The view from the kitchen is a misty Virginia Piedmont valley, a perfect vista. The stove is an outdoor fireplace behind a crude cabin, not perfect perhaps, although the setting, a clearing adorned with wild flowers, makes up for a lot.
This is base camp for construction and trail-building crews working on the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's new 200-acre retreat above Lydia, Va. Regardless of weather, club volunteers are up here nearly every weekend.
Now, why are desk-bound nature lovers so willing to spend spare time tied down to the drudgery of digging latrine pits, scraping paint and clearing brush when they could be hiking and bird watching and smelling the wild flowers?
It could be because they enjoy the sense of accomplishment, or want to do something their fellow devotees of nature will appreciate--and it could be because the troops eat very well indeed.
Even though all the food and equipment must be carried over a half mile of rough terrain, there's nothing rustic about the meals. Many of the volunteers bring special talents to the task of providing their coworkers with a bountiful reward for their labor. In her turn, Marvelle B. Toney, a project overseer with the club and a well-traveled senior officer with the World Health Organization, serves the crews menus with an international flavor, one of the most popular featuring Latin American dishes.
Her Latin American menu begins with two appetizers. The first is tiny slivers of beef heart marinated and cooked with fresh, fiery green chilies; the second thinly sliced raw jicama, a crunchy Mexican vegetable marinated in lime juice. The heat of the beef is soothed by alternating bites of the two.
This is followed by the traditional stew of Colombia, adjiaco de pollo, which is a name play on the Spanish words for garlic and chilies, prominent among the ingredients. The stew begins with braised chicken; potatoes, corn, plantain, squash, spinach and peas are added later so they will not overcook. Then the dish is garnished with capers and a wonderful salsa cruda of garlic-and-pepper-flavored vinegar, chopped onion, fresh tomatoes and coriander. A tossed salad dressed with fresh basil vinaigrette and a refreshing English trifle complete the repast.
This feast was served during a summer weekend after the crew had spent a day working on Vining Cabin, an ancient farmhouse a quarter mile up the ridge from base camp. The idea was to fix Vining and several other cabins near High Top with bunks and add them to the club's chain of rental units adjacent to the Appalachian Trail as it winds through Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
There was still much to be done at Vining, but these workers did a lot. They sawed old silver-gray siding and hammered it onto interior walls, took new lumber and constructed a bench convenient for relaxing with a view of lush green Mutton Hollow below, and fitted rain gutters to the roof. When it was time to eat, they were ready.
It was a diverse group. There was one married couple, with a 7-year-old son. There were some men and women whose families stayed home that weekend. But most of the workers were single, the youngest being a college freshman. They were artists and engineers, civil servants and economists, but the conversation was decidedly unbusinesslike. Food was a major subject.
"We keep on making the meals up here fancier and fancier," said Lois Dunlop, an administrator with the National Science Foundation. "Marvelle loves to try out new recipes on us. She's a creative cook with a knack for planning special meals that do not exceed the physical limitations of the cabin."
A frequent visitor to the cabins at Lydia and a trip leader herself, Dunlop said she finds it difficult to plan meals for such large groups, since she's accustomed to cooking for herself and a cat. "Sometimes it's a challenge," she noted. "Around New Year's a group of us came up here. Someone brought a cake mix. So we decided to cook it in the wood stove. We made a reflector oven out of a kettle and lid. Why, that cake took two hours to bake, but it was well worth the wait."
Making do also extends to the after-dinner chores. There is no automatic dishwasher, no garbage disposal, not even a sink. Spring water is carried uphill, then heated in big black kettles over dying coals. After washing the dishes, the dishwasher takes a leisurely walk among wildflowers, to splash the dirty water over a log. It is only a matter of a few feet, but the peaceful night forest noises of locusts and leaves all but drown out the human voices.
Maintenance for this idyllic network of cabins and trails in the wild is the responsibility of the club's volunteer overseers. Some lead trips regularly, others visit their work sites only once or twice a year. The trip schedule is available from club headquarters, at (202)638-5306, and volunteers need not be club members. Workers gather near Washington, then travel in car pools to the trail head or cabin.
