Cooking Old School In The New Year

Souzz and I often spend New Year’s Eve in the backcountry or in a cabin, and we traditionally make risotto (along with some other fancy dish). The standard bearer of New Year’s absurdity was probably the year that we made risotto with lobster in a five burner kitchen while camping in the snow. We didn’t quite reach that level of absurdity this year, but we at least thought about it.

 

Anyway, with cold rain in the 2019 forecast, we decided to head to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Dawson Cabin in Pennsylvania, about two hours drive from our home in Virginia. Dawson is one of the lesser visited cabins in the PATC system, maybe because the hike to the cabin is straight uphill. But the hike is short, and Dawson is a hidden gem that is worth the visit. The cabin is well appointed and very well maintained, and it has southern exposure and a beautiful view.

For our planned risotto and filet mignon feast, we hauled in a lot of cookware, as well as a five pound canister of propane and a two-burner camp stove. Utility wagons are a great tool for getting bulky gear into walk-in PATC cabins—but dragging them uphill through the mud and over tree roots in the rain might be an acquired taste.

When we reached the cabin, we discovered that there was a problem with the regulator on the camp stove, so the stove and propane were basically flammable barbells. The issue was clearly beyond what I could field-repair, and fiddling with high-pressure gas connections is exciting in any circumstance–but especially so in a remote wood-framed structure. I’m also kind of fond of my eyebrows.

As a consolation, at least we had some good appetizers.

With appetizers gone and still five hours to New Year’s, we had a new twist: how to make risotto without a modern camp stove. But there was a perfectly serviceable wood stove sitting right at our feet, so how hard could this be?

Tending a wood stove is always important in a PATC cabin in winter, although the goal is usually just heating the place. But now we had to figure out a way to keep the heat somewhat constant.

Ok, so I get that wood stoves have been around for generations, and my friends in bush Alaska are probably rolling their eyes by now (well, at least Ruby is…but in my defense, I don’t remember seeing a lot of risotto on “Life Below Zero“).

It took a little fiddling to maintain the level of heat on the cooktop, and there were times when we had to cool things off by lifting the pan onto a hastily made wire trivet (using a piece from a broken dartboard that we found in the cabin).

But we figured it out, and the risotto was quite good. And the keys to good risotto are the same whether on a modern range or on a wood stove: using homemade stock (way less salty), heating the stock quite a bit before adding, and cooking the risotto at high heat (ideally enough heat to finish the job in less than 20 minutes). With too little heat, things take a long time and the risotto gets sticky.

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We paired the risotto with filet mignon, which we grilled over wood fire coals. And note Souzz’s thumb print in the steak. I guess that’s how real chefs figure out if it’s done.

Lastly, our stove challenge gave us the chance to puzzle over why we go to primitive cabins and then haul in hundreds of pounds of fancy gear. That seems about as logical as getting the turbo option when you buy a Ford Fiesta. So maybe simplifying things should be our New Year’s Resolution? Well, that and preserving my eyebrows.

A Recipe To Remember

Back in 2005, we had the opportunity to travel to Italy with my parents and sister and brother-in-law on a pleasure trip that was also a mission of sorts. We went in part to visit Tuscany, but our primary purpose was to visit the site of a World War II memorial near the northern Italian city of Mantova.

In October of 1944, four aviators from my dad’s unit, the 319th Bomb Group, were lost on a mission to take out a rail bridge in Mantova. Two of those lost, Don Treadwell and Joe Prebil, were close friends of my dad, who was a pilot in another B26 bomber on that mission. My dad was able to return to his base in Corsica that day, but that mission clearly was a defining moment in his life.

The idea of our 2005 trip started when I learned about the memorial that the village of Redondesco had recently built to the four lost aviators. I’d learned about it by chance through my brother-in-law—a history professor fluent in Italian who had read about it in the Mantova newspaper. I was only half-serious when I announced later at a family gathering that I was going to visit. My dad surprised me when he immediately asked “can I come with you?”

A few months later, my parents, Souzz, me, my sister and her husband headed off to northern Italy on a trip that we’d never even imagined. We set things up entirely through email using web-based language translation programs (I think this internet fad might be here to stay).

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Once in Mantova, we were met by the Mayor of Redondesco along with a very knowledgeable Mantova historian and a volunteer translator from Redondesco. The three of them proceeded to take us on a guided tour of targets and crash sites, a tour that was simply amazing.

During our tour, we met a local farmer that witnessed the 1944 crash as a young boy, and he shared his emotional story as if it had happened yesterday. Later we were joined at the memorial by a huge group from the village of Redondesco—a group that waited for us for quite some time, undeterred by steady rain. We then closed our visit with a remarkable meal at the Mayor’s family farmhouse.

Calling our experience at the farmhouse a “meal” understates things quite a bit, as it was more like a commemoration and a celebration of friendship–and it was also the most amazing cultural experience that I’ve ever had. Lunch lasted five full hours, and there were seven courses, all hand-prepared over the previous two full days. Wave after wave of food came out while gregarious townspeople chatted away in Italian. Several times, our new friends did their best (in English) to thank my dad and the US for helping to bring Italy its freedom in World War II (and “their best” was pretty great, just perfect).

At the center of the meal was a regional favorite called tortelli di zucca, a pumpkin-stuffed pasta that is a Mantova specialty.

After we returned home to Virginia, our new friend Ivano (our translator on the trip, one of several new friends with whom we are still in touch, some 14 years later) generously shared his tortelli recipe. Since then, tortelli has become one of our favorite dishes. We’ve made it twice in just the last few months, and it’s always a crowd pleaser. And perhaps best of all, it is both a meal and a story.

 

Like any food experience, the memories of our meal in Redondesco are shaped by the context―the people, the situation and the emotions involved. Lunch that day in 2005 offered us a chance to connect with people from another country and to acknowledge a sacrifice that should never be forgotten—and we had the opportunity to share that experience with my parents and my sister and brother-in-law, pretty special.

And through my dad’s stories, our trip also offered a glimpse into what our troops did for us in 1944–and what they continue to do for us today.

Each time we make tortelli di zucca, we raise a glass to Don and Joe, and to all of the others that never made it home. As I’ve learned time and again, food can be a meal, an experience, a memory, a connector, or even a tribute. Sometimes it’s all five.