Monthly Archives: November 2009

Thanks for the Trail Salad, Julia!

We spent Thanksgiving, not backpacking anywhere, but on a 10-day monastic meditation retreat on the outskirts of Santa Rosa under the auspices of Abhyagiri Buddhist Monastery. The monks of this monastery are in the Thai Forest Tradition; one could draw a tenuous connection between that tradition and backpacking, leading the wandering mind into discursive thought (yes, my mind) regarding the comparison of retreating & backpacking, of which I will offer here only the portion regarding food:

One striking similarity between retreat food & backpacking food is that there is no other food than the food one has. On retreat, as when backpacking, we can’t simply dash out to a restaurant for a meal or down to the local market to pick up some snacks. What we eat is what we have, whether provided by the talented & creative retreat cook or supplied by our own pre-backpack planning. Whether the food is what we are in the mood for, or whether it suits our immediate tastes or needs is, in either case, quite immaterial. We eat it; we are grateful for it.

Another interesting parallelism between meals in the back country and meals on retreat is the anticipation of those meals! While backpacking, anticipation is generally flavored with a real need for physical nourishment and a resting period for the body; on a meditation retreat, the anticipation may be more for an experience of sensual pleasure and comfort along with perhaps a rest for the mind. Concentrating on the savory, sweet, warm, cooling, smooth & crunchy aspects of a delicious meal seems a treat after hours of watching the breath, the usually unpleasant sensations of the body and the meandering of the mind.

In the end, though, the 2 meal experiences have a critical & unmistakable difference: salad.

The main retreat meal inevitably offers an abundant bowl of fresh raw greens: sweet, succulent, spicy and crispy leaves of various shapes, sizes, flavors and colors such as one might never see on a backpacking trip. Sometimes garnished with translucent slices of radish or red onion, orange segments, toasted nuts, olives, tomatoes, and always accompanied by the day’s lovingly composed dressing designed to accent the mouth-watering bowl of greens.

This Thanksgiving, eating silently & with great appreciation our vegetarian retreat meal with a generous heap of salad greens, I gave thanks to a very special John Muir Trail backpacker: Julia Storek, who generously gave me a bag of mixed salad greens that came as part of her Rae Lakes resupply.

So thank you again, Julia! And thank you to the other backpackers who donated food bars & extra nuts from their abundant supply to supplement my not-quite enough. And much gratitude to the retreat cook and all of his helpers, not excepting the most excellent evening tea brewer, my backpacking tea guy, Mr. Jack!


World’s Best Backpacking Rice

Last night in the Winters’ IGA, I almost bought a box of Minute Rice to compare cooking & tasting with the rice I’ve been using backpacking. If it hadn’t been 3$, I might have brought it home, but economy & common sense prevailed over my scientific desire for a true comparative review.

On the other hand, I don’t really need to cook instant rice in order to know that it will taste remarkably like nothing with a gummy texture. So why bother?

I like rice. My Cuban grandmother made plain white rice everyday when I was growing up. She cooked it on an electric stove in a dented saucepan with a square of brown shopping bag paper sticking out from under a lightweight lid. It was always perfect.

On my own, I have perfected the 2 cups brown rice to 3 cups water method in 30 minutes, an achievement of which I feel justifiable proud, even if the product is not quite as GQ as my pal Al’s Nicaraguan-style rice, which is rinsed and then toasted in a little olive oil with chopped onion before cooking. Al, in fact, is the fellow who revolutionized my backpacking relationship with rice 2 summers ago on the High Sierra Trail.

Guitar Lake, below Mt WhitneyOn a windy afternoon at the gorgeous & frosty Guitar Lake, Al introduced me & Mr. Jack to Kalijira Rice, the tiny aromatic rice from Bangladesh. Oh yum! This royally delicious & delicate Prince of Rice cooks in just 10 minutes. Yes, it might cook up just fine on the trail, but I haven’t tried that.

I cook it at home (yes, in 10 minutes) & then dehydrate it. On the trail, it rehydrates like a dream, while retaining its premium texture and taste. Even if this rice didn’t provide more calories, more carbs and more protein than instant rice, the eating pleasure more than repays the relatively small effort to cook & dehydrate it prior to the backpack. And the less fat, less sodium? Hmmm, you could add sea salt & a favorite oil when you cook it, whether or not you decide to add onions like my pal Al.

Mere Money Comparison
Minute Rice: $2.90/7 servings; 41c per cooked cp
Kalijira Rice: $4.20/8 servings; 52c per cooked cp

Basic Nutritional Comparison
Please be aware that instant rice does not have the full load of thiamin, iron or folic acid.

