Winter outdoor enthusiasts are waxing poetic about this year’s prospects for nasty weather, feverishly preparing for adventures in a snow-blanketed high country here in Siberia With a View.
I have acquaintances who are crowing about putting away their hiking boots and their tents. They’re waxing skis, checking the Gore-Tex, combing their flannel, fiddling with snowshoes, ordering tasteless dried snacks, doing whatever it is they do prior to charging out into the back country.
I can’t relate to them. I don’t understand the outdoor life in winter. I don’t understand the outdoor life in any season.
My idea of a hike is to walk from the car to a building. If I’m in a particularly enthusiastic mood, I’ll walk from Mandalay Bay to the MGM Grand — after midnight. That’s a serious trek, especially if you make stops at Luxor, Excalibur and New York, New York for the sustenance needed to propel you onward. Sure, part of the trip is taken on a tram, but you have to stand. That’s hiking, isn’t it?
I am comfortable indoors. And most comfortable if I’m in a casino, a lounge or a restaurant.
It’s not that I am unfamiliar with the backcountry. On the contrary. When I was a lad, I was a Boy Scout. I joined because I was interested in getting an astronomy merit badge. What did the scoutmasters do? They made me go outdoors with my fellow Scouts. They made me hike and sleep in a tent. In winter, we dug snow caves and slept in them. I learned to snare rabbits and squirrels, and eat them. To this day, I refuse to eat squirrel.
All I wanted to do was identify the constellations and learn a little bit about the Crab nebula, but, no: goofball adults wearing campaign hats, shorts and knee socks with tabbed garters thought it was swell idea to be out in the sun, with bugs and snakes.
What were they thinking? Were they suffering an odd nostalgia hangover from WWII? The Greatest Generation, my ass.
I remember sitting at crude campsites deep in the Colorado high country (which, back then, was rarely visited and still relatively primeval) doing my duty as the troop’s cook. I cleared the ground, built the fire ring, gathered the wood, started the fire. I used Dutch ovens and heavy cast iron skillets and whipped up all manner of barely recognizable slop, the ingredients for which we had to lug over steep terrain with great effort. Occasionally, while I was busy with the chow prep chores, my fellow Scouts went fishing and I was able to destroy trout for dinner. I could burn anything over a campfire, turn any food product into vile-tasting gruel. Apparently I did it very well, since I got stuck with the job every time we meandered around in the high timber. I detested it.
Later, when I was living in Manhattan, I made a few forays outdoors, strolling from my digs at 11th and University to the club where I played over on St. Mark’s Place. I made the trip to the club at 9 p.m. and came home at 4 a.m., so I didn’t need sunscreen. On subsequent trips back to NYC, I’ve ventured outside a few times. I consider it a major undertaking to walk a few blocks on the east side of Central Park, say between the Met and the Whitney. For a wildlife adventure, I’ll cruise the Lower East Side late at night and try to find some of the places I haunted way back when, though gentrification and a plethora of hipsters have destroyed the ominous ambiance of the area. I’ll amble through Washington Square Park to watch the geeks.
I must admit I’ve walked a bit in London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Amsterdam. I’ve strolled some in La Jolla and San Francisco, in Arles and Lugano. I’ve done a bit of footwork in LA; just a bit, in search of my pal Gordon’s rare book and prints shop on Sunset. I’ve walked around the grounds of a few wineries in the Napa Valley, looking for the tasting rooms. I am a man comfortable in the urban wilderness.
What I like about the urban wilderness is the comforting juxtaposition of the crush of humanity and persistent anonymity. That’s what I enjoy about restaurants and casinos. And what I don’t enjoy about the Great Outdoors. There are tons of folks around you when you’re in a huge casino or in a great restaurant and, if you know how, you have a certain amount of fun together (sometimes entirely too much fun, in the case of a casino). At the same time, you don’t know each other and you really don’t want to know each other; there are no commitments, no plans, no snow caves, no scorched trout. No dead squirrels.
It’s my kind of recreation: blackjack and food. The casino: the confusing layout and crazy colors, the weird electronic binging and bonging, the screams of the inhabitants. That’s my wilderness.
This puzzles my friends who recreate in the outdoors. But, friends who yak about getting out and about, who are readying themselves and their equipment for the outdoor experience puzzle me when they talk about its allure.
They especially worry me when they talk about the food they take to the woods. Sure, it’s not pemmican or leathery dried fruit, like it was in days of yore. But it’s not worth eating, regardless of advances in freeze-dried products. I’ve read the catalogs, perused the overblown descriptions of the foods. You’ve got your fancy breakfasts, you’ve got your entrees. Just add water and heat. There’s beef stroganoff and spaghetti carbonara. You can choose between chicken a la king and jambalaya. There are Chinese dishes, Mexican dishes, a full spectrum of portable comestibles.
