Monday, September 24, 2007

"Oh No! Not Oatmeal - Again!"

...and there was Marty, staring at me as I scooped the stuff up like we were about go head out for a seven day trek with food for only three. He looked as though he might heave, and when I asked him if he was ill, he told me that he couldn't stand even the thought of oatmeal anymore.*

He'd eaten so much in his years out there that even seeing someone else partaking set off his gag reflex.

Poor guy; it's hard enough getting food of any sort down first thing out of the tent for most people, and here he was - cutting a staple of the trade out of his diet.

I asked him to try a bite, thinking maybe time would have healed something, and he reluctantly agreed. His spoon hadn't lifted a quarter way from the bowl to his mouth before a noticeable lurching of stomach occurred..... He was telling the truth!

*Though this retelling is basically accurate, some poetic license may have been taken.

Well - It's a trouble, isn't it - the oatmeal quandary? Here's a food well suited for the trail; a hot breakfast to warm one's core, and a source of fiber - heaven knows that's times. And yet, it's a food that brings up childhood memories of the unhappy ilk, or remembrances of meal after meal of the same on a rained out back-country trip. Marty's not the only one I know who hates oatmeal.....

If you're truly a lost cause, may god have pity on you as you stave off death eating cardboard-y, past-the-expiration-date glop bars. But if you're just a little...bored...with your oatmeal - I've got you covered.

There's a few things to consider about the food. First - those instant 'just add water' packets are not what I consider adequate, although I admit I've found a brand (365 Organic Oats & Flax) that's not so bad. Beware one of the top ingredients is cane juice(sugar), but I find it to be less sweet than the more well-known brands.

"Real" oatmeal is what the name says - oat meal. I like McCann's Steel Cut. But it's something like nearly an hour cooking time. When either time or fuel use is an issue, that's a problem.

Perhaps soaking the oats overnight would soften them and reduce the cooking time; I've never tried it.

There are a few "in-betweens," like Arrowhead Mills Seven Grain Hot Cereal, that are less processed than the instant varieties but not the basic product, and that's an option. But the time/fuel element is really the outweighing factor, even in car-camping, for most people. So, usually it's the easier, faster way that people choose, and I can't argue with that.

So - the trick is to dress up that hot morning meal, or fake it out entirely. I've found a delicious(and fast) alternative to the instant oatmeal packet is to simple use a choice granola in substitute. There are so many excellent options out there that you can pack a few different types and have variety. It has a long shelf life, and so long as you seal the packages...travels very well. Plus, the stuff can do double duty as an afternoon snack - lots of people already carry a baggie on the trail to graze along the way.

I prefer a granola that has nuts included, and that gives extra nutrients, and I also like as close to raw as possible - not those clumped by some sweetener varieties. And...I also try to stay away from the corporate brands; granola is an easy mom & pop type op, and a great opportunity to support you local business; just look around, and I bet you'll find some small manufacturer within a few hundred miles of yourself.

Take that granola and toss it in a cooking pot. Add some milk(or dried milk and water), turn on the heat, and in the same time as it takes to heat that instant crap - you've got a much more palatable and nutritious food ready to eat. Or, just heat the liquid and stir it into your bowl of dried granola, for a crispier texture and still heat your insides when the temp is cold on the outside.

Whether it's a granola-based breakfast or a variation on traditional oatmeal - add-ins are what makes the difference. Before I give my cooked apples recipe...well - I might forget, so I'd better do that now....

Take an apple(here's a chance to use the "less attractive one of the bunch - maybe you carried him in your pack all day yesterday and didn't get to consume, and now that apple's looking like he's been in the boxing ring for a round or two), and cut it up.

I don't care how - slice fat or slim, cube, dice, whittle away or hack attack with your plastic camp knife - it doesn't matter to me. Put the apple pieces in a small pot, add sugar and some butter(an easy way to add some fat in your diet), and simmer until it's hot(however soft you prefer, whether it's just heated and still crunchy, or practically apple jam. Yummier - add brown sugar. For the road, I use a granulated form since it stores well, not hardening into a rock.

Maybe you believe white sugar is the devil.... If that's the case, substitute honey(add water to create a syrup) or another sweetening agent. Or just use apples and water; doesn't matter. The point is that you're concocting a warm delicious topping to get more fuel in your body for a day out adventuring and spruce up what might otherwise be a bland breakfast.

So - you've cooked those apples down. Simply pour over the top of the oatmeal/OM substitute and dig in.

Another way that I have come up with to add nutrients and flavor/texture to gruel-type foods is to stir in dried nuts, fruits and/or berries as the meal cooks. I like the added crunch and taste of roasted almonds, which tends to be a nice contrast with the pudding-like texture. If, in fact, it's the texture that skeeves you when you think of the stuff, this might just be your salvation.... The dried fruits also pull second shift as part of your grazing snack later in the day.

Blueberries or cherries are my dried fruits of choice, but the options are really unlimited. If they(or you) make it, you can add it. Banana, apple chips, mango - whatever. I put them in right away, because I like them to be fully soft in my finished meal. Note: you will get a blue-tinted mixture with blueberries, not that there's anything wrong with that....

One other option, and this is definitely a throwback to the Chocolate Malt 'O Meal from the 1970's, is to add cocoa to the mix. Not, mind you, crappy Swiss Miss or other instants. I mean - real cocoa. The kind that costs you, stuff that hasn't been processed to a powder form. I am out right now, so don't have the suggestion off hand, but if you look in better markets, you'll find it. I've never had this, but I imagine that, mixed with banana chips, it might be pretty damned good!

And that brings me round to something else! That excellent cocoa goes nicely into the coffee pot, for cafe mocha, a superbly luxurious beverage for a pick-me-up on a cold afternoon at the crag. Just bring along the Jet Boil, or other lite stove and small pan, and get to it. Keep in mind this stuff needs to steep in hot water; it's not a 'stir in at the last minute' sort of ingredient.

Is it hot cocoa with a kick, or coffee with a chocolate kiss? That's up to you, depending on the ratio you use. Keep in mind that real, good, cocoa has caffeine in it. This is not your toddlers drink; you will feel the difference.

So, as you can see - when I pack for a road trip or short jaunt to the Gunks, I try to pack items that can go for more than one use. The fruit compote can top french toast, or make it thick and spread on a bagel. The dried berries can be cooked similarly to make a fruit compote too. The granola, nuts and dried fruits are your trail mix.

When I met Marty, the guy from the start of this story, I didn't know any of this stuff. If I had, perhaps things would have turned out different that day; maybe he'd be reborn and once again join the fold of those who imbibe.

And the one other thing I 'll mention before hitting the "post" button is that - if you DO use the longer-cooking oats, and you think you can eat the stuff two days in a row, or more..... make a bigger batch and stow the leftover in your cooler. Next day, all you need to do is heat, and eat.

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