Deer and squirrels and bears, oh my

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As I sit with my morning coffee, I am deep in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York on an unseasonably warm, cloudless day. This is day three of The Great Adventure, in which my husband and I have quit our big city jobs in London to drive around the US for several months, hiking through national forests, visiting friends, cooking in the great outdoors, and sleeping in our car. In the winter.

This poses a slight dilemma in regards to this blog, because until sometime in 2011, I will only have access to a camp stove, a pot, a pan, a coffee percolator, and the few perishables we can safely store in a small cooler. Oh, and did I mention (or did I have to?) that being recently jobless, we are now on a shoestring?

You may by now have guessed that during this period of my life there will be distinctly fewer stories of me buying fresh sardines at Borough Market, for example, or showing up to parties with a plateful of profiteroles.

Never mind, we can still have fun with out food, right? We can still take a bite out of all life has to offer, can’t we?

Well yes, in a rustic sort of a way. Cooking outdoors is like being a 14 year old again, trying to  navigate such complexities as baking a potato or making a plate of pasta. I’m no Hunter Angler Gardener Cook: I’ve lost all sense of comfort and ease with myself in the kitchen, and suddenly feel like exactly what I am: a city girl who can put on a mean dinner party with a fully equipped kitchen at her disposal, but who is reduced to fighting aggressive campsite squirrels for her beans on toast when she leaves the comforts of home behind.

IMG_5662I’m ok with that, I just have to start back at the beginning, with the basics. To that end, I’ve allowed myself one exciting new piece of equipment: the 10” Lodge Dutch Camp Oven. You know, the kind of cast iron lidded pot with little legs that hold it directly over the open fire? The kind that pioneer women and grisly old men named ‘cookie’ used to use all the time? I spent a few days keeping it clean and oiled in the hopes that it will last me for the rest of my life, and then decided to dig in and bake a loaf of bread in it.

IMG_5647I used my standard basic white loaf recipe (with a few tweaks due to my limited pantry), sat the mixing bowl on the car engine to keep it warm while it rose, and then got the fire going. Unfortunately there’s no gauge on the outside of the oven to let you know what temperature you’re working with. Nope, just me and a pot and a fire. I decided 20 minutes would do it, but checked the contents of the pot after 10 to find a finished loaf, slightly undercooked inside, and most definitely overcooked on the outside. The squirrels stood watching from the sidelines, laughing at my ineptitude…

Basic Camping Loaf

1/2 C warm water
1 sachet dried yeast
3T olive oil
1T honey
300 g all purpose flour
big pinch salt

Mix water, oil, honey, and yeast together to dissolve, and then add the salt and flour. Knead until smooth and elastic, and then leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Punch the dough down and leave for another hour, then carefully transfer to the dutch oven, covering the lid with hot coals. Experiment until you determine the level of heat and the time it takes to make a good loaf—and then let me know how you did it!

When in Fryeburg

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Oh how my life has changed in the last 3 months. We used to hurry because we didn’t want to miss dinner reservations, or a flight to Bologna. Now it’s the tractor pull. Waking up at 6:00 on a brisk Tuesday morning, we set off down painted tunnels of autumn leaves. The country roads were clogged with creeping carloads of ‘leaf peepers,’ and we were filled with excitement as we got closer and closer to Fryeburg, Maine, and the granddaddy of all state fairs.

girl-watching-tractor-pullIn the crisp autumn air, we watched grown men bouncing up and down on their farm equipment, beer bellies jiggling in the slanted sunlight, exhaust intermingling with cigarette smoke to billow around contestants’ heads while they pulled their concrete loads forward inch by inch. It was mesmerising.

After a quick snack break, we checked out the livestock. The poultry house was especially impressive, with birds sporting various plumages as exotic as their beautiful names: red golden pheasant, grey saddleback pom, buff orpington, wheaten millay. They sound like Farrow and Ball paint colors—I’d take a living room in ‘salmon faverolle’ any day.

no-parkingWe climbed into the grandstand for the afternoon to watch the harness races. After a few practice rounds and a long look at the program, we got serious and placed some bets. I won $3.40 on No Shoes, but unfortunately spent $10 for the privilege. We cut our losses and moved on.

