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Camp Maine recipes

Another year, another camp tale

Snow patterns on Toddy Pond

Arrive in heaven, forty minutes.

The GPS gives me a countdown to arrival at camp; it is our first visit this winter, and a last-minute decision. Maine was hit with several feet of snow, the first snow of the season, and we knew the next several weekends were filled with family and trips. There was snow, freezing temperatures, and the only free weekend in sight, so off we went. Sometimes we make quite a production of going, planning menus, shopping, remembering the books, chess board, thermal socks, tea, and countless small details. Today we simply filled a box with whatever was in the fridge, and since that included a couple of lobsters, we were feeling pretty good.

At camp the sun is blinding on the ice, and while there may be work piling up at the studio, and contractors to deal with at the house we are finishing, here it is sun on ice, nothing else matters, or is even thought of.

We perform the rituals of opening camp. The door is unlocked, and I carry Drosselmeyer, our tough, solid Maine coon cat into the cabin. We start a fire, fill the wood box, and wear a path with our snowshoes as we bring in our hastily packed duffel bags, provisions and fishing gear.  At this point Dros is ready to explore, and he bounds out into the eighteen inches of powdery snow.  As he is only twelve inches tall, the snow confounds him. He leaps like a weasel, his back legs splayed out sideways as he humps his way up the hill. He’ll be back in an hour or so. I melt snow on the woodstove for him, and strain out the pine needles and moss using a coffee filter.

Gathering snow to melt on the woodstove

In addition to walking on ice and cooking on wood, my plan was to start developing ideas for the novel that has been festering. Instead I realize I will be writing about camp once again. In fact, I will probably write about camp every year. I hear the rumble as the pond makes more ice, stop writing character descriptions of the great people who seem to want to be in my story, strap on my creepers and head onto the lake. Plan house projects? Work on writing?  Forget all that. I just need to walk on ice. This is why I am here.

The surface is bubbled and lumpy, snow has melted then frozen, and the wind has carved both angular geometric patterns and soft undulating curves. The wind will continue to work its will on the pond until it is flat and shimmering, and ready to invite ice skaters. A loud crack, and I feel the ice tremble beneath my feet. A dry brown leaf taps and skids across the surface, escaping the land for an uncertain trip to the opposite shore. The ice bellows again. I don’t ever recall it being so vocal. I am told we will catch no fish today; they don’t bite when the ice is singing.

A stretch of black ice.

Camp is out of sight, and black ice stretches out at our feet. We can see cracks, and see that the ice is over eight inches thick. In Northeast Creek, Jordan Pond, and other places, the water is clear, and we lie down and watch the world beneath the ice. Here, it is just dark. I peer, and imagine shadowy figures swimming languidly beneath me, but they dissolve as I squint for a better look.

Back at camp we haul out the beach chairs my sister-in-law keeps tucked under the building. We unfold them out on the pond, staggering as the wind tries to grab them out of our hands. Firmly in place, we sip pale white wine, and watch the sun slide behind the trees, leaving the clouds glowing orange and pink like a melting Creamsicle.

End of day

There has been no flag, and no fish nibbled at our tempting live bait. This is the first time this has ever happened. We head into camp to crank up the stove to cook our lobsters. Dros bangs his head at the screen door; he is ready to come in. I scan our odd selection of goods, and plan a meal. Lobsters with fresh limes, focaccia with olive oil I have shaved our garden garlic into, and a cucumber and avocado salad.  We boil the lobsters on the stove, and give the shells to Dros, camp kitty, to devour. Camp games include chess, which we forgot to bring, Gestures and Scattergories. We rarely play games at home, but almost always do at camp, giggling and making up new rules, and tonight it is Scattergories. Then water is boiled on the wood stove to wash the dishes, and fishing gear is checked and prepped for the morning. Dark comes early at camp, and so does bedtime. I won’t say just how early we head to bed.

For tomorrow, there are a few potato pancakes from a family German dinner get-together, and a bit of my sister’s tangy, butter-tender Sauerbraten, to be warmed with a couple of scrambled eggs.

Tomorrow, when I wake, I will walk to a small cove where there is a beaver den. I will walk until I reach the sunlight. The sun comes up behind camp, and casts a shadow almost half way across the pond. When I finally reach the rays of the sun and feel its pale warmth on my face, I will do yoga, bundled and awkward in my snowsuit, which is affectionately called Mrs. Peel.

Will we then leave here and go home? Probably. But I can’t think about that now.

 

 

 

 

Cucumber Avocado Salad

Serves  four, unless you are at camp, where it serves two

 

Four medium pickling cucumbers, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cut into chunks.

