Seasoned backpackers are trained to scrutinize every bit of gear they’ll be lugging into the wilderness — trimming away superfluous packaging; squirting 2.2 days worth of sunscreen and toothpaste into itsy bitsy bottles; rationing the crackers and instant cocoa pouches, forsaking the fiber-fill pillow for a rolled-up fleece jacket.
But what I’ve noticed during my lifetime of backpacking is that most of us have areas where the weight of an object is secondary to the pleasure derived from bringing it along — which is how we end up with a spendy ultra-light Titanium cookset, and 1-1/2 pounds of fresh salmon. Or a frozen Porterhouse. The meat weighs more than the pot it’s cooked in, but on that first night out on the trail, it’s oh-so-worth it!
Like the beginning of a hike my husband, Steve, and I took into the Wallowas with friends a while back. Freeze-dried lasagna and similar weightless entrees awaited us farther up the trail during our 5-day trek into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. But on that first night — while backs were strong and fresh food still an option — we had fresh-frozen salmon (barely thawed by the time we made camp), local cucumbers and Walla Walla Sweet onion slices that had mingled in a light vinaigrette for 48 hours, instant garlic-mashed potatoes, and fresh Bodacious corn off the cob.
Indeed. Hiker trade-offs.
In the last few years, I’ve added another level of ritual to my portable menu. With all of our August and September high-country excursions, the first night’s menu always consists of fresh local corn. Off the cob, of course, and packed into a recloseable plastic bag, along with the pat of butter it will be cooked with up in the wilderness. The extra weight it adds to my pack for the first leg of our adventure is a fair trade for the groans of delight it produces among our group of trail-weary hikers.
For Steve, lunch is one of the times he’s particularly hankering for a little extra flavor. So we’ll bring along “canned” tuna commercially packed in foil pouches, which we doctor up with squirts from single-serving packets of mayonnaise and mustard. One time we were even able to add fresh wild onions that we found growing at 6,000 feet in the Wallowas. Ak-Mak is our preferred cracker for transporting tuna from pouch to mouth.
Another Steve topping for Ak-Mak is peanut butter and my homemade raspberry jam, each component packed into a plastic backpacking food tube. He’s also fond of carrying Tabasco sauce to boost the flavor of otherwise tame offerings, such as the various freeze-dried entrees. This hot sauce comes in tiny, single-serving packets, but Steve’s particularly fond of carrying his very own little 1/8-ounce bottle.
Some additional food for thought:
• Don’t overlook instant couscous; a delicious pre-cooked and dried starch that’s also very lightweight.
• Potato flakes: lightweight and a wonderful way to give a little substance to a powdered soup or stew.
• How about a pertinent Chardonnay with that salmon? Transfer the wine out of the heavy glass bottle into plastic water bottles. Once the wine’s gone, the plastic bottles can be returned to their original intended use.
• Cheese is the hiker’s lunchtime staple. Hard cheese keeps longer without refrigeration. Two to four ounces is enough for one adult lunch with crackers, nuts and fruit.
• Check out your favorite bulk-food source for some great trail food inspiration, such as dehydrated cooked lentils and refried beans. You’ll also find seasoning mixes, instant vegetable (and beef and chicken) stock powder, and dried soup mixes in bulk form.
The following recipes are from my trail treats collection. Don’t let the length of the Panforte recipe dissuade you from considering it. It’s easy to assemble.
1 red onion, sliced
1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1 (.7-ounce) packet of Italian salad dressing mix
3/4 cup wine vinegar
1/4 cup salad oil
Place vegetables in large zip-lock bag. Add dressing packet contents, vinegar and oil. Seal pouch, and squeeze to combine contents. If you want the salad to be cold when eaten, place the bag in a second zip-lock bag and chill the pouch in a snowbank, river or lake until ready to serve.
SAFETY NOTE: To avoid contaminating the contents of the inner zip-close bag with untreated river or lake water, be sure to rinse the outside of the outer bag with treated water before opening.
Dave & Margy’s Trail Salmon
Consider this meal for your first night on the trail. Heavenly!
1-1/2 pounds of wild salmon filets or steaks (see note)
Dry white wine (such as pinot blanc, pinot gris or sauvignon blanc) or cooking sherry
Generous squeeze of fresh lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Create a foil pan for the fish that is large enough to surround everything and partially enclose the top. Snuggle this pan into your largest backpacking skillet. Spread open the foil and place the salmon in the center. Pour on enough dry white wine to create a small amount of liquid around the salmon. Add the juice from half a lemon, a few slivers of butter, some slices of Walla Walla Sweet onion, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and about 2 teaspoons of fresh rosemary leaves. Snuggle the foil up and around the fish, leaving the top open so the fish will poach but not steam.
Place the foil pouch and skillet over a backpacking stove and cook just until the fish will flake when gently prodded with a fork, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, and the temperature of your environment. Every few minutes during cooking, baste the fish with some of the wine liquid. Makes 4 servings.
Note on salmon: Make sure you start with a frozen piece. Also, it’s less messy if you can transport it in a vacuum-sealed pouch.
