Monday, August 25, 2008

lake italy pizza (high sierra sourdough loop part 2)

There is something very soothing about making dough up in the thin mountain air. Kneading, pulling, folding and breathing slowly and deeply all the while. Up here the cadence really fits the view.
Yeah, its gotta be the view.

Then again maybe it was starting off the day by catching my first fish of the trip, then losing it trying to take a picture.
My first pure Golden! What a beautiful fish, I gotta get a picture!
Then reaching for the camera, the fish starts flipping about and is gone........Nothing like a good hearty laugh at yourself before that morning cup of joe.

This is the view looking down at the ingredients and supplies. Plain indeed as far a scenery, but you know, mise en place counts for something at 10,800+ and it is imperative we start at the beginning. From left to right, starting at the top I have: active starter in my 2 quart plastic dough can, BFM olive oil resting on a bagged mix of 3 parts bread flour to 1 part whole wheat, my water bottle, and the screw-on top for my dough can. Then in the non-stick we have a container of salt, one with a mix of dried garden herbs, and a borrowed wooden spoon.

After putting a cup or so of water in with the starter I added a few handfuls of flour and mixed it with the wooden spoon until it started clumping up. I flopped this out onto the pan and kneaded it for about five minutes while enjoying the morning sun on my mosquito bitten face. I covered the pan, then let the dough rest while I went and pumped some water for our accent of the pass. Coming back to the dough I added a few teaspoons of salt and about a tablespoon of herbs and then continued kneading for another 2-3 minutes. I oiled up the dough can and placed my herbed lump in.

Well above Upper Mills creek lake I had a peek at the dough while grabbing some more jerky from my pack. It was looking good and smelling even better. Had there been more humidity in the air I might have noticed the salivating. We were nearing 12,000 feet and I had just finished a dumb traverse. I was too high up a talus slope and needed to drop a bit to meet the "trail." Some day-hikers coming down from the pass indicated that it was easy, just make sure to "stay in the gut and head right up" which sounded easy enough. I wound back down to the bottom of the canyon and plotted my course.

The bouldering in the bottom of the route to the pass was straight forward. From pebbles to house size blocks, it was a doable maze indeed; pretty straight, with occasional jogs to the sides to avoid climbing something on all fours. At what seemed like the last flat area before a final pitch to the pass, we took another breather. Another check of the dough confirmed it's happiness. It was poofy and in need of a beating down. Based on this, I was guessing it must have been around 70-ish in my pack. Combined with the lower barometric pressure at this altitude not pushing down as much, the dough was rising even faster than it would at home. I was overcome with joy and the prospect of fluffy pizza dough tonight. I wanted a high altitude portrait.

With everyone caught up and resting it was time to assess our final climb for the day. I took my first real look at what lay ahead. I remember thinking those guys also said it wasn't too bad going up the final bit, that it even had a nice marked path, and the other side of the pass was easy! Like, cheaaaww! Pfffst! Right!

You have got to be fucking kidding! kept running through my mind as we stared up. Then two brave souls forged ahead as I stood and stared some more. After a few minutes they yelled that there were some cairns and a worn trail. They even said it wasn't too steep. I took another look and stared again in disbelief. I fished out my camera and took this picture to look at again later. Like maybe when I wasn't contemplating my sanity. You know what? You see that little black speck in the middle? It is not a hunk of basalt in an otherwise granitic landscape, no way. Nor is it a blackened tree trunk somehow way above timberline. Nope. It is a person, of sound mind and body heading uphill. Taking another look now it still looks daunting. However, should you go this way yourself, in August or later when the snow is all gone, and you have any experience going cross-country at such altitudes, you do indeed have a tame final bit on the North side of Gabbot pass.

The top was very flat and spilled over to the South in the beginnings of a green carpet set amongst stones. This soft green mat seemed to run at least halfway downslope in the direction we were going and my heart went a flutter. We easily had over a mile and a half to go to camp but it looked like we'd be there within the hour. Going a bit fast for my wobbly legs and big pack I only nearly ate it once. Well, okay maybe twice but tht's why they make walking sticks right?

Safely on the level near the East end of Lake Italy we set up camp. I checked the dough one more time and gave it another punch, then started working on the toppings. Using my backpackers cheese grater I shredded some dry jack. We boiled some water and I rehydrated some peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes that I dried for the trip. Remembering we didn't use all of our pesto tube from two nights ago, my SIL offered the rest. The pizza was starting to sound, well, Italian at the very least. Salt encrusted and getting chewed on by a few mosquitos, I started constructing our first of two pizzas.

I didn't expect it to last long so I got a pre-baked picture right before tossing it in the "oven." The first one was a touch soft on the top but considering the location, this is easily forgiven. I have used this set up several times now and am most pleased with the results. I liken the results to: at home this pizza would be considered not crispy enough, but out here, it tastes like the best pizza ever.

Want some?

