Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sweet Trees X3

Boiling birch on the left, maple on the right.

Sugaring season came to an end this week.  The birches were running pretty good for a few days, but with afternoons in the sunny 60s the sap doesn’t keep.  The maples slowed and then dried up a good week ago, and are now breaking bud.  I also tapped our one big black walnut this year, but not soon enough to get much sap—enough to cook down to maybe a third of a cup, which isn’t bad, considering I only had about a half gallon of sap.  My minimal experience with black walnut tells me that the sap is at least as concentrated in sugar as maple, and that it probably starts running at about the same time.  Since our black walnut tree is always extremely late to leaf out, I had assumed the sap would run late, too.  Not so.

I took a very low-key approach to sugaring this year.  I tapped about five maples, exactly two birches, and the one black walnut.  I left my half-assed sap contraption in mothballs, and just reduced the sap on our woodstove, very gradually, and did the final brief boiling on our gas cooktop.  The result was not any great quantity of anything, but the process did produce some observations.

Shades of maple: from left, first to fourth boilings of 2015 syrup, and one from 2014 at right.
The maple syrup was the lightest in color that I’ve ever made.  Even the fourth and final batch, from sap gathered just before the trees dried up, is medium amber at most—the last syrup is usually very dark, verging on what sometimes is sold as “grade B”.  So there’s less of a caramel taste to the maple, but it’s delicious just the same.

Slow birch 2015.
The “slow birch” also made a much lighter, more delicate syrup than hard-boiled versions I’ve done in the past.  It's a gorgeous color, reddish mahogany. There’s still an edge of acidity to it, but it’s rounder, without the aggressive, almost bitter bite of the darker stuff.  I suppose you could liken it to different roasts of the same coffee bean, from light to Vienna, French, espresso.  Actually, I think you could very much liken it to that.  I could see using the lighter stuff to drizzle over grilled or roasted vegetables, where the darker version works better combined with other ingredients, in vinaigrettes, marinades, or glazes.
Hard-boiled 2014 birch.

Finally, the walnut.  As I say, I wound up with about half a cup.  It’s much more like maple syrup than birch, which makes sense—maple and walnut trees are more closely related to each other than they are to birches, aspens, etc.  Also, I believe, though I don’t know for sure, that walnut syrup is composed of sucrose, as is maple syrup, while birch syrup contains mainly fructose and glucose.  I’m just going from taste, and common sense(?) on that.

Black walnut syrup.
The main thing I was aware of with the walnut syrup was trying NOT to describe its aroma or flavor as “nutty.”  I resisted that characterization mightily, and in the end, I failed.  The finished product definitely has a slight, but undeniable, aroma of toasted nuts to it, and a maple-level sweetness.  

There you go.  That’s the sugaring report.  I think all three kinds of syrup are worth making if you have access to a few trees.  And as with my previous explorations of micro-batch pickling and preserve making, I hope I’ve shown that you can have fun with DIY foods without going overboard into tedious mass production.  Sometimes a taste is enough.

Birch in the final reduction.
Next time it’s on to the nettles and other wild greens.  ‘Tis the season.  And it’s been mild enough of late that I think I’ll hit the garden today and plant some radishes, mache, lettuce, and peas.

The Bide-A-While tree syrups family portrait, 2015.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Few Tastes of Maple

I got a chance today to talk maple syrup cookery with Rob Ferrett on the Food Friday segement of Wisconsin Public Radio's Central Time and have compiled here a few of the recipes I mentioned on the show.  This first is a recent creation whipped up for the Maple Madness Cook-Off that took place at the Hungry Turtle Institute in Amery on March 14.  I've made this dish a lot lately, while testing the recipe out for the cook-off, at the cook-off, and then as the featured dish I prepared at Kate's Occasional Cafe at the Dairyland Cafe in Ridgeland this past week.  I'm still not tired of it.

Sichuan-Spiced Maple Chicken Wings (This recipe was inspired by Teresa Marrone’s Two-Pepper Maple Chicken Wings from Modern Maple.)

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 to 6 as an appetizer

Serve these spicy-sweet wings over a bowl of rice, accompanied by a stir-fried vegetable, for a main course; or as a zingy appetizer—keep a cold beer close at hand.

2 pounds chicken wings (about 10 wings), tips removed, separated in 2 pieces
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon oil (sunflower, canola, or the like)
2 teaspoons sambal chile paste (or to taste)
¼ cup maple syrup
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

Preheat your oven to 425.  Combine all the ingredients except the scallions in a large bowl and toss to coat the wings with the seasonings.  Place the wings and seasonings in a heavy roasting pan, and bake, stirring every 15 minutes or so, for 45 minutes.  Add the scallions and continue baking, stirring occasionally, until the wings are well browned and the seasonings have become a glaze that coats the wings.  This will probably take another 15 to 25 minutes.

Options:  For really dark and glazy wings, turn on the broiler for the last few minutes of cooking, and turn the wings a couple of times so they brown evenly, being careful that they don’t burn.
            If you have a convection feature on your oven, you can produce excellent results without resorting to the broiler.  Bake at 400 convection and check every 10 minutes, adding the scallions after 30 minutes.  Total cooking time with convection should be 40-45 minutes.

These wings can be made ahead and reheated before serving.  

