WAY OUT HERE - Vagabond veggies make for cheap eats

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An abandoned ear of corn, soon to be in a pot of "Highway Stew," rests along State Route 124 on the way to Waitsburg.

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Living way out here at Walkers Ranch we're surrounded by farms. There is everything from apples, cherries, grapes and blueberries to corn, onions, potatoes, wheat and alfalfa. Plus there are poultry, goat and cattle ranches, not to mention our own chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys.

We like being surrounded by the peaceful fields of western Walla Walla County and the docile animals. They both add something special to living here - a little extra countrified feeling.

I love waking up to roosters early in the morning, hearing cattle in distance each evening and smelling ripe grapes on the vine from over a mile away each fall. And there's no better view in the world than that of cornfields and apple orchards with the river and mountains off in the distance.

Anyhow, so living way out here we have to travel back and forth along the highway everyday; the same highway that many trucks travel after being loaded with the day's harvest.

Of course, they try to get as much produce in each truck as they can, sometimes just a little too much. So there's always a few vegetables that fall out - "Man overboard!" They bounce along the asphalt and roll to a stop along the roadside.

For years, my wife has said we should stop and pick up the stray vegetables. I've always laughed and said no because it sounds a little weird, right? Like maybe just one step away from dumpster diving or pan handling.

But then again, free food is free food, right? Just because they're lying along the road shouldn't really be an issue - they grow in the dirt after all, right? How much more dirty can they get? Plus, wouldn't we be helping clean up the highway a little bit, too?

So every now and then we like to drive down the highway into Waitsburg or Prescott for breakfast. We love these small towns and their mellow atmosphere.

On our way toward Waitsburg one morning my wife kept noticing various roadside vegetables. "We just passed some more free food," she joked.

As we sat at the White Stallion Restaurant in Waitsburg, I began thinking about the wayward veggies and the light bulb suddenly went on in my head.

Highway Stew!

Yep. I capitulated. After seven years of living way out here, I finally gave in.

So on our way home we stopped and picked up every wayward fruit and vegetable we saw. It was actually super fun, almost like a treasure hunt.

We found, corn, potatoes, onions and apples. Quite a bountiful harvest. We even stopped by a cherry orchard and snatched a few from the trees.

Now, I'm not going to recommend that you go around pilfering fruit from orchards. But if you do and you get caught, you'll probably get what you deserve - whether that's a visit from a deputy sheriff or a well-aimed BB in your posterior!

Anyhow, after we got back home, we assessed what we had and began preparing our "Highway Stew." I cut up the onions and cubed the apples, while Mrs. Walker halved the potatoes and seeded the cherries.

Obviously, adding fruit into a stew is a little weird, but we did it anyhow - cubed apples and diced cherries. Was that wrong? I don't think so.

Of course, everything tastes better when it's cooked over a fire, so I got one started in the fire pit. I even had some apple wood to use for extra good smoky flavor.

We always save the carcass of our Thanksgiving turkey in the freezer for future use, so we started to boil that in a pot of water to make our stew base. Plus, ya gotta have some meat in your stew or it's just not right.

We added some salt, pepper, basil, Tabasco and a few cloves, plus the natural smoke from the fire.

While the turkey carcass and seasonings were boiling, we put the corn and the potato halves on the grill as well. I also threw the onions in a cast iron skillet with a slice of butter and caramelized them.

Then, after getting every last morsel of turkey meat off the bones, we strained them out and were left with a tasty base for our stew.

We threw in the grilled corn and potatoes, the caramelized onions and the apples and cherries. Then we let it all marinate and simmer over a low fire for a couple hours. Oh man, was it smellin' good!

At that point, it was still a little thin, so I added a couple packets of turkey gravy mix. Yep, you heard me right! Gravy, Mmmmmm! That thickened it up just enough. Plus, it added that extra gravy goodness.

So after a just a few more minutes on the fire, it was ready to go.

Oh man, it was the best stew ever! And the best part about it was that it was almost completely free and made with fresh local fruits and vegetables.

Well, fresh off a passing truck at least.

Highway Stew - what a concept, right? So now that you have the recipe, it's your turn - if you dare!

Burbank-area writer Erik D. Walker, author of "In Pursuit of the Perfect Burger," can be reached at erikandtina@walkersranch.com.

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