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MREs get chefs' TLC

Culinary masters cook up improved military meals

Jul. 19, 2013 - 12:28PM   |  

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Oh, those boring brown bags of bland military-issued field food. No wonder so many MREs end up unopened at the bottom of rucksacks and kit bags after exercises and deployments.

Meals, Ready-to-Eat? More like Meals, Rejected by Everyone.

But don’t toss your extras yet.

OFFduty challenged three chefs to transform basic MREs into new meals.

We shipped them each a case with these simple instructions: Make us something amazing, supplementing your new creations only with basic household ingredients.

And, wow, did they deliver.

So grab your favorite kitchen knife and get ready for Meals, Radically Extraordinary.

Dinner Boot Camp

Army Master Sgt. Rene Marquis remembers biting into his first MRE. “It was friggin’ ham and eggs, and there were no MRE heaters back then. It was nasty.”

A young cook for a military police company out on his first field exercise in the backwoods of Fort Drum, N.Y., he says, “It took me longer to open the packets than it did to consume the meal. I used the whole bottle of Tabasco sauce, which didn’t help much. I couldn’t finish it.”

These days, Marquis isn’t eating too many nasty meals.

As one of the military’s top chefs — not to mention host of the YouTube show “Dinner Boot Camp” — he serves up five-star spreads for four-star generals, VIPs and dignitaries from around the world. He’s also a regional director for the American Academy of Chefs.

For his MRE remixes, Marquis says he wanted to dig deep into those brown bags, finding his inspiration in the items usually cast aside.

“The worst thing about MREs is that people eat the entree, they eat the sweets and maybe the cheese and crackers, but everything else gets thrown away. So I really wanted to use the enhancements and other items already in the MREs that often go by the wayside and incorporate them into the new dishes.”

BREAKFAST

MRE: PORK SAUSAGE PATTY, MAPLE-FLAVORED

New recipes:

Egg Frittata with Pork Patty

* Cheese spread

* Crackers

* Salt

* Pepper

* Pork sausage patty

+ 3 eggs

+ 1 teaspoon cooking oil

Crush crackers in a mixing bowl. Add three eggs and whisk together. Season with salt and pepper. Preheat omelet pan. Add oil and cook eggs on one side. Flip and add half of the cheese pack. Remove from pan and top with remaining cheese. For sausage patty: Cook in a small frying pan or a griddle on medium heat until golden brown.

Maple Muffin Top Hot Cakes

* Maple muffin top

* Table syrup

+ Butter

Slice muffin top in half horizontally and grill until hot. Serve with butter and syrup.

Orange Yogurt Parfait with Berries, Raisins and Crushed Nut Topping

* Beverage base orange type III

* Nut raisin mix

+ 1 cup plain yogurt

+ 1 cup fresh berries

Mix orange beverage base with yogurt.

Toss with berries, and top with nuts.

Dead Meat

Scott Leysath has made his fair share of unusual meals.

The straight-shooting host of wild game gourmet shows “Hunt, Fish, Cook” and “Dead Meat,” Leysath has served up everything from goat intestines to bowfin, a freshwater river runner whose flesh he described as “basically a fish pudding that’s so gross that it’s more like wallpaper paste.”

Although he’s had plenty of freeze-dried trail food, he’d never experienced an MRE. That is, until we asked him to take our challenge.

“I’d heard they were basically inedible,” says the son of an Army engineer and brother of a former Air Force fighter pilot.

“Digging into my case of MREs, I started by matching those products that should, at least in culinary theory, be complementary.”

Mixed fruit, peanut butter and potato-cheddar soup — no way. But apple pieces in spiced sauce, raisins and cheddar snack crackers? That should work, he reasoned.

“I made a point to use only additional items that I had on hand in my home refrigerator and pantry,” he says.

“Adding a fresh squeeze of lemon or lime juice added life to most of them. Adding a dash or two of hot sauce made a big difference.”

LUNCH

MRE: CHEESE TORTELLINI VEGETARIAN

New recipe:

Marinated Cheese Tortellini Salad

* Cheese tortellini with tomato sauce

+ 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar (if you substitute white or cider vinegar, add a pinch of sugar)

+ 2 tablespoons olive oil

+ ¼ cup black olives, any variety

+ ½ cup cherry tomatoes, halved

+ Sliced cucumber

+ Lettuce leaves

+ Grated Parmesan cheese

In a medium bowl, whisk together vinegar and oil. Add olive, tomatoes and tortellini with sauce (do not heat tortellini prior to marinating). Toss gently to combine flavors. Refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. Arrange lettuce in a bowl or plate. Spoon tortellini mixture over lettuce. Garnish with cucumber slices and top with Parmesan cheese.

MRE: CHICKEN WITH PASTA IN PESTO SAUCE

New recipe:

Italian Parmesan Breadsticks

* Italian breadsticks

+ 1-2 tablespoons olive oil

+ Sea or kosher salt

+ Grated or shredded Parmesan cheese (or any cheese)

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat.

Brush top and bottom of breadsticks with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

Brown evenly on one side; flip; top with cheese and brown the other side.

Remove from skillet and let cool for 2 to 3 minutes.

Dinner Impossible

Robert Irvine was serving chow as a 15-year-old cook for the British Royal Navy long before he became host of his original Food Network show “Dinner: Impossible.”

Since then, he’s been a guest chef at the White House and, now a U.S. citizen, spends about a third of the year working with the U.S. military on USO tours and other appearances, including a trip to Afghanistan this summer.

He still remembers his first stab at MRE-style field rations on a deployment to the Falkland Islands early in his own 11-year military career.

“It was corned beef hash and it was ... awful.

They’ve come a long way since then, but they’re still crap.”

After working his culinary magic on his selection of MREs, he was surprised by how much they could be transformed.

“The meals actually tasted really good — I was shocked,” he says. “I’d serve them in a restaurant now.”

DINNER

MRE: CHICKEN WITH PASTA IN PESTO SAUCE

New recipes:

Chicken Pesto Crostini with Tomato Cheese Sauce

* Chicken with pasta in pesto sauce

* Cheese spread

* Italian breadsticks

+ 2 tablespoons diced tomato

+ 2 tablespoons cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a food processor, puree chicken pesto. Slice breadsticks in half to create thin sticks. Top sticks with puree and a small amount of cheese spread, and bake for 8 minutes. While baking, heat remaining cheese sauce with the cream and diced tomatoes until warm and creamy. Remove chicken crostinis from oven, sauce plate and stack.

Grilled Apple Turnover with Espresso Cream Sauce

* Apple turnover

* Diario instant coffee

* Creamer packet

* Sugar packet

+ 1 tablespoon butter

+ Apple slices for garnish

Prepare instant coffee with 3 ounces of hot water. Add powdered cream and sugar, stirring well until thickened.

Whisk in butter to finish sauce. For the turnover, sprinkle with sugar and grill until warmed. After grilling, slice in half and serve with sauce.

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