Maple Spice Grilled Sirloin (original post here)
serves 4--next time I make this I'm going to try it with venison

1 1/2-2 pounds sirloin steak 

½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons sunflower or canola oil
1 teaspoon sambal oelek chile paste
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Pinch salt
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 large clove garlic minced
Combine all marinade ingredients and pour over the steak, coating well.  Marinate the steak for a couple of hours at room temp.  Prior to grilling remove the steak to a separate plate, saving the marinade.  Add hte marinade to 1/3 cup chicken stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. 
Grill the steak over hot natural wood coals to desired doneness--about 3 minutes per side for rare, 4 for medium rare.  Let the steak rest on a platter for at least 5 minutes; add the juices that the resting steak produces to the stock and marinade mixture.  Serve with grilled vegetables and salad. 

The Thighs Have It

In terms of underappreciated, tasty bargain meats, chicken thighs are right there with pork shoulder steaks, in my opinion.  The thigh is my preferred part of the bird, though I fully appreciate the wing thing, too.  Chicken wings prepared in a Sichuan dry-fried manner are an exquisite treat.  The thighs, though, are more accommodating in a knife-and-fork meal context, and when they are boneless, why, they make positively civilized eating--cooking them over nice smoky hardwood coals keeps them on the rustic side.

Ramps season is starting as the maple season ends, and I often wind up putting the two together, frequently on chicken.  This is a flavorful, simple dish to celebrate the return of grilling weather (well, comfortable grilling weather; we cook over the coals year-round).

A paillard is a flattened out piece of meat.  I wail away at my thighs with the side of a heavy cleaver--a meat mallet, or even a small sauté pan will get the job done.
Maple-Ramp Marinated Chicken Paillards
Serves two to three

4 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
½ cup chopped ramps, whites and greens
Juice of ¼ lemon, and some zest, if you like
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon sambal oelek chili paste (or more, to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Purchase boneless skin-on chicken thighs, or bone them yourself. Place one thigh at a time on a cutting board, and with a meat mallet, the side of a heavy cleaver, or a small, clean saucepan, pound each thigh vigorously until the meat is about ½ inch thick—the surface area of the thighs should nearly double.

Combine the rest of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and add the chicken, coating it well on all sides. Let the chicken marinate for at least 60 minutes at room temp, or longer in the fridge. When you’re ready to cook, prepare a fire of natural wood coals, and grill the chicken over medium-hot coals, turning often, for 12 to 15 minutes total. The chicken should be very well browned on both sides.

If you have extra ramps, toss a few in what remains of the marinade, and grill them along with the chicken.

Sweet & Sour (Tree Crop) Chard (original post)
serves two generously
5-6 good-sized chard leaves (2 cups chopped)
1/2 medium onion, sliced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chicken stock (or 1/2 cup stock, 1/2 cup water)
2 good pinches salt
a few grinds black pepper
2 to 3 tsp maple syrup
1 to 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
options: a bit of thyme, a small knob of butter stirred in at the end

Cut the thick ribs out of the chard leaves, and slice these diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces. Tear or cut each leaf into four or five pieces. Heat a 10-inch skillet or the like, and add the olive oil, then the onion and the chard rib pieces. Add a couple of pinches of salt, the stock (or stock and water, or water). Cover and cook over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, until the chard is starting to soften. Then add the chard leaves, and as soon as they wilt into the liquid add the vinegar and maple syrup. Cook uncovered for another three to four minutes, until the chard is tender to taste and the liquid is somewhat reduced. Taste for salt, sweet, and sour. Serve in a dish

Roast Baby Carrots with Maple-Mustard Glaze (original post)
2 cups baby carrots, scrubbed (mine weighed 9 ounces)
1 1/2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp canola or grapeseed oil
pinch of salt, grind of pepper

Combine all the above in a gratin dish or small baking dish. Roast, uncovered, at 375 for 45 minutes, until they become a little brown and glazy. Stir them every 15 minutes during this time.

Remove from the oven and add:

1 rounded tsp grain mustard
1/8 tsp piment d'espelette, or a good pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 tsp red wine vinegar

Add another grind of pepper, taste for salt. Serve warm or at room temp.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Greeting Spring Greenly

It seems every bit appropriate to write about first fresh, green harvest of the year, watercress, on the first day of spring.  I generally gather the year's first cress from a lovely Dunn County spring that seeps from a modest limestone outcropping and slides a dozen long paces before it freshens a sweet little stream; the stream has a name, but I’ve forgotten it.  It’s one of those myriad trout streams, as designated by the State of Wisconsin DNR, which, when you look at the published map showing all such waters, could fool you into thinking that our neighborhood would be a trout fisher’s paradise.  Northern Dunn and southern Barron Counties are as thickly veined with trout streams—color-coded blue, red, yellow, and green—as a diagram of the circulatory system.  But few are worth the trouble to explore; shallow, sandy, alder-choked or simply so tiny that a flycaster would need a marksman’s precision just to land a fly on the water.  But I digress.  It happens.  Have you been here before?

The stream whose name I know not is nonetheless a pretty stream with lots of character, riffle water, bends, promising pools for local kids to either drop a worm into or wade and splash in on a hot summer day.  As winter departs the spring, perhaps 10 feet wide, becomes carpeted with glistening cress, variegated light and darker green, with intimations of reddish veining and browned patches, scars from the last hard freezes.  I mentioned picking cress, but really I snip it—if I’ve had the forethought to bring a pair of scissors.  By snipping the upper leaves I disturb the roots as little as possible, making it a sustainable harvest.  If I don’t have scissors I use my pocket knife to trim the top rosettes.  Half a plastic grocery sack provides plenty of cress to work with for a few meals.

First and best is simply to eat it raw, and lightly dressed (if you’re eating raw cress be sure it comes from a spring or headwaters that hasn’t run through grazing land, particularly where sheep abide).  A straight-up watercress salad is often extremely assertive, but in early spring its peppery pungency is usually tolerable—and a welcome wake-up call to taste buds somewhat dulled by root cellar dining.

