Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bide-A-Wee Confit ( X 2)

I don't know why we don't eat more duck in this country. In both Europe and Asia duck is a common sight in markets and on restaurant menus. When I taught English in China in 1989-90, duck was cheaper than chicken, more readily available than beef or lamb. What French bistro or brasserie doesn't feature magret or confit de canard on its menu, or a seared slab or paté of foie gras, a salad topped with preserved gizzards and hearts?

A well-raised duck offers the dark, succulent meat that gourmands adore, and the pleasures of game without having to shoot something. Everyone I know loves duck, so why don't we see it more often?

Oh, it just came to me: It's the fat.

As we became a nation of skinless-boneless-chicken-breast eaters, as all the flavor was drained out of commercially raised pork in the fat-phobic decades that preceded the anti-carb movement, as even our beloved American hamburgers turned dry and dull with the move to extra-lean ground beef (do not even get me started on turkey burgers!)...well, what was a duck to do? With all that dark, dense meat enrobed in noble fat, encased in gorgeous yellow skin, there was no way the duck could pass itself off as "the other white meat," or pretend in any way to be lean cuisine.

A duck must be a duck, and it's a shame we can't accept it for what it is. Fortunately, more and more people are now doing that. Perhaps the ultimate acceptance of canard-comme-canard is to face its fattiness full on, and that means confit de canard--duck legs cooked in duck fat. When I say cooked, I mean poached, immersed, completely submerged in rendered duck fat. This does not mean you have to eat a bowl of duck fat, though it's tempting.

Making a confit of fatty meat--usually duck, goose, or pork--is actually an ancient means of preserving meat. The meat was first salted quite heavily, then cooked slowly in fat, and finally sealed in jars, completely covered in fat. With the salt preventing bacteria growth, and the fat protecting the meat from air-borne contaminants, the confit would keep for months.

Following the counsel of Madeleine Kamman in In Madeleine's Kitchen I make a confit of duck legs that focuses more on flavor than preservation, though even this less salty version will keep for at least a couple of weeks.

Here in the Twin Cities, we're lucky to have a great, reliable source for nice meaty duck legs from Au Bon Canard, a foie gras and duck producer in southwestern Minnesota. We find Au Bon Canard products at Clancey's Meats and Fish, a local treasure run by Kristin Tombers. Clancey's doesn't seem to have a website--Kristin, why don't you have website? Clancey's is located in the Linden Hills neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis, 4307 Upton Avenue South, 612-926-0222. If you haven't yet aquired a supply of duck fat for making confit, Kristin and crew can set you up with that. If you want to try confit without making your own, you can buy Clancey's' house-made version, and I'm sure you'll be very happy.

Once you have the fat, though, making duck confit is simple. And you get to keep the fat, which is the best thing ever for sautéeing potatoes. It keeps indefinitely in the freezer, and even gets better with age, as it acquires the flavors of the successive confits you cook in it.

One of the things that makes Madeleine's confit (and hence, yours and mine) the best you'll ever taste is the spice mix, quatre-épices, which flavors it. This will make enough for many confits, and is good with other duck, game, or pork preparations:

Quatre-épices a la Madeleine

2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp ground cloves

Just mix it all up and keep in a tightly closed jar in a dark place. A little goes a long way. (Yes, the name means "four spices," and it contains six spices; I have no explanation for this.)

Now to make the confit:

4 meaty duck legs, thigh and drumstick together--if you have gizzards, hearts, wings, or necks, use those, too; the giblets and shreddy meat are great on a dinner salad

Fat to cover, about four cups (it needn't be absolutely submerged as it cooks; the legs do tend to float somewhat, and you can turn them a couple of times in the cooking)

salt and pepper
garlic, eight to ten cloves, peeled and left whole
a couple of bay leaves
fresh thyme, optional

A day before you make the confit, you must salt and spice it: Dry the legs with paper towels, then salt them. I don't use a particular amount of salt. What I do is, salt them once as you would season any kind of meat prior to cooking, but don't be mean with the salt, season them well. Now do that again, and then once more. Do that on both sides. Add a generous grind of black pepper, then just a judicious sprinkling of the spice mixture, both sides. The legs shouldn't be coated with the spices, just nicely speckled.

Cover them and place them in the fridge overnight, or for a couple of days, even. Prior to cooking, drain off any accumulated juices, and dry the legs with paper towels.

