Awesome Sauce

So what’s a camping trip without a mole? And by mole, I mean the pepper-based sauce from Mexico (pronounced mo-lay) and not the burrowing critter with beady eyes. Mole tastes amazing over fish, chicken, or basically any kind of meat (except over mole meat, which is disgusting).

Mole is an ancient Spanish word that loosely translates to “mix.” The recipe has its roots in the Mexican town of Oaxaca, about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City. Popular legend has it that nuns were rushing to prepare for a visit from the archbishop and they just made up a sauce out of what they had on hand.

Souzz visited Oaxaca last month on a business trip, and she managed to squeeze in a mole-making class during her visit (I guess the margarita-chugging class was fully booked).

Souzz raved about her class (and her trip) when she got home. So when we started planning a menu for a backpacking trip with our good friends Lou and Kay, mole-making became an obvious choice (with margarita chugging as a backup). Our destination was Racer Camp Hollow, a favorite of ours in the Blue Ridge mountains near Wardensville, West Virginia.

We made a mole verde that used tomatillos, which are smallish green Mexican tomatoes. Our mole recipe also used pumpkin seeds, jalapenos, onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a little bit of chicken stock.

The whole trick to backcountry mole–besides a penchant for cooking the absurd–is to carry a hand-crank food processor. Our new little toy worked out great, and it weighed less than a pound.

It turns out there are actually several makes and models of hand-crank food processors, which had me wondering how many lunatic foodie backpackers there could possibly be? Or maybe people want to cook fancy during power outages? But mostly I wondered if this thing could be used to make margaritas.

The absurdity of our meal planning came into sharper focus when we decided to include fresh doughnuts for breakfast. We always use a paper bag to shake and coat the doughnuts, which naturally prompted a text exchange ahead of the trip about cow pies.

In any case, dinner was delightful, and we served the mole over rice and some fresh grouper that we had hand-carried from Florida a few weeks back. We followed the main course with Kay’s apple tart for dessert, which made for a pretty decadent backcountry meal.

Camping with Lou and Kay is a lot of fun under any circumstance, but in particular when you team up for a five star meal at a five star campsite. It’s great to be with folks that know both the outdoors and food…and it’s a total bonus when they also know Heather Locklear trivia (don’t ask).

 

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Holes on the Menu

As we planned our menu for an upcoming backpacking trip, Souzz reminded me that she “basically grew up on doughnuts”—which was a shocking revelation coming from somebody so fit. Apparently her hometown of Buffalo has a long (or round?) doughnut heritage–with Freddie’s, Paula’s, Tim Horton’s, and Zen’s (her family favorite as a kid).  Doughnuts were (and are) such a part of the Buffalo scene that hometown hockey hero Jim Schoenfeld once famously screamed at one of the lesser fit NHL referees to “have another doughnut!”

The weekend’s destination was a quick overnight to Kepler Overlook, in the Blue Ridge near Van Buren Furnace. Our good friend KB joined us for the first day.

The hike started out along Cedar Creek before finishing on a long ridge, covering about five miles and 1000 feet of elevation. There were several great campsites up high, as well as a nice “improved” site on Cedar Creek with benches and a huge fire pit. We headed to one of the sites on the ridge, bringing a gallon and a half of water along with a bunch of good food (winter camping, even on a warmer weekend, should always be about food).

It was too bad KB couldn’t stick around for the evening, because dinner at our camp overlooking the Shenandoah Valley was fabulous. We started with an appetizer of local ham, smoked trout, and cheese, and then followed with beef tenderloin, gnocchi with tomatoes and garlic, red wine, and frybake chocolate chip cookies. We don’t lose weight on these trips.

The day’s mild temps eventually dipped into the high 30s, and then morning dawned warm and sunny….perfect doughnut weather, right? We learned soon enough that backcountry doughnuts really are pretty easy. We’d made the dough ahead of time using a Betty Crocker recipe, and we didn’t really need a lot of extra stuff on the trail–just an instant-read thermometer, a pair of tongs, vegetable oil, and cake doughnut toppings (chocolate, cinnamon, and powdered sugar).

While the oil was coming to temperature on our cook stove, we rolled out the dough and cut it into shape using the top of a Nalgene bottle and a cap from a Diet Coke. Then we dropped the dough into 375-degree oil for about two minutes a side. From there it was a quick dunk into the topping of choice and it was time for our Zens-like moment(s).

