Going backpacking? Bring zesty food with you like homemade hummus and ‘Campfire Mexican Street Corn.’

June 22, 2022
Campfire corn is a great backpacking food idea. Photo: Getty Images.
Campfire corn is a great backpacking food idea. Photo: Getty Images.

My grad school friend, Bart, and I had just descended into Aspen after a five-day, 30-mile backpacking hike counterclockwise from Snowmass back to town along the “Four Pass Loop.”

I was sore and stinky, but above all, I was starved.

We had eaten as well as we could — both of us love to cook for ourselves and our families — but, after all, we’d been five days without the amenities of our kitchens. No stove, no refrigerator, no pots and pans.

If Bart and I would try the same route today, we’d be set to better feed ourselves. In 35 years, camping and cooking have trudged a long way too. Looking at you, Ziploc.

Get more tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

In my experience, cooking while camping occurs in two main ways. You take your kitchen with you — in an RV, say, or with piles of pans in the back of the van — or you just hoof it and really rough it, everything in a backpack, food included. (Or you glamp and in effect both crash and dine in someone else’s restaurant.)

Any of my recipes work in the first way (and there’s a recipe today in that manner). But I’ve also got suggestions on cooking bare bones. Just you, your eats and your wits. No drive-ins, no tagalong attendants.

As Bart and I found those many years ago, it’s pretty astonishing how many good meals a mere two people can portage on a long hike.

Backpacking food

Begin with a pantry of sorts, especially of dried grains and the like: grits or polenta, rice or ramen noodles, small-form dried pasta, powdered potatoes, powdered eggs, dried stuffing mix and flatbreads such as tortillas, pita or lavosh. The weight’s gone in these because the water is. You’ll pick up that along the trail.

Fresh proteins can be dangerous without refrigeration, but these days the proteins available in precooked, soy-based “fake meats” abound. Their best feature is that they actually satisfy, in all departments (taste, texture, satiety). They merely require heat. That, too, is available along the trail. (One cool thing to do with small-gauge firewood: whittle chopsticks from two sturdy twigs unless you simply must keep your spork at home.)

Above all, planning ahead before you leave for the trail will make for great campground eating. The most important task is to nail down as many of your campground recipes that you can figure out, and then measure out and package all of their ingredients.

For instance, combine any one recipe’s cooking liquids, pre-measured, into one small container. For example, to dress a package of ramen noodles, put some soy sauce, sesame oil and chile sauce into one small bottle. Be sure that any bottle containing liquids has threaded mouths or openings. That prevents pop-outs and leaks, especially with shifting elevations.

In a similar manner, vegetable adornments for the same boiled ramen such as scallions, bell pepper or carrot shavings can be cut up at home and put into a sturdy zippered bag. They’ll stay good, and be safe, for two to three days easy, so merely plan on them for a meal early on. Same idea for dry spices for other recipes (salt and pepper, Indian spice powders, etc.): small, threaded-mouth jars or wee plastic “zip-seal” bags, these latter available at pharmacy counters.

Similarly, wet foods that you’ve made at home before leaving, such as the recipe here for hummus, also can be packaged in sturdy zippered plastic bags (perhaps two, one inside the other) and frozen hard, to be toted along. They’ll remain very cold for a day or two (depending on the outside temperatures) while helpfully cooling other foodstuffs and be ready for another delicious meal, again early on.

Another hack, and one that my friend Bart and I did not have much of 35 years ago, is to empty the kitchen drawers of all those accumulated condiment packets from bring-in dinner deliveries. Way beyond salt and pepper, today’s campers have at their readies mayonnaise, ketchup, Dijon and yellow mustards, chile sauce, malt vinegar, sweet and sour sauce, jams and jellies, even various brands of hot sauces (Cholula, say, or Tapatío). All you need.

Finally, the best thing that you have in your home kitchen to add spark and zest to any meal is acidity. So, away from home and out in the open, tote along a lemon for its juice or a vial of rice vinegar. A whisper of either enlivens anything, even overnight oats.

Super-smooth Hummus

Adapted for our elevation, and with tweaks from me, from a recipe by J. M. Hirsch and Diane Unger in “Milk Street” magazine, May-June 1997. Makes 4 cups.

Ingredients

8 ounces or about 1 cup or more dried small chickpeas

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup tahini, from toasted sesame, at room temperature and well-stirred

4 tablespoons lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1-2 cloves garlic, peeled, to taste

Directions

Put 8 cups of cold water, the salt and the chickpeas into a large bowl and soak for at least 12 hours or overnight. When ready to cook, bring 10 cups of water to a boil in a large pot and add the baking soda. Drain the soaked chickpeas, discarding the soaking water, and add the chickpeas to the pot.

Bring back to a boil and cook the chickpeas until the skins begin to fall off and they are very tender, 50-55 minutes (or more at higher elevation). Put a fine colander or mesh strainer over a heat-proof bowl and drain the chickpeas, keeping back 1 cup of the chickpea boiling water. But let them completely drain.

Remove 2 heaping tablespoons of the chickpeas, set that aside, and move the rest to the bowl of a food processor. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and process the mass for 3 full minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl 2-3 times to ensure consistency.

Add the tahini and process for 1 minute more, again scraping down the sides of the bowl. With the processor running and through the feed tube, pour in the 1 cup of reserved water, the lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. Process once more, 1-2 minutes, until smooth and very light. Taste for salt.

(If for a camping or away trip, place in 2 thick plastic zippered bags and chill well (or freeze, if desired). To portage, place one of the cold bags of hummus inside another thick plastic zippered bag, both bags sealed well.)

Serve warm, if possible, garnished with the reserved whole cooked chickpeas and any number of other flavorings: more olive oil, paprika, cumin powder, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, more lemon juice, sumac powder or one of the spice blends za’atar or ras el hanout. Scoop it with pita, of course, but also with red cabbage leaves or sweet onion “curls.”

Campfire Mexican Street Corn

From campspot.com; serves 4; edited for style and clarity. Additional recipes here: https://www.campspot.com/camp-guide/campfire-nachos-mexican-street-corn-quick-black-beans/

Ingredients

4 ears of corn, husks removed

Olive oil

1 cup cotija (a fresh Mexican or Mexican-style cheese), crumbled

2 tablespoons sour cream

1/2 bunch of cilantro, finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons of Tajín brand seasoning, or other powdered chile-lime seasoning

1/2 lime

Directions

Brush oil onto the ears of corn before putting them onto the campfire grate. Keep corn ears from direct contact with the flames as they can burn quickly. Use the indirect method, maintaining the ears off to the side of direct heat. Rotate the ears so that they brown on all sides. They are done when the kernels get a bit wrinkly.

Place corn onto a baking sheet and brush on sour cream. Sprinkle with crumbled cotija, cilantro and Tajín. Spinning and rubbing the corn into the fallen toppings on the sheet may help to spread everything evenly. Squeeze the juice from half of the lime onto the ears of corn before serving.

Reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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