Planning Your Backpaking Meals

About six years back, I discovered Backpacking. I already knew how to prepare for a hike, but backpacking was a completely new league. In a previous post, I already discussed how to cook in the wilderness, the equipment to take, and what kind of ingredients you should carry. Today I intend to go deeper and show a way to strategize planning your meals.

First, let’s rehash the basics of how your body utilizes energy to move you around. Then, if you want to go deeper, I linked several resources in this post. However, essentially we measure the energy that our body uses in calories. On a given day, our energy will go toward sustaining our body functioning, and the rest toward movement and brainpower. The first piece of the education is called “Basal Metabolic Rate” – BMR for short. The second piece of the equation depends on what we do during the day. When performing intense physical activities, it’s a good idea to replenish all that we burn or risk triggering the mechanisms that make us gain weight later on. Therefore, for backpacking, some knowledge of our bodies and how challenging the hike will be is extremely useful.

This is all the food I got for a 4-day long trip. Before repackaging.

If you have time before your backpacking trip, I recommend you go on a similar trek and measure how many calories you burn with a fitness tracker. Otherwise, no biggie, we can proceed with some rough numbers.

Let’s imagine that your BMR is 1500 calories. And that you will burn about 2000 calories every five miles of your trip. Those numbers are examples, but close mine on a moderate trip. With this information, let’s think about options:

  • How many meals do you like to have? – I tend to cook breakfast and dinner.
  • What will be your emergency meal?
  • How many people are in your group?
  • What snacks can you carry?

And then, I find it helpful to build a schedule:

MealItemsCalsWeight

Breakfast

  • Peanut Butter and Chocolate overnight oats.Instant coffee with powdered milk.

500 cal.

150g

Dinner

  • Udon soup with miso soup.½ chocolate bar.

600 cal.350 cal.

250g

Snacks

  • 5 x Larabar2 Servings of Trail Mix.½ bag of Jelly Beans

1000 cal.350 cal.350 cal.

425g

3150 cal.

825g ~ 2lb

A sample table to visualize if you’re bringing enough to your trip.

It adds up to 3150 calories, and I believe it’s close to what I should be eating. Also, note that every day adds about 2lbs worth of food to your backpack. Weighing your items and minimizing the packaging will make a substantial difference in the final weight. Finally, it’s worth checking if your trip requires a bear-proof container and checking if everything fits in it.

One common mistake most beginners, including myself, make is overpacking as if they were to get lost for a week. It’s normal to feel this anxiety, though, but I’d resist the urge to add more weight than necessary in your backpack.

Let’s now consider the kinds of foods you could carry. Simply, you could group it in fats, proteins, or carbohydrates. First, protein-rich foods will not help here, so no more than 20% of what you carry should be proteins. Your body needs carbohydrates to fuel your workouts, and ideally, you would bring mostly carbs; however, fats pack more than twice the calories per weight; this makes them attractive to help reduce the burden. Since hiking is not as intense as trail-running or cycling, I’d consider bringing 30% to 40% of my nutrition as fat-rich items.

I conclude my post with this, and I hope you find it helpful. Backpacking is a great activity that can be enjoyed greatly if appropriately fueled. Please leave any questions or comments in the section below, and enjoy the wilderness!

Five Do It Yourself Pantry Items

A few days back, I made granola for the very first time in my life. I buy granola from bakeries and local shops to experience different flavors as I have it for breakfast most days. But, suddenly, I noticed that it got pretty pricey, so I decided to make my own. Inspired by how easy the process was, I decided to share some ideas on easy pantry items to make at home that will keep for a long time. Let’s dive in.

Granola

Making granola is a very intuitive process. Just toss some rolled oats, crushed nuts, and seeds of your liking with some coconut oil and honey, bake for 25 minutes at 350ºC and let it cool down. Then you can mix it with dried fruit like raisins and coconut chips.

My very first batch of granola.

I found this process so intuitive and easy that I don’t believe I’ll buy it from stores anymore. Additionally, cost-wise, I spent the equivalent to two granola bags on enough ingredients to make about 5 or 6. Pretty good, right?

Dried Pasta

If you have a pasta machine, this should be a no-brainer. Admittedly, the entire process takes up some work, but cost-wise is not expensive, and the results are unbeatable. To achieve this, simply make extra batches of semolina pasta dough, consisting of semolina, water, salt, and olive oil; and after rolling the pasta, leave it to dry overnight on a wire rack or hanging somewhere. You can store the dried pasta in a paper bag, and it will keep fresh for months.

