Any Day Breakfast Outside

by Justyna Frank

When I need a break from routine, but can’t swing any time off, one of my favorite ways to mix things up is to cook breakfast outside. For a couple hours before the start of my regular workday, I can forget about my emails, my to-do list, and maybe even forget I’m still in the city. Those two hours can feel like a tiny little camping trip, but without actually having to go away.

For this type of outing, I recommend actually cooking your food rather than consuming pre-made food, because the idea is to recreate the camping experience, and to break from routine by focusing on an unaccustomed task that requires your full attention.

On the practical side, such a tiny outing has a lot of advantages. Because you won’t be on the trail with your bike or backpack for days on end, you don’t have to pack quite as carefully as you would for a multi-day excursion. While a compact stove is pretty much a must, you can bring regular cookware (I like a small cast iron skillet) and utensils, and, since you don’t have to worry about keeping food from spoiling, you can use fresh ingredients rather than dehydrated ones. (Here’s a more comprehensive list of things we bring along.)

You can do this on your regular route to work, or maybe just take a small detour to a local park. For this particular outing, I decided on an early start and went in a direction opposite from work.

Chicago has some beautiful, easily accessible wild areas, where you can find peace, nature and solitude. One of those places is the Skokie Lagoons at the north end of the North Branch Trail between Tower Rd and Dundee Rd. I set off on foot from the parking area at Tower Rd heading north along the eastern edge of the waterway. From this point, there is about a 4-mile trail that encircles the Lagoons. Since time would not allow me to complete the full circuit, I opted to get off the paved trail and explore the many intersecting footpaths that skirt the water’s edge in search of the perfect spot to set up my cooking gear.

An urban wilderness needs a forgiving wanderer. You can never quite ignore the noise of the nearby highway, you have to look past discarded beer cans, and some neglected stretches of shady thicket are more sinister than charming. But overall, ongoing ecological restoration efforts have made this nature preserve sun-speckled and teeming with life. I generally followed the footpath closest to the water greeting a couple of early morning fishermen along the way. I spotted the well-camouflaged tent of someone sleeping-in, guerrilla-style. Eventually I came to a gentle slope covered with purple and yellow blooms, with several conveniently spaced logs, and a bit of a flat area along the water to set up my cooking things.

Perching on a log, I fired up my Pocket Rocket stove, and threw pre chopped bacon and veggies onto my skillet. While these heated up, I filled a small pot with bottled water and got my tea leaves ready. The food cooked quickly over the hot flame. I don’t like disposing fuel canisters, but the canister stove is the most reliable way to cook food outside, particularly when you are short on time.. After the bacon sizzled, I threw in a farm-raised duck egg (have you seen duck eggs, btw? —the yolk looks like the rising sun!), scrambled it lightly, and threw in chunks of squash and potatoes left over from last night’s dinner, topped everything with salt and spices brought along wrapped in a a bit of parchment paper and voila! —breakfast. I let it cool just a bit while I set the water on the stove for tea.

No food ever tastes as good as food you cook outside with your own hands, eaten straight from the pan with a folding fork, washed down with piping hot, freshly brewed tea which burns your lips through the metal mug. Move over, French chefs, I will choose this over any gourmet.

And I haven’t even mentioned the view or the company yet. Stretches of open water with adjacent woodland make this is a spectacular spot for viewing birds. Ospreys and vultures are a relatively common sight, soaring overhead in giant arcs. Nosy and defiant Canada geese are of course everywhere, this time of the year ushering along their beautiful golden-yellow babies, who plop their bellies into the water if you try to come near. Denim-blue jays dart across the clearing, iridescent swallows skim over the water surface, and occasionally a heron takes off, its great smoky blue wings just dipping into the waves. There are bald eagles here too, but this time, they did not make an appearance.

After a fantastic breakfast, reclining against a springy log with a hot cup of tea in hand, I am indeed a forgiving and grateful wanderer. I tune out traffic noise, tune in to the birds, catch tiny little glimpses of beauty, and stop time.

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