1 Haas avocado cut onto about ¾ inch chunks.

1 T olive oil, fresh pepper to taste

½ lime

1 T red pepper jelly, warmed

Put cuke and avocado chunks in a bowl, drizzle with olive olive, and gently mix together.

Squeeze lime juice over salad, blend in jelly, and season with S+P

 

 

 

 

Camp Maine recipes

World’s best chicken stew

Tomato red dutch oven, perfect for chicken stew

Today I made the world’s best chicken stew. This is a bold claim, and I do not make it lightly. I will never make this stew again, nor enter it in a contest, nor pass the recipe on to others. It was camp food, and like so many moments and parts of life at camp, it was created off-hand and unplanned, and cannot be repeated.

Chicken stew is not something I would typically make at home, but it is perfect food to cook on the woodstove at camp. Camp? The word has become part of my everyday vocabulary, but it is a concept I did not understand when I first moved to Maine. Camp was where I was sent as a kid, and slept on bunk in a cabin with seven other little girls. Camp was where I ate from a mess kit, and wrote notes home because we were told to. Camp is where I began to taste independence, and disappointed my mother by never getting homesick. Camp was for kids, not families.

In Maine, camp has a capital letter. It is a second home. It might be rustic and primitive, as is my husband’s family camp, or fully fitted with all the mod cons, which I think takes away most of the fun. It is a place the family goes to, together, every summer, and frequently in winter. It is usually less than an hour away, and most commonly on a lake. When my husband’s grandfather bought the lot on Toddy Pond, there was one camp. Today there are over eight camps, and four are owned by family members, including the camp we use, which belongs to my sister-in-law.

We go to camp to walk on ice, sit in the sun, read, ice fish and eat. The intent is to catch fish for dinner, but I always bring food in case we get no fish. When I first came here, I would plan meals, organize them at home, and with delight impose my vision of camp food on my husband. He and his family had opted for canned beans, hot dogs, Dinty Moore stew, and mounds of bacon. I was not convinced. I would bring assortment of condiments along, getting packed to go to camp, unpacked at camp, then packed to go home and finally, full circle, unpacked back at home. My checklist included every spice I might possibly want, olive oil, pickles, cheeses and a selection of cocoa and teas. His grandsons happily joined me wrapping potatoes in foil to tuck into the woodstove, and though skeptical, accepted my spicy Mayan cocoa. It was fun, but a bit complicated. Zip bags of marinated meat were sautéed with seasoned and prepped vegetables. Polenta needed more than its usual tending to prevent sticking as the temperature on the woodstove top fluctuated. Salad greens needed to be protected from freezing, as camp sometimes takes a few hours to get warm. It was a production, but as long as there was plenty of bacon my elaborate meals were tolerated.

The fact that I insisted on using the woodstove to cook on was also tolerated. There is a gas burner at camp, but the large, even, cast-iron surface of the wood stove, which was already burning to supply our warmth, could not be ignored. I learned to regulate the temperature by a combination of adjusting the damper, opening the door slightly, and adding wood in small regular amounts. Opening the door made an instant impact, but also made it impossible to stand right by the stove. If I wore anything with acrylic in it, I soon felt as though my legs were wrapped in fiery blankets, and about to combust.

Camp, fireglow from woodstove in one window, sunset reflecting in the other

Things have gotten a bit more relaxed. Now, I do very little planning. I raid the fridge and root cellar for whatever looks promising. We stop at a market on the way, grab some things, and off we go. A few years ago I made cock-a-leekie soup with my daughter to celebrate Candlemas, and since then a variation on this hearty chicken soup has become the easy no-thought meal that is part of a camp weekend. It is always good. Food at camp always is. It can simmer on the woodstove for hours without harm. The ingredients are never measured and always vary, but it is still chicken stew, and it is delicious. Today’s was outstanding.

I had grabbed a pile of potatoes and carrots from the root cellar, onion and garlic, and pulled a bag of Maitaki mushrooms we had gathered in the fall from the freezer. A few odd leftovers were tossed in the box, we bought some chicken thighs and a green pepper at the market, and that was it. We no longer really plan on eating our fish for dinner, but look forward to the stew. I used to wait and see if we caught fish before starting to cook, but now I just get that stew on the stove and get out on the ice.

My sister-in-law has one of my favorite cooking utensils. It is a tomato soup red Le Club dutch oven. I look forward to coming to camp for many reasons; the sun on the ice, the quiet, the distance from all the responsibilities back home, and for cooking in this pot. It sits flatly on the woodstove, takes heat evenly, and is really easy to clean.

