A backpacker’s guide to dinner on the trail

For those of us who start thinking about lunch before even cleaning up from breakfast, planning dinners for a weekend backpacking trip can be… discouraging. Freeze-dried food is tolerable (just barely) for longer trips requiring heavier packs, but for a one- or two-nighter, you can do better.

On a recent trip into the Olympic Mountains, my boyfriend and I succumbed to one of these just-add-water-and-wait teriyaki rice packets for our second night, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to buy more than that. So instead, we reverted to an old tried-and-true favorite of my parents (who, admittedly, have decided that carrying fresh pasta and wine up 5,000 feet is worth the weight!) I recommend this basic, one-pot meal to all mountaineers looking for something that is significantly better than the worst, hearty, and protein-rich.

IMG_3335Backpacking chicken rice
Serves 2

1 ½ cups white Minute Rice
1 packet Lipton Onion Soup Mix
½ cup dehydrated vegetables (often sold in bulk)
1 packet of chicken (similar to canned chicken, but it comes in a packet. Tuna also works)
Black pepper

1. Before hitting the trail, mix the dry ingredients (rice, soup mix, dehydrated vegetables, and pepper) into a plastic baggy. Using a sharpie, write cooking instructions, found on the Minute Rice box, on the bag for later reference.

2. Once you have settled into camp, prepare the dry ingredients by following the rice instructions. It is a good idea to add a tablespoon or so of extra water to account for the dehydrated vegetables. Once the water is absorbed add in the chicken, and, voila! Dinner.

For you die hards wondering about liquid refreshment, I recommend a small plastic flask of gin with dehydrated lime powder (found in the energy drink section.) This is an especially good idea if you are headed into snow/glacier country. It’s not gourmet, but picture this:

Tired legs, hungry bellies, a flat rock overlooking an alpine lake at dusk, and a warm bowl of chicken and rice followed by a cup of gin-on-ice. Sounds picture perfect to me.

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Boston baker’s newest book makes recipes accessible

ImageJoanne Chang’s second cookbook, “Flour, Too,” is just as appropriate on your coffee table as it is on your kitchen counter.  Published 12 years after opening four Flour Bakery + Café locations, the pages of this book are littered with vibrant photographs, pulling you into each recipe with your mouth already watering.  As Chang writes in her introduction, “when customers fall in love with our food, they fall for it hard.”

A classic chicken potpie features a stunning pate brisee that emerges from the oven golden and flaky enough to make you turn a blind eye to its butter content.  This is not a cookbook for diet-conscious eaters – although lighter, healthier fare can certainly be found within its pages– but rather a guide to high quality, soul-nurturing meals.  This time consuming but straightforward pie is worth every buttery calorie.

Chang’s recipes are written in meticulous detail that makes sense for a chef who first studied applied mathematics and economics at Harvard College.  Her step-by-step instructions are so explicit that a novice can follow along as easily as an experienced cook.  Dishes vary from the sweet and savory pastries that distinguish her bakeries, to recipes for their signature sandwiches, soups, and salads.  Snack ideas for homemade pickles and scallion pancakes, and the chainlet’s popular raspberry seltzer follow entrees like beef short ribs and polenta, mushroom and leek lasagna, and buttermilk-fried chicken.

While many of the desserts are complex and require specialty ingredients – vanilla sugar shows up in several recipes – Chang’s careful instructions make it possible to create even the most grand confections.  Making pavlova with plums and figs, French macaroons, or triple-chocolate mousse cake may seem intimidating, but Chang breaks each recipe down into so many simple steps that you will spend more time reading her directions than actually creating the dish.  This detail can be tiresome for experienced cooks, but ultimately leads to consistent outcomes.

Maple-apple upside-down buttermilk cake, which features a maple syrup reduction layered with apples and dense, moist cake, is so exceptional you’ll soon be standing in line for a second slice.  To achieve the desired springiness, follow the directions precisely.  Beating the butter and sugar together for six to seven minutes may seem like a long time, but it transforms the batter.  A word to the wise: if the syrup doesn’t reduce enough it may leak out of the pan as it bakes.  To avoid a mess, place the cake pan on an old baking sheet in the oven.

