Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Return to Roaring River

In the mid-seventies I returned to Roaring River State Park in Missouri for the last time.  I guess I had been there at least 20 times in the 16 years since my family had first vacationed there in 1959, and I wasn’t tired of it yet.  By this time I had visited many of America’s greatest destinations, and this little park was simply my favorite.  It was here I first learned to enjoy nature.  It was here I first learned the basics of camping.  And it was here I developed my strong desire to fly fish.

For the past few years I had been privileged to hunt and fish across North America including Alaska, Canada, Spain, and a few other places.  I couldn’t get enough of the outdoors, and I took every opportunity to be there.  My first love was fishing, but hunting was a good second, and I had to be outdoors to do either one.  I thought nothing of strapping on a backpack, grabbing my fishing rod, and disappearing into the wild for a few days.  Sometimes I had a companion, and sometimes I did not.  But to Roaring River I always went alone.

I think my family traveled there only three or four times, and as soon as I could get there on my own, I didn’t hesitate to go.  For years I was drawn to the park like a moth to a flame.  Any opportunity to travel through Missouri or any of the states near the southern part of Missouri required a detour to the park.  I rarely spoke of the park to anyone because I was afraid that too many people would visit there and ruin it for me.  I guess I was selfish, but when one has found the end of the rainbow one becomes reluctant to share directions to the pot of gold. 

In 1969 I drove there on my own for the first time.  I knew the place was special from the family visits years earlier, and I knew I must return.  Besides, I had not seen anyone fly-fishing for a few years, and I wanted to see it again.  I was determined to learn the process, but at the same time I was unsure how to go about it.

I arrived at the park, paid my camping fee, found a campsite, and set up my tent.  I listened to the river talk to me for several days while I looked around the area.  I don’t recall talking to anyone in particular, nor do I remember seeing anything remarkable.  But the place had a voice of its own, and I listened.  When I drove out of the park to go home it was necessary for me to pull off the road into a picnic area just to cry.  I didn’t know why I was crying, but it seemed like the right thing to do.  It was a long drive home.

The following summer I drove back to the park four times.  Two of those times amounted to a stay of less than one day before I had to leave.  The other two times were three or four days each.  And the voice of the park was louder than ever.  The sound of the river was the same, but something else was tugging at me, and I couldn’t define it.

I always watched the fly fishermen with envy.  As I’ve said at other times, I’ve fished all my life, but the fly fishermen always had my undivided attention.  Each trip to this magical place was undertaken with the idea of spending time watching these special fishermen and learning from them.  I didn’t really know what it was I was learning, and I didn’t know that it was actually the river’s voice that was my instructor.  But I was trying to listen and understand.

On my last trip to the park I saw a man I had watched fishing many years before on my first trip to the park.  He was much older now, and his friend was still with him directing his casts toward the fish.  It was the blind man I had watched catch and release a rather large trout all those years ago.  He was still fishing and still catching and still releasing.

I sat down and just watched for a long time that morning.  The blind man released several fish in those hours, and his friend assisted him in everything he did.  They were close—brothers it turned out—and they were married to twin sisters.  I wouldn’t have known this if the blind man hadn’t started talking to me.

I don’t know how he knew I was there, but more remarkable, he asked me if I had ever learned to fly fish.  He said he remembered when I was just a small boy and had sat on a nearby log just watching him.  How could he remember that incident?  When I asked him, he simply asked if I remembered it.  I answered affirmatively.  Well, if I could remember it, he could also.

I spent the evening with him, his brother, and their wives at their campsite.  They were leaving the next morning, and they believed that because of age and distance, this would be their last night at Roaring River.  Little did I know it would be my last night as well.

It is nearly forty years since I placed my feet in Roaring River State Park, and often I think of the blind man and his family.  One of the things he told me that last night in the park was that he couldn’t stop hearing the river.  He had first heard it as a young man and was ever drawn back to it, and everything he had done in life was influenced by the river’s voice.  I had no idea what he meant when he said it.  Now it makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Couple of Big Cheese Enchiladas

Anyone who knows me knows I believe that everything goes better with a couple of big cheese enchiladas.  Brisket, chicken, beans, salad, grapes, chocolate—everything.  I don’t care which comes first, the pie or the enchiladas, as long as there are a couple of big cheese enchiladas involved.

This makes it sound as though the cheese enchilada is my favorite dish, but as much as I like them, I see them only as a side dish.  It’s just that I believe they improve any meal, no matter what the main dish may be.

