Garbage In, Garbage Out

Anyone who’s spent time around me knows that I spend much of my day thinking about, preparing, and consuming food. Perhaps not as frequently as I hunt down and drink coffee, but reaching that level would be challenging. Each day is only so long.  

As an active individual I eat a reasonable quantity of food; rarely in large portions at a single time, but spaced regularly and frequently throughout the day (and sometimes the night). As a competitive endurance athlete I have to consider which foods I’m eating at any given time, and how those foods will affect my performance the next hour, the next day, or the next week. And as a vegetarian who refuses to live exclusively on Cliff products, I have to find or create food that meets conditions 1 and 2, and that is both palatable and meat-free.

Eating well without a kitchen on a long distance bike tour adds a few interesting and challenging constraints, though certainly not constraints that are insurmountable. My non-exhaustive list includes:

  1. Weight: This applies to both the food and the container. Canned foods and glass jars of peanut butter or kimchi are the worst because the food is dense and the container is heavy.
  2. Cooking temperature: Many stoves (mine included) cannot simmer or fry anything and instead create the strongest adhesive known to man between the food and the bottom of the pan, rendering both unusable. The meal must be boiled at high heat.
  3. Cooking duration: Long boil times waste fuel. I’m looking at you, green lentils.
  4. Longevity: Food will be exposed to high heat and/or moisture, possibly for long durations of time.
  5. Order of operations: We only have 1 burner, and because it’s a liquid fuel stove I only want to light it once. Cook everything in the same pot at the same time 

We’ve by no means mastered camp cooking, but compared to most we set a fairly high bar. I have yet to cook a freeze dried meal on this trip, to cook a meal that did not contain at least one fruit or vegetable, or to cook a meal that came from a single package. 

First, it’s important to realize that bike touring–at least this version of bike touring, which is different from my more remote tours like the Oregon Outback–is not the same as backpacking. Yes, we are self powered, self supported, and we spend a lot of time camping. But we can soften some of the constraints I listed above. Whereas backpackers spend most of their time away from populated areas, we pass multiple towns each day and rarely camp more than 20 miles from source of food and water. Furthermore, adding a few extra pounds to a backpack means a lot more work schlepping, but a little extra weight in a pannier rolls just fine. Ultimately we can carry foods that spoil quickly, that weigh a little extra, or that require more than a thimbleful of fuel.

In the future I’d like to start making ultralite and long lasting meals for multi week backpacking and remote bikepacking trips that don’t have to be purchased at REI. Also, it will give me an excuse to use that dehydrator Sarah bought last year. But what do we cook on this trip? Here are a my favorites so far:

  1. Chili: 1 can diced tomatoes; 1 can beans; ½ onion, ½ pepper (spicy or bell); chili powder; salt; pepper. Optional: yogurt, cheese, avocado.
  2. Tacos: The same as chili without the tomato. We cook the mixture in bean juice and water. Sometimes we substitute Fritos for tortillas.
  3. Curry: red lentils and/or 1 minute rice; ½ onion; broccoli, cauliflower and/or peas; curry powder; salt; pepper. Optional: yogurt. Soak the lentils while setting up camp to reduce cook time. Cook the whole mixture until it’s about to stick to the pain, then let it sit with the top on (and the stove off) to cook a little longer.
  4. Epic Salad: 1 box mixed greens; 1 can chickpeas; bell pepper, cucumber, raw peeled beet, tomato, and/or avocado; hard boiled eggs; dried and/or fresh fruit; seeds. Dressing: 1 lemon; mustard; salt; pepper; jam.
  5. Veggie “Burger”: red lentils; couscous; ½ onion; mushrooms; burger buns; whatever else is leftover in your panniers; salt; pepper. Cook the same way as the curry, but let it set for ~30 minutes so it doesn’t dribble all over your sleeping bag. Steal as many catsup packets as necessary from gas stations before getting to camp.
  6. Pasta: 1 box pasta; 1 jar sauce; ½ onion; ½ bell pepper; salt; pepper. Boil the pasta and the veggies at the same time. Dump the water and add sauce and stir for ~30 seconds so it’s not frigid but it also isn’t glued to the pan. Don’t dump the pasta on the ground with the water.
  7. The Pizza Dream: Go out for pizza and beer after a long day.
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