Watercress can be used as an herb.  In my cookbook I use it in a pesto with ramps, and to give green relief to celeri remoulade.  The first thing I did with this year’s first snipping was to make a watercress mayonnaise.  Though I almost always make mayo the old-fashioned way, with a bowl and a whisk, I used an immersion blender for this one, for three reasons:

1)      Laziness
2)      So as to really puree the cress into the mayo, and
3)      The immersion blender is a fairly new toy that I haven’t done much with

We smeared the mayo on bread to make bacon sandwiches, and also kept the extra on hand to dunk oven fries from garden potatoes.  In the manner of the old lady who swallowed a fly, the story of this simple, but rather labor-intensive meal, was this: 

I snipped the cress 
to make a mayo
to dress the fresh bread
that made a bed
for the bacon I smoked
from belly that bathed
in maple I tapped
from our own trees
a year ago, or so.

So, how are we doing with the old “eat local challenge” concept that well-meaning folks trot out to promote local produce, usually in September, when eating locally is at its least challenging?  Well, the bread was homemade and leavened with our now 12-year-old sourdough starter and all MN and ND flours; the bacon from MN-based Pastures A’Plenty pork belly cured in our own maple syrup and foreign salt; the mayo contained that Dunn County cress, Ridgeland eggs (Chicken Creek Ranch on county AA), Smude MN cold-pressed sunflower oil, and foreign salt and lemon juice; oven fries from our garden potatoes cooked in duck fat we rendered and more of the Smude oil; carrot slaw with local grower Kate Stout’s wonderful carrots, some of our garden shallots, Smude oil, our cider vinegar.

I would say we’ve met the challenge.  I go through this list not to gloat about how localler-than-thou our diet is, but to illustrate the fact that local eating year-round is eminently doable, even here in the frozen north.  You just keep a very local pantry, is all, and seek out your local producers.  It’s not that hard.  They’re not hiding, and actually want to be found, so they can sell you stuff!  Co-ops of course are a great place to start in shopping local, and there are many farmers markets that keep going through the winter, as well.

None of this is anything new.  I myself have made the point about a thousand times in various ways.  But as I reboot Trout Caviar I’m embracing the perennial, roundabout, here-we-go-again nature of, well, nature, and seasonal eating, which expresses nature in a very intimate and, I hope, delicious way.

The nose knows....

If you want to make watercress mayonnaise you could take as simple an approach as obtaining some watercress, mincing it well, and mixing it into prepared mayonnaise.  I am not opposed to storebought mayo, in fact am on record as a Hellmann’s devotee for many uses (including eating it right off the spoon).  But I think Hellmann’s has too strong a flavor profile, and would drown out the cress which, while very assertive when eaten straight, can get lost in a rich base like mayo.  So a homemade mayo with a milder oil (sunflower, canola; probably not EVOO, or with only a little of it) is the best way to appreciate the tonic bite of springtime cress.  For this particular one, made with the immersion blender, I more or less followed the method I found on this blog.. 

But I found that:

1)      I had to add a fair amount of oil right at the beginning, just to get the blending started;
2)      In the end, with 2 yolks to a cup of oil, it made a much stiffer mayo than I like; I’d try it next time with a whole egg and a yolk, or maybe just the whole egg.  At any rate, it made a mayo that is NOT going to break.  EVER.

Happy spring.

Text and photographs copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Starting Now

Our local food year starts, appropriately enough, with the first upwellings of sap from the maples.  Cold and clear, only barely sweet, maple sap straight from the tree carries the flavor of a small miracle.  Through it we tap in—literally and figuratively—to a perennial process that encapsulates what it means to live and eat seasonally like nothing else.  In the fall the trees sent all their resources down into their roots, to safeguard them through the long dormant season.  As days grow longer to the equinox’s tipping point, and the thaw-freeze cycle starts and continues, the trees call up that liquid food—it’s used to make leaves that enable to trees to utilize the sun’s energy, to make more leaves, to make seeds that make more trees, all of it cyclical, like the seasons, endless rise and fall and rise again.

We intercept the sap as it travels—simple enough, drill a little hole, stick in a tap, or spile, hang a bucket or a bag, collect sap, and when you have a quantity cook it down until most of the water is gone, all the sweetness remains.  Homemade maple syrup has qualities of terroir (the French term most often applied to wine), I believe; especially when the syrup is infused with traces of smoke from a fire stoked with wood from the same hillside where the maple trees grow.  All maple syrup is good; maple syrup from your own trees is both good and meaningful, and deeply satisfying.

I’ve been pretty slackardly in keeping up Trout Caviar for the last couple of years.  This year I’m going to make an effort to get back on top of it and document a year in local food from where we sit, at Bide-A-While just down the road from Bide-A-Wee in northern Dunn County, township of Wilson just southeast of Ridgeland, Wisconsin.  Starting now.  I tapped three maple trees today; the sap had not yet started to run.  But conditions over the next week and more look perfect--highs near 50, lows in the 20s.  It will be flowing very soon.

Lily found a really nice stick.  So awesome.


Mary made tartlets today, very local in nature, and appropriate to the early spring theme.  She wanted to test the recipe for the Maple Madness Cook-Off that's part of the Hungry Turtle Weekend program  of classes and cooking demos happening in Amery next weekend, March 13-14.  The tarts use maple syrup, dried apples from our trees, Wisconsin hickory nuts, dried cranberries.

