Saturday, February 18, 2017

Pizza in a Hole in the Wild

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
-Henry David Thoreau

Who wants pizza?
-Merriwether

The empty wilds, trackless woods, and countless stars are the house and home of my soul...but that doesn't mean I can't eat well when out away from civilization. Another weekend was spent at the Busman's place felling 100' loblolly pines which will eventually become a home for him and his family. But for now the creature comforts are only what you can carry in a backpack. Okay, and in a truck capable of offroading. Last time I was there I built a stone oven in the side of a small hill and cooked biscuits, potatoes, and my feet (it got down to 21F that night). This time I had set my culinary sights much higher...pizza!

Success!
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The process started with building a nice fire of seasoned oak inside the oven and feeding it for three hours to get the interior soaked with heat. Luckily this didn't need constant watching, just checking every 30-40 minutes and adding wood as necessary.

The oven.
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Earlier that day I found some perfect greenbriar tips and a somewhat old but usable oyster mushroom. I've never had a greenbriar/wild oyster mushroom/pepperoni pizza before but it sounded like a great thing to make.

Greenbriar!
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Oyster mushroom! Younger would have been better. At this stage it was pretty chewy.
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Instant pizza dough is my go-to source of bread in the woods. All it needs added is some really warm water, a bit of kneading, a dash of oil, and some time to rise. Normally I use it for stick bread or cooking in my pie iron but this time it was actually used for pizza. I let the dough rise inside my truck which was quite warm inside due to the sun shining through the windows.

These go everywhere in the wild with me!
Camp Cooking

I thought one packet would give me enough to make a deep-dish pizza in my 12" cast iron pan but it only covered the pan's bottom. Next time I'll use two packages to have enough to go up the sides of the pan. To help prevent sticking I coated the bottom of the pan with a bit of the dry pizza dough mix held aside specifically for this. I par-baked this crust for ~6 minutes in the hillside oven and then lined the pan sides with giant tortillas. Deep-dish pizza save!

The pizza starts coming together.
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Contadina makes pizza sauce in a squeeze bottle. What's nice about this is is doesn't need refrigeration. It has a pretty good flavor but a Papa John's spice packet gives it a little more pep.
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Multiple layer's of sauce, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, then topped with the oyster mushroom, sliced greenbriar, and a ring of pepperoni.
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The hot coals were pushed to the back of the oven until there was room to put in the pan/pizza. It was in there about 12 minutes, being turned about a third of the way around at minute 4 and 8. The cement door is closed between turnings to keep the heat in the oven and to reflect back heat from the coals.

Into the oven!
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Out of the oven!
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There were only two of us and the pizza was THICK! The Busman has a fridge in his bus so leftover pizza for breakfast.
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Some may say cooking like this takes away some of the bonding with nature that one goes into the woods for. They may be right but I also go into the woods to test myself and my ability to do stuff. I've read about earth ovens but I wanted to try it, not just read about it. As much as I admire Thoreau's, Aldo Leopold's, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's simple bonds with nature, I guess I'm too much of a scientist to follow directly in their shoes. To be isn't enough for me. To be more is my goal.

Adventure! Excitement! Pepperoni!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Becoming Dunedain.

It's probably no surprise that A) playing Dungeons and Dragons was a large part of my childhood and B) even today I still play rangers almost exclusively...except for one half-Orc poacher named Bark that is just a big, ugly ranger. Of course my love of woods drive these choices, though multiple reading of Tolkien is also a big part. I've always wanted to be a Dunedain, one of Tolkien's Rangers of the North.

Well, today I got one step closer. While I've dabbled a bit with tracking I've never actually taken any formal training on it. Some of my friends have been able to attend Tom Brown Jr.'s tracking/wilderness school but that's always been out of my range. Luckily, Beau Harger, a Level 3 Certified Tracker, came to the Houston Arboretum and spent the morning quadrupling my knowledge of tracking.

Beau kneeling, explaining a track.
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Beau was an excellent teacher and he quickly had us understanding what aspects of the track should get the most attention and which aspects could accidentally mislead us. It turned out to be the same things needed to identify plants...and lead you to mis-identify plants! Primary observations are the key. Focusing in only on the definable, the measurable. Ratios of shapes are as important as the shapes themselves. Just as importantly, avoid assumptions.

The track here you probably can't see, we were able to identify this as a domestic (pet) dog track by the end of the class.
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Coyote track showing direct register (overlap of front and back footstep).
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Armadillo track.
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Here are the details of common animal tracks as described by Beau.

