TRAIL GRUB. Ah, the romance of it all -- a camping trip miles away from civilization, with plenty of hearty food charred -- er, cooked -- in the wilderness. . . .
Somewhere in the New York Adirondacks — Everyone, it seems, loves to cook out over an open fire. There's the damp wood that refused to light on your last match. Smoke, thick as fog, follows you around like a lost puppy. Coughing, eyes watering, you stumble around, oblivious to the fact that the marshmallow, until recently at the end of your stick, has burst into a bright blue flame and dropped like a meteorite into the coals.
And the paper plate you tried to pick up has just folded in the middle, making a perfect chute to send the lukewarm baked beans sliding off onto your hiking boots.
Cooking out of doors can even be more fun with a little advance planning.
After a long day horseback riding deep into the Adirondack forest, our guide, George Gould, prepared dinner for some tired, powerful hungry buckaroos.
Mr. Gould, judging by his girth and appetite, knows his food and how to cook it. He should -- he's been cooking and camping in the wilderness ``forever.''
``It's not that difficult. The best thing is to pack in fresh foods. Like potatoes, onions, carrots, and fruit,'' he said, apologizing for the canned potatoes he just opened. ``I didn't set up this camp and wouldn't take many canned goods. Too much weight and excess water to carry. And canned potatoes don't brown up as well as fresh ones for home fries.'' Then, too, you have to carry out the empty cans.
Gould likes to wrap potatoes in aluminum foil and toss them in the coals for dinner. He suggests ``baking a few extra and just leave them there overnight, and dice them up for home fries in the morning.'' That way, he explained, you've done the lengthy cooking the night before.
For breakfast, Gould also likes a hot bowl of cereal, with a flavorful twist. ``Cook up oatmeal and add chopped apple, or raisins and cinnamon, or clove or nutmeg, and you have a gourmet breakfast. Those things work well with other hot cereals, too, like Cream of Wheat or Farina,'' he added.
Gould cleverly packs eggs in zip-lock sandwich bags, two per baggie, then tucks them back into the egg crate for protection.
``This way,'' he said, holding up an example, ``if the eggs break, you haven't lost anything. You just scramble them up in an omelette.''
As breakfasts are bountiful, Gould likes lunches to be simple. Just a piece of fruit or Granola mix.
``When you're out hiking, I don't want to take the time to prepare anything fancy. It's too time-consuming. You're out there to enjoy the scenery, so eating is more or less secondary.''
If you're able to get a roaring fire going, another thing Gould recommends is a Dutch oven.
``You dig a pit, put coals in the bottom, put in your Dutch oven filled with meat and vegetables -- you don't need any water -- cover it with more coals and a layer of dirt and let it stew all day, and it's ready for dinner at night.'' The drawback of a Dutch oven, of course, is the weight.
A few other things Gould suggests: Plan each meal ahead of time, so you're not lugging in more food than you'll need. Pack dried foods rather than canned. Canned juices are taboo; use dried mixes. ``Water is usually always available in the woods,'' he reminds us. Fresh meat will last a day or two -- after that, plan to have cured meat, then canned. If you want to bake, get prepared mixes and dried milk. And don't forget the Pam -- that spray can of cooking oil. A few sprays on the bottom of the pots and pans can cut cleaning time down to hours rather than days.
If you want to splurge, go to a mountaineering shop and pick up some freeze-dried meals. Turkey tetrazzini is one of Gould's freeze-dried favorites. ``And the spaghetti and meatballs are pretty good, too,'' he says.
For years, Gould took delinquent and troubled children from the inner city camping. ``Spam was such a staple in their diet they would sing to the tune of Camelot: `We eat Spamalot, Spamalot, I know it sounds a bit bizarre. . . .' ''
No more Spam on those trips.
Later in the week, at Adirondack Wilderness Tours lodge near Saranac Lake, Marion Hoelzel, resident live-in cook par excellence, put on a spread for two dozen hungry hikers. Although this meal is cooked and served indoors, Ms. Hoelzel has fired up her share of meals under the pines. Here are some of her thoughts:
``I like to pack a lot of dried fruit. Fresh is good, but it's heavy,'' she says. ``For bread, take flat bread like pita. It keeps better and doesn't get all squashed up in your pack.''
She also likes to plan simple one-pot meals based on dried legumes and whole grains mixed with a few fresh vegetables. But, she adds, ``Dried vegetables can substitute for fresh very well. Hoelzel prefers bulgur wheat to rice. ``Bulgur cooks faster than rice,'' she says.
``Another thing I do for day trips is to get those small cardboard cartons of fruit juice and freeze them the night before. Then, when they're packed with your lunch, it keeps your lunch cold, and is melted by the time you eat.''
To cut time, space, and weight, Hoelzel mixes dry ingredients for recipes ahead of time and then ``just throw in the directions as to how much water to add or cooking time.'' She also likes to pack in honey, spices, salt, and hot chocolate.
Here is the lentil soup Hoelzel prepared for a vegetarian meal one evening. She calls it a soup, but it's one you can stand a spoon up in. Lentil-Vegetable Soup 1 1/2 cups lentils 1/4 cup brown rice (optional) 2 cups canned crushed tomatoes 1 large onion, chopped 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons fresh, or 1 tablespoon dried parsley 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon basil 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1 large carrot, chopped 1 large rib celery, chopped Grated cheddar cheese
Bring six cups of water to a boil. Add lentils and brown rice. Return to boil and add tomatoes, onion, oil, and spices. Cover and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add carrot and celery and simmer, partially covered, until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes, stirring frequently as lentils will become soft and tend to stick.
Serve piping hot topped with cheddar cheese. Serves 4 to 6.