Five years ago my organization underwent a merger that led our new leadership to establish a fresh organizational culture. A consultant was brought in to establish the culture to bridge the two legacy organizations—one based in the Midwest, the other in the East Coast.
Now I’ve never been one to accept any one doctrine or belief system in its entirety, but I do adopt those principles that align with my personal beliefs or could enhance my worldview. Of the concepts introduced as part of our culture training, the idea of a mood elevator, the range of emotions and how they impact your state mind, was one concept that I was able to grasp and apply in helping me achieve a positive state of mind.
For me, cooking, reading about cooking and restaurant reviews are drivers for my mood elevator. The topic of food sustains my curiosity, inspires my creativity and makes me happy overall. Others find cooking to be a chore; I find peace in the act of cooking and baking. For my colleague Jim, it’s camping and the outdoors. Together with our friend Alex and other acquaintances who all share a love of the outdoors and good food, we are planning an overnight backpacking camping trip where our interests will converge.
As the daughter of a man who loved the outdoors and a former Scout mom, I am no stranger to car camping where your car is accessible to you at the campground, providing extra storage for equipment and cover for when the weather turns. Car camping allows you to bring as much equipment as you need to allow to be comfortable in the great outdoors. Car camping means I can bring an ice chest of food and a bin of cookware to create camp comfort foods such as Dutch oven pasta, cobblers, spaghetti, borracho (drunk) fajitas, chicken cooked in foil, s’mores, fondue and corn bread. I can load up on charcoal briquettes and propane gas stoves and all the pots and pans—preferably cast iron skillets.
But backpacking camping requires the camper to carry all necessary equipment for their
outdoor adventures with them, limiting meal options. Typically, a backpacker has a compact stove that cooks enough food for one, maybe two people at best. The meals are often dehydrated, reminiscent of military issued MRE’s (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) and require some water. Jim, a Scout leader who has participated in his share of backpacking trips including to Philmont Scout Ranch, bypasses the prepackaged dehydrated meals in favor of creating meals out of products available at the local grocery store. However, not all his creations have worked out, like his jambalaya. In addressing the challenge of preserving the water supply on a trip, Jim thought that the pouches of shelf-stable, microwavable rice would make a good base for his backpacking jambalaya. Only it didn’t. The rice which was heated with no water was hard and dry. The concept was good; the execution, not so much. Jim challenged me to improve upon his idea.
Many people think of jambalaya as a regional Louisiana dish, heavily influenced by the French and spread throughout the Cajun and Creole cultures. However, the dish is also influenced by the Spanish. It is reminiscent of traditional paella, which I imagine the Spanish tried to recreate in the New World. Paella, like jambalaya, makes use of sausage, chicken, seafood and veggies in a rice mixture. I consider paella to be more temperamental to prepare than jambalaya, since the rice in paella is drier and more al dente. The rice in jambalaya can be soupy and more forgiving for the dish.
On one of my practice solo hikes in preparation for the trip, I gave it some thought on how to improve on Jim’s attempt at backpacking jambalaya. The design of the shelf-stable pouches provides moisture while cooked in the microwave. Once the rice is released from the pouch into the cookware, the sealed-in moisture is gone. My first idea was to add water, but less than the cup required of minute rice (another option for this meal). A half-cup of water seem to rejuvenate the rice. But then as I was shopping a light bulb went over my head, why not use a can of seasoned diced tomatoes to give the rice moisture and much needed flavor. The addition of the tomatoes makes this particular jambalaya more Creole in nature as opposed to the Cajun-style jambalaya which contains no tomato in its recipe. Grant it, a can or two would add close to 2 lbs. to the backpacks, but in exchange water would be conserved from our supply and we wouldn’t have to rely on reservoir water.
Well it seemed that the can of tomatoes worked to bring the rice to life so to speak. I made other adjustments. Fresh red bell peppered julienned peppers and diced onions helped give the jambalaya some texture. Pre-cooked Perdue® Short Cuts® Grilled Carved Chicken Breast along with the beef summer sausage made it really hardy. Dehydrated shrimp gives the jambalaya some credibility with a nod to the bayou shrimp that is included in the original recipe. Finally, two dehydrated Japone chilies that I happened to have in my pantry gives it just the right heat.
When Jim and I sampled the Backpack Jambalaya, we both agreed that it was definitely a filling and satisfying meal; one that promises to elevate everyone’s mood after a long day’s trek.
Serves 4 backpackers
2-8.8 oz pouches of microwavable, shelf-stable brown rice
1-14.5 oz can of seasoned diced tomatoes (either Italian style or chili style)
1 bell pepper (red or green), julienned
1 onion, diced
1-7 oz. summer beef sausage, sliced
Half of a 9 oz. bag of Perdue® Short Cuts® Grilled Carved Chicken Breast or comparable product
½ cup of dehydrated shrimp, optional
2 dried Japone peppers
Black pepper to taste
- Set up portable backpacking stove according to manufacturer’s instructions. Set flame to medium-high.
- Pour pouches of rice and can of seasoned diced tomatoes into portable camping pot.
- Stir the rice and tomato mixture, breaking up the clumps of rice, about three to five minutes.
- Add the bell peppers and onions. Continue to stir the mixture for another three minutes.
- Add the summer sausage and chicken. Stir for three minutes more.
- Add the dried Japone peppers and shrimp. Stir for about two minutes more.
- Add black pepper to taste and serve immediately.
A few notes:
- Of all the microwavable pouches of rice I experimented with the Tasty Bite® branded rice was loosely packed and less likely to be clumped, if at all.
- For a more authentic jambalaya, use the chili style seasoned diced tomatoes instead of the Italian seasoned diced tomatoes.
- Stirring the mixture continuously avoids the jambalaya from sticking to the pot and burning. Trade off with your fellow campers if your arm tires.
- Since the chicken is the only item that requires refrigeration, keep the chicken frozen until you leave for your camping trip. Maintain the chicken wrapped and well insulated. It will defrost as the day wears on and it should be ready to use by dinner time.
- I used dried Japone peppers because I had them in my pantry. You can use any dried pepper so long as you can stand the heat it gives.
- Seafood is the one item that is difficult to maintain during a backpacking trip. I recommend using dried shrimp available at most Asian markets if you want a more authentic jambalaya, however, be aware that the dried shrimp is often still in its shell and has the head on. Add the shrimp in its entirety to the jambalaya.