It was somewhere north of Lodi that the idea began to take shape. As golden California sunshine poured out upon glittering apricot groves in the central valley, I daydreamed about my campsite dinner. Fajitas, lightly browned on the Coleman stove, using the new griddle I’d snapped up the other day. Maybe a little fire to heat the tortillas: it was going to be perfect.
Behind me in the cooler I had a fine fat breast of chicken, finally thawed to perfection. At a rest stop I slathered it with herbs, olive oil and salt, wrapped it in plastic, and nestled it back into place beside the mondo hunk of ice. Later, when I came off the highway for a break, I found a little Mexican grocery where I got a medley of zucchini, onion and red pepper and some of Mrs. Renfrew’s salsa. Sizzling visions danced in my head. By the time I found the access road at Manteca and headed east across the Sonoran desert, I could already taste my dinner.
But in midafternoon, still two hours or more from Yosemite, my food fantasy began to fade. First, the man at the Tuolumne visitor’s center lifted his hat and scratched back his white hair when I mentioned camping in the park. He shook his head, but had the grace not to laugh out loud. Then, outside the park entrance I looked in at a dirt-covered BLM campsite where a sign told me that any open fire, even one from a Coleman stove, had to be permitted. To get a permit, I was told farther on at the park gate, I had to drive back a ways. Instead, I gritted my teeth and drove on through.
So began a brief interlude in the playground of the gods. The Yosemite Valley at any time is beautiful, but evening is the best. Low clear sunlight plays on the massive stone walls and waterfalls, bringing into focus every feature. For an hour or more, I followed the light, stopping with the crowds to stand in awed silence, the muted click of our cameras and the occasional sigh the only counterpoint to the distant sound of water and the ribbons of heavy night air that danced around in the valley.
And then began the mad rush. As light faded, a thousand cars headed for the south exit all at once. At each turnoff the same story was told: no room here; move on. Beside the parking lot at one crowded RV spot a frantic young couple was setting a small tent in the dusty glare of 30 headlights. I couldn’t believe this. I scrambled back onto the dark road heading toward the rest of California.
I woke the next morning to the sound of water spray and the cool feel of billowed grass under the tent floor. A bird was singing from branches that lazily threw shadows onto the thin fabric above me. I looked out onto a green landscape. Through a sleepy haze I tugged at the edges of the dream I’d been having.
After another splendid day, this one not nearly so hectic or fraught, I came back and made the meal I had imagined – all except for the fire. And later, my appetite well and truly sated, I fell asleep in the green green grass and dreamed of those elusive fajitas. Fajitas in the mist.
2 pounds of skinless boneless whole chicken breast
1 pound of zucchini
1 large red bell pepper
1 medium-sized onion
4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 Tablespoons of dried thyme, leaves only
1 teaspoon of salt
Optional: ground cumin, chili powder and/or oregano to taste
1 jar of salsa
1 package of 10” flour tortillas
Camping Notes: This is a great recipe for car camping, where the added weight of a cast-iron griddle for your Coleman stove is no big deal. After marinating the chicken and wrapping it in plastic, you’ll want to put it inside Tupperware to keep it from mixing with the water at the bottom of the cooler.
Marinate the chicken: Leave breasts whole. Place the meat on a sheet of plastic wrap. Distribute dried thyme leaves and ½ teaspoon of the salt evenly over the chicken, and drizzle on half of the olive oil. Add extra cumin, chili powder or oregano on as well if desired. Now wrap the plastic tightly around the chicken and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours.
Prepare the veggies: Top and tail the zucchini, slice them lengthwise and cut diagonally into 1/2” pieces. Core the pepper, remove seeds and white inner ribs and cut it into thin strips. Peel the onion and slice it lengthwise. Arrange veggies on a plate, drizzle on some olive oil and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt. Add cumin, chili powder and oregano if desired.
20 minutes before dinner: Heat a heavy frying pan over a medium-high flame and, after 2 minutes, pour in 1 Tablespoon of oil. Put in the chicken breast and heat quickly, turning after every 3 or 4 minutes as it browns.
15 minutes before dinner: Heat a second frying pan or a 10” griddle over medium-high flame for 2 minutes and then coat with 1 Tablespoon of oil. Put on the veggies and, keeping the heat as high as you can without the oil smoking, toss the veggies with a spatula as they cook. The veggies will be done in 10 or 12 minutes.
A few minutes before dinner: Slice the chicken crosswise on a plate. Return to the frying pan any pieces of chicken that are pink in the middle. Chicken will be perfectly cooked at the moment that pink turns white. No need to overcook it!
Bring the Fajitas to the picnic table hot and sizzling to serve with salsa and warm tortillas.
Oh, and if you happen to have a little fire nearby with a hot stone on which to warm your tortillas, I say go for it!