Monday, September 17, 2012

Dried Apples, Duluth Packs, and Oatmeal Packets

I've gone back into my kitchen.  We're having enchiladas for dinner and I could hear Mike breathing a sigh of relief on the phone when I told him as much.  We're also planning meals for about thirty people for a campout over the weekend.  It's a Webelos invite, so it's going to be car camping at its best.  We're only going to be fifteen minutes from home at Tolt-MacDonald park, but we're walking to the far campgrounds so there will be the illusion that we've really gone somewhere.  There's going to be some schlepping involved, though Mike's planning to bring our wagons for people to use.  I'm going to be the runner, the one who heads out for more ice or for hot pot tongs or whatever we left at home.  I get a lot of exercise as the runner and sometimes I can spot a Starbucks and sneak in some civilization while I'm out gathering stuff to schlep back to camp. We're going to be a party of thirty for this campout.

I've never fed thirty people before.  It's a challenge to think of where the bottlenecks will happen.  Mike and I are in negotiations about making pancakes.  I don't want to be making pancakes for thirty people on Sunday morning.  Imagine flipping pancakes for that long, especially with fifteen hungry boys staring at you and all the while trying to steal the chocolate chips.  The pressure will be immense. Can you hear me saying 'will be?'  Mike is going to win this battle.  I just know it. 

Mike's also wants to make beef stroganoff.  My recipe calls for the stew meat to simmer for a couple of hours.  I say my recipe, but it's really a recipe from the Betty Crocker cook book that my mother gave me when I left home.  I didn't use it until one day Mike opened it to the stroganoff/goulash page and said, "I want you to make me one of those for dinner."  But for thirty people? That's ten pounds of stew meat,  two and a half pints of sour cream, sixty ounces of beef stock, five small cans of mushrooms, and three bags of egg noodles.  Cooking for that many people is different than cooking for a large family, let alone my small one.  We'd have two extra large stock pots full of meat simmering that has to have an adult watching over it all afternoon.  Hey wait, I could be that person!  Then, I could sit and read my book or carve a walking stick all afternoon while the meat tenderizes.  Mike doesn't want to precook the meat.  He wants the boys to get the authentic experience of cooking outside.  Would any boys actually be helping with the cooking?  We'd better call the market today though if that's what he wants to do.  It's not like we can sally in there at 4:00 pm on Friday and walk out with ten pounds of perfectly cubed stew meat.  Oh, and I want the good stuff.  This is Painted Hills beef, the good stuff.

My experience doesn't cover this many people.  Most canoe trips Mike and I took were limited to about fifteen people.  That, I can handle.  Did you know that Costco has Mountain House dehydrated meals in bulk now?  Isn't that cool?  At least with a dehydrated meal packet, you know you just plan one for each meal, as if it's an MRE.  Just add water.  If you don't feel like washing dishes, you can eat it right out of the pouch it came in.  But the more trips I went on, the more I steered away from the packets of food.  For a group of fifteen, I'd use dehydrated packets enhanced with some dehydrated veggies.  I heard that Mountain House is pretty good.  More recently, our trips were smaller, no more than six people.  Then, it's easier to get away from packets of dehydrated food.

For these smaller groups, I learned to spend a couple of weeks before a trip dehydrating fruits and vegetables. Dried apples sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar are the best, a staple.  Do you know what happens to your digestion after a week on dehydrated food?  The apples are best when you slice them thin with a mandolin slicer to make crispy chips and the key to keeping their color is to dip them in lemon juice before they're sprinkled with the sugar and dried. Kiwi is good too. I like the texture of the seeds in the chewy fruit, but I seemed to sprinkle a lot more sugar on them though, since they're wetter.  The kiwi needed a lot more time and I turned my dehydrator on high for the first hour or so to dry up the extra liquid. I don't bother with dehydrated strawberries any more.  I never seemed to get my them dry enough.  I really like the freeze dried ones better anyway.  My favorite is 'Just Strawberries.'  Carrots need to be shredded so it doesn't take forever to rehydrate them.  Peas are interesting too, but I found that using the freeze dried ones worked better.  Same company, only 'Just Peas.' Adding these vegetables makes the dehydrated food feel like a real meal.  My favorite veggies to dehydrate are black olives.  They turn into salty, nutty snacks that make spaghetti much improved if you can keep people from cleaning them out before spaghetti night.

