When four girlfriends trek into the backcountry of Wyoming for an overnight yurt ski trip, it isn't all just about the skiing.
Well, it is mostly about the skiing. Bowl after beautiful bowl of untracked powder awaited us at the wilderness boundary. At 8,800 feet and 5.5 miles in, Baldy Knoll yurt is the highest and most remote yurt within driving distance of Jackson Hole.
Like most adventures with my foodie friends, it is also all about the food. We were determined to ski well, to eat well, and to drink well.
Having to cross the weir is part of the charm of getting into Baldy Knoll. Susan recalled crossing it when it was a sheet of ice.
Eating well in in the backcountry is a tradition in our mountain community. Sure, we could head out into the wilderness with a bag of M&Ms and some bison jerky, but we would be missing out on an important part of the experience. To share good food with good friends is one of life's great pleasures; to do so in the wilderness is sublime.
Anne enjoys a few weak rays of sun, before the storm rolls in.
As yurt-mate Susan puts it: "To be able to go into the backcountry and eat a healthy, satisfying meal that also tastes wonderful...takes some experience and skill. Once you gain that experience and skill, it seems like a real injustice to spoil a great trip with bad food."
Susan shows us where a cornice is building, with Housetop mountain in the back begging to be explored.
The day we skinned into the yurt was a bit too warm, so snow was caked onto the bottom of our skins until it was as if we were climbing on stilts. When we arrived at the yurt 3 hours later, a nap briefly crossed our minds, since our yurt was cozy and quiet and dark. (These girls are the type who always dream of taking naps, but they are just too darn active to go through with it.) So off we went, dumping our gear within minutes, and heading back out into the storm system headed our way.
The yurt's cozy skylight was inviting us to take a nap, but the terrain outside just begged to be explored.
Karen and Anne heading out to explore, wind or no wind.
Touring the pristine peaks and ridges, with names like Housetop, Rhodesia, and Zimbabwe, we were truly in awe of our surroundings. As the winds kicked up to the 50 mph range, we started to work up an appetite for a fire, some wine, and a nice meal.
You can see by my ripping backpack straps how the wind was starting to roll in above Peak 10024.
Karen collects culinary snow for making water, by slowing melting it over the wood stove.
Back at the yurt, there were chores to be done before we could have our wine and comfort food. Culinary water needs to be collected and slowly melted; if it melts too fast it will "burn", and the water will taste funny.
Preparing a delicious meal in the backcountry should be easy, with most of the work already done at home. It is smart to have a no-preparation-needed appetizer, for that first surge of appetite that hits when you come in from the cold. Luckily, Susan had brought a crusty loaf of 460 Olive Thyme Bread
which we dunked into her stash of olio nuovo olive oil,
which she carries wherever she goes. A crisp, fragrant glass of Vernaccia really hit the spot.
460 Olive Thyme Bread, dunked in Olio Nuovo, and nibbled with a gutsy bleu cheese.
With chores done, we poured a crisp white Vernaccia from San Gimignano, that we had decanted into a Kleen Kanteen for easy transport.
Having just returned from a class in French Bistro cooking at the Culinary Institute of America, I had hearty French food on the brain. In the CIA kitchen, I learned the proper way to sear a mushroom, marinate a hanger steak, and caramelize onions. Making perfect garlic aioli from scratch was a triumph for me, after a lifetime of failed homemade mayonnaise. I couldn't wait to treat to my yurt-mates to the of best of CIA bistro fare.
At the CIA, we made open-faced hanger steak sandwiches with caramelized onions. The recipe is easily done ahead, and packed into the backcountry to be reheated on a woodstove.
Thinly sliced onions, cooked in a pan until caramelized, then doused with a shot of sherry vinegar, were easy to make ahead. As were the shiitake mushrooms, which were seared in a frying pan, then topped with a few nubs of creamy fontina cheese. Each was wrapped in a foil packet for easy, no-dirty-dishes reheating on the wood stove.
The hanger steak stayed juicy and flavorful, even though it had been broiled the night before.
The hanger steak is marinated for up to 12 hours, then broiled or grilled rare. Once cooled, the steak also went into a foil packet, so that it could be warmed on the wood stove, and sliced just before eating.