Uncle Ben’s Instant Rice, White

Serving Size: about 1 cp cooked
Calories: 190
Calories from Fat: 5
Sodium: 15 mg
Total Carbs: 43g
Dietary Fiber: 1g
Sugars: 0
Protein: 3g

Lotus Foods Tiny Rice
Serving Size: about 1 cp cooked
Calories: 200
Calories from Fat: 0
Sodium: 0 mg
Total Carbs: 56g
Dietary Fiber: 0g
Sugars: 0
Protein: 6g

Dahl: a damn fine food, on & off the trail

Spent my morning tea time looking through the Ansel Adam’s masterpiece Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail. As both a Sierra lover & a a press aficionado, I must recommend this amazingly published art exhibit. If you haven’t yet seen it, find a copy & set aside some time to spend in the Sierras without having to change out of your pajamas. I’m full of memories of past hikes & dreaming ahead to next summer’s adventure.

While we’re on the trail, every night’s supper is pease porridge, which Mr. Jack refers to as a quick-and-simple dahl: a by-weight 1:1 mixture of chia seeds, dehydrated split pea soup and toasted quinoa flakes. For the 2 of us, it weighs about 6 oz, including the critical seasoning square of organic vegetable bouillon, which does include at least turmeric, if not the other spices more traditionally associated with dhal.

Dahl is a traditional Indian dish of rice, beans and spices, that has hundreds, if not thousands, of variations. Fran’s House of Ayurveda blog, for instance, has a great winter squash/lentil recipe with simple directions. With canned pumpkin on sale this month, this is especially appealing, although I would need to use another bean since lentils are on my “avoid” list.

I’ve been making a lot of dahl since our JMT hike when we discovered that rice & bean dishes supplied more energy than any other combination of food. So of course, I’ve developed a more slapdash approach than that suggested in other recipes, using pre-cooked rice & beans because it’s easier for me to cook a big batch of beans & freeze to use as needed. In a pinch, I use canned beans.

Turns out that dahl makes a perfect breakfast! It’s the kind of food designed to be made in a big pot & reheated as needed. I am aware of the 3-day leftover rule; at our house, however, that is completely ignored as neither Mr. Jack nor I have delicate stomachs and often find ourselves happily eating food more than a week after its initial appearance. Here’s my casual recipe, which you may enjoy trying on some cool fall or winter day, either for breakfast or later in the day:

You’ll need:

2 cups cooked rice
2 cups cooked beans (canned are fine if you don’t have the inclination to soak & cook your own)
2 cups mixed cooked vegetables

Note: If you are using frozen rather than fresh vegetables, you will not need to cook before adding to the dahl. Canned vegetables are not recommended as they get too mushy.

My current dal includes these vegetables, which I piled into a saucepan in this order, & steamed until just tender:

  • 2 golden beets, julienned
  • a handful of green beans, chopped into 1/2″ lengths
  • small chayote (or other soft-fleshed squash) cubed 1/2″

Fresh greens, a handful or 2 if available (chard, spinach, beet, turnip). Adding chopped, raw greens to the completed dahl is one of my favorite ways to enjoy more vegetables.

1 onion, chopped
fresh ginger, about 1″, minced
cooking oil: grapeseed, olive or coconut; ghee
basic dahl spices — adjust to your own taste; heat can be added as desired

  • cumin, whole, 2 TB
  • corriander, whole, 2 TB
  • fenugreek, ground, 1 TB
  • tumeric, ground, 1 TB

Salt to taste

You will need a big pan for all of this to end up in, as well as a few other pans for toasting seeds, sauting onion & ginger, and steaming the vegetables.

A coffee grinder works great for grinding the seed spices.

Ready, set, go!

Put cooked rice & 3 cups of water in a big pan with a lid (use a pressure cooker if you have one) — cook at low heat until the rice has broken down into a porridge
While the rice is porridging:

  • Roast about 2 TBs each cumin & corrieander seeds
  • Pour out & let them cool before grinding


  • In a oiled pan, low to medium heat, saute a chopped onion very slowly.
  • When about half-done, add finely minced ginger & keep stirring.
  • When the onions are nicely translucent & browned, add the toasted, ground cumin & corrieander, along with tumeric and ground fengreek.
  • Add some more oil — I like coconut for the extra flavor, but grapeseed or olive would work as well. Ghee would probably be perfect.

Finish up
To the rice porridge pot, add:

  • Spice/onion mixture into the rice porridge of rice, along with:
  • Cooked beans
  • Veggies, assorted
  • Salt to taste

Note: This recipe has no real heat. Feel free to add a chopped chili pepper along with the ginger, or a pinch of chili flake along with the spices at the end. Do remember that heat added on the first day may get hotter as the dish matures! For breakfast each morning, I put 2 cups into a small saucepan, along with a half-cup of water, cover & simmer on the lowest possible heat while I have my tea.

Hope you enjoy some dahls this winter season. If you decide to cook a big pot & dehydrate to enjoy on the trail, leave the rice out. Next blog, we’ll talk about rehydrating rice for backpacking.