Heat your oven to 275 F. Arrange the legs in a single layer in a casserole or heavy pot large enough to hold legs and fat, without the fat coming right to the brim (I use our seven-quart Le Creuset dutch oven). Spread the garlic cloves around, and the bay leaves and thyme if you're using it. Cover the duck with the fat, but, as I say, don't worry if the legs broach the surface a bit--they will shrink with cooking, and also give off their own fat to add to the reservoir.

Cook for two to three hours, covered, turning the legs once or twice during that time. I look for the fat to be clear and bubbling at the end--it will cloud as juices come off the duck. Those juices will settle at the bottom of the pan, and you'll want to save them--they're a bit salty, but absolutely delicious.

Let the duck cool in the fat. You can use it the same day, or store it for a couple of weeks. Prior to cooking, dig the duck out of the fat and let it sit at room temp for excess fat to melt off. Then what I like to do is either fry or broil it to crisp the skin and warm the meat through.

Here's one preparation we made at Bide-A-Wee, our tiny, rustic Wisconsin cabin:

We browned the legs in the dutch oven, took them out and removed all but a tablespoon or two of fat, added some chopped onion and garlic, then some of the mixed sauerkraut of cabbage, beets, and carrots I made in the fall, rinsed, drained, squeezed dry. A little of that delicious fond saved from the bottom of the confit pan, and just a splash of water. That all simmered very gently atop the woodstove. Just before serving we added back the duck to warm, and some fingerling potatoes we had boiled separately. It made for a very pleasant table.

A couple of weeks later we were back at the cabin over Christmas, and we brought out the other two legs from the same batch of confit. This time we served it with a mixed mash of market and garden vegetables--carrots, parsnips, potatoes, celery root. Those were all peeled, cut up and boiled until tender but not falling apart. After browning the confit I left a bit of fat in the pan, sautéed a chopped leek and a couple cloves of chopped garlic in that, added the vegetables and a ladle of reserved veg-cooking liquid, and mashed it with a fork. Serve the duck right on top of the mash.

That wine, a Graves from Vieux Chateau Gaubert, 2000, was fantastic. It had been sitting around in our basement for at least a couple of years, I think. Red Graves wines are not the first thing I think of when I think of Bordeaux, but they're often very good, and a good value.

Really cuts through all that yummy ducky fat.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 29, 2008

Calling All Locavores

Please share with us your highlights of local, seasonal food in 2008--the products, producers, farmers' markets and CSAs; ways of growing, preparing, or preserving food; chefs and restaurants, cookbooks, and the like. You can leave your remarks in the "Comments" section below, or email me at , and I'll put your comments in digest form. Let me know if it's okay to use your name, and tell me where you're from. Doesn't matter where you're from, by the way. We're eager to hear from local, seasonal food fanatics from across the country and around the world.

I'll be putting together my list, which will probably take a few installments to do it justice. One of my favorite cookbooks of the year is shown above, Beyond Nose to Tail, by Fergus Henderson , who runs the acclaimed St John restaurant in London. The book is a treat to page through, beautifully designed and illustrated with wonderful photographs. The recipes are straightforward, allowing plenty of leeway for individual expression in their realization.

And though Henderson is famous for putting all parts of the pig into play in the kitchen, this book goes, well, beyond the trotters and snouts and ears and tails, beyond the abattoir entirely. In fact, of the three recipes I've prepared from it so far, two have been vegetarian--Welsh rarebit, a dish I've always wanted to try, and a salad of shredded raw beets, red cabbage, and red onions with creme fraiche. I'll post a fuller book report in future.

Meantime, please do tell us about your favorite local food experiences of 2008. We wish you many more, and all the best, in the year to come.

p.s.~In the upper left corner of the photo is one of my favorite breakfasts of the year, a remnant of Mary's Breton butter cake, kouign amann, made with our best local butter from the Hope Creamery in Hope, Minnesota.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

We Have a Bowl of Kale Called "Sideshow Bob"...

...and a bucket of leeks we think of as...well, I imagine you can guess. To me, the resemblance to another distinctively coifed TV show character is uncanny.

I was embarrassed to admit, in a previous post, that our "root cellar" actually consisted of various boxes, baskets, and bins haphazardly strewn around our basement. But now I'm happy to report that I've since revved up my resolve, charged into the vegetable chaos, and put things in order.

