Dehydrating our own camp meals

It’s March.  And although lower elevation trails should be clearing, there is still lots of snow on the ground. As a result, I fully admit being a wee bit twitchy. 

Beyond pouring over maps, checking calendars, and drooling over new gear while planning epic hikes and backcountry adventures, I am putting the indoor time to use by dehydrating our own camping meals so they are ready to go for even a last-minute trip. 

I’ve dehydrated fruits and vegetables for years, primarily for quick snacks or ways to preserve foods that don’t require freezer space or the time it requires to can them. But my eyes opened last year when I spoke with Chef Glenn McAllister, author of Recipes for Adventure and voice behind Backpackingchef. In his decades of experience, he’s learned you can dry just about anything, opening up a world of possibilities for camp cuisine. For another article, I later interviewed Judy “Heartfire” Gross of Lightheart Gear in North Carolina, as I quickly learned there are many ways to end up with fantastic and hearty meals. Besides making spacious and lightweight tents and practical gear and clothing, she is an avid backpacking who creates all of her own meals, often with the leftovers from daily meals. She was gracious enough to share some of her advice with me for another article setting me on the path of no return when it comes to ever buying pre-made trail food again. 

Having control over what we eat is especially important to me since my eldest son, Sam, has food allergies, which preclude us being able to use a lot of the freeze-dried meals on the market. And even those that are supposedly safe are a concern simply because I am fully aware of accidental cross-contamination issues that happen even under the best circumstances. The last thing I want is a reaction miles away from a trailhead or help. He and I (along with 4 other friends) have reservations at Granite Park Chalet this July where we are required to bring our own food, so I want to make sure it’s safe, as well as packed with plenty of energy and nutrition for exploring the area.

Stove at Granite Park

One of the first experiments, especially since it’s also something my picky boy will eat, was to make spaghetti with meat sauce. I used elk burger because it is naturally lean and made the sauce just like normal adding a can of Hunts tomato sauce and dried Italian seasonings. The only special consideration was making sure I chopped up the burger into tiny, tiny pieces. Once it was completely cooked, I spread it in the dehydrator and cranked the temp as high as it would go. My older Nesco reaches 155 degrees F., but a newer one, Snackmaster Express, I recently purchased goes to 160 degrees. As Judy mentioned, if it’s already cooked, it doesn’t matter if you dry it hot. The pasta is cooked like normal, although maybe a little on the al dente side, and is also dried. The one thing I’ll do differently on the trail is to use shells or a some other type of pasta to prevent the pokey edges of spaghetti from potentially puncturing a bag. This goes the same for chili, once again made with venison burger. When it’s time to eat, they can be mixed together and rehydrated with an equal amount of water. 

One of my recent favorites is what I call “Chicken and rice with vegetables.” I used Nature Fresh canned chicken (because it is safe for Sam), and because Chef Glenn told me that canned chicken rehydrates far better than freshly cooked chicken. I sauteed finely chopped (1/4 inch or less) carrots and celery in a little bit of safflower oil from The Oil Barn in Big Sandy, Montana. ( I do love knowing the source! ) Then I add the chicken, breaking up the pieces as small as possible. As it cooks, I add chicken broth and thicken it with a little flour. While the chicken and veggies are cooking, I make a big batch of brown rice then add a few big scoops of the brown rice and stir thoroughly. Spread the whole thing thinly on trays in the dehydrator and dry it on the high heat for 8-9 hours, or until it’s completely dry and brittle. I found mixing it up every couple of hours helps even out the process, although I try to be quick about it as I don’t want it to cool. 

As Judy recommended, I package the dehydrated meals in bags, mark them, and place them in the freezer. This way, I can grab individual meals whenever I’m ready to go.

To rehydrate, most of the meals seem to require roughly an equal amount of boiling water. This can be added directly to the freezer bag to minimize having to clean up any type of cooking pot. I’m also experimenting with using a wide mouth thermos since I’ve heard that it helps keep everything hot while rehydrating the meal. (Plus, another goal of mine with a thermos is to be able to pack in homemade ice cream on day hikes, but that will be a different post some day!) 

While some sort of meat is almost a necessity for Sam, I’m leaning towards vegetarian meals for my own travels. After my butter habit obviously did in my gallbladder this year, I dramatically changed my diet leaning heavily on plant based foods. It’s working beautifully and makes sense to continue on the trail. By dehydrating my own foods, I can make them power-packed with good protein sources and lots of vegetables. So I’m dehydrating quinoa, lentils, and tons of veggies. I never used to be a big lentil person – and I felt bad about that because Montana is the leading producer of pulse crops in the country – but I’m on a kick lately. A bowl of quinoa, lentils, and veggies dressed with a little fresh lemon juice is an excellent way for me to start the day so I’m going to do my best in recreating it for camp.

All food tastes better in camp, especially dessert. Since Sam does have a sweet tooth, I decided to try to make an apple crisp. For the crisp part, I mixed a cup of Wheat Montana oatmeal, 2 T. butter, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and 1 tsp cinnamon together. Then I spread it on parchment paper on a baking sheet and bake it at 350 degrees F. for 10-15, until crisp. For the apples, I used a handful each of dried apples (maybe a cup) and added a tablespoon of sugar and 1/4 tsp. of cinnamon, placing each serving in its own bag. To rehydrate, add 3/4 cup of boiling water to the bag of apples and allow it to sit for 15 minutes. Pour over the crisp and enjoy. This was definitely a hit! 

