Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Moose Hill Moosewood

There haven’t been any moose on Moose Hill for a very long time. So long, in fact, that I don’t think anyone knows how the place got its name. Who knows? Maybe it was named after a tree. Right beside the road, between the visitor’s center and the caretaker’s house is a small patch of moosewood. Every time I bike or jog by it, I think of the north country. Acer pensylvanicum, is also known as striped maple because of vertical white stripes on green bark, or goosefoot maple because of the shape of its leaf, and it is also known as moosewood. Maybe moose like to browse it. It is typically a shrub or small tree and is most often found in cool, moist, shady places in northern hardwood forests. It’s uncommon around here, so seeing it can transport me to other places, other times.

I recall attending a lecture by William M. Harlow, dendrology professor emeritus when I was in college in the late seventies and author of Textbook of Dendrology, a classic text for those studying trees. He taught his appreciative and attentive audience how to properly sharpen a pocket knife and then use it to make a moosewood whistle. This must be done in the spring when the sap is flowing. Cut a short section of twig, slip the bark right off the wood, cut a notch to make the sound and slide the core in and out of the bark like a tiny trombone slide to play a tune. I didn’t get any credit for that lecture, but nearly 30 years later I remember it better than most other things I studied in school.

I suspect many people are far more familiar with The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen than they are with a small maple of the north woods. This classic vegetarian's bible was published in 1977, and while I didn’t discover it until about ten years later, I knew right away it was the cooking guide for me. I’m not a vegetarian, but about 95 percent of my meals are meat free and I love simple, wholesome vegetarian dishes. I used Moosewood to learn and internalize some basic cooking techniques that I use to this day.

I’m a man of simple pleasures and limited ambition and discipline, so I limit my cooking to the basics. I like to cook hearty soups and stews and throw everything – greens, protein and carbs - into one really big pot. I try to make enough to provide two of us with two or three meals. I find my approach is particularly well suited to cold winter nights when it gets dark early and I find myself in a Moose Hill state of mind. After work, I get everything ready and simmering and then head out the door for a jog up into the dark woods. Here’s a ‘recipe’ I used last week:

I pour olive oil to coat the bottom of one of the larger (8-quart) pots I have. As the oil heats on a low flame I peel and chop up any vegetables I can find and toss them in. These usually include onions (about four), carrots (about four large) and celery (about half a bunch). I let these sauté for a while and sprinkle on some salt. About the time the onions start to turn clear (or brown, if I have the patience), I might throw in a pound of edamame. Edamame, for those not familiar with it, is green, shelled, frozen soybeans. I enjoy its subtle flavor and appreciate its high protein content. My local mainstream suburban supermarket doesn’t carry it, so I have to get it at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Lacking edamame, I might throw in a pound of tofu. Then, I usually add two cans of garbanzo beans and two cans of red kidney beans. If I was more of a purist, I would soak and cook dry beans, but I’m lazy.

Here, I have to decide. If I want a bit of an Italian flavor I add a large can or two of tomatoes and go heavy on the basil and oregano. Often, I’m in the mood for something a little different, so I’ll go with cumin, dill, and rosemary. A dash of cayenne pepper adds a little kick for cold winter nights. I have no idea how much seasoning I add. I buy the big bottles of spices at the warehouse wholesale store and dump in generous amounts that feel right. I figure this is a big pot with about ten pounds of stuff in it, so it going to need plenty of seasoning, especially if I want to go easier on the salt.

Finally, I add enough water to cover everything, and bring it to a boil. Then I turn the heat way down, cover the pot and head to Moose Hill for a nighttime jog.

On my last run, the moon was not up yet and after I left the road I had Orion with his belt and sword to light my way. I ran up the gravel road past the Billings barn to the small opening where I watched a vireo build a nest in a birch tree on a warm morning in May. It was a cool, clear night and a cold wind swept the sky clear so I could see more stars than usual in this light-polluted corner of the world. I paused, alone in the darkness, to peer into the vastness of space and wonder what secrets the stars held on this lonely night. I listened for the hoot of an owl, but the breeze blurred all sounds. As the cold began to sift through my shirts, it was good to know that a simmering pot would be waiting for me when I got home.


At 10:36 PM, Blogger Deb said...

Your description of a simmering pot of good vegetable stew is a very warming thought on a cold night here.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger CabinWriter-- said...

Now I know what moosewood is! I've searched the map for Moose Hill but I decided that you've a secret not to share as to its location.

I must remember to introduce two jogs into my recipe when I make my next pot. I bet the soup'll be a far more delicious bowl.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Deb: I've had a bit of a comment dry spell here. Thanks for breaking the ice. I admire your courage in facing those cold Minnesota winters.

Vivian: The link in my sidebar to "Moose Hill Sanctuary" gives directions. They used to have an online trail map that I copied and use, but it seems to be gone now. It's good to see you're still around.

At 11:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even I have to agree your stews and soups are delicious and filling, you're more than welcome to send some of that my way anytime! I could use a break from Trader Joe's frozen soy dogs. Can't wait to see you back west soon! I think it was in the 60's today!

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Lilly said...

Because I'm no longer home during the day to cook, I finally decided to try a crockpot, or slow cooker. The results were wonderful. I can fill the pot before I leave the house at 7 am, and return at 5 pm to a kitchen fragrant with slow cooked stew.


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