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A la Carte: Adventure and adaptability

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Sausages cook on a cast iron skillet over a campfire. ADOBE STOCK

By Rachel Hergett EBS COLUMNIST

I always thought I would be good at “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a show hosted by Alton Brown that aired on Food Network from 2013 to 2017. Though set up like many other reality cooking competition shows—four contestants are whittled down through a series of challenges and eventually one winner emerges—this one was devious. Contestants started with a bunch of cash they could use to bid on sabotages that may seriously derail their competitors. Brown, as the auctioneer and seeming mastermind, would cackle as the crew would take away their pots or replace their cooktops with candles. He would make them cook in a boat or on a rotating platform.

The show was a study in adaptability. 

One summer weekend, I was invited to join a friend and his family at the sand dunes outside Saint Anthony, Idaho, for some four-wheeling and dune-buggying. Dinner the first night came with apologies. They were happy to share their hamburgers and hot dogs, but that was all they had. “We wanted to make more,” they said, “but only have a grill.” The stove in their grandfather’s giant RV wasn’t functioning. 

I have nothing against a hot dog, and often throw some in my cooler for camping trips, but I had planned for nothing more than a grill, marinating chicken (try cheap Italian dressing and thank me later) and slathering zucchini sticks in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder and oregano. Hot dogs were abandoned when I started cooking. I had more than enough to share.

The next morning, I made their family breakfast. Not wanting to scorch the bottom of their pans, I created a makeshift cooking surface out of tinfoil and scrambled eggs on the grill alongside bacon and hash brown patties.

Thing is, while my kitchen is stocked with all sorts of nifty contraptions to make cooking easier, we don’t actually need all the gadgets to make something great. 

I learned this lesson early. My family never skimped on the food on yearly river trips, simply modifying recipes for what cooking surfaces may be available. I learned to make use of cook stoves and fire pits. I learned to adapt. 

During a canoe trip through Big Thicket National Preserve, I made full steak dinners for a crew of amazed Texans over a fire I built myself. That meal included grilled jalapeño poppers with bacon and Stove Top stuffing. Boxed stuffing is a camping staple in my family. If you can heat water, you can make instant stuffing.

Ideally, when heading out on a river or to the woods, my “kitchen” has three main supplies: A grill grate, a cast iron pan or Dutch oven and a pot to boil water. 

The grill grate can be propped up with rocks over coals at the edge of a fire and doubles as a cooktop if needed. While I should probably add one to my camping supplies, I often just steal the grate off my own grill for the journey. Adaptability.

Cast iron can go directly in the fire, which makes it an ideal, if heavy tool. And boiling water is key to stuffing or, more importantly, coffee. 

Using these tools, I’ve cooked biscuits and gravy on the side of the Colorado River in the middle of Canyonlands National Park, made crawdad stew when our meat cooler was left open on the Smith River, and, when my headlamp went missing, grilled steaks (an obvious on-the-go favorite) in the dark using the hand/finger test. 

Honing your ability to adapt your cooking methods opens up new worlds of flavor in places where they may be least expected. And most appreciated.

Rachel Hergett is a foodie and cook from Montana. She is arts editor emeritus at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and has written for publications such as Food Network Magazine and Montana Quarterly. Rachel is also the host of the Magic Monday Show on KGLT-FM and teaches at Montana State University. 

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