The First Dish

The first thing I ever “cooked” was … well, something I didn’t cook at all. I planned the menu, though. And we all paid the price.

I was in my elementary school’s “gifted” program for a while. In the seventies, this was a place they put kids who either showed an awful lot of promise or a lot of trouble paying attention, on the grounds that maybe they’re just under-stimulated. I’ll let you guess which camp I fell into.

One of the books we read was Old Yeller. I know, right? Deep end of the pool for young kids. Now, part of the gifted program involved taking the literature we were assigned, and doing something different with it, often something tactile.

(As an aside, I think this is where I first heard about the different types of learning – at the time, classified as visual, auditory, reading and kinesthetic. That fascinated me then and it still does today.)

One of the many things I wanted to be as a kid was a chef. Before they were celebrities, before they were world travelers. I just loved eating, and I loved reading about good cooking, and I wanted to share that with people. So, when I saw “cook a frontier meal” on the list of sanctioned activities, I grabbed it, then went home to tell my mother, bless her heart.

My mother’s a saint, and my memory is that we sat down to plan the meal we would serve to my classroom. It was all set out in the book.

A more reasonable child might have gravitated to the turkey suppers, or the pork which Old Yeller is introduced as stealing. A less indulgent mother might have insisted. But that wouldn’t do for me. We ate pork and turkey all the time, that wasn’t a frontier meal. No, we had to do something to show I’d paid attention to the novel, that I was invested in the process, and one sentence in the book had leapt out at me:

“After that, Old Yeller caught onto what game we were after. He went to work then, trailing and treeing the squirrels that Little Arliss was scaring up off the ground. From then on, with Yeller to tree the squirrels and Little Arliss to turn them on the tree limbs, we had pickings. Wasn’t but a little bit till I’d shot five, more than enough to make us a good squirrel fry for supper.”

Squirrel fry? Squirrel fry?


Did I mention my mother’s a saint?

Now, our family wasn’t a hunting family. Dad was a scholar, not an outdoorsman, and this was before girls were encouraged to take up arms. Fortunately, one of mom’s friends had a son who hunted, and he was able to deliver a reasonable number of pre-skinned rodents without too much advance warning.

I have no idea if mom butchered them herself, or if they were pre-delivered as discrete chunks of protein; but I know for a fact she went the route of stew rather than fry, because the seventies were the start of the health-conscious craze and mom was right in the thick of it. I could tell you stories of tofu’s first appearance in the Midwest that would roil your stomach, but I digress. Stew she was willing to make, stew it would be, though I vividly remember she dredged the meat in flour, salt, and pepper before browning them to drop into the stew. I’d never paid so much attention to food prep in my life.

Potatoes, carrots and celery were staples. Black-eyed peas featured heavily in the book, so in those went, and a pan of cornbread to spoon the stew over. We drove to school with the unplugged crock pot feeling very proud of what we’d managed.

The class was excited, too, to have something besides the industrial lunches of the educational cafeteria. A room full of third-graders and  their teacher, tucking eagerly away into a hot home-cooked meal, smug and self-assured. One of my classmates, about halfway through, mentioned that “this chicken stew is a lot better than cardboard pizza.”

“Oh,” I said, “it’s not chicken.”

I like to imagine the teacher paused here, spoon halfway to her lips. I do recall her asking, “Well … what is it, then?”

“Squirrel,” I said. Pandemonium ensued.

If you’re a parent, I want you to imagine this. Really imagine it. Today, as I understand it, a single peanut is classified right below an AK-47 in terms of no-nos for your children to bring to school. Try to picture your precious little Madison or Jayden texting you, “Ivan just made me eat a squirrel! OMG. And cornbread isn’t even Paleo!”

I don’t know for a fact that this faux pas got me removed from the gifted program. It’s possible that I just wasn’t keeping up.

But I do remember coming home with a lot of leftover stew, and I remember the phone ringing quite a bit that afternoon, and a few days later I was in a different program altogether. One which featured a lot more one-on-one time with a counselor.

Hells Yes Hawaiian Chicken

Adapted from


Serves plenty.

  • Chicken thighs and breasts, as many as you need.
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 2 cups pineapple juice
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • teaspoons garlic powder
  • 4 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • So much ground pepper

  1. Combine soy sauce, pineapple juice, oil, brown sugar, garlic powder, ginger, dry mustard and pepper in a saucepan.
  2. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Let cool.
  3. Reserving 1/4-1/2 c of sauce, pour remaining sauce over chicken breasts in a shallow glass dish or ziploc bag.
  4. Cover or seal and marinate at least 2 to 3 hours, or overnight, turning occasionally.
  5. Grill over medium heat approximately 6 minutes per side, basting with reserved marinade. Grill until done.
  6. Tent with tinfoil.

Pineapple Rings:

  • I whole pineapple cut into rings
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • Ghost chilis, to taste

Grill ’em up after the chicken is tented.

Black Rice and Lima Beans:

  • Follow the directions, honestly.

FAMISHED: The Cookbook – Burnt Leeks in Smoky Romesco

Barton Seaver is an interesting guy. Not only an expert chef, he’s also a National Geographic Fellow, a Harvard Director, and a man with a serious mission for sustainability in cuisine. That’s a mission I can happily get behind!

