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DIY Dehydrated Food

Walking into the Tararuas last spring, I was telling a young gun how hard we had it ‘back in the day’. To get dehydrated food (dehy) and tubes of honey, you couldn’t just drive to Macpac. No, you had to follow the army boys on their exercises. Huts like Tutuwai would be littered with army ration dehy they didn’t want to carry out; it wasn’t left just to shed weight – it was left because it tasted like crap. Apart from that, rice risotto was all we really had – and it was called ‘last resorto’ for good reason!
Today, there’s no need to eat crud just because you’re traveling light; there’s a huge range of commercial dehy food available (as reviewed in the freeze-dried foods comparison article in NZRod&Rifle Issue 4, Volume 39), but it has limitations. DIY dehy has many advantages – for example, you can spice it up to your exact preference and accumulate a good stash of food by simply cooking a little extra of your favourite meal and throwing the leftovers on the dehydrator. Beyond that you can get into some pretty cool purpose-built options like trail-oats smoothies and ‘just-add-fresh-game’ meals.
Space is too short here to give you a bunch of specific recipes, but the fun is in exploring and preparing – Google some recipes and give it a go. To inspire you, I’ve provided a Tussock Hut Free-Range Café menu of my favourite dehy meals – the info in the descriptions and notes should be enough to get you on the right track. There’s a little bit of an art to some of it, so I’ve included a few tips I’ve learnt along the way.

Beef Jerky and Biltong

For seasoning, try your favourite stir-fry mix. Mess with an internet recipe and make it your own. Fry a few pieces to taste test and keep working on small portions to get the right combinations. Use your less tender shoulder or rump and cut thin strips along the grain. Dry to your preference – not too soft, not too crisp.

Bacon

Lean bacon with the fat trimmed off dehydrates okay – even with a drizzle of maple syrup – and can be eaten crisp or rehydrated as a matter of taste. Store frozen.

Leftovers

You can dehydrate anything within reason; this doesn’t mean you should! The ‘Resurrection Burger’ is a case in point; this comprises a McDonald’s cheeseburger separated into buns and contents, then dehydrated. The buns are very fragile, so go light on the vacuum packing. To resurrect, steam the buns and fry the soaked patty adding dehydrated beetroot and pineapple. Use the original McDonald’s wrappers for authenticity! Potato hash with bacon bits is a great use of leftover roast veges. Dice potato and add corn, peas, onion and veg. Give the mix a fry up with some diced bacon (fat removed), chilli, Worcestershire sauce, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Dehydrate this mix, then bulk up with cornflour and potato flakes.

Cheese

Cheese can be dried but absorb the fat on paper towels before sealing – it’s worth the effort for your nachos!

Meat Curries and Tagines

Venison has low fat and preserves well; minced or cut into small cubes, it rehydrates just fine. Venison rendang served with long-life roti is my go-to meal. To prepare this with fresh venison, use Asian Home Gourmet sachets (or your own spices), and add dried onions and coconut powder. Chicken is riskier, so ensure it’s well cooked; dice the chicken very finely to be sure it rehydrates and cooks. Store dehydrated and vacuum packed meats and perishables in the freezer till you depart – they’re safe for months.

Spice up the Fresh Game

Fresh paua or fish goes well with dehy spice sachets. Remember spices harbour bacteria, so cook them first. An Asian spice fritter mix from a Seafood NZ recipe is my favourite for fresh paua; it contains fish sauce, coriander, lime zest, lemongrass, chilli, onion, garlic and shrimp paste. I haven’t tried dehy paua or fish, as I’m certain that would not end well.

Fruit

Canned mangos blended to a paste then dehydrated work for smoothies and mango chutney; freeze and powder or break into clumps before vacuum sealing. Peaches, apples or any fresh fruit within reason can be dehydrated but add lemon juice to stop it browning. Pineapple is best dehydrated from the can. For canned fruit, tip out the juice and throw the fruit on the dehydrator.

Banana Powder

Mash banana and add lemon juice to stop it discolouring; once banana has set to fruit leather, freeze it. Grind with a mortar and pestle or blender while frozen to make banana powder.

Slops

Chocolate mousse or pudding isn’t just for breakfast; with peaches, it’s an easy – if somewhat decadent – dessert to start and end the day. Premix instant pudding milk powder and dehy peaches before sealing. Mix at bedtime to set overnight; by morning the texture should resemble mud from a Stewart Island bog.

Smoothies

Oats are the secret weapon for getting a smoothie consistency. ‘Overnights oats’ are a thing, but more instant results can be achieved by powdering rolled oats in a coffee grinder. Banana oat smoothies take some time to perfect; it’s a matter of preference as banana powder has a unique taste. Banana thick-shake maker may be more banana tasting and can be used to tweak the banana powder flavour; add some coffee powder or drinking chocolate and mix to your taste buds’ satisfaction. Liquid smoothies take a while to dehydrate but give great results. Perfecting a dehy mango lassi is my current project.

