Friday, June 12, 2020
Welcome to day 2 of the new and improved AZ Bike Girl! On Friday’s, I put on my Carharts and outdoor chef apron to share healthy-ish recipes for backcountry cooking. Because this blog is about re-envisioning a more thoughtful relationship with adventure and the outdoors, I’ll also include food for thought on becoming a more mindful outdoor chef and athlete. Plus, tips for recreating the excitement of adventure in your at-home kitchen & daily life.
Today’s Backcountry Recipe is for Cheesy Polenta with Greens.
I’m cooking this up from home, moments before leaving on a day trip to explore a canyon. When not attached to meaning, food can bring on feelings of loneliness (and all those other mixed emotions), so here’s the context:
For Julia’s birthday during the stay at home order, I bought her a 5 pound bag of cornmeal and a kale plant. She’s the friend I’ve been adventuring with the longest, and I was trying to recreate the feel of all the early mornings we’ve shared at the bottom of canyons & on the trail eating this a backcounty recipe for breakfast. We’ve planned so many trips together our pre-trip meal prep comes together quickly these days.
“You’ve got cheese and cornmeal?”
“Yeah, and butter.”
“Cool, I’ll bring kale, hot sauce, and salt.”
When Julia brings the Kale, she really brings the kale. Like the entire bunch, stems and all, still in the plastic grocery bag. Something about straight-from-the-supermarket-into-my-backpack-and-down-a-canyon makes me laugh every time. Her technique works because most of the trips we do together are cold. For the warmer trips, I have a special technique (keep scrolling) for packing greens and having them last a few days in the backcountry.
Unfortunately, the feeling I was trying to recreate with the gift of cornmeal and a kale plant flopped.The experience was similar to cooking up the camping classic Roman Bomb at home only to learn noodles, mashed potatoes, and summer sausage are a bad combo without a lot of uphill miles in your legs and a sky full of stars to eat it under.
Julia’s roommate picked the cornmeal and kale plant up at the local market on her birthday. When she gave it to Julia, she hesitantly asked if maybe I’d messed up the order. When Julia said, “no, this is probably right,” the roommate expressed confusion over the weird gift while Julia did her best to hold back tears and text me thank you. The kale plant died within a week, and the 5 pound bag of cornmeal ripped a hole and leaked all over her pantry. Basically, the birthday present turned into a reminder of the adventures that weren’t planned, a reminder that there wasn’t an exciting anything to look forward to in the near future.
The moral of the story is not what you think: cheesy polenta with kale (unlike Roman Bomb) is actually an awesome at-home fuel for adventures planned out your back door. To make it work, though, it’s best to wrap it with some simple accoutrements to fill the void of the epic sunrise you are missing (or air so frigid you don’t actually care what breakfast tastes like as long as you can eat it in your sleeping bag). Planned outside time in the immediate future is a prerequisite for this recipe to work, or the buttery cornmeal in your stomach will distract you from the present and resentment will rise as you sit at a desk. You know the feeling.
Recipe for Backcountry Cheesy Polenta with Greens (Serves 3-4)
Ingredients (Simple Backcountry Version)
1 cup polenta, finely ground*
3 cups water*
2-3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
½ cup grated cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano and Sharp Cheddar are my favorites)
2 cups greens
Follow the directions on the back of the polenta package. The finer the grind, the quicker it will cook. When in doubt, use the 1-to-3 ratio* above. Bring water to a boil, add polenta, bring it to a simmer and cook 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the polenta begins to erupt, remove the polenta from heat and add the butter and greens. Let sit for another 5-7 minutes until polenta is creamy, greens have wilted, and cheese has melted.
Variations for Adventure-From-Home Version
Stir in mushrooms and pressed garlic
Add a fried egg to the top
Stir a raw egg into the polenta just before it has finished cooking
Garnish with tomatoes, peppers, and/or hemp hearts
Sprinkle with hemp hearts
Backcountry Cooking Tip: Keeping Greens (mostly) Fresh
- Wrap the greens in paper towel to absorb excess moisture. My preferred method is the triple decker technique: layer paper towel, greens, paper towel, greens, paper towel.
- Put the wrapped greens in a ziplock bag (or, wrap them again in antibacterial beeswax wraps).
- Check the greens every day on your trip. Hardier greens (kale, collards, chard) keep the longest, but spinach and arugula can last a day or two as well. The life of the greens is dependent on how hot it is during the trip.
- If you’re determined to push the limit on the greens, I recommend packing them with extra paper towel and changing out which side comes in contact with the greens each day.
I’m off to explore Christopher Creek in the Tonto National Forest (flowing water in the desert!) which is why I decided to make this for breakfast today. While making the polenta, I realized cooking for me is not like riding a bike. After three months of not cooking, every time I venture into the kitchen I either burn, spill, or explode what I’m making. This morning, I burned the polenta. I also ran out of coffee. But I’m off to swim in a canyon, so who really gives a shit if the polenta had some burn speckles in it.
When the day is dedicated to exploring someplace new, the usual details that bring us down matter so much less. My sister says I get to write my own story now, so here it is: I used to be a damn good cook, I got distracted for a few months, and I’ll care about food again one of these days, when the timing is right. You know, the kind The Highwomen sing about:
I want a place with a crowded table
And a place by the fire for everyone
Let us take on the world while we’re young and able
And bring us back together when the day is done
With that, I’m off for a full day of adventure fueled by some inexpensive cornmeal & greens. I hope you have an outdoor activity planned this weekend too, because reducing some of the details getting us down sure feels good. I’ll be back tomorrow with an Arizona Trail Race training report.
Be well, be safe, get outside.