Pasta I made by also milling my own durum wheat (semolina)

Dried Herbs

Do you have a herb garden that produced plenty? Making dried versions of your herbs takes up little work. Simply wrap your fresh herbs loosely in a paper towel and microwave them for about 30 seconds.; they will come out perfectly dried and not wilted. Some herbs that retain great flavor when dried are: mint, rosemary, oregano, and thyme.

Some rosemary I scavenged in my neighborhood to dry out.

Flavored Oils

Some oils can become your distinctive touch in the kitchen. For example, I use them to finish dishes and flavor the bread I bake. Infusing oil is ridiculously simple; just heat the oil of your preference to about 300ºF, drop in your herbs, chiles, or garlic and let it cool off. Then you can either fish the solids or keep them in the jar for presentation.

Garlic confit and rosemary-garlic olive oil. All in one!

Vinegar

I haven’t tried this one myself, but I’ve seen the process. It requires some equipment as vinegar is the by-product of fermentation. To do so, you simply submerge your favorite fruit in water inside a fermentation jar and voilá a few weeks after you have vinegar.

Other Options

Finally, I won’t go through how to make them, but you can try jarring or confit tomatoes, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, eggplants, or garlic. Canned vegetables are also an option or, why not mill your own flour?

I close my post with this, but I’d be curious to know what other things come to mind when you make your pantry items? Please leave a comment in the section below.

Cooking for Beauty: Why Should You Style Your Meals?

Who doesn’t love a well-presented meal? I love it and made it a point to style my meals as best as possible. Styling food is not only a technical culinary challenge; it has deeper connections to one’s health. Let’s explore how.

As shared in a previous post, I used noom for about four to five months; it was part of my health journey. When in the program, they suggested making your food look beautiful to increase your satiety. I couldn’t find a research paper that explicitly states that fact, but I found this research paper amongst others that discuss satiety. Now, I’m not a dietitian, and I can only talk from experience and intuition.

Kabocha and Shiitake Risotto – Here I used the peel of the squash as a vessel to present the risotto.

Some of the reasons why I believe beautiful meals make you feel more satisfied are:

  • In the paper I linked previously, the researchers state that expensive food leads people to eat more mindfully to maximize their enjoyment.
  • Another research paper states that food distributed in a way that looks high in volume also leads to anticipated satisfaction.
  • From the four kinds of hunger, beauty can potentially address emotional hunger.
  • Finally, the effort I make on plating makes me want to pause and eat more methodically to ensure I have a bit of everything.
This fennel stuffing looked great when presented directly in the cast-iron skillet I used to cook it.

These three cues point to one place, mindful eating, which helps us perceive better our natural satiety cues. And, it looks like styling your meals is a habit that bundles well with mindful eating.

In my case, making an effort to style my meals better also made me a better cook. Driven by presentation, I could build the intuition of cooking temperatures. For example, It seems evident to me now, but most herbs wilt if you don’t add them last-minute, yielding a sad-looking dish. Additionally, many ingredients benefit visually from slightly browning them in the pan before presenting them; this also improves flavor significantly.

Polenta with tomato sauce – Here I used a cookie cutter to shape the polenta and land it on the sauce.

Here are some quick tips that you can use to present your food better:

  • First, think of what you want to show, is your technique or maybe your visual art? There’s nothing sexier than a medium-rare steak sliced and plated to see the doneness.
  • Not all ingredients cook equally. For example, say you’re sauteing kale. It will go through a stage where the color brightens and improves, and then when overcooked and wilted, the color will become grayish and sad. So think of when to cook your ingredients to maximize visuals.
  • When cutting and chopping, consider if those ingredients will show or dissolve. Maybe you’d like to dice, grate, or julienne more methodically.
  • A good presentation somehow showcases all the ingredients. For example, you might easily make hummus with all your chickpeas, but what if you save some and use them as a garnish?
  • Consider color contrast; some spices have deep red, purple, or black colors that add texture to the final visuals. By the way, research shows that texture also increases satiety.
  • The plate that carries the meal also makes an enormous difference. Meals look quite sad on poorly designed plates, no matter how much effort you make. Beautiful silverware, table cloth, and other elements that you can see also make a difference.
  • There is the concept of the “rule of the thirds” in photography. We can borrow that idea to decide where to place the entree and the sides on the plate.
Japanese Curry – Here I used some props to brighten the mood of the dish. A cold day but warm inside.

I conclude my post with this, and I feel you find it helpful to start making your plates look sexier. If you do something and would like to share, please do so in the comments section below.

Book Review: Siddhartha

The book cover of the Kindle Edition

This book came into my hands as a present from my sister. It is one of the most influential books I have ever read and the very reason why I decided to explore Buddhism more seriously. Initially published in 1922, this is one hundred years ago; it relates the life journey of Siddhartha and his search for enlightenment.