The original recipe was for something called Ecclefechan tarts—it came along with a knitting pattern Mary bought a while back, Ecclefechan being a town in Scotland.  We’ve changed it up enough to make it our own.  We made these for a dinner/class at the Palate kitchen store in Stockholm, WI last spring, and came up with a fancy little accompaniment, the chevre maple cream, as below.  The tartness of the chevre works nicely against the sweetness of the tarts, but regular whipped cream would be great, too.  Or just eat them plain, with a cup o' tea.

Hickory Nut & Maple Tart(let)s with Dried Fruit
Makes 8 four-inch tarts or 24 tartlets

200 grams (1 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
120 grams (1 stick; or 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
Water if needed (Mary has found that water is usually needed, up to 1/4 cup; start adding 1 tablespoon at a time)

Cut the butter into ½-inch pieces and rub it into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugars and the salt, mixing well. Stir in the egg yolk and mix well. If the mixture is crumbly, add cold water a tablespoon at a time until you can form a dough that holds together. Knead very briefly, just so all the ingredients are well combined. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

50 grams (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
50 grams (3 tablespoons) maple syrup
100 grams (7 tablespoons; or a stick minus 1 tablespoon) butter
1 egg
50 grams (1/2 cup) ground almonds
50 grams (1/2 cup) coarsely chopped hickory nuts (or substitute walnuts, pecans, or almonds)
30 grams (1/2 cup, packed) dried apples, chopped
60 grams (generous ½ cup) dried cranberries
1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine the sugar, salt, syrup, and butter in a small saucepan, and place on low heat until the butter melts. Add the fruits and nuts and let this mixture cool for several minutes, then mix in the egg.

Roll the pastry out into a layer about 1/6-inch thick. Cut rounds appropriate to the pans you're using--mini tart pans, muffin tins, etc. Fit the pastry rounds into the pans, fill 1/2 full.

Bake at 375 until the pastry is golden brown and the filling brown and nicely puffed up. Depending on the the size of the tarts, this will take 25 to 30 minutes. Check after 15 minutes, then every 5 minutes until they're done.  Serve with chevre maple cream, plain whipped cream, a slice of sharp aged gouda or cheddar, or just a cup of tea.

Chevre Maple Cream

2 oz fresh chèvre, at room temperature
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup unsweetened whipped cream

Combine the chèvre and syrup, and mixing with a fork until well blended. Fold in the whipped cream. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Local, Seasonal, and Above All, Delicious: Farm Table Restaurant in Amery

[Update: As of February 20, 2015, Roger and Elsah Payne are no longer involved with Farm Table, I'm very sorry to say.]

For the December issue of the Hay River Review, a monthly newspaper covering the northern Dunn County and southern Barron County area, more or less, I did an article/review on a marvelous new restaurant in Amery, Farm Table.  I've been doing these restaurant articles since last spring; I focus on places I like, spots that are, as I think of it, better than they need to be, in an area where chain restaurants and Sysco cooking rule, and it can be pretty hard to find fresh, well prepared food when dining out.  I'll start putting my reviews up here on a regular basis, and post the other reviews from 2014, as well.  Who knows, if you're traveling through beautiful western Wisconsin, they might come in handy.  At any rate, I'm delighted to have this opportunity to showcase the work of people who are doing something out of the ordinary in our rural dining scene.

So, Farm Table article below, with additional comments, since I'm not restrained here by my print edition word limit, in italics.  In full disclosure, I must note that I have a relationship with Hungry Turtle Farm, with which Farm Table is associated, having taught cooking and foraging classes there.  So I know all the principals involved in Farm Table, though I have no ties to the restaurant itself.

Amery is about an hour's drive from the Twin Cities.

Farm Table is a new restaurant in Amery that serves fresh, flavorful food made almost entirely from ingredients supplied by local organic farms.  Head chef Roger Payne describes his cooking as comfort food, but that’s an extremely modest way to describe the complex flavors his kitchen coaxes out of local, seasonal produce, and the thoughtful presentations that make many of Farm Table’s dishes equally pleasing to the palate and the eye.

Farm Table co-owner Peter Henry; Kari Wenger, sadly, was OOT.

Farm Table is owned by Kari Wenger and Peter Henry, who also run Hungry Turtle Farm and Learning Center. And the restaurant is part of a larger, visionary endeavor, what Wenger and Henry have dubbed a “food hub.”  Based in a former Chevrolet dealership on Keller Avenue, Amery’s main drag, the 12,000 square-foot structure also houses a community kitchen and a distribution center for a cooperative comprised of those same local farms that supply the Farm Table kitchen.

Roger and wife Elsah Payne are Farm Table’s general managers.  While Roger runs the kitchen, Elsah manages the front of the house and HR duties, and does much of the restaurant’s baking.  By baking I don’t mean the odd batch of cookies or a pie here and there, for Farm Table is rather fanatically devoted to the idea of scratch cooking, and all their breads, buns, scones, even English muffins, are produced in-house.  And yes, there are cookies, which are excellent, and I can’t go another moment without mentioning the cupcakes, chocolate and vanilla with real buttercream frosting, which are out of this world. [I say this as someone who does not chase after cupcakes; the Farm Table version is in a league of its own.]

Other items produced in-house are mayonnaise, ketchup, and salad dressings.  The last time I talked to Elsah, she was making her own evaporated milk for Thanksgiving pumpkin pies.  Something about the canned stuff did not please her; she did not seem to think the extra work was much of a bother.

If you eat your salad, you can have a cupcake.

