Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Stoveless Menu

I am preparing for another foray onto the PCT this year, and have been working on meal preparation.  Last year I left the stove at home and plan on doing the same thing again.  Not having to deal with a stove has simplified trail life, and helped in pack weight reduction.  But it has complicated the food preparation ahead of time.  It is not enough to browse through the Mountain House meals at REI and purchase enough dinners to get me through the hiking season.  It takes quite a bit more planning and effort to put together a menu that is appealing to my simple tastes as well as nutritious enough to keep me moving down the trail.  While I am far from finished, I am well on the way to being ready for this summer.

Dehydrator

What little drying I did last year was done in the oven on very low heat, and was pretty much limited to canned chicken.  All of the rest of the dry ingredients were bought either from a local grocery or online.  But the selection is somewhat limited and pricey, so this year I opted to buy a dehydrator and give that a try.

I looked at the Excalibur dehydrators first, but was apprehensive about investing so much money in something I was not sure I would use much.  So I bought a 4 tray unit from Nesco, opting for the rectangular unit rather than the round one.  I also bought a pair of screens for use in drying stuff that was small enough to fall through the spokes on the drying trays.  The only thing missing from the unit was a timer, and I solved that by buying a small timer from the local hardware store and plugging the dehydrator into that.

I have found the dehydrator to be fairly easy to use, and it does appear to do a good job.  Stuff dries evenly and, so far at least, it appears to be hard to overdry foods.  I would highly recommend this unit to anyone who was looking to get their feet wet in the dehydration business.  The only issue I have with it is the center hole that is used for moving air through the trays; it occupies about a 2" diameter section in the middle of each tray.  The Excalibur may be better, but this one works just fine for a considerably less investment.  You can buy additional trays if desired and add them to the stack.  I don't know what the limit is, but I would guess you could easily double the four trays that I have.

Drying Foods

So far I have dried a good variety of vegetables and meats as well as a couple of leftover meals that I could easily imagine eating cold.  I am not very good yet with being able to set the timer to the right value, and end up drying stuff several times until they are good and dry, but so far nearly everything has turned out well.  Below are some of the foods I have dried and some notes about each.

  • Chicken: I can put a can of chicken on a tray, crumbling it up first, set the temp to about 150 and it is dry in 4-5 hours.  
  • Tuna: I have dried several large cans of albacore, treating it just like the chicken, although drying it in the garage.  It did stink up the garage as well as the basement.
  • Hamburger: Hamburger meat, left over from taco's, also dried pretty well when spread out and crumpled up.
  • Broccoli: Cut up into fairly small pieces with little stem and then blanched for a minute.  Like everything other than the meats, they dried at 130 degrees for about 10 hours.
  • Carrots: Used small carrots cut up into slices between 1/8 and 1/4 inch and blanched for a minute.  I would never have guess how much water was in a carrot.  They almost disappeared when dried.
  • Bell Pepper: Cut up lengthwise into 12-16 sections, cleaned of seeds and interior walls, and then cut into 1/4 inch pieces.
  • Onion: Diced into small pieces.  Pretty strong.
  • Corn: I used canned whole corn.  Drained and rinsed and then dried until shriveled.
  • Pinto Beans: I used canned beans as well.  Drained and rinsed and then dried until hard.  The beans did not really shrink in size like most other things, but some did split open and were obviously dry.
  • Refried Beans: Spread out a can of refried beans onto a tray and dried.  It dried as a sheet that could be easily broken up into flakes and dust.
  • Tomatoes: I used Roma tomatoes, cutting into eights and then laying on the tray skin side down.  Those that ended up with the skin up, or on their side, stuck to the trays a bit.
  • Mushrooms: Dried sliced mushrooms until they were stiff and curled up.  
  • Barley: Cook the barley according to the directions and then spread out on a tray and dried until they become hard again.
  • Rice: I have tried both a mixed rice combination and a mixed grain combo.  For both I cooked as per the instructions, and then dried.
  • Hard Boiled Egg: I have tried sliced and chopped up in a food processor.  Chopped up was not bad, although not sure I will really use them for anything.
  • Cheese: Used non-fat cheddar.  It dried pretty good and then rehydrated into a clump.  Mixed in with other stuff it should be good.
  • Beef Stroganoff: After dinner, spread a couple of servings on a tray and try until its all crunchy.  It rehydrates well and is not bad cold.
  • Chicken Alfredo:  Same as the stroganoff.
  • Spaghetti: Same as the stroganoff except the bowl is more difficult to clean up eating.  Added some soap and water and put the lid back on for a while and it seemed to clean up OK.
  • Tuna/Bean Spread: A mixture of tuna and white beans pureed in the food processor along with some salsa.  Rehydrates quickly and works with crackers.  Mine was a bit bland when rehydrated through.
  • Applesauce: Spread out applesauce in a thin layer on a screen and doctor with cinnamon if desired.  Dry until firm to the touch and then peel it off the tray.  While others liked this, I did not, so will probably not do it again.
  • Bananas: Slice into 1/4 inches slices and dry until they flex but do not break. I ate most of these, but find them to be a bit overpowering; concentrated banana.  I will likely just opt for store bought banana chips instead.

