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Cooler Chronicles

Every summer, my husband and I plan a couple of family camping trips to the Tahoe National Forest, a place we have been returning to for more than 15 years. Our style of camping is the primitive car variety. We like the luxury of packing up our four-wheel-drive truck and pulling right into the campsite but still deep enough into the wilderness to distance us from other campers. I am not one to hike into the wilderness with a full backpack and here’s why: I couldn’t live without my giant cooler. I am a bit of a nut when it comes to camping trip food. I plan exactly what my husband, my young son, and I will eat hour by hour, and I meticulously list every food item, condiment, drink, tool, and utensil we’ll need. A lot of preparation goes into planning these meals and snacks. I wouldn’t think of shoving everything into the cooler with a few of bags of ice. I’m sure it would still be fine and we would eat well, but I am too much invested in the food experience. I enjoy nudging out on little details like putting a paper bag of dry ice in the bottom of the cooler so the regular ice stays frozen all weekend, or save little jars and bottles and filling them with condiments and cooking oil so I don’t have to pack the big bottles, or using my FoodSaver to seal marinated meats so the meat juices don’t leak and ruin the ice for my five o’clock Jack and Coke. I pack my cooler with the focus of a tournament chess player and I am proud of the result. Here’s how I do it:

The cooler: We have two coolers, a 100-quart capacity (17 × 17 × 33 inches), which we use for trips longer than four days, and a 48-quart capacity (15 × 15 × 22 inches), which we use for weekend trips.

Dry ice: I buy a couple pounds of dry ice from an industrial gas supplier because I can buy it by weight, no minimum amount. I found my supplier through this website:  The night before we leave, I go there with my empty cooler and a brown paper shopping bag. After few scoops of dry ice goes into the bag (I’ll get 3-4 pounds for the larger cooler and about 1 pound for the smaller one), I carefully fold up the bag and pop it into the cooler. Dry ice is not safe to handle with your bare hands so it is a good idea to keep it contained in a breathable material like paper. The dry ice will evaporate by the end of the trip.

Cubed ice: If we are bringing the large cooler, I take four bags of ice: two for keeping food cold, one for drinks, and one for backup. For the small cooler, I take two bags of ice: one for food and one for drinks.

FoodSaver: I marinate meat and poultry and seal them separately in the FoodSaver. This gadget vacuum-packs food in hermetically sealed plastic bags that are airtight. There is no chance of cross-contamination, and if the ice happens to melt or something spills in the cooler, the meat will be safe in these bags. Plus the packets are flat, so they don’t take up valuable square footage in the cooler. If you don’t have a FoodSaver, resealable plastic bags work well too. As a safety measure, I would put all the individual packets together in a larger bag.

Little jars: I save glass and plastic jelly and condiment jars, the ones I get from hotels and airplanes. I fill them with ketchup, cooking oil, mustard, mayonnaise, and barbeque sauce. It’s another space-saving trick.

Square plastic containers: I use these stackable containers to hold my jars of condiments, and to organize the produce, cheese, and cold cuts. The containers serve as drawers in the cooler and keep everything in order, dry, and off the ice.

Drinks: I transfer milk and juice to smaller containers. We wouldn’t drink a whole carton of milk or orange juice, so I only take what we need in Mason jars or metal or plastic water jugs.

—Julia Lee


We can’t go on a family camping trip without these barbecued ribs. Here’s how we make it. A generous coating of the rub goes on both sides of a rack of baby back ribs. Wrap the ribs in a few layers of heavy-duty foil and cook the packet on a low, glowing fire for a few hours, turning now and then, until the ribs are cooked through but not falling off the bone. Take the ribs out of the foil and pour the delicious cooking juices into a bowl and mix with an equal amount of barbecue sauce. Slather the ribs with the mixture and cook over a medium-low fire until the edges begin to crisp up a bit.

For one full rack of baby back ribs, mix together 3 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika), 1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon ground New Mexico chile (or other mild chile), ¼ teaspoon granulated garlic and a healthy pinch each of ground black pepper, celery salt, and mustard powder in a small bowl. —Makes about ¼ cup.



You can use this marinade with just about any kind of meat, but I lean toward chicken thighs and legs, and beef short ribs. The longer the meat marinates the better, so we eat this on the last day of the trip.

Combine 1 cup soy sauce, ½ cup water, ¾ cup mirin (sweet rice wine), 2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 3–4 crushed cloves garlic, 3–4  crushed slices ginger, 1 coarsely chopped scallion, and ground black pepper to taste in a medium bowl, stirring until the sugar dissolves. —Makes about 2 ½ cups or enough for 1–2 pounds of meat.






Pick a country, any country


One might think that in a home with two professionally trained cooks, no one would ever utter the question “What do you want for dinner tonight?” with an apathetic shrug. But the opposite can be true. A few years ago, my wife Rachel and I were both working in restaurants, cooking and catering events for a living. By the time we got home at night or on our days off, it was less than exciting to think about what to make. Busy and tired like most people, we wanted to eat, but even we chefs needed inspiration to get dinner on the table.

