Time for my state-of-the-backpacking-kitchen blog. I don’t get over here much anymore since I worked most of the kinks out of the backpacking eating situation, but I do have some protein notes to share since we’ve starting eating paleo at home. You can bet I’m doing my best to transition that onto 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:
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.
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.
Last night Mr. Jack & I ran 8 miles, a record for both of us, but not quite the 13 miles we’ll be running in December for our share of the California International Marathon relay. Our first real chance, however, to try out a running snack. The fresh dates I’d gotten from the Davis international store were an obvious choice:
“Muslims around the world … usually break their Ramadan fast with dates. The reason that they are so beneficial is that their natural sugar travels quickly to the liver, and is converted more quickly than any other nutrient into energy that the fasting body soaks up like a sponge. This is the healthiest way of breaking the fast as it eases the body into digesting. Dates contain protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, vitamin A, and natural sodium. They also contain a high amount of dietary fiber, which makes them a good digestive aid.”
I decided that chia seeds would be a good addition to balance the sugar (so as not to shock the body). I just discovered chia seeds* as a food last year. After some personal experimentation, I reworked our supper standard, Pease Porridge, to incorporate these tiny fat-stable seeds & we ate them every night on the John Muir Trail. So I knew our bodies would respond well. Story is that chia seeds were used by ancient cultures such as the Mayan as mega-energy food, especially for their running messengers. Hard to argue with that kind of tradition!
But the date-chia mash was too sticky & we haven’t yet bought the little gel refill squirt bottles I crave (for just this reason!).
Rummaging through the refrigerator, I found some quinoa flakes left over from a backpack recipe & stirred in enough to stiffen up the mixture , made some little balls (about the size of a malted milk ball) & rolled ’em more quinoa flakes.
Perfect! I tucked 2 into a snack-sized baggy for me & 2 for Mr. Jack’s baggie. Into our pockets & out the door, into the lovely cool evening with a half moon rising to light the darkening route.
An hour in, we popped the sticky, gooey, sweet & slightly crunchy treats. Our bodies were happy. Looks like this is going to be our nourishment for long runs.
Trail sweets? Now I am wondering if these little energy balls would be a good backpack food. Probably still too mushy & I don’t know how they would keep on the trail, but if a workable mixture could be developed, it would certainly be a saner choice than the marshmallows, m&ms, or snickers bars I saw folks consuming on the John Muir this summer. I’m going to experiment. It was certainly easy to eat! (Nancy, this could be the snack for you!)
*MORE ON THAT: I buy chia by the 5-lb bag from Nuts on Line & happily recommend them.
My JMT backpacking menu only supplies 107 calories per ounce!
That’s 18 calories short of the ratio recommended by a plethora of backpacking advisers, including, for example, Adventure Alan who suggests that “a good target to balance calories and nutrition is 125 to 130 calories per ounce.” Super-backpacker Andrew Skurka carries 2 lbs of food at 4,000 calories, just hitting that 125 calories/ounce ratio. It’s worth noting that Skurka expects to lose weight on the trail and loads up during town-stops to compensate. Neither of these guys are radicals.
How’d Mr. Jack & I do on our radical food plan?
We lost weight* & yet we hiked strong, at an average of 12+ miles per day, went to sleep & woke up without being hungry, and had no food cravings at the end of 24 days on the trail.
Amazing that we felt so good & performed so well with such numbers, isn’t it?!
It worked for us because of the food we took. Admittedly, not all our food worked as well as hoped, so we’ll be tweaking the menu again: No more cheese, no matter how tasty it is. It didn’t provide the get-up-and-go we’re looking for in a lunch meal. And more beans in the lunches! We’ll be leaving most of the dried shrimp at home from now on, although it has worked for us well on shorter backpacks.
All calories are not created equal. And all foods are not equal for each backpacker. When a body receives food it can easily use, rather than food that is useless, or even detrimental, the number of calories needed may not be as high as assumed. Think of your calories as dollars. Are all dollars created equal? In your life, is the dollar deducted for taxes from your paycheck as valuable as the dollar you spend at the grocery store? Is the dollar you might owe on your 19% credit card really worth the same as the dollar you find on the sidewalk? What about that $20 you lent a friend last year that you haven’t seen since? Is that as valuable as the $20 you took out of the ATM last night?
Calories, too, have different value to different people. The number & kind of calories you need may be different from the calories & kinds I need.
So how many calories does a backpacker need & what kind of calories should they be? The only useful answer is that it depends—depends on the backpacker, her body and her willingness to think outside the “one-size-fits-all” of most food information.
