To cook with Chuck DeCaro is to cook with Indiana Jones. Or James Bond. Or GI Joe. No dish seems to be without an adventure, no yarn is without mention of something exotic to eat.
On the way to the grocery store, DeCaro, dressed in fatigues and aviator shades, stops off at a rifle shop to check out an M14 he's been eyeing for the past few weeks. He spends about 10 minutes chatting with a sales clerk before jumping into his jeep and heading off to buy the makings for dinner. His mental grocery list includes shark meat, rattlesnake and a small jungle's worth of tropical fruits.
Admittedly, a lot of DeCaro's recipes are not the stuff of the everyday dinner table, let alone everyday dinner conversation. And culinary finesse eludes him. After a day spent observing DeCaro at work in his Great Falls kitchen, one is inclined to believe him when he says he's never purchased a cookbook.
Still, DeCaro knows how to tell a good story and cook a decent meal. As a reporter hired by the special assignments unit of Cable News Network, DeCaro spent three years honing his reportorial skills on drug raids and air combat schools, among other subjects. And as the founder of Sea Aerospace Ground Evaluations (SAGE), a 10-year-old news agency specializing in "high-tech, high-risk reporting," DeCaro has traveled much of the world, picking up menus along with assignments.
One of the newsman's signature dishes, grouper chowder, comes by way of Grenada, for example, where DeCaro covered the island's U.S. invasion in 1983.
Mention rattlesnake and he'll tell you about a meal he ate during his stint with the Army's 20th Special Forces Division -- then he'll slice a few tomatoes, chop some peppers and onions, and whip together rattlesnake cacciatore.
Just gathering the ingredients for a meal involves a plot worthy of a Rambo script.
Pausing at the fish counter of a well-stocked suburban market, DeCaro recalls catching fresh water sharks and sawfish on the Rio San Juan, where as a reporter he accompanied Eden Pastora, the Nicaraguan guerilla leader, in a rickety speed boat. Since he didn't have a rod and reel, DeCaro explains, he improvised by tossing a grenade into the shallow waters, thereby stunning the fish and sending them floating to the surface, where they were scooped out by hand. In lieu of cooking utensils, mud was used to cover the fish, which was then baked over hot coals. To eat the finished product, the earthen vessel was broken, and the fish was extracted from the earthy shards.
"It's certainly better than not eating," says DeCaro of his various and unorthodox meals eaten in the wild.
The produce section, loaded with tropical fruits, prompts still other memories of the jungle. Some of us know how to best draw the milk and meat from a coconut. DeCaro does that one better, by rattling off instructions for making sunscreen from the nut's oil. Farther down the aisle, he points to a can of hearts of palm, or "swamp cabbage," as DeCaro calls it, and describes how he's extracted them by hand with a machete in the past.
"No guts, no glory" -- the phrase engraved on DeCaro's bracelet -- is a slogan that might well describe the man's cooking style, if not the man himself. "I'm not macho," insists DeCaro without any prompting.
DeCaro's interest in food comes as a surprise, given that he says he was excluded from his mother's kitchen as a boy growing up in Cranston, R.I. "I never touched anything" in the kitchen, says DeCaro. "Italian boys didn't do that."
His early years also emphasize a curiosity in things military rather than culinary: Civil Air Patrol at 12. Flying school at 16. A year at Marion Military Institute in Alabama, followed by two years at the Air Force Academy and time at the University of Rhode Island.
"Not the chef's usual re'sume'," understates one of DeCaro's housemates, a frequent presence at the dinner table.
DeCaro is back home now, unpacking his purchases and preparing to make the first of four main courses, starting with fajitas. The skirt steak he's just purchased is much easier to work with than was the chunk of freshly slaughtered cow he was once offered by a Costa Rican farmer.
So how did he learn to cook? "By osmosis," claims the adventurer. One of the first signs of any gastronomic aptitude was the time DeCaro says he fashioned a pizza from his C-rations in military prep school, to the amusement and admiration of his peers.
"Cooking is good therapy," observes DeCaro, "as long as I don't have to clean up." So he has a deal with his housemates: He cooks and they wash -- no small task given the dishes he goes through to make any given meal.
Whether it's a pasta dish, prepared at home, or mako shark and star fruit, cooked in the jungle, DeCaro has perfected the art of survival cooking, with its emphasis on "using what you have" and improvisation.
For starters, DeCaro seldom uses a recipe. Nothing is measured, everything is approximate. And his pots and pans, practically thin enough to see through, look as if they, too, have seen a bit of combat. "You do this by the handfuls," says DeCaro, throwing a fistful of pinto beans into a pot of his simmering grouper chowder, a slightly sweet, teasingly hot me'lange of coconut milk, chiles and seafood.