With several miles of walking ahead of us after breakfast, it was pretty easy to justify a doughnut. There was less of a case for the next four.

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Looking for Sasquatch

The east coast has some fun destinations, including Great North Mountain, which forms the border between Virginia and West Virginia for about 50 miles. Much of the mountain is above 3000 feet, so the views across neighboring valleys are among the best around. The area also has a well-developed trail system, including a few summits that offer 360-degree views (ok, so I guess you can actually see in multiple directions from any place).

This weekend’s trip was to Sugar Knob Cabin, which was built in 1920 as a shelter for rangers patrolling the George Washington National Forest. Nowadays the cabin is managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and is rented out to backpackers willing to make the six mile (round trip) trek.

I have backpacked past this modest 10 foot square stone structure many times, dating back to the mid-1980s, and have always been curious about it. I was invited inside once by a few new friends on a rainy day, but I had never stayed there–until this past weekend.

Souzz and I arrived at the trailhead on Forest Service Road 92 on Saturday morning, heavy on food but light on everything else. We carried just a small butane stove, a first aid kit, headtorches, a small lantern, a water filter, a few extra clothes…and the frybake, which I carry with me at all times (in case somebody needs an emergency casserole). As for water, there’s a spring not far from the cabin, and we’d been told that the cabin was stocked with pots, pans, utensils, axes, a wood stove, and pretty much anything else we were likely to need.

The hike in was steady uphill (1500 feet of elevation gain), but not too steep. Little Stony Creek runs right along much of the trail, and there were some nice views as we got closer to the ridge. The hike seemed longer than three miles, suggesting that the map is wrong…or perhaps suggesting that most hikers don’t carry a 6-pack, a bag of charcoal, a mini-cooler, and a four course meal.

The area has a deep history, including a moonshine operation in the 1930s, a tragedy in the 1950s (sadly, a scout leader got lost near here in in a winter storm), a lot of bear sightings, and even a pretty recent Bigfoot sighting.

As for Bigfoot, a hiker wrote that his group was staying in Sugar Knob Cabin and saw “a dark, very hairy large face looking at us about a foot outside the window.” Hmm…that sounds suspiciously like just about everybody I’ve ever hiked with (except Souzz).

With no Bigfoot sightings to amuse us, we were left to enjoy this fabulous spot. Sugar Knob Cabin is cozy and quaint, and one could almost feel the history of the place. Looking around inside at the stonework and the wood stove, I wondered what those walls would say if they could talk (perhaps something like “man, Souzz’s husband is a total blowhard.”)

As for dinner, we started with cheese and salami, then moved on to steamed mussels and fresh-baked bread (from the frybake). The mussels appetizer was pre-cooked with tomato and garlic sauce by a company called Bantry Bay. We highly recommend this dish–but I suppose there is a carbon impact when one eats mussels from Chile sold by an Irish company while hiking in the Blue Ridge. All told, it did feel like a big foot print (so to speak).

We followed the mussels with filet mignon, mashed fingerling potatoes, and green beans with mushrooms. It was great to eat next to the fire, and the weather was perfect.

After dinner, we enjoyed the fire, made “break and bake” cookies in the frybake, and marveled at the beautiful starry night sky.

As we soaked in the sounds of crickets and tree frogs, all was well in our world–until Souzz was startled by a huge, smelly, hairy creature tromping around near the cabin.

I was just getting some more wood.

An Odyssey In Homer

Souzz and I were just at a wedding in Homer, Alaska, a few hundred miles south of Anchorage. Traveling to Homer from Virginia is a bit of an odyssey—9 hours in the air, a few airport layovers, and then a five hour drive…so of course we tacked on a little adventure to our trip.

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But first, the wedding was…um, fabulous! It was an outdoor celebration for great friends at a venue that overlooked Katchemak Bay–with glacier views, whales swimming by, a surprise visit from a guy on horseback, and an after-party with a big bonfire on the beach. Granted, we’re from “Outside,” as Alaskans say about folks from the lower 48, but it felt like a very Alaskan event to us.