Another standout are brown sugar-oat cherry muffins, which Chang has been known to bring with her to book signings.  These hefty, rich pastries are eye-rollingly good, with a crispy brown sugar topping.  With creme fraiche, whole milk, and butter, how could they be bad?  This unique recipe requires the batter to sit overnight, but the extra effort is worth it.  Hearty enough for breakfast and sweet enough for dessert, these little cakes must sell a lot of books.

Chang’s recipes emphasize the quality ingredients that Bostonians love at her Flour bakeries.  As she writes, “Just because something is simple doesn’t mean that it can’t and won’t knock your socks off.”  Prepare to do the dishes barefoot.

Flour, Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe’s Most Loved Sweets & Savories

Author: Joanne Chang
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Number of pages: 304 pp.
Book price: $35.00

By: Kari Pierce




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Tonic Refreshment

When you order a gin and tonic it is customary to specify your preferred label: Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Hendrick’s.  But what about the tonic water?  Little attention is paid to this bitter-sweet seltzer, even though it makes up 3/4 of the drink.  Ignoring the bubbly is like failing to notice the quality of juice that goes into a lemon drop.  Fresh squeezed or bottled, Meyer or regular, the mixer makes the cocktail as much as the alcohol gives the buzz.

To taste the variation, two longtime “g&t” drinkers compared four brands of tonic water, hoping to determine which makes the best cocktail.  They first tasted each plain over ice, and then again with Beefeater London Dry Gin and lime.  It turns out that, although quinine is the dominant flavor characteristic of this fizzy beverage, sweetness is what really sets each brand apart.  Some use cane sugar or agave, others use high fructose corn syrup, and each label shows wide variance in the total sugar per serving.  From now on, one taster plans treat himself to either of the two winners when he has good gin on hand, but when budget is a concern, “I may stick to the cheaper stuff,” he says.  Now that he has tasted the difference though, we’ll see if he is able to go back.

Products tested:

Photo courtesy of qtonic.com

Photo courtesy of qtonic.com

Q Tonic

Plain: Aroma is “sweet” with hints of “cinnamon and clove.”  Flavor is light and “aromatic,” with only enough sweetener to placate the bitterness.

With gin and lime: refreshing, smooth, light.  “James Bond could drink this.”

$6.99/25-oz., Whole Foods Market


Photo courtesy of fever-tree.com

Photo courtesy of fever-tree.com

Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water

Plain: Aroma is “limey and bright.” Quinine is the dominant flavor, but overall still very sweet.  The sugar “doesn’t coat the tongue,” however, which keeps it refreshing.

With gin and lime: “Sweet but refreshing.”

$3.69/16-oz., Whole Foods Market


Photo courtesy of schweppesus.com

Photo courtesy of schweppesus.com

Schweppes Tonic Water

Plain: Aroma is bitter and tangy.  Taste is “very sweet with a bitter bite.”

With gin and lime: Enjoyable, but tonic is “too syrupy.”

$1.49/22.8-oz., Shaw’s


Photo courtesy of hansens.com

Photo courtesy of hansens.com

Hansen’s Natural Tonic

Plain: Aroma is absent.  Taste is nearly flavorless.  “Mostly just sweet, carbonated water.”

With gin and lime: Way too sweet, “not enough flavor.”

$3.69/six 8-oz. cans, Whole Foods Market


Kari Pierce

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Relax, it’s just cabbage! How to make sauerkraut

The beauty of sauerkraut is there is no wrong way to make it.  Green cabbage or red, classic or creative, this traditional ferment is a cinch to put together and packed with nutrients.  The hardest part is waiting for it to be ready.

Use this one

You may have noticed that fermented foods have seen an uptick in popularity recently.  Restaurant menus feature house pickled beets, or offer artisanal sausage with homemade kraut.  Drinks like kombucha, hard cider, and mead – not to mention beer – are no longer obscure specialty items, but can be found in cafes and bars across the country.

