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Dinner Recipe: Polenta + Peppers

This Italian-themed dinner recipe is very filling, making it ideal for long days and late in a trip, when appetites are big. It’s unique and flavorful.

Meal stats

  • Recommended serving weight: 5.6 oz
  • Total calories: 595
  • Caloric density: 105 cal/oz

Like instant potatoes, polenta absorbs a significant amount of water, at a 4:1 volume ratio. So this meal cooks bigger than the two-ounce serving would suggest. Those wanting more calories or a higher caloric density should increase the quantity of olive oil, Parmesan, or nuts.

Ingredients


Chunks of dry salami are a wonderful addition to this meal, for both flavor and protein.

Tomato powder can be tricky to find in stores. It adds vital flavor, however, so don’t skip it. It’s most easily found online, is very shelf-stable, and can be used at home for pastas and risottos.

If you’re feeling fancy, you can substitute the cashews for pine nuts. They’ll change the flavor a bit, and make it more authentic. Cashews or almonds work just fine though if you don’t want to spend the extra money.

One word of caution, make sure you’re buying quick-cook grits. More traditional varieties can take upwards of 40 minutes to cook, and they’re inedible if underdone.

Clockwise from top: Olive oil, parmesan, peppers, tomato powder, polenta
Clockwise from top: Olive oil, parmesan, peppers, tomato powder, polenta

At-home preparation

When solo, I bag all of the  ingredients together save for the olive oil.

In a group, each member is given their own bag of polenta, peppers, and tomato powder. The remaining ingredients are communally carried, and distributed in the field.

To carry the olive oil, I recommend a Nalgene bottle (4 to 32 oz), which has a reliably tight screw-lid.

Individual serving, left: one bag of ingredients + bottle of olive oil. Group serving, all other bags and containers.

Cooking instructions

For perfect consistency:

  1. Add the olive oil at any time.
  2. Bring 12 ounces of water to a boil.
  3. Add polenta, peppers, and tomato powder, and return to a simmer for 30 or 60 seconds.
  4. Remove from the heat and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes until the polenta has fully cooked.
  5. Add the olive oil (if you have not already) and Parmesan, and enjoy.

By adding more than the recommended volume of water, like 16 ounces, all ingredients can be added at the start, then brought to a boil. Be careful of splatter as the polenta cooks, and stir regularly to avoid burning the polenta.

Have questions or an experience with this meal? Leave a comment.


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Posted in on November 22, 2019
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22 Comments

  1. Tom Foote on March 5, 2015 at 11:26 am

    This looks great. Maybe there a typo in the post?

    “I carry the olive oil in a 1-, 2-, 4-, or 8-oz Nalgene Polyethylene Bottle depending on the trip length. . . .. I use a 1-liter Platypus Soft Bottle to carry the olive oil.”

    Which is it? Suspect it the former, as 1 liter of olive oil is enough to feed a regiment of soldiers, as Grandma used to say back in the old country.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 5, 2015 at 11:33 am

      It’s both, actually. If I’m out for a week and have this meal twice, plus two other dinners that require olive oil, I need just 3-4 oz of capacity.

      If I’m out for a week with a 10-person group and have three meals that require 0.75 oz of olive oil per person per meal, that’s 22.5 oz of oil.

  2. Leslie on March 5, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Have you tried this as a freezer bag meal? I think there is instant Polenta that may only need hot water added.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 6, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      I never eat out of freezer bags. There may be an instant polenta, but I have not seen it locally.

      • Jeff Gould on August 8, 2016 at 11:11 am

        Andrew –

        Thanks for the good recipes. I’m going to tell my family to click through your link to Amazon for all their Amazon purchases.

        Thanks,

        Jeff

  3. Bill on March 22, 2015 at 5:52 am

    Polenta may or may not be the same as grits. At the simplest, polenta is just corn meal. Polenta may be made from nixtamalized corn, which is what grits are made from. Nixtamalized corn is a more complete food and is also known as Posole. The main difference is probably the grind. Stone ground has more fines than burr ground and should have a creamier texture. All of this is to say that you can use grits to make polenta. You should be able to use instant grits. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but it’s worth a try. I use blue corn posole, which I grind myself, but it requires a good 2 to 3 hours of cooking. Quick grits might be a good compromise.

  4. Ben Vaughn on September 11, 2015 at 2:05 am

    Andrew, thanks for this article. Very helpful for meal planning. I have really enjoyed all the great hiking info and tips in your blog.

