Julie Tibshirani

Backcountry Cooking

Julie cooking on a mountain ridge

Za’atar Couscous

After a long day of backpacking, I love eating a warm, salty, fatty meal. This dish provides all of the above! Couscous is a great choice for backpacking, as it cooks with only boiled water. In this recipe it’s topped with olive oil and za’atar, a common spice mix in Lebanese cuisine.


Before your trip, combine the couscous ingredients into an airtight bag: measure the dried couscous and salt according to the package instructions, and throw in some pine nuts. In a small plastic container, combine the za’atar and olive oil in a 1:2 ratio. (Note: this container must be leak-proof! For a simple option, I recommend a Nalgene 1 or 2 oz bottle).

To prepare the meal on your trip, pour the couscous ingredients into a pot. Boil water using any means that’s convenient (Jetboil, stove, etc.) and pour the water over the couscous. There should be enough water to cover the couscous, plus a thin layer on top. Stir the couscous to ensure the salt and nuts are evenly distributed, then let it sit until all water has been absorbed. To serve, fluff up the couscous, split into bowls, and drizzle the sauce on top.

For a sweeter variation, you can chop some dates or dried figs and add it to the couscous alongside the pine nuts. Medjool dates also pair nicely as a dessert course.

Ryan’s Olive Spread

Olive spread with redwoods in background

This salty, satisfying spread is great for a quick lunch on the trail. Since it only contains olives and nuts, it keeps well without refrigeration and works well on short backpacking trips. It is loosely inspired by tapenade, but omits some pungent ingredients – your hiking buddies will appreciate that you don’t smell like garlic!


Combine olives and nuts together in a food processor and blend until even. For a creamier texture, add some olive oil and blend again. If you don’t want to weigh the nuts and olives, you can just eyeball it and combine them in a 1:2 ratio by volume.

Kalamata olives and pistachios are my favorite pairing, but you can use any olives and nuts that go nicely together, for example green olives with almonds. It’s best to use unsalted nuts, as olives already provide enough salt.