After the wedding, we (along with a lot of gear and food) took a water taxi ride to Tutka Bay, just across from the Homer Spit. We headed to a yurt that was our home for the next few days. There are a bunch of yurts in Katchemak Bay State Park that can be rented through Alaskan Yurt Rentals; all are well maintained by Alison and the fabulous folks at True North Kayak Adventures. Ours was very secluded, up on a cliff about 30 feet above the bay.

If you aren’t familiar with yurts, the are sort of a cross between a tent and a cabin. Yurts are somewhat portable and offer a lot of space, as well as storm-proof shelter. They originated in central Asia and have been around at least 3,000 years.

Our yurt thankfully was a little newer than that, and it offered a propane stove for cooking, a wood stove for heat, bunks, and a lot of flat space for cooking. Best of all, its location on Tutka Bay also offered us the chance to kayak around watching humpback whales, sea otters, bald eagles, loons, and one (very surprised) black bear.

As for our meals, we of course shopped ahead of the time, including a stop at a terrific local seafood market called Cole Point Seafood Company. Over the course of the next few days, we enjoyed steamed mussels, halibut fish tacos, king salmon, and fresh shrimp with garlic and lime. We also made a Julia Child favorite called potato gratin a al savoyard.

For dessert, we took advantage of the ample space and made a key lime pie, tapping into some advice that we got from Chef Scott Fausz, the pastry chef at nearby Alyeska. He gave us a bunch of tips, including recommending that we use meringue powder instead of egg whites (due to the high humidity).

Based on a sample size of one, we agree about the meringue powder. Our pie came out excellent, and the meringue had soft peaks despite the rainy weather. To bake the pie, we used a frybake with 12 coals on top and 6 on the bottom for 30 minutes, and we made the meringue with a hand-crank mixer (16 minutes of cranking!).

Looking back, our first yurt experience was pretty awesome. We saw a ton of wildlife, we went tidepooling, and we just generally forgot about the city life. The days went by too fast–and it was easy to see the allure of the lifestyle in and around the bay, where everything revolves around the water.

With our adventure complete, we headed back to Homer by water taxi and found our way to another cabin in Halibut Cove Lagoon (but that’s another story for another blog). The only thing missing from our Homer odyssey was hearing the sirens sing, but maybe that comes later?

Happy Campers

This past weekend I had the chance to go on an adventure with a friend that I’ve known since the 1960s. Tim and I share a hometown and a lot of interests–including a passion for the outdoors–and we’ve been tied together for a long time (sometimes literally, on technical climbing trips). Tim also happens to be my brother.

This was to be the first-ever backpacking trip for Tim’s sons Sebastian and Tristan, so it seemed important to pick a good place! We chose one of our favorites, the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, about three hours to the west by car.

The Sods are one of our favorite places for a bunch of reasons. There’s a great trail system, nice cool weather (even in summer), and the high elevation (4000′) translates to flora and fauna that are more typical of Quebec. It is the southern-most range of a lot of interesting plants, and the winds up high are so constant that many of the spruce trees are three-sided.

The human history of the Sods is interesting, too, as the region was named after a German immigrant (Johann Dahle) that used the area for grazing cattle in the mid-1800s. At some point, the spelling of the region was changed to the now familiar Dolly, and in 1975 the area was designated as Wilderness.

Some years back, we had the chance to meet one of the original Dolly descendants, known to the locals simply as “Mister Dolly.” We wanted to cross his property with our kayaks to access the river, so we walked up Dollytown Road (really) and knocked on his door to ask permission. He answered right away and talked with a thick accent and a rapid fire cadence that made him hard to follow (but made it easy for my friend KB to imitate him afterwards).

As we chatted, we noticed that Mister Dolly was calling city folk like us “smarties,” and we wondered where the conversation was headed. But in the end he charged us a dollar a boat and tucked the bills into his shirt pocket in a way that made it seem like he’d done that before. It was a pretty good deal considering that we got river access and a story, all for $4. We enjoyed meeting him…and he seemed to enjoy meeting us.

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That’s me and Souzz to the left with a few smartie friends. Guess which one is Mister Dolly?

Smarties or not, the Dolly Sods are a pretty smart destination. We started out from Red Creek Campground under cloudy skies but generally great weather. Sebastian and Tristan did more than their part, carrying packs that included their gear as well as a Nerf football. Tim and I shouldered the rest—including a generous kitchen and a rain tarp (in case the skies ended up “watering the family tree,” so to speak).