Yet beneath this seemingly haphazard approach to food preparation can be found some useful advice.
Before broiling a couple of shark fillets, for instance, DeCaro marinates them in a combination of lemon juice and papaya. The latter, he explains, lends flavor and acts as a tenderizer. ("It works for monkey meat, too," he adds, alluding to yet another jungle adventure.) The addition of carambola (star fruit), adds the cook, acts to cut the shark's fishiness.
And few cooks know more about packing for the road. DeCaro says he's never without his shiny, serrated Gerber combat knife. Nor would he leave home without a bottle of Tabasco sauce ("it'll make anything taste good") and garlic powder, which does double duty as flavor enhancer and bug repellent. After he was obliged to eat a soup made solely from river water and fish a few years back, DeCaro also advises bringing bouillon cubes, "a cheatin' cook's favorite device."
He leaves luxuries at home, explaining that the bulkiness of cameras, lights and sound equipment leaves little space for his favorite foods. "Who's going to bring a coffee grinder in his backpack?" asks DeCaro, who has used logs to pound field corn for tortillas.
"I always overcook," DeCaro says as he finishes the last of the abundant entrees. That may be true, but he also knows how to economize as circumstances require. Foil paper can double as fishing lures and reflectors, in addition to acting as a wrapper for food. Plastic garbage bags are used less for the obvious than for serving as rain protection, shelter and "water wings," to be worn while crossing rivers.
The kitchen is filling with the aromas of garlic and beef, onions and peppers, as fajitas, chowder, cacciatore and broiled mako shark make their way from stove top to table. The disparate dishes are washed down with liberal amounts of California wines -- which, like just about everything else, DeCaro discovered while on the job, in Lake County, north of San Francisco.
The writer's next and tentative project pales some in comparison to his travels, although his housemates might want to be forewarned that he's considering writing a book about his culinary adventures.
Still, nothing should surprise them since DeCaro threw his "anti-office party party" last Christmas, featuring a menu rivaling some of his past meals -- venison with triple sec and polenta with rabbit -- and a theme worthy of his job: "Rambo Meets Bambi."
Not everything that DeCaro makes requires a shopping trip into the jungle. Here are two of his favorite, easy-to-make bachelor meals, followed by a modified version of his more elaborate grouper chowder:
STUFFED TOMATOES (4 servings)
4 large tomatoes, hollowed out, pulp reserved
3/4 cup cooked brown or white rice
Generous 2/3 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh oregano, minced, or to taste
About 1/4-inch down from the top of each tomato, cut three quarters of the way around, to make a lid. Remove the flesh of the tomato, leaving enough to serve as a container for the stuffing. In a bowl, combine tomato pulp, rice, cheese, and seasonings. Stuff the mixture into each of four hollowed tomatoes and close lid. Place on a cookie sheet and bake about 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
VEAL WITH ROSEMARY AND GARLIC (4 servings)
2 pounds veal medallions
Generous 1/3 cup olive oil
4 heaping teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced
3 teaspoons minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Moisten the veal with the olive oil. Place medallions in a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with rosemary, garlic and salt and pepper. Place in a 350-degree oven and cook about 10 to 12 minutes, turning once halfway through. (Be careful not to overcook.) Remove medallions to a warm platter, drizzle with any pan juices, correct seasoning and serve with stuffed tomatoes, if desired.
GROUPER CHOWDER (10 generous servings)
Approximately 5 tablespoons peanut oil
1 1/2 pounds jicama, peeled and cut into small chunks
3 bell peppers, preferably a combination of red and yellow, cut into chunks
1 large spanish onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3 to 4 jalapeno START NOTE accent? END NOTEpeppers, minced
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
5 cups clam juice or chicken broth or combination of both
Handful uncooked rice (about 1/2 cup)
Juice of 2 large limes
Juice of 2 large lemons
Juice of 1 orange, peel reserved for garnish
1 cup coconut milk
2 pounds grouper fillets, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 pound scallops
1 pound crab meat (optional)
1 pound oysters with their juice (optional)
15-ounce can pinto beans
Generous 1/2 cup shredded coconut
In a large, heavy casserole or dutch oven, heat oil and saute' jicama until it turns a golden brown on the edges. Add peppers, onion, garlic, jalapeno peppers, red pepper flakes and cook over medium heat, about 10 minutes. Add clam juice and/or broth, rice, citrus juices and coconut milk. Simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes. Turn up heat to medium high; add fish, seafood, beans and coconut. Cook 5 to 10 minutes more, until fish turns opaque. (If using crab, add just 5 minutes before removing chowder from heat.) Serve chowder garnished with grated orange peel, if desired.