The joy of dining al fresco
After climbing New Hampshire’s Mount Washington during a February blizzard years ago, my friend Bob Carlson and I slid down the Lion Head Trail and staggered, shivering and famished, into an open-sided lean-to at the Hermit Lake campground.
Huddling in a corner out of the howling wind, I fired up my vintage Svea gas stove while Bob filled an aluminum pot with snow. In about 15 minutes, the snow melted, the water boiled and we dumped in a package of dried macaroni.
After another 15 minutes, the noodles remained stubbornly al dente, but we were too famished to wait any longer, so drained the water and tossed in a stick of butter, along with a brick of cheddar cheese.
The pot had one of those rickety, detachable handles, and when I lifted it from the stove, the whole load tipped over onto the ground.
“Quick! Before it cools down!” I exclaimed, so we grabbed forks to shovel the gooey mess, infused with caked dirt and ice chunks, into our mouths like savages.
Sad to say, that wasn’t my worst outdoor meal.
During decades of expeditions on land and sea, I’ve choked down countless stale, soggy or moldy provisions — while hunkered down in a wind-blasted tent at 19,000 feet in the Andes, paddling offshore in churning seas, and in swamps amid biblical plagues of voracious insects, to cite a few repasts that were not exactly worthy of Michelin guide mention.
On the other hand, some of my most sublime dining experiences have been in the open air — polishing off a crusty loaf of freshly baked walliser roggenbrot Swiss bread, topped with black cherry preserves, with my then wife-to-be in an Alpine, “Sound of Music” meadow below the Matterhorn; wolfing down savory tacos drizzled with picante sauce during a whitewater rafting excursion on Utah’s Green River; and of course, feasting on flapjacks, doused with maple syrup made over an open fire in our backyard.
For better or worse, we now have been locked in an outdoor-dining mode for nearly 10 months because of the pandemic and, with winter upon us, are entering the most challenging phase.
But just because the weather has turned colder and snowier, it doesn’t mean we must only eat indoors. After all, fresh air enhances any meal.
It’s surprising how (relatively) pleasant, or at least tolerable, a sunny spot out of the wind can be, especially when appropriately bundled up. Even better: Construct a quinzhee, or igloo-like shelter, by piling snow into a giant heap, letting it settle for a few hours, and then hollowing it out with a shovel.
I’ve dined and slept comfortably in quinzhees, but in keeping with current social-distancing protocols, they should be limited to solo occupancy.
As for food consumption, insulated vacuum bottles that keep beverages cold in summer and hot in winter also are ideal for soup, chili, stew, pasta and other warm dishes.
If you’re pressed for time or just plain lazy, simply open a can and nuke the contents beforehand in a microwave. Or support your favorite local restaurant by ordering takeout, and really take it out. Who doesn’t like cold pizza?
But if you’re willing to put in a little effort, you can serve entrees that even Martha Stewart might be able to consume without undue gagging.
My specialties, admittedly not exactly haute cuisine, include split pea and barley soup, and potato-rutabaga-cauliflower-broccoli casserole. Since I never measure quantities or use the same ingredients twice, these are rough guidelines rather than precise recipes.
For the soup, I bring a couple cups of dried peas and pearled barley to a boil in a few quarts of water or vegetable broth. You can save time by using a pressure cooker; otherwise, these need to cook for several hours.
Next, I dice and sauté two or three large onions in olive oil in a cast-iron skillet. If you’re feeling adventurous, include a couple garlic cloves. When they’re almost caramelized, toss in sliced mushrooms, and continue to heat for a few minutes. Then, add everything to the peas and barley, along with any combination of diced carrots, celery and/or potatoes.
If the soup gets too thick, you may need to add more water. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You can also add a splash or two of sherry, or swig it straight from the bottle.
For the casserole, I also start by sautéing a few onions, and then gradually add whatever veggies are on hand: carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips, turnips …
Here, you have a choice, by seasoning with tamari or sriracha sauce. First-time sriracha consumers may want to use a light hand — it’ll clear your sinuses in a hurry.
Serve over brown rice.
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Every winter, dozens of bald eagles migrate from northern New England to the lower Connecticut River to catch fish and hunt waterfowl; for decades, friends and I have ventured out in kayaks this time of year to view them.