What Lolita Eats: On National Park Preservers – Thanks Lisa!

Outdoor Autumn Harvest Maelstrom Picnic on the Minuteman Trail

Not my usual venue — and not my usual menu.  As a favor for my husband, for many dishes sampled, and much waiting for his supper while I snap pictures, and plenty of out-of-the-way gourmet shopping trips, and many post-meal kitchen clean-ups, and just for being a generally great partner-for-life, I agreed to coordinate and cook a meal for his team of worthy fellows, the National Park Preservers, for Groundworks Somerville.  These guys are helping restore historic sites along Concord’s Minuteman Trail, and this silo sits along the Battle Road, on the Farwell Jones Farm along Lexington Road.  It was the backdrop for a meal consisting of freshly picked autumn vegetables – all harvested from within 2 miles of the table – prepared on site in simple yet satisfying ways.   Since the guys help harvest produce for the guys and gals that run some of the Battle Road Farms, they donated all the green ground goodies.  McKinnon’s Meat Market in Davis Square’s regular awesome prices and products provided the proteins: the requisite burgers and dogs, as well as something a little more Lolita – slow-roasted pulled pork.

When I worked as a manager for 1 hour photo labs, I learned what it meant to plan your time very carefully — a role of film takes (took – we’re talking ancient history, people) 35 minutes to pass through the machine, but when Mrs. Mommy shows up with 20 rolls of snapshots of her little darlings at Disney World and wants double prints of them *all* in an hour for her Junior League brunch, time becomes a precious commodity.  When I worked for the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que as their catering bookie, I compounded those time-management skills by learning, through repeated high-pressure, sexdrugsrock n’ roll, smoke and fire experiences, what it meant to be prepared. For anything.  Hence – my prep list above, and my estimated timeline of recipe production below…

Of course, the day didn’t quite cooperate with us, and plans always go awry, but if you have plans, it’s much easier to figure out how to roll with punches than if you’re making it up as you go along. But the preparation really started two days before the event.

My meat needs to marinate in a spicy dry rub to flavor it.  I start with the ingredients you see above, and mix it up, kind of like the Swedish Chef, adding handfuls of this to half cups of that to a little more of some of this and a bunch more of all of that.  You know.  Salt, pepper, onion powder, paprika, garlic powder, brown sugar, cumin, chili powder — just bunches and bunches of it.  I plan on 1/4# per person of pork — some will eat two or three sandwiches, some of of them won’t eat any (curious vegetarian types) — and since I can count on about 30% shrinkage during cooking, and I’m planning on 50 people, I decide to start with 25ish pounds.  I like to overestimate, and at $1.79/lb, I can afford to do so.

John Stage, the Spiceman, and my old boss, might smack me upside the head for daring to cook this meat without smoking it, but he’ll have to forgive a poor girl without an RV-sized mobile smoker for creating such sweet sweet succulence without a ring of pink.  I did do my best to emulate his dry-rub technique by filling the largest bowl I have with my spice rub, and then coating covering dousing drowning packing each butt with rub until all moist surfaces are made sandy dry.

I wrap each hunka meat with plastic wrap, and set them into my fridge to marinate overnight, and for all of work the next day – so they bask in flavor for about 24 hours, all told.  I then unwrap them, and place them each into a deep foil roasting pan (they’re going to release a LOT of juices, which I want to capture), and wrap the pans tightly with foil paper.  Here’s the trick — there is *no* way my little apartment sized oven is going to cook all these bad boys – and I want to cook them overnight, for no less than an hour a pound, on no higher than 250°.  Enter the second-floor neighbors – they were gracious enough to allow me to cook two of these guys in their oven from 9pm on Wednesday night to 7am Thursday morning, the day of the picnic.  They suffered through that delicious smell all night long – gotta love ‘em!

And here it is – 8am Thursday morning.  It’s 33°, 100% chance of rain (it has, in fact, just started to sprinkle), with gusts of 25mph in the forecast.  S.W.E.E.T.  The ancient barn will be our dining room, the little garage to the right our prep area, and a string of mismatched tents will link the two buildings, making a bit of a pathway for us to move under.

Here is the pantry.  Yup — see those collards?  See that kale?  We’ll be eating some of that.

Upstairs, inside the barn, is where the acorn squash and pumpkins are kept.

I snap a quick shot of my man.  After all, he’s the reason I’m here today.