With many cookbooks on our bookshelf, and the Internet at our fingertips, we started a little game we call “What country do you want to go to tonight?” It always works and we end up with something surprisingly delicious.

It goes something like this:

Me: “How about Vietnam? We could make pho? We have that beef broth in the freezer and I think there’s some cilantro that’s in good shape. We can pick some fresh mint from the little pot on the deck and…”

Rachel: “Hmm, that’s good but I had Asian for lunch and I don’t think there’s really anything to add to pho besides broth and herbs. What about pasta?”

Me: “That might work, we have some parsley too. Should we make a pesto out of the herbs and add some of those walnuts? Are they still any good?”

Rachel: “No, I threw the walnuts out last week. We have chicken thighs!  What about chicken?”

Me: “What country is chicken?”

Rachel: “I don’t know. Could it go in the pasta?”

Me: “I don’t think I want pasta.”

Rachel: “Mexico?”

Me: “Yes! Viva Mexico!”

Rachel: “Great. I’m making yellow rice and…”

Me: “And those black beans…we could add scallions?”

Rachel: “Perfect.”

Me: “I’ll marinate the thighs fast in some chili powder and garlic and cumin. Good?”

Rachel: “Good. There’s some oregano, I think. Want to turn the grill on?”

Me: “I did it already. What about vegetables? We need a vegetable.”

Rachel: “Salad? No, we don’t really have anything. We have beets, is that weird?”

Me: “Oh, what about that beet salad Rick Bayless makes?”

Rachel: “With the red onions and lime?

Me: “Yeah, and the cilantro, and chilies. They’re in a can but I think they might work. I’ll look up the recipe.”*

Rachel: “Yum, I think this is going to be really good. What do you want for dinner tomorrow? Should I thaw something out?”

Me: “Oy!”

Julie Sproesser


*(Roasted Beet Salad with Red Onion, Poblano, and Lime from Fiesta at Rick’s, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.)


Spring garlic—a gift of the season


All too often cooks use garlic with a heavy hand.  When there’s too much, it overwhelms an otherwise lovely dish. When subtle and controlled, it adds incomparable savory flavor.

Tender spring garlic might just be garlic at its best. We found some beautiful stalks at our local farmers’ market the other day, grown by Gravity Hill Farm in nearby Titusville, New Jersey, which grows some of the loveliest vegetables we’ve seen.  When we see spring garlic at the market we know we’ve fully left winter behind.

Also called green garlic or new garlic, spring garlic is the young garlic plant that shoots up before the large bulb full of individual cloves forms in the ground. At this stage it looks like a skinny leek or even a large scallion, with a pink or purple tint near the root. Though these tender plants are pulled up whole in early spring to make more room for the plants that will mature through the summer, they are certainly not second best.

We are crazy for spring garlic’s subtle flavor and seek it out during its very short season, as it is the first in four stages of growth for the garlic plant. Next we’ll await the arrival of garlic scapes—the long, wildly curled flower stalks that come from the same bulb. The scapes typically shoot up in June and July after the garlic bulb has grown larger and are snipped off the top of the plant while the bulb continues to mature. They are beautiful in the garden but a bit strong for our tastes, so we fill vases full of them and catch a whiff of their garlicky scent as we pass by. The third stage is fresh garlic, which is the just-harvested version of the familiar bulb sold in most stores. Fresh garlic is a rarer find as most garlic is cured (hung to dry for a few weeks) during which it develops a papery white skin and a longer shelf life.

Spring garlic is sweeter, gentler, and almost more innocent in this stage than it will be as it matures. It can be used raw or cooked to add mild garlic flavor with less pungent heat (and with less need for hesitation on the part of the cook). At Canal House we mince raw spring garlic into vinaigrette, or add thin slices to a potato-leek soup. It gives a nice background flavor to the delicate spring offerings—fava beans, lettuce, peas, artichokes, and asparagus—that could be overpowered by mature garlic. Look for it at farmers’ markets now through early June.


“Lettuce” make your fried rice delicious…


Alice’s is a great little Chinese restaurant around the corner from my house in San Francisco. My family always gets takeout because it makes eating at home with a four-year-old easier. But on a recent school holiday, my son and I decided to go out for a “date lunch”. Because we picked Alice’s I learned that they add iceberg lettuce to their fried rice, but only when you eat in. Shredded blades of iceberg are stirred into the rice just before it’s plated. The beautiful color, crunchy texture, and juiciness turned this side dish into the star of the meal. The Chinese have long been cooking with a variety of lettuce called san choi in Cantonese (luo kui in Mandarin), which looks like romaine but resembles iceberg in texture. The leaves are stirred into soups—like West Lake Fish Soup—for texture and color, stir-fried with soy sauce and sesame oil for a quick and economical side dish, or added to a dish when it needs to feed a few more. No matter what the reason, it’s always good. You can bet that the next time I make Fried Rice (Vol. Nº 6, The Grocery Store, page 63) for dinner, I’ll be sure to add a handful of shredded green goodness to it.—Julia Lee

