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Kenwood backpacker writes cookbook for those who love good food in the great outdoors

Inga Aksamit is a North Bay-based backpacker who loves hiking wilderness trails and making tasty food, two hobbies that don’t usually overlap.

The Sierra Club backpacking leader and Sugarloaf Ridge backpacking teacher has honed her cooking skills in her kitchen and tested them on the trail, producing a couple of cookbooks for serious hikers who like to eat well and are willing to plan and work ahead to enjoy good food in the great outdoors.

The cookbooks reflect her own quest to eat healthier, heartier fare while adventuring in the backcountry and offer a wide array of dietary choices — from breakfast bowls and lunch wraps to cocktails and curries in a hurry — as alternatives to packaged trail food.

“I like to cook, and I like to eat healthy food,” Aksamit said at her home just off the Kenwood Plaza. “My bias is to try to eat foods as close to the whole food as possible. I like the taste of vegetables, grilled and sauteed, and simple meats.”

Her latest cookbook, “The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes: Quick Gourmet Meals for the Backcountry” (Pacific Adventures Press), came out in 2019 and won first place last fall in the Best Outdoor Guidebook category of the Outdoor Writers Association of California Excellence in Craft Awards.

The self-published book is filled with about 50 “just add water” recipes and techniques to make nutritious and delicious meals while wandering in the wilderness. The recipes include spice blends, sauces and dishes from all over the world, including Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, the United States and Southeast Asia.

Aksamit was born in Los Banos in the San Joaquin Valley, but her family started moving around when she was 4, settling in countries as far-flung as Pakistan and Peru, Bangladesh and Indonesia due to her father’s career in international irrigation.

“I love a good curry and spicy food after living all over the world,” she said. “I had quite a few global recipes, so I made it a goal to have each of the major cuisines of the world included in the cookbook.”

A late bloomer on the trail

Although she didn’t get started hiking until she was 45, the lifelong athlete took to the sport immediately.

“At different points in my life, running, mountain biking and rock climbing were frequent summer activities, but now I spend more time hiking, backpacking and paddling,” she said. “I have a love of travel, too, my favorite places being the remote nooks and crannies of the Western U.S., Canada and the Pacific Rim, including South America and Southeast Asia.”

In the winter, she focuses on skiing and divides her time between her Kenwood home and her Tahoe cabin at Alpine Meadows.

Her first foray into the world of hiking started off simply, with a one-night trip into the wilderness near the Lake Tahoe Basin with some friends.

“I asked to go out for one night and sleep under the stars,” she said. “I talked them into hiking the Granite Chief Wilderness ... and I let it all unfold after that. We all got into it.”

With her husband, Steve Mullen, Aksamit quickly graduated to three- and five-day hikes, then expanded her repertoire to punishing treks that included hikes along the 72-mile-long High Sierra Trail and 170 miles of the 213-mile John Muir Trail.

Along the dusty, boulder-strewn trails, she figured out that eating commercially packaged meals with a spork was not going to cut it for her.

“At first, I didn’t mind the freeze-dried stuff that you get at REI,” said the hiker, 63, who retired two years ago after working 15 years as a nurse then finishing her career with biotechnology pioneer Amgen and McKesson, a distributor of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and health information technology.

Health has always been important to her, and she was interested in eating meals on the trail that would provide enough nutrition and calories to replenish her body after a hard day of hiking.

But when Aksamit looked closely at the nutrition label on a pouch of a prepackaged lasagna with meat, sold by a well-known producer, she noticed that it had preservatives. Also, the two-serving-size pouch provided only 280 calories per serving.

“I thought, ‘Steve’s going to die. He can’t survive on that hiking all day,’” she said. “And if you eat the two servings, the sodium content is astronomical.”

A compass to eating cleaner

So she started inventing her own kitchen hacks, based on a diet she had followed before hiking the John Muir Trail. That diet gave her a compass to follow to cook without using processed foods, additives or preservatives.

After buying a food dehydrator, Aksamit started mixing her own trail meals, blending ingredients she dehydrated with plain, freeze-dried vegetables and meat that she bought. The DIY pouch meals ended up being healthier and more filling, with less salt and chemicals and more protein and flavor.

