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Chef partners with Vermont State Parks to expand campfire cuisine

  • Lamb meatballs, risotto with rosemary and feta and roasted cauliflower with dates, almonds and olives formed a Mediterranean menu that chef and food writer Suzanne Podhaizer prepared during a recent stay at Allis State Park in Brookfield, Vt. She has been cooking over campfires as part of a partnership with the Vermont State Parks. (Suzanne Podhaizer photograph)

  • Cooking over a wood fire is as old as cooking itself. It need not be more difficult than cooking in a kitchen, but it requires close attention to the fire and the food. (Suzanne Podhaizer photograph)

  • Lamb meatballs, risotto with rosemary and feta and roasted cauliflower with dates, almonds and olives formed a Mediterranean menu that chef and food writer Suzanne Podhaizer prepared during a recent stay at Allis State Park in Brookfield, Vt. She has been cooking over campfires as part of a partnership with the Vermont State Parks. (Suzanne Podhaizer photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/3/2019 10:00:23 PM
Modified: 9/3/2019 10:00:17 PM

In most ways, Suzanne Podhaizer is roughing it. In an era of “glamping” and gadgetry, her campsite at Allis State Park in Brookfield, Vt., is Spartan: A simple bedroll atop the thinnest of air mattresses occupies one corner of her lean-to, and a box of supplies sits in the other. A mosquito net, a recent purchase, lies near the bedroll, for those nights when insect appetites run rampant.

When mealtime rolls around, however, a different lifestyle emerges. As the sun reached its apex last Wednesday, Podhaizer began setting out on her picnic table the makings of a feast: pints of fresh cherry tomatoes and yellow plums, packages of ground lamb, goat cheese, marinated olives, arborio rice, dates and almonds and an array of seasonings including a jar of Himalayan salt, little bags of colorful spices and sprigs of fresh herbs.

Not exactly the hamburgers, hot dogs, chips and marshmallows you’d expect to find on a campsite menu.

Unconventional though they may be, Podhaizer said, her campfire meals are manageable for anyone who’s willing to put in just a bit of planning and effort.

And she’s here to help. As she cooked lamb kebab, roasted cauliflower and risotto over bright orange flames last week, Podhaizer was creating the latest addition to her Vermont State Parks Cooks, a partnership designed to help campfire cooks make creative, delicious meals using basic materials and methods.

Throughout the camping season, Podhaizer, a chef, entrepreneur and former food writer, has been conducting cooking classes and putting together resources for chefs — videos, a blog, illustrated recipes and an Instagram page — while living in state parks around Vermont.

The meals are not as difficult as people may think, Podhaizer said. After all, humans have been cooking over fire for ages. Hamburgers and hot dogs are recent innovations, by comparison.

“The diversity of foods that humans have been cooking over fire is so vast, you can’t imagine,” said Podhaizer, sipping Kombucha at her picnic table before embarking on meal preparation. “I try to keep that mindset.”

The first step in cooking over a campfire is, naturally, building a campfire — a task Podhaizer accomplished with ease using notebook paper and twigs nestled beneath a teepee of kindling and firewood. She gets the firewood free through her deal with the Vermont State Parks, along with ice and use of her campsite.

Next, Podhaizer chopped a head of cauliflower, tossed it with avocado oil and sprinkled it with salt, then laid it atop the fire grate on a piece of foil. Beside it, she cooked chopped onions in a large cast-iron casserole dish, then browned the arborio rice before adding water, little by little, to create a risotto, which she dressed up with lemon zest and a sprig of rosemary.

Cooking over a campfire isn’t difficult, but it requires attentiveness to both the fire and the food. “It’s like you’re in a relationship with the fire,” Podhaizer joked as she scavenged for twigs to feed the flames.

In between stirring the rice and moving the cauliflower pieces around to ensure even cooking, Podhaizer mixed herbs and spices for the kebab in the lid of the casserole dish and chopped up dates, almonds and olives to toss with the cauliflower. Finally, she formed the kebabs and cooked them on foil.

For Podhaizer, 41, meals like these are second nature. She’s been reading cookbooks for fun since she was a kid growing up in the Northeast Kingdom, then Essex Junction. After designing her own Food Studies degree at the University of Vermont, she worked as a food writer and editor at Seven Days, the Burlington-based alt-weekly, bought and ran a cafe in Montpelier and undertook several other food-related ventures. Earlier this year she launched Sel de le Terre, a food education and consulting company, with her business partner, Lucas Auger.

