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Nyanyika Banda: Eat well in the woods

Cheese tortellini with spinach and pesto created by Nyanyika Banda. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 4
Huevos rancheros created by Nyanyika Banda is made with avocado, black beans, eggs, spinach, salsa and taco seasoning. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 4
Dried herbed pasta with spinach and poached egg made by Nyanyika Banda. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 4
Dried herbed pasta with poached egg (left) and huevos rancheros. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 4

My ability to comprehend beauty came once I experienced nature in its purest state. I moved to Ely in May 2008 to work as a seasonal chef at a Moose Lake outfitter. My mornings started before dawn, and after serving breakfast, I'd make lunch for the staff, who were mostly college students from Minnesota or Utah. They held traditional midwestern palates, for which I had to watch spice levels and ensure I was well-stocked in ranch.

During breaks, I'd hike the Secret/Blackstone Lake Trail or take a canoe out and watch mother eagles teach their offspring to fly. Workdays ended with catching the sunset while cooling off in the lake. In the evening, the sun holds on, taking its time say good night. It slowly falls down past the horizon, casting the sky into a canvas of purple and orange. The backdrop keeps the trees illuminated and the lake awake deep into the evening.

I felt overwhelmed my first few days there by the rocky shores, sandy beaches, cliffs and canyons, and I fell under the spell of the lake's magnificence and everything that surrounded it.

After seeing enough families return with stories from out in the wilderness, I developed an itch to see it for myself. The idea of sleeping alone in the wild filled me with excitement and fear. I set a goal to go out in a canoe and spend the evening alone in the woods, which I did, and afterwards I'd spend my two days off camping throughout northern Minnesota.

My love for camping and being alone in the wilderness was immediate. Beauty was to witness the hundred different shades of green and to close my eyes and hear the water reach land. In the late afternoon, the sun sat directly above the lake and the water glistened like a pool of jewels. I became obsessed with building a fire and preparing a meal, so I started spending my days off perfecting one-pot fire pit meals.

When my best friends announced they were going to visit for a mini canoe trip, it was hard to concede to eating traditional camping foods — trail mix, peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs. So I made a list of items to buy and sent it to my friends. I requested fresh vegetables, eggs and pasta. Naturally, they thought it seemed ambitious for camping, especially canoe camping, but I assured them I'd take care of the preparation for every meal.

We only had one portage that had a roller for a canoe, and then we were on Indian Lake, part of the Superior National Forest that does not require a permit and is generally uninhibited by other campers. My younger sister, three best girlfriends and I spent three days on our tiny island. It rained for most of our time there, so we rigged a tarp over our kitchen and I impressed them with poached eggs for breakfast and pesto tortellini with spinach and zucchini for dinner. They admitted they were happy I had insisted on all of the ingredients for our meals.

I had so many new experiences that summer, and they all had to do with the lake or its surroundings. I found an appreciation for the bond formed with a critter encountered in the woods, peace with the buzzing insects, and most importantly, I proved I didn't need peanut butter sandwiches to survive in the woods.

Tortellini Pesto

For freshness, eat this the first or second day after preparing.

1 package fresh tortellini pasta

1 cup pesto

1 cup baby spinach

Boil pasta according to package, drain and toss with pesto and spinach.

Herbed Pasta and Poached Egg

2 tablespoons oil (vegetable or olive)

2 tablespoons dried herbs (basil, thyme, oregano)

2 cloves chopped garlic

1 package dry pasta

Eggs (one per person)

This can be made in one pan, but two are ideal. Boil dry pasta according to package, drain and set aside. In the same pot, boil 2 cups water for poaching eggs. Meanwhile, in the second pan, heat oil and add herbs and garlic. Saute garlic for two minutes, making sure not to burn and then toss in pasta. Top each plate with a poached egg. When broken, the yolk will serve as a sauce.

How to poach an egg in the woods: Fill a pot ¾ full with water and heat to a boil. Crack eggs into boiling water and with a spoon gently swirl the whites around the yolk. Allow the eggs to cook undisturbed for about two minutes and then spoon out.

Campside Huevos Rancheros

1 packet of taco seasoning

1 tomato, diced or 1 cup salsa

1 avocado, sliced

1 can black beans, drained

4 eggs scrambled

1 cup baby spinach

1 tablespoon oil

Add taco seasoning to scrambled eggs. Heat oil in a pan over fire and add beans and cook until warm. Add scrambled eggs stirring regularly until soft cook. Remove from heat. On a plate place a handful of spinach and top with the egg and bean mixture. Finish with slices of avocado and tomato.

Sidebar: Tips for cooking in the wilderness

A camp cooking kit is useful because they are compactible, but if you're car camping or have the room, be sure to have a pot for boiling and a pan for frying, a tiny cutting board and a knife and spoon for stirring. There are also hard plastic holders for eggs that you can purchase.

When you have this gear, you shouldn't be afraid to take risks when purchasing food for your trip. Try poaching eggs and making a pasta sauce with garlic, herbs like thyme, oregano, basil and some oil. A packet of taco seasoning goes a long way for huevos rancheros in the morning mixed with scrambled eggs and fresh spinach and topped with an avocado. My personal favorite cheat meal is a packet of fresh cheese tortellini boiled and tossed with some homemade pesto.

Nyanyika Banda works as a private chef and caterer and runs the pop-up restaurant Marita. She is also a student at the University of Superior-Wisconsin studying history with a focus on food.

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