No web-blog or backpacking expert can tell you what your body needs, what foods your body can use & what foods are useless to you or even detrimental. One backpacking guru, for example, dotes on corn pasta. We tried it last year and I dragged down the trail for most of the day in an absolute stupor until my body managed to expel it.
Next blog, I’ll lay out some considerations to take into account when accessing your personal backpacking food needs. Blood type, DNA testing, food sensitivities & hidden allergies, anyone?
*More on That: Yes, we lost weight on the John Muir Trail. Jack lost about 9% of his beginning body weight; I lost about 5%. Doing the math on the calculator at fitnessgear101.com indicated that Jack had a calorie deficit of nearly 3,200 per day and mine was just over 800 per day. Mr. Jack had the weight to lose & has continued losing (at a more reasonable pace) since we returned home. I have gained back about half the weight & am holding steady. A personal fitness trainer told me once about a program designed to be used under a doctor’s supervision where in calories are cut drastically and exercise is increased exponentially. The goal is to lose fat while creating muscle without harm to the body. I think we found a personal version of this on the JMT.
Although I planned to comment on the bins of abandoned backpacking food donated by JMT thru-hikers at the re-supply sites of Red’s Meadow, Vermillion andMuir Ranch, that must wait. Because today I grocery shopped for the first time since coming home (how grateful we are for the abundant garden!) & discovered a “new” food bar at the Davis Food Co-op. Yes, I’ve since discovered that the Organic Food Bar company started in 2001, but I have missed out! I bought the Active Green version & ate it in the grocery aisle, pleased with the fresh flavor & chewy texture and not at all adverse to the dark green color. I bet it would take even better while actually backpacking!
OFB Active Green tastes remarkably like our longtime favorite food bar, Rebar, a bar made entirely & completely of raw, organic fruits & veggies. Nothing else added. While OFB is also a green bar, it includes some seeds, nuts and sprouts, as well as agave nectar (3d ingredient in the list). Rebar also makes a nut/seed bar, but since it contains soy, we haven’t been able to add it to our repertoire.
Both of these bars are free of gluten, soy, dairy & egg.
The bars have similar amounts of carbohydrates (38/34), sugars (20/22) & fiber (7/6). OFB, however, provides 10 extra grams of protein (12) with the added bonus of 13 g of fat to Rebar’s none, thanks to the almond butter listed as the first ingredient. OFB is also a bigger bar at 68 grams to Rebar’s 50.
The calories/ounce ratio (important to consider when planning one’s backpacking menu) looks like this:
- OFB = 125 calories per oz
- RB = 91.4 calories per oz
Since getting the “hungries” on the JMT trip (more on that another day), I’m interested in adding more fat to my food. Whether the OFB is the answer, or whether I’d be just as well off to throw another handful of nuts into my gorp and keep eating the 8-servings-of-veggies Rebar, is a question to explore. Wonder how many servings of veggies the OFB contains with all those sprouts?
After all, fat is easy to add on a backpack (nuts, anyone?). Fresh veggies on the trail? Not so much.
Friday afternoon, around 2 p.m., Mr. Jack & I came off our John Muir Trail backpack the long way, skirting around Mt. Whitney (which we had topped last year to finish up our 8-day High Sierra hike) and dropping into Horseshoe Meadow. We had eaten all of our food save for a few cups of nuts-n-fruit, a handful of homemade beef jerky, 2 Rebars and 2 packages of our newly modified “pease porridge”– and yes, quite a bit of Brookbond Red Label tea left from the 24 days on the trail. One must never run out of tea, after all!
We ate everything but the tea & the porridge during the hitchhiking adventure that got us to our vehicle in Yosemite Valley’s Curry Village by 9 that night, and thanks to Jack’s determined driving, we slept in our own bed & had tea in our own kitchen the next morning. Tea in a real teacup! Out of a real teapot! And then of course, real breakfast instead of a quart ziplock bag of snacks to take one up the pass & down the valley to lunch at a creek.
Backpacking food must fulfill several functions for most folks: fuel, flavor & comfort being perhaps the top 3. We want our food to keep our bodies satisfied & energetic. We want to experience the 6 flavors of pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and salty as well as a variety of textures: crunchy, creamy, fluffy, dry, light, heavy, juicy, gooey, chewy, soft & crisp. We want familiar foods but we don’t want to be bored by our backpacking foods.
Exploring the balance of fat, carbohydrates, protein and fiber that can feed us effectively & efficiently is fascinating to me, whether on the trail, eating the food I’ve brought, or at home, considering and preparing the food to be eaten. As a long-time foodie and nutritional student, a cook, an eater, gardener, and reader, I look forward to using this blog to share and learn about the food choices we take on the trail and how to optimize our eats while backpacking.