Just because I write these food articles every week, people make the assumption that I can cook. Meanwhile, I’m often amazed at my ignorance of major aspects of cooking, like baking, or dessert-making. And there are many common ingredients that I know absolutely nothing about. For example: corn starch. I know it’s for thickening things, but I rarely find myself thinking, “Hey, maybe I’ll use corn starch.”
I believe my cooking would improve if I followed more recipes. And maybe I wouldn’t sweat so often in the kitchen, the guest of honor about to arrive as I struggle to salvage something useful from a failing, seat-of-my-pants dish—punting, perhaps, by adding some ingredient, like corn starch, that I don’t know how to use, and helplessly watching the lumps form. Thus, I live in fear that the secret will get out: Chef Boy Ari is a fraud.
Some weeks ago, I got a call from the Drum Brothers, Western Montana’s home-grown band of itinerant rhythmists. They asked if I would cook for 35 people at their upcoming five-day Rhythm Retreat.
Hmm. That’s a lot of people. I’ve never really done anything like that. On the other hand, I needed the money, and I could find no excuses on my calendar.
Plus, I liked the sound of “camp cook.” It reminds me of that Nancy Griffith song about the Great Divide and the yodeling camp cook. It reminds me of that Norman Maclean short story about the logging camp, and how the camp cook had so much prestige he was treated as if he had “Testicles of Gold.” I found this concept highly appealing. So I said yes, even though part of the deal was to make dessert after both lunch and dinner. I suck at dessert.
The Drum Brothers put me in touch with Dorian, a chef in New Orleans whom they’ve hired before. I asked her what to expect.
“They eat a lot of food,” she said, in her sweet southern voice. “They’re drumming all day, always going. They are always starving.”
She told me some of her tricks, like: Arrive a day early and mix the dough for cookies, brownies and oatmeal bars for the whole week. And she reminisced about a sauce that she once whipped together, seat of her pants, with pineapple and corn starch. My god, she even knows how to use corn starch. Clearly I had some big, err, shoes to fill.
In search of dessert recipes, I perused The Joy of Cooking. What an amazing book. You want to skin and cook a beaver? Joy of Cooking. You want to preserve fruits, vegetables, meat…it’s got instructions on canning, freezing, smoking, salting and drying.
Lost in the joys of “savory sauces,” I noticed Chinese stir-fry sauce made from cornstarch, water, salt, soy sauce, and ginger. The secret to corn starch, it seems, is to mix it in a small amount of water first, for lump-free thickening.
Back on task, I flipped to “cookies and bars,” picked out some recipes that looked easy, quintupled the quantities, and put those ingredients on my list.
The camp was by the Boulder River, in the Beartooth-Absaroka mountains. It was classic Western camp-cook country, haunted by the new age sounds of drums and didgeridoos floating through the air, sometimes from here, sometimes from there, mingling with the song of the river.
I had designed a menu that maximized the use of local produce. While the campers loved the food, and my testicles grew more golden by the meal, the downside of all of these vegetables was the washing and cutting. Every meal was a race to get the food out to the “always starving” drummers, and there was no time for measuring and mixing all of those powders and liquids into something to bake for dessert. Dessert simply would not have happened were it not for Adelle, the camp yoga instructor, and her sweet tooth. Before every meal, Adelle charged into the kitchen, found my ingredients and my Joy of Cooking, and started baking.
When Adelle whipped out a sherry and egg sauce for the brownies, her testicles, as it were, surpassed even my own in their golden hue. The salty, full-bodied flavor of the sherry combined surprisingly perfectly with the eggs and brown sugar, and the sauce would work on many things—including our pancakes the next morning.
I never did use any corn starch, but I did thicken a coconut curry with the starchy water left over from boiling some local Yukon Gold potatoes. Moral of the story? If you’re a fraud, don’t forget those golden potatoes.