Bare Bones is written by Beth Dooley and Kip Dooley. Their weeklyish essays and recipes come from mother-son cooking and wisdom-sharing, and are indebted to many farmers, artists, food workers, home cooks and healers. This edition features a recipe for spatchcock roast chicken.
“I’m not sure we have a full sense of how important winter really is to us. My hope is that it may, at least, survive. But I pray that it may truly flourish, so that come every mid-April we are again on our knees begging for spring to finally come – only then will the Northwoods have retained its true character.”
-John Bates, Graced by the Seasons: Fall and Winter in the Northwoods
Ely, Minnesota – I wake to sun, backlighting trees across the lake. Pickett’s Lake, not far from the Canadian border. On the back deck of the cabin, I spot black-capped chickadees hopping about a hanging feeder. The thermostat reads -20. I’d rather not guesstimate the wind chill.
I’m at the Will Steger Homestead and Wilderness Center, nestled in the southernmost woods of the great Boreal Forest, for Will’s annual Ice Ball. A veteran arctic explorer, Will is plenty used to working in such temps, and soon a crew of 20 or so will gather to revive a forgotten Northwoods rite: the ice harvest. Sawing and hauling blocks from the lake, with the help of a team of Clydesdales they’ll stock the Homestead’s ice house. There are no refrigerators here on the Homestead, so these blocks of lake ice, rather than freon, are what keep fresh food from freezing in winter, and from rotting in summer heat.
Nearly 50 years ago, Will began building an off-grid complex of cabins near the Boundary Waters, an ancestral Anishinaabe chain of lakes that became a sort of highway for the North American fur trade. Today, the Boundary Waters are protected from development by federal law, but its sanctity is threatened every few years by proposals to increase speedboat permits, or prospect for another mine. The Homestead and the Steger Wilderness Center was born of a vision Will had while crossing Antarctica — all 3,700 miles of it — with an international dogsled team. Witnessing firsthand the beauty and vulnerability of the arctic landscape inspired him to build a center that would convene and teach people about global warming — and help them develop the means to combat it.
Will and I have just finished writing a cookbook together, a record of a solitary, demanding and happy Northwoods life punctuated by arctic excursions and climate advocacy. I shuffle out from my room to find Will stoking the wood stove, preparing to boil oatmeal and set the kettle singing. Wiry and fit, the only sign he’s in his seventies – aside from his jovial stubbornness – is the wily gray hair that tufts out from his wool cap.
I’m here to spend time with Will, but I’m also here to chase off the darkness and dread that seems endemic to urban winter. As I step out from the cabin’s warmth, my first breath of cold air provides a clarifying stab. Amid snow-heavy branches, pines of deepest green and birches of stunning white, I remember how winter up north makes stillness sing.
Will is giddy with the promise of the day’s work, and delighted by the temp. “The colder it is, the clearer the ice will be,” he says as he tromps out to join me. “This cold destroys pests, bark bugs and pine beetles.” Will is a teacher, and his teacher is the wilderness, the collection forces far greater than us who are always, in their myriad quiet ways, maintaining delicate ecological balance.
The cutting begins at the lake with a table saw, following a grid outlined in chalk. Once the first piece is wedged out, longer saws cut large blocks that are extracted with steel tongs, and then lifted up onto the horse-drawn sled. Four huge, shaggy Clydesdales, trailered up from the city by one of Will’s friends, haul the blocks to the Ice House.
Back and forth, back and forth, the Clydesdales’ bells echo over the lake, their clopping muffled by snow. Among the crew is Aurora, 25, a stonemason with long braids. She declares, “I love this!” while heaving blocks that must be half her weight. There’s Mike, who handled the sled dogs on Will’s arctic trek, and who now works for the Forest Service; and Joe, with his 2 year-old son on his shoulders, who manages the nearby Ely Folk School. Back at the lodge, the cooks are hard at work on wild rice soup and pork sandwiches for lunch.
We’ve all come to the Homestead to connect through labor, to move the blood with purpose, to break free from our isolation. Snapped into the present by the physical challenge of cutting and hauling ice, we are joyfully subsumed by the grace of work in the bright and bitter cold. This is what I came for: a dose of Will’s courage, the camaraderie of strangers, the loving bite of winter that is every bit as much our birthright as the darkness we’ll all return to.
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Spatchcock Roast Chicken for the Wintery Woods
Serves 4 to 6
This simple technique roasts the chicken quickly, evenly and completely in a short time. It’s great for a cold winter night after a full day outside.
1 whole roaster chicken (about 5 to 6 lb.)
1 stick unsalted butter (4 oz.), softened
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, plus 6 sprigs fresh parsley (leave intact)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 lemon, cut in half
1 cup white wine
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Place the chicken breast-side down on a cutting board. Using a poultry shears, cut along both sides of the backbone, and remove the backbone (save it to make stock later). Turn the chicken breast side up, and open the underside of the chicken like a book. Press firmly against the breastbone until it cracks.
Place the chicken in a roasting pan. Gently lift the skin around the breast and rub in half of the softened butter, and add the chopped parsley and thyme. Rub the remaining butter over all the exterior of the chicken. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.
Tuck the garlic cloves under the chicken and lay the 6 parsley sprigs over the chicken. Squeeze half of the lemon over the chicken. Add the wine to the roasting pan.
Roast the chicken in the hot oven for 20 minutes. Baste the chicken with the pan juices. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees and continue roasting, basting every 15 minutes, until the thigh wiggles easily, the juices run clear, and a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest portion registers 165 degrees, about 35 to 50 minutes. Drizzle the remaining fresh lemon juice over the chicken and allow to stand 5 to 10 minutes before carving.
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