I was in a restaurant in Fort Worth in the late ‘sixties where cheese enchiladas were served with anything ordered.  It was a Tex-Mex place but called itself Mexican food.  I won’t give the name of the place, but it was a popular buffet eatery serving all you could stand for $1.29.  When I ordered the chicken sour cream enchiladas with a tamale and a chile relleno, it came with two cheese enchiladas on the side.  On another visit I asked for the cheese enchiladas and they came with two cheese enchiladas on the side.  I liked this place.

In Laredo I had breakfast at a small diner made from an old Airstream trailer.  My chicken fried steak was topped with two cheese enchiladas.  Dinner in Alpine came with a cheese enchilada appetizer and with another on top of my steak.  A fried chicken restaurant near College Station served their potato fries in a paper boat with a cheese enchilada on top and a pickle on the side—I never figured that one out.  And a truck stop outside of El Paso served a hamburger with a cheese enchilada in the middle. 

A friend had a small ranch near Freer where cheese enchiladas were served at every meal.  And one could get a couple of them at any time just by stopping in at the cook’s kitchen.  My great-aunt Emma lived in Turkey, Texas, and she always had a batch of them around, just watch out for the ashes from her cigar.

My friends were deep into the cheese enchiladas also, and we would have a gathering every few months just to enjoy our latest versions.  I don’t believe we ever made the things the same way twice, but no matter what we did to them, they were still cheese enchiladas.  Life was good.

One of the versions was very unique.  It was a cheese enchilada pizza.  Very simple, but it may be the best pizza I’ve ever had.

Cheese Enchilada Pizza
Makes 4 individual pizzas.

    1 cup roughly chopped onion
    2 teaspoons olive oil
    1 pound fresh masa
    Cornmeal for the baking sheets
    1 cup Red Sauce (recipe follows)
    1 (7-ounce) can whole green chiles, drained
    1 1/3 cup coarsely grated cheese (your choice or choices)
    8 pre-made room temperature cheese enchiladas (use leftovers from breakfast)
    Additional Red Sauce
    Additional coarsely grated cheese
    Coarsely chopped cilantro

In a skillet heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until translucent.  Set aside to cool.  Wipe the skillet out with paper towels and return to the heat.

Knead the masa until smooth, and then divide into four equal pieces.  Form each piece into a flattened pizza shape with slightly raised edges and place in the heated skillet for about 45 seconds (do not turn over).  Remove to a baking sheet (you will need two of these) sprinkled with cornmeal.  When all four portions are placed on the sheets, top each with a scant ¼ cup of the Red Sauce, 1/3 cup of the cheese, and ¼ of the onions.  Slice the whole green chiles into strips and divide among the four pizzas.

Lay 2 room temperature cheese enchiladas in the middle of each pizza, drizzle more Red Sauce over the enchiladas, top with additional cheese, sprinkle with some chopped cilantro, and bake at 450F for 7 to 12 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and browning.

There is no need to serve with a couple of big cheese enchiladas on the side, but it wouldn’t hurt.

Red Sauce
Makes about 4 1/2 cups.

    12 dried ancho chilies
    8 dried guajillo chilies
    4 dried New Mexico Chiles
    6 to 8 cups water                                                   
    1/3 cup white wine                                              
    1/2 white onion, peeled and diced                              
    5 cloves garlic, minced                                        
    8 teaspoons packed light brown sugar                           
    2 tablespoons ground cumin
    ½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano                                    
    2 tablespoons honey                                            
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste          

Rinse the chiles to remove any dirt.  Slit each chile with a sharp knife and remove and discard the seeds and stem.  Place the peppers in a large saucepan and cover with water by 1 inch.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.  The peppers should be soft and have absorbed some liquid.  When cooked, remove the pan from the heat and set aside without draining.

While the peppers are cooking, combine the wine, onion, garlic, brown sugar, cumin, oregano, and honey in a small saucepan.  Set this mixture over medium heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the onions are soft.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

Using tongs, transfer the cooled chiles to the container of a blender.  Add about 2 cups of the chile liquid and all of the onion broth.  Cover the blender container and start blending at low speed, increasing to high speed as the puree becomes combined.  The result will be a thick, dark red sauce.  Adjust the seasonings with salt, pepper, and more honey if desired.  Use the sauce as is in a recipe, or place in a clean glass container and refrigerate.  Use the sauce within a week, or freeze for later.

This Red Sauce is a bit more complex than most, but the flavor is also more complex.  Perfect with a couple of big cheese enchiladas.

You may notice I didn’t give a recipe for cheese enchiladas.  This was not a mistake.  There are countless ways to make these things, and I never make them the same way twice unless it is by accident.