Here’s most of my crew for the day: (from left to right) Peter, a volunteer at Battle Road Farms, and one helluva grill-master, Bryant in the back, looking all captivated by something in the distance, Claudy in the green hat and phat threads, Joey peeking from behind my right shoulder, Nadler with a rare smile at my six, Gunther leaning in on left and David, a farm manager from Battle Road, behind him.  Gelrick and Antoine form our left flank.  All these guys, except Peter and David, are on the National Park Preservers team, working with Clayton on projects all up and down the Minuteman Trail.  This party is a celebration for them, to honor them for having such an incredibly successful year, but it was also to teach them how to prepare and enjoy the many vegetables their friends here on the Concord farms have been giving them in thanks for lots of helpful volunteer work the team has done all summer.  So they were also my prep-crew for the day, along with a few other guys that came in and out at different times, like my man Jonathan, and his Saugus Ironworks teammate, Ronald.


My menu for the day consisted of vegetables that Clayton had scoped out from the farms the day before.  I had a good idea of what would be available – like beets and acorn squash and apples and arugula – but it wasn’t until we arrived in the morning that we saw how much of each item we had.  With $150, I purchased all the meat and the extras we needed, like EVOO and Maldon sea salt and caramel and goat cheese logs and butter and spices.  Some things I pulled from my pantry, some I pulled from the Groundworks Somerville store room.

I set up my prep area.  Here are my cooking containers and marinating ziplocks, and I’m getting started setting up my dry spices – much of which were leftover from the dry rub (not recycled, though, because one, cannot, of course re-use anything that came into contact with raw meat).  The garlic, onion powder, oregano, sea salt, black pepper, cinnamon, and brown sugar is what we ended up using.   Had the weather conditions not been as much of as distraction (and other hiccups along the way), then we may have had more time to experiment, so we were glad to have the options available.

There’s David (l), Clayton husband (c), and George (r) getting the grills set up.  We had one bran’ spanking new one George had JUST purchased that he loaned us, as well as an older propane grill.  The latter ended up not working, but we didn’t know that at the time.

Joey (l) and Bryant (r) set up lights, a hot-side prep table, and a garbage station.  In this area we also set up our beloved Little Red, our Mecco electric grill from home.  Good thing we brought him with us, too, considering how the behemoth behind Joey never made it above 200°.  There’s also a crock pot getting started, for caramel.  And two boilers on the burners for the potatoes.

Beets have to get onto the grill very early, especially if I want them to cook and cool in time for us to peel them and add them to a salad with goat cheese.  Claudy is dutifully scrubbing them – even though none of the guys seemed particularly interested in trying ‘em.  I told them that they’d never tried MY beets, and once the they were served, they changed their tune.  But by this time, it’s raining very steadily, we’re all huddling under the tents getting our jobs done.  Claudy takes my admonitions to scrub them carefully so to heart, though, that we run behind schedule getting them on the grill, and run against the issue of one grill when we thought we had two.  More on that later.

Gunther (above) and Jonathan (below) are my masked potato scrubbing men.  They, and David, sort the white from the red bliss, and then sort them further down into wee little ones, golf ball sized ones, and baseball sized ones.  Then Clayton goes and dumps them all into the boiling water, disregarding all the careful sorting (and much of my careful planning), but it was all good.  He was on salt potato duty for the rest of the morning, and they turned out just fine.  We basically boil these babies until they burst, all on their own – about 25 minutes on high boil.  Then we transfer them to a holding station (read: a deep roasting pan set atop two warm burners) and add a stick of butter and a heap of salt.

Nadler, Peter, and Antoine are on acorn squash duty.  At one point, Gunther wrinkles his nose and expresses his disdain for the smell of squash.  “Just wait”, I tell him, “they smell totally different once I roast them with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon.”  Needless to say, once they were served, he was a convert.  So were all the other guys.

25 squash later (they go a wee bit crazy; I hadn’t counted on how *productive* they’d be!), we have 50 little halves that – for the sake of space – we decide to put directly on the grill rack, even placing some on the upper, holding rack, too (we remove those pans a bit later).  Some of these are larger than the others, but they all need to roast for a minimum of 25-30 minutes.  Around this time, we realize that the other grill isn’t working right.  So, the one working grill is covered with roasting squash halves, and all we have left is Little Red, one really blazing burner, one slightly simmering burner, and one large grill with only a whisper of flame emerging only from the center fuel line.  Oh, and the rain just picked up.  And the ground under our feet, in the area we chose to house the grills, is filling with water that even the shovel-fulls of straw Clayton and Peter keep scooping into the hollow can’t stave off.  S.W.E.E.T. What do we do?  About the rain – nothing but laugh.  About the grill?  We improvise — it becomes a chess board, as we move smaller, fully cooked squash off the heat into waiting deep foil pans, and move larger still raw squash into those vacant spaces, and make space available for other menu items.  This is when things kick into high gear…

