The two burner stove is also a must. Just bought my first one and the propane canisters actually lasted me longer ( about 2 days) than I thought, cooking on a medium flame.

    Cooking like this while staring out into a beautiful forest and smelling the pine and listen to the birds recount their day to one another is sublime.

    Bon Appetit!

  2. David St.Onge says:

    A few years ago my sister and her husband came up to the Adirondacks to fish late in April just after ice out. My brother-in-law is a dedicated fisherman as I am. After pond hopping in the cold wind and rain showers my sister was getting cold and wanted to cut the fishing trip short.I suggested that we stop for a shore lunch. I built a fire and pulled out my double burner cook stove. I took out my grandfather’s coffee pot and made some coffee. On the other burrner I sauted’ onion and garlic and pulled out marinated venison tender loins. I served it on large spinich tortilla. My sister was warm by the fire and impressed by the meal, She asked me if I “did this a lot”. I told her that I did this sort of thing “every damn day”. I don’t remember how many brook trout we caught that day but everyone remembers the meal.

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