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).

 

DSCN4332-2

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.

dscn3529

Cakewalk

When something is easy or effortless, it is sometimes called a “cakewalk.” Suzy was first introduced to the term at her high school fair, where she bought a ticket, walked in a circle, music played, a number was called, and someone handed her a cake. She had to carry it home on her bike…but come on, it’s basically a free cake. If that happened every day, life would be a cakewalk, and I would eat a TON of baked goods. Anyway, I digress.

This weekenDSCN2675d’s cakewalk was a bit more involved–a six mile hike, two frybakes, 34 pieces of charcoal, a snake, and a windstorm—but it was worth it. We’d never made cheesecake or lasagna in the backcountry before, so we decided to do both while enjoying the brilliant fall colors. Our trail of choice was Racer Camp Hollow, near Great North Mountain on the Virginia-West Virginia line.

DSCN2669At the trailhead, we ran into a DSCN2673big group from the Georgetown University Outdoor Club, which hit the trail just ahead of us. It’s great to see other kindred spirits out enjoying nature, especially the next generation.

As for the meal, we assembled the ingredients ahead of time and froze them in ziplock bags. We also carried charcoal, a spatula, and two extra plastic containers for mixing bowls. Lastly, we carried a foil pie tin, which weighed next to nothing and worked well for keeping things warm by the fire.

As we crested the first big hill on our hike, I stumbled ontoDSCN2600 a snake right in the middle of the trail. Once I came back to earth– and Suzy stopped laughing–I realized it was fake, left by someone in the outing club to entertain fellow club members. I’m relieved to know that higher education is still paying dividends in this country, and that camping pranks have elevated beyond sneaking rocks (or beer) into a friend’s backpack. We thanked the outing club for the laugh when we passed their camp later. (Oh, and a belated thanks to KB for that backcountry beer in 1993.)

In late afternoon, we found a nice camp well up the trail, set up our tent, collected some wood, and set our sites on dinner. Souzz took the lasagna, and I took the cake (so to speak). For the lasagna, we used no-bake noodles, sauce, ricotta/spinach/eggs, sausage, and mozzarella. We carried the eggs pre-scrambled in a small plastic Nalgene bottle and added that in to the ricotta mixture at the last minute. Most of the rest was pre-mixed.

 DSCN2612 IMG_0115 DSCN2624 DSCN2633 DSCN2635

Prep was actually pretty easy, about 15 minutes, and the cooking took about an hour and fifteen minutes (18 coals split top/bottom). It’s trite to say it was worth the wait, but it’s also true.  And we enjoyed a nice fire, garlic bread, and a few appetizers while we waited. I’d give this dish a full five sporks on the Souzzchef rating scale.

IMG_0170  IMG_0184  IMG_0187

sour cream cheesecake
original recipe, written on an envelope!

Cheesecake prep was similarly easy, maybe 15 minutes. We used a package of graham crackers and third of a cup of butter for the crust, and 12 ounces of sour cream, eight ounces of cream cheese, two eggs, a half cup of sugar, a dash of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a half teaspoon of almond extract for the filling.  For the crust, we melted the butter over the stove and stirred in the crushed crackers. We assembled the filling, poured it in, and baked for about an hour and 20 minutes (eight coals on top, eight coals on bottom, adding some coals from the fire at the very end). For this dish, we used a “deep alpine” frybake (3 inches deep, a prototype not yet for sale but likely to be on the market soon).

IMG_0106 DSCN2611 IMG_0113 DSCN2617

DSCN2623 DSCN2625 DSCN2637 DSCN2644

A wind break would have helped, as cook time was slowed down by a light breeze, but that at least helped cool the cake afterwards. We added cherry topping and we had ourselves a nice fall treat.

The only thing we’d change is to avoid freezing the sour cream ahead of time, as it lost its consistency during the freeze/thaw.  As a result, the texture wasn’t even…so I’m only rating it four out of five sporks. There’s got to be a way to carry along some makeshift refrigeration, perhaps wrapping the sour cream with the other frozen ingredients.  Still, the cake was very good.

IMG_0173  IMG_0194

With dinner done, it was time to sleep.  Some years back, I took a mountaineering course and was told that I was sloppy with my gear–that one day something important was going to get blown away or covered in snow.  So my custom now is to pack camp tight before heading to bed, with everything bolted down in case of a surprise storm, an aggressive raccoon, or both (and I would totally post photos if a raccoon ransacked camp in the middle of a storm, as that would be kind of cool).

Lo and behold, the wind picked up in the middle of the night, and several times we were woken up by 35 mph gusts.  So many leaves were hitting the tent that I actually thought it was raining. We emerged in the morning to see that the wind had stripped the trees almost bare, and we had seemingly gone from fall to winter in a single night.  Two hikers that passed us in the morning shared stories of holding onto their tent fly with both hands, exciting stuff. 

We made coffee and a nice breakfast and marveled at how different things looked with all of the leaves gone.  The weekend wasn’t easy or effortless, but it sure had turned into a fun trip.  And then Suzy handed me a piece of leftover cheesecake. Did someone say cakewalk?

IMG_0101  IMG_0102