Meat and Meat Dishes

Low-fat meat works best but take some oil to add. Venison should be cleared of fat and sinew before mincing. To remove residual fat (which goes rancid and smells) rinse with boiling water before spicing (cook all spices) and drying. If you don’t rinse it and freeze it, your dog will be convinced you’re eating his rations – don’t go there!

Dehydrators

My dehydrator is a relatively expensive one that has plastic tray inserts for dehydrating curries and five tiers of mesh screen to allow a massive amount of food to be processed in one hit. It has multiple temperature settings for optimum drying of different foods. On the DIY front, it’s possible to dehydrate in a conventional oven on a very low temperature (40-65°C).
A DIY biltong drying box can be constructed with some plywood and a portable lamp; the bulb gives off heat to dry the meat. Provide ventilation holes at the top and bottom to create air flow that will remove moisture and prevent overheating.

Vacuum Sealing

My vacuum sealer is a cheap one from Trade Me and works well; prior to this, I used Snap Lock bags but wouldn’t recommend them. You can buy replacement bags for your vacuum sealer or even reuse other sealable food packaging; it can be used to reseal packaged foods at home as well. Vacuum sealing helps dehydrated food last longer. I wrap sharp food, like biltong, in brown paper before sealing to reduce risk of punctures. Storing vacuum-packed dehy in the freezer extends its life considerably. This allows me to make a crockpot of Mexican mince and beans or chicken tagine and not worry about how fast I need to consume it. I label packets with indelible pen and note if it’s a single or double portion.

NZ’s Southernmost Fast-Food Joint

As we wandered along the beach, we picked up the smell of smoke from the hut fire – we had visitors. Operation ‘Resurrection Burger’ kicked into action. In the Doughboy Bay Cave, we began the tricky task of resurrecting our dehy McDonald’s burgers. Patties were soaked in boiling water and put on to fry; with the final step of gently steaming the buns completed, we began reconstructing and wrapping the burgers. Five minutes later, we wandered into the hut (three days’ walk from anywhere) munching McDonald’s from the wrappers. The newly arrived trampers looked on in disbelief. Maps were spread out on the hut table to confirm our story that the (fictitious) town of Magog, just over the hill, had a McDonald’s. I wonder how many times they craved Macca’s on the final week of their Rakiura circuit!

Tussock Hut Free-Range CafE menu

Breakfast

Smokey Beach Hash
Leftover roast veges, peas, corn, and potato hash with bacon bits and mushrooms

Doughboy Hill Chocolate Mud
The consistency of southern circuit mud with banana powder, oat flour and chocolate thick shake mix

Blue Range Bacon and Banana
Crispy bacon rashes with maple syrup served on gluten-free buckwheat and banana pancakes with berry conserve

Entrée

NZFS Orange Venison Jerky
A classic stir-fry of orange and honey soy fused with some American classic Worcestershire sauce and liquid hickory smoke

Spion Kop Sika Biltong
Vinegar-washed sika strips rubbed in coriander, salt and pepper

Sunrise Hut Tomatoes
Dried to perfection with herbal hints and served with olive oil on cracked pepper crispbread

Thunderbolt Strips
Hotter than a summer hunt in the Kaimanawas, chilli Sichuan and Sarawak peppers

The Gutter Black
Paua fritters with chilli, coriander, lime zest, lemongrass, onion and garlic

The Gentle Annie
Naan bread stuffed with potato kulcha, curried onion and potato – carb load for the big hills

Dip Flat Platter
Beetroot and Hummus dip on pita bread

Main Course

Parapara Rendang
Goat or fallow curry with mango chutney and roti

Yankee River Roast
Roast whitetail slices, mushroom sauce and peas

The Deadman’s Resurrection  Burger
Take an old favourite and add pineapple and beetroot. Sorry, no fries with that!

Xmas Village Whitetail Ribs
Secret BBQ rub for that tender tiny whitetail you handbagged back to the hut

Roaring Stag Nachos
Gamey, low-fat venison mince, boiling-water rinsed and hidden in a Mexican spice and beans sauce and served on CCs

Akatarawa Chicken Tagine
Dedicated to Annabelle Langbein and those who leave chickens in rest areas. Featuring fennel, onions, raisins, cherry tomatoes and Moroccan spices. Served on a bed of mash.

Desserts

Southern Circuit Slops
Peaches and instant chocolate pudding

Cavalier Fruit Chocolate Brownie
Packet-mix brownie with chunks of dried fruit of the day. Consistency like the mud on those not-quite-dry socks at Masons Bay after crossing Adams Hill.

Kashmir Mango Lassi
Mango smoothie with cardamom and an oaty twist – add pistachios on top for authenticity

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