Thursday, August 21, 2008

Camp Cooking - TV Dinner?

Remember those Swanson's Hungry Man TV dinners from the 1970's? Well, I do and I'm not too embarrassed to admit that they fall into the category of comfort food for me.

See, when mom and dad had a night out planned, cooking for eight children would seriously have cut into the prep time my mother needed to get herself ready for the evening. Eight kids? There WAS no open time available, and so she would create it by employing the magic of "convenience cookery."

It might be pizza or hamburgers my father brought back from town, a 20 mile drive away, and that was a real treat. Being a kid whose mother was adept at gourmet american fare, we usually had full meals with good, hearty food covering the four groups, and to get the stuff that other kids considered the norm was a pretty big deal. But sometimes dad was too busy and couldn't coordinate the fast food run with his work run. That's when mom would pop Pot Pies or TV Dinners into the oven for us.

There's something about the meal being self-contained in the little tin plate(yes, I know it's not really tin) that made it very novel, much like the cut-away Kellogg's single serving cereal boxes. We never had those at home either, so to go to a friends house and see a cupboard LADEN with those sugary breakfasts, and get to jack the box open myself was like....well, it seemed nearly like a wilderness experience to me, at the time.

So....even though I know that sort of food is crap, I can't help but have fond memories when I think of them. Memories of mom and dad out of the picture momentarily and me on my own. To get into whatever mischief I cared to, untethered by the cumbersome leash concept of being caught red-handed.

Which brings me to the point of this post. As is my habit, when I am writing about food prep and recipes I use in camp, I title the post "Camp Cooking." This means I will follow through and provide said recipe/technique. I do keep my word in such matters.


If you, too, have childhood memories of those Swanson's meals, you are going to like this one. I happen-chanced upon it accidentally, on a weekend when I was rained in with no tarp to facilitate an al fresco kitchen. I had brought my usual stock of dinners, which are usually a bit time intensive, what with the chopping of vegetables and such. The rain was SO hard that it was simply not possible, for even if I did the prep work inside my tent, I'd still have the two-burner stove to contend with, and I knew it would succumb to the flood in a hell of a lot less time the forty days Noah floated through.

The night was waning. And my hunger was gaining. I started to think it was going to have to be a cold meal of pretzels and cookies for desert. Since I had set up the tent in rain and was soaked to the core, I really wished for some warmth. wish sometimes seem to command...something. For just as I thought the thought, the winds and rain began to simmer down. Luck! The torrent was ending!

Of course it was late by then. But I was hungry, and I wanted to eat. Not paradoxically, I was hungry, and I didn't want to wait! So, I did a mental inventory of my foodstuffs and I did what I knew I had to do. I broke into Teddy's stash of chicken deli meat.

Yes, Teddy gets deli chicken for lunch on Sundays in the Gunks. Why? because it's hush money. I NEED to pay him off to keep him quiet.

If you are a follower of my blog, you know that I do trailwork on Sundays. We always stop for a lunch break around noon, and the guys bring out good food. Dick Williams usually has fresh, oven-roasted chicken. How could anyone possibly blame Teddy for not doing his best impersonation of a dog in trying to get that booty? You simply cannot. Teddy will give "that face" and when that goes unnoticed, he'll sigh and whimper. Just a little whine, of course. He's well aware of the irritation factor.

But if that doesn't work, he'll stamp his foot and do a "doggy insist" sort of sound, and then strain at his leash to get closer. It's simply not acceptable, but it's also unavoidable. Unless I pay him off. And so, one day I was in the grocery store and it occurred to me I could pack a quarter pound of chicken sandwich meat into the cooler for his Sunday meal. After all, he works hard at being Teddy and does need sustenance.

It happened that the deli man overshot the half-pound request and so I knew, that cold and rainy night, that Teddy would never miss it if I poached his chicken.....

"Now, what can I do with this?" I asked myself, and then remembered that I had added a pouch of instant mashed potatoes to my kitchen bin, and a packet of instant mushroom gravy.

Suddenly, I was overcome by the memory of a particular childhood evening....My parents were going to a benefit dinner and mom was dressed in a glittery sliver and charcoal full-length sheath, carefully applying Red red lipstick in the mirror, and worrying about how she would get from the car to the hall entrance where the benefit was being held without being ruined by the rain that had been pouring in torrents for the last three hours....

