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.

 

Drive Left, Eat Right

Souzz and I just took a quick trip to Ireland, and we crammed a lot of touring into four days—including visits to Connemara National Park, Galway, Aillwee Cave, the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle, and Dublin. Our itinerary required a fair amount of driving on the “wrong” (left) side of the road, but that was about the only thing that seemed wrong about our visit. We hiked, went horseback riding on the beach, visited a lot of historic spots, and enjoyed some fantastic food (of course). It’s hard not to have a good time in a beautiful country filled with friendly people.

Ireland isn’t generally known as a foodie destination, but the overall scene has expanded in recent years. Fresh seafood is everywhere, chefs are bringing in flavors from all over the world, and there are a bunch of new craft breweries and distilleries. We ate and drank very well on our trip.

Our best meal was at a restaurant on the west coast in Dingle (population 2000) called Idás. Chef Kevin Murphy brings a strong emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients, many of which he forages himself. Idás opened in 2014 and gets rave reviews, including a recommendation in the 2017 Michelin Guide. They fill up their intimate dining room most every night, and it was easy to see (and taste) why.

Our meal at Idás was five courses spanning land and sea, with some dishes a work of art and others plated in stark simplicity. Chef Murphy is trained as an artist, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the presentation is very important to him. And the smallish portions with intensely contrasting flavors conjured up loose comparisons to molecular gastronomy–which was not what we were expecting to find in Dingle.

Chef Murphy clearly has a passion for his work, telling us at one point in a serious tone that “you must respect the radish,” and later joking that “foraging through the local fields brings us free ingredients, and then our customers willingly pay for them.”

Of course, we didn’t spend all of of our trip at fancy restaurants, as enjoying a pint of Guinness at one of the local pubs is de rigueur in Ireland (oh, wait, that’s mixing French and Irish, something that the Napoleon tried in 1798 that didn’t go so well, never mind).

The pub scene is memorable not so much for the Guinness or the music, but because of the habit of locals to strike up conversations. We literally made new friends every night.

In Galway, we met a cheery guy named Colm at a pub called Tig Coili (“Coili House” in Gaelic, after a family name). Colm insisted on buying each of us a pint before sharing a lot of friendly advice for our trip. Soon the conversation expanded to include Dessie, an older guy in a ball cap who clearly came for the music. I confess that I don’t even really like Irish music, but I found myself captivated by Dessie’s enthusiasm and knowledge. He is a musician himself, and we guessed that he must play regularly at Tig Coili.

Later, we saw a poster in town with a familiar face and realized it was our new friend Dessie O’Halloran. The poster was of his 2001 album called The Pound Road, and it turns out that Dessie is a very well known musician that has played with the likes of Sharon Shannon and Willie Nelson.

Seeing that poster was almost enough to make me want to buy some Irish music…but impulse buys after visiting a pub are almost never a good idea. So I had another Guinness instead.

A Bagful of Memories

On the way back from a family gathering this weekend in Bluffton, South IMG_5179Carolina, we drove past a stand selling boiled peanuts, one of the south’s classic roadside treats. We circled back and were greeted warmly by a guy that called himself “Georgia Boy.” Georgia Boy’s real name is Sam, and his eleven-year old son Trevor was along to help, as well.

So it turns out that Sam is actually from Florida. How a guy from Florida can call himself Georgia Boy and be selling peanuts in South Carolina, I just don’t know–but he did sell us some pretty good peanuts.

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If you aren’t acquainted with boiled peanuts, they are typically green peanuts that are boiled.peanutsboiled for 8 to 12 hours until they are soft and salty. They are easy to shuck and have a much mellower taste than roasted peanuts. For generations, country roads in the south have been dotted with stands run by friendly folks like Sam and Trevor, waiting to serve you up a pint or a quart or a gallon.

For me, the smell alone is a ride right back to childhood. I lived in the south for a few years as a kid, and one of the constants of family road trips was a recurring conversation between my dad and mom that happened almost every time we drove past a boiled peanut stand. It was the quickest negotiation on record–generally occurring in the space of a few hundred yards, even while going 50 miles an hour.

02-27-2011 023The stands themselves were often pretty sketchy—a public health inspector’s dream, probably. But the experience was always positive and it generally went like this: a friendly conversation, a brief negotiation, a slotted spoon dipped into a huge pot, a paper bag filled with warm wet peanuts, and smiles all around.

Once back on the road, my dad would dump a handful of peanuts in his lap and drive with one hand while popping shells and tossing the empties into an overflowing cup holder. My siblings and I would share the remaining peanuts in the now-soggy and sometimes disintegrating paper bag, often dumping the empty shells out of the open windows in between the passing pick-up trucks (certainly bad form by today’s standards).

Nowadays, the paper bags have IMG_5188been replaced with sturdy plastic ziplocks–but that’s about all that’s changed. It’s the same chance to make a snap decision at 50 mph, the same soft and salty treat, and the same little slice of southern culture.

As we started back to our car this weekend, I mentioned that I was bringing the peanuts back home to Virginia, and Sam gave me some advice. “Don’t open the ziplock before you get back, or they won’t last.”

“Oh, really,” I said. “They go bad that fast?”

Sam responded matter-of-factly, “If you open the bag, you’ll eat them all.”

It turns out Sam was right.