“While hiking the High Sierra Trail, I realized I needed more protein, so I can control that and I can make it flavorful by making my own tomato powder,” she said. “It still looks like an MRE (meal ready to eat), but it is better quality.”

To be inclusive, the author provided vegetarian/vegan variations for almost all the recipes in the book along with suggestions for dairy-free substitutions.

In the 10 appendices at the back of the book, Aksamit gives background material, including lists of other recipes sources, nutrition tools, dehydration information, general food safety guidelines and social media resources.

She also gives the names of major purveyors of freeze-dried and other backpack foods, a list of high-calorie foods for hiking, a high-calorie meal plan for one day, vegan protein sources, keto-friendly backpacking foods, an explanation of how to read a nutrition label, and a nutritional breakdown of the top 15 backpacking foods.

“I’m a proponent of the ‘everything in moderation’ philosophy and do not subscribe to a specific diet,” she said. “You’ll see a section in the beginning of the book where I address specific options for various types of diets as a general overview.”

Each recipe has nutritional information for the ingredients in the main recipe, including a breakdown of calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat and sodium. These are only approximate amounts, however, that will vary according to how each person prepares each recipe, she said.

“My main focus on nutrition was to maximize calories, boost protein wherever possible (since hiker diets are typically carb-heavy), include fats where it made sense (usually by adding olive oil on the trail) and rein in sodium,” she explained.

Aksamit also added a disclaimer to the book about the risks of preparing food for long-term storage at ambient temperatures, warning readers that trail food is only as good as the care each person takes in the process of handling, preparation and storage.

“Many people are unaware of the importance of maintaining clean hands and a scrupulously clean work area,” she said. “Home-dehydrated foods must adhere to basic principles of safe drying, and careless storage in containers that are not airtight, protected from heat and light, may increase risks.”

Hiking leads to writing

An adventurer at heart, Aksamit has hiked the Chilkoot Trail, a 33-mile hike from Skagway, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, British Columbia, a route that gold prospectors took in the late 1800s on their way to the Klondike fields.

She has followed trails along the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes of Peru and surrounding Mont Blanc, a 103-mile circuit of mountain peaks that crosses three European borders.

But it was the John Muir Trail, which passes through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks, that inspired her to write her first book, “Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail,” in 2015. It won Best Outdoor Book from the Outdoor Writers Association of California in 2016.

“That was a narrative of my hike, but I mentioned what we were eating,” she said. “My writer’s group said I should write a pamphlet about food to promote my books.”

In 2017, that “pamphlet” turned into her first self-published cookbook, “The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning” (Pacific Adventures Press).

“It was all about food strategy, from nutritional content and dehydrators to bear canisters,” she said. “It included 12 recipes plus strategies for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. ... With those 12 recipes, you could go indefinitely.”

Over the next couple years, Aksamit kept developing new trail recipes, often by converting a regular recipe into a backpacking one. Then she set about doing nutritional analysis for each recipe and sent them to recipe testers. That led to the publication of her latest cooking guide, “The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes,” which includes her 12 original recipes from the previous book.

“I worked a lot on the Senegalese Peanut Soup recipe,” she said. “It was really hard to refine. I ended up replacing the curry with ginger, and it ended up being a major hit, especially with vegetarians.”

Through her private Facebook group (Healthy Gourmet Backpacking Food) and her website, Aksamit has connected with her readers and recipe testers, from RV trippers and paddlers to busy moms.

As a backpacking guide and teacher, Aksamit specializes in teaching beginners how to get over their fears of backpacking.

“I started late, and I know what it feels like,” she said. “Some women don’t like to be dirty, but I tell them I wash up every night. So I help people figure out what their barriers are.

“We have started an all-women’s trip,” she added. “We all help each other out and figure it out together.”

Aksamit’s cookbooks are available in print and ebook at ingasadventures.com/book or Amazon.com.

“This meal tastes good by itself or wrapped in a tortilla for lunch. It’s the kind of recipe that lends itself to many variations,” Aksamit said. “I developed the Marrakech Spice Blend, which is milder and more suited for a salad than the Moroccan Spice Blend.”

