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All week, the folks of Beaver Brook, a stretch of rural woodland in upstate New York, are cooking up a Farmer's Market feast -- without electricity or running water.
There's a tangible sense of momentum when the group is making at meal at Beaver Brook. As the different dishes begin to take shape, and the vision for our overall dinner starts to become clear, a noticeable determination comes over us. Our heads go down, our hands move faster, and it's obvious that we're headed — with an accelerating intensity — toward an increasingly desired end. Simplicity is key, and timing is everything. Ideally, and often impossibly, we want each dish to be done the exact same moment, so that nothing has a chance to congeal or fall below favorable temperature. The magic is with us this week, though, and at some point it becomes clear that every component of our meal will be simultaneously ready to eat. (This fact becomes the source of much wondrous commentary: "Can you believe it?" "It couldn't be" "No WAY," etc, like we're children surprised with a favorite toy on Christmas.)
To keep contamination to a minimum, the chicken is the last to be prepared — "prepared" feeling like a strong word for what we actually do, which is to coat it in olive oil, grind unbelievable amounts of pepper over it, then stuff it full of garlic, lemon slices, and freshly plucked herbs: thyme, tarragon, and oregano. As a parting shot, before we set the lid in place, we douse it with a proper pour of dry white wine. Why not? The pot goes onto the gas range, where it will sit, bubby and mercilessly teasing us with scent, for approximately the next thirty minutes.
Around this time, the coals for the grill have reached perfect barbecuing temperature. The zucchini and sweet potato, sliced with a little bit of thickness for texture, then prepped with olive oil, garlic, and salt, are brought over, along with a few, long curls of garlic scape. As the heat does its work, carmelizing the natural sugars of the sweet potato and decorating the zucchini with alluring stripes of char, we experience a collective moment of quiet transfixtion. Just a moment, though, because if we lose pace now, we'll never achieve our ultimate goal of Dish Unison.
The swiss chard takes a little more attention. After removing and shredding the leaves, we thinly dice the stems, toss them in olive oil, and sautee them gently on the gas range until they begin to soften. We want them to cook until just before done, so we can finish them on the grill. At this point we're confronted with a slight problem. How do we grill something so small that it will obviously slip between the grates of the grilltop? After a second of dramatic panic (it's always more fun when the stakes feel high), Grace unspools a sheet of aluminum foil and uses it to create a makeshift grill-tent. We spread the chard stems across the base, then — again, why not? — add a glug of white wine, and toss it on the grill. As it cooks down, we slowly add chard leaves, turning them as we go to ensure the wilt remains even, and keeping the whole shebang covered with a peaked dome of foil.
While all of this goes on, there remains the Issue of the Avocado. How will we use it? As one of the meals most beloved accompaniments, we want its inclusion to feel special. And wherever it ends up, we want it to sing; to be the star. At this point I may have blacked out from a mixture of hunger and tantalizing aroma, because I don't specifically remember who originally floated the idea of "grilled bread", but somebody said it, and then somebody else mentioned how perfect a topping avocado would make for grilled bread rubbed with fresh garlic, and then everybody else erupted into cheers, because this was the most clearly brilliant idea of all time. Extraordinary hunger, it turns out, can be an incredible source of inspiration.
We carve the bread into a handful of thick, craggy slices and slap them on the grill. When they've blackened just so, we remove them, rub them with the cut end of a garlic bulb, and pile them onto a plate. The avocado mush will be self-distributed at the time of consumption. This is a defensive manuever against messiness — we're well aware that we'll be piling our slices to the sky with lemony-peppery avocado, and that the only way to prevent the entire delicious mess from toppling into our laps will be to bite into it, immediately. Again, an example how simplicitly can yield to highly achievable pleasure. It's a definite theme.
The bread is the final thing to be done. After the last slice is plated, the chard is swept into a bowl, the veggies are evenly divided between two plates, the chicken is tested for doneness, then removed from the heat, and set at the very center of the table. The bread, the avocado, and the yogurt sauce are all arranged together. Cups and plates are passed around, Grace is designated the official carver, and everybody dives in. Somebody pours yogurt sauce on top of their avocado-covered slice of bread, and everybody else follows suit. A highly appreciative five minutes of silence follows while we all chew.
In the end, the meal we've made is exceedingly simple — a few basic ingredients, prepared with care, and enjoyed among good company — but it feels like one of the best we've ever had. We eat as the sun goes down, toasting to a day's work well done, and then again to the teamwork that has gone into a meal well made. Everybody calls out their favorite dish, passing around props for the herbs in the chicken, the yogurt sauce on the chicken, the white wine in the chard, the yogurt sauce on the avocado, the yogurt sauce. (Did I mention the yogurt sauce?) As we feast, a comfortable silence settles over us, extending the pleasant ambiance of the afternoon. It's nice to just take this moment, as the end of the meal nears, to relax and feel good about what's immediately present: good food, better people, and a beautiful place.
And next week? Well, we'll just come back and do it all again.
Photos by Youngna Park
Le Creuset has generously offered to reward our Big Feasters for all their hard work, and as our fifth Big Feast, Cassie and the folks at Beaver Book will win, in the color of their choice (flame, cherry, cassis, fennel, Caribbean, dune, Dijon, or Marseille): an 11-Inch Iron Handle Skillet, a Square Skinny Grill Pan, and a 3-Quart Saucier Pan. Pitch us your Big Feast at email@example.com for a chance to win up to $500 in Le Creuset booty.