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Fresh Herbs: leaving the ordinary behind

Who says that cooking with herbs should be reserved only for home cooks and that campers shouldn't take them along on an outdoor trip? I never leave home without my plastic bag filled with these precious and fragrant companions. The reason for that is very simple: they are a breeze to carry for several days without refrigeration, their taste is far superior to dried herbs and, more importantly, they bring a zest of freshness and a zing to the blandest dish. That's extremely useful to bring variety in your diet when you are limited in your food choices during a kayak or canoe expedition...

Easy fresh herbs pasta sauce  

At this very moment, for instance, I am sitting on a large flat bed of rock that's part of the Canadian Shield right in the middle of Charleston Lake, in eastern Ontario, chopping a handful of fresh chive-marjoram-lemon thyme-parsley-sage-basil on my small flexible cutting board with my Laguiole camp knife while my partner is watching the linguine as they cook. I'm preparing a quick dish of pasta with a garnish that bears some resemblance to a traditional pesto sauce. But instead of using only basil, I make the sauce with many of the herbs that grow all summer in my garden. I then replace the pine nuts with some roasted pumpkin seeds and a few finely chopped toasted almonds. I keep a 1/2 cup of the boiling water for the sauce, then I drain the pasta and put it right back in the pot, along with a splash of good olive oil, a bit of butter, all the chopped herbs (about 1/2 to 2/3 cups for the two of us), the seeds and the almonds. I finish the dish with some grated fresh parmesan reggiano cheese, a bit of lemon zest, a dash of the white wine that I will pour in my glass in a few minutes and I get the loveliest and quickest pasta dish that’s also very filling in 15 minutes or so. Except for boiling the pasta, there’s no cooking required. That's it, that's all.

That's just one example of the way fresh herbs can be easily integrated in your outdoor kitchen.

Long days short dinner preparations  

With its wonderful smell and complex flavour, this dish is a favourite of ours on any of our kayak-camping expeditions because it's so easy, making it perfect for that very busy first day of the trip. Take today, for instance. My husband and I have been on the road for 5 hours before arriving at Charleston Lake, Ontario. After loading the boats with gear and food for a 6 day kayak-camping trip, we have paddled another three hours, and got a good long swim before setting up our camp on one of the rocky islands that add charm to this lovely and easy paddling destination. But now it is 7 pm and dinner still needs to be fixed. So if we want to eat before dusk we'd better bring the pasta to a boil. The timing is really perfect: while I chop my favorite herbs (any combination would work) the sun is slowly setting so the skies are turning a gorgeous mix of lilac and orange; we are excited by the amazing aroma that all those beauties bring to the camp and already feel right at home. I'm glad that we're on an island, which is a good protection against an impromptu bear visit. No question that with that bouquet in the air it would show up in no time, asking for its share of the meal...

Other suggestions to utilize fresh herbs  

Tomorrow, fresh herbs will also play center stage on our bedrock table. For breakfast we will have a chive and tarragon omelette with some bagels and freshly picked raspberries. At lunch a nice couscous salad made with fresh parsley, fresh mint, chick peas, cucumbers and lemon zests will be served, while at night we hope that our fresh herb butter will be put to good use with some freshly caught trout and some thyme-infused basmati rice. If the fish don't co-operate, well, the herb butter will go into the rice with some caramelized onions and canned mackerel to make a delicious pilaf.

Herb butter works wonders with any fish or white meat, beef, lamb, pork, not to mention tofu and pasta or cooked grains. At home, I just bring some salted butter to room temperature. I add some fennel seeds, a bit of chopped fresh dill and a lot of fresh chives plus a very thinly chopped shallot. I place this fragrant mixture in a small container sealed with a good cover and I leave it in the fridge until I leave. When I'm ready to go, I just fill a big yogurt container with cold water, I place the small container filled with butter in the middle of the big one and I seal it. I make sure to change the water every day and to keep the butter in the bottom of my kayak.

If you don't like fennel seeds and dill, or if you want to use the herb butter with red meat, just replace them with any combination you like. Possibilities are endless! For dessert, a simple mix of freshly picked berries with a hint of basil and ground black pepper will do wonders.

For the long term paddling trip  

We'll also make good use of our portable herb garden on day 3 of our paddling trip: grilled cheese sandwiches made with a bit of herb butter and roasted apples for breakfast followed by a quick minestrone soup made with lots of parsley, thyme, basil and summer garlic, along with the rest of the parmesan cheese and some croutons; for dinner I'll prepare easy crab cakes with green onions, panko (Japanese bread crumbs), chopped red bell peppers, chopped celery, and a lime mayonnaise made with fresh dill and fresh cilantro, completed by a side of canned corn with a pinch of thyme and root vegetables slaw.

All these recipes are super simple but they do taste extra special thanks to a liberal use of fresh herbs; it's a nice way to make your companions forget that they can’t have burgers or fresh fish daily!

From crab cakes to Cajun black beans and Vietnamese soup  

If I'm lucky enough, we will still have some fresh herbs left for the last two days of our kayak trip, when we will be paddling in the Thousand Islands. While the basil and chives may then be finished because they are the most fragile due to their high content of water, most of the other herbs from the garden should be just as nice as on day one. Well, almost... I already plan to infuse my Cajun black beans and confetti corn rice with some fresh thyme and a handful of parsley to reduce the heat of the hot sauce and I can't wait to prepare a Vietnamese tofu-canned shrimps-rice noodle-carrot-green onion-ginger soup with lots of Thai basil (it keeps much longer than Italian basil), fresh mint and the remainder of my lovely fresh coriander, including the stems and the roots (which add lots of flavor to the broth). It will certainly take away those clouds of mosquitoes that usually invade Grenadier Island in early August at supper time...

How to bring fresh herbs paddling for up to a week:

  • Dampen a few layers of paper towels with water. This will help provide enough moisture to maintain the freshness of the herbs.
  • Roll loosely each variety of herbs in its own humid paper towels, then place in a plastic bag that has some holes in it.
  • Carry your fresh herbs in the bottom of your boat, so that the plastic bag can stay in contact with the cool water temperature.
  • Sturdy herbs such as thyme, rosemary, marjoram, oregano and parsley may keep for at least two weeks while cilantro, basil, dill and chives are prone to bruise after 5-7 days.

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