Roadside Diaries

Sierra Adventures, Part I

Story by Cheryl Koehler | Photos by Mark Middlebrook

We don’t have much of a winter here in the East Bay. Rather than a glistening cloak of frigid white, we get carpets of plush grassy green. It makes me feel frisky—like a newborn lamb in springtime.

It was in such a lively spirit that I found myself gamboling up a high East Bay ridge one February morning several years ago. The weather gods had just been out with their mops, dragging all the particulate matter from the atmosphere, making the views in every direction quite stupendous. As I paused for breath at the top of the ridge below Volmer Peak in Tilden Park, I glanced out over the wide green stretch of the Central Valley to the far eastern horizon. Good Lord! It was the Sierra Nevada! The long snowy sawtoothed range appeared just as it might have in the seventeenth century when Spanish explorers came sailing along the coast. Recording this strange new land on paper, these seafarers created the first crude maps of California, noting “las sierras nevadas” well inland.

There was something about this epic vision that caused me to be possessed of a great urge to go skiing. This was not the common desire to rent a condo at Tahoe, where one might glide down meticulously groomed slopes to a toasty lodge where hot chocolate and raclette might be on the menu. Instead, this came as a yearning to make an arduous ten-mile cross-country ski trek to the legendary Ostrander Hut in the southern Yosemite wilderness. Skis are the only way to get there, and it’s not a day trip, so you go carrying a backpack with everything you might need to survive if trapped en route by a blizzard.

So why would I do this? It was for the utter beauty of the roadless, snow-clad wilderness, for the anticipated camaraderie with those making a similar journey, and for the meal I wanted to prepare at this granite and log hut, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1940.

I had learned about the Ostrander Hut by reading “The Perfect Art: the Ostrander Hut & Ski Touring in Yosemite” by long-time hut-tender Howard Weamer. Among the many fine photographs in the book is one showing an artisticly rendered menu, one of many that have been posted by visitors to the hut’s crude kitchen. The photo was included to illustrate the tradition (or perhaps competition) among Ostrander Hut guests of preparing gourmet feasts with supplies lugged in along with all the gear in their backpacks. This was a challenge I could not turn down, even though I’m but a moderately skilled Nordic skier and I hate skiing with a loaded backpack. But they say that hunger is the best spice, and after a season of holiday gluttony, I felt this might be the ideal way to revive a tired palate.

Old menus posted in the Ostrander Hut kitchen.

With cookware, campstove, dried wild mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, a small vial of olive oil, some prosciutto, shallots, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh parsley, a lemon, salt and pepper, and a bottle of white wine in our backpacks, my husband and I tumbled out of the car at Badger Pass and skied off in the direction of Ostrander Lake. Climbing to 8,000 feet on Horizon Ridge, we stopped to catch our breath and take a look around. To the north we could see the rounded back of Half Dome, Mt. Starr King, and the Cathedral Range, and to the east was the long, snow-draped ridge of the Clark Range where banners of blowing snow were unfurling from the peaks.

Reaching our destination a good six hours later, we found hut-tender Howard Weamer relaxing on the porch with Bill Bowie, a former Yosemite Valley physician and expert backcountry skier, Kristen Kusic, a naturalist who has catalogued all the birds of Yosemite, and Kristen’s friend Walter Heady, who distinguished himself by performing a perfect imitation of a mockingbird imitating a car alarm.
We prepared and shared our dinner of wild mushroom stew that evening, washing it down with the wine that had not gone into the recipe. Seated at the hut’s long wooden table, we shared the meal with the evening’s residents, after which Howard assured us that stew was indeed up there among the top dishes ever prepared at the hut.

Two days later, we said our farewells. The return trip involved a lighter load, but it practically killed me, due, I like to say, to ill-fitting ski boots. Highlights of the return journey included lunching on my favorite ski snack: Jim Churchill’s Pixie tangerines (see page 6), East Bay pecans (see Edible East Bay Fall 2006), fresh dates, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, and cubes of Parmigiano-Reggiano. As we munched, we recognized the odd thumping sound that our new bird-watcher friends had explained was made by the ground-nesting, blue grouse, and we sighted a bushy-tailed pine marten pursuing a tasty rodent through a stand of whitebark pine.

I’m contemplating making this trip again some day, but first I need to work on the menu.

Ostrander Hut information:

This article is drawn from Touring the Sierra Nevada, a travelguide to the entire Sierra Nevada mountain range by Cheryl Koehler. The book will be released in March by University of Nevada Press. To pre-order, visit East Bay book-signing events will be announced in the Spring 2007 issue of
Edible East Bay.

Wild Mushroom Stew with Polenta for a Ski-Touring Dinner

There is no reason not to have a gourmet feast while out in the wilderness when one can choose a dish like this made with durable lightweight tools and ingredients. The presentation makes a great impression on fellow campers. Serves 4 (or maybe only 2, if they are extremely hungry). (This recipe is adapted from The Cooking of South-West France by Paula Wolfert.)

For the Stew

1 ounce dried wild mushrooms
1 pound fresh mushrooms, one variety, or a mixture
(substitute an additional 2 ounces dried mushrooms if you don’t want to pack in fresh ones)
3 tablespoons olive oil (or duck fat)
3 ounces prosciutto or dry ham (such as Westphalian), chopped
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
5 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
¾ cup white wine
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 – 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 lemon

For the Polenta

½ cup stone-ground cornmeal or polenta (you might want to use the quick-cooking variety)
2 cups water

Place dried wild mushrooms in a bowl with enough hot water to cover. After they have soaked for about 30 minutes, remove from soaking water and set aside as you strain soaking water through a coffee filter to remove the grit.

Chop soaked mushrooms. Heat olive oil (or duck fat) in a large saucepan and sauté soaked mushrooms briefly before adding the strained liquid to the pan. Simmer over medium heat until most of liquid has evaporated.

Stir in ham, shallots, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes, and let simmer for 1 minute. Slice fresh mushrooms and add to pan to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the fresh mushrooms have given off their moisture. Add wine and salt and pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in another saucepan and slowly whisk in polenta or cornmeal. Bring to a boil again and then decrease heat to very low. Continue to cook polenta until the stew is ready (unless you are using quick-cooking polenta, in which case you would start it cooking later).

Spoon the polenta onto individual plates or bowls, top with the mushroom stew, and garnish with the chopped parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, if desired.