As much as I love the Boundary Waters, when I feel untethered, aimless, or uncertain, I know a dose of those moving waters in the southeastern corner of Minnesota can always take me to my best self and my original heart. I find no irony whatsoever in the fact that one of those places, located so near to where four generations of my family have lived and worked, is the Root River.
Several years ago, I hit up my younger brother Ben and his best friend Lew to ask if they were up for a May weekend canoe trip. I was staring down the barrel of patio season at the St. Paul bistro where I had recently become executive chef and I knew some time in the woods and on the water would be a helpful balm against the stress to come.
Ben and Lew had been partners in crime since elementary school and had gone to college together at Vermillion in Ely, Minnesota. Ben had become a wilderness firefighter and was preparing for his second season deployed as part of a helitack unit stationed in the Pacific Northwest, fast-roping out of helicopters with a small crew to put out spot-fires before they became real conflagrations in the Cascades and beyond. Lew had long been the yin to Ben’s yang, the Yoda to his Skywalker, wrangling, encouraging, partaking, and, from time to time, grounding him through canoe trips, wilderness camping, and snowboarding safaris through the greater parts of northern North America. We decided on the weekend before fishing opener for timing so we wouldn’t have to run a gauntlet of fly rods and chest waders, and chose the Root River for our voyage as it had easy campsite access that likely wouldn’t be washed out by spring flooding. A couple of phone calls figured summer sausage and cheese for lunch, a campfire stew for dinner, canned beer, a bottle of Irish whiskey, and an assortment of granola bars for breakfast provided we weren’t too hungover to consider morning nourishment.
Our cousin Kurt had also been invited but, tethered to his job for the weekend, could only offer to drop us at the put-in and pick us up. After much discussion on the morning Kurt arrived (three Fratzkes will easily get you five opinions), we worked out that he would pick us up somewhere on MN-16 between Whalan and Peterson. I would load up my kayak and our gear and ride back with Kurt. Ben would ride shotgun with Lew, his dad’s 1974 Alumacraft astride his Subaru Outback. It went without saying that our fourth companion down the river would be Darby, Ben’s slightly-smaller-than-a-pony golden retriever known for his mellow demeanor, healthy appetite, and constant, ravenous desire to spend time in any moving vehicle or watercraft.
By noon the canoe had dumped once in a snag, soaking Ben, Lew, Darby, and most of their gear, we had each taken restorative tips from the whiskey bottle for strength, and I had tethered a magnificent pile of driftwood to the bungees on the aft deck of my kayak. A couple of breaks were necessary for a nosh, a few of the canned brews, an afternoon swim (voluntary this time), and some fetch time for a restless Darby. I remember, even then, wanting to call the day, with all of its imperfections, idyllic.
Keep in mind that for the better part of my adult life I had been absent from our beloved Driftless Region. Not only did Ben and Lew literally have the map, but I was delighted, after years of leadership roles in Twin Cities kitchens, to follow and be the Sergeant Gass to their Lewis and Clark. So, of course, as the shadows grew longer and the sky settled into more gray than blue, I began to ask about the campsite.
“Not too far,” “Up ahead a bit,” and “Just past these rapids and down a ways” became “Around this bend, I think,” “Wasn’t it on a high bank?” “Nope that’s posted land,” and “Did we pass it?” The answer to the last question was yes, but not by far, and by the time we lost the light of the day, Lew had a fire going in the campsite pit, Darby had rolled in a fresh cow flop, and Ben was trying to get him to play fetch in the eddy below our camp as an ad hoc method of bathing away what could make for a very unsanitary evening.
I hauled my blue enamel stockpot from the kayak and carried it over to the picnic table where I upended its contents next to a package of slightly frosty Hillshire Farms breakfast sausages Lew offered up.
“I figured these would be great for breakfast, but it looks like they’re about thawed out.”
I turned on my headlamp and looked over our inventory. With a one-pot meal in mind, I ventured, “You just want me to go for it?”
Ben munched an apple and cracked a beer. “Do it.”
I gave the pot a quick rinse with my water bottle, set it over the grate on the firepit and split open the package of sausages with my buck knife, slipping them in the pot with a couple slices of cold butter. Wiping clean one of the canoe paddles, I used it as a cutting board to julienne an onion and a half dozen garlic cloves, adding them to the sausages when I heard the sizzle creep into our conversation. The onions browned and I covered them with a few shakes of curry powder, the out-of-place aroma rising over the woodsmoke like fireworks. Lew rose from his log near the fire to peek at the progress.