  5. Lee Parker on October 31, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    Someone needs to come up with 1 ounce individual serving packages of olive oil. The rest of this recipe can mostly be found in individual packets or can be pre-mixed in a ziploc with other ingredients.

    • Steve on December 29, 2016 at 11:51 am

      I get single serving packets from the local Subway franchise.
      I pay 15 cents for each!

  6. Lee Parker on October 31, 2015 at 7:53 pm
  7. Paul on November 16, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Curious of the shelf life of this one:

    Do you prepack the Parmesan cheese?
    Do you store it in the fridge or on a shelf?
    If your going on a thru hike or expedition, will this be stable for months?

    Thanks

    • Andrew Skurka on November 16, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Grated parm is shelf-stable for a long time if unopened. Once it’s opened, I’ve gone 2-3 weeks between prep and consumption, no problems.

      For a thru-hike, I would probably leave the parm unopened, and send out an entire container in a maildrop, or pick it up along the way (easy to find in the US). I do the same with beef jerky, which has a good shelf life until it is opened; so I send out 1-lb packets of jerky in the mail, and divide it into smaller bags once I pick it up.

  8. Gordon on January 22, 2016 at 7:56 am

    This recipe is a winner, whether in the field or the backpacker lodge! Even my wife likes it, and she is not that fond of peppers. I mix the polenta and cheese in one bag, and all the other dry ingredients in another. I’m not sure why you say that you separate out the peppers; I get good results putting everything in the second bag in the pot at once.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 24, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      I don’t have a scientific explanation for it, but it seems that the Parm gets extra sticky if it’s thrown in early. Maybe the high heat changes its molecular structure. So I recommend holding off on the cheese until the end for best results.

  9. Leslie on January 31, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    I’ve cooked couscous before by just pouring my hot water into a freezer bag and using a cozy. Wouldn’t that work just as well instead of dirtying up a pot that you then have to clean?

    • Andrew Skurka on January 31, 2016 at 7:49 pm

      Yes, that would work fine, except that you need to eat your dinner out of a plastic bag and then carry around a wet plastic bag for the rest of your trip. I have never found it a challenge to wash my pot, and much prefer it over eating from a bag.

  10. Nick Smolinske on May 23, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    Just made this for dinner! It’s definitely getting added to the backcountry rotation. I used homemade dried roasted red peppers (roast first, then dry), plus dried tomato dices, and added some homemade preserved lemon as well. Preserved lemon is my new favorite thing to add to backpacking recipes. It packs quite a punch so you don’t need to bother drying it – half an ounce in a meal like this is plenty.

    I use a vacuum sealer with mason jar attachment to store my backcountry meals, so I can make a big batch of this and seal it in a 1/2 gallon mason jar. It’ll keep for a year (or two, or three) and I can pull out of it as needed. Thanks for another recipe!

  11. Dan on August 19, 2016 at 9:59 am

    I know this is an old thread and maybe it’s mentioned elsewhere but where do you source/buy your bag of dried peppers? Thanks!

  12. Chris M on May 22, 2018 at 8:51 am

    I’ve made this on a few boy scout backpacking trips for the Old Goats patrol. Nobody has objected to me making it again ๐Ÿ™‚ It is filling. First time I made it, I added 4oz of sausage per person. General consensus was that was too much. I’ll go with 2oz this weekend for our trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Thanks Andrew!

    • Andrew Skurka on May 22, 2018 at 9:00 am

      The recommended amounts + 4 oz of sausage might be okay for a thru-hiker, but for any normal group I would imagine it’d be too much. This meal is pretty filling already, even relative to my other meals that are also 5.5-ish ounces.

      What kind of sausage did you add? That’s a good idea.

  13. Chris M on May 22, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    I used a peppered salami. We scraped off most of the pepper coating, but it was still enough to add a strong pepper flavor to the mix…perhaps too much. Note that I left out the oil when I add the salami. The second time around, I used a white-wine salami. That was quite good…and the leftover salami was excellent with some white cheddar on a 12-grain bagel the next day.

    Thank to this recipe, I’ve become known as the “Gourmet Backpacker” in our troop…which is a mystery to my wife ๐Ÿ˜

    I’m going to try to follow that up with your Alpine Pasta this weekend. And maybe the cookie dough, too – one of my sons wanted to help make that one — and eat it, of course :>

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