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Food for a Mountain Man
When my son Sam moved from the heart of downtown Philadelphia to the mountains of northwest Montana, he moved from a café and grocery store on every corner to a supermarket ten miles down the road and a stove in the kitchen. For the first time in his life, he was going to have to think ahead about food and learn to cook for himself seriously, especially when winters might be 30 below and the snow ten feet deep.
Forget seasonal, forget local, forget all the gastronomic buzzwords that are the luxuries of people conveniently located near greenmarkets in California or New York. Sam was located, on the contrary, between a glacial lake in his front yard and a snow-topped mountain in the rear. The scenery was great, but what was going to eat?
As a mother, I was both surprised and pleased that he actually asked me for recipes. He wanted dishes that would be simple, straight, totally foolproof even for a novice cook, and with ingredients so standard you could find them in any supermarket, on a monthly trek to the nearest town.
I liked the challenge and figured the best food for a mountain man who had learned to cut down his own trees, repair his frozen pipes, rewire his blown fuses and scare off wandering bears with a rifle shot, would be the world’s most reliable soup and stew. What might seem simple minded to a city person would be tasty survival food to someone who had returned to the traditions of his pioneering ancestors, who had themselves gone from cities in the East to mountains in the West in covered wagons---without the luxury of supermarkets.
When I visited Sam last winter, I had the luxury of a son who kept me warm with the wood he’d chopped and kept me fed with the food he’d cooked. The food was hot and very tasty and the snow was deep outside.
SAM’S CHICKEN SOUP
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
½ medium onion, chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, sliced crosswise
2 stalks celery, sliced crosswise
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
1 quart chicken broth (from cubes, cans or cartons)
Salt & black pepper to taste
¼ pound noodles or other pasta
2 raw chicken breasts, boned and cut in 1-inch cubes
Optional: fresh parsley leaves, chopped
In a large pan, heat the olive oil, then add the chopped vegetables and herbs and sauté gently until the vegetables soften.
Add the broth, stir well and season to taste. Bring broth to the simmer (little bubbles around the edge) and add the noodles. Return to the simmer. Taste again. (If you need more liquid, add more broth, water or vegetable juice. If you need more flavor, add a chicken bouillon cube or two, which will also provide more salt).
Simmer without a lid until the noodles are tender (about 10 to 15 minutes, or read directions on the package). Add the chicken pieces and simmer a couple of minutes, until the chicken is tender. Don’t overcook the chicken.
Ladle into bowls, garnish the top of each with finely chopped parsley
Serves 2 to 4
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ to 1 medium onion, chopped
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon oregano
1 to 2 teaspoons ground red chili (medium hot)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 pound ground round or chuck
1 can (16 to 24 ounces) chopped tomatoes
1 can (1 pound) red kidney beans
Salt & black pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan, add the onion, garlic and spices and cook until the onion softens. Add the meat and stir well until it’s lightly cooked. Add the tomatoes and their juices, add beans with their liquid. Add seasonings and taste thoroughly.
Adjust spicing to your taste. Depending on the heat of the chili you use, if you want more heat, add some cayenne or Tabasco. You can also add Worcestershire Sauce.
If you need more liquid, add vegetable juice or water, plus a beef bouillon cube. If you want a thicker stew, add tomato paste. If you want a chewier meat, use cubed beef from the chuck and brown it just as you do ground meat.
You can use any kind of beans, like pinto, black, navy. To cook dried beans: Cover beans with water 2 inches above the height of the beans. Bring to the boil, boil rapidly uncovered for 2 minutes. Put on a lid, remove the pan from heat and let sit for an hour or more. When ready to use, add more water (if needed) to cover about 1 inch above the beans. Bring liquid to the simmer, cover partly with a lid, and simmer until the beans are tender (1 to 2 hours, depending on the beans). If desired, add chopped green or sweet red peppers, chopped fresh tomatoes, chopped fresh chilies like jalapeno or Serrano. Don’t salt the beans until nearly done or it makes them tough.
Anything can go into the pot, like salt pork, chopped sausages, pork on the bone, lamb on the bone, whatever you have that will withstand long slow cooking.
Serves 1 big guy, 2 medium guys, or 3 girls
Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.