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Outdoor eats

(post, Joan Menefee)

I am addicted to coziness: velvet cushions, knitting baskets, hearths, etc. Despite my love of comfort, however, every now and again (OK, actually, quite often), I head outdoors to see what the wind and water have wrought. When I get there, I am surprised to find tidbits I mostly think of as cultivated, polite, and, well, somewhat bland players in the great orchestra of food. 

Here are three eatables I saw and tasted anew when I went afield this month.

Cranberries: Canned cranberry jelly may possess a certain industrial chic — that ribbed cylindrical purple body, that perfect slide from the aluminum sheath. But I prefer loose berries, especially since I pick them myself on the bog. 

A sphagnum bog is about the prettiest place in the world. Bogs are thick mats of moss that grow toward the center of some ponds, creating a squishy, jiggly place. It’s an acidic environment that begets sassy, buoyant berries. In September and October, cranberries turn from white to red, and the moss itself takes on a russet shade as well.  

Besides cranberry plants, bogs are home to otters, mice, frogs, and the occasional ring-necked snake (very small and cute). This month my husband and I, decked out in rubber boots, collected about nine gallons of cranberries as we admired the flora and fauna.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A sphagnum bog is about the prettiest place in the world."] 

In addition to the classic cranberry compotes without which Thanksgiving would be just another day of overeating, the berries are excellent in many baked goods. I also use them as an all-purpose lemon substitute. For example, last week I made a Grilled Chicken Tikka Masala marinade with puréed cranberries. There’s less juice when you use cranberries, though, so you need to increase the oil.

Black walnuts: I have never woken up in the middle of the night craving English walnuts. I like them fine in chocolate-chip cookies and have substituted them for pine nuts in pesto when my piggy bank was busted. In general, though, I am the one pawing the mixed nuts for cashews and filberts, a dishonorable habit my friend Curt calls “mining.”

So when my husband suggested we pick the less familiar American black walnuts at a park on the eastern edge of town, I went along mostly for the walk. At the park I discovered that not all walnuts are created equal. 

Black walnuts are messy. Inside their green tennis-ball-like hulls, they develop an inky black juice when overripe. Don’t get this on your pants unless you really like dark colors. The hulls themselves smell like a citrusy Old Spice. 

After you’ve stomped the hulls off around the base of the tree (as Euell Gibbons recommends), you’ll feel a little dazed, like you’re a genie tucked in a perfumed lamp. At least that’s how I felt.

Besides the earthy sharp flavors of English walnuts, American black walnuts have an extra fatty dimension, something like a sweet smoky pine nut. I make a backwoods baklava with them, substituting maple syrup for honey and black walnuts for English. The trick is getting the butter-syrup ratio right, so the walnuts cling to the phyllo dough and the delicate layers stay moist.

The other thing you should know about black walnuts is they are very hard to shell. We broke down and bought an industrial-strength nutcracker for this purpose. Otherwise, I would advise you to keep a sledgehammer handy.

Stick bread: OK, so this one I did not so much find in the wild as bake there. After a long day of cranberry gathering, a person should spend at least four hours talking smart around a campfire. The wind will blow, which means you have to move around to escape the smoke. You might be a little stiff from all the bog-walking and tree-shaking. If there is a lull in the banter, you can poke the coals. Inevitably, someone will bring up Jack London, and everyone will then ponder Buck dreaming of his ancestors as the flames dart and falter.

At the end of hour three, you might think to yourself, "I sure would like some fresh bread." A friend will snort, “No way to get fresh patisserie here in the woods, mon ami.”  It’s true that you’d stand no chance of fresh-baked goods if your husband hadn’t dated a European whose family raised her on stick bread. But if you came to our campfire, you absolutely would have fresh bread to go with that bratwurst you just finished burning.  

Making stick bread usually requires a team. I make and freeze bread dough (any white or multigrain bread recipe will do) and stick it in the cooler. The dough thaws all day long, and in the evening my husband finds a couple of sticks (about two inches in diameter) and peels their butt ends. 

When the coals are orange-hot, we shape the dough into long ropes, which we coil onto the peeled sticks, making sure the bread closes around the stick-tops like snug socks. Then we roast the bread over the coals until it is evenly browned. The skinnier the ropes, the more quickly the bread will bake. Finally we pop in bratwurst or a jam-butter slurry, depending on whether our teeth are sweet or savory.  

This is an international friend-maker. Guaranteed.

reference-image, l