Moroccan Chickpea and Quinoa Salad

Makes 1 serving

½ cup quinoa, cooked and dehydrated

¼ cup dried chickpeas, cooked or canned and dehydrated

1 tablespoon pistachios

¼ cup raisins

2 teaspoons chopped dried carrot

1 teaspoon diced dried red bell pepper

1 teaspoon minced dried onion

1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

1 teaspoon Marrakech Spice Blend (see recipe below)

1 packet (⅛ teaspoon) True Lemon powder

⅛ teaspoon salt

Black pepper, to taste

Trail staple:

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon lemon oil (optional)

At home: Combine the dry ingredients in a bag.

In camp: Add enough hot water to cover the dry ingredients. Start with ½ to 1 cup. Stir well to moisten throughout.

Rehydrate for 10-20 minutes until softened and let cool. Water may be added at the previous meal (i.e., add water at breakfast to be ready by lunch).

Add more water, to taste, if desired. Add olive oil at the end.

Calories 597; Carbohydrates 87 g; Protein 16 g; Fat 21 g; Sodium 708 mg.

Marrakech Spice Blend

Makes about 3 servings of 1 teaspoon each

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon coriander

¼ teaspoon cumin

_____

“I love the ingredients in this soup for the different flavors they bring together,” Aksamit said. “It’s an ideal vegetarian meal without the chicken. ... Peanuts are the primary crop in Senegal, along with couscous, rice, sweet potatoes, lentils and black-eyed peas.”

Senegalese Peanut Soup

Makes 1 serving

¼ cup freeze-dried chicken

¼ cup peanuts, chopped

4 tablespoons peanut butter powder

1½ tablespoons tomato powder

½ teaspoon chicken or vegetable bouillon (see recipe below)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon dried cilantro

1 teaspoon minced dried onion

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

⅛ teaspoon salt

Black pepper, to taste

Trail staple:

1 tablespoon olive oil

At home: Combine all the dry ingredients in a bag.

In camp: Add 1 cup of hot water to dry ingredients. Add olive oil.

Stir well to moisten throughout. Rehydrate for 10-20 minutes until softened. Add more hot water, to taste, if desired.

Calories 606; Carbohydrate 16 g; Protein 77 g; Fat 23 g; Sodium 800 mg.

Vegetarian Bouillon

Makes 1 serving

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 tablespoon dried parsley

1 teaspoon celery seed

1 teaspoon dried dill weed

1 teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon thyme

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon black pepper

Use 1 teaspoon per 1 cup (8 ounces) water.

Calories 4; Carbohydrate 0 g; Protein 0 g; Fat 0 g; Sodium 423 mg. To reduce sodium, reduce or omit salt.

_____

“We love Asian flavors, so anything with coconut cream powder is a winner for us,” Aksamit said. “My parents lived in Jakarta for nearly 10 years, and we found that peanuts are prevalent in Indonesian dishes. If you like stronger flavors, use the larger amount of the Thai Spice Blend. ... Check the calories; this could be two servings for many.”

Indonesian Chicken Noodles

Makes 1 serving

1 serving of ramen (½ or 1 block, depending on brand) or 2 ounces of other Asian noodles (discard the spice blend)

½ freeze-dried chicken

⅛ cup chopped peanuts

1 teaspoon roasted flax seeds

1 teaspoon chia seeds

¼ cup dried shredded cabbage

3 tablespoons freeze-dried mixed vegetables

3 dried shiitake mushrooms, sliced thinly

2 tablespoons peanut butter powder

1 tablespoon coconut cream powder

1-2 teaspoons Thai Spice Blend (see recipe below)

1 packet (⅛ teaspoon) True Lemon powder

⅛ teaspoon salt

Trail staple:

Olive oil (optional)

At home: Combine all the dry ingredients in a bag. Keep the nuts separate in a small bag to maintain their crunchiness.

In camp: Add enough hot water to cover the dry ingredients. Start with ½ to 1 cup. Add olive oil, if using. Stir well to moisten throughout.

Rehydrate for 10-20 minutes until softened. Add more hot water, to taste, if desired. Add the peanuts.

Calories 792; Carbohydrate 93 g; Protein 37 g; Fat 34 g; Sodium 537 mg.

Thai Spice Blend

Makes 3 to 7 servings of 1 to 2 teaspoons each

2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon dry mustard

½ teaspoon dried basil

½ teaspoon curry

¼ teaspoon cayenne powder or red pepper flakes (optional)

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon black pepper

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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