In my mind, this book is Hesse’s interpretation of the life of the Buddha, even though he explicitly denies this theory of the book when Siddhartha meets him and challenges the foundation of his doctrine.

“And—this is my thought, O Sublime One—no one will achieve salvation through teachings! O Venerable One, you will not be able to inform and tell a single person in words and by means of teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment! The doctrine of the enlightened Buddha contains a great deal; it teaches many to live righteously, to shun evil. But one thing this doctrine, so clear, so venerable, does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands.”

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha (Dover Thrift Editions) (pp. 44-45). Dover Publications.

There are many moments of insight throughout the life of Siddhartha. He learns how to be spiritual, mundane, rich, poor, young, old during his path. He also adopts many masters that teach him to meditate, love, conduct business, and finally listen. The book builds up to the concept of listening and gaining perspectives to connect with others and the world. This theme becomes apparent through the following passage:

“One goal was Siddhartha’s and only one: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of wishes, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. To die away from himself, no longer to be “I,” to find repose with an emptied heart, to be ready for a miracle with thought liberated from ego: that was his goal.”

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha (Dover Thrift Editions) (p. 30). Dover Publications.

I recommend this book to everyone; it has unparalleled inspirational power and many layers of detail that will show upon reading it repeatedly. I’ve read it at least five times, and I always find new things.

I hope you enjoy this read, and if you have read it before, don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Persimmon Parfait Recipe

I can’t believe 2021 is almost over, and this will be the last post of the year. If this year has taught me anything, it’s to keep things simple and adapt to new circumstances. And you can think of adapting on so many levels! So this is my simple version of adapting.

One of my most frequently enjoyed breakfasts is a classic yogurt parfait. I like it with strawberries or other kinds of berries. I also make it more interesting by leveraging secret chef tricks that I learned here and there. One such trick is to finish the parfait with thyme and olive oil. I learned this from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Masterclass, which by the way, you should check out.

In a previous post, I emphasized the importance of eating locally and seasonally. And, the season of some of my favorite Persian fruits is here. I’m talking, of course, of persimmons and pomegranates. In addition, I added dried mint to the recipe to emphasize its Persian influence.

I want, though, to raise the stakes and make this breakfast more interesting. To do this, I show you make a lemon-thyme infused olive oil. This oil will brighten the dish up and surprise anyone you invite to your table. If you happen to live in Seattle, like me, I recommend you try the brand Ellenos of Greek yogurt; it’s insanely delicious. Let’s get started!

Persimmon Pomegranate Yogurt Parfait

  • Servings: 1 serving
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Late fall, early winter variation of a classic yogurt parfait.


For the lemon-thyme olive oil

  • ¼ cup olive oil.
  • Peels of 1 Meyer lemon.
  • 3 sprigs of fresh thyme.

For each serving of the Parfait

  • 150g to 170g of Greek yogurt.
  • 1 tsp Meyer lemon zest.
  • 1 tbsp honey.
  • 30g of Honey-Oat granola.
  • 2 tbsp pomegranate seeds.
  • 1 persimmon, peeled and cut in wedges.
  • Dried mint and lemon oil for garnish.

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan, heat the oil until just below its smoke point, about 300ºF.
  2. Add the lemon peels and the thyme. Then, turn the heat off and let the oil infuse and cool off.
  3. Remove and discard the peels and thyme sprigs. There will be leftover oil that can last in your pantry for a few weeks. Feel free to experiment with it!
  4. In a bowl, assemble the parfait adding, in order, the yogurt, lemon zest, honey, granola, pomegranate seeds, persimmon, and dried mint. Rub the dried mint between your fingers to release the essential oils. Finish the dish with a drizzle of lemon-thyme olive oil.
  5. Enjoy!

Nutrition


Per Serving: 450 calories; 13 g fat; 58 g carbohydrates;
23 g protein; 8.5 mg cholesterol; 71 mg sodium.

My Health Journey

Note: This post was originally part of my personal blog a few years back, but I decided it was about time to update it and make it even more impactful.

Picking up smoking was, by far, the worse decision I made in my life. At the age of seventeen, I weighed less than 70 Kg., I frequently worked out, swam, and commuted by bicycle within reasonable distances. It was a difficult time in my life and, a bit because of rebellion, a bit because of social pressure, and another bit because of sadness, I gave in. I have to confess that even today, at almost thirty-nine years old, I am ashamed to discuss it in the presence of my dad.

Not long after, I began to feel the harmful effects of this vice, but I completely neglected them. Workouts became harder. Walking exhausted me. But, I began driving as I turned 18. My sedentary lifestyle and poor nutritional habits started to show during this time. And, by the end of my mid-twenties, I weighed above 94 Kg. A scab of seborrheic dermatitis appeared on my face, which later I discovered was associated with the health of my liver, affected by cigarettes, booze, and high-fat food.