That level of dedication to quality runs through everything Farm Table does.  The small but thoughtful menu, offered at brunch/lunch from Wednesday to Saturday, and at dinner Friday and Saturday evenings, features soups, salads, sandwiches, a burrito, a “farmers bowl”, pot pies and stews.  The concept is not earth-shaking, but the combination of superb local ingredients and impeccable kitchen technique is rare to find in rural Wisconsin, and frankly, would stand out pretty much anywhere. [The farmers bowl is going to be a Farm Table staple; it's a changing combination of some kind of starch, whether rice, lentils, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, with a mess of roasted vegetables, some cheese, meat such as pulled pork, an egg. Simple, fresh, satisfying.]

Egg & bacon sandwich on house-made English muffin; best fries in western Wisconsin, with house ketchup; heirloom tomato soup with cheesy toast; one fine burger in back.

My wife, Mary, and I have eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Farm Table, and we’ve enjoyed every meal.  Some standout dishes have been a hoagie roll stuffed with meatballs at once light and substantial, in a perfectly balanced tomato sauce, and squash soup with enough squash flavor to make you feel virtuous, rich enough to have you scraping your spoon on the bottom of the bowl.  The Farm Table salad is an exquisite composition of tender local spinach garnished (bejeweled, I’m tempted to say) with roasted delicata squash and golden beets, feta cheese, radish slices, and toasted pumpkin seeds—sadly, the salad will only be available as long as local spinach is, but I can’t wait to see what they come up with to replace it.

Farm Table front counter; Kayla Frankson at left.

The burger of grass-fed beef, ground in-house, is simply the best burger I’ve had outside my own home, and I take my burgers seriously.  Pick your topping: jalapeno chile and cheddar cheese; bacon, lettuce, and tomato jam; or mushroom and swiss.  At $9 for the burger and another $2.95 for an order of superb hand-cut French fries, it’s one of the pricier burgers in the area, to be sure.  But here’s the thing:  the Farm Table burger and fries taste like real, delicious, nourishing food, not like grease and regret.  To me it’s more than worth the money.

House-ground grass-fed beef on their own bun, local organic spinach, house mayo, pickles; sharp Wisconsin cheddar, jalapeno; a seriously good burger.

Dinner main courses on a recent Friday included bacon-studded mac & cheese, seared Lake Superior herring with hand-cut potato chips, and a pulled pork sandwich ($12 to $16).  While Farm Table keeps the ingredients local, the menu is far from provincial.  One recent entrée of chicken enchiladas in a green chili sauce, complex and just a little piquant, showed off Roger’s southwestern background.  Risotto is a regular feature on the dinner menu.

Brunch fans will find plenty to like at Farm Table.  The egg sandwich on that homemade English muffin is a savory delight. The breakfast platter of egg, potatoes, toast, choice of bacon or pulled pork, is a bargain at $7.50. Mary and I were delighted one morning to share a sourdough waffle ($6) topped with aronia (chokeberry) syrup, real Wisconsin maple syrup, and a dollop of whipped cream that most assuredly did not come out of a can. 

I have not loved everything I’ve eaten at Farm Table.  The Brussels sprouts and kale salad one night required too much chewing of the beyond al dente kale.  Chicken pot pie, served in a pretty bowl and topped with a perfectly golden, buttery pastry lid, was not hot enough, and the filling, though flavorful, was a rather shreddy stew, not the distinct chunks of chicken and vegetables in rich gravy that I think makes for an excellent pot pie.  At lunch one day the oxtail stew, while warm, comforting, and deeply flavored, was a little one-note—a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette helped to perk it up.
Farm Table employee Kelly Kjeseth wears the restaurant's philosophy on her back.

But these are quibbles; the pot pie and stew were only lesser in comparison to the high level that Farm Table usually achieves, and in neither case did we leave any food on the plate. [Roger came by to chat the night we had dinner at Farm Table, and he noticed the uneaten kale on our plate; he agreed that it seemed chewier than recent versions of the salad, and that they might start massaging the kale with dressing prior to serving.  They had gone to serving the dressing on the side after several customers requested it that way.  But, the customer isn't always right (well, those customers weren't(!)).  One of the things that distinguishes the Farm Table approach is how extraordinarily accommodating the kitchen and front of house staff are.  Everyone really, truly wants patrons to enjoy the food, and the whole experience.]

Farm Table’s dining room is simply gorgeous, impressive and welcoming at once, a neat trick of thoughtful design.  The soaring ceilings are lined with homey corrugated metal sheeting; rough posts and beams and black metal accents keep the mood unpretentious, and the sun flooding in through big square windows on the south and west sides paints the room in soothing autumnal light.  [Outside the south windows is a courtyard that was created by taking a building down.  It's closed for the season, of course, but those al fresco tables are going to be a hot ticket when summer brunch season rolls around.]

[Farm Table's "beverage program" (as I think they say in the restaurant biz) is perfectly suited to the food, and delightful in its own right. The beer list features a nice variety of lesser known regional brews, all $5.  There are just three wines, two red one white, at $6 for a 5-ounce pour.  The coffee is excellent, True Stone out of Minneapolis; espresso and the like are also available.  The Rishi teas, Milwaukee, come in wonderful, unexpected combinations (like blueberry rooibos), and are served in darling little glass pots.  All the appealing drink choices, along with the bakery case offerings and lots of nosh-able menu items, make Farm Table a terrific place to linger and sip; if it were a little closer, I'd make it my winter office....]

