Friday, July 18, 2008

Camp Fire Stew, Grown Up

I was a Camp Fire Girl. This is a little bit like the Girl Scouts. We wore outfits and had meetings and went to camp. The Camp Fire Girls focused on good deeds, community service, and self knowledge. I remember that my sister Serena had a ceremony where she was decked out in her full length Indian Princess gown covered from head to toe with beads representing all of the good deeds and helpful projects she orchestrated. We all called out a special word and made a hand signal. Then we sang a beautiful spiritual song to get us in the mood to be good. Serena was the picture of splendorous beauty in her princess gown, and she seemed surrounded in a halo of light that night. The ceremony was just for her. All these accomplishments in the form of beads, artfully applied in patterns and shapes. Me, I had a vest with a handful of beads which we'd sewn into simple shapes. I didn't really have enough for patterns and spirals. I was particularly proud of my blue bead, hard to earn.

We went on a camping expedition and were charged with cooking Camp Fire Stew to earn a bead. This was delicious to kids, a mix of ground beef, tomato sauce, and vegetables. Scraped into a hot slurry in a pan over an open fire, it was simply a marvel and I was astounded when I tasted the result of my handiwork.

Some summer evenings are meant for Camp Fire Stew. I think of that first time with those big grey stones around the fire pit, and the old beat up pot they brought out. We all knelt around the carefully built fire and under the guidance of one of the mothers. The burning wood smelled lovely, we had built the fire ourselves, and the warmth and light of our fire posed a contrast to the cool breeze coming off the lake and the dark forest beyond. Our sleeping bags were all rolled out in a cabin, waiting for ghost stories, flashlights, mosquito netting, and games. We added the ingredients one by one, and we each got a chance to stir.

These days I always have olive oil, because Brigitte gave us a gallon of the really good stuff. Always, garlic. Always shallots, sometimes onions. This is where I begin. Camp Fire Stew should always be made with whatever you have lying about, but begin with the bulbs. I take a moment to sharpen my knife with a few strokes. No more than a half dozen are necessary. It does the spirit good to cut with a sharp knife. My clean cutting boards are down.

I heat some oil up a larger sized pan. While the oil heats, I mince the garlic and shallots and toss them in. Then I look to my vegetable basket and place whatever kinds of vegetables I have in a colander.

This time of year you might have eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, onions, squash of various kinds, green beans, mushrooms, etc. Add one or two or a handful of everything you've got.

The garlic and shallots have begun to release their aroma and it floats through the house. You can add meat if you have some. Any kind will do. Slice the meat, cutting against the grain for beef and pork and sliver along the grain for chicken or other poultry to keep things tender and juicy. Think about how by cutting it up small it will cook faster. Add the meat, spreading it in a layer over the garlic and shallots. Give it a toss. Let it brown on one side. Toss it again.

While the meat's browning, rinse and chop up your vegetables. Nice big chunks. A few swift strokes are all that's necessary. Add them. Look carefully. Sprinkle with a little salt. Reach up and pluck a bay leaf and a few sprigs of aromatic herbs you've got drying here and there, and tuck them in between the vegetables. Toss it. Take in the aroma. Give it a stir. In a few minutes, the vegetables will begin to release their juices. Tomatoes give a lot of juice, as do mushrooms and courgettes. Does something seem to be taking form?

Like magic, you'll have a nice pile of summer goodness steaming and simmering there in their own juices, with a little bit of that optional meat, and the herbs. Use a wood spatula or spoon to make sure that whatever browning from the meat is on the bottom gets mixed into the juice. If there doesn't seem to be enough juice, open the refigerator door. Ah. A bottle of white wine. Some leftover tomato sauce from the other night. Drizzle the lot with the wine or a little sauce. Toss again. Bring the heat up until it bubbles happily. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover the lot, and set your timer for 20 minutes.

The last and most important step is to present this cobbled stew. Give it a taste and season it if necessary. If the larder is especially meager and you haven't used much meat, a topping of poached eggs adds is a nice way to fortify it. Things like fresh minced herbs, chives, or something like mushrooms or small bits of leftovers can make great finishing touches to the presentation.

Even if this dish didn't take much planning or effort, you don't want to haul the pot to the table. You have cooked something worthy of a serving dish. Bring out a wide and shallow serving platter with a proper spoon, or even a narrow and high one, made of ceramic, with a ladle. Set the table. The world will not come to an end if the tablecloths and napkins are wrinkled. Sitting at the table, using even wrinkled hung dried linens and old mismatched plates, a small goblet of vin de pays, your spirit will pay homage to this humble supper of Camp Fire Stew, grown up.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your poetry never fails to warm my heart, or my stomach!!!! Thank you so very much!! Anon

5:29 PM, July 19, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I JUST ADORE the way you wrote that recipe. I would love to read cookbooks like that, like novels.


6:01 PM, July 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Worship God
Hmm, umm
Seek beauty, give service, and knowledge pursue,
Be trust worthy ever in all that you do,
Hold fast on to health and your work glorify,
And you will be happy by the law of Campfire!"

I Love You Lu!


2:42 PM, July 25, 2008  
Blogger L Vanel said...

That was the song! I love you too Serena!

4:42 PM, July 25, 2008  

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