It took me many attempts until I finally could quit smoking. Reducing the amounts to two or three cigarettes per day and setting schedules to smoke didn’t work. I couldn’t stop for one reason: I wanted to smoke, despite knowing it was harmful to me. How to stop doing something you want to?.

My 2010 new year’s eve resolution was to quit smoking. And, I did it the only way I could: closed my eyes and pretended that the cigarette didn’t exist anymore. I avoided hanging out in places where people smoked for months until the desire to do it faded. However, the approach was not the best since, in my head, the idea did not disappear. At the time, my willpower was more. But who can rely only on willpower?

After I quit, the benefits were immediately visible. My ability to work out increased tenfold. I began to experience a clarity of thought that I didn’t know I had lost. I regained the use of my smell and taste, and I had much more free time: if we do the math, five minutes per cigarette plus setup time (walking to a place where it’s allowed to smoke), for a pack of 20, you waste at least 140 minutes a day, or 2 hours 20 minutes.

I will pause to define the concept of Keystone Habits. Habits serve as a gateway to other good habits. For example, quitting smoking was a keystone habit for me.

I had to solve the trickiest problem of them all: Morbid obesity. According to metrics like BMI and PBF, my ideal weight is 65Kg., And my overweight limit is 72Kg. I weighed 95Kg. So, the challenge was to drop 30Kg or almost 67lb! A task that took me ten years of work and learning.

One takeaway from my experience is: Diets are not effective. Not diets or exercise in large volumes, but somewhere I had to start.

This is how I looked in 2010 when I started cycling with my sister.

Towards the end of 2010, I bought a mountain bike and began using it to commute to work, about 4 kilometers per section. During the weekends, I saw myself making the ride between Chacras de Coria and the entrance of the Mendoza River. Finally, I managed to ride the forty kilometers uphill to reach Cacheuta.

By February 2011, I had lost 7kg, and by July 2012, I weighed 78Kg. Still overweight but much better. The problem is that I had not changed my eating habits. Riding my bike simply helped me generate a calorie deficit. I didn’t know how to listen to my body’s satiety cues.

In August 2012, I got a job in Buenos Aires, a city with less intense but unsafe riding. Because of it and a 200% increase in my work schedule, combined with the existing bad eating habits (how to forget the delicious fried Empanadas of the Gourmet!), I bounced back up to over 90Kg. I lost all progress! Another takeaway: bursts of exercise do not help you lose weight sustainably. Exercise has to be part of your life.

The years that followed were hard on my personal life, and, in consequence, I paid no attention to my health. Until one day, I hit rock bottom. This story might ring a bell to those who have tried to lose weight without success in their lives: they make sacrifices, see progress, have “a bad time,” and get discouraged when they see everything lost.

This is how my appearance changed between December 2015 and August 2016

In January 2016, after moving alone (and single) to the United States, my interest in health gained new vigor. I didn’t only need health but wanted to look attractive.

Armed again with my willpower, I tried the only thing that (so far) had worked: Exercise. But this time, with a twist, I wanted to find an activity that didn’t depend on a bike. The solution was to walk. So I started walking to work, or any distance less than 2 miles (3.2 km), 30 minutes a day on the treadmill, and hiking on the weekends. And so it was that I discovered my second keystone habit: walk as much as possible.

At the same time, I began reading about nutrition. Something that caught my attention was that the liver is the organ responsible for processing fats, that carbohydrates metabolize into fats, and that alcohol affects liver function. So I made another change: stop drinking most of the time, and if I did, have wine or whiskey, since I can enjoy it through small sips.

With these changes, my weight dropped to a stable 72Kg by the end of 2016. And it kept stable for the next four years. So here it was, my third keystone habit; not drinking alcohol in excess while avoiding beer as much as possible.

During this time, I began to do all kinds of physical activities, from bicycle routes of up to 200km a day with more than three thousand meters of climbing to walks on paths of more than 20km with a 20kg backpack on my shoulders. Additionally, my body and hormones adapted to the weight, but I plateau between 70 and 72Kg.The reason: I still didn’t pay enough attention to my diet.

As with smoking, you can’t eat less without wanting to. So, another thing I discovered is that many of my beliefs about healthy food were wrong. You can read more about it here.

By mid-2019, I began a period of personal growth and healing the wounds of a decade of spiritual self-scourge. One day, I discovered symptoms of discomfort that lasted for over a month. After visiting the doctor, I got shocked by the news. The (social) abuse of alcohol and restaurant food was causing my liver some problems. I had started a slow weight bounce again, but it was not noticeable thanks to the large volumes of exercise and daily walks. My liver was paying the bill.