By now we had worked up an appetite, and got to the real business of the fair. Pulled pork barbecue, which has been cooking so low and slow all day that it falls apart on its own. The bloomin’ onion, a massive white onion which has been peeled, sliced to but not through the root until it resembles a lotus flower, and then battered and deep fried and served with remoulade sauce for dipping. The corndog: an American standard involving one hot dog on a stick which has been enveloped in a cornbread jacket and then (what else?) fried. These things are completely foreign to my English fella, so we had to have one of each. But the piece de resistance? Elephant ears. Beaver tails. Pizza Frita. Flying saucers. These names are all very cute, but here in New England, people call it what it is. Fried dough.

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It’s a mainline of grease into the system. You might as well just chew on a sponge soaked in hot fat. So why does it taste so good? Standing next to the midway under a clear blue sky, $3.40 (minus $10) burning a hole in my pocket, it just seems right. I guess it’s all about context.

Fried Dough
(adapted from Cooks.com)

1 ½ cups milk
1 T sugar
pinch salt
6 T melted butter
2 T dry yeast
4 cups flour
Oil for frying
Icing sugar

Combine milk, sugar, salt, and butter, and then mix in the yeast. Whisk in flour until combined, then cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in size. Pinch off golf ball-sized pieces, and roll out to ½ inch thick discs. Fry in a deep fryer or a few inches of oil until it puffs up, then turn over and fry for 30 more seconds. Drain on paper towels, and dust with icing sugar.

I get by with a little help from…

bean-and-feta-salad-crop Sometimes I get carried away. When I decided to become a runner, I signed up for a marathon. When I wanted to travel, I moved to South Korea. And when I had a crush on the English guy I met on holiday, I found myself living and working in London. I can’t help it— every now and again, I am overcome with a sense of blind optimism, and a belief in the slightly cheesy notion that ‘when you really want something the whole world conspires to make it happen.’

My most recent over-commitment came in the form of a wedding—my own, to the holiday crush no less—which I decided would be more authentic, more delicious, more beautiful...more better, if I skipped hiring professionals and did everything myself. I lined up a tent, bought some decorations, wrote a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email to the caterers, and then sat back and waited for the big day.

Everything was fine until guests started sending in their RSVPs. That’s when I realised that people really were going to show up, and that they would expect something to happen when they got there. It’s fair to say I began to feel some panic.

wedding-buffet The interesting thing about a big event in your life is that you learn who your friends are. Lucky for me, one of my friends is a chef. Dougie flew in from Australia, went shopping with me, and then told everyone to get out of the kitchen while he cooked everything. Yes, everything.

In fact, one of the best parts of the days leading up to the wedding was wandering around the Portland, Maine farmer’s market with Dougie, buying any and everything that looked exciting. Beautiful bunches of flowering dill? We’ll have that. Golden beets the size of two fists? Yes, please! We scooped up punnets of rainbow colored heirloom cherry tomatoes for the canap├ęs, and filled bags with intensely peppery lettuce leaves, several varieties of runner beans, and deep purple potatoes.

wedding-menu On the day, we washed our champagne down with crostini with salmon rillette, heirloom cherry tomato and buffalo mozzarella skewers, and mini jalapeno Johnnycakes with smoked trout. For dinner, we had rainbow beet and lentil salad, asian chicken coleslaw, purple potato salad, homemade pickles, feta and green bean salad, and whole steamed lobsters. We finished the meal off with fruit, local cheeses from Liberty Fields Farm, blueberry and carrot cakes, and ice cream. Oh, and did I mention that Dougie was also the best man, gave a speech with less than 24 hours notice, then partied for the rest of the night like it was 1999? Who the hell IS this guy?

wedding-lobsters Tom sourced, transported, and cooked the lobsters. My mother-in-law made napkins and table runners. My sister- and brother-in-law hung strings of lights, and their aunt made my dress. Bel made arrangements with the flowers my mother foraged from the edges of the marshland, while a flock of girlfriends put all of the finishing touches on the tables. When there was a mix-up with the servers I’d hired, some cousins jumped in and started running food out from the kitchen.

