Every summer, in the middle of August, my entire family hits the road for our annual mountain getaway. For most of the year we are scattered across the West Coast. My husband, daughter, and I live in Portland’s Northwest hills; my parents downtown; my middle sister, brother-in-law, and baby niece on their farm southeast of Portland; and my youngest sister in Los Angeles.
During the year our lack of geographic proximity combined with our conflicting schedules means that is often difficult for all be together in the same place at the same time. That’s why our summer cabin tradition is so special. It allows us to pause from our busy lives, to escape into the mountains, to be together, and of course, to eat.
As soon as Portland temperatures begin to warm, we excitedly commence our cabin countdown. Since I write a real food and whole living blog, Real Food Whole Life, my family usually leaves the meal planning to me. Before our trip, I draft the menu and make a master grocery list so that we can do most of our shopping before we leave Portland. Once we’re at the cabin provisions are harder to come by and I’d rather spend my vacation relaxing and spending time with the family than grocery shopping.
List in hand, I gather fresh produce from Portland’s famous farmers’ market: Hermiston watermelon trucked in from eastern Oregon, fresh sweet corn from Sauvie Island, and plenty of local zucchini, peppers, onions, and herbs. Once the produce is taken care of, I stop at my favorite Portland natural foods store for pasture-raised beef for the grill. I text my sister to to bring eggs from her chickens and honey from their bees. My food philosophy is all about using fresh food in the simplest way possible, and having these vibrant ingredients on hand makes preparing meals away from home a snap.
The meals I plan are fresh and simple, allowing us to spend the maximum amount of time together while still eating well. To share the responsibility, and to make sure no one gets stuck with kitchen duty for the entire week, I like to assign each couple — my sister and her husband, my parents, and me and my husband — one or two nights to shop and cook for the rest of the family.
Preparing for our drive through Oregon’s Cascade mountains, we pack our coolers with food and cram the car with essential vacation gear: hiking shoes, mountain bikes, fishing poles, and swimsuits. Once the car seats and pets are loaded and ready to go, we hit the road. Two SUVs, one truck, and an airplane, all carrying our family members to our reunion in Bend.
Nestled at the base of the majestic Three Sisters volcanic peaks, Bend is an inviting mountain town that boasts spectacular views of both the mountains and the Deschutes river. There, the high-desert town promises hot days, cold nights, and maybe a thunderstorm or two to keep things interesting. We arrive in Bend for a pit stop after a three-hour drive through the mountains, eager to start our adventure. We grab a few extra provisions and some local craft beer, then head out to the cabin where we hug, laugh, share a few stories, grab a drink, and then head straight into the kitchen.
We unpack the groceries and settle into the cabin. Its high vaulted ceilings and natural wood walls give a homey yet open feeling, and the fire pit out back just begs for campfire stories and marshmallow roasting. Once we’re settled in, we fill our days hiking in the surrounding mountains, riding bikes, fishing, swimming, and playing as hard as we can.
On our night to cook, I choose an easy, colorful menu that highlights the beauty and flavor of great ingredients. Since most of the menu can be prepared ahead of time, we’re free to play all day and then to assemble dinner back at the cabin in a matter of minutes.
We start the evening with a grilled crostini, topped with charred corn, creamy avocado, and smoked sea salt. Crostini is the perfect appetizer for a hungry crowd because it comes together simply and without much fuss. Using sweet local corn is key, and a quick turn on the grill adds an irresistible smokey char. The entire combination is the most delicious way to take the hunger edge off as people wait for dinner.
My husband usually mans the grill, threading big chunks of meat and vibrant summer produce onto skewers. My brother-in-law — a firefighter — insists on supervising. While they grill, my dad is in charge of drinks. He selects a signature cocktail for the week, and mixes a nonalcoholic version for the kids and family members who aren’t drinking as well. Since blackberries are abundant in the summer in Oregon, it’s only natural to include them in a frozen, honey-sweetened margarita, the week’s drink of choice. Dad serves these in frosted glasses rimmed with honey and salt. The tart and sweet flavor of the drink tastes even better when sipped outside.
Margarita in hand, it’s easy to assemble a salad of watermelon, mint, and feta, topped with quick pickled red onion. Because the pickled onions can be prepared ahead of time the salad comes together quickly, and it’s a lovely salty-sweet accompaniment to the savory skewers. Over the years, I’ve found that simple steak and vegetable skewers are the perfect option for a large family with various taste preferences, since everyone can assemble their own. Once the skewers come off of the grill, we sprinkle them with rosemary garlic salt to add depth of flavor and make a simple recipe into one that’s truly memorable.
After dinner the family gathers around the fire pit for s’mores with views of South Sister mountain in the background. Alongside the classic chocolate we include Oregon sea salt caramels. It’s a dessert that is low maintenance, yet special, and the adults have just as much fun as the children roasting marshmallows and building their own perfect s’more.
As the sun goes down we pull out the blankets and hang around the fire pit talking and telling stories, while the kids revel in staying up way past their bedtimes. Sometimes there’s one last batch of margaritas or another round of s’mores. As the mountain air begins to chill, we head back inside, already plotting our trip for next year when we’ll come back to the cabin and do it all over again.
Photos by Robyn Conley Downs