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.
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!