The trail was wet and muddy, but that didn’t dampen anybody’s spirits–and might even have lifted a few, as the boys enjoyed the challenge of keeping dry feet. The hike was fairly straightforward and the terrain and scenery were interesting, including blooming mountain laurel. We also saw a deer and jumped a wild turkey, so we had a pretty good sampling of the flora and fauna.

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At some point, the boys decided to “gamify” the hike and rock-hopped most of the way. I have no idea who won–but when we got to camp, they immediately started throwing the Nerf ball, played baseball using hiking poles as bats, and swimming in the creek. There was no shortage of energy in this crowd (or at least half of it).

The trip really wasn’t about the food…but what backpacking trip isn’t at least a little about food? With this being a short hike, just four miles or so, we’d brought along homemade beef jerky, antipasto, homemade Buffalo wings, and the makings for two fry-bake pizzas.

The boys jumped right into prep, which was a great help! For the pizzas, we used store-bought fresh dough and sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, and a bit of fresh basil. For the baking itself, we used 6 charcoals on the bottom, 12 on top, and the baking took about 50 minutes (which gave us time to devour the wings, which we heated in a frybake).

After dinner, we started a fire and then we turned attention to dessert. The center of attention was a treat that dates to the 1920s that was originally called a graham cracker sandwich. Now it is commonly called a s’more—two graham crackers, chocolate, and a roasted marshmallow. No matter how old I get, s’mores are still a ride right back to childhood, when my campfire limit was about a dozen. As an adult, just one bite had me searching for a glucometer (a new vocabulary word inspired by the trip).

What I’d forgotten about s’mores is just how social an experience that they are. For starters, there’s the need to search for and then carve the perfect roasting stick, with plenty of consultations along the way. That’s followed by a lot of discussion about the best area of coals for roasting, and then a lot of riffing on anyone that drops a marshmallow into the fire. The whole process is a Sociology Masters Thesis waiting to be written (providing one has access to a good ultralight glucometer and doesn’t mind that nobody reads their thesis).

After enjoying a handful of s’mores, my nephews told us that the only thing that they loved more than s’mores was ice cream. Of course, we knew that going into the trip, so there was another surprise in store. Through the wonders of dry ice, two pints of (very frozen) ice cream made their appearance, along with grishgroom (homemade chocolate sauce). At that point, the night became one long sugar coma. And isn’t that what a backpacking trip should be with your dad and your uncle?

 

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Tristan, Tim, and Sebastian, ready to head homeward

Blue Ridge Geschnetzeltes

Our friend Reto stopped through Virginia this weekend on his way back to his native Switzerland. As his home country boasts some amazing scenery, we were a bit surprised that he was interested in visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains during his stay. That was fine by us, though, and we had a nice little chalet in mind just a few hours to the west.

The word chalet was coined by the Swiss in the late 1700s, and it referred to the mountain huts of cattle herders. Traditionally, herders would bring dairy cattle up from the Swiss lowlands to graze during the summer months, and they would often make butter and cheese during their stays. Nowadays the word has been co-opted and chalet can pretty much mean any vacation house anywhere, maybe even a PATC cabin.

Our chalet of choice was Tulip Tree near Luray, a chalet with no power or water–probably a lot like some of the early chalets in Reto’s home country (but without the cows and fresh dairy). Tulip Tree is located in a valley just below Shenandoah National Park and is ordinarily easily accessible by a small dirt road. But it had snowed 2 feet last week, so there wasn’t anything ordinary about that road. We parked at the nearby Morning Star Lutheran Church (asking permission first) and backpacked our way in the last mile and a half.

The weekend’s fare was decidedly Swiss-American, with dishes like Sante Fe chili and buffalo wings bookended by a braided Swiss bread called zopf, cheesecake, and the centerpiece of the meal, Zürcher Geschnetzeltes. The latter is a cream sauce with beef and mushrooms served over Spätzle. Not only did we learn how to cook a few new dishes, we learned how to mispronounce a few new words, too.

For the zopf, Reto had carried a bag of flour all the way from Switzerland, so the pressure was on. It was a bit tricky to make, but Reto schooled us on the finer points and we stacked two frybakes top-to-top to create an oven. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a herder.

For the next two days we snowshoed around, we gathered wood, we cooked, we swapped stories, and we enjoyed being out of cell phone range. While the Blue Ridge is clearly not the Alps, Reto did share how difficult it was to find areas in Switzerland without cell access. It’s easy to forget how big a geography we have in this country, as Virginia is actually more than twice the size of Switzerland.

Of course, Switzerland has a few other things going for it, like mountains that soar to 15,000 feet, beautiful mountain chalets with stunning views (and power and water), and friendly folks like Reto. At least that’s what I herd.

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Buddy, Can You Spare A Rib?

Virginia is bracing for record-breaking snowstorms tomorrow, but I’m still basking in the glow of a fun backpacking trip last weekend with my friend KB. We went to Brown’s Hollow, near New Market, Virginia, and we had a fabulous hike. We also cooked up a storm, and once again our frybake dutch oven came in very handy. Past frybake meals have included lasagna, cheesecake, enchiladas, even Baked Alaska, but we’ve never deep-fried anything–until this weekend.

Barbecued ribs have always been a favorite dish, but a dish that typically takes hours–which is completely impractical in the backcountry. But deep-frying offered a shortcut, so we decided to give it a try. To make it happen, we brought along a rack of pork ribs (of course), two cups of peanut oil, and some extra stove fuel. We used a recipe for beef ribs that we adapted a bit, and in true Eiger Sanction tradition I was smart enough to get KB to carry the ribs.

Brown’s Hollow is a great hike along a beautiful stream, complete with cascades and beautiful views as well as some interesting rock formations. And, like much of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, it offers both geological as well as human history.

The hollow was named after the family of former Old Rag postmaster William Brown, whose ancestors lived in the valley through the 1800s. Life could be a challenge in those days, but much of the recorded history is decidedly upbeat. One of William Brown’s descendants shared that his family “may have been poor people, but compare them to the people in the soup lines in the Depression. They grew everything they needed, except coffee and sugar.” Food for thought.

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William Brown

After a really nice hike on a well marked trail, we dropped our packs, set up camp, and headed up to the saddle of Brown’s Mountain. Once back at camp, dinner started in earnest with bacon-wrapped stuffed dates (hey, why not?) and then we baked some cornbread (also in a frybake, of course).

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While the cornbread was baking, we heated the peanut oil to 350 Fahrenheit (our MSR Dragonfly stove was a key, as was a small instant-read thermometer) and got busy with the ribs.

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Chef José Andrés

It was tricky to maintain the temperature of the oil on such a cold night, but in the end it worked out just fine. In addition to the cornbread, we cooked up some beans, and we topped things off with some Crown Royal and Swiss chocolate. Celebrity chefs like José Andrés couldn’t have done it better (ok, so actually José could’ve done better. Much better. But let’s see him hike.). 

Brown’s Hollow was a new destination and fried ribs was a new recipe, but both proved to be good choices. We also enjoyed the chilly weather, with lows in the 20s and a dusting of snow. The cold seemed like an invitation to shamelessly consume a lot of calories, a task that we took very seriously.

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Adventures with KB, a great friend for nearly 30 years, are always fun. We had a nice hike, we stayed warm enough, we shared a lot of laughs, and we ate well. Sure, our pants are fitting a little tighter, but isn’t that the point? (ok, don’t answer that).

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Grishgroom

Another weekend, another PATC cabin visit–or so it seems. And while that may look like a pattern of sorts, it’s really not—as each of the PATC cabins are so incredibly different. This weekend’s destination is Olive Green Cabin in Cunningham Falls State Park near Thurmont, Maryland.

DSC_0752Olive Green cabin is named after its last resident, Olive Green (duh!), whose father built the cabin in 1871. There is a ton of history here, with a rusted old car and a bunch of stone fence lines that hint at stories of days gone by. Olive lived in this simple two story 15×15 structure until 1986, when she was 83 years old. She raised eight kids here, despite no sink, no counters, no power, no water–and not much insulation, as I soon learned.

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As for the present day, the cabin is very well maintained and much appreciated by its visitors. Its guest book is also full of references to strange noises in the dark of night, which most of the prior guests credit to Olive and say that they find comforting. With Souzz out of town, I am flying solo tonight, so I’m not interested in a lot of company.