It would take another article at least twice this long to really do justice to the story that led up to Farm Table’s creation.  Here is the “Cliff Notes” version:

Peter Henry was a high school and community college teacher in the Twin Cities area in the mid-90s when, in his words, “events conspired to eject me into the universe.”  He moved from teaching into the alternative energy industry, an area in which he’d had a long-time interest.  Previously, he had happened upon and purchased a cabin on the Apple River near Amery; that property would become the nucleus of Hungry Turtle Farm.

Trick-or-treaters roamed downtown Amery on the Saturday after Halloween.

Kari Wenger grew up in the Owatonna, MN area with a lifelong interest in nature and the outdoors.  As an adult she went to work for her family’s business, Wenger Corporation, which makes products for music and theater education.  Her earthier interests led her to purchase a farm near Owatonna, where she grew herbs for restaurants, and then to a cabin near Ely, MN.  Eventually she sold her interest in the family business and turned her full attention to creating a legacy of healthy soil and sustainable farming.

Peter and Kari met in 2008, married a couple of years later.  In 2010 they purchased the main Hungry Turtle Farm property, and began planning the food hub concept.  As Peter puts it, small organic farms are “dear, but vulnerable.”  The Amery food hub project aims to make these kinds of farms less vulnerable by providing business support, creating markets, and helping with distribution.  Some of the farms that are part of the Hungry Turtle co-op, and supply provisions to the Farm Table kitchen, are Bull Brook Keep, Beaver Creek Ranch, Turnip Rock, Black Brook, Seed to Seed, 13 Acres, and Red Wheelbarrow farms. 

The Paynes followed even more circuitous routes to arrive in Amery.  Elsah grew up in central Wisconsin,  where her family grew much of their own food, even made their own cheese—Elsah learned to milk goats at an early age. That early appreciation of where really good food comes from led her to pursue a culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu institute in Dover, NH.  It was there that she met Roger, who had worked his way up from the Taco Bell kitchen at the age of 14, through a stint as a medical corpsman in the navy, to studying at Le Cordon Bleu.  Originally from New Mexico, Roger also spent time close to the land as a child, on his grandfather’s ranch.  From New Hampshire Roger and Elsah followed jobs to Florida, New Mexico, and Florida again, starting a family along the way.

By the time they came to audition for the Farm Table job, Roger was a stay-at-home dad, caring for the new-born Chloe (now 1 ½); the Payne family also includes another daughter, Esme, 8, and son Maddox, 11.  Elsah, meanwhile, had become the culinary manager, producer, and senior food stylist for the Home Shopping Network.  Her duties there included working with celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck.  After over a decade building their careers, though, they came to realize that the road they were on in Florida was, if not a total dead end, at least a stifling cul-de-sac.

Although it seems almost impossibly serendipitous, the Paynes learned about the Amery opportunity by Googling key words like Wisconsin-farm-to-table.  That search turned up the Hungry Turtle job listing, and the rest is what I really believe will be history in the making for the western Wisconsin restaurant world.  But you won’t hear that kind of grandiose talk from the Farm Table staff.  “We’re taking food from here, cooking it, and giving it to people,” Elsah said.  Or in Roger’s words, “If you care about flavors and you like the way something tastes, maybe somebody else will, too.”

The care that goes into Farm Table’s cooking is evident in many ways; I think lots and lots of people are going to like it.

Farm Table is located at 110 Keller Avenue, Amery, WI 54001.  Telephone 715-268-4500. Website,  ; on Twitter @ameryfarmtable

More about Hungry Turtle Farm and Learning Center at

Hours:  Wednesday & Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (drink specials after 4 p.m., dinner served 5 p.m. on)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Our New Kitchen

We've just finished our first major kitchen renovation ever, a back-to-studs (and, in fact, logs) affair, with all new cabinets, counters, sink and faucet, and appliances--including a vent hood, which was, in a sense, the impetus for the whole thing.  It started when we ripped the old drop tile ceiling down in a fit of cabin fever last winter, went into high gear late last summer, and culminated in a furious push during the first three weeks of October.  All in all, it went pretty well; we only had to do dishes in the bathroom sink and bathtub for those last three weeks.  We learned a lot of things we may never get to chance to apply again, and one invaluable lesson applicable in many situations, to wit:  if you do your own contracting, you may find that your contractors are idiots.  We did, and we did.

The old oak "chef's table" is a kind of bridge between the old and new kitchens; it was all we cared to save.

But now that it's (mostly, except for some cosmetic touches) finished and fully functional, and I can stand in front of the big new casement window looking out on the woods and hayfield hill, and lovingly pat the chic, eco-friendly Paperstone countertops (gunmetal), see the autumn light softly burnishing the cherry cabinets, glinting dully off the international array of stainless appliances (from Germany, New Zealand, and the U.S. of A.), I feel completely happy about how it turned out, and I feel, almost, like a grown-up, almost.  The day the cabinets (custom built by the awesome Bruce Schley out of Cedar Falls, but really reasonably priced) arrived, I called Mary, who was at work in the cities, and I said:  Honey, we have a problem; Bruce is here with the cabinets, and they're too nice for us....

The almost original kitchen; we have the wood floor installed, replacing white vinyl, before we moved in.

The new kitchen is especially amazing in contrast with what we inherited when we bought the house.  It's a nice big room, about 15 feet square, so plenty of space to work with.  But in the old kitchen everything--cabinets, sink, range--was lined up down one wall, dead-ending in a weird cul-de-sac created by a chimney, and the huge refrigerator was exiled to a distant corner of the room.  The cabinets were painted a cheery red, which helped to disguise, at least for a while, the fact that the cupboard and drawer fronts were a mish-mash of "styles," to put it nicely.  The best of the drawers were Menard's cheapest, and the worst featured wood-on-wood construction that resulted in a shower of fine sawdust raining down on everything in the cabinet below.  The counters weren't really secured to the cabinets, making vegetable chopping and bread kneading a kind of seasick experience.  The less said about the cheap electric range, where the plastic around the vent opening had melted, that kept whatever oven temp it damn well pleased, depending on its mood of the day, the better.