Portable, yes. Worth eating, no.
“Mmmm,” say my outdoor freak friends. “It’s yummy. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Pardon me? I think I do. Read the ingredient list on each of these delish items. Ingredient No. 1 is “desiccated crud.” It’s an industrial byproduct, you know, turned out in unimaginable volume by the petroleum industry.
No, just as I prefer the tetrahydrocannabinol-kissed fauna I discover in my “outdoor” world, I prefer the foods I find in my wilderness. Nothing beats a long day at the tables, with the requisite trips from one hall to the next, like a stop at a great restaurant. Double down a bunch of times and hike to Bouchon. Nothing beats it.
“While you’re freezing your rear off, huddling in a shelter to escape a freezing rain, gnawing on some shapeless hunk of desiccated crud,” I tell the outdoor aficionado, “I am cozied up in a suitably dark restaurant preparing to tie into a major league slab of foie gras. While you struggle to heat a pouch of soy-based mock chicken fricassee, I await delivery of moules et frites or osso buco.”
“But, everything tastes better when you are out in nature,” they say.
Phooey. Everything tastes better when an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America or a former apprentice to Paul Bocuse prepares it. The only reason things taste “better” when you are out in nature is because the illusion is a defense against the utter misery of the experience.
“But, have you ever sat out under the stars and eaten a bowl of shepherd’s pie, cooked in a Dutch oven.”
Yep, sure have. I burned many a shepherd’s pie in my day. Torched some biscuits and cakes too. Once set a pineapple upside down cake on fire.
“Before you make more of a fool out of yourself,” I say, “you need to sample my version of shepherd’s pie, the meat braised for hours, the crust of potato comforted by a mantle of cheeses browned under a broiler, each bite accompanied by a sip of a top-drawer California old vine zin, the sauce sopped with a hunk of heavily buttered artisanal bread, the lights in the dining room lowered, the sound system tuned to a favorite Miles Davis CD. Better yet, can you imagine dining this way then adjourning to the tables for several hours of successful blackjack?”
I’m going to whip up some of this special version of shepherd’s pie soon and invite a couple nuts-and-berries-and-hypothermia friends over for dinner. We’ll see which version of the pleasant peasant dish wins out. We’ll see which environment emerges supreme.
I’ll buy a high-grade chuck roast, cut it myself into large chunks and dust the flesh with seasoned flour. I’ll dice a small white onion and the white part of a leek as well as a carrot and a stalk of celery, slice a pound or so of white button mushrooms. I’ll smash and finely dice six or seven cloves of garlic and tie up a bouquet garni with fresh thyme, parsley stems, bay leaf, a couple of the leek leaves and a celery stalk.
The meat will be browned a few pieces at a time in olive oil in a heavy, deep pan, then taken out and put on a warm plate while the onion, celery, carrot and mushrooms are cooked in the oil. The mix will stay on the heat until the mushrooms have given up their moisture and it has evaporated. In go a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to cook until the paste begins to turn toward mahogany. Garlic is next and the pan will be deglazed with a measure of the same zin I’ll drink with dinner. After the goodies are released from the bottom of the pan and the wine reduces a bit, I’ll add the meat, a couple cups of beef stock and the bouquet garni, When the mess comes to a slow boil, I’ll cover the pan and into a 300 oven it’ll go for several hours.
As the hour draws near, I’ll make mashed potatoes, the spuds steamed until fork tender then dried slightly in the hot pan after the water is discarded. Then, they’ll be mashed with a ton of butter, a bit of cream and grated white cheddar, salt, pepper and a teensy dash of fresh ground nutmeg. I want the potatoes to be slightly stiff. I’ll let them cool in the fridge as the meat cooks.
I’ll chunk up some turnip and carrot, procure some small green peas. They’ll be blanched in lightly salted water until the point of a knife can pierce the carrot.
When the meat has braised until it falls apart at the touch of a utensil, it is ready. It will be removed from the sauce with a slotted spoon and placed in a heated bowl. The sauce will be strained, returned to the pot and reduced until very thick. The seasonings will be adjusted and back in goes the meat, along with the vegetables. The mixture will be transferred to an oiled, heavy casserole, the potatoes spread on top of the meat mixture. A few globs of butter go on the spuds and the casserole is put in a hot oven until the potatoes are hot. The top is covered with a mix of grated cheddar and Gruyere and the pile goes under the broiler until the cheese melts and browns.
I’ll serve this with a simple salad: spring mix, garbanzo beans, sliced cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion and oil-cured olives, a country Dijon vinaigrette. A bit of bread for sopping, several hefty glasses of the zin and it’s a complete set.
Bring on your Dutch oven, your over-the-fire desiccated crud. It doesn’t stand a chance.
When the meal is ready, we’ll enjoy it parked in front of my TV, watching a program about the Crab Nebula.