DSC_0763In any case, there are a lot of reminders around the cabin about Olive, including notes from relatives that still visit regularly. Olive sounds like she was an amazing woman, and she was apparently a gracious host that always fed her guests with a home cooked meal. I hope she’d be pleased with my menu: antipasta, spaghetti and meatballs, brownies, and grishgroom.

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Aaah, so what is grishgroom, you might ask?

So here’s the backstory. When I was a kid in Rapid City, South Dakota, my tv trayenterprising older sister and my two older brothers had a favorite dessert: ice cream with chocolate sauce. It was generally served in a bowl on a TV tray while watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Mannix on a Zenith black and white TV that took about two minutes to warm up. The chocolate sauce recipe was one that my mom basically made up (marshmallows, chocolate chips, evaporated milk, and a dab of peanut butter).

As older siblings sometimes do, my sister and my brothers convinced me that this dessert wasn’t called “ice cream with chocolate sauce” but instead was called “grishgroom,” and that word then entered my ever-expanding vocabulary. My sister told me later that she just made it up  (shocking, I know).

1968 Rapid City Arroyo Drive  before church 1      That’s me in the stylish shorts, thinking about grishgroom, no doubt.

 

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Me and my sister, perhaps as she sells me on another lark…

Some time later, we were enjoying a rare dinner out as a family, and my sister and brothers made a recommendation for my dessert order as they pointed to a menu that I couldn’t yet read. To this day, I’m not sure what is more memorable: my parents’ confused stares, the blank expression of the waitress, or the belly-laughing convulsions of my siblings. If the fist bump had been invented by then, I’m pretty sure that my sister and brothers would have had to ice their hands on the way home.

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DSC_8240Last year over the holidays, I shared the story of grishgroom with my nieces on Souzz’s side of the family. As you might expect, they enjoy any story that makes their uncle look like a dork (time is of course the limiting factor here). Armed with their new vocabulary, they marched into the living room and announced to their parents that they were going to serve themselves up some grishgroom. That led to a few confused nods from the adults, and then the nieces returned with giant bowls of ice cream–not exactly what a parent wants to happen after dessert at 10:30 pm on Christmas Eve.

It’s fair to say that my in-laws weren’t as amused as my siblings about grishgroom. Somewhere out there is a retired waitress nodding in agreement.

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 My sister still has the original grishgroom bowl (but thankfully, no sign of the tv trays).

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fish

As with all things around outdoor cooking, there are several different ways–and even a few different reasons–to smoke fish. And the number of techniques and recipes is simply overwhelming, sort of like choosing which Kardashian to take to a cook-out. Anyway, I digress.

While smoked fish is quite flavorful, it has another benefit in that it can extend storage time without refrigeration. In rural Alaska, for example, slow smoking is used to prepare fish for canning–with the canned fish then “put up” for the winter. Canning is often a late summer activity that is done with large quantities of salmon harvested with a fish wheel.

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Closer to home, we are headed to northern Maine next week–to the rocky coast, where we are more likely to tie into mackerel than salmon (besides, fish wheels are hard to pack). We’ll be on a sea kayaking trip, so there won’t be room for a bulky smoker…but we thought we might be able to effectively turn our lightweight dutch oven fry-bake into a smoker.

We decided to test it out at home, and it ended up being pretty simple. All we had to do was put some mesquite flavoring chips into the bottom of the fry-bake and then cover the fry-bake with a tin foil “platform” for the fish.

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We salted the filets (we used tilapia for our test run) and let them sit for 5-10 minutes, then rinsed off the salt, put the fish on the tin foil platform (with a few holes poked in it), covered it, and put the fry-bake in charcoal (a low fire will work, too). It didn’t take long for the chips to start pouring out thick white smoke. Ten billowing minutes later, we had some very tender smoked fish (and a concerned neighbor with a fire extinguisher).

For our Maine trip, we’ll just need to pack along a few mesquite chips, and then hope that the mackerel cooperate. Alternatively, maybe we can make a fish wheel out of a fry-bake?