Let’s Eat In Tonight

Every evening when my husband Jim comes home from work, he flings open the front door, steps in, and calls out, “Where’s my family?” This is his version of “Honey I’m hooome”. If I’m lucky, I’ll just be getting dinner started when he walks through the door, but on this particular night, dinner was cooked and warming on the stove, and my son, my wine, and I were waiting for him. “Mmmm! Smells like Original Joe’s dinner,” I heard him say as he climbed the stairs. He was right! We were having chicken parmesan, meat ravioli in red sauce, and Caesar salad—exactly what we used to order every time we ate at that beloved San Francisco institution, Original Joe’s, before a fire closed it down in 2007.

My family loves that dinner. It brings back great memories and it’s like eating out, but in the comfort of our own home. It’s quite simple to make—especially the ravioli. I buy the little frozen ones at my supermarket (I prefer the smaller to the larger size). To make them, I bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the ravioli, and cook them until they just begin to rise to the surface. Into the colander they go to drain, then back into the pot. To the cooked ravioli I add regular canned tomato sauce and a big slab of butter, then let it simmer over medium heat until the butter melts. I add salt and pepper, a big handful of chopped parsley, and lots of grated parmigiano-reggiano. Then we dig in! —Julia Lee

The Best Worst Cocktail
or how whiskey and saccharin keep you young

My grandma has never smoked nor cursed, but she tells a story about when she was a kid, and how she found a mouse in the barn and picked it up by its tail. Scared that it would bite her, she swung it around and around and around until all she had left in her hand was the little tail. She was a farm girl from the middle of Missouri and remembers days before electricity came to the farm. She taught eight grades at one time in the last one-room school house in the state and smacked the student’s hands with a ruler when they wouldn’t settle down.  I think she tells us those stories so we won’t think she’s gone all soft or too fancy.

After the farm days, she moved to Washington, DC, became a secretary at the Treasury and married an older man (my PopPop) who took her on adventures all over the world.  She became the most cosmopolitan farm girl in DC.  She threw the grandest of parties with hand-made lace cocktail napkins, big crystal punch bowls, and plenty of foreign executives.  She still has every issue of Gourmet ever printed in her basement in chronological order. When she and PopPop retired they went on cruises and danced and she wore pearls and drank expensive champagne.

Now, ninety-three years old, she lives in her own home, gets her hair done every week and puts on her best outfit and jewels when someone is coming to visit. She admits to never really liking champagne—whiskey is her drink now and it’s the only booze in the house.  A handle of Jim Beam or Early Times Old Style Kentucky Whiskey sits on the counter in the kitchen and probably lasts her a full year, maybe two.  My sisters and I all know her cocktail recipe by heart: 1 ounce whiskey, 2 big ice cubes, and half a packet of Sweet’N Low, stirred. Not too fancy, but not too hard either, and never served before 6:00 p.m.

I might skip the Sweet’n Low in mine, but if it’ll have me still telling stories at ninety-three, I’ll drink to that.—Julie Sproesser

Asparagus with Irish Butter

Local asparagus arrived a few weeks ago. Big fat green spears, of course, and a deep reddish purple variety called Viola. The first site of them at a local farm market, standing tall and bending—all wild-looking, loose in their buckets of water—took our breath away. Spring had arrived!

So early this year, as we do each Spring, we’ve begun feasting on these local zaftig beauties and much prefer them to the straight thin asparagus that you find in the supermarket. We take the extra time and trouble and always peel off their skin with a vegetable peeler to just below the tip not only to pretty-up the spears and make them more tender, but especially to rid them of the fine sand lodged in those small flat leaves along the spear that look like fins.  This year, we’ve been eating our asparagus bathed in a luxurious lemony butter sauce, similar to a hollandaise, but better—fresher tasting, not so cloyingly thick.  We first learned how delicious it was at Ballymaloe with Darina Allen—the high priestess of Irish cuisine. It relies on the salted Irish butter we’re so crazy about from Kerrygold—but other brands of European-style high-fat butter will suit. Here’s a preview of the recipe that will be in Canal House Cooking Volume N°4.

It is quite simple and it goes a little something like this:  Whisk 2 egg yolks together with 2 tablespoons of water in a heavy saucepan. Begin warming the beaten yolks over very low heat, whisking all the while. Then gradually add 8 tablespoons of cold salted Irish butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking until each tablespoon of butter has been incorporated into the sauce before you add the next. The sauce will thicken and lighten, becoming almost foamy. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in more or less the juice of half a lemon to your own taste. This sauce isn’t as finicky as most delicate butter sauces. We keep it warm over a pot of hot water.

Maybe you’ll want to honor your asparagus with this deliciousness, too.

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