We have a great spot for a root cellar, a closet space that opens into a half crawl space, half dirt-floored cellar area that we call "the dungeon." I had originally thought to put the storage shelf right in the dungeon, but it was way too scary in there--dank, cobwebby. I settled for the adjacent closet, where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees.

That should be fine for the potatoes, onions, garlic, and squash. I should have bought more onions, I realize. There's no way we're getting through the winter on what we have.

The other part of the root cellaring operation is the second fridge we have in the basement. We got it to hold extra baking supplies--case of butter, a few dozen eggs, extra bottles of buttermilk, etc. For the late fall and winter it's where we keep carrots, parsnips, apples, cabbage, 'kraut. (That's a jar of fermented baby eggplants in the gallon jar, back right; a very spur-of-the-moment attempt to save some produce that was a couple days away from the compost pile. I haven't gotten up the nerve to try them yet.)

To extend the harvest here in the frozen north, we've used root cellaring, freezing, drying, fermenting, pickling, and cold frames. One method we had not considered was hydroponic gardening, but we seem to have stumbled into that this year.

The "Sideshow Bob" kale pictured above is the tops of several lacinato kale plants we had in our community garden plot. They'd been sitting in plastic bags in the cool garage, and when I pulled them out they were looking a bit wilted. I put them in water in the big stainless bowl, and they perked right up.

That was some weeks ago. They stayed right perky in their bowl by the kitchen sink, and we've just been pulling off a few leaves as we need them. When I was changing the water in the bowl one day, I noticed that those snapped-off kale tops were actually starting to take root, and new growth was sprouting from the center.

This is not a great picture, but I think you can see the tiny white roots at the bottom, and the new, light green leaves. I suppose I could try potting them, see if I can get them through the winter.

That's where we stand for local produce as we approach the winter solstice, 2008. January, February, and March are the toughest months for keeping local, of course. Your resources become pretty limited, but that can lead to some really creative cooking. You'll see the results right here.

p.s.~ All you Simpsons-heads out there saw the resemblance immediately, I'm sure. For the rest of you, here he is, in all his diabolical glory, Mr Robert Underdunk Terwilliger, aka, "Sideshow Bob":

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw; Sideshow Bob image copyright Fox Broadcasting Company

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bide-A-Wee Hot Pot

When the cold weather arrives and the dark comes down early, there's lots of time for cooking, and much pleasure to be taken from an evening spent in a warm kitchen. But often the simplest preparations are best, and such is the case with this sausage hot pot, which we simmered up this past weekend at our tiny Wisconsin cabin, which, in that precious manner of city folks affecting rustic ways, we have dubbed "Bide-A-Wee."

Thanks to the growers who attended our Thanksgiving market, we were able to top off the "root cellar" (really, we just have stuff sort of strewn all around the basement, and heaped up in the crisper drawers or wherever else things will fit). The leeks in this dish came from our garden; everything else was from the market.

I do like a nice bit of sausage, but you could substitute chicken for the sausage if you prefer, and cooking times will be about the same, a few minutes longer, perhaps. If I were making it with chicken, I would likely use skinless thighs, on the bone. That would give you a quick version of the classic poule au pot. Other meats would be a bit trickier in this abbreviated hot pot--a piece of beef sirloin or flank steak, or a slice of lamb leg could work, but you'd want to simmer that till just medium rare--or be prepared to cook it much longer, to get it tender again. That beef version sounds really good; I'm going to try that next time.

A vegetarian version, obviously, is an option, too. The heart of it really is the vegetables, and you could put anything you like in this dish, adjusting the cooking times as needed. Everything should be well cooked, but not mushy. Turnips, kale, kohlrabi or rutabagas, sweet potatoes, mushrooms fresh or dried, precooked dried beans--this really is adaptable to anything you have on hand.

We had lots of leftovers from this, which provided another dinner for us, back in Saint Paul. We added the classic pot-au-feu garnishes of a garlic-mustard vinaigrette and some chopped cornichons (those little sour pickles), and it really didn't seem like leftovers, at all.

Bide-A-Wee Sausage Hot Pot
serves two, with leftovers
(Our sausage was a Polish krakowska from Kramarczuk's deli, an institution in northeast Minneapolis; the hot pot cooked at a perfect simmer atop our new Four Dog woodstove, handcrafted by Don Kevilus in Saint Francis, MN.)