There was no olive oil, so I peeled a few strips from the pack of bacon and let that render in the beautiful tomato red pot. Slivered garlic and sliced onion were added, turned translucent, then slightly brown at the edges. The chicken thighs were cubed, blessed with lots of black pepper, and tossed into the now sizzling pot. We always bring a generous supply of wine to camp, and so there was plenty to pour over the browned meat. I did not wait, but chopped in the carrots, a few pieces of potato, stirred it all up, put the cover on and went out to fish.

I checked it on occasion, adding a splash of wine or a pinch of salt. I only did these things to nurture the stew, it really was doing fine without any further aid from me. We caught fish. Some we gave back, and some, a half dozen white perch, were kept for tomorrow night’s meal. The sky began to darken and I went back to the warmth of the camp. The stew seemed a bit liquid, so the bowl of left over mashed potatoes, intended for breakfast potato cakes, was dumped into the stew and stirred in. The mushrooms, which had been sautéed in white wine with lavender and rosemary before freezing, were mixed in as well.

A loaf of bread was tossed on the hot stove next to the pot to get warm and crispy.
I settled into the couch to read, and heard a distant cry of “Flag” as the orange flag of one more tip-up sprang up-right, indicating another fish on the line.

The creamy texture was smooth, golden, and just the right distance between thick and thin. It was the most delicious chicken stew I ever had, until next time we come to camp.

Taking a break, back in May!

View from camp

Maine Nature Log recipes

Roe, roe, roe we gloat

Winter roe is never found on the menus of local restaurants. Never is a word to be treated with great respect and caution, and so it is a rare pleasure to use it. Roe probably does not appear on too many dinner tables, either, since it is also not generally found at the local market. In fact, I think I can say with confidence it is never found there.

You need a fisherman to get roe this time of year. Preferably, a fisherman who can also clean the roe sack out intact, as a punctured roe is a mess to cook. But a mess of roe is a wonderful thing. This is confusing, but blame our dynamic English language. The phrase “a mess of “ is something I learned from my mother-in-law, and thought it was one of her colorful Maineisms, like sprill ( fir needles) and oughts (compost), but a mess of goes as far back as the Old French, mes, a portion of food, and perhaps is even older. It then shifted from a large portion of smaller things, to an untidy pile of things, to a mess.

Raw yellow perch roe

Roe from certain fish is also called caviar, but that is not the kind of egg sac that comes from below the ice on our Maine ponds and lakes. Cod roe is commonplace in Iceland, served with a dab of mayonnaise on crackers. The roe from the American Shad is sought after, connoisseurs have been known to pay exorbitant prices to have it flown to their kitchens. I grew up eating shad as one of our rites of spring. The eating came after fishing with my father on the Connecticut River, but more often than not the shad and shad roes we ate came from the nearby Shad Shack, a seasonal booth selling fresh deboned shad and roe. I still seek shad roe out when the Amelanchier, also called the shad bush, serviceberry, shad blow and a few other names, displays its soft white blossoms. But that is a while a way.

I prefer not to compare shad roe to two of our winter roes, from white perch and yellow perch. Perch roes are delicious now. Shad roe will be delicious then. I also will not debate the issue of invasive species. I wish the yellow perch were not in the ponds we found them in, but will not turn down their roe for political reasons.

White perch roe is about the size of my pinky finger, pale whitish grey, and very finely grained. The sac covering is very delicate, and needs to be handled with care. A tiny pinprick or two, a gentle rinse, and slide the roes ( you will need quite a few) into a cast iron pan with a shimmer of olive oil. After the heat firms them, add white wine, turn gently and very softly let them cook. Serve just like that or cool them, mince some garlic, add yogurt or mayonnaise and a hint of oyster sauce. Spread on toast.

Yellow perch are a bit sturdier, quite a bit thicker, as thick as a sausage. They are a lovely golden color, and can be cooked just like the white perch. They have many more eggs in the case, and are closer to the shad’s roe. Instead of olive oil, use ghee or butter. Three or four can make a meal, with a salad.

Yellow perch roe, not piglets

Many fisherman toss out the roe, or feed the entire yellow perch to the eagles that generally hang out where ice fisherman fish. They are looked at as trash food, just as mussels were not so many years ago. When I moved to Maine, mussels were not sold in the seafood market in Bar Harbor, and were not on the menu at any restaurant. I am not predicting yellow and white perch will become restaurant fare as they are not so easy to get, nor are they as plentiful as mussels, but perhaps fisherman will bring them home to enjoy with the rest of their catch.

Even if they don’t I will continue eat them, each bite a succulent, rich, o mi gosh moment. I will also continue to thank my fisherman who brings them, beautifully cleaned and glistening, to our kitchen. “Aren’t they complicated to clean?“ I ask.

“Slit the belly, give a push with your finger, and out they pop,” was the reply.

There are not many things about Maine winter’s that are that easy.


A fine mess of white perch