Every so often I eat something that way surpasses my expectations, blows my socks off and makes my eyes roll back in my head. This happened recently with a little dish my husband and I fondly called "filet mignon on a stick." It perhaps surpassed expectations so well because it didn't look like much, sitting there somewhat shriveled and blackened and pierced with a piece of sharpened kindling over a fire somewhere in Santa Fe National Forest.
First, some history to the dish: There is an old outdoor gear advertisement that shows an unshaven man in his early 40s dressed up for snow, tenderly preparing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the wee hours of the morning in some cabin somewhere. The caption reads something like, "He knows that at 16,000 feet, peanut butter and jelly will taste like filet mignon." It's a celebration of the less-is-more, don't-make-such-a-fuss, just-get-out-there-and-go-and-don't-worry- about-it mentality of which I am a huge fan. With a few reservations. Yes, peanut butter and jelly has a leg up after a five hour uphill slog at high altitude, when I'm rather famished and buoyed by a beautiful view and the hefty self esteem of getting myself there. But I'd still rather have a real steak.
***image3***Enjoying good food while in beautiful surroundings is not as hard as you might think. Here's a myth I'd like to shatter: You're not a true outdoorsman or -woman if you're eating better than Ramen and what you foraged on the trail. Good food outdoors doesn't require much more than, well, good food and a willingness to bring it. And it also doesn't necessarily require packing the kind of cooking arsenal that most people slog in. Visions of bulky, extraneous equipment savaging a light and pared down rucksack are just an illusion.
I found this out by accident in Moab, Utah. My husband and I were car camping and had overpacked in the way we always do when we car camp. We had stoves and tons of white gas to fire them up. We had a new nonstick cook set that included three saucepans. We had lanterns and extra flashlights. The one thing we hadn't packed was the metal grate of a barbecue grill. Which is why we found ourselves driving up and down the backroads of Sand Flats Recreation Area in the dark, trying to find a metal grill at one of the more developed campsites that wasn't permanently attached to its firepit so we could take it back to our little paradise and cook the huge bone-in chicken breasts sitting, ***image1***mockingly, in the ice chest. No luck. We had all the wrong gear, or all the wrong food, depending on how you looked at it.
So, we improvised. Or my husband did while I ate crackers and cheese and drank a beer. He found the only thing resembling sticks, the dried stalks of two large yucca plants, speared each chicken breast with them, and suspended them over a fire. Salt and pepper were our only spices, but the resulting meal-which we dubbed "chicken on a stick"-was fantastic. The skin was crispy and crackly and the meat was juicy and the basic spices were plenty. We ate it, licking our fingers, watching the moon rise and listening to an owl perched somewhere behind us.
I thought maybe we'd found a perfect balance to camping: Don't overload yourself with cooking gear. Laden yourself with good food, and just forget about all of the rest-it'll sort itself out.
To test this hypothesis, we recently pulled up to a campsite in the Santa Fe National Forest with three small beef filets, red chard, shallots, red fingerling potatoes, asparagus, salt and pepper, butter and absolutely nothing to cook it with, except for aluminum foil. We also brought a few things that might be construed as cheating-balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a plastic container of rosemary garlic seasoning-which ***image2***came along on the rationalization that had we been backpacking these things could have been done away with or easily fit into tiny, barely noticeable containers. I also brought some marscapone pesto torta and fresh baked muesli bread to give me something to eat while I watched my husband cook, an admitted abandonment of the "light is right" premise, as well as generally cruel behavior.
We quickly discovered a few other things it would have been nice to have: a long utensil to fish food out of the fire with, or a leather glove. Having neither, my husband took the packages of wrapped asparagus and potatoes and rolled a small stick into the foil. He then built a little stone tower on either side of the fire, stabbed the filets all the way through, and propped them up over the flame. He wanted me to note that cooking meat on a stick is no passive activity, but one that requires much attention. So, I also learned it's helpful to have someone along who doesn't mind paying attention. Also key is someone who doesn't mind To Build A Fire moments, squatting over meat on a makeshift spicket, turning it and swearing a bit when the fingers get burned. And it's important to not mind too terribly how a dish looks. As mentioned earlier, looks are deceiving. I was prepared for tough leather. What I got was that really good crisp on the outside that only cooking things over a fire will get you-the kind when marshmallows are browned perfectly, enough for the great texture and smokiness that enhances the flavor and provides delight at finding the soft center. These filets were blackened just a bit in places, but not burned, with tender, flavorful meat on the inside. Peanut butter and jelly and Ramen be damned. Cooksets be damned. There is no reason eating in the wild shouldn't be this good all the time. Just bring some crackers and cheese, in case.