2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
2 small parsnips
2 small carrots
2 small leeks
1/2 a large onion
3 cloves garlic, peeled
4 to 6 small new potatoes
2 wedges cabbage, about 1 1/2 inches at the wide end
1 pound smoked sausage--Polish, keilbasa, smoked brats
salt and pepper
grain mustard

Clean up all the vegetables; peel the parsnips and carrots, if you like. Leave the potatoes in their skin. In a large pot bring the water and stock up to a simmer. Add the parsnips, carrots, leeks, onion, and garlic, and a good pinch of salt. Simmer gently, partly covered, for 15 minutes. Add the cabbage, potatoes, and sausage (sometimes I brown the sausage first in a skillet with a little oil; nice but not necessary). Simmer for 20 minutes. Check the vegetables for doneness. Continue cooking until everything is tender; if anything is getting overdone, you can take it out and just put it back for a couple of minutes at the end to re-warm. Taste for salt and add a few grinds of fresh pepper.

Serve with grain mustard, crusty bread, a glass of red wine or good beer.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Very Fine Fowl

This is the bird that changed my mind about turkey. It's an 11 1/2 pound Bourbon Red "heritage breed" from Hilltop Pastures Family Farm. That's Tom and Sara Austin, who brought turkeys and other grass-fed meats to our Thanksgiving market.

I had just about given up on the traditional Thanksgiving bird after too many anxiety-inducing turkey day experiences. There was the year we tried to grill-smoke the bird and, following a friend's stern admonitions not to even think about lifting the lid for an hour, went inside for a glass of wine. When we came back expecting to see good progress on creating a bronzed and smoky bird, we found the grill and turkey stone cold, the skin glazed with a gray film. I had forgotten to open the vents to keep a low fire going. As we stood there grimly contemplating the frigid, sooty fowl, a chunk of ice broke off from the dormer downspout, bounced off the deck overhang and hit me smack in the forehead. Ouch, I said. That's going to leave a mark. Or words to that effect.

I tried brining one year, the method du jour among turkey gurus. It did create a juicy bird--juicy with salty tap water. When I sliced the breast I was appalled by the saline flood that poured forth. Meat is not supposed to look like that. And, that salty liquid ruined the drippings for gravy, the best part of the Thanksgiving meal (well, next to the stuffing!).

And who doesn't feel a general fatigue with the annual barrage of tortured strategies to keep the breast from drying out until the legs are done, the perennial kitchen song-and-dance of Is it done yet? Is it overdone? Are those juices clear? Or are they pink? Will it be delicious? Or will we die?

But, while I don't really relish the idea of turkey dinner, others in the family do; and I like a challenge, and did relish the chance to try a pasture-raised heritage breed (that's sort of like heirloom vegetables--less standardized, old-time varieties that have been gradually phased out by commercial operations, which are now being rediscovered by small-scale producers).

Long story short, that Bourbon Red was wonderful. Seasoned with only salt and pepper, a few herbs and aromatics stuffed into the cavity (thyme, sage, celery leaves; leek, onion, carrot and garlic), it went in a 350 oven for about a half hour; it was getting nicely brown by then so I turned it down to 325 for another 45 minutes. I basted it just a couple of times with some butter melted into chicken stock. It really did cook in just an hour and fifteen minutes, and because we expected it to take considerably longer, it sat around for quite a while before we ate. Just before serving I separated the legs and breast (on the bone) from the carcass and put them in a low oven to warm a bit.

Even with that not very gentle treatment, it was great. The white meat (of which there was plenty, contrary to what some people think about heritage birds) was dense and moist and...turkey-flavored; except much more flavorful than a grocery store bird. The dark meat, off the big, meaty thighs, was something else again. Like the breast meat, it was denser and moister than is typical, with a wonderful slight gaminess that made me think of duck breast, or venison. Truly delicious, and revelatory.

I can't really say how much of that bird's qualities were the breed, and how much was due to the pasture-raising. As with all great local foods, the specifics are all-important. It's about the terroir, the place-specific taste of a thing, as well as about the skill and care of the people who produce it. Tom and Sara also brought traditional broad-breasted white turkeys to the market, and I've heard that those were unusually flavorful birds, too.

The movement in local-seasonal-sustainable foods is toward pasture-raised animals. The Austins are fans of Shannon Hayes , the author of several well received books, including The Grassfed Gourmet. Her pastured turkey cooking tips are well worth consulting next time you plan to prepare a large fowl--or just want a good laugh.