Indeed, enough about the bad old days.  Here's a run-down of what we did, and why, in hopes that it might be useful if you're planning a kitchen re-do someday.  And yeah, also just to show off, for sure.

We took kind of a total flyer on the countertops, which was crazy because they weren't cheap, and once they're there, they're there.  We love them. They're Paperstone, made from recycled paper bound with some miracle resin, hard as stone!  We came across them while browsing at Natural Built Home in Minneapolis.  The usual stone and composite countertop materials didn't thrill us, so we went to check out the bamboo and other recycled material surfaces at Natural Built Home, and found ourselves instead drawn to the warm matte finish of the Paperstone.  We contacted the company, ordered some samples, and said yeah, let's do it.  Paperstone, what the hell.  Our cabinet guy Bruce (a genius, did I say?) said he could cut it to size for us, so we had a 5' x 12' by 1" thick slab shipped directly to him.  It weighed over 600 pounds; luckily, Bruce has a skid steer.  The 60 square feet was way more than we needed, but getting the 5 x 12 sheet meant he could cut two L shapes to go on either side of the sink, so no seams.  Very cool.  Bruce testified to the hardness of the Paperstone material; it ruined every saw and router blade in his shop....

The sink has a story.  It is from Turkey, via Ikea.  Mary got interested in apron-front "farmhouse" sinks; I said, fine.  I wanted white after many years of stainless sinks.  The Ikea "domsjo" sink was less than half the price of similar sinks from Kohler and the like.  I went to the Twin Cities Ikea to pick one up.  It was out of stock, they didn't know when or if they were getting more.  Could they order one from another store?  No.  Could I buy it online?  No.  Would they sell me one of the display models (there were at least three on the floor)?  Negatory, good buddy.  Thanks for all the help, Ikea.

Back home, I did some research and found that an Ikea store just north of Chicago, in Schaumberg, had several in stock.  I called to see if I could buy it and have it shipped.  Nope.  Would they set one aside for me, so if we made the long drive (about 5 hours each way), we wouldn't arrive to find them sold out?  Well, they could set it aside if I bought it.  So, great, I'll buy it (whip out the Visa, ready to reel off the numbers).  But, they can't take phone orders.  For real?  The mighty Ikea cannot take a credit card phone order?  So they would set it aside if I bought it first, but I had to come to the store, which is, as I mentioned, just north of Chicago, to buy it.  And then why would I need them to set it aside...?  Thanks for all the help, Ikea!

If it seems insane to spend all day in the car just to get a kitchen sink, then you're probably someone who hasn't been through a project like this, and doesn't fully understand what I've come to call Decision Fatigue Syndrome (DFS).  This is a phenomenon reached at that point in a project when so many decisions have already been made, then unmade, remade, almost made, reneged upon, reconsidered, decided again, etc., that rather than having to make a brand new decision about, say, a freaking kitchen sink, you are more than willing to spend a full day in the car, including dealing with crazy traffic on the under-construction-for-40-miles Illinois tollway.  That's what DFS does to you.  Driving to Chicago, at least, was a finite task, over when it was over, and no more decisions to make on that front.  And yes, it was insane.

Here's an interesting thing about apron front sinks:  It's not just a cosmetic difference from the usual inset sinks.  There's actually a big size difference.  I measured.  Our old sink, a typical size from, you know, Menard's (nothing against Menard's, we're there like every other day...), measured 33 inches wide.  The new sink which looks huge, is 36 inches wide.  So, less than 10 per cent wider.  But the area of the sink basins themselves, get this, is more than 35 per cent larger.  Yes, amazing.  You can do the math yourself:  the old sink basins were 14" by 15", or 210 square inches per; new sink 15.5" by 18.5", about 287 square inches.  The difference is very apparent when you're washing stuff up in there, very spacious.  Right, enough sink geekery.

Ceiling before.

One of the biggest conundrums we faced had to do with the ceiling, which, as I said, is where we started down the rabbit hole of deconstruction.  White acoustic tiles with canister lighting, and low enough that even a shortish person could easily reach up and touch it.  Oppressive.  We knew it had to come down, and so, last January I think it was, with our friend Martha visiting and egging us on, we started pulling the tiles down, and then the one-by wood pieces that the tiles were attached to.  We had hoped to find rustic floor joists that we could clean up, paint, and leave exposed, to give an added sense of height to the kitchen ceiling.  We did find rustic floor joists--which had all been fortified with additional 2-by-6s and assorted strips of plywood glued to the old joists and also secured with a million nails.  Not so attractive.

The reason for all the retrofitting is that the original floor joists are 2-by-6s on 24-inch centers; not a lot of support there.  Even with all that additional wood tacked on the stiffen them, the upstairs floor feels a bit spongy in places.  We consulted a couple of reliable sources for an opinion about whether we could remove some of the seemingly haphazard reinforcements, and everyone said:  leave it be.  Thus, covering up the joists became the only option.  We enlisted our friends Mike and Pat Robertson to do that work, and they did a terrific job (they also installed the new window, and put skylights in our upstairs the summer before; they are very accustomed to cutting holes in our house).  These "beams" remain somewhat unfinished.  We were originally thinking to paint them, but now we're leaning toward staining them, or just giving them a clear-coat type finish.