Some spend only a day, others stay all weekend, and like most of the club's cabins, the base camp at Lydia is furnished with plenty of bunks, blankets and mattresses. The workers bring sleeping bags or sheets and pillows. There is a Franklin stove for cooking and heating in bad weather, a kitchen table and pots and pans.
Toney is experienced in the ways of the woods, having gone camping and backpacking with her family as she was growing up in Washington and Oregon. She started going on club trail-building trips in 1978 because she wanted to spend time outdoors, and quickly turned to cabin construction because she "enjoyed sticking with a specific project and seeing it through.
"We work hard," Toney said. "At five o'clock, the volunteers are usually ready for dinner. Fresh air sharpens the appetite, so I want meals to be particularly inviting."
Cooking is a hobby for Toney, who lives in Old Town Alexandria, so these vigorous back country weekends provide her with an eager audience on whom she can practice her skills.
In nice weather, she cooks on a grill over a wood fire behind the cabin at base camp. Diners bring their own plates, silverware and beverages as they gather around a rough-hewn picnic table. They are tired from their labors, and sit quietly for an hour or so as dusk settles over the hollow.
"There are many who share responsibility for meal planning," says Toney. "I ask people to do breakfasts or dinners on trips I coordinate, then I accept assignments on other people's trips. Men and women share menu planning and cooking as they share hard physical labor. And, they share, too, in the cost of the meals they eat, in this case $3.50 each.
"One of the nicest things about cooking for work crews is that there is always someone to help you chop vegetables, heat up the fire, and clean up afterward. One night, club member Elizabeth Johnston served a trifle for dessert. There was whipping cream to go on top. Instead of trying to beat that cream--by hand--alone, she passed the bowl around the table and everyone took a turn."
No matter how many willing hands there are, there is still a knack to creating great meals for 20 people who are far from refrigeration, electric appliances--and the corner store.
In executing her Latin-American meal, for instance, Toney pre-cooked the chickens, cut them in serving-size pieces and froze them in large plastic containers. She did the same with the beef heart, as well as bacon that was used to make fettucine carbonara the following day. These and a large chemical-ice packet kept the ice chests cool. "When you're serving poultry or egg-based desserts you can't take a chance the food will warm up," Toney said.
She has other suggestions, too: The vinegar for the salsa cruda, the salad dressing and the vanilla custard were made at home and conveyed in containers with tight-fitting lids. The jicama went into its marinade ahead of time. Very little was left to chance.
Toney and other club members hope to publish their recipes and others in a trail-and-cabin cookbook being planned by Johnston. They note, however, that not every trail club expedition features high-class grub. Some leaders plan their menus at the last minute. Some even stop for groceries en route. Back country dining, they say, can be as glorious--or as mundane--as the weather. MARVELLE'S COLOMBIAN AJIACO DE POLLO (Chicken Stew) (20 servings) 3 4- to 5-pound stewing chickens 3 quarts water 2 bay leaves 2 ribs celery 2 small onions, peeled 2 sprigs parsley 1 teaspoon salt, divided 2 dashes pepper 3 pounds idaho potatoes, peeled 3 tablespoons ground cumin 2 pounds new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into serving pieces 1 pound carrots, washed and trimmed 15 ears fresh corn, husked and washed 12 small summer squash or chayote, washed and sliced into 3-inch pieces* 8 plantains, peeled and sliced into 3-inch pieces (optional) 3 10-ounce packages frozen leaf spinach 2-pound bag frozen peas 2-pound can lima beans 3-ounce jar capers, with juice
Cut up the chicken into serving pieces and place in 2 large pots. Divide the water between the 2 pots. Place a bay leaf, rib of celery, onion and sprig of parsley in each pot. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and a dash of pepper to each pot. Simmer over low heat for an hour or until chicken is tender. Remove the chicken, place in large freezer containers. Remove and discard bay leaves and vegetables. Add 3 pounds idaho potatoes to stock, simmer until potatoes can be coarsely mashed. Pour the broth and potatoes over the chicken, cool, freeze.