It was getting dark by the time number two was done. It came out more fully baked. My BIL got out the high country version of the ove glove and started cutting. Finishing off the last pieces coincided with the mosquitos calming down and the bats coming out. It was time for bed. It was also time for some tunes as I had a horrible Christopher Cross song in my head, doing that endless annoying loop thing since coming down from the pass. I had purchased my first iPod thingy before the trip and right now I felt like the smartest man alive to have it with me.

Climbing into my bag I funked out for a while with 8-string master guitarist Charlie Hunter now in my head. Somewhere in the smooth jazzy sounds I could make out squeeky little clicks and ticks of the bats flitting about only inches above my tent. It sounded like I was listening to music on vinyl instead of pure digital. I had another good hearty laugh, turned off the tunes and promptly fell asleep.

A few audible rock falls and subsequent sliding talus sounds during the night called me from a deep slumber. Looking out I realized I was deep in the moon shadow of one mountain, while looking out on the moonlit peaks all around. I looked around for the pass the dough came over and then drifted back out, happy I came along for the ride.

Friday, August 22, 2008

high sierra sourdough loop (part 1)

"The sourdough is the true adventurer.........I'm just along for the ride." - MW
August 12th, 2008 (Gabbot pass area at approximately 11,957 feet)

One of my sourdough starters was looking forward to a high country adventure.
One where the altitude would make it easier work.
One where the doubt of backcountry pizza being in the realm of possibility would be erased for some.
One where my butt would work overtime traversing steep terrain with a live dough in my pack to prove this point.

This year, the "ferry service" from the trailhead camping consists of a 16 foot bass boat that could fit 5 besides the pilot, plus backpacks. For ten bucks you get the seeming luxury of cutting off a few trail miles. This being a drought year it means you start by driving all the way down to damn near the bottom of the dam. After parking your car in what might be 40 feet of water some years, you drag your bag over to a small listing "dock" tied to some big rocks on the shore and get in line. The boat pulls up and instead of thinking ferry, I was thinking trolling. The body count ahead of us and some quick math determined it would only be another hour and a half until it was our turn. When that finally comes you toss your stuff in and then bounce your way across the lake some 3-ish miles. This year being special and all, since the lake is soooooo low (drought year remember) you get dumped off nearly a mile earlier than expected. After a warm and sandy slog we arrived at where Mono creek "spills" into the lake. After only 3 hours we came to the beginning of our hike.

After re-considering the sign we saw back at VVR (Don't complain about the level of the lake if you still water your lawn) we grabbed a snack and headed off East. Soon we were greeted by Volcanic Nob and signs of glaciation on the peaks around us. The canyon walls pulled in closer and rose a bit. The home made jerkey, dried figs and cherries were hitting the spot as we joined the PCT/JMT and made our first switchbacks of the trip. Greeted by our first pack train of the trip, I was suddenly hyper-aware of all the shit on the trail. Longing to get off after only a hundred yards of my heightened awareness to biting horse flies and such, my pace quickened and the next big valley to our South came into view: Second Recess. We were nearing our camp for the first night and I felt myself rejoicing with the idea of symbiosis; the sourdough starter needs me as I knead it. We agreed to share dinner duties so tonight someone else would cook for us all. I would cook on night three, meaning tomorrow the starter would get its first meal in a few days.

The following morning we broke camp. I fed the beast in my pack and then crossed Mono creek. With no water worthy shoes, I used a semi-treacherous log bridge, only to find we had to cross Mills creek to get back to the trail we needed to be on. With my right foot nicely moistened with clear cold creek water, I found the most obvious foot trail around and made my way uphill with the rest of our group. In less than 20 minutes the trail leveled out and began following a beautiful trout filled stream. Well, I imagined it being full with big old hogs, but spotted only minnows in the shallows. Could they be the state fish? We trekked on and I dreamt out loud of pan fried fish. My SIL and I began talking dinner hopes and the trail began to dissappear.

After bushwacking and bouldering, countless snags on small aspen and gooseberry bushes and much self-doubt, we determined that the faint use trails we were pursuing were either made by mountian legends or complete idiots. Being idiots ourselves, we sided with the latter group. After gaining a few hundred feet more than seemed necessary for where we needed to go, eventually we sat down for a snack and looked at the boulder field ahead. Mmmm, mmmm eating crow at 10,000+ sure is good! Determining (hoping, pretending even) that the worst was behind us for the day, we pushed on.

Arriving at our camp with the sun getting low, we set up quickly and scrubbed our dirty faces. The high peaks defining the pass and our path of travel was clear and high to the Southeast. Campers near us reported catching numerous "little guys" but having fun. I checked the starter. It was bubbly and hoochy smelling. I thought about making dough and letting it ferment overnight. Then I remembered that we covered only about four miles in twice as many hours for the day and so I lay down to catch a few meteorites before nodding off. The moon was in waxing gibbous mode so it made for poor conditions, but three good streakers revealed their paths before the chill got to me.

