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Chef's Choice: Eight days out with Jane Millen and family



Jane Millen learned a lot about outdoor exploration from her father.

"My dad, he's from New Zealand, and he went exploring in the Antarctic when he was a young man," Millen recalls.

"He still tells stories about their group, how they cut off the handle of their toothbrushes to save weight."

When you're packing for an extended trip away from civilization, every gram adds up — a concept Millen now applies to her backcountry meal planning.

"You try to keep everything light," she says. "You try to minimize, minimize, minimize."

For Millen and family, the eight-day camping trip has become something of an annual tradition — but spending an entire week in the isolated B.C. backcountry can't be done without some serious culinary preparation.

"I like to plan the meals on the small side, because we never want to have leftovers... there's nothing good to do with leftovers except eat them," Millen says.

"I like the creative part of it. I like thinking through my meals and trying to make them from what I know."

And creativity is key when you're far from the comforts of your kitchen.

"You've got to mix stuff up to keep it interesting," Millen says.

"I'll do a stir-fry with freeze-dried corn and peas and carrots, and then I take tofu — and it comes with a soup base — mix that in, use instant brown rice and then put on slivered almonds and sesame seeds.

"One other thing that my family loves is these deep fried, crunchy onions that you can get. They're super high in calories, but they just add texture, and they're salty."

High-calorie foods are essential when you're exerting energy in the backcountry. Millen says she even encourages her two sons to eat plenty of candy on the trails.

For the most part, Millen says she packs a variety of lunch foods — but it's the dinners that provide something of a challenge.

"I want to make sure that it's somewhat interesting every night. Basically we have pasta every second night because the kids love pasta, and then the off night has to be kind of good," she says with a laugh.

"I try to think about what we like to eat at home, and then I think, 'Can I recreate that at camp out of all dehydrated foods?'"

Millen says she tends to stock up on special dried foods during trips to Famous Foods in Vancouver.

"I've been going there since I was a kid. My mom used to drag us over town to go to Famous Foods," she says.

"You can get all sorts of dried fruits and nuts, (and) they have different kinds of salty mixes."

The dried fruit makes for an excellent addition to the morning porridge, but if you're looking for a more traditional breakfast it's the dehydrated, whole eggs you need.

"On rest days we can have long, leisurely breakfasts," Millen says.

"You re-hydrate the eggs and then you can fry them up, and then you get instant potatoes and you fry those up, too."

Throw in some instant beans, some properly identified wild mushrooms and a tiny bottle of hot sauce and you've got a deluxe, gourmet campfire breakfast.

While Millen and her family are clearly experienced in the art of backcountry sustenance, with a little experimentation and preparation anyone can master it — just don't expect to enjoy the same taste when you make it in your kitchen.

"Everything tastes better out there because you're hungry," Millen says.

"Don't expect you're going to like the taste at home. How much you enjoy the food is not just a function of the actual food. It's also a function of how hungry you are, the experience you just had and who you're with."

Fruit and nut curry on couscous

This is a popular recipe. Also, cheap, easy and fast to cook, healthy and colourful

At home: chop up dried apricots, dried pears, dried apples and a cake of dehydrated tofu.

Mix enough for your meal in one bag: coconut milk powder, curry powder, freeze-dried corn and peas, currants, and the above.

In a separate bag, put couscous. The amount depends on how many people are eating, and how hungry they are. Always good to have the option to cook less starch, which is why I pack it separately. Save all those extra ¼ cup grains and noodles for your emergency rations just in case you're out an extra day.

Lastly, pack some toasted, slivered almonds, or any nut of your choice (cashews are very high cal.)

In camp: boil water (about 1 ½ the amount of couscous so you have extra water). Add mix of fruit, veggies, tofu, etc., and cook until everything is soft (five minutes). Then add couscous, remove from stove and let sit, covered for five minutes. Serve, topped with chopped nuts, salt and pepper to taste.

You can get fancy by serving with Naan bread and chai spiced tea!

Variation: same basic meal, but use a peanut sauce packet for the sauce, instead of curry and coconut milk powder. Use instant rice if you like that better. I don't find instant rice as instant as it says. Couscous is faster so this meal is perfect for a long day when you need hot food in stomachs FAST!

You can get freeze dried corn and peas, as well as all sorts of dried fruits (including un-sulphured ones), interesting nuts and snack foods, bulk grains, instant refried beans, coconut milk powder, powdered whole eggs and lots of other fun stuff at Famous Foods on Kingsway in Vancouver. Japanese food stores have dried tofu cakes and other interesting food you can try. Fujiya market in Vancouver is the one I like.