Trail Food Hacks Part 1: Easy Recipes for Frugal Hikers
If you’ve already decided to go stoveless, or if you’ve taken out a loan to buy six months’ worth of Mountain House, this blog isn’t for you. Ditto if you’re super health-conscious and/or a serious foodie, someone who would pierce your heart with a hiking pole before eating boxed Mac & Cheese (although stay tuned for my forthcoming blog, “Trail Food Hacks Part 2.” Nope, it’s for the rest of the world, the folks who empty a pouch of rice or pasta sides into a cooking pot almost every night, wishing there was an alternative to shelling out a buck and a half or more for some broken starch and a little bit of flavoring powder.
If you’re one of those people, and want to save money and cut back on packaging, these food hacks will teach you how to make basic rice and pasta seasoning mixes at home, and to add some variety to your meals by adding gravy mixes to your repertoire. First we’ll talk about the basic ingredients (rice, pasta, stuffing and potatoes) and then I’ll give you the three recipes that you can spin into endless trail meals.
Instant or minute rice is your friend, but do yourself a favor and get brown rice instead of white. At least it has some nutrients. Ignore the package directions that tell you to boil it for five minutes and then let it stand for five. If you add the specified amount of boiling water to the rice, and put it in an insulated container (e.g., a pot or a freezer bag in a cozy) for 20 minutes or so, you’ll have perfect instant brown rice. Or if you feel really self-reliant, cook up big batches of brown rice, quinoa, spelt, kamut, or whatever grains you like at home, dehydrate them well, and use them as your starch base for the recipes.
The thinner your pasta, the faster it will cook, plain and simple. You can use Ramen noodles (although why would you?) as your pasta base, as well as egg noodles, thin fettucine, or dried artisan noodles. I’ve found brown rice pasta, in flat or macaroni shapes, cooks up well too. The best way to cook pasta is to bring water –just enough to cover the pasta—to a boil, add the pasta and sauce mix, boil for two minutes, and then cover it and let it sit for 5 minutes. The next best way is to boil the water, add the pasta and sauce (or add the water to pasta and sauce in a freezer bag), put the whole thing in a cozy, and let it sit for 10-20 minutes, depending the on the thickness of your pasta and how al dente you like it. Fifteen minutes is usually the sweet spot for me.
It’s bread cubes and seasoning. That’s it. You can buy stove top stuffing it in big boxes and rebag it, or make your own. Google “Stove top stuffing recipe” and you’ll find a half dozen variations. As with the packaged version, all the cooking instructions tell you to add butter. Nice if you have it, but if you don’t, it will still taste fine (Note that some health food stores carry a butter powder that’s a decent flavor substitute).
Instant mashed potatoes
Idahoan brand. That’s all I have to say.
Okay, so what next?
Obviously, plain rice, pasta, stuffing mix, and mashed potatoes will get old really fast. Hence the three recipes: Cream-of-Whatever Sauce and Soup Mix, for flavoring rice and pasta or making a hearty soup; Alfredo Sauce Mix for rice and pasta, and Gravy Three Ways for stuffing and mashed potatoes. These recipes will make a bunch of mix. You can cut them in half, double them, quadruple them, whatever.
Cream-of-Whatever Sauce and Soup Mix
2 cups Nido (or non-fat milk if you prefer)
1 cup cornstarch
3 tablespoons bouillon powder (chicken, beef or vegetable)
3 tablespoons dried minced onions (or 2 tablespoons onion powder)
2 teaspoons parsley flakes
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 ½ teaspoons black pepper
To reconstitute as a sauce for rice or noodles, add 1/3 cup mix to 1 1/4 cup of boiling water and stir well. Add 1 cup instant brown rice, or 1 cup broken pasta noodles and stir well. Cover pot, put into a cozy, and let sit for 20 minutes for rice or 15 minutes for pasta, stirring once in the middle of the resting time. To reconstitute as a cream soup, use the same proportions, but bring to a boil and simmer until thick.
To turn this into a mushroom sauce or soup, add ¼ cup dehydrated mushrooms to each 1/3 cup of mix. You can vary the flavors by adding freeze-dried peas, broccoli florets, asparagus, mixed vegetables, etc. to the mix. On the trail, you can add ¼ – ½ cup chicken or salmon from a pouch to the rice, pasta, or soup while you are preparing it. If you have fresh veggies on the trail, chop those and add them. Bacon bits or chopped up jerky work well too.
Note: I like North Bay Trading Co for freeze-dried veggies, although increasingly you can find them as overpriced snack packs in health food stores. Thin-leaved dehydrated vegetables will work fine in rice mixes (e.g., kale, spinach, swiss chard) but in general, you’re better using freeze-dried peas, carrots, asparagus, broccoli, etc, because rehydration takes an hour or more. However, if you don’t want to pay for freeze dried, you can always reconstitute dehydrated vegetables in cold water while you’re setting up camp, drain them, and then add them to the rice along with the sauce mix at dinner time.
Alfredo sauce mix
2 cups Nido or nonfat dry milk powder
½ cup cornstarch
¼ cup dried minced onion or onion flakes
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp salt (see note)
1 tsp pepper
3-4 cups dry parmesan cheese or 2 ½ cups cheddar powder
¼ cup buttermilk powder
To reconstitute as a sauce for pasta, first add boiling water to pasta to cover, and set aside in a cozy for 10 minutes. Then add ½ cup mix to the pasta water, stir well, and return to cozy for another 5 minutes. For rice, add 1/3 cup mix and a cup of boiling water to 1 cup of instant brown rice.
As with the Cream-of-Whatever Sauce Mix, feel free to add in vegetables. You can also add pouches of chicken or tuna to your rice or pasta. If you do add packaged protein, be sure to add some of the liquid from the pouch to extend the sauce.
Note: depending on where you buy it, your cheddar powder may or may not be salted. Taste it before you use it. If it’s salty, leave salt out of the mix.
Gravy Three Ways
1 cup corn starch
¼ cup beef, chicken or vegetable bouillon powder
2 tsp. instant coffee powder (omit if using chicken bouillon; optional if using vegetable bouillon)
1 tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. garlic powder
¼ tsp. pepper
¼ tsp paprika
Mix all ingredients together and store in a ziplock bag. To reconstitute, add 2 tablespoon to a cup of boiling water and mix well. Pour over mashed potatoes or stuffing mix.
These recipes should be used as the basis for experimentation at home. You may like your sauces soupier (or drier) than I do, or like more salt, or simply want to experiment with different ingredients. But I assure you, a little experimentation at home will pay off with simple and filling trail meals with fewer unpronounceable ingredients and taste tailored to your preferences!
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