Willow in the Kitchen

At dinner on Friday night at our favorite local Arlington restaurant, Willow, we got an unexpected menu idea while raving over our appetizer. Tracy O’Grady, Willow’s Executive Chef and co-owner, is an inspiration both inside and outside of the kitchen, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we were motivated to try to take a little slice of Willow outdoors. Suzy’s cousin Maureen gets credit for the idea, even going so far as to point out what gadgets we’d need to bring along to make it happen (Mo, we saved you leftovers).

So yesterday morning we loaded up the car and headed for the hills of West Virginia–to a favorite little spot up Waite’s Run near Wardensville–with our full kitchen kit and hundreds of pounds of ultralight gear.

Should I be worried that Souzz is reading about a moving sale?

After setting up a simple camp, we started working on our streamside feast.  We kicked things off with Tracy’s inspiration: penne pasta, home-made pesto, scallops, prosciutto, cream, parmesan cheese, and bread crumbs baked briefly (10 minutes?) in a fry-bake and then browned with a hand held torch. I can’t remember what Tracy calls her dish, but we called it fabulous…even if it wasn’t quite up to Tracy’s high standards.

Next time we won’t freeze the scallops ahead of time, as we had a bit of water build up that kept them from browning. Perhaps it’s easier in a commercial kitchen…or maybe extraordinarily talented professional chefs know things that we don’t?  But the dish still came out nicely, and the torch was a big key. We aren’t sure if we could pull this off in the backcountry, but we are going to try it on our next backpack.

We followed up the appetizer with Suzy’s trademark, Potato Gratin a al Savoyarde, which is a fry-bake dish consisting of thin-sliced potatoes, chicken broth, gruyere cheese, carmelized onions, and rosemary. Another key gadget to have along is a mandolin, which helped in evenly slicing the potatoes as well as the onions. It’s not very practical for the backcountry, and harder to play than a ukulele, but it’s easy enough to bring along at a roadside camp.

One thing that helps with fry-bake cooking when the ground is cold is to use a cookie sheet under the pan–which is more low impact, as well. For the potato dish, we put 7 coals on the bottom and 10 on the top and baked it for an hour. To time things out, you can just taste it periodically, as Souzz does, or you can geek out with an oven temperature guide (and suggested number of coals) by clicking here.

Lastly, the Pièce de résistance was rack of lamb–and now you know the only expression that I know in French. We seasoned it with olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic, and rosemary, grilled the rack over charcoal for ten minutes or so, and then put it in a frybake with a few coals on top to finish the job. It came out perfectly medium rare, although that was more luck than plan.

If we were to repeat this, we’d have cooked the lamb in the fry-bake start to finish, and I would have practiced more French ahead of the trip.


Mussel Beach

This past weekend we took a little overnight sea kayak camping trip out at Assateague National Seashore. Gusty winds to 25 mph took a little wind out of our sails, but it was perfect prep for a trip further afield that we are planning later this summer—and we’d do it again in a heartbeat. Assateague is bug-free and beautiful this time of year, with wild horses cruising through camp at full gallop (no kidding) and a sunset that seems to last a full hour.


Sunset from Tingle Island

We are new to sea kayaking, but we learned a lot on our maiden voyage. For further practice for our summer trip, we cooked pretty light, but we happened into a lovely surprise appetizer. As the tide went out on the bay side, we did, too, and we discovered that the shoreline was teeming with mussels—just what our team needed, and an unexpected windfall.

When the backcountry kitchen isn’t about planning, it’s about ingenuity. With that in mind, sand substituted for a cleaning brush, a nesting pot substituted for a steamer, and red wine filled in for white wine.  In the end, the mussels came out perfectly. Prep was easy, and a big key was soaking them IMGA0046in fresh water for about 20 minutes to allow them to breathe out built-up sand. We also had to “de-beard” a few of them–a new term for me that triggered an endless stream of bad puns, but a task that was easily done by hand. It was twenty minutes from ocean to table, and it was a delightful little warm-up to our unremarkable boil-in-bag dinners.

While mussels were the only delicacy of the weekend, we did experiment a bit on Sunday morning with a new breakfast dish made with dehydrated hash browns and “no refrigerate” bacon that we named Old Bayside Quiche, inspired by the Old Bay IMGA0079seasoning that we sprinkled liberally while cooking.  Mixing up fresh eggs ahead of time at home and then freezing them in a ziplock bag was just the trick. While not exactly a new concept, the egg mixture works well and the resulting baggie is way less bulky than those plastic egg carrier thingies. It does make you look weird(er) when you do the prep before a dinner party at a friend’s house in Annapolis the night before—but at least I shaved beforehand, which is more than I can say about those mussels.