Joey is carving up a couple of pounds of caramel for us to melt down in the crock pot.  It was hard as a rock, and he had to hold it over the grill’s heat to soften a bit before he could even get the chef’s knife to bite.  I think he was doing a little of that “one chunk of caramel for the pot, one chuck of caramel for me” portioning thing, but I didn’t mind.

Claudy and Gelrick have tossed the cleaned, trimmed beets with vegetable oil, salt, and black pepper, and are packing them – 6 at a time – in double-thick foil packets.  We then, since we’re having our grill problem, stack all the beet packets into Little Red, rotating them often to move the bottom pack to the top, and so on, and moving one or two to over the wee heat source in the broken grill (to keep them cooking in their ambient heat) every once in a while, too.  We do this until we’ve removed enough of the cooked acorn squash from the grill rack to the holding pans, which we then set on top of the hot grills and Little Red to continue to keep warm, which they do – locking in the steam and holding my squash at the perfect sizzling heat.

Joey and Jonathan then start on the other half of our potatoes, which we want to roast in oil and spices, and then toss with our kale.  Because of the heat issues, though, these little boys don’t crisp up on the edges like I hoped, and although they do flavor the kale nicely – especially when we toss it all with some thin slices of garden onions which we’ve quick marinated in EVOO, white wine vinegar, oregano, salt, pepper, and parsley – the dish doesn’t turn out perfectly.  Oh well.

Joey and David wrap the spuds in single-layer hobo foil packets.  We end up with about 8 of these, and only enough time and room to cook off 5 of them.  David takes the uncooked ones home to cook in the oven.

The onions are marinating in a pan center left, an arugula, apple, and red onion salad is dressed and ready to go bottom left, the beets are roasted, steaming, and burning the fingers of the valiant guys who are peeling them now anyway center right, a few tubs of trimmed collard greens stand at the ready center top, and Jonathan is enjoying the heat from an electric skillet while he sautés the washed and dried acorn squash seeds in oil, garlic, and seasoned salt.

Nadler wants in on that, and eventually usurps Jonathan as seed stirrer.

We have several bowls of arugula waiting, which we’re going to toss with the warm diced beets, a few squeezes of lemon juice, EVOO, sea salt, black pepper, and crumbled goat cheese.  The cheese, oil, and lemon juice bond with the beet juice, making a rich dyed deep purple dressing.

The pork has been hot holding all this time, and it is absolutely perfect.  With two fingers, I fish out each butt’s bone, gently removing it from the succulent strings of swine only barely clinging together.  There is an inch of delicious fat juice sitting on the bottom of the pan; once I pull the meat (no chopping necessary) and mound it into a pan, I pour some of this lovely roasting liquid over the whole mess, just to really whetten my whistle.

Peter has been rocking the grill all morning — truly, we would not have been able to do this if he hadn’t stepped up and been the man — and now that all the squash is off and the guests are arriving, he’s started with the burgers and dogs.

Cold, wet, windy, and miserable, but if you cook it, they will come.

Now, this is where I needed a photographer’s help, because I was so busy trying to make sure everything was ready for service, that I never got any good pictures of the spread, or of all the guests.  But one of the park rangers was seen dancing around with a pork sandwich in one hand, and a camera snapping constantly away in the other, so I’m hoping to get some of his shots.  Still, here’s some of it…

Acorn squash, salt potatoes, collard greens with salt pork and marinated onions, roasted potatoes and wilted kale…

At points, I’d walk in to see how everyone was doing, and there’d be no noise.  Everyone would look up at me with their mouths full, their jaws masticating, and their forks poised mid-air, already laden with another bite, their other hand fisting a pork sandwich the size of a baby-doll head.  It was the silence of satisfaction – and it sounded good.  Most of the time, though, the air was full of chatter and laughter, and the autumn chill was warmed by the light of multiple smiles.  We were celebrating a year of hard work, all in the service of the land and its history.  We were celebrating friendship, and fresh vegetables, and the future of the program.  And, simplest but best of all, we were breaking bread together in an ancient barn, creating a new moment in history for ourselves.  I was happy to nourish the experience.