She had made us TV dinners that evening, and she brought them to us at the table in that outfit. Hair perfectly coiffed, makeup in place and dressed to the nines. Just like in the television commercials! Ummm....sort of.

I knew I had the makings to create a reasonable facsimile to that tv dinner of the past..... Well, at least the meat and potatoes part. Good enough for the beta version. On later attempts I would bring along a small can of Green Giant peas, to complete the effect. Well...okay. I still haven't figured out the cranberry cobbler desert. You're on your own for that one, though I think it would be easy enough to manage with a bit of thinking.

So - here's what you do:

Take a pot and make the mashed potatoes. You'll need water, dried milk and butter, plus the potato flakes. As the liquid heats, begin the gravy in a separate pot. Note: Do NOT use McKormick instant gravy. That stuff is bad, and not in a good way. Knorr's makes a decent brown gravy, and I have found the vegetarian mixes from stores like Whole Foods are very good(considering), too. Especially, I like their mushroom gravy. It actually has a....few....bits of mushrooms in there, so don't be frightened if you get a sliver. It's supposed to be there, I'm pretty sure.

Be watchful of the gravy, because it lumps and burns easily. You need the lowest possible heat setting and still pretty much need to stir constantly. If beer is part of your meal prep regimen, you should take care to handle that task beforehand, as a trip to the cooler in situ will be your undoing.

When the potato water is boiling, add the flakes, and stir them up. Then, cover and turn off the heat source. Now, add some of that deli chicken(or turkey, or roast beef) to the gravy. Just tear it into shreds, so it fits into the pot and heats more quickly The you won't have to worry about cutting it up on your plate. Unless you're a purist, and are going for the aesthetic appeal. Your call.

For the vegetables - as I said, a mini can of green peas has a very similar texture as the back-in-the-day tv dinner. I tear off the label, pour out most of the liquid, and set the can on the stove very near one of the other pots to heat it up. (Oh yes, my cooking stove is one of those flat two-burner types. I don't know how people cook with single burner units. If I had to do that, I'd have to have two units. Sometimes, I even secretly wish my stove had three burners.....).

So, that's about all there is to it. The meat is thinly sliced and heats very quickly. Just having it in the hot gravy for a minute does it. You don't need to have heat on the gravy to finish it off.

If you are camping with another, I suppose you have to dole it out on a plate. Maybe it would be cute to invest in some of those divider-style ones.... In metal, dammit. If I ever see them...I am getting them! But I am alone, and I just pour the gravy and chicken into the potato pot and eat from that.

The first time I had the peas, I thought.... "Why not add them to the meat and gravy to heat them?" This was a mistake. Learn form my blunder. Even though it all ends up in the same place inside you, it just doesn't work. It ruins the whole effect. Creates a chemical reaction of some sort. Blechk. Maybe fresh garden peas would be different, but then it wouldn't be a campsite tv dinner if you had fresh peas, would it?

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

How Hard Can Running a Climbing Gym Be?!

....I have no idea, since I have never been in one except to flail away on some routes. What you don't know won't hurt you, the saying goes, but maybe that's not all there is to the story.

I ran across a post on entitled Rock Gym Pro - Climbing Gym Management Software and have to admit - it never occurred to me that the back end of managing a climbing gym would include aspects different than pretty much any retail business. It seems, I am wrong!

Andy Laakman, who owns the Mountain Project website also runs a rock gym, and he ought to know. He ran into all sorts of troubles, he wrote in the above link, and so he went out and used his extensive experience as a programmer to create a climbing-gym specific program. Now he's putting that software out for other climbing gym operators to use.

Not much of a market....but I figure that he can use all the help we in the climbing community, can give him, in letting gym managers know of this package. So - if you know someone who owns or manages a climbing gym, or is thinking about doing so - send him over to the site Andy's made about that software, which is here. Who knows, it might just be the advantage that tips their MakeItOrBreakIt scale to the MakeIt side!

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Help support Happiegrrrl in her quest to travel, climb and live an adventurous life(instead of being stuck at home working.....). Visit her online shop, ClimbAddict, for original designs on t-shirts, jackets, caps, stickers and giftware.

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