Back Country Panforte
This gives you about 36 (1-by-2-inch) pieces.
Chock-full of toasty, hazelnuts and almonds, luscious dried figs and thick, golden honey, this is a trail treat that pairs fabulously with that after-dinner scotch. But it’s also an energizing mid-afternoon snack, enjoyed at the upper-most end of a day hike. And because it’s sturdy in nature, it gets high grades in the portability department too.
8 ounces dried black mission figs (see note below)
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons freshly grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup whole, toasted, skinned hazelnuts
1 cup whole, toasted almonds
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup honey
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan and set aside. (If you don’t have a springform pan, then line a 10-inch round or square baking pan with heavy-duty foil, then butter and flour the foil; the foil will help you lift the baked and cooled panforte from the pan after it’s cooled).
Trim the tiny stem end from each dried fig. Slice the figs into very thin pieces (each dried fig should be cut into at least 6 slender pieces); set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, orange peel, cinnamon and ground cloves.
Coarsely chop the hazelnuts and almonds (by “coarsely chop” I mean, simply cut each nut into 2 or 3 pieces). Add the nuts and the prepared figs to the flour mixture and toss thoroughly to evenly coat the fruit and nuts; set aside.
Place the sugar and honey into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and stir gently to combine. Scrape the sides of the pan with a rubber spatula to remove any honey and sugar crystals. Set the pan over low heat. Without stirring, let the mixture heat up so the sugar can begin to dissolve. Increase the heat to medium and continue cooking without stirring. The syrup will become quite foamy as it boils. Continue to NOT stir the mixture. Hook a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and continue to let the mixture boil without stirring until the thermometer reaches between 240 and 245 degrees, which is the softball stage in candy-making terminology.
Remove the syrup from the heat and immediately stir it into the flour/fruit/nut mixture. The mixture will firm up immediately, but keep stirring to make sure the syrup is evenly distributed throughout. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Moisten your fingers with tap water and use them to press the thick-and-sticky mixture evenly into the pan.
Bake in the preheated oven until the mixture puffs slightly, about 35 minutes. At this point, the panforte will be soft and sticky when prodded with a dull knife. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack at room temperature. Once the panforte has cooled thoroughly, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and store in a cool, dry place. It will keep for months.
Cut the round into thirds, then cut each third into 1/2-inch wide bars.
Bill’s Great GORP
“Good Old Raisins and Peanuts,” plus M&M’s and crunchy granola made by Quaker Oats.
As you see, there’s nothing fancy or unique about it. Just really good and really simple to throw together. Our pal Bill Lauer introduced us to this particular blend years ago. We mix up large portions of it at the beginning of summer and pack it into small zip-close bags so we can grab some when we’re packing up for a hike.
1 box of Quaker Oats granola (we use the raisins and almond version)
Unsalted (or lightly salted) peanuts
Mix the ingredients in a bowl and then store it in resealable plastic bags. Keeps for weeks.
Fruit and Nut Bars
Makes 16 (2-inch) squares.
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1-1/2 cups toasted nuts, coarsely chopped (I use a mixture of hazelnuts, almonds and pecans)
1/2 cup dried cherries (or other dried fruit, such as cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or chopped apples)
1-1/2 cups dates, pitted and quartered
1 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Prepare an 8-by-8-inch square baking pan by lining the bottom and sides with heavy-duty aluminum foil, then butter and flour the inside bottom of the pan; set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt and sugar. Stir in the nuts and dried fruit and stir and toss the ingredients well to thoroughly coat the fruit and nuts with the flour mixture.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and vanilla until light in color. Stir the egg mixture into the fruit and nut mixture and mix until the batter is evenly moistened. Spread the batter into the prepared pan, pressing into all the corners and evening it out on top.
Bake in the preheated oven until golden brown and beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and cool thoroughly on a wire rack. After it has cooled, gently lift the contents from the pan using the foil sides. Cut into desired size pieces.
Crunchy Granola Bars
Makes 39 bars (measuring 1-by-2-3/4-inches)
The texture of this bar ranges from slightly crunchy to very crunchy, depending on how long you cook them.
4 cups granola (choose one that contains nuts)
1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1/2 cup diced dried apricots
1/2 cup dried cherries (or other small dried fruit, such as cranberries, blueberries or raspberries)
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2/3 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
Butter and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking pan; set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the granola with the sunflower seeds, apricots, cherries and cinnamon; set aside.
In a small, heavy-bottomed pot, combine the butter with the brown sugar and honey. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, then reduce heat and gently simmer for about 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the burner and pour it over the granola mixture, stirring to thoroughly combine the granola mixture with the syrup. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan, then lightly press it into the pan using your fingers that have been moistened with tap water so they won’t stick to the granola mixture.
Place the pan in the center of the preheated oven and bake until light golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. This will produce a granola bar that is crisp-yet-chewy. For a crisper bar, simply bake the bars a few more minutes.
Remove from oven and let the pan cool for about 30 minutes before cutting. The granola bars will be soft while warm, but will crisp up as they cool. Be sure to cut while still warm to avoid crumbling the bars. After cutting into desired pieces, let cool completely before removing from pan.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.