One-Pot Meals on the Rio Grande


Day 1 | As Mercury makes its way out of retrograde, my wife and I launch our canoe into the Rio Grande. Other than fishing, hunting and gardening, I usually don’t put thought into astrological movements. But we need all the help we can get. Over the past week, our vacation plans keep unraveling. The worst mishap being when in route to a more remote section of the river, my truck breaks down on a four-wheel-drive dirt road.

The put-in for Santa Elena section of the Rio Grande. Photo: Kate Wempe

With help from a friend we were able to get everything working again but it forces us to switch our canoe camping trip to the Santa Elena stretch of the Rio Grande, which has easier logistics. This 20-mile section of river starts outside the community of Lajitas, Texas and flows into Big Bend National Park. Although it’s not the deepest of the Rio Grande canyons, Santa Elena has some of the tallest cliff faces, some of which tower 1,500 feet above the river.

After saying goodbye to our shuttle driver, we meander downstream past willow and river cane. Patches of Big Bend Blue Bonnet, a tall lupine, purple and fragrant, and seemingly out of place in this arid country, offer a contrast to the iconic desert bluffs. The river is low this time of year and in some of the shallow shoals, we walk beside our loaded boat to keep from getting stuck. But we maintain a steady pace, knowing we need to cover 11 miles if we want to camp just above the canyon. The sun is starting to set by the time I start cooking, but our first dinner is a one-pot meal that takes half an hour to prep and cook.

The simplicity of this recipe also means it can be adapted to different size groups, a variety of tastes, and dependant upon the availability of ingredients. 


  • 1 Tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 lb of ground beef
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1  15 oz can pork & beans
  • 1 8.75 oz can corn
  • 1 cup Macaroni noodles
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp mustard
  • 2 Tbsp of ketchup
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup cheddar cheese, grated

Pro Tip: Measure all of the ingredients out at home and store in a small container to keep from having to bring extra and save prep-time at camp.

Cut up onion and jalapeño and sauté in oil for a minute or two. Then add the ground beef.

Once it browns, add in the garlic, spices, ketchup, and mustard. Sauté for a few minutes then pour in the tomatoes, beans, corn, water, and dry macaroni. The noodles will cook in the sauce and absorb the access water. Simmer for 10-15 minutes until the macaroni is tender and everything is heated through.

This recipe is scaled down from the version I make at home because I didn’t want to have leftovers on the river. But even with alterations, it’s a big meal for two people. By adding a side item such as slaw or salad, it can be a meal for three. If you need to feed four to five people, you can double the amount of baked beans and tomatoes without diluting the spices or the flavors. You can also make this recipe meat-free and lightweight by substituting the ground beef for TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein), buying vegetarian baked beans, and combining and dehydrating everything except for the meat and pasta on sauce trays.

Day 2 | The next morning, we enter Santa Elena Canyon. A thin fissure of sky separates the rock walls rising above us. The Canyon is so narrow and so vertical, we feel as if its presence swallows us as if with each turn the light could disappear and so could we.

Most of the whitewater on this trip is in an area called Rock Slide, which at low water is more of an obstruction than a rapid. The slots are tight but the current is slow, allowing us to use eddies, back ferries, and even make two-point turns mid-channel to avoid rocks. With a zig here and a zag there, we make it through the Slide and our biggest challenge for the rest of the run is just staying off the rock walls in some of the river’s tighter bends.

Although the Canyon is constricted, campsites are abundant along high grassy benches and expansive gravel bars. It’s just a matter of picking a spot where the landing area is more rock than mud.

Chicken and Herb Quinoa
Dinner for the second night includes quinoa, canned meat and vegetables that can last a few days without refrigeration. For longer trips or lighter weight, you can substitute dehydrated or freeze-dried vegetables.


  • 1 onion, chopped
  • ½ cup shredded carrots
  • 1 small yellow squash, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp parsley
  • 1Tbsp soy sauce (or 2 single-serve packets)
  • 3 5 oz cans chicken in broth
  • 1 1/3 cup water (approximate)
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • ¼  cup sliced almonds
  • ½ cup cheddar cheese, grated

Dice and brown the onions, squash, and carrots in a little olive oil. Once tender, add the garlic and spices and stir for another minute. Then add canned chicken, quinoa, soy sauce, and two cups of combined broth and water. The broth from the canned chicken should be just under a cup. Add water to bring the total amount of liquid to two cups. Bring the pot to boil, then simmer covered for around 15 minutes. Stir in the almonds. Top with cheese and let the dish sit for another five minutes before serving.

Day 3 | The next morning, we stop for a hike up a side canyon then head to the takeout. Along the way we meet people making their way up the Canyon, pulling their canoes and kayaks over rocky shoals and paddling toward us in the pools. The last few miles of Santa Elena are a popular area for day trips because the current is so weak even novice boaters are able to work upstream a couple of miles, then float back to their car.

At the exit of the Canyon, the walls are abrupt and dramatic. We pause to admire our surroundings one more time, thankful that the calamities that hampered our other plans set us up for a nice three days in Santa Elena.