Robert and I are going backpacking next month so I am currently in hyper meal-planning mode. This means lots of experiments in the kitchen. I feel like a mad scientist, busy figuring out ways to make food more lightweight and packable yet tasty and nutritious. Sure, I could just head down to REI and buy some commercially prepared instant meals, but that wouldn’t be very much fun, would it?

One of the main challenges with backpacking is getting your daily requirement of veggies. You could theoretically carry fresh carrots or other sturdy vegetables with you but, after a day or so they won’t be very good. Plus, fresh vegetables weigh a lot, and weight is always a big issue when you are backpacking. You could fork over the cash and buy dehydrated vegetables from Just Tomatoes. Or, you could buy a home dehydrator which you will use once a year and then need to find space for in your storage closet the rest of the time. But, most people do what I do – simply go without, relying instead on dried fruit and instant beans in place of vegetables. A few days without vegetables isn’t going to hurt you. Still, I just don’t feel right if there isn’t something green on my dinner plate.

My solution? Turn a conventional oven into a makeshift dehydrator! The two keys to dehydrating foods are to be able to maintain a consistent, low temperature (140 to 150 degrees) and to allow air to reach all sides of the food for even drying. An oven may not be the most efficient tool for the job, but I was able to get it to work just fine. After trying a few different low settings, I was able to maintain an oven temperature of about 147 degrees (an oven thermometer comes in real handy here.) I ended up propping the oven door open slightly with a pair of kitchen tongs to get the right temperature. Doing this also helps improve the airflow. Rather than using baking sheets or pans, you need place the food on something that will allow air to move all around it. You can buy mesh screens for this purpose or you can do what I did which was to wrap a piece of cheesecloth around a cooling rack (securing the ends with safety pins helps keep it in place.)

I choose broccoli for my dehydration experiment. First, I cut the broccoli into bite-sized pieces and blanched it in boiling water until it was just cooked through. I then spread it out in a single, uncrowded layer on the cheesecloth and placed it in the oven. I checked on the broccoli every hour or so; 6 hours later, it was ready! It was completely brittle and showed no signs of moisture whatsoever. One whole head of broccoli was transformed into a small 1 ounce handful. I also dehydrated some garlic and capers and used it to make a tasty tuna & broccoli noodle dish which should be delicious out in the wilderness. The broccoli reconstituted fairly well. Its texture was definitely different, but it tasted like broccoli and remained pretty green through the whole process. And, as long as I can see something green in my bowl, I will be one “happy camper.”

elliemay’s backcountry tuna & broccoli noodles

1 large head of broccoli, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 heaping tablespoon capers, well-drained
zest of one large lemon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
6 ounces angel hair pasta
one 7-ounce foil packet of tuna or salmon
1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to between 140 and 150 degrees. Blanch the broccoli in a pot of boiling water until just tender. Drain thoroughly. Wrap a piece of cheesecloth around a cooling rack and secure the ends using safety pins (or use a mesh screen). Spread the broccoli, garlic and capers out on the cheesecloth arranging them in a single, uncrowded layer. Open the oven door a few inches to create airflow, making sure that the temperature remains between 140 and 150 degrees. Dry the vegetables in the oven, checking every hour or so, until completely dried and brittle (4 to 5 hours for the garlic and 5 to 6 hours for the broccoli and capers). Remove from the oven and let cool.

While the vegetables are dehydrating, leave the lemon zest out to dry on a paper towel for several hours. Crush the dehydrated garlic and capers lightly and mix with the lemon zest, oregano, pepper and salt. Wrap this up a small piece of plastic wrap. Wrap the parmesan cheese in a separate packet. Put the broccoli and pasta in a plastic baggie (I break up the pasta into smaller pieces to make it fit.) Place all of this into a larger baggie along with the tuna packet, olive oil (in a small bottle) and printed cooking instructions. Now, it is ready to be taken on any backpacking trip!

To prepare the meal, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and broccoli and cook until almost done (about 4 minutes.) Drain most of the water out, leaving about 1/2 cup of water in the pot. Add the seasoning packet, stir well to mix, and cook until the pasta is done. Add the cheese, tuna and olive oil, stir to mix, and allow the tuna to heat through. Enjoy!

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