Never mind the sub zero forecast the next few nights, Spring is here! Well in my house at least the season has begun because the gentle hum of the dehydrator can be heard and magical smells have begun to come pouring out of it. The first steps in putting together this year’s trail meals are under way despite the weather refusing to acknowledge March’s arrival in the least.
When I first started to get back out on the trails I was excited about the advances that had been made in dried foods available for backpacking. The flavors and textures seemed so great compared to the horrible memories I had. Then I started to notice the nutrition information and my enthusiasm began to wane. As I began to spend more and more nights on trail the cost started to become an issue as well. The last straw for me came when I realized that while some of the meals were genuinely enjoyable, many others were just something to force myself to eat at the end of the day so I didn’t have to carry extra weight in my garbage bag.
First I did some research online to see what was working for other people. I found that there were a lot of people who had felt the same and decided to make their own meals so they could control what went in and how the meals came out. Some continued to cook in bags like the commercial products. Others found that after preparing all of the ingredients they enjoyed cooking one pot meals with them. No matter what style of food you like or how you like to cook it up being able to create meals to your own tastes and knowing exactly what went into them brings a little extra comfort at dinner time.
My preference is to create individual bag meals that I cook just like the commercial products simply adding hot water to the bag. This allows for good portion control along with no clean up and limited garbage creation. Before each trip I put the bagged meals together from ingredients I have kept in the freezer for long term storage after drying.
Some folks like to dry complete dinners but different types of food have different drying requirements and over dried items can be very hard to rehydrate while underdried items risk spoilage. That is one of the reasons I dry and store ingredients in batches so that each item is dried properly. Another is that I can create a variety of meals by mixing and matching sauces with meats, starches and veggies. As an example I make a fiery red pepper sauce that mixed with shrimp and angel hair gives a nod to fra diavolo but when mixed with ground beef, ditalini and cheese becomes sort of a chili mac.
Right now I have some green chili sauce and some refried beans drying. The house smells wonderfully spicy which makes it feel a little warmer despite the chill outside. Learning comes via both successes and failures and there have definitely been some failures. I try to test every meal at home so there are no surprises on trail. Generally I make things in batches that can be split into four portions. Then I will test one portion from each batch by making and eating a test meal from it. My goal is to never be surprised by an inedible meal on trail. I have had a couple that were a bit crunchy and had to be forced down but I’ve never gone to bed hungry which is the important thing.
This year I have added a couple of commercial items to my larder. I ordered a 2 pound can of Nido dehydrated milk and a package of cheese powder because drying dairy is not something for amateurs to do. The milk will add fat and protein to a granola cereal breakfast and combined with the cheese power will make cheese sauces for dinners. I’m guessing there will be a few failures learning to use the cheese powder but at least they will be cheesy failures.
This year is going to pose a couple of new challenges in terms of putting meals together. We plan on getting at least a short way down a few trails with our daughter this year. That cheese sauce idea was inspired by her love of cheese and before I’m done I hope to add a few more items to the menu with her in mind. Late in the year I’m looking at doing a no resupply Long Trail trek that will also add some new wrinkles to meal planning since weight and calorie density will need to be considered for every meal.
Even after these next few cold nights the forecast doesn’t call for much of a warm up. Spring seems to be taking its time out there almost as if it has read the calendar and knows there is no hurry. As much as I’d like to hurry it along I know Mud Season will only follow so there is no sense rushing it. For now I have time to start filling the house with wonderful smells, filling my freezer with boxes and bags of things that will later fill my tummy and of course filling my head with thoughts of delicious dinners with feet propped up at the end of the day on the path less traveled by