Flash in the Pan 

Cabin cuisine

“…I don’t care if I never have any money, as long as I have my sweet honey and a shack in the woodlands…” —Greg Brown

…And if all you have is the cabin, one out of two ain’t bad. In the case of my buddy, who I’ll call Cabin Fever, one out of two will have to do.

Ah, cabin life. If there were a catalog of domestic archetypes, the proverbial “shack in the woodlands” would have to be on the cover. For many, cabin life is a rite of passage. For some it becomes a way of life, living in your small cozy space, heated by wood fire and lit by candles and hurricane lanterns. Your own private outhouse, a porch to pee off…

So romantic, so earthy…who needs that sweet honey?

So romantic, so earthy…what sweet honey wouldn’t jump at the chance to climb the ladder to the upstairs loft and crawl under the heavy blankets next to the unshaven manly-man who chops his own wood and carries his own water—even if it’s not enough water for frequent-enough bathing?

Whoa there, pardner. If you think this story is going in a brokeback sort of direction, sorry. This here sweet honey was at Cabin Fever’s cabin for the grubbing, not the snuggling.

Before moving to his mountain retreat for the winter, Cabin Fever had cooked in a number of fine restaurants in Montana and Minnesota. Now he spends his summers, in true mountain-man fashion, in Alaska, where he’s a camp cook. He claims that after cooking salmon three meals a day for months, he’s ready for a change.

“All I have in the cabin is apples, squash, onion and bacon,” he told me recently at—get this—a Christmas party. It seems the need for human companionship had temporarily drawn him off his cold, dark mountain and into the festive valley below.

So it’s out of those ingredients that he makes his mountain meals. “I make it differently each time,” he explained, and he invited me up the mountain to try it myself.

So we made an appointment for Cabin Fever to initiate me into the ways of apple, squash, onion and bacon cuisine.

The cabin sits partway up a steep slope under a grand fir tree. Inside it’s so hot that Cabin Fever had the door wide open. The walls are adorned with feathers, antlers and rusty traps. Bookshelves hold the requisite volumes by the likes of Gary Snyder, Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Lao Tsu. On the wood stove was a pot full of water and fir needles—a mountain man air freshener.

There was still plenty of room on the wide stovetop for a pot of sizzling bacon, a pan of un-peeled thinly sliced carnival squash slowly cooking in butter, and a pot of vegetable stock Cabin Fever was preparing with onion ends, apple peel, bay leaf and some “like, two-month old kale” he found in his icebox that was still in remarkably good shape.

Astute readers will have noticed that bay leaves and kale were not on the aforementioned list of ingredients. But I wasn’t complaining, especially when Cabin Fever laid upon the cutting board a fresh backstrap from a deer that had hung for three weeks.

No, there was no point in being a stickler about the rules. Cabin life is about freedom, not confinement, even if it means squeezing yourself into a tiny one-room space. When Cabin Fever moved into the cabin, his predecessor had left the aforementioned ingredients, plus salt, pepper, cayenne and bay leaves. With these, Cabin Fever began his research. These ingredients remain the foundation of his diet, augmented on occasion by whatever else is available.

He poured some vegetable stock into the squash and stirred it around. Then he set a pan of sliced apples and onions on the stove in more butter, and seasoned it with salt, pepper and cayenne powder. After this had cooked for a while he added some chopped kale and veggie stock. After the contents had cooked, he added them to the squash pan, whose combined contents he proceeded to improve with the addition of bacon. Into the leftover bacon grease went the backstraps, which had been rubbed with salt and pepper. The backstraps cooked for just long enough to warm the meat’s succulent interior.

It would be poor form to eat such a meal without a nice bottle of red wine, which luckily I had brought with me. Thus equipped, we got down to business, tearing the meat apart with our fingers and slurping it down with wine.

The richness of the squash, the sweetness of the apple, the chew of the kale, the soft and bloody meat…this meal was totally local, totally in season, totally spectacular.

“This time of year,” Cabin Fever confirmed, “it’s like, squash and apples.”

And two out of two, plus or minus, ain’t so bad.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: A spice too far?

Q: Dear CBA,
I’m slowly getting into the “buying local” thing, but I’m wondering where I’m going to get ginger for stir-fry, cookies, ginger ale, medicine, etc.

Seems it usually comes from Hawaii or Thailand. Is there a way to grow it here?
—Missing My Snap

A: Dear Snapless,
Don’t forget, the buy-local thing is not about self-inflicted hardship. Sure, you could plant some ginger root in a pot and probably get it to grow. But you would need a very large pot to grow enough ginger to satisfy your apparently large appetite for the spicy tuber. Is it worth it?

To me, the most important part of buying local is to buy the items locally that are already grown here. Buying carrots from California, for example, is silly when they grow just fine in Montana.

But ginger, well, it does taste good, and I’m not going to ask anyone to avoid any of the glorious fruits of our home planet for the sake of abstract principles. You can’t save the world in one meal, with or without ginger.

But one way to reduce the impact of your hunger for ginger is to use ginger powder whenever possible—in those cookies, for instance. Ginger powder doesn’t require refrigeration, and it doesn’t go bad too quickly, which means it can be sent over from the tropics on a slow boat, which is much more efficient than, say, a plane, or even a refrigerated cargo boat.

To me, eating locally is about developing as many local sources for your food as you can, and then not sweating it when you want some coffee, chocolate or ginger. We’re not Puritans, after all, any more than my buddy Cabin Fever (see above). And even when your food comes from the other side of the world, at least you’ve taken the time to think about it.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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