Following the doctor’s recommendation, I stopped drinking all kinds of alcohol, allowing myself only a glass of wine socially. I also enrolled in noom to improve my eating habits. There I learned many things about nutrition, metabolisms, and psychology. In addition, I got an insight into why I could not achieve my goals.

To quit smoking, lose weight, or achieve anything in life, you need to want it first. Everyone knows what they should be doing, but not many want it. It’s simple; I can’t quit smoking if I still want a cigarette. I have not to choose it. I cannot lose weight without wanting to eat well. I must choose to eat smaller portions. I must like what aligns with my goals and reject what doesn’t. Is it not obvious? If I want to lose weight and simultaneously stuff my face with processed foods and drink 4 pints of beer, or a bottle of soda, I’m not being consistent. With this, I do not mean being “deprived.” There is a vast difference between depriving yourself of something and not wanting it.

Fast-forwarding to 2020 and 2021, I followed a strict eating methodology that combined calorie counting and experimenting with eating styles like keto. As a result, I dropped weight to under 62Kg—much under my original target. But something was not quite right. I didn’t gain weight for eighteen months, but I felt consistently hungry. It was then that I discovered, by researching intuitive eating, that I had developed a food disorder. I couldn’t allow myself to eat what I wanted without engaging in physical activity. I would feel terrible if I did. So finally, thanks to intuitive eating, I began training myself to listen to my body’s satiety cues and be relaxed about the whole eating situation. After I did, my weight fluctuated to 65Kg, and it’s still there.

Quitting the vices (or moderating them) is not easy because our biology asks us for more. Sugar, salt, carbohydrates, alcohol, all of the above; But with the appropriate mindset and information, you can make changes last and establish keystone habits that will stick for a lifetime.

To close out. After over ten years of walking the path of health I, rediscovered my body, unlearned bad habits, and experienced unprecedented feelings of clarity and happiness. That’s one solid proof that short-term solutions are not effective and that the name of the game is: slow and steady. I hope this will inspire anyone who could stay with me thus far.

Eating Healthy is not Healthy

Over two years ago, I began a new journey with food. This journey was one of deeper understanding. This understanding consisted of dissecting each component of eating and finding its long-term effects. Through this understanding, I could bust many myths from the folklore of eating. Today I would like to talk about the most harmful, in my opinion, of them all, the ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ labels.

All or Nothing

Let’s begin our journey with a cognitive heuristic: All or nothing thinking. This mental shortcut will lead us to categorize things into binary buckets, all or nothing, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Such shortcut was helpful to our hunter-gatherer ancestors to assess a situation and act quickly. On top of that, binary categories provide a fool-proof way of teaching survival rules to others who don’t have the exposure, think: “large animal, bad, run away,” or “ripe fruit, good, eat.” While giving simple labels could prove helpful in many cases, it could be dangerous in others.

The Hidden Fears of Past Food Science

Throughout time, the diets and food industry loved to point fingers at some attributes in food—salt, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sugars, gluten, fat, etc. These demonizations came from evolving understanding of how different quantities of these attributes affected individuals with specific characteristics. As a result, some gained massive advertisement and began wearing the labels “good” or “bad.” If we combine the fame of these items with “All or Nothing” thinking and another effect in groups called “the illusion of agreement,” then it should be clear how outdated information can stick in the minds of the collective for good.

The Spectrums of Life

While we humans insist on assigning discrete labels to everything, we live in a beautiful world of nuances. Let me illustrate through sunsets. While there are no two equal sunsets, could we take a large sample and sort them by the level of beauty? Judging it by which attribute? By who? Please give it a try and let me know if it’s not impossible. Even a single sunset throughout its span experiences noticeable changes, and at some point, it might look prettier than others to the same observer. Or even pretty with the same intensity but on different aspects! I hope by now you get the idea. I’m not writing about sunsets today, but this idea of something impermanent, evolving, and sensible to the observer is how food is. In the same way, food is not good or bad; it’s simply food.

Then, What IS Food?

Avocado Toast
Avocado toast, made the way I like it.

Food is a combination of macronutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats; and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. These components can be further categorized more granularly, like complex or simple carbohydrates or saturated, unsaturated, or trans fats. These components will have different effects on the body that might align with weight management, contain specific allergens, or contain minerals linked to hypertension. Let me illustrate this with an example: bread. As much as I love bread, processed white flour is a simple carbohydrate with one of the highest glycemic indexes. Therefore, consuming white bread could lead to a glucose spike, which might be harmful to people with diabetes and lead to overeating when the glucose levels drop. Is this good or bad? To me, it’s just an attribute that harms some and benefits others, like endurance athletes, who need this quick increase in glucose to perform well.

