Culinaria Backcountry: Canned Beans or Creme Brûlée
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Culinaria Backcountry: Canned Beans or Creme Brûlée

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Culinaria Backcountry: Canned Beans or Creme Brûlée

Culinaria Backcountry: Canned Beans or Creme Brûlée

It’s safe to assume most folks close to me wouldn’t label me a social butterfly during the off-season— hermit may be more appropriate. My wintertime existence is probably some ad hoc tactic to strike balance with the overload of social stimulus I enjoy during the warmer months. But I do enjoy the connectedness while I’m in it. This is especially so if I’m shuttling our guests throughout the Park, when there’s a chance for longer conversation.

If talk isn’t flowing during the drive, I keep a few questions ready to add like yeast to the conversational dough. ‘Do you have anything exciting planned for your meals?’ is my favourite. What follows runs the gamut, anything from “Oh, nothing special, just a packa’ Larsens and a can of beans” to something about cheese blintzes and wild blueberry compote with French press coffee for brekkie.

Okay, I exaggerated on the blintzes, but I’m offering it up to anyone to try. I bet they’re easier than you think.

I don’t mean to look down my nose at the pragmatic interpretations of a Maritime woods lunch. Instead, I want to suggest that, with a bit of imagination, a backcountry kitchen is pretty friggin’ capable. This of course is contingent on a few obvious factors: you have to want good backcountry food; the opportunity is called for; and you have the means. I always prefer good food and drink, so my deciding factors are:

A. Is it called for?

I was once chided by a guide instructor for carrying bagels, lox, cream cheese, capers a lemon and a red onion in my backpack on a multi-day guide training course. His argument was it was heavy and I should conserve my energy in case an extraordinary circumstance arose. He was right, but I wanted my group to eat well. Though I loved that program tremendously, you could look at it like a 2 year practice in enduring hot mush meals (oats, cream of wheat, quinoa, corn grits, amaranth, bulgar wheat, ad nauseum). As an aside, Kar just had a flashback of a bacon fat and mashed potato meal served to her on a guide training course. Creative stuff, hey? Right, I was trying to make the point that if diversity is the spice of life, then by default hikers can’t eat as well as canoe trippers, and your menu should be tailored accordingly.

B. Do you have the means?

Okay, you like to eat good food, you’re heading out on a weekend canoe trip so buoyancy is doing the heavy lifting, but that student loan payment just came out of your account. Is the imported Gruyere necessary, or will some Farmers cheddar suffice? My practice is this: while the paycheques are rolling in I’ll enjoy French wine and the rest of the time I drink boxed wine. What of it?

Many folks enjoy the food they love at home, and I believe a camping trip shouldn’t be an exception to that. My guess is as good as any, but I’ve always assumed there have been two main assumptions binding campers to their cans of beans:

  • Food Spoilage
  • Limited kitchen capability

The persistent march of coolers over Keji’s portage trails demonstrates most folks are tackling the first limitation suitably, however I still see the odd sot trodding along with pained arms stretching from the weight of their ice chest (a modern interpretation of The Rack). It doesn’t have to be like this, though: there are some rad coolers with wheels which will make this easier, or better yet, a barrel canoe pack with a coupla’ frozen water bottles (yes, when they melt you can lighten your load by drinking them!). Worth mentioning, we have been testing some barrel-specific soft coolers and have been very pleased with the results: margaritas on ice at Site 32 and firm brie on day 3 lunch next to Poison Ivy Falls.

In that vein, I need to mention food won’t spoil as fast as you think. If it passes the sniff test and visual test, it’s likely fine to eat. Please take that statement and what follows with the pinch of salt that I am neither a food scientist nor food safe expert. However, my sentiment is this: the drier it is, the longer it will last. Bocconcini is a day 1 consumable, while the block of Parmigiano will likely outlast the canoe trip. Don’t be fooled: sweaty cheese is perfectly fine to eat. I extend that axiom to meats, too (the one about dryness, not sweatiness), so the black forest ham is finished in the first 24 hours, but the hard dry salami will be fine throughout.

