Monday, September 18, 2017

Backwoods, Cast Iron and the Manistee Forest

Little Manistee River
Some of our favorite campsites we love to frequent are right off M-37 in the Manistee National Forest.  We prefer the rustic campground where you won't hear RV air conditioners but you will hear coyotes at night and if you are lucky you may hear a hooting owl.  We like no-frills and no modern technology. We can Netflix and YouTube at home.  No electricity, drinking water only, no showers or plumbing for restrooms.  The best you will get is a nice brick structure with a permanent porta pottie that is properly stocked with toilet paper and you can always take a dip in the river, lake or stream. This isn't the place for perfectly applied makeup and styled hair. But for $16.00 a night, you get to run away from civilization, your internal clock is reset and restored and a complete sense of peace and tranquility overcomes your general wellness after bonding with nature.  

We recently returned from five days and four nights in this stunningly gorgeous and vast piece of nature also known as the Manistee National Forest and we did it for under $200 for two adults and two dogs.  Yes you read that right - under $200 and we didn't hold back when it came to our cooking in cast iron meals.  Here's what we did.

Little Manistee River

First, a trip to Aldi was in order.  More bang for our buck and Aldi has definitely bumped up their go-to grocery game recently.  We picked up some frozen chicken breasts, pork chops, hot Italian Sausage, onions, carrots, broccoli, potatoes (both sweet and russet), romaine lettuce, lunch meat, bread, Brat buns, eggs, pancake mix, syrup, butter, olive oil, garlic, marinara sauce, cheese, mushrooms and of course bacon.  Bacon is a no brainer necessity when camping.  Another necessity when huddled around an evening campfire is the all American S'More.  We decided to up the ante and try a few different S'More styles that included the original with Hershey chocolate bar, a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup style and the mother of all S'Mores, the Salted Caramel S'More. We spent roughly $50.00.  

We also made a quick trip to the Dollar Tree for appropriate sweet and salty snacking items, extra batteries, paper lanterns and water jugs for drinking water.  We spent $20.  We kept things simple our first night after setting up camp and getting things situated by grilling the Italian sausage and served them with a side of chips.  It was perfect after the excitement of arriving to spend our time alone in the woods.

Cast Iron Roasted Vegetables with pan seared Ribeyes

Our second night we pan seared some incredible ribeye steaks we found on our way at a local grocery store.  We roasted our vegetables in our cast iron dutch oven that were lightly tossed with salt, pepper and olive oil.  We also drizzled olive oil and salt and pepper over two heads of romaine lettuce and pan seared them after the steaks cooked for the perfect addition to our dinner.  A serious game changer of delight when it came to the flavors from the meats absorbing into the romain lettuce head as it cooked.  We baked a few potatoes that we planned on cutting up in the morning for breakfast.

Cast Iron seared Romaine Lettuce

Our meal was superb.  The smoke from the fire added such an incredible flavor addition to the romain lettuce and steaks.  The vegetables were roasted to perfection and the potatoes were ready to be chilled in the cooler and sliced the next morning for breakfast.  When we were finished, we saved the roasted vegetables for we still had some serious big plans for them for our woods tradition, Indian cuisine while camping.

Tikka Masala Sauce and Saffron Rice

Tikka Masala Chicken with saffron rice?  Yes, you did read that correctly.  Tikka Masala Chicken. A taste of India deep in the woods of the Manistee National Forest cooked in a cast iron skillet over a campfire. We discovered two great items during our grocery shopping trips prior to our trip.  The Tikka Masala sauce from Aldi is incredible deliciousness for about $2.00.  Remember our trip to the Dollar Tree?  Who would think they would have something as delectable as saffron rice for $1.00.  We thought we'd give it a try and it certainly didn't disappoint.  

Tikka Masala Chicken and Vegetables with Saffron Rice

A sensory explosion of flavors in this inexpensive dish that actually tastes very expensive. It was very easy to create this tantalizing dinner that will make your tummy dance with delight after a nice interactive trail hike. This recipe is perfect for the "car" camper who runs to the woods to relax, hike, nap and enjoy themselves around the fire. We wouldn't necessarily recommend this to those who hike several miles into a camp with everything neatly packed in their backpack. This delectable dish is for the outdoorsy foodie who would rather drive 10 miles to the nearest local dive for the Friday Night "All You Can Eat" Fish Fry than live on granola or trail mix for three days.

Banana Nut Pancakes and Thick Cut Bacon

We bumped up our breakfast game by spending a few extra bucks for thick cut bacon and a jar of mixed nuts, a perfect score for a quick snack and transforming the ordinary pancake into a pure earthly delight of sweet and salty deliciousness, the banana nut pancake. We chopped up the nuts, added them to the pancake batter and added a smidgen of vanilla extract for good measure. Go BIG for the breakfast win with this combo.

Grilled Brined Pork Chops

We brined some great looking thick cut pork chops  in a brown sugar/sea salt blend the night before we left.  The chops bathed a good 48 hours in this mixture before we grilled them up.  Trying to think outside of the flavor box, we bravely threw a whole pineapple on top of the campfire grate with a few potatoes, both russet and sweet.  If you haven't tasted and savored the flavor of roasted a pineapple before, put it on your list of culinary "To-Do's". Wow...that is all.  Talk about a perfect pairing with the brined pork chops.  A major score as the leftover pineapple chilled in the cooler became a perfect side addition to breakfast.

Bacon, Brined Pork and Fried Potatoes

Our love affair with bacon was taken to a new level on this trip.  Remember we had leftover bacon we fried up the day before for breakfast?  We reheated it in our cast iron skillet over the fire by placing each piece on top of the leftover brined pork chop slices from dinner the night before.  The seasoning from the chops elevated the bacon flavors to pure pork heaven.  Pork on pork just became a legendary epicurean experience in the woods we won't ever forget.  Our leftover baked potatoes were seasoned, sliced and fried to perfection.  The scrambled eggs with onion, tarragon and topped with cheese gets a huge double star shout-out for our savory and salty breakfast plan.  We were ready to hit the trails for some wooded expedition fun.

This was such a wonderful, relaxing and inexpensive getaway filled with great food, fun, and flora.  We refueled our bodies, our minds, our spirits and souls from the energy of the untouched natural beauty of the Manistee National Forest.  We chose this particular weekend because of the possibility of catching one of nature's night moves - a meteor shower that was at peak time and definitely didn't disappoint.  Our nightly campfires not only provided warmth and mosquito repellent, they added an untapped dimension of newly discovered flavors for our cast iron culinary creations. The daily hikes led us down mystical paths filled with bracket ferns, magical white pine and birch trees and the Little Manistee River.  Afternoon naps and quiet time in our hammocks strung between the hemlock trees were pure Michigan heaven.  It was breathtaking and we cannot wait to return for more magical and mystical memories of the Manistee National Forest.

Here is a short video of the rest of the story and fun at Eat, Drink and BE Michigan

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