I have his second cookbook, Where There’s Smoke. It was actually a Christmas present, but focused as it is on grilling fresh vegetables, I haven’t been able to experiment with the recipes until now. The Midwest isn’t known for early spring.

This recipe, adapted from his book, was a revelation to this weekend – for the first time in ages, I preferred an herbivore’s side dish to the carnivorous centerpiece.

Leeks are favorites of mine already. There’s a primal thrill both to burying them in the coals of a fire and stripping away the charred layers. Meanwhile, the Romesco sauce is incredibly simple, but manages to feel both rustic and elegant, perfect for an outdoor party. I’m going to try adding paprika and chilis next time …

I highly recommend this dish (and the cookbook) to anyone who cooks over live fire.


Rinse the leeks and trim the green leaves away.
Bury whole leeks in the embers of a medium-hot charcoal or wood fire.
After 15-20 minutes, the outer layers should be charred black, and the vegetables yielding to the touch.
Remove the charred outer layers and cover with Romesco sauce.


4 plum tomatoes, quartered
6 cloves garlic
1 small onion, medium dice
1 red bell pepper, medium dice
1/4 cup slivered blanched almonds

Combine the ingredients with olive oil to coat and salt to taste.
Grill over a medium fire until the onion is softened, about 15 minutes.
Transfer to food processor and slowly add in 2 Tbsp olive oil.
Serve warm.

Preparing the Grills

I do my grilling over charcoal or wood, as opposed to gas. I’m not really a snob about it, I get the appeal of gas – it’s convenient, it’s cleaner, it takes less time. Still, the ritual of preparation has always been a part of what I enjoy about cooking.

(In the early days, when cooking was unusual for me , I’d make a point of offering small portions of each ingredient to the little spirits that live in my hearth, hoping they’d help with even cooking. It typically worked, but of course, so does practicing the craft until you have less need of supernatural assistance.)

Working with the fire goes something like this: I’ll haul two grills into the driveway, a large Brinkmann and a Weber kettle. Two chimney lighters get filled with Cowboy Charcoal, and I’ll tear some paper from the charcoal bag to stuff under those chimneys. The chimneys go onto the Weber, over the ventilation holes, and I light them up with a match or butane lighter.

While the coals are catching, I scrape the Brinkmann grill and empty the old ash from the bed. That goes directly into the trash bin, which is why my garbage can is streaked with white and grey most of the time.

I’ve come to recognize the signs of lit coals – if the smoke is very slow, the coals probably haven’t caught yet and the paper fuel is just smoldering. That will happen if I’ve wadded up too much paper into too compact a ball, or if the wind isn’t sufficient to really catch it. On a good day, the smoke will come out of two or three areas of the chimney, indicating several lit sections, and within ten minutes the air above the chimneys should be shimmering with heat.

At that point I’ll bring out my oven mitt, tongs, spatula, meat thermometer, and grill spray. Once the coals are ready to go (usually for my purposes, this means there’s medium levels of ash on the uppermost coals and the bottom coals are bright orange) I’ll dump them into the Brinkmann bed. Again, for my purposes, I usually want between two and four dozen coals.

Using a three-tined garden tool, I scrape the coals into a bed about one square foot in diameter. If I’m grilling indirectly, make that two beds, one on each side of the grill. Once it’s heated for a minute or two, I’ll either spray it with the aerosol (Weber makes a version that’s safe to use over live fire. Don’t use regular spray!) Or, if I’m working with meat, I’ll take a chunk of the fat from the meat and use tongs to rub that all over the grill instead.

After that it’s just a question of standing over the fire with a drink in hand, watching and waiting. Most often I’ll close the lid to increase the heat, unless the items need a lot of attention. My flank steak’s the worst for that – between the fats, the marinade, and the proximity of the heat, it causes a lot of flare-ups which are part of the charm.

How do you prep for outdoor cooking? I’m always curious about other people’s food.

The Nocker Chef: Thanksgiving 2013

SO … last year, I decided to assume a new persona while cooking the Thanksgiving feast.

There’s a roleplaying game I’ve always loved called Changeling: The Dreaming. Elevator speech: Faeries are alive in the modern world, though they’ve taken on Changeling human forms to avoid detection. Each type of faerie has its strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to pull from the White Wolf Wiki:

Nockers are the artisans among the Kithain, able to craft the stuff of dreams into whatever they desire. Their creations are always flawed, however, and their knowledge of this curse makes them irritable and quick to anger. Nockers are master artisans. Their skill and inventiveness are legendary; so is their cynicism and bitterness. Typically, they are highly critical of their rulers and eminently sarcastic to the people around them. Most nockers dislike having to deal with “imperfect” things, including people.

I never played a Nocker, but always wanted to – specifically, a Nocker Chef. Someone with every gadget under the sun you’d need in a modern kitchen, and with the temper of your modern celebrity chefs.

I gave into the temptation and tweeted all day. I think I got more attention on Thanksgiving 2013 than I ever have before, and Jenn Brozek suggested I should collect the tweets for posterity.

So why share it now?

Well …

Easter is coming.








I think we’ve ALL had enough.

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