Side Anecdote Start (skip at your pleasure or read if interested)

My strategy has come a long way since my early days: One hot August while on an 8-day Tobeatic canoe trip amongst friends, we discovered we were being followed by an odious smog. We thoroughly enjoyed, as boys do, assigning blame for a mysterious and foul stink which arose at regular intervals. This persisted over a two day period. It smelled like a rotten egg, yet was never accompanied by an acoustic element. It turns out the culprit was a rotten egg; a tetrapack of them, actually, which had bloated like a roadside carcass and was intermittently releasing the aforementioned aroma. We removed the rot-bomb from the food barrel with every bit of slow deliberate precision an engineer would use removing a landmine and discarded it in the bushes. I like to imagine the surprise a raven had when it applied its beak to the pressurized egg carton.

Side Anecdote Finish

Now for the second assumption which is limited kitchen capability. My thoughts are this: If you equip your backcountry kitchen well, including your imagination, you can pull off just about anything. Throw in a dutch oven and you’re practically an iron chef. I’m not joking. Consider this: float a small pot in a larger pot of boiling water and you’ve got your double boiler. If I can almost smell the eggs Benedict, then why do so many oat packets go into the backcountry? Is it that, collectively we’ve never looked at the backcountry kitchen as capable? Or, do we want a light load for ease of travel? Which, if that’s the case, it’s a good reason for oats.

Don’t be afraid to throw in some simple accoutrements that’ll bring some serious curb appeal (can I use that here?) to your meals. That freezer garlic bread wrapped in tin foil over the fire takes your pasta dish to the next level. Glass is heavy and tends to break, but a box of red is perfectly suited for the backcountry. Plus, if it’s a big box, you can use it to forestall mutiny in the event of a culinary catastrophe.

The Whynot Adventure Guided Trip Kitchen Equipment List

  • Dutch Oven (and parchment paper)
  • 30cm fry pan
  • 4 nesting pots
  • Chef and paring knives
  • Thin plastic cutting boards
  • Stainless steel tongs
  • Thin metal spatula flipper
  • Coffee press (and small pocket rocket stove to expedite process)
  • Hand crank coffee grinder (it’s excessive.. or is it?)
  • Tin foil
  • Water filter
  • Mess kits and cutlery
  • Spice kit (staples like salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, garlic powder, sugar et cetera)
  • A can opener
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Lighter

5-Pro Tips:

1. Make Your Menu In Advance

Plan your menu for your trip and then sort each meal chronologically in a spreadsheet (yes, the dreaded ’s’ word, but, on the bright side you can hide canoe trip daydreaming more easily at work if it’s organized in a spreadsheet!). Then itemize the ingredients for each meal below their respective meal title. Use the itemized menu you just created to start your ‘Shop List’ in another spreadsheet. Start transferring the individual items to the new spreadsheet, but organize them under headers such as: Produce, Bakery, Freezer, Deli, for an efficient grocery story experience. This will make your Friday afternoon so much more efficient.

2. Freeze certain foods

To aid in refrigeration during the trip we will freeze some items prior to packing. The day before our canoe trip is supposed to start, Kar and I will start to pack the shelf stable food. Anything which can be frozen, but isn’t needed for day 1 lunch will go into the freezer. This includes items like cheese, any meats, butter, bread or naan. On the day of our departure these frozen items are distributed throughout the food barrel lending their ‘coldness’ to keep the overall temperature down.

3. Pack Strategically

We like to maximize efficiency for many reasons, but namely to maximize enjoyment. We’ve found the best way to pack is to sort each meal into its own labelled bag (in previous years our business used plastic grocery bags :( but as of 2019 we exclusively use canvas at the grocery store and for sorting our trip meals!). This way you’re not searching through the barrel for a garlic clove you may or may not have used up already. Then, each bag gets placed in the food barrel chronologically, so the first one you pull out is the first meal on the menu.

4. The Best Cooking Fire

The best cooking fire is one with little flame and many hot coals. Flames can scorch your food and are difficult to control, especially if there’s a bit of a breeze. I like to get a big fire burning while I’m doing the meal prep (chopping onion, drinking wine) so it’s burned down to a nice glowing bed of coals when I’m ready to start cooking. If your meal is one that requires prolonged head, keep some small (wrist diameter) wood available to augment as necessary.

5. Leave The Waste At Home

Strip excessive packaging at home. What I mean by this is, take the bag of crackers out of the box, and recycle the cardboard at home. Many food items are excessively packaged which leads to dirty garbage fires in the backcountry or an oversized leaky garbage bag hanging around camp. Little reusable plastic containers can really help with efficiency, too! Bring only what you need, and leave the rest at home!