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    Upland Chef

    Woods Lunch

    A small camp stove and a cutting surface are all that you need to establish a decent break-time kitchen in the woods.
    A small camp stove and a cutting surface are all that you need to establish a decent break-time kitchen in the woods.
    A few seasons ago in Vermont, I pulled off a familiar dirt road and headed up a two-track that I knew led to a small clearing. I planned to wolf down lunch and hunt a little-known cover. What I found in my secluded spot was a party going on. No, there wasn’t music and dancing, but they had everything else needed for a fine celebration. A table topped with red plastic was set with chairs with armrests, flatware, glasses, cloth napkins ... the works. What was this all about? Turns out it was three chef/instructors from the nearby culinary school making the best of a day off in the grouse woods.
    Ticket the English springer spaniel is super interested in learning Gordon Hamersley’s techniques for preparing a woods lunch.
    Ticket the English springer spaniel is super interested in learning Gordon Hamersley’s techniques for preparing a woods lunch.

    One hunter/chef had a fire going in a small hibachi, and the smell of grilling sausages and shell-on shrimp just about knocked me over. Three German shorthairs watched his technique more attentively than any cook I ever showed how to grill meat or shellfish. Another hunter/chef was mixing a salad of hearty late-season greens and perfectly cut vegetables. This was making my ham sandwich on rye and thermos of somewhat hot coffee look downright embarrassing. After a quick introduction, they invited me for lunch. Sweet!

    As a young hunter, the thought of even stopping for lunch was unacceptable. My grouse and woodcock fever was so extreme that I’d crash through cover until total darkness drove me out of the last tangle of alders. Now, priorities have changed. Am I slowing down some? Indeed. My aging legs need a rest by midday, but also I’ve no interest in shooting a limit of woodcock these days, and my gunning skills never allowed for a limit of ruffed grouse anyway.

    Having a hot lunch in the field is a time to collect one’s thoughts, plan the afternoon hunt and get some much-needed fuel in the body. Sure, store-bought sandwiches are fine and serve the fuel purpose, but having the tools to quickly cook something or heat up a pre-prepared dish is a treat, especially on a cold November afternoon.

    While never as elaborate as the chefs from Vermont or for that matter the average football tailgate setup, my basic kitchen equipment sits in a plastic box in the back of the truck. A small, two-burner gas stove is top of the list. My unit is old school, cheap and efficient, and the gas canisters are available everywhere. I have a piece of sheet metal I’ve bent to shape, which protects the stove from the wind and helps contain the heat. It’s surprising how much faster things cook when it’s wrapped around the stove. In addition, I pack aluminum plates, coffee cups, plastic glasses, forks and spoons.

    I find that most cooking I do in the field can be accomplished with a medium-sized soup pot and a 10-inch sauté pan, both with lids to speed cooking and keep everything hot. My collection of tools, rejects deemed aesthetically unworthy by my wife for the home kitchen, is still totally functional. Kitchen tongs, spatula, medium-sized cutting board, a couple of sharp kitchen knives and a small ladle are in the box. Basics like plastic wrap, small garbage bags, paper towels, airtight containers of salt, pepper and condiments (mustard, hot sauce, pickles, etc.) round out the kit. Setting the stove and the cutting board side by side on the tailgate, you have an instant mini-kitchen setup. You can go bare bones like me or create the ultimate upland food truck. It’s up to you. But keeping in mind we’re here to hunt and not open a restaurant, my preference is to keep it simple.

    So, what’s for lunch?

    At a secret spot in New England, Van Harlow and Chris Hearn take their midday break in fine style.
    At a secret spot in New England, Van Harlow and Chris Hearn take their midday break in fine style.
    Soup is easy, fast and warms the body and soul. Spooning really hot chunky vegetable soup, freshly seasoned with spices and fresh-cut herbs into cups beats the pants off trying to shake lukewarm Campbell’s out of the old thermos. Soup varieties are endless, of course, but during the early bird season, garden-grown tomato thickened with a handful of rice and fresh herbs can’t be beat. As the weather turns cold, thick, hearty lentil soup with bacon hits the spot.

    In Maine one day we made lobster rolls, heating the knuckles, claws and tails on one burner while crisping up the split rolls in butter until golden brown on the other. A side of coleslaw and a bag of potato chips made for a perfect lunch as we sat on a hill with the ocean in the distance.

    Quesadillas are a great choice that can be heated on your stove. Prep all the ingredients at home and then finish them in pans on your tailgate. A version with sautéed quail breast, jack cheese, black beans and caramelized onion spiced with chili powder made for a spectacular meal one fall day. Hot and crispy tortillas with melt-in-your-mouth, cheesy quail – goodness ... could anything be better? Another time on a warm autumn day, I made myself an omelet. It was great, but I was kind of glad I was alone. Making three or four of them would have been too much like real chef work.

    You do need to watch the weather a bit as hard rain, serious wind and a flash snow squall can make peanut butter and jelly on white and a bag of Snickers Minis in the cab of the truck the only option. And don’t get me wrong – I do that anyway at least half my days afield.

    The chefs from Vermont were so nice to ask me to stay for lunch I wanted to kick in something. I didn’t have much other than a couple of chocolate chip cookies I’d made. They accepted with thanks, and then they pulled out their dessert. Tucking into slabs of apple pie with a cheddar crust, I was just about to make a funny dig about where the Reddi Whip was when they pulled out one of those slick, gourmet whipped cream dispensers filled with vanilla scented thick cream. Man! These guys know how to live!

    And me? I was ready for a nap.

    Wolfe Publishing Group