For those smaller groups, we'd buy McCormicks packages of alfredo sauce or brown gravy and make up dinners of our own using noodles or minute rice. We used to like using the boil-in-bag rice. Do they even make those any more? I've also noticed that it's hard to find dehydrated chicken or beef any more. What is it with that?  At the end of a trip, when supplies ran low, we'd throw in whatever we had left, laugh, and say, "Chicken beef!" It became one of those phrases that made us laugh without any reference to reality.  It really didn't matter what kind of dehydrated meat we used in the meal. They were little cubes of either blond meat bits or brown ones.  It was protein and we needed it. On our trip to the Diablo this summer, we had to bring cans of chicken.  Not my idea of packing light.  I know I could dehydrate meat, but I worry that it would go bad heating that slowly in the dehydrator.  I guess I could follow instructions.  Fancy that.

Let me tell you about my favorite part - dessert.  The best was instant chocolate pudding in a graham cracker crust. The worst was instant jello.  Oh man, I never got hungry enough to willingly eat that jello.  It didn't help that much of the time the kids didn't mix it up well enough and there were dry lumps in it as well as the nauseatingly slimy clumps.  Chocolate mousse made with dehydrated milk was good.  There was even a cherry cheesecake mix that came with graham cracker sprinkles that we never bothered to press into the bottom of the pan.  I don't even know if they still make that stuff any more.  It was one of those things that we never made at home because it just wasn't that good, but at camp?  Whew, it was delicious.

The last thing that seemed to feed the soul on a trip like that was to have those packets of cappuccino mix and a selection of good hot chocolate.  These days, we travel with peppermint tea in case anyone has an upset stomach and a selection of herbal teas.  Neither of us can sleep if we drink caffeine.  I can't usually take in that much sugar either, even on a camping trip. I really miss the cappuccinos.   Doesn't it stink to get old? 

For years, Mike and I had the same argument over and over when it came to planning food for our trips.  I wanted to bring more food.  He wanted to bring just about what we needed.  I'm not very good at carrying just about what I need when it comes to food.  I was like a kid who'd had rickets during the depression.  I was worried about having enough.  Eventually, we got that argument honed down to Mike saying, "You just need your oatmeal packet." 

Then, knowing that he'd planned a little extra for the trip, I could relax. We did need that extra food on a trip.  We were in Alaska in June.  Out of common sense regarding bears and rodents, Mike was draining the noodles for our dinner right into the pit toilet when the whole clump slipped out of the pot and we lost it.  I was really glad to be carrying extra food near the end of a trip.  There's a certain smell that all of that food, packed together in plastic, takes on in the food bag after a hot week in a canoe.  It's not as if the food smells like it's foul, but the blended odors don't go well together.  I never managed, except when it was well sealed, to eat what was left in that bag when a trip was over.

I'd guess that our Duluth pack, the one we always used for food still has that smell.  Ew.  Don't get me started about that Duluth pack.  Lets just say if it got burned up in a campfire, I'd be happy to replace it with almost any other kind of pack.  Please.  Mike loves his Duluth pack.  I don't.  It is the most gawd-awful, uncomfortable pieces of equipment we ever spent good money on.  It's so ridiculous that it actually has a tump line that you're supposed to put on your head to take up some of the pressure off your spine.  Now, you chiropractors out there, picture this - a seventy pound pack with leather shoulder straps so wide they cut circulation completely off in your arms.  You can't get into or out of them without help.  Well, I can't anyway.  Then take a strap that angles up from the widest part of the pack to wrap around your forehead relieving just a little of the force from your shoulders onto your neck. Yeah, you get the picture.  Your neck just isn't equipped to handle that kind of pressure.  How did I get to talking about the damn Duluth packs?  It tell you, there's yet another argument that we all know I'll never win, but I can roll my eyes and groan whenever he pulls that ugly thing out of the closet. 

I'll let you know how the stroganoff turns out.  It could be good or it could be funny. 

Thank you for listening, jb

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