Raccoon
Front foot is symmetrical, rear foot is asymmetrical. Five toes on each foot. Nails/claws visible. Palm pad on same plane as toe pads. Low to on hind foot is inside. Found within 1/2 mile of water.

Domestic Dog
Somewhat circular and symmetrical but with a looseness. Four toes present. Prominent nail marks. Anterior (top) part of palm pad is uni-lobed. Palm pad is wider than tall. Negative space forms a star.

Coyote
More symmetrical than domestic dog and oval/aerodynamic. Four toes present. Nails very fine and may not register. Two center-toe nails are often very close together. Anterior (top) part of palm pad is uni-lobed. Palm pad height = width. Negative space forms an X. Coyotes are trotting hunters. Track direct register (hind foot steps in track of front foot). Scat is twisted, tapered at ends, and contains fur, seeds, etc. Often found in middle of trail junctions to mark territory.

Opossum
Front foot symmetrical with five toes, widely splayed. Rear foot asymmetrical with opposable thumb. Nails present. Palm pad very bulbous.

Domestic Cat
Overall shape is circular. Front foot asymmetrical, hind foot symmetrical. Four blocky, roundish toes. Nails not present. Anterior portion of palm pad is bi-lobed and major portion of track. Negative space forms a C. Tracks are direct registered.

Bobcat
Overall shape is circular. Front foot asymmetrical, hind foot symmetrical. Four teardrop-shaped toes. Nails not present. Anterior portion of palm pad is bi-lobed, posterior portion of palm pad is ti-lobed. Negative space forms a thicker C than domestic cat. Tracks are direct registered. Scat is smooth-surfaced, segmented, with blunt ends.

Squirrel
Both front and hind feet are slightly asymmetrical. Four toes on front foot, five toes on hind foot. Nails present. Front foot has a large, somewhat triangular palm pad and two small, round heel pads. Hind foot palm pad consists of four pads in an arc-shape.

Armadillo
Front foot has three long toes, splayed out but symmetrical. Longest toes on outside of foot. Hind foot has two long toes, mostly parallel. Nails present. No palm pads. Burrows are triangular-shape holes.

Cottontail Rabbit
Front foot asymmetrical with five toes. Hind foot symmetrical with four toes. Nails present. Palms don't register but sometimes hair does. Browed plants cut at 45-degree angle. Swamp rabbits leave scat on logs, cottontails do not.

Wild Hog
Symmetrical hooves with rounded anterior tips. Splayed somewhat outwards. Dewclaws register outside of hooves. Dirt clumps up at front of hoof. Scat is bulbous and clumpy, not scattered/splattered. Ground in area often rooted up.

Deer
Symmetrical hooves, pointed at anterior tip. Dewclaws in line with hooves but usually only register when deer is running. Blowout dirt knocked forward in direction deer is running. Tracks direct register when walking. Browse is frayed/torn. Tree scrapes are frayed at top and bottom from vertical rubbing. Earth scrape triangular with point at tree and low branch directly above. Scat is round, shiny pellets.

Adventure! Excitement! Aragorn!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Tale of Fire and Ice

Winter camping growing up in Minnesota.
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"Winter" camping in Texas.
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While my normal camping grounds are deep in the woods of the Sam Houston National Forest, there are certain things you can't do on public land. Luckily, over the years amazingly cool people have welcomed me onto there slices of the wild. Sidenote: people with slices of wild also usually have cool toys.

50 cal...putting the "power" in "firepower".
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.22 cal bullet vs 50 cal. Bazinga!
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We had planned this trip months ago and while it technically is winter I personally didn't think it'd get all the cold. Just to be safe though I did buy a SnugPak underquilt for my hammock because I wasn't sure my homemade one would be enough. Turns out this was the right call...and also the many reviews saying it's tricky to use were also right...unfortunately. More about this later, though.

Clark and I arrived at the Busman's property in late morning, soon followed by the Bearded Hobbit and his friend, David. Sidenote: my UV-5R radio was able to alert the Busman we were approaching for around 3 miles away. Cool...and to go off topic I was using this same radio this morning to listen in on the support crew of the Houston Marathon, 15-17 miles away! Clark's wife was running in it. Anyway, I digress. Different people had different goals for the weekend. The Bearded Hobbit and David wanted to try out their homemade gear against the harsh Texas winter whereas I wanted to experiment with some new cooking methods in preparation for my "Primitive Cooking for Ancient Foods" classes this fall at the Midwest Wild Foods Festival.