Perhaps it isn’t the whole world that conspires to make things happen in your life. Maybe it’s just friends, good old fashioned friends, who are willing to muck in and bail you out when you get in over your head. I’ve got some special ones, and I am truly grateful.

 

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Mixed bean and feta salad (inspired by Dougie’s version)

1 lb mixed varieties of runner beans
4 oz feta cheese
juice of 1 lemon
handful chopped parsley
4 T olive oil
handful sliced almonds
salt and pepper

Top and tail the beans and then blanch for about 3 minutes in boiling water. Don’t overdo it, you want them to keep their bite. Drain the beans and run under cold water to stop the cooking, and then set aside.

In a salad bowl, mash the lemon juice, oil, and feta together with the back of a fork to make a kind of chunky dressing. Mix in the beans, parsley, and almonds, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Happy Hour



My grandmother Lois was not known for her cooking. Well, maybe I should say she was not known for her good cooking. She was famous for her judicious use of the pressure cooker, for serving economic cuts of meat like tongue and tripe, for insisting on cooking on her own mother's 1905 wood burning stove (even in 2005), and for her love of canned...everything. Lois's dishes always contained at least a pinch of cat hair.

One thing she was good at was mixing a drink. I can remember shuffling downstairs in my pajamas at 11:00 in the morning on my summer holidays, to find Grandma at the breakfast table with a tumbler of 'juice,' which she must have felt she deserved after a morning of tending her garden, cutting the acre and a half of back lawn, playing bridge (and winning, no doubt) with the ladies at the Senior Center, completing the New York Times crossword of the day, and drawing up a 'to do' list for everyone else in the house, all before her grandchildren could even be bothered to get out of bed. It must have felt positively like afternoon by the time she reached 11:00.

As my uncle says, Grandma was a woman of traditions and routines. She always drank coffee from the same mug. She always served porcupine meatballs for Christmas Eve dinner, with a dessert of green jello and maraschino cherries. She always ate dinner at 6 o'clock. And at 5, it was always happy hour.

As a young wife and mother, Grandma started happy hour the minute my grandfather came home from work. Everything else stopped: no cooking, no cleaning, no kids running around the house. The two of them would each have a cocktail, a salty snack, and a cigarette (it was the 50's after all), and sit together to talk about their day. A simple moment, but one to look forward to.

My grandmother died last month at 94 years old. Two weeks later, I got married and as a thank-you gift, a friend gave my mother a bottle of Hendrick's gin. It's special: aromatic like perfume, but not cloying. With cucumbers from my cousin's garden, we started making G,T,&C's to drink by the sea wall every day before dinner, where we would sit and talk about the day, spot seals on the rocks, and throw stones into the ocean. It's a tradition that I cherish, and which makes me think of Grandma every time. I think I'll skip the cat hair though...


G, T, and C

1 shot of Hendrick's Gin
1 cup of tonic water
2 ice cubes
2 slices of cucumber to garnish

No need for instructions on this one, just put it all in a glass and stir.

Second Act

Well! That was a long break and I'm sorry for leaving you hanging. But it has been a wild couple of months and now that the dust has settled, I find myself back in my country of birth, newly married, jobless, and ready for an adventure. I'm living on the Southern coast of Maine, enjoying the ocean and changing leaves while my husband and I get ready for a big road trip around the US. I'm working very hard on doing the things that matter to me, and crossing my fingers that some form of a financial living will emerge in the process. In the meantime, I may be writing about how to eat on the cheap!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming....