I love food, but not just any food. I love really good food. I mean really good food. And the best way to eat the best food is to learn how to cook it yourself. My weakness? Italian food. I love the hearty red sauces, the artery-clogging white sauces, rich green pesto. Oh and pasta. . . all kinds of pasta.
With our crew, if we’re drop-camping or backpacking through the mountains, I’m the camp chef. You just can’t eat good Italian food without whipping up something dense with astonishing caloric counts – so as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better trail food. Here are a few staples to add to your food bag:
1. Amore brand pastes. They come in 2.8 oz tubes. My favorites are sun-dried tomato and pesto. I’m also experimenting with the black olive and Italian herb blend pastes. They’re about $6 a tube at Walmart – but a little goes a long way for flavoring purposes. They all seem to be around 300 calories per tube and most use olive oil in the paste. They aren’t the meal, they just make it much, much better.
2. Parmigiano. Your basic Parmesan cheese. Travels well, reasonably priced. If you’re a fast-food condiment hoarder, or just eat a lot of pizza, you can get it in little single-use packets from your favorite pizza place. To reduce packaging waste, just dump some in a zipper-top snack-size bag. You want to really eat well, spring for parmigiano-reggiano and grate it yourself. Some things are just worth the price – especially on the trail.
3. Mozzarella cheese. You can buy ’em cheaply by the stick and lots of folks carry them around just to snack on. You could spring a bit more and buy a ball of it (smoked!) in other places, but it doesn’t take much to kick up a pasta dish. Peel the cheese stick into feathery strips before adding it to your pasta so that it’ll melt quicker and give you that nice texture we all expect from melted mozzarella. Or, better yet, buy it wrapped in prosciutto and basil.
4. Dried red pepper flakes. Key ingredient in my shrimp fra diavolo, and goes real well with any kind of creamy cheesy pasta dish. Unless you really love it hot, you’ll probably only need a few single-use packets of the stuff. Get ’em from your favorite pizza guy whenever you order extra parmesan. I buy it by the jar, though, so just tend to shake a little into my spice mix.
5. Herbs ‘n Spices. Buy a jar, one of the little small ones, of generic Italian seasoning and that’ll do you all you need. Or, you can save one of those little jars and fill it with a mixture of granulated garlic, dried basil, dried oregano, dried parsley, dried red pepper flakes, and a little salt ‘n pepper. That will do you better. You won’t notice the weight in your pack. You will notice the taste. Grow your own herbs and stuff a baggie with them fresh from the garden. A few sprigs of rosemary alone will do wonders to the smell of your pack.
6. Pasta. Comes dried and in more shapes and names than you can remember. Angel hair pasta cooks in about two minutes. I’m fond of spinach fettuccine, but it takes a little longer to cook. Don’t overcook the pasta.
Making a passable cream sauce out of a backpack in the middle of an Arkansas summer was the biggest hurdle. Once you work around how to make that happen, it really gets good.
At its most basic level, you need only three things to make the cream sauce happen: cream (heavy or half’n’half), butter, parmesan cheese. Using powdered milk, because it is skim, kills your fat content. . . and I’m not about to pack a stick of butter in July. The olive-oil packed paste concentrates really seem to fit the need for fat. What that doesn’t fix, is fooled by the texture of melted mozzarella.
Other things you can add to a basic cream sauce on the trail:
* chicken – but please don’t just dump it straight from the can or pouch. You do that and your chicken will taste like the container and not like your sauce. Squirt a bit of the pesto paste into the bottom of your pot prior to mixing up the sauce and dust the chicken with the spice mix. Let it sear, stirring frequently for just a minute or two, as it soaks up the flavors of the oil and spices and gets a little texture. Set it aside to add at the end.
* crab – yeah, you read it right. You can buy lump crab meat in a can just like you do tuna. It is fully cooked and ready to go. If you really want the seafood flavor kick, drain the can into your pasta water. Stir in the crab right at the end, so that it has about a minute to warm up into the sauce before you stop cooking. If you have a favorite brand of cajun seasoning – it compliments this sauce real well.
* tomato paste – either in a tube or from one of those tiny cans. This takes your cream sauce into a creamy tomato sauce. Particularly good when you use the real bacon bits and chunks of mozzarella. I like mine real heavy on the basil and garlic.