Backcountry Chef

This elegant and tasty trailside vegetarian risotto proves that camp cuisine doesn’t have to be uninspired.

One of my favorite memories from my time as a wilderness ranger stationed near Mount Rainier in the 1990s was running into a very fit older couple, both well into their 80s, on the trail a few times in the Norse Peak and Clearwater Wilderness areas. They hailed from Seattle and told me that in their retirement years, they’d made a goal to not only be outdoors as much as possible but to enjoy it to the fullest extent every time and at every meal.

Ted and Nora invited me to eat dinner with them after I finished my trail project, and I eagerly joined them one drizzly evening near a high Alpine lake, contributing a wedge of mediocre cheddar, some decent chocolate and a half-full flask of Kentucky bourbon to the feast. And feast it was for a 20-something federal employee living on a next-to-nothing stipend and lots of ramen. Their meal was a revelation of luxury in the backcountry: al dente pasta with creamy sauce and dried mushrooms they’d foraged on a previous trip, sprinkled with fresh herbs Nora had wrapped in a damp paper towel and waxed paper (“They’ll keep for days,” she said). Charcuterie, farmer’s cheese, a crunchy baguette and a bottle of crisp wine chilled in a glacial stream rounded out our glorious meal.

I took away from that high-country hospitality a couple of lessons: Staying active with people you love is a good idea for both health and happiness in the long run. Not only that, but eating well in camp doesn’t have to be a sacrifice of constantly weighing pack ounces for food options, especially on shorter trips. Technology has helped us out on the latter goal in past decades, with more efficient camp stoves allowing for greater heat control and multi-fuel options for more-sensitive food preparations.

Another boon for folks who like to camp in style: More and better choices in the boxed-wine category, from 3-serving 500ml tetra-packs (equaling about three 5.5-ounce glasses of wine) to 3-litre boxes with the equivalent of 4 full-size bottles of wine at a fraction of the weight, space and breakage risk. Plus, the empty wine bladder makes for a great camp pillow or soccer ball.

Dry white wine from the box also makes for fantastic risotto. But instead of constantly stirring and adding broth just a cup at a time over an hour (as any good Italian grandma would insist), this camp-friendly recipe uses a quicker, less labor-intensive technique from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s seminal food-science tome, The Food Lab, which I’ve adapted for backcountry ingredients and equipment. You’ll need the largest camp pot in your arsenal to make this dish, as it needs plenty of room for stirring in all the liquid. It’s also a great dish to use up any wilty-looking fresh veggies you’ve got in the pack—just add them mid-way through cooking the risotto.


Trailside Veggie Risotto

(serves 4 generously as a main course)

» 2 teaspoons dried minced garlic
» ¼ cup dried onion flakes
» 2 teaspoons dried minced shallot
» ¼ cup dried chopped bell pepper/red pepper combo
» 1/3 cup olive oil
» 1 ounce (about ½ cup) dried mushrooms, any variety
» 1 ½ cup Arborio rice
» 1 ½ cup dry white wine
» 4 vegetable bouillon cubes (or 4+ teaspoons granules)
» 1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
» Optional: fresh herbs such as basil, thyme or rosemary and/or fresh veggies
» Salt & pepper to taste

1. In a small bowl, combine all dried veggies (except for mushrooms) and cover with 1/3 cup olive oil, let sit for about 30 minutes. In another bowl, add 1 cup boiling water to the dried mushrooms to rehydrate while rice is cooking.
2. Over medium-low heat in your biggest camp pot, add the oil-soaked veggies and all of the oil. Once it starts to sizzle, add all of the dry rice. Stir frequently for about one minute to toast the rice and to keep the veggies from burning.
3. Add the wine. Stir to combine, and cook until about half the wine has evaporated.
4. To the pot, add 4 bouillon cubes (or granules) and 4 cups water. Stir to combine and reduce heat to the lowest setting possible. Cover with lid. After 10 minutes, stir rice again and add ½ cup water or so to prevent sticking if needed (add chopped fresh veggies now if desired). Cover and cook for another 10 minutes until rice is just tender with a slight bite.
5. Add the rehydrated mushrooms and their soaking liquid to the rice, stir well to incorporate (should be a bit creamy—if not, add another ½ cup water to loosen up the rice) and cook until mushrooms are warmed through, about five minutes.
6. Remove from heat and add cheese, stir well. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately sprinkled with fresh herbs.

Bonus: Leftover risotto makes delicious hearty breakfast rice cakes! Form cooled risotto into patties and lightly fry in olive oil. Top with a sunny-side-up egg and some hot sauce.

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