A curried couscous salad made the night before actually improves with age as its yogurt base mingles with the turmeric, curry powder and currants. A handful of arugula adds color and crunch.
Curried couscous salad.
Dessert if very important when feasting in the wilderness, so I packed in my favorite chocolate torte. The Chocolate Amaretti Torte is a veteran of backcountry travel. Mountain Man's favorite cake, it has successfully travelled from the Wind River Mountains to the Arctic Circle. Baked in a springform pan, then frozen with the pan base, it went from freezer to backpack to yurt with ease.
Unwrapping the Chocolate Amaretti Torte.
We were especially happy with our wine pairing: a screwtop Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia, hand-picked from Mountain Man's cellar, was perfect alongside the juicy steak and garlicky sides. We only wished we had brought another bottle to accompany the torte, but hey, we were roughing it up there.
Susan, me and Anne with empty wineglasses and big smiles all around.
As we feasted by headlamp in our cozy yurt, with the wind picking up in earnest outside, we could not have been more comfortable, or well fed.
Morning chores include chopping wood, melting snow for the next group, and shoveling off the steps.
We were ready to tackle morning chores after one of Susan's famous backcountry breakfasts: Grits, fresh eggs from Snowdrift Farm
, a drizzle of olio nuovo, and bits of leftover cheese. Freshly brewed coffee kept warm on the wood stove, as we plotted to find the good skiing.
Susan and I consult the topo map, actually 4 topos maps taped together, of this amazing backcountry terrain.
The fresh snow on the ground looked promising, but we were concerned about the suncrust from yesterdays's high temps, and the hammering of the wind which gusted up to 60 mph in the night.
Heading out in our rainbow of gear.
Deep slabs of breakable crust greeted us the first time we tried to make turns.
After Susan's second double-eject head plant, we declared the snow to be 'unskiable', and headed out to find north-facing woods.
We soon discovered that the powder we were after had been ruined by the warm temperatures and the high winds, creating slabs of breakable crust that were mostly unskiable. A day of touring was in order, but powder skiing would have to wait until the next yurt trip.
When we got back to the yurt, the next party had already moved in: Mountain Man and 6 other guys. Due to an explosion involving beer and fleece clothing, the yurt already smelled like a frat house.
Adios, Baldy Knoll. Same time, next year.
At the end of the day, we decided it was worth the effort to eat extraordinarily well on our little adventure.
For my yurt-mates and me, sharing good food with good friends in a pristine setting was what mattered. As we let the guys take over our cozy yurt, we constructed one last decadent meal: Leftover hanger steak, caramelized onions, and a dab of saffron garlic aioli on ciabatta bread. We graciously handed over the remains of the Chocolate Amaretti Torte to the guys, who apparently had packed only snacks.
Anne, Susan, and Karen: the best yurt-mates ever.
For information about renting a yurt in the Wyoming backcountry, go to http://www.skithetetons.com/index.html
For a printable version of each recipe, print on the file below it.
Hanger Steak with Caramelized Onions
This simple marinade transforms the humble hanger steak into a juicy, flavorful entree. Your butcher may need to order it, but it will be worth the wait. See below for today's culinary word for more on the hanger steak.
for the steak and marinade:
for the caramelized onions:
- 2 1/2 lb. hanger steak (I had to order mine from Jackson Whole Grocer; ask your butcher)
- 2 rosemary sprigs
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 cups thinly sliced onions
- 1 tsp. sherry vinegar
- 1 Tbsp. butter
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- FIrst, prepare the marinade for the steak. Remove the leaves from the rosemary sprigs, and chop finely.
- Add rosemary to a large plastic bag with the olive oil and the garlic.
- Place the hanger steak in the bag, and mix well, rubbing the marinade into the steak.
- Seal and refrigerate for at least one hour, and up to 12 hours.
- Next, prepare the onions. Slice the onions as thin as you can with a sharp knife or a mandoline.
- Heat a large saute pan over medium heat; add butter, oil and onions. Cook until the onions are soft and caramelized, about 15 minutes.
- Season with salt, pepper and sherry vinegar.
- To cook the steak, you can use a grill, a cast iron skillet, or a broiler. Wipe the marinade from the steak and season with salt and pepper. Broil, grill, or pan-fry using high heat until just underdone. (I used the broiler, and achieved rare/medium rare results with 5 minutes on one side, 4-5 on the other). Doneness will depend on the thickness of the steak, so use your judgement.