Good or Bad Labels are Bad!

I finish my discussion ridiculizing with my very same argument. While labeling food items as healthy or unhealthy might provide a good guideline, it might induce eating disorders in otherwise healthy individuals. For example, if someone believes donuts are “unhealthy,” they might react in many ways after eating one, including feelings of guilt, work out anxiety, or even self-induced vomit. Conversely, if something like vegetables gets the “healthy” label, some might react dismissing them when they’re not “on a diet” or inadvertently overindulging in something with high calories; raw nuts are my best example of this.

I will conclude my post with a final thought. Labeling food through all-or-nothing thinking is potentially misleading, especially if you’re suffering from a food disorder; it could make matters much worse. So, next time you find yourself worried about something that’s on the menu, think of where in the spectrum between far and close to your health goals that item falls. Then, you might find yourself enjoying food a little more.

Wilderness Photography: The Stars

I’ve been passionate about photography for over a decade. And, It was the desire to take photos of nature that pushed me to start hiking and ultimately backpacking. Then, when I moved to the United States and didn’t have any furniture, I was so into nature photography that I spent my first paycheck on a DSL camera, the same one I still use.

One of the things that captivated my eyes the first time I went out backpacking was the sight of the stars. Back then, I was a city boy, and even if the luminous contamination allowed me to see anything in the sky, I wasn’t used to looking up. But then, I can’t describe the feeling of awe I had when I saw the night sky in the middle of nothing. I could see the milky way with my bare eyes. Back then, I had one hiking pole that could double down as a monopod; I plugged my camera in it and attempted my first long exposure shot with the camera supported by my tent and my pole. I tried at least 50 photos before I could get a crisp image.

This post will summarize the technique I use to capture night shots, the equipment I have, and what to consider when attempting these shots. Let’s get cracking!

A view of the night from one of the shores of Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park.

First, we need to consider the camera body. You don’t need an expensive body but something that allows you to go to full manual mode and control all the basic parameters. The only consideration is whether to go with crop or full-frame. A full-frame camera will capture more of the sky, but a crop frame will do the job if your budget doesn’t allow it.

Second, tripod. The second most essential piece of equipment after the camera body is the tripod to place your camera. Many of the backpacker-friendly tripod options available on Amazon won’t add too much weight to your backpack. The budget-friendly option is a bag of beans.

Third, lenses. For the lens, consider what’s called the ‘aperture’ of the lens or f-stop. Aperture or f-stop is a number that tells how much light the lens can let into the camera. The lower this number, the more light the lens can let in. Thus, an ideal lens for taking night photos would have an f 1.4 or 1.8 – prime lenses have this characteristic. I started taking my night shots with a prime 35mm f1.8. I later upgraded it to a prime 24mm f1.8. One thing I find pretty useful and that’s present on two of my prime lenses is a depth of field indicator. Since we will be using full manual mode (including the focus), knowing where the infinity focus point is, becomes very useful to reduce your setup time.

Now we can focus on the technique. Let’s first quickly refresh the fundamental variables in photography.

  • Aperture or F-stop refers to how much light the lens’s diaphragm can let in.
  • Exposure time, it’s the length of time where the camera captures light from the lens.
  • Finally, ISO is the sensor sensitivity; lower values like 100 or so are suitable for when light is abundant and higher values when light is not.

So, intuitively our night mode will have:

  • A wide aperture (low f value).
  • Long exposure time.
  • High ISO

Additionally, the camera won’t manage to auto-focus, so focus should be manual and set to infinity.

The milky way from the John Muir Trail in California

Let’s now look at the dial-in procedure in your parameters; it might take several attempts until you get a crisp photo of the stars.

  • Find a subject to photograph with the sky as the background. This subject could be a mountain, some trees or a person. You can shoot the sky directly, but I found it challenging to get a good composition with the stars alone.
  • Switch to manual focus mode and move it to infinity. Some lenses have a depth indicator. In my lens, you have to turn it to the left all the way, then back up just a bit. Once you have the other parameters dialed, you can fine-tune your focus.
  • With your camera in full manual mode, set your parameters.
    1. F1.8, or 1.4.
    2. Exposure time 10s
    3. ISO 4000
    4. Use raw capture mode.
  • Begin taking pictures and fine-tune. If it’s too bright, consider reducing the ISO first then the exposure time. If it’s too dark, consider increasing the ISO first and then the exposure time.
  • Once the sky looks with the right light, zoom into your photos and check for focus, make micro-adjustments to it until the stars look sharp.
  • Fine-tune your composition.

