December 2, 2008

Long the staple of Alpinists, adventure racers and backpackers, potato powder has played a big part in many of the best routes of the last 20 years, providing quick, light and easy carbohydrates without any fuss. Personally I’ve never taken to the stuff, as I generally start involuntarily gagging as soon as my mouth gets anywhere near a spoon of the stuff. This is no doubt due to a trip I was once on where I was forced to eat cheap potato power for a month, which was spiced up with raw union and garlic, in fact the deep-seated food memory was so bad that I puked up the last time I ate a piece of raw onion (which was unfortunately while being interviewed at Grindleford cafĂ©). Even though I found it hard to swallow the stuff I knew that there wasn’t much out there that was so easy to cook and offered so many calories so I’ve persevered and searched out ways to make the stuff more palatable and this article aims to pass on what I’ve come up with.


* Don’t assume that all potato powders are the same. Some are junk but produce vast amounts of potato, while others taste like the real thing but only produce enough for a sport climber’s dinner. If possible test out the powder before buying tons of the stuff, noting how much water is required to hydrate it (and write this on the bag if you decant the stuff into other bags for carrying). * Always make sure you have enough water to hydrate the powder and, if possible, add the powder to the water, not vice versa, otherwise you can end up with a mixture of lumpy and powdery potato that’s no use to anyone. * After you’ve added the water let the powder re-hydrate fully before eating, stirring it over a low heat until you’ve got rid of all the lumps of powder.


Don’t see potato powder as a meal in itself, as it’s frankly more like a carbohydrate potato paste if served as it comes. No you need to treat this foul white mixture as simply a base into which you can add some colour. Here are some ideas on what to add:

* Butter, this really adds some taste to the gloop and can either be carried in those little sachets you can rob from cafes (you’ll need the plastic ones if it’s hot), or added when packing the food into the bags by simply throwing in a knob of butter. This is also a good way of adding fat to the meal * Olive oil, another way to improve both the fat and taste content and this can be carried in a small bottle making it better in hot weather. Both of these fats can also be used to fry the potato powder if you fancy potato fritters or fried mash - both good Base Camp or hut treats * Salt, adds both to the taste and replaces body salts * Pepper, don’t leave home without a tiny container * Milk powder, combined with the butter this gives the powder a creamier taste.


So you’ve rustled up your potatoes, added your salt, pepper and butter and it’s ready to eat. But what about if this is going to be your diet for weeks? Here are some ideas to make some gourmet one-pan feasts.

* Cheese, wow what would we do without cheese. The stronger the cheese the less you need to add * Pesto, if you can get hold of dried pesto then this makes a great thing to add to potato powder, especially if you add cheese to the mix. If you can’t get dried pesto then another good way to give it a bit of an Italian zest is to add olive oil, basil, pepper, pine nuts, garlic and a pinch of cayenne pepper * Thick Cupasoups are a really easy way to add flavour to your potato powder, with the lumpier soups often being best, you can also add more croutons * Stuffing mix and gravy, now this is a great meal if you’re a Brit - especially if it’s a Sunday. Simply add stuffing mix to the potato powder when you cook it (the nuttier the mix the better), retaining some of the boiling water in a cup. Add some instant gravy granules to the water (it may be worth adding some cornflour to the granules so it thickens up) and pour it over the potato/stuffing mix. If you’re really adventurous you could even cook up some dehydrated peas and carrots and don’t forget your Yorkshire pudding.


Even if you become a real smashhead there may come a day when you want an alternative. One thing worth checking out is polenta, which comes from wheat and is cooked in exactly the same way as potato powder and like potato powder makes a great base to which to add flavour. One of the big bonuses of polenta is that once it cools down you can cut it up into slices like a cake, meaning you can make up day snacks or fry it by making burgers out of it, making it ideal expedition food. Like potato powder it’s pretty grim stuff on its own so you’ll need to add the same ingredients in order to create a good base and like potato powder it is a good way to thicken soups or sauces. The stuff is so good that on the last two trips to Patagonia I’ve just about lived on the stuff, which leads to a funny story. Last time I was there, the guy we were staying with asked why we ate so much polenta? We said: “Why? don’t you eat it? You’ve got tons of the stuff in your kitchen cupboard” and he just laughed and said: “Yes but I only feed it to my dogs.”


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