Cooking foods inside a pile of hot rocks is pretty dang primitive...unless you are using cement blocks as your rocks. Alas, East Texas lacks fist-sized rocks so twelve 12"x12" cement pavers were used to create an oven. These pavers were used to absorb the heat of a fire burning inside this over. To increase the thermal mass the were used to line a hole dug in the side of a hill and then buried, making something akin to an Earth oven used for millennia.

The floor was made of four 12"x12" pavers stacked two deep and the walls and roof were made of single pavers.
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The chimney was made of a standard "Figure 8" cinder block with a 6"x 12" paver to control the draft.
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The whole thing was buried and another 12"x12" paver was used as the door. An ash-pit hole was dug in front of the oven to make pulling out the fire coals before putting in the food to be cooked. Some scrap pieces of wood were also placed in front of the oven to kneel upon when using it.

Once the oven was completed a fire was made inside it and fed for four hours to get the pavers really hot. The paver over the chimney reached 225F even though the outside temperature was in the high 30s. Replacing it with a pizza stone would give us a hot, rock cooking surface.
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We used that "chimney slab" to dry and preheat wood to be added into the oven fire. The front door didn't seal tightly so it offered enough fresh air in to keep the fire blazing to the point where flames were shooting out of the chimney! It seemed to be working quite well.

The first cooking test of this over occurred four hours later. The chimney was completely sealed, most of the hot coals where scraped into the pit with about half pushed to the back of the oven to maintain heat, a cast iron pan of biscuits was placed inside the over, and the door was replaced along with plugging its gaps with clay and wood. The biscuit recipe said bake them for 20 minutes at 425F. After 20 minutes the oven was opened and the pan of biscuits was removed. The side towards the back of the oven looked perfect but the front ones were still a bit raw. The pan was turned around and put back in the oven and the door was resealed. After another 8 minutes or so the biscuits were taken out again...and devoured! They tasted delicious and hit the spot as night fell and the cold weather started sinking in.

Cheese biscuits!
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Busman had brought along some venison which we cooked over the campfire rather than in the oven. However, after taking out the biscuits the oven was loaded up with whole potatoes, onions, and garlic to bake while the venison was roasted.

Before:
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After:
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Meat on sticks!
venison

While the foods were cooking I set up my hammock, underquilts, and blankets. Since it was supposed to get down into the 20s after sunset I used both my poncho liner under quilt and the Snugpak underquilt beneath me and the Snugpak Jungle blanket and a wool blanket as covers. No sleeping bag was used as I find them too confining.

My room for the night.
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Temperture below freezing and dropping more. Luckily I brought my Minnesota Hat!
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The SnugPak underquilt did prove as tricky as reported to set up properly and sadly (and coldly!) I never did get it properly adjusted under me. It kept slipping out, taking the poncho liner with it and leaving me really, really cold. The top covers did great but without the underquilts they weren't enough to keep me warm and so it ended up being a COLD night. At 4am my feet felt on the edge of frostbite so I did what any smart adventure does and stuck them inside the paver oven! Oh blessed warmth! The inside of the over was still 95F and felt great. Had I brought my blankets with me to it I would have slept the rest of the night there, with wonderfully toasty toes. After 30 minutes I was warm enough to return to my hammock and drifted in and out of sleep until the sky began to turn gray.

Mmmmm!
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Of the five of us camping out there I ended up the coldest by far. Ironically, three of the other four were from Texas and one was from Florida. There's concern about the cold weather made them over-prepare to deal with it and so they did fine that night.

As usual, I was up and rebuilding the campfire well before anyone else was stirring. Breakfast was hot instant coffee and corned beef hash in a tortilla cooked in my pie iron. It was great but pre-cooking the corned beef hash some first may have made it even better.

Our hot water froze during the night.
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Here's a picture of the ground to give you an idea of the temperature.
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Once everyone was up we went mushroom hunting. Alas all the oyster mushrooms had froze and were no longer edible. This was a tragedy.
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No mushrooms but the can of sweetened condensed milk I had baked at the edge of the campfire had turned into a giant Tootsie Roll! Mmmmm, calories on a cold day!
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Busman is currently clearing out some of his property to build a log cabin using pines he's harvested. There is still a lot of pines needing to be taken down...so of course we tried it using Tannerite. However, the pine tree resisted four 1 lb blasts of Tannerite...but it couldn't stand against a chain saw.