To find producers of grass-fed meats in your area, try your local farmers' market, or consult Slow Food USA's website to find a chapter near you. Here's another resource that the Austins link on their website: EatWild .

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The sun shone on our Lake Street parking lot for the Midtown Thanksgiving market, yesterday afternoon. Ever cheerful Julie doled out squashes and smiles, and from three o'clock until after dark at five-thirty there was a line for the turkeys that Tom and Sara brought up from their Hilltop Pastures Family Farm . We brought home one of their Bourbon Reds which, while I have to admit I'm not the world's biggest turkey fan, I'm looking forward to trying. I will report back (though I still don't see why steaks and shrimp are any less American than over-sized poultry...).

Jerry had lots of pickles and home-canned goods for the turkey day relish tray and sides. Sylvia, just behind him, was popular with her crocheted hats, for it was a cool sunshine. Denny Havlicek, below, was showing me his back-up heating system--a snowmobile suit.

The Vangs came with beets, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, beautiful red cabbages. I feel the need to stress this point: This is a farmers' market in Minnesota, folks, outdoors, at the end of November, and we were shopping for fresh vegetables!

We're thankful for that, and for all our market colleagues; for Laura and Alicia, our market staff who did such a great job putting it together and promoting it. Thanks to Naomi for bringing us Tom and Sara and their birds, for what's a Thanksgiving market without turkeys? And to Tom and Sara, of course; they worked really hard to make their first visit to Midtown a success, and we hope they'll be back.

Another market debut: our friend Fred and letterpress greeting cards from
Vandalia Street Press . (That's Fred in a hat Mary knitted; Mary's in the background there, in a sweater and scarf she also made, watching over a dwindling supply of Real Bread.)

Thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a great day, and to everyone who embraces the joys of local, seasonal food, in every season. That's it for the Midtown Farmers' Market for this year.

See you at the market, come spring~

Brett & Mary

p.s.~ Mala, thanks for the coffee and the boozy cherries; but the booze is all gone--can I get a refill...?

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Baker's Stuffing

This is what our breadboard often looks like. It's kind of gross, I know. Sorry. There's a piece of our cornmeal bread, some currant-stout, honey whole grain, even some brioche that I pulled out of the freezer. Much of it was well past sandwich quality, or even toast. But with a little help from the garden, market, and larder...
...all that dead bread can be transformed into something rather edible:

We served this with a piece of lamb leg pan-roasted over carrots and leeks. It was a trial run for turkey day. It hardly matters how dry the bread is. As long as you can still cut it up, it will be fine (we had a piece of French batard that was well beyond saving--absolutely petrified). Use good bread in your stuffing, dressing, whatever you like to call it. It makes all the difference in the world. Only problem is, stuffing this good might upstage the bird.
Simple Bread Stuffing with Bacon and Root Vegetables
serves four to six

12 ounces dry bread, in 3/4-inch cubes, 7 or 8 cups (an assortment adds interest)
3 1/2 ounces thick-cut bacon--2 or 3 slices--diced
half a small celery root, in 1/4-inch dice (use some of the green stalks, too--mince these--and some chopped leaves if they're not too bitter)
2 small carrots, in 1/4-inch dice
1 small leek, chopped
1/2 a medium onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp each fresh chopped thyme and sage
salt and pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 tsp piment d'espelette or hot paprika, or 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

Preheat your oven to 375. In a large skillet slowly cook the bacon over medium heat until most of the fat has rendered and the bacon is lightly brown. Remove the bacon from the pan. Leave one tablespoon of bacon fat in the pan, and add the one tablespoon of butter. Add the celery root and minced tops, carrots, leek, onion, and sauté until the vegetables are lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one minute more.

In a large mixing bowl combine the bread with the sautéed vegetables, the bacon, the herbs, the piment or paprika, a good dash of salt and several grinds of pepper, and the chicken stock. Mix well, cover with a lid or a plate and let stand for ten minutes. Check to see that the bread is nicely softened. If it seems too dry add another 1/4 cup of stock or water. Mix well once more, and spoon the mixture into a casserole or gratin dish.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the stuffing is well browned on top and hot throughout. Those Stovetop Stuffing people have one thing right: There's no reason to serve this only once or twice a year. It's a wonderful, simple dish that's great throughout the colder which we are now firmly ensconced.

