You typically think of a camp cook as someone who is skilled at using the cheapest ingredients to make the most food for the most people in the healthiest way. The dishes these camp cooks serve end up being heavy on the pasta and red sauce, peanut butter and jelly, pizzas and hamburger based recipes.
Camp cook Shelly Keith was the opposite of that.
As long as her husband, Quentin, had been guiding for Outpost Wilderness Adventure, Shelly had been a regular around the lodge. But it wasn’t until Quentin and Shelly bought the business that she stepped into the kitchen with the ownership of the chef that she was. Shelly’s firm philosophy that in her family there would be no ‘short order’ cheffing extended to the OWA family. The kids who attended OWA camps ate some of the best meals offered at kids’ camps anywhere. There were lots of fresh, in-season fruits and berries, responsibly raised meat, fresh vegetables in every meal and, always, salads made more interesting than your regular tomato and cucumber. Often there were pies made of fresh fruit for dessert. Shelly’s food philosophy was simple: eating well made for happy and healthy people. The passion she felt about food and eating helped to extend OWA’s education in adventure skills to life skills as well. With the purchase of organic food
she taught kids that the value of food is larger than simply what you put into your body- food has value in an environmental sense and an economic sense.
Shelly’s influence from the kitchen was felt more than just at the dinner table. She taught us to cook. And this was inadvertent. If you wanted to hang out with Shelly, and it wasn’t after 9:30pm, you had to hang out with her in the kitchen. Between preparing the three meals for camp and taking care of her three little girls, Shelly was hard to hang out with unless you were doing whatever she was doing. And that was okay. In fact, that was one of the gifts Shelly gave us- she made the kitchen a fun and easy place to be. And while you were in the kitchen, Shelly might ask you to chop something. As you were chopping that something, she might grab the knife and show you how to chop properly- quicker and better than before. This was another gift- how to do a good job. And as you were sitting in there, chatting with her, the girls- Peachie and Willow and Peira- running in and out, and the work crew taking care of dishes, you might observe the relationship of the ingredients that Shelly threw together so easily and learn what goes well with what- another gift. You might watch her use tongs and suddenly find yourself using tongs and realize how much easier it made cooking- another gift! She might teach you how to crack two eggs at once without dropping any shells. Or you might watch her put together something you love to eat, but have never made, and see how easy it is. Mix oatmeal and nuts and Craisins and honey, throw it in the oven and now you know how to make granola. Watching Shelly in the kitchen was like having your very own personal cooking show.
Some sense of the way cooking goes was something many of us took from her. I used to joke and call her one-pot meals ‘pot slop’ because they were so very much the opposite of what that phrase conjures. Instead of something that might be served up at Little Orphan Annie’s orphanage, Shelly’s pot slops were something more like orzo with olive oil, garlic, summer squash, green beans and shrimp or Mexican chicken and rice stew, the best black beans and rice you have ever had. Many of these dishes were served with her homemade buns. One of my favorite meals she made was a pasta bake that centered on bleu cheese, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and spinach. I love the way these flavors melt together but I also love the way the dish looks- the red and green mixing in with the creamy whites. Shelly made the meal with straight bleu cheese and I added cheddar to cut the strong flavor of the bleu. Recipe(ish) below. If you haven’t read my recipe philosophy… you might want to (“English Majors, Plain Speaking and Absolutes”, January 2011)
The quantity of the ingredients below is what I usually make for about four people, with leftovers.
Six (or so) tomatoes
A ton of fresh spinach, the more the better.
4 (or more) cloves of garlic
heavy cream (or milk or half and half)
Dice tomatoes and spread on a baking sheet. Cut garlic cloves to roughly the same size and add to sheet. Drizzle olive oil, sprinkle kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and bake (350?) until the smell of your house makes your mouth water. Or until the tomatoes look cooked and the garlic looks soft.
While the tomatoes and garlic are roasting, boil water for pasta. Shelly uses penne but use whatever pasta you like best.
Grate enough cheddar cheese to cut the bleu cheese 1:1.
When pasta is done, drain and out in a large baking dish. Add tomatoes and garlic, both cheeses (add enough until it looks like a Cheese Hoover would be ready to devour it). Stir in more spinach than you think you will need as it the amount shrinks as it wilts. Sprinkle in pine nuts (toasted pine nuts are better but untoasted are delicious as well). Then add heavy cream (half and half works too, or milk if you are feeling conscious of your heart) until it collects about a half inch in the bottom of the pan.
Bake until the cheese is melted, the spinach wilted and the cream bubbles a little.