Finding a pocket of calm

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The sky faded to white, clumped and hurtled toward the windshield in the first fat flakes of winter. Thrilling the back-seat crowd and petrifying the car. It flatly refused to roll. We abandoned it curbside, ran home, and switched to a camel.

There must have been steps in between — the tow truck, the airplane — but surveying the desert from the lumpy heights of Leyla, a self-composed camel, they faded to gray.

Camel is a slow and steady ride, one that promotes good posture and a contemplative mood. There's no accelerator, no brake. The driver simply dangles one leg sandward, wraps one leg cross-camel and leaves the details to the caravan. It's soothing, rocking with the spongy two-toed gait, gazing across ancient striations of tawny red rock.

Here there is no snow, no tow, no showroom.

After a while, Leyla ambled home. She tucked into a bale of hay, and we settled down beside a campfire. Leyla's wrangler boiled sweet tea. He kneaded water into flour, rolled the dough thin and tossed it onto a saj, a pan shaped like a hump. A moment later he peeled away hot rounds of Bedouin pita bread. Dipped in olive oil, each bite tasted of desert quiet, firelight and night sky.

We stared up at the star-clumped black. Surely this was the way to roll.

Fireside pita

Prep and cook: 1 relaxed evening
Servings: 4

Note: This recipe calls for fire. Make sure you have proper fire-tending tools, including hand protection. If such a project makes you nervous, order carryout.

Ingredients:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 (or so) cups flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt

Mix:
Pour water over yeast. Let rest 5 minutes. Add flour and salt, stirring to a sticky dough. Turn out and knead smooth, adding a little flour if need be, about 5 minutes. Let rest, covered with a kitchen towel.

Kindle:
Light a fire in the fireplace. Open a bottle of wine. Sip and bask in the flames — brilliant, but too fickle for cooking. Let the fire burn down to a heap of glowing embers. This might take an hour.

Roll:
Cut dough in 4; roll into 4 balls. Roll each to a thin circle, about 12 inches in diameter. Cover and let rest.

Arrange:
Slip on protective mitts. Use the fireplace tools to slide the embers under the grate. Set a heavy cooking surface over the grate. An upside-down wok (one without wooden handles) works perfectly. A wide cast-iron skillet or griddle also works. Don't use the pizza stone; it prefers to heat up slowly. Heap embers close enough together to cast a medium-hot fire; you should only be able to hold your hand 2 inches above the wok for about 4 seconds.

Toast:
Dust pita circles well with flour. Dust a pizza peel (or rimless baking sheet) well with flour. Set one dough circle on the peel. Flick a few drops of water onto the hot wok-bottom. Slide dough onto the wok. In about 20-30 seconds, it will be covered with small bubbles. Use tongs to flip. Cook another 20-30 seconds. Pull off heat. Pita should be cooked through, slightly puffed and pocked with almost-charred spots. Fold in quarters, wrap in a clean kitchen towel. Cook remaining pitas. (Lacking fire, set dough on a baking sheet and slide into a 425-degree oven for about 6 minutes. It will puff dramatically, but lack smoky character.)

Enjoy:
Serve, fireside, with olive oil. Also nice wrapped around farmers or other soft cheese, hummus, grilled eggplant, fresh cucumber or — if you're really getting into the fire thing — roast lamb.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune Newspapers special contributor. Email her at leahreskin@aol.com.

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