Happy Thanksgiving.
Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Autumn Leaves

Autumn leaves...and winter barges right in:

That was not the double entendre I had in mind when I originally considered this post. I was working on a mild little pun involving leaves on the trees turning color, and those garden leaves that are the last fresh vegetables of the season. But then, when I first thought of this topic, autumn hadn't left, and winter hadn't arrived.

That transition occured over the course of three days this past week. Last Monday we had a record high of 74 degrees here in the Twin Cities. Tuesday, November 4 (election day!) I took the sun-dappled photos you see here, on a calm, mellow, misty morning (...until they think warm days will never cease...). On Friday it snowed, and since then (today is Wednesday the twelfth) the mercury has barely struggled to the freezing mark.

Theater of the seasons, you bet. If you'll forgive just one more pun, it looks like this is winter thyme.

We might be granted another spell of indian summer; we might just as easily not. We've had some winters in recent years that hardly deserved the name, by old-time Minnesota standards. I've left carrots and leeks in the garden into December; taken a walk at a local park preserve on New Year's Day on dry grass, with no coat, just a sweater; picked oyster mushrooms from a local woods in January, all within the last ten years.

We've been lulled into a false sense of living in a more benign climate, where you plan to finish the house painting over Halloween weekend, reglaze those windows in November; where there's plenty of time to put the garden to bed, turn the compost, mulch the herbs. Then you get a rude awakening, as we have this year. October, indeed, was unseasonably mild; November started out that way, but for the last week, not so much.

And yet, autumn leaves--the noun sort of leaves, the edible sort of leaves--are still out there. The leaves are wilted in 20-degree cold, but when a little warmth returns, they'll perk back up. Many hardy greens, like kale and turnip greens, are better after a few frosts, sweeter, more tender. I've gone out in cold near zero and picked frozen kale leaves, and dropped them into soup, where they do just fine. They're freeze-dried on the plant, I reckon.

Root vegetables also do well in moderate cold. I plan to dig out my last leeks and carrots just before the ground really freezes. I've come to look at leeks as one of the most versatile vegetables there is. The tough green tops and outer peelings I use in stocks and sauces. The
tender parts, both white and light green, I saute at
the start of nearly every soup, stew, or braise. We have them roasted with other root vegetables, or on their own in a baked gratin of leeks, or the classic French bistro dish, leeks vinaigrette.

They fit the topic here, for what is a leek but a particularly tidy organization of leaves?

The same can be said of fennel. In that mild October weather I mentioned, these young shoots came up from bulbs I'd cut much earlier in the year. That brilliant infant green was incredibly cheering to see, this late in the year. It was, of course, but a tease.

Autumn garden leaves are not just about the hardy, good-for-you, long-braised or -simmered kales and collards and mustards. One type of greens that I've found does extremely well as a late-summer-into-fall crop is frisée, also known as curly endive or sometimes curly escarole. It's a lettuce, a firm-textured, often slightly bitter one. In France, gardeners gather the outer leaves at the top to blanch the inner leaves. The darker green the leaves, the tougher and more bitter they're likely to be. Bear this in mind when buying supermarket frisée; I often wind up discarding the outer couple layers of leaves, and trimming the darkest tops of the remainder.

With garden frisée like this, you needn't go to that sort of trouble. I planted this in late August, just quickly turned a spot where peas had been growing, scattered the seeds by the handful and covered lightly with soil.

A month or so later we were ready for lovely autumn salads like this one:

That's smoked brown trout--the last stream trout of the season--with wonderful fingerling potatoes "steam-sautéed" with sweet market onions, topped with a poached egg. To make the potatoes we put the washed but not peeled potatoes into a fry pan with a little butter and oil, rolled the potatoes around till they just started to brown, then added a half-cup or so of water, put the lid on and cooked over medium heat for eight to ten minutes. By then most of the water should be gone, and the potatoes are starting to brown again. Now add some fairly thickly sliced onion and cook until the potatoes are tender and the onions nicely browned.

The dressing for this salad was based on some horseradish creme fraiche we had leftover (this is not a standard ingredient in our house--just happens I had made it for another smoked trout preparation). If you've got creme fraiche in the house, great; if not, substitute cream or sour cream or a mixture of the two.