Sandor Katz has been largely responsible for this revival of fermentation in the food scene.  His recent book, The Art of Fermentation, won a James Beard Award and earned him international recognition as the expert in this ancient technique.  In his book he explains the global prevalence of fermentation as a method for improving the nutritional quality and storability of a wide variety of foods.  Cultures everywhere have long histories with this funky-fresh technique.

Fermented foods have become popular with nutrition-conscious eaters as well.  By consuming live fermented foods we diversify the microbes in our bodies, making our guts healthier and our immune systems stronger.  Think of how many people you know currently taking probiotics for one reason or another.  Personally, I prefer the enjoyment of eating my microbes over swallowing them in a pill.  Don’t you?

Sauerkraut is a great way to try your hand at fermentation.  It is virtually impossible to mess up, and allows for total creativity.  Once you get comfortable with it you can try mixing just about anything into a batch.

I would recommend starting with the classic German-style green cabbage kraut because it is simple and you’ll know what to expect when it comes time to take the first bite. This affirming familiarity will help you feel secure that you did it right.

The process is very simple, and does not require exact measurements.  To help you get started, though, here is how I usually make it.  After you’ve tried my method, throw caution to the wind and start experimenting.  Is it better with more salt? Would apple be good mixed in? How about caraway?  At the moment I have a batch brewing with green cabbage, granny smith apple, and fresh thyme.  I’m not sure how it will turn out, but it’s hard to imagine that combo being bad.  Remember, there are no rules.  It’s edible playtime.  Get creative.  Ferment.

Classic sauerkraut
Makes 3/4 quart

I use a 1-quart wide mouth mason jar for the fermentation stage.  This produces a manageable amount of kraut, which I recommend for beginners.


1/2 Green Cabbage, washedsauerkraut infographic
1/8 cup non-iodized sea salt

  1. Peel off the outer cabbage leaf and set aside.
  2. Slice the remaining cabbage head into thin strips, approximately 1/8 inch wide.
  3. Put the cabbage strips into a large mixing bowl, and sprinkle with the salt.
  4. With clean hands, massage the mixture until it starts to break down, and brine begins to form, about 5 minutes.
  5. Stuff the cabbage into your mason jar, using your fist to pack it down.  Push hard, so the brine rises up above the cabbage level.  As long as all of the cabbage stays below the brine, it will not mold.  It should have risen well above the cabbage by the second day of fermentation, if not sooner.
  6. Trim down that outer leaf to a circle about the width of the jar, and tuck it over the top of the cabbage, below the brine.  This will help keep small pieces from floating up to the surface.
  7. Place a weight on top of the cabbage to hold it down below the brine.  I usually use a tall, narrow jar filled with rocks.  It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as it’s heavy.
  8. Place on a shelf away from sunlight and high heat, and forget about it for 4 days.
  9. On the fourth day take a bite.  If you like the taste and crunchiness pull out the weights, put on the lid and store it in your fridge.  If you’d like it to keep fermenting, put it back on the shelf until it tastes the way you want it to!  Keep in mind, the longer you leave it the more pungent it will smell.

Remember: 1) keep the cabbage below the brine, and 2) make sure gas can escape.  You never want to put a lid on the kraut until it is done and ready to go in the fridge.

Kari Pierce

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Why I love the new food label

More big news in food policy: FDA proposes new and MUCH improved food label laws, bringing current science and clarity to consumers.

Registered Dietician Kelly Toups provides helpful insight into why both of the FDA label suggestions would be a major boon to consumer awareness.

The FDA will be collecting comments on their proposed label designs for the next 90 days. Now is your chance to weigh in!

Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN

Food labels have been long overdue for a make-over. After years of pressure from consumer advocacy groups and health experts, the FDA finally released a proposed new food label. *slow clap*

New Food Label

Why do I love it?