As I climbed into my itty-bitty tent and my head hit my "pillow" it dawned on me: we'll be having pizza at Lake Italy!
(in part 2 that is)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

trail food

Preparing and planning for food on a backpacking trip can be a daunting task, requiring more thought about your diet than you maybe believed possible. Especially since it is after all, vacation. When the initial task of menu planning is complete, you still have a few major obstacles. First, you have to want to carry it. Second, you have to overcome the preservation aspects of no refrigeration and minimal packaging. Third, if you are anywhere near the bear superhighway, space is at a premium, as it has to fit in the can. For me, this adds up to making at least one old standby I've loved my entire life. Maybe you know the one. It's that salty, beefy, last forever at ambient temps, source of partially dehydrated protein: jerky.

This years batch came out good. The rump roast was double David'd; raised and sliced just perfect. (Thanks dudes!)
Of course, I couldn't stop there. I ran an experiment with a pound of tuna and a full chicken breast that I treated in the same manner. It failed to make the picture because I smoked it the next day (sorry) but was bomb enough for mention. The process goes as such:
Marinate overnight in a brine/soy sauce combo that is jazzed up with fresh fruit, onions and garlic.
Smoke with some peach wood for a few hours. 'Bout 225 is nice.
Put on the dehydrator for a few more hours. Few like anywhere between 2-6 hours depending on, well, everything.
Cool back to ambient room temps, weigh out, bag up for the trip, and write who's is who's.

Remember: the process is not complete until you bring it somewhere. Here perhaps:

Next up, I'll give you a trip report including but not limited to the effects on hiking distances caused by folks in so-cal's real need for somewhat renewable electricity and perceived need for a green lawn, a so called second recess, a few mythical golden minnows, a pizza at lake Italy, hard cider at 9000+ feet, and crap all over a botanical wonderland.

And yes, really. Just you wait.

Friday, August 01, 2008

smokeapalooza 2008

Kinda like that, but not. Perhaps the event was more like a smokathon. Anyway, the idea is that some endurance in withstanding smokey air was involved, but instead of fundraising, I blew some cash. Then I stayed home, raided the freezer for more food, cracked open a beer, and went out back and choked on smoldering embers for a long time.

A few weeks ago I fired up the bbq and did up anything I could. I figure if I'm going to commit some kind of carbon footprint no-no, then I should be more efficient and cook a bunch at once. Pork shoulder, beef bottom round, and some salmon fillets made it onto the grill. It was a huge load of food that I finally, just today, polished off the remaining leftovers. (Well, kind of, I put two of the fillets into the freezer.) I guess it's been a long couple of weeks steeped in wood smoked foodie goodness.

The pork shoulder was cooked too hot and didn't develop that fall-apart succulence I was looking for. No prob. Just "cook it again in something else" I always say. A trip to the chest freezer yielded roasted chile verde sauce. So, smoked pork with sautéed onion and mushroom enchiladas, topped with a verde sauce just screamed to be made. Served with desert pebble beans cooked with onion, garlic and a twig of epazote. Fresh white corn from Efren, likely picked that morning, and smeared in more butter than I care to admit, rounded the dish out. It was pure satisfaction and felt like the flavors were old school.

The smoked salmon from the smoke-fest had been nibbled away at for at least a week when I finally decided to make quiche. It was in the true spirit of the dish. I had no main course for dinner that night, but eggs, milk, cheese, big flavorful meat, and a want to practice making whole wheat pastry crusts were present in the house. It resulted in this. The salmon hunks sank a bit, but the crust was my flakiest to date. Overall, I think mom would have been proud, and for the most part, the family ate it. Well, the little one ate the filling and the big one ate the crust. If only I'd known ahead of time and just given them these respective portions.

The beef bottom round stayed almost entirely intact for darn near two weeks before I did something with it. I kept thinking of how cured meats hang around a deli for a few weeks and extended this to mean I had plenty of time to come up with a plan. It suffered the same initial toughness that the pork did and needed some more slow cooking "treatment." I began with sautéing a few poblano peppers, a bell, and the largest jalapeño you ever did see along with a hugenormous yellow onion. I cut the beef into disks of a sort, then hacked these in half and threw them into the pepper and onion combo. In the spirit of using leftovers I poured a home-canned jar of seasoned tomato sauce over the whole mess, and then cooked it for about two hours more on low heat. For the last half hour I uncovered it to thicken it some. Meanwhile a bag of masa from a few months back had been defrosting. I slapped some gobs of it around in my palms and laid this on top of the sauce and meaty goodness. I then put this in the oven for about 40 minutes.

It was like a smoke-bomb tamale pie. The high pepper count and tomato tang gave it one rocking jolt of flavor. The smoke from the meat stood up against it all and announced the dishes origins. I ate it for four days straight, but you know what? Right about now I could go for some more.

Well, this Sunday promises to be another smoke filled day. Once again, I'm preparing food for an upcoming backpacking trip that I volunteered to make some jerkey for. Since my experiment last year worked out so well, I'll be looking to duplicate it to some degree. I've got the peach wood and rump roast lined up, and the rest of the marinade in the works.

Now, if I only had a respirator........