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Cookin’ Cousins

This weekend we did a quick overnight trip to Humphrey Cabin, a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club property near Elkton, Virginia. Souzz’s cousin Maureen joined us, as well. Mo and Souzz were born just days apart, grew up as besties, and are frequent partners in crime to this day. Add in Mo’s high energy and wacky sense of humor and you have a recipe for a fun weekend!

Since I am temporarily hobbled by an ankle injury, I offered to serve as a shuttle driver for their day hike on Saturday afternoon. So Ithumb_DSC_0004_1024 dropped the cousins off at the Hazeltop Ridge Overlook at 3,265 feet on Skyline Drive, at the start of the Powell Mountain Trail. The plan was to circle around and pick them up at the base of the mountain (elevation 1400) after a 3.5 mile mostly downhill hike that ends near the cabin.

Despite intermittent rain, Souzz and Mo had a nice hike, saw a lot of wildflowers (trillium dots?), and happened upon an eastern box turtle. I met them at the lower Powell Mountain trail head on Jollett Road, and from there it was a quick drive to the cabin.

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thumb_DSC_0149_1024Humphrey Cabin (formerly Weaver Cabin) is named after Robert Humphrey, a volunteer who has built and renovated countless cabins in the PATC system over the years. It is a unique two-story structure of tongue and groove logs that dates to 1800. There’s electricity and spring water, a modest kitchen, lots of sleeping space, a horseshoe pit, and even a small ping pong table upstairs. There is also a nice covered porch with a spring-fed sink.

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For dinner, we tried a new (to us) recipe called coulibiac–a traditionagourmet-cookbook2l Russian dish featuring salmon, rice, mushrooms, onions, hard boiled eggs, parsley, and dill, all wrapped in a pastry shell. The recipe dates back to before 1900, and it first gained attention outside of Russia when it was included in the famed French cookbook Le Guide Culinare in 1903. There are many variations; we used a recipe from The Gourmet Cookbook, one of our favorites.

As expected, making coulibiac was an ambitious project, nearly four hours from concept to plate–but well worth the effort. To help things along, we brought a propane stove, some pots, mixing bowls, cutting boards, a good knife, measuring cups/spoons, and an instant read thermometer (for working with the yeast).

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Apps before dinner

Without question, Souzz and Mo were the brains of the operation–but it took all three of us to pull this off. We did all of the prep under a lantern on the porch while sipping wine and nibbling on cheese, crackers, almonds, olives, and iberico ham. It’s really no wonder that my pants had to be surgically removed after the weekend.

The cabin’s indoor kitchen was pretty basic, but it was adequately stocked and included an electric stove. That said, it can be a challenge to find exactly what you need for fancy meal prep in such a rustic setting. At one point during a search for a slotted spoon, Mo opened a utensil drawer and instead found a white-footed deer mouse scampering among the cutlery. In true Mo fashion, she quickly closed the drawer, named her new friend Humphrey, and refocused on dinner prep (umm, now using one of our own spoons). At that point, it dawned on me that cabin cooking might not be for everyone.

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We cooked up some asparagus while the coulibiac baked away. And once the main dish was done, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The coulibiac was quite nice, not too rich, but with a lot of different textures. The pastry dough, which included sour cream in its ingredients, came out very nicely. If I was doing this dish again, I would include a bit more salt in the filling, but otherwise we gave it high marks. Bonus points: us foodies had never heard of coulibiac until we read the recipe…in fact, we kept forgetting what it was called!

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the finished product, complete with a star and a moon

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Sunday dawned a bit rainy, perfect for sitting on the covered porch. We enjoyed coffee and French toast along with sausage, eggs, and fresh fruit. This time of year, the porch is definitely the center of the Humphrey Cabin experience, and we took full advantage. 

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The shop at Roy’s Orchard

From there we did a little clean-up to leave the cabin in good shape for the next folks. Then it was about 2 hours and 15 minutes home, interrupted only by the requisite stop at Roy’s Orchard in Sperryville for fresh produce and locally harvested honey. We spent the last part of our drive eating strawberries and laughing about the weekend.

Looking back, it’s clear that both Maureen and the PATC cabins (and Souzz!) never disappoint in creating memorable experiences. We had lots of fun and a nice culinary adventure, and we are confident that our coulibiac dish was the first of it’s kind in the cabin’s 215 year history. No wonder Humphrey was so curious.

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