Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The things they carried

On our trip to the Desolation Wilderness this weekend, my friend Ian (holder of a proverbial PhD in astrophysics) explained how the star Eta Carinae could explode into a supernova during our lifetimes and fire a highly concentrated burst of gamma rays toward the Earth at light speed, immediately extinguishing all life. My friend Hung suggested that this would in fact turn all life into The Incredible Hulk, but Ian rejected that hypothesis.

Looking at the universe from that perspective it seems a little silly to blog about Niçoise salad this evening. I mean, really, who gives a shit? Anyway, gamma rays or no gamma rays, I think that I did put together a most excellent camping spread this weekend, starting with this lovely Niçoise salad. Jeff and I had assembled most of the ingredients at home and packed them individually, so when we got there it was just a matter of opening up our tupperware, tossing together some chopped tomato, hardboiled eggs, chickpeas, tarragon, olives, and arugula, then binding them with a lemon vinaigrette that I had packed in a mason jar. Twenty minutes after the tents were set up and we already had dinner ready. How bad can that be?

Camping! Camping. Campfire. Cast-iron skillet. This is how my brain works. Then again, most free-association games I play in my head end up at "cast-iron skillet." Since we're in the height of stone fruit season here in California, and since this weekend was the 40th anniversary of seasonal cooking juggernaut Chez Panisse, peach cobbler was pretty much obligatory. It turned out to be just about the best you can do with peach cobbler, if I do say so myself. Which is good; at least I got to enjoy the perfect campfire peach cobbler one time before Eta Carinae destroys us all. The peaches came out just right--broken down into caramelized sweetness, but not cooked so long that they lost their texture or the concentrated peachy flavor that you get from warm stone fruit. With a salty crust on top, a veil of campfire smoke, and the memory of a dozen savory dishes before it in the skillet... ooh, that was a cobbler.

The next day we headed into the wilderness, and wilderness is paradise enow without lugging a ten-pound skillet on your back for eight miles. So, for lunch, I decided to go with another mainstay of August produce in California: heirloom tomatoes. I chopped up a rainbow of tomatoes in the morning and let them marinate in salt and basil for the first four miles of the hike. For our lunch stop, we ate them on top of a crusty baguette with some swiss cheese. In the future I will figure out a way to purchase tomatoes for a camping trip without first taking them on a transbay journey from Berkeley Bowl to my apartment to my workplace, but even after all that and a 200-mile drive into the wilderness, they weren't too much worse for the wear.

The trail we were taking included a geographical feature called Rockbound Pass, and, indeed, we bounded over a lot of rocks before we passed through it. Overall, though, none of the scenery on this trip was particularly desolate--it was like any other trip through the northern Sierras. Yosemite with half as many scenic vistas, a quarter as many people, and seven times as many puppies (I had never seen a chihuahua go hiking before).

Before this trip I hadn't tried making risotto in the backcountry--that is, when you're carrying your immediate fortune on your back and working with a bunsen burner for your dinner instead of a campfire and a stove--but I swore to myself that after overdosing on lentils and couscous in Glacier, neither one would show up in our cooking on this trip. And, you know what? Backcountry risotto is not too bad. Pour some rice into some boiling water, cook it about 25 minutes, stir it a lot, add water about two or three more times, and then stir in some salted zucchini and red peppers right at the end. You can turn the heat off while the rice is absorbing water if you want to save some fuel. Risotto, or something like it, in the Desolation Wilderness.

All in all, it was a good camping trip. The only complaint I might level against it is that everything went too smoothly, so the whole experience was maybe a little perfunctory--okay, let's go into the wilderness, stand on top of some rocks, and make have some guacamole bagels. No problem. No helicopters, forgotten boots, sprained ankles, melting snow, empty gas canisters, or thunderstorms. Does this mean I'm getting good at planning camping trips? Well, this is what the kid in The River complains about before he gets struck by lightning, so maybe I shouldn't press my luck.

PS -- According to Wikipedia, Eta Carinae probably will not explode during our lifetimes and extinguish all life on Earth. Please go back to your regularly scheduled Niçoise salads.

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