“Didn’t expect to be tasting THAT tonight,” he said giddily. I reached for the PBR in his hand, took a sip, then poured a couple of ounces into the pot, deglazing the onions that my wooden spoon had told me were starting to stick. I handed Lew back the beer and opened a one-pound package of vacuum-sealed gnocchi I had snagged from dry storage at the bistro before I left for the weekend. I waited for the beer to cook out and dropped the gnocchi into the pot with two quarts of water and a couple tablespoons of powdered dashi. I put the lid on, knowing that a quicker boil would keep the gnocchi from turning into lumps of glue. I pulled out the last trick from my bag, literally, and opened a can of Kuner’s Refried Black Beans with Lime, mashing the contents into the slowly emerging boil.
“She ready?” Ben asked, his green eyes amber in the firelight.
“Ten minutes,” I said, slipping another couple splints of deadfall in the fire beneath the grate.
We settled into a few laughs around the fire, a pass of the bottle, and the crack and puff of new beers opened for the meal. Ben dug into his Duluth Pack to pull out a Cool-Whip tub and a Ziploc of kibble for Darby’s dinner. I placed a stack of camp bowls on the table and produced my ever-present Gray Kunz spoon. (You can take the boy out of the bistro…)
“Did you guys—” I started, realizing neither of them had brought food tools.
“Nah,” Lew said, “let’s just go from the pot.”
“Big mountain style,” Ben added.
I pulled the pot to the cooler edge of the grill and, using the wooden spoon, fished out a gnocchi. Not mushy, not al dente. Even firepit hot and fresh off the boil, the curry zipped into my nose and made our ad hoc pork and beans taste like a dry and dusty sunset, warming us from the one we were denied by a cloudy day. The dashi crept through enough to make it all an umami bomb—something you want any campfire meal to be.
Pulling from the same wooden spoon, we stepped into some sort of voyageur-wannabe time machine. Centuries fell away and the three of us and our dog could have been anyone in the last 50,000 years of human history, following a river to a campfire and a one-pot meal, some storytelling, and a good night’s sleep.
“We’re there, boys,” I slurped.
ROOT RIVER STEW
A good campfire stew requires beans, spices, protein, and circumstance. Tools matter, too—spoons large enough to reach the bottom of your biggest pot, tongs for flipping and manipulating grilled items, and a simple, indestructible spork-type combo for individual consumption is a plus. I will always recommend wood or bamboo over plastic or composite. From chopsticks to tongs to spatulas, they are easily found in most grocery stores and, in life or death scenarios, they can be used to start or maintain fires.
1 medium-sized yellow onion, diced
6 each garlic cloves, peeled, clipped, smashed
12 ounces (1 package) pork breakfast links, cut in half if desired
2 tablespoons butter, cold
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 ounces lager beer, white wine, or water
2 tablespoons Hon-Dashi granules
1 16-ounce vacuum-sealed package prepared gnocchi
2 quarts water
1 can refried black beans
Get a good fire going or place your pot on a burner over medium heat. Add the cold butter and sausages at the same time.
Before too long, the butter should melt and the sausages will begin to render out their fat. Keep stirring the pot until you see the sausages begin to turn opaque and cook. When they begin to brown a bit add the onions and garlic.
Work the onions, garlic, and sausage until the onions are translucent and the garlic and sausage start to show a milk chocolate brown color. Sprinkle in the curry and stir vigorously. This toasts the spices and wakes up the flavor. Be careful not to let it go too long as the spices can scorch quickly. When you can smell the curry strongly, move to the next step.
Add the lager, white wine, or water. If using either of the former, stir constantly and be patient, allowing the alcohol to cook out completely. This usually happens when the liquid has reduced by over half and the liquid has visibly thickened.
Stir in the gnocchi until completely coated by prep in the pot. Add water and dashi, stir well and place above a slightly warmer spot on the fire or increase the burner to medium-high heat.
When the pot comes to a low simmer, stir in refried beans. Mash up with a fork or whisk or use a spoon to mash against the side of the pot until broken up. When the stew returns to a boil, pull off the heat to reduce a bit again to an even simmer. Stir often for at least 10 minutes. Root River Stew is finished when gnocchi are cooked to desired consistency.
Squeeze in fresh lemon or lime for a brighter flavor. Hot sauce will always provide a desired punch, whether it is Cry Baby Craig’s or a handful of packets lifted from the fast-food joint. Just remember to pack out them empties. Don’t be a tool and burn them in the fire.