When ready to serve, defrost the meat and broth and place in two large pots. Divide the cumin between the two pots. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Twenty minutes before serving, start adding half the remaining vegetables to each pot. Add one vegetable at a time, in the order given. Test vegetables frequently to avoid overcooking. Stir capers in last. Serve hot, topped with salsa cruda (recipe below), to taste.
*Note: Chayote, a squash, is available at Latin American markets. SALSA CRUDA (20 servings) 2 tablespoons crushed dried red pepper 1 small garlic bulb, divided into cloves, peeled and mashed with 1 teaspoon salt 3 cups white vinegar 2 cups finely chopped, fresh coriander, about 1 bunch 2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped 2 pounds white onions, peeled and finely chopped Steep red pepper and garlic, mashed with salt, in vinegar for 24 hours. Strain. Reserve vinegar, discard pepper and garlic. Just before serving, add coriander, tomatoes and white onions to vinegar, mix well. ANTICUCHOS (Peruvian Spiced Beef Heart) (6 servings) 4- to 5-pound beef or veal heart
Marinade: 1 cup red wine vinegar 2 fresh jalapeno peppers 4 teaspoons finely chopped, fresh garlic 2 teaspoons ground cumin 2 teaspoons salt Dash freshly ground black pepper
Sauce: 8 fresh green, serrano chilies 1 tablespoon annatto seeds, optional* 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 teaspoon salt
Garnish: 1 medium (1 1/2 pound) jicama, peeled and sliced* 2 limes, squeezed Pinch of salt Water to cover Wash beef heart or veal hearts under cold running water. Quarter, and clean the inside well. Trim off fibers and filaments, slice into flat, 1-inch squares. Set aside.
Rinse jalapeno peppers for marinade--and the chilies for the sauce--in cold running water. Working under cold water, with gloves, cut the tops off the peppers and rinse off seeds. Finely chop both peppers separately. Wash your hands and all utensils carefully. Reserve green chilies for the sauce.
Combine all ingredients for marinade in a bowl with lid. Add the sliced heart and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup marinade. Combine sauce ingredients with reserved marinade. Pure'e.
Spread meat out on foil-covered pans. Brush with sauce. Broil 4 to 5 inches away from the heat for 5 minutes. Turn the meat, brush with more sauce and broil for 2 to 3 more minutes or until the meat can be pierced easily with a fork. Alternately, the meat can be threaded on skewers and broiled over coals. Chill.
Marinate thin slices of jicama overnight in lime juice, salt and water to cover. Serve slices of beef heart on top of sliced jicama.
*Available at some Latin American markets. MARVELLE'S TRIFLE (20 servings) Vanilla custard: 2 large egg yolks, beaten 6 tablespoons granulated sugar 1 cup whipping cream 1 cup milk 1 tablespoon vanilla For assembly: 3 1-pound poundcakes, cut in 1-inch thick, lengthwise slices 1 cup raspberry or blackberry jam 1/2 cup brandy 1/2 cup dry or medium sherry 1 pound bananas, peeled and sliced 1 pound kiwis, peeled and sliced 1 pound peaches, peeled and sliced 1 quart strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced 1 quart blueberries, washed 2 cups whipping cream, whipped 1 cup sliced blanched almonds
Prepare vanilla custard the day before you plan to serve it. Beat yolks and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Place over medium heat, stirring constantly while beating in cream and milk, a little at a time. Increase the heat and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat a spoon, about 6 to 8 minutes; be careful not to let it come near the boiling point, or it will curdle. Add vanilla, strain and chill in a container with a tight-fitting lid.
To assemble trifle: Spread jam on enough slices of poundcake to line a large round bowl. Cut remaining cake in 1-inch cubes and pile in the center of the bowl. Sprinkle cake with brandy and sherry. Top with sliced, mixed fruit. Pour vanilla custard over fruit, top with whipped cream and almonds. Serve immediately.