With track lighting tucked up between the "beams," we have plenty of light without the blanket effect of typical overhead lighting.  The lights above the counter are on one switch, the lights on the other side of the room on another, with dimmers on each.  Dealing with the ceiling seemed one of the most daunting aspects of the projects, and it turned out splendidly, a real team effort.

The cabinets, as I said, are natural cherry with a clear satin finish.  They will darken gradually.  Doors and drawers are inset.  They have this "soft-close" system so you close them partway, and then they close themselves the rest of the way.  Nice, I said to Bruce, but can they make sawdust, like our old ones did?  He said he could bring me some sawdust to sprinkle here and there, when I found myself missing the old drawers.  I don't miss them, yet.  Bruce's work is just exquisite; he even used cherry plywood on the cabinet  backs and drawer bottoms.

We love our fridge.  It's weird to write that, but it's true.  It's a Fisher & Paykel, from New Zealand, counter-depth, only about 17 cubic feet but so well designed, it doesn't seem small, at all.  We stumbled upon it at an appliance store in the cities.

The salesman had shown us a number of other much larger fridges, with lots of bells and whistles, and we were still undecided.  He had gone to print up some information for us, and while we waited, we wandered, and found this sleek little fridge.  When the salesman came back we were still admiring the F & P, and we said, Hey, what about this one?  He said, Oh, that one.  Nice fridge, small.  I sell a lot of those to old people from Saint Paul.  And we said, Dude! We are old people from Saint Paul!  This is the fridge for us!

We like that the shelves go all the way across, rather than being split shelves with center brackets to impede moving things around, and that the crisper and freezer drawers come out really easily for cleaning.  We like the shallow storage areas on the door, so things fit snugly and don't rattle around and fall down when you open and close the door, as they did in the old fridge.  That it's not as deep as a regular fridge means you can see right to the back, so stuff is much less likely to disappear back there and turn into runaway science projects.  The freezer has a shallow center drawer just for ice cubes trays, or other shallow items (the other day I froze a bunch of steamed buns in one layer, on parchment paper, before moving them into a plastic storage bag).

Mike and Pat and the Mike 2 putting up drywall.

Dishwasher is a German Miele brand, same thing we had in Saint Paul, and we liked it, so that was an easy decision.  The most interesting thing about it is that I got it by bidding in a radio auction put on by a Rice Lake station.  I put in the minimum bid at 8:00 in the morning, listened to the radio for five hours, and got the dishwasher for less than half retail price.  The strange thing is that this was exactly the dishwasher we were going to buy for full price, and it just happened to come up in this auction, and I think there was only one other dishwasher in the auction.  So, these things happen, sometimes, I guess.

The range is a Dacor dual-fuel, meaning electric oven and gas cooktop, also replacing what we had in Saint Paul.  We considered all options, knowing that we wanted dual-fuel, as I'm convinced that an electric oven is better for bread baking.  The Wolf and other high-end "pro" models were a little too industrial for me, though Dacor has also gone more in that direction since we purchased our previous range, a dozen or so years ago.  Also no one could really explain to me what we were getting, above and beyond the capacities of the Dacor, for the couple grand extra.  Dacor sometimes gets knocked for not being that reliable, but we used our old Dacor range brutally during our Real Bread stint, and while we did have to make some repairs, it didn't seem out of line given the years of hard use it took.  I am thrilled to be able to bring out the wok again, to have an oven that gets to temperature fast and accurately.  The convection feature is nice, though we never really used it that much on the old range.

The door is very heavy; the whole thing is heavy, well insulated.  At some level an oven is just a hot box, but I've quickly rediscovered that not all hot boxes are created equal.

And finally, one of the coolest things that happened in the course of making our kitchen all shiny and new was discovering, and uncovering, its original bones.  We had gradually become aware that the nucleus of our house was an old log cabin, probably built in the late 1800s.  As we started removing drywall in the kitchen, it became clear that this room was that cabin.  On the east, outside wall, we found that the logs had been mostly removed and replaced with a 2-by-6 stud wall, leaving just the topmost log as a support beam.  On the interior west and south walls, the old logs were still there.  They're partially coated with what looks like flaking whitewash.  There are, for some reason, a million small nails pounded into them.  Most of the chinking is gone.

In the southwest corner of the room, you can see where the notched logs meet, forming a kind of pillar, and that, amazingly enough, is what is still holding our house up to this day.  In the course of the deconstruction we removed and saved a few old, square-cut nails from the ceiling.  I smacked a couple of these into cracks in the logs, and used them to hang our cast-iron pans and the wok (which has come out of retirement now that we have gas to cook over again, hooray!).

Overall, though there were stressful moments, and the whole thing unfolded over many months, the period of real inconvenience was fairly brief, and the results are beyond all expectations.  We need to pick up some cherry trim from Bruce for the window and a door frame, and do a few more finishing touches.  We've been slowed down on that because, just as the final practical work was being done, the plumber connecting the sink and dishwasher, and running gas to the kitchen for the range, I got sick, and Mary followed suit, as if, with the final decisions and purchases made, and no more phone calls to coordinate and schedule all the various aspects of the work, we let our defenses down, and germs rushed in....  At least we had a really nice place to cook up a pot of chicken broth to comfort our sniffles and sore throats.

I made this!  This new, yet rustic (thanks to my rustic woodworking skills) shelf unit tucks in along the side of the wood furnace chimney.

Looking from the new to the old; also note volunteer squash/pumpkin harvest on counter in messy laundry room....

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Brett Laidlaw