Storage

I do not have a lot of experience with dehydration, and the shelf life of the product.  But most of what I have read indicates you need to keep it dry and in an airtight container.  And keeping it in the refrigerator or freezer will prolong its shelf life.  So, I bought a case of quart sized canning jars and am using them to store dried ingredients.  Sometimes the ingredients are also in Ziploc bags, allowing peppers and onions, for instance, to be kept in the same jar.

Once I get them combined into actual meals and bagged up, I am putting them into the freezer until it is time to hit the trail.  Hopefully they will keep well until I leave in July.

Meals

Like last year, I a planning on four meals a day, plus snacks.  Most of these meals are pretty simple: a pint of instant breakfast and Nido while breaking camp; granola cereal with Nido mid to late morning; tuna salad (in a foil packet), spam (also in a foil packet) or PB&J on a tortilla in the early afternoon.

Only the evening meal will require any preparation, and that will be minimal.  After the mid afternoon meal, I can empty a dehydrated meal into a two cup Ziploc bowl with a lid, cover it with water, and stow back into my pack until dinner time.  Then I can pull it out, eat, clean the bowl and then set up camp or hike on farther.

Top Ramen Casserole
One of my primary dinners will be Top Ramen based.  But added to the noodles will be a teaspoon of onions and peppers and a tablespoon each of corn, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and one of the dried meats, seasoned to taste.  I take 4 packages of noodles and divide them up 5 ways and then add the other ingredients into a sandwich sized Ziploc.  2-3 hours before eating, pour it into a bowl, add just enough water to cover the mixture and put the lid on the bowl.  When it is ready you can just eat it out of the bowl with a spoon.

Burritos
My burritos are made of beans, a grain and a meat, along with some onions and cheese.  Since I have both whole and refried pinto beans; barley, mixed grain and mixed rice; chicken, tuna and hanburger; I can make quite a variety of burritos.  I prepare ahead of time by putting 1/4 cup of each of the three main ingredients into a Ziploc, along with onions and cheese and seasoning.  2-3 hours before eating, pour it into a bowl, add just enough water to cover the mixture and put the lid on the bowl.  This makes enough to make two nice burritos using 8" flour tortillas, plus maybe a bit left over to eat directly from the bowl.  I take along enough individual mayonnaise packets to be able to add one to each burrito for extra fat and flavor, but that addition would be a very personal thing.

Leftovers
So far, I have found that Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Alfredo and Spaghetti all dehydrate well and are tasty when rehydrated and eaten cold.  After they are dried, store in a Ziploc and treat just like the Top Ramen.  I am looking for other leftovers that I can treat the same way.

I still have about 3 months until I start this summers PCT travels, so I am sure that the menu and options will change between now and then.  I expect to update this article over the next three months as I continue to work on the menu.