Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cooking at the Campsite

We had so much fun camping that I didn’t want to come home – ever. And the tent didn’t slow us down at all. With just a one burner camp stove and a fire pit, we ate better this week than we have all summer. But we didn’t get off to a great start. The first night was a test of my will to camp. It took us three hours to set up camp and then it was almost dark and too late to cook. Here's our kitchen:

Steve and Tommy headed to the Hearth ‘N Kettle restaurant for take out, while Julie and I finished settling the camp and built a fire. The food arrived about 30 seconds before a torrential rain began and we ended up huddled in the big tent, sitting on the floor to eat dinner while thunder and lightning raged above us and the little girls across the street screamed.

Here's our tent and the kids "bedrooms":

We all hung out together in our (amazingly) dry tent for a while. I read a book, Julie watched How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days on her portable DVD player, and Tommy and Steve played Connect Four. It was cozy and relaxed - not the disaster I expected. Sleeping proved to be a bit less comfortable. The air mattress we borrowed from Steve’s friend Kevin was as high off the ground as our bed at home (one of my requirements). A river could have run through our tent and we would have been dry.

But the mattress was so slippery the sheets kept coming undone and Steve commented it was like sleeping on a bag of potato chips – very loud and crunchy every time we moved, which was quite often because we were freezing and couldn’t get warm or comfortable. The next day the kids complained that they heard us crunching around in our sleep all night long. To solve this dilemma, I added a warm blanket on top of the sheets to insulate us from the cold air mattress and two more blankets on top. We were still noisy, but much warmer.

The next night I could finally test my cooking skills. I actually planned a whole meal around a story I read in the “Escapes” section of the New York Times, captioned, “Finger (Lakes) Food.” Every so often I come across a story that I wish I’d written and this is one of them. The writer traveled around my hometown region, sampling the food and I was so envious I decided to do the next best thing - recreate the experience at my campsite.

Even though there was no recipe for “Cornell Chicken,” I gathered enough basic info to make my own. Folklore (and the New York Times) has it that the recipe for “Cornell Chicken,” also called “Baker’s Chicken,” was created by Robert Baker, an animal science professor who introduced the recipe to Ithaca in 1957 in an attempt to get people to eat more chicken. Apparently Baker also invented the first chicken nugget.

I made the marinade at home and the chicken (bone in breasts and thighs) soaked in it for two days. Steve cooked it over the fire and it was simply delicious. The taste was evocative of something tastily familiar – spiedies!

I decided to pair the “Cornell Chicken” with salt potatoes from the same article and the recipe seemed like it might be the origin for the Beans and Potatoes my family makes, only instead of a cup and a half of beans, they use a cup and a half of SALT. I actually couldn’t bear to put that much salt in; I lost my courage after dumping the first cup and ended up reducing the salt to one cup and the butter to a half a stick rather than the whole stick the recipe called for. They were still plenty salty and buttery.

This might not be the healthiest dish for those with high blood pressure, but it sure was tasty. The trick is to cook small potatoes whole with the skin on.

To complete the hometown meal, I added some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers from our garden just like my Mom and grandmother regularly did when I was a child. This dish was lost on Steve who wanted a more traditional salad and wondered why I didn’t put dressing on them, but I love the fresh taste of plain tomatoes and cukes. The result was a nostalgic blast from the past for me that was perfectly suited for camping, which is after all revisiting another childhood pleasure.

The Recipes:

Cornell Chicken

1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon fresh savory, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 teaspoon fresh sage, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
4 chicken breasts, bone in
4 chicken thighs, bone in

Place chicken pieces in a shallow plastic container with a lid. Mix all the remaining ingredients together and pour over the chicken. Marinade for two days, and then grill, preferably over an open fire or charcoal for 20 – 30 minutes or until juices run clear.

Salt potatoes

1 cup Kosher salt
8 cups water
2 pounds of well scrubbed red or while potatoes, uniform in size, skins on
1/2 stick butter, cut in pieces

Bring salt and water to a boil. Add potatoes and cook until tender, about 15 – 20 minutes, depending on size. Drain potatoes and add butter to pan and return to burner on stove. When butter is melted, add drained potatoes and toss.

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