Some final considerations:

  • The earth rotates (duh), so the longer your exposure time, the more stars will look like lines instead of dots.
  • Higher ISO values come with a sacrifice in image quality. Therefore, you will have to balance your ISO and exposure time to get your desired image.
  • Wind or other factors like your fingers might shake the camera, tricking you into thinking that the camera is out of focus. Take a few pics before refocusing.

That’s it! Night photography is surprising and satisfying. Even though it requires some in-depth technical knowledge about your camera and some specialized equipment, you might be surprised to learn all the things your eyes cannot observe directly. So have fun, and if you have questions, please write them in the comments below.

Three Great Spots for Pastries in Mendoza

Recently I visited my home town Mendoza, Argentina, for a month. During that time, I spent my mornings exploring coffee shops and bakeries. Last week, I wrote about my favorite spots for coffee, now I will talk about pastries.

Medialunas are NOT Croissants

Before I start, I would like to introduce the world to Argentinian medialunas and my fellow Mendocinos to croissants. During my stay in Mendoza, I found that people interchangeably call croissants and medialunas, which is incorrect. Both kinds of pastries are close cousins in the sense that they’re laminated and share a similar shape, but they’re different in three aspects:

  • Croissants have only a hint of sweetness, while medialunas are sweet and glazed with syrup. As a result, croissants taste mostly like bread and butter.
  • Croissants are much larger and airier than medialunas but also feel lighter in weight. By contrast, Medialunas are much smaller and denser.
  • Croissants have a straight shape while medialunas look, as their name suggests, like a half-moon.

Additionally, by asking questions in the restaurants, I found out that they all use the same pastry even if they advertise the two items on the menu. So, where it reads “ham and cheese croissant,” it should be interpreted as “ham and cheese medialuna.” Unfortunately, when I’m writing this blog, the market in Mendoza doesn’t seem to have the maturity to make a distinction between French and Argentinian pastries. Therefore, I will only recommend places where I found excellent and authentic medialunas.

The poorly executed croissant of Brillat Savarin is the only one I found in Mendoza.

It’s worth talking about the evaluation criteria that I used. First, I evaluated the pastries based on three characteristics:

  • In the visual aspect, the pastries ought to look appetizing. Correctly shaped, baked until the crust develops some caramelization and a visible lamination.
  • Execution technique, the pastries ought to be correctly laminated, shaped, leavened, and baked. Additionally, the medialunas need to have a layer of syrupy glaze.
  • Flavor and texture, the pastries ought to be made with quality ingredients, have a balance between sweetness, salt, and butteriness, and their texture should be flaky and airy.

Finally, I tried many places, almost all of which were recommended by my friends from Mendoza, and I will have some remarks about a few that were good but didn’t make it into the top three.

Best Overall, Die Oma

The medialuna at Die Oma shined for its flavor.

This german bakery made the best medialunas I tried in Mendoza. Die Oma made the pastries with delicious butter, and the flavor was extremely balanced. This bakery offered many other sweet treats that looked appealing, but I didn’t have the chance to try them.

Best from a Coffee Shop, Modesto

If you read the previous post, you might realize that Modesto conquered my heart. Modesto is your place when you’re looking for a complete experience where you get specialty coffee and a fantastic pastry. I also tried many other food items, including the yogurt and granola bowl with fruit, and everything tasted great.

Modesto, again in the lead for great places to try in Mendoza.

Best Stuffed, Bonito

Bonito also captivated my heart. I visited the shop about four times and tasted many of their stuffed pastries. I could tell the stuffings were well thought through and gourmet. Even though the medialunas alone wouldn’t stand a chance, they were perfect for stuffing, and Bonito offered sweet and savory options.

The gruyere and spinach/bechamel medialuna was well balanced and paired perfectly with the pastry.

And there’s the rest.

I tried other popular spots like Brod, Fran, La Vene, Shelby, and Brillat Savarin. All of them offered decent pastries but not above average. I will highlight that Brillat Savarin did offer French croissants, but they got lost on being too pretentious and offered low-quality butter, which is a disqualifying factor.

Essenza seemed to have better sweet treats than pastries.

With this, I will close my post. If you know any spots for pastries in Mendoza that you love, please share them with me in the comments section below.

My Three Favorite Places for Coffee in Mendoza

I love coffee. The one thing that makes me happy every single day when I open my eyes is knowing that I’ll drink coffee, and I live in one of the world’s capitals of coffee, Seattle. Recently, I came back to my hometown, Mendoza, Argentina, after many years and tried to explore it with beginner’s eyes to see what I could find. So today’s post will be about coffee.