I truly have plenty to learn and do this winter to prepare for our hiking and camping adventures, and I am grateful for those who were willing to share their wealth of knowledge with me. Now I have to make the best use of my time indoors so we are ready to head for the high country as soon as the weather permits. 

Homemade ravioli

Special moments are created in the kitchen. For weeks, Sam’s wanted to learn how to make ravioli since he knew it was a tradition with Grandma Elsie’s family. We tried a batch at home, but used too many eggs making the dough sticky and uncooperative. Sam called them “crumples” because the ones that didn’t fall apart were badly misshapen. It was time to call in the expert.

 

Last week we were able to go over to Grandma Elsie’s for her to show us the proper way to make them. Her parents are both from Italy and her mom made hundreds of ravioli each fall to eat throughout the year. This is their typical fare for holidays, plus they’re ideal to have in the freezer for a fast meal, which is a necessary when returning home from Taekwondo in the evenings.

She’d already made a substantial batch, so the pasta machine, ravioli mold, and the work surface was out and ready to go. Sam was first up with the pasta dough.  Using 1 cup flour, 1 egg, salt, and a little chicken broth she showed him how to make the dough that was elastic and smooth without sticking to everything or falling apart. He quickly got the hang of it.

 

Our friend, Darci, is the rolling pro so she showed them how to roll each half of the dough multiple times, adding flour as necessary, until it was rolled through the number 5 setting to create a perfectly sized sheet for the mold.

Prior to our get-together for the ravioli making, I cooked a couple of small pork and beef roasts, and after chilling them in the fridge, chopped them up with the food processor (I do need to chop it finer the next time). Then I added bread crumbs, 3 eggs, salt, and dried basil, oregano and thyme. Once the sheet of dough is placed on the mold and pressed to indent each one, they are filled with a dollop of the meat mixture.

Another sheet is placed over the top, pressed down, and a rolling pin is used to firmly seal the dough. It takes a lot of pressure, but John vigorously tackled the task. They came out perfectly.

We made 8 dozen during our initial lesson, and Sam was so excited about his newfound talent, that we made 6 dozen more then next day at home with both a meat mixture and one using ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, and herbs. We still have finessing to master to be as good as Grandma Elsie, but after a few hundred more we might be close.

Now we’re cooking with solar

Over a week ago the Solavore Sport arrived, just in time for a much needed moisture dumping snowstorm. So it sat in the box while I plowed through other assignments and waited for the sun and warm weather to return.  Although we had much nicer days earlier in the week with totally blue bird skies, yesterday was my day to give it a try since another round of rain is on its way. I was a bit dubious whether I was going to be able to do anything when I woke to unexpected cloud cover, but by noon the skies looked more promising so I set it on the picnic table to see if it would heat up enough to give cookies a try.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I cook, I’m often a, “Turn it on high and say goodbye. When it’s black, c’mon back!” type of chef. I’m always in a rush (which is why the pressure cooker is one of my all time favorite kitchen appliances). Solar ovens are more along the lines of a slow cooker using the sun instead of plugging it in. Once the temperature is over 180 degrees F. you can use it, although if it drops below 150 degrees F. you’re asking for trouble since the lower temperatures can allow bacteria to proliferate. But since we’re not dealing with 350 degrees or more, it’s important to realize that it’s going to take more time. With the clouds and periodic sun, the oven reached just over 200 degrees yesterday, although there was a fair amount of time when it hovered around 175 degrees.  I thought there was no way those cookies were going to bake at all, but I wanted to give it a try.

Cookies in the solar oven
Cookies in the solar oven

We just made the regular chocolate chip recipe, and spooned a dozen in a parched line pan that was small enough to fit in the oven. It took a couple of hours to bake, but they were incredibly hot and yummy! I can totally see pulling out a batch of these while hunkering around the campfire sometime this summer. Talk about a terrific camping experience.

My little experiment opened up a world of possibilities for me in the outdoor cooking realm. When our fire danger is off the charts, what can be a safer way to cook? I can absolutely see bringing this with us to camp, putting a meal in there, and then heading off to hike or fish. You don’t have to fuss and worry about foods burning.

I’m also going to use it this summer when the temps crack the mid-80s, and Grant is grousing at me every time I start the oven since it heats up the house. Since we don’t have air conditioning, it does tend to feel like a sauna in here at times. (And if you do have air conditioning, I would think this could help reduce how hard it’ll have to work.) Although I won’t be able to bake my weekly 3 loaves of Kamut Khorasan wheat bread in it, I can easily put together dinner a head of time, and set it in there to cook for hours. I think my next project will be barbecued ribs, although from what I’m reading, the options are practically limitless.

It’s going to be a lot of fun to play with the Solavore Sport, not only at home, but when we go camping. I see why they are so important in areas of the world where fuel is scarce, and I can understand how they can help us reduce our energy usage, as well.