I love chemistry!
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Adventure! Excitement! Extreme Temperature Ranges!

Monday, January 02, 2017

Posting the Apocalypse

Wherein Clark and Merriwether travel to an alternate reality and discover the world had ended.

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Not being limited to one reality is awesome. For instance, you can walk through the ruins of our civilization all day and still get a pizza at your favorite joint afterwards. Seriously, it's really awesome!

Clark and I arrived...well, somewhere. When and where we were was somewhat unclear but obviously something had gone wrong in that world a long time ago. The first sign of this was finding a derelict boat/barge-thingy in the middle of a field, far from any water. It's underside was a collection of pontoons filled with decayed flotation foam. It looked some sort of dredging device but it had been stripped of parts.

Standing in the ruins.
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Standing on the ruins!
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We wandered through the wrecked landscape, filled with craters and debris. Hills turned out to be giant pieces of machinery covered in the sickly vines and brambles of nature trying to heal.

How many years?
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There wasn't any clues as to what caused the armageddon. Nuclear war? Zombies? Liberal policies like in Venezuela, Detroit, Chicago, etc...? You know how in some creepy places you feel eyes watching you? That wasn't the case here. There was nothing but a few straggly weeds and twisted trees.

Great shot for an album cover but the bands are all long gone.
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There were no eyes watching us but the wind caused weird voices as it blew through the remnants of the world. It became a little unnerving so I was glad when I found a weapon.
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As we walked we saw various possible shelters in case we got stuck for the night. A tarp over both ends to seal out the cold wind and these would have been a regular apartment complex in the aftermath.
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There was even a source of drinking water! Algae means it's safe, right?
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Eventually we found a sheltered spot to make lunch. Clark likes his high-tech gear whereas I'm more of a campfire and cast iron sort of guy.
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My modified Pie Iron.
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According to our tracker, we walked over seven miles through a shattered remains of this alternate world. Not wanting to see what came out with the night, we left this place and returned to our much nicer world.

Pizza is nice after spending time at the end of a world.
Pizza

It was interesting to see what remained of that world and it gave me ideas of where to find shelter if this one ever fell apart. Hopefully it never will but it's always good to be prepared...

Adventure! Excitement! Apocalypse!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Shortening a Rome Pie Iron

Pie Iron

If you've never experienced the deliciousness of food cooked with a pie iron you are missing out on one of the main reasons for having a campfire! These cast iron cookers fit together tightly to crimp/seal the edges of whatever bread or dough you've put in them turning whatever sandwich you put into it into some sort of Hostess fruit pie or stromboli type snack! They are a mainstay for family car-camping trips but they're too long for easy carry in a backpack. This ticks me off because I love cooking with them. But hey, I have a Dremel tool. ;-)

Standard Rome pie irons are nice but too long. I'm assuming this is for liability reasons.
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Luckily, the Dremel tool cutting wheels sliced right through the stainless steel handle rods. I choose to use the square pie iron for this so I could use a single side as a skillet in the woods, too.
I stuffed up the handles with coarse-grit sandpaper to give the epoxy a place to grip when I reattached to wood grips.
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Removing to wood grips from the cut handles required a lot of brute force. Lock the steel rod in a vice then twist the wooden grip off. You can see here the "wings" put onto the rod to hold the grips on. Twist and pull the grips so you don't crack them.
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I love JB Weld Extreme Heat repair paste for "gluing" together anything that'll be exposed to heat. It's good up to 2400 degrees F which is plenty for a campfire.
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Smear the past on the rods, slide the rods back into the grips, then shape the paste over the tops of the grips if you want it to look nice. The paste takes 24 hours to set up properly.

Finished product next to a regular-length pie iron. After this picture I ended up sawing off three inches of the wood grips to make it even shorter.
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Testing it out as a skillet to fry an egg. Season the cast iron as directed and you'll end up with a wonderful, non-stick surface!
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When out in the woods I like to use the Bisquick "just add water" mixes. I and the water to the pouch, stir it with a stick until it reaches the proper dough consistency, then squeeze it into the pie iron.
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Before cooking.
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Cooking on the coals of a small fire.
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End result using a 3-Cheese Bisquick packet.
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I also like making pizza-thingies with it.
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Pie Iron

There's a number of cookbooks and on-line recipes for use in these pie irons. Another favorite of mine involves Nutella and mini-marashamallows. I'd show you a picture but I ate it.

Adventure! Excitement! Food on Sticks!