Full Belly Files | Backcountry Bites

A Food Report from Los Padres National Forest

Here's the spicy chicken and sausage concoction that became the night two dinner. | Credit: DustinWaite.com

This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on June 3, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.

Last Friday morning, while you eagerly awaited the weekly installment of Full Belly Files that never came, I was fork-deep in a single-serving bag of tuna, opting for cold, easy protein over the warm-grain welcoming of instant oatmeal for my morning sustenance.

Backpacker and wilderness author Dustin Waite digs into his tri-tip naan wrap. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

I wasn’t at home — a few spoonfuls of cottage cheese seem to be my usual routine here — instead, I was waking deep in the pine-shaded, windswept high country of the Los Padres National Forest, backpacking with nearly a dozen buddies on an annual off-grid adventure.

I’ll write more about our trip in next week’s Blue & Green Issue, the outdoors-inspired edition we publish every June that’s included my previous reports on the trip, such as our 2012 Gene Marshall Trail and 2015 Sespe Wilderness explorations.

But let’s tackle some food highlights here.

The tuna for lazy breakfast wasn’t exactly one of those, although I do have a newfound appreciation for bagged protein. That goes both for meats from the sea and from the land, at least in the form of chicken — which, perhaps confusingly, is also sold by Starkist and its friendly fish mascot named Charlie. They have the chopping, brining, and bagging thing down, evidently.

While we each bring our own breakfast, lunch, and snack supplies, my backpacking buddies collaborate on nightly meals, breaking down into food groups and then aiming to wow everyone with the creativity, quality, and quantity of our backcountry menus, sometimes hiked in across dozens of miles over multiple days. Past years have involved oysters with homemade mignonette, duck eggs on night five, and even sushi handrolls, so the stakes are high.

The trees get big in the Los Padres high country. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

I got to know Starkist’s chicken during one of my group’s dinners, when we’d planned to make chicken tacos with rice, beans, tortillas, and salsa. Since I’d already caught flack for making people pack actual cans of beans, I opted for the bagged chicken to save on weight.

However, after our tri-tip, garlic naan, and chopped cabbage and kale salad with toasted nuts and berries on night one, the night-two team busted out a ridiculously delicious taco spread. (We had not coordinated across groups, causing slight conflict.) Theirs was a smoked pork butt — handled in advance and then frozen at a Goleta home — put onto sweet-roll-flavored tortillas onto which cheese was fried. There were toppings and so forth, but the combo of savory meat, sweet bread, and crispy cheese was unbeatable by bagged chicken. 

Credit: Matt Kettmann

W​​e couldn’t serve tacos two nights in a row, so we immediately elevated our plan by deciding to throw in linguica sausage and call it “Portuguese wraps.” That evolved into “Basque wraps,” and, when it turned out one buddy had a Portuguese aunt who made him call her “Tia,” we settled on “Aunt Tia’s Basque Stew Wraps from Portugal” — or something to that effect.

By the time the pan was sizzling the next night, we had white onion, red onion, garlic, jalapeño, serrano, linguica, tomato paste, bagged (and canned!) chicken, taco seasoning, Hatch green chiles, and pinto and black beans all in the batch, with boil-in-a-bag rice on the side. We used about half of the produce to chop up a salsa cruda, and then warmed the tortillas for service. The result was quite spicy but roundly applauded as we munched on dessert: more tortillas, filled with chocolate chips, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, churro-style, served with spring-chilled Manhattans.

Mariposa lilies range from white and purple, as seen here, to bright yellow and white. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

The final night’s dinner by the other team also impressed: a stir-fry with crispy bacon, carrots, rice, soy sauce, and more, followed by homemade chocolate-chip cookies that were browned to excellence.

There were no losers in this year’s food fight, other than our sore legs and backs from carrying in so much weight. And I barely even mentioned the copious quantities of wine, beer, and booze that came along for the ride. But at least I can confirm that bagged meat goes great with Bonny Doon picpoul blanc….

From Our Table

In honor of the late Clara Svedlund, who passed away in December, Kunin Wines is hosting a Here’s to Clara Rosé Release Party on Sunday, June 5. | Credit: Courtesy

Taking a week off from Full Belly Files usually leads to a backlog of ICYMI stories, so let’s catch you up:

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