- If serving right away, let the steak rest for 5 minutes, tented with foil, and then slice against the grain into thin slices. Serve atop thick slices of peasant bread with the onions, and drizzle with more olive oil (or garlic aioli) if desired. If packing it up into the backcountry, leave the steak whole. Cool, and wrap in a double layer of foil. Reheat the foil packet on your heat source (we used the wood stove), and slice just before eating.
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Saffron Garlic Aioli
At the CIA, I learned to make garlic aioli by grinding garlic cloves with sea salt in an enormous mortar and pestle, then whisking with eggs, then olive oil in a slow steady stream. At home, I got equally good results using a garlic press to macerate the garlic, and a food processor to do the vigorous mixing. The CIA chefs encourage experimentation, so I added a generous pinch of saffron to make it my own.....Saffron Garlic Aioli.
My saffron-spiked garlic aioli is fragrant and colorful. Perfect alongside the steak, the mushrooms, and the couscous. Perfect the next day on a sandwich of leftover steak.
- 4 small or 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. saffron threads (optional)
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tsp. sherry vinegar or lemon juice
- 1/4 cup pure olive oil (not extra virgin) or vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Cut the garlic cloves in half, remove and discard the green sprout in the center. Chop the garlic finely, or mince it through a garlic press.
- Combine the chopped garlic and the salt and crush with a mortar and pestle, or if using minced garlic, mash it with the salt using the side of a large knife.
- Place the garlic/salt into a medium bowl. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vinegar or lemon juice. Gradually pour the olive oil in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly until emulsified.
- If using saffron, crush the threads between your fingers and cover in small bowl with a few teaspoons of hot water. After 5-10 minutes of steeping, add the saffron to the finished aioli and mix well. If the saffron forms bead of color in the aioli, that's fine, just give it another vigorous stir before serving.
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Chocolate Amaretti Torte
This cake has so many attributes: the classic Sicilian marriage of chocolate, almonds and oranges; a crackly top layer contrasting with a creamy chocolatey center; it freezes well, travels well, and stays fresh for days.
You will need a springform pan for this cake, and some of those baby amaretti cookies made by Amaretto di Saronno (Jackson Whole Grocer usually carries these addictive, crunchy cookies).
This recipe comes from Giada de Laurentis' Everyday Italian cookbook.
- 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 cup slivered almonds
- 1 cup (about 2 oz.) baby amaretti cookies
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2 tsp. grated orange zest (from one large orange)
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder, for sifting on top
- Butter flavored or plain cooking spray, to coat the pan
The torte is done when the top puffs up and a wooden skewer comes out clean. Don't worry if the cake cracks; that is part of its charm.
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a 9 inch springform pan with nonstick spray and refrigerate.
- In a small bowl, microwave the chocolate chips, stirring every 30 seconds, until melted and smooth, about 2 minutes.
- In a food processor, combine the almonds and cookies, and pulse until finely ground. Transfer to a bowl.
- Without cleaning the food processor bowl, add the butter, sugar, and orange zest and blend until creamy. With the machine running, add the eggs, one at a time.
- Add the nut mixture and the melted chocolate. Pulse until blended.
- Use a rubber spatula to transfer the batter to prepared pan. Bake until the center puffs and a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes.
- Cool in the pan, and then gently remove the release the sides of the springform pan. Use a fine mesh sieve to sprinkle the top with cocoa powder. Slice and serve on the pan's base.
- If packing the cake into the backcountry, wrap tightly in wax paper, then foil. Freezing the cake will make it less likely to break in transport.
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Today's culinary word could only be....The Hanger Steak. Exactly what is a hanger steak?
The hanger steak is a thick, boneless beef cut that comes from the muscle that hold up the diaphragm, between the rib and the short loin. It is flavorful, like a skirt steak, but thicker and more tender. It is usually marinated before being cooked at a high, dry heat to a temperature of rare to medium rare. Also known as "the butcher's cut" because it is thought to be the piece the butcher will keep for himself; in France it is called an onglet.
from The Deluxe Food Lovers' Companion by Sharon Typer Herbst and Ron Herbst