  • Added sugars! While the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 6 tsp/day for women and 9 tsp/day for men, there was no way to know how much you were getting because added sugars weren’t required to be on labels.
  • Fiber gets redefined: If approved, the “fiber” on a label will reflect only the the intact, unprocessed fiber in whole foods, and exclude purified fibers such as maltodextrin and inulin (which are added to processed foods).
  • Vitamin D and potassium: Requiring these two nutrients (in place of Vitamins A & C) is much more relevant to the health needs of today’s population.
  • No more serving size trickery. Have you ever been able…

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A Big Day for Food Policy

Photo from letsmove.gov/blog

Photo from letsmove.gov/blog

Michelle Obama kicked ass yesterday, announcing not one, but TWO major policy changes regarding school food:

1) For all schools nationwide that have 40% or more of their students eligible for free-or-reduced meals, all students at that school will receive free breakfast and lunch.

2) Advertising of unhealthy food and drinks in schools is banned.

Marion Nestle gives a comprehensive summary of what these announcements mean, and why they are critical steps on her blog.  I highly recommend reading her post from yesterday.

These are major moves in the right direction, and a proud day for advocates everywhere. Way to go First Lady.

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How to Poach an Egg: step-by-step instructions to help you master this elusive delight

There is more than one way to poach an egg, and there is more than one tool on the market offering to make the job easier.  Consult the expertise of Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, or Mark Bittman and each will tell you something slightly different with the same degree of certainty.  Bittman says the water in your pan should be 1inch deep, Child says 2 inches.  Pepin instructs you to crack the eggs straight into the simmering water, Bittman cracks them into a bowl first.  Pepin places the finished egg in an ice bath, Bittman puts them straight onto the plate.

If you’re feeling intimidated, lighten the mood by watching Jacques and Julia face off!

If all this seems too daunting, you can buy any number of single-purpose kitchen tools to achieve uniform results, from expensive specialty pans to simple silicone cups that float in the water.  While technique and tools may vary, every cook braving the elusive oeufs pochés has the same goal: to serve up delicate, silky pouches of tender whites wrapped around rich yolk.photo 3

Anyone who has attempted to make them can undoubtedly say that these fragile purses require a close eye and steady hand.  Because of this, some cooks find the modern gadgets useful.  But an egg poached in a silicon cup lacks the elegance that can be achieved with more traditional methods.  A cup gives you a perfectly circular, slightly rubbery disk with the yolk sitting too close to the surface.  On the plate, it careens maddeningly off your toast rather than clinging to it.

If you find this bothersome, or the conflicting advice of culinary heroes confusing, it is possible to master this exalted dish without culinary prowess or a kitchen store gadget you won’t use again. There is no right way to accomplish the task. Find what works for you.

photo 1To make perfect poached eggs you need one large saucepan (5 quarts), one slotted spoon, a lightweight dishcloth or paper towels, distilled white vinegar, a clock or timer, and eggs.  The fresher they are, the easier they are to work with.  Fill the saucepan about 2/3 full of water, so that it is at least two inches deep.  You do not want the eggs to be crowded in the pot; they shouldn’t bang up against each other as they float around, or they may end up sticking together.  If you are cooking more than three at a time use a wider pot.

Bring the water to a low boil.  Add a dash of distilled white vinegar, about two tablespoons for a large pot.  The vinegar will help the whites hold together amid the bubbling water.  Reduce the heat slightly until the water is at a steady simmer.  Have your eggs close at hand; you will want to add them to the water quickly so each is done at about the same time.  On a free work surface lay out your dishcloth, or two doubled paper towels.  Lightly crack an egg on the side of the pan so that it is broken but still in one piece, hold it as close over the water as possible without burning yourself, and break the shell smoothly so that the contents slip easily into the water.  Repeat this step quickly until all of your eggs are in the water.  Set the timer to four minutes.

photo 2With the spoon, pull water over each egg in an arching motion, to make the white tendrils tuck up over the yolks.  Don’t worry if some of the whites have detached and are floating on the surface.  Use the slotted spoon to remove them gently and place them on the cloth to drain.  Soak up any hidden water pockets by gently dabbing with the edge of the cloth.  Serve warm.

Poaching eggs may seem intimidating, or not worth the effort, but slide your fork through your first springy, warm pillow and taste the glistening gold that comes pouring out, and you will be hooked.  How you arrive at such perfection is up to you.photo 4



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