El Triciclo, a small specialty coffee cart in the middle of “Plaza España,” I took the candid photo using my stalker abilities

I can’t go straight to the point without giving some historical context. Mendoza is the fourth largest city in Argentina. Located next to the Andes bordering Chile, it’s known for its world-class wines. However, its relatively small size also means that its people are more traditional-minded, and you can’t expect new things to permeate that easily.

One of my biggest surprises when I visited this time, in contrast with my last visit before the pandemic, is the availability of ethnic places. You can now find from poke to Indian food, and to my surprise, although not many, specialty coffee shops. So I decided to explore and try as many as possible. Here are my top three, but first, let’s talk about the evaluation criteria.

The sign at the door of Modesto outlines the different drinks and their ratios.

In Mendoza, and, in general, in Argentina, there is a huge coffee culture inherited from our European colonizers. But, like in Paris, there were already gazillions of small places with tables where you can sit and drink a coffee while meeting up with friends or people-watching. So my first challenge was to tell the old from the new. Before deciding to go in, I looked for that coffee-centric “fun” element within the shop itself. Things like a good espresso machine, the smell of freshly ground beans, and pour-over drippers at the barista counters attracted my attention, not to mention the right ambiance.

Next, I looked at the menu; did the restaurant write more detail than just “cafe con leche;” offer plant-based milk alternatives, or know the ratios for various espresso drinks? I pleasantly found that many coffee shops offer this explanation to help their market understand the difference and state: “I know coffee.” Many of these places happened to be also brunch places, which seem to have increased since my last visit.

Finally, I did the taste test. For consistency, I kept ordering my usual favorites, almond milk latte, and, when available, pour-overs. Were the drinks correctly brewed, balanced, and with the right texture and temperatures? Did the shops make my experience pleasant?

With all these questions in mind, I came up with three coffee shops that lived up to the high standards that Seattle got me used to.

Modesto, Overall Favorite

Modesto is a high-end coffee shop that has a few locations. I tried the one on “Emilio Civit” Street. Right by the entrance, they painted a visually-appealing chart with the various espresso ratios. They offer coffee brewed using virtually every brew method, from Espresso to Aeropress and French Press to Chemex. To further help educate their audience, Modesto gives you a choice for the temperatures of your drinks: Hot or Barista. I loved this concept because it raises the bar for every other coffee shop in the area and shows the locals that milk tastes at its best when it doesn’t go beyond a certain temp.

Finally, they didn’t explain their bean selection, but the products were delicious every single time.

My V60 Coffee at Modesto was brewed to perfection.

Fran, Excellent Attention to Detail

Fran also has a few locations. I visited the one on Belgrano Street. Like Modesto, their menu offered a vast range of brewing methods. The first time I went there, I ordered a Chemex coffee, which not many shops even in Seattle dare to offer, and I watched the barista brew it from my table. The process took him five minutes. During it, I watched him boil the water in the gooseneck kettle, prep the scale, and weigh the grounds. Next, I observed him rinse the paper filter carefully and pour over water using the scale to control the flow. The final product was incredibly delicious, and it blew my mind. Their espresso drinks were consistent, well-balanced, and tasty too.

My Chemex at Fran, accompanied with an average-tasting medialuna.

El Triciclo, Surprisingly Fun

El Triciclo is a coffee cart located in the middle of Plaza España; they call themselves specialty coffee. They operate an espresso machine in this tiny three-wheeled cart, alongside a grinder and an electric oven where they bake their tortitas and medialunas. Their menu is simple yet outlines the various ratios for espresso drinks, and their coffee is affordable and delicious. In addition, they play enjoyable music and, to me, is the purest expression of doing something small but well for the love of coffee.

I loved everything about Triciclo, even their self-made to-go cups.

And There’s the Rest

Mendoza has many more options that I tried where I got excellent coffee. But, the three I selected relate closely with me for their apparent love for coffee. Other places where I tried delicious drinks are:

  • Bonito, serves specialty coffee but lacks some alternatives.
  • Shelby, serves specialty coffee but lacks attention to detail.
  • Erudito, serves specialty coffee and you can pick your beans but lacks attention to detail.
  • Mokka, serves specialty coffee but lacks some alternatives.
  • Jockey Club, serves specialty coffee but lacks some alternatives.
  • La Vene, they just do tasty espresso.
  • Bröd, serves specialty coffee but lacks some alternatives and attention to detail.
  • El Pasaje Cafetería, serves specialty coffee but lacks some alternatives.

As you can see, I’ve been busy trying out places!

With this, I conclude my post, and if you’re from Mendoza, I’d love to hear from you what other places for specialty coffee you’d recommend. Just please don’t say Starbucks! I hope you found these tips helpful, and please leave your comments in the section below.