MSR Backcountry Cafe: Easy Appetizers for the Exhausted


Story and Photos by Laurel Miller

American gastronomy has been responsible for some memorably mediocre finger foods (or canapés, hors d’ouevres, or appetizers, if you’re so inclined). Despite this, we’re all familiar with the ubiquitous cheese ball, spinach dip (served in a hollowed out loaf of sourdough) pigs in a blanket, and, if you’re of a certain age, rumaki.

Having inhaled my share of spinach dip in this life, I’m not trying to be an asshole. But it is possible, even in the backcountry, to create starters that are easy, on-trend, and free of processed ingredients. The point of appetizers, as the name suggests, is to stimulate the appetite. Providing a balance of flavors and textures is the key to making them work, as are good-quality ingredients (which don’t require much in the way of prep to make an impact).

With the holidays just around the corner, there’s no excuse not to throw a cocktail party, even if you’re in a hut or snow-camping. All you need is a pocketknife, camp stove (optional) and some cocktail picks (I like inexpensive eco-friendly versions), and you’re good to go.

The beverages of choice are up to you; these savory treats pair equally well with beer, wine, or spirits:
Almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon: Use a large, meaty variety of date. I like Medjool’s, which are sweet, and slightly smoky, and compliment the bacon. You can also stuff dates with chevre or blue cheese.

Smoked trout or oysters on saltines/pumpernickel bread with extra virgin olive oil and lemon: Purchase pre-marinated seafood, or make your own by drizzling the oil over it, and adding fresh lemon zest as a garnish. Buy pre-sliced bread (Mestemacher is widely-available and comes in small, easily-packable blocks), and serve with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or Belgian ale.

Sliced honey- or maple-cured ham with bourbon-soaked figs: Rehydrate dried figs by placing them in a small bowl, and adding just enough bourbon to cover. Let sit 30 minutes; drain (don’t even think about discarding) Serve with a hunk of ham on a cocktail pick, or arrange on a plate. Pass slices of rustic walnut bread. Drink bourbon.

Anchovy and pesto crostini: With the recent collapse of the West Coast sardine fishery and similarly grim state of Atlantic sardine fisheries, anchovies are a smart, Omega-3-rich substitute. Crack open a tin, place on a cracker, and top with a small dollop of jarred pesto. Garnish with lemon zest, if desired. Want to know how to purchase seafood sustainably? Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Pocket Guide.

Bacon jam, dried apricots, and aged cheese: I love Bijou, an aged goat’s milk crottin by Vermont Creamery (available nationwide at cheese shops and larger supermarket chains). To serve, use a plain, sturdy cracker, and add a teaspoon or two of jam. Place an apricot on top. Use a vegetable peeler to shave cheese. Add a shaving or two as a garnish atop each cracker. Bacon jam is increasingly popular as a specialty food product nationwide; a great mail-order version comes from Seattle’s Skillet Street Food.

Grilled or pan-friend, sliced elk or venison sausage with sliced apples. Spear on pick, enjoy with a good whiskey.
Marinated olives. Purchase ‘em ready-made at your local deli or antipasti bar, or use my stupid-easy recipe, below. Pack them in Tupperware for your hike, or take five minutes to whip them up at your destination. Served with some good salumi, cheese, and crusty bread.


serves 4

10 ounces dry cured or green olives, or combination of the two, such as Moroccan or Picholine
3-4 strips of orange or lemon peel (not zest- use a vegetable peeler to cut wide strips, avoiding any of the bitter white layer of pith)
2 cloves garlic, gently crushed
2 pinches red chili flakes
3 springs thyme or rosemary
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or as needed

>Combine all ingredients in a small sauté pan over medium low heat. Warm until heated through, then transfer to small bowl, and allow to sit 30 minutes, so flavors develop.
© The Sustainable Kitchen ®, 2005.

Laurel Miller is a Colorado-based food and travel writer and cheese consultant, the co-author of Cheese for Dummies, and a contributing editor at culture: the word on cheese. She admits she could be perfectly happy subsisting on peanut butter-and-chocolate chip sandwiches on a Nordic trip.

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