While getting the new business off the ground, Podhaizer, who often spends large chunks of time at campgrounds, taking photos and writing poetry, was also looking for a new place to live. That’s when she had the idea for a cooking internship of sorts with the state parks division. She pitched the idea to the sales and service manager, and the two of them crafted a program that included three cooking classes, one cooking show and weekly photos and recipes throughout the summer.

Over the past few months she’s camped at several of the state’s 55 state parks, including Grand Isle State Park, Button Bay State Park, Little River State Park and Allis State Park — along with squeezing in a trip to Wyoming — cooking meals and compiling recipes such as campfire stew with roasted corn, brown trout stuffed with lemon and thyme and salad with strawberries, burrata and blueberry vinaigrette.

If those sound a bit fussy, Podhaizer insists that they’re not. “I try to stick to three ingredients that complement each other,” she said. “That helps ensure that the flavors are bright and that I don’t get overwhelmed when I’m shopping.”

That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, she added. Many of her recipes have a few extra ingredients as well, but she aims for simplicity.

Pohaizer also tries to keep a streamlined “kitchen,” stocked with a few workhorse items such as a Dutch oven, a good chef knife, a long pair of tongs and a vegetable peeler, along with pantry staples such as salt, butter, rice, pasta, some quality oils and vinegars and her favorite herbs and spices. Every couple of days, she visits a nearby farmers market or co-op for fresh, local ingredients.

Podhaizer’s approach demonstrates that, in some ways, good campfire cooking is just good cooking. A competent chef doesn’t need a lot of fancy tools or a refrigerator full of ingredients to make a pleasing meal. And with a little know-how and practice, anyone can be a competent chef.

“My vision is to change the way people eat by teaching them to cook seasonal, local food in a way that feels comfortable to them,” Podhaizer said.

After the camping season ends on Columbus Day weekend, Podhaizer plans to compile the recipes into a brochure that will be available at campground offices in the future.

“You can grab the map and you can grab the trail guide and the thing on how to avoid bears,” she said, “and you can grab the recipes.”

Below are recipes for the meal Suzanne Podhaizer prepared at Allis State Park. Recipes for other dishes she’s cooked while staying at one of Vermont’s state parks are available at vtstateparks.com/vtstateparkscooks.html.

Lamb meatballs

A quick and easy way to get meat on the table. If you don't love lamb, you can make these meatballs with beef, or venison.

Ingredients

ground lamb

garlic, minced

parsley, minced

paprika

cinnamon

salt

black pepper

Steps

Mix the lamb with all the other ingredients, to taste.

Roll into meatballs, or into longer, sausage-type shapes. You could also make these into sliders, or full-sized burgers.

Cook in a pan, or on a sheet of foil, to retain the drippings.

Fireside risotto with rosemary and feta

It is totally fine to use another type of white rice, throw in a rosemary branch, and simply steam it. The risotto needs to be watched just a bit more carefully and stirred on a regular basis.

Ingredients

sunflower or olive oil

onion, diced

salt

pepper

arborio rice

a rosemary sprig or two

water or stock

feta, crumbled

Steps

Heat a cast iron pan over the fire.

When hot, pour in some oil. When the oil is heated, add the onions and season them with salt and pepper.

Cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent.

Add the rice, and cook, stirring, until the grains are a little more opaque.

Add the rosemary, and a small amount of stock or water. Cook, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed.

Repeat until the risotto is cooked through but still has a little bit of “bite” at the center.

Add feta, and season to taste.

Roasted cauliflower with dates, almonds and olives

This dish is surprising and lovely, with the sweetness of the dates playing off the saltiness of the olives, and the toasty crunch of the almonds.

Ingredients

cauliflower, cut into equal-sized pieces

sunflower or olive oil

salt

mixed Greek olives, minced (or another kind of olive you prefer)

toasted almonds, chopped

dates, minced

Steps

Toss the cauliflower in oil, sprinkle with salt, and place in a pan over the fire, or on a piece of foil with the sides folded up.

Roast, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is browned in some spots, and is just tender.

Add the olives, almonds, and dates. Let cook another couple of minutes to heat the garnishes and meld the flavors.

Season to taste.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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