Working from memory, this is pretty close to what I did

Horseradish Creme Fraiche Dressing for Frisée with Smoked Trout
serves two

2 Tbsp creme fraiche (or sour cream or cream or a mixture)
2 tsp prepared horseradish, or to taste
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
2 Tbsp canola, grapeseed or other oil
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
squeeze of lemon juice, optional
good pinch salt
a few grinds of pepper

Mix everything together well, and toss with the rinsed, spun frisée ten to fifteen minutes before serving--let it sit that little while for the frisée to soften a bit.

Any good vinaigrette can be substituted for this dressing. The horseradish cream I think of as essentially Nordic, making this salad a sort of scando-franco bistro combo. I think I'd better trademark that phrase--it's sure to catch on in a big way! Other smoked fish may be subbed for the trout--whitefish, lake trout, herring, hot-smoked salmon. The potatoes are optional, but they really make it a meal.

The very most classic bistro salad, of course, is frisée aux lardons, in which the greens are tossed with a garlicky, mustardy vinaigrette and fried batons of bacon, topped with a poached egg. There are loads of other variations, using duck confit, dried sausage, paté, foie gras if you're posh and flush. Use your imagination and whatever you have on hand; it's basically a chef's salad...and you're the chef.

text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

"Where are the songs of Spring?"

"...Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too.
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue..."

Then, don't you just really want a hearty, satisfying dinner like slow-braised pork in an intense, savory pan sauce, served over soft polenta or mashed potatoes? I know I do.

I was talking on the phone to my brother, William Bruce (we call him Bill), the evening after the last market of the season, and as is typical in these cocktail-hour conversations, talk came around to what we were preparing for dinner.

"I'm braising some pork belly in cider with vegetables from the market," I said.

"Pork belly? Isn't that...bacon?" Bill responded.

"Well, yeah, but, no," I said. "It's what they make bacon out of. Fresh bacon. It's delicious."

"Hmm," said Bill

It's not that my brother is an unadventurous eater, quite the opposite. He's an avid slurper of icy raw bivalves, and a fan of foie gras. But the idea of "bacon" for dinner can make even the most fearless diners pause.

It shouldn't. I'm not going to claim that pork belly--sometimes called side pork, or, as mentioned, fresh bacon--is a lean dish. However, if you look at the "Still Life with Pork Belly" above, you can see that it's quite possible to find pork belly that is more lean meat than fat. Furthermore, as you brown the meat thoroughly prior to braising, a lot of the fat renders off and is poured from the pan before you continue. And then, a little goes a long way. I call for a pound of meat for two servings, which is very generous. We had leftovers (which I ate atop Chinese noodles in broth for lunch--yum) when we made it, even after the grueling final baking and market of the season, when we generally consume vast quantities. If you cut the meat portion back to twelve ounces total, I don't think anyone would go away hungry.

I didn't invent the idea of cooking pork belly like this. This rich, unctuous, economical cut of meat holds a place of great respect in Chinese, French, and other world cuisines. In the U.S., it became quite popular a few years ago among chefs interested in the "nose to tail" eating most often associated with
Fergus Henderson of the St John restaurant in London. There's a bit of macho posturing to this sort of thing, to be sure. (You've probably seen or heard of those TV shows where guys go around the world eating gross stuff--previously unheard of organs, bugs, rotting things; cook's tour as freak show.) But it's also a recognition that those of us who eat meat ought to honor the animals we consume by using and appreciating the whole beast. It's the right thing to do; and, there's some very good eating to be had, low on the hog.

I most often buy my pork belly at an Asian market, because it's always in stock there. Any good local butcher should be able to get it for you. (Here in the Twin Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Shuang Hur--University just west of Dale; Nicollet and 27th--and United Noodles are reliable sources.)

Cider-Braised Pork Belly

serves two

If, after all my effort to convince you of the glories of fatty pork, you still find yourself bacon-phobic, this dish would be nearly as good with country-style ribs, pork shoulder, or a piece of fresh ham in place of the pork belly. You could use other vegetables--parsnip, perhaps, or small sweet turnips. I had picked up some beautiful local fennel at our last farmers' market.

1 pound fresh pork belly, skin removed, in two chunks
1 tsp oil
1 small carrot
1/2 medium onion
1 small leek
1 small fennel bulb
1 serrano chili, seeds removed, optional
6 small cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup fresh apple cider
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
1 Tbsp soy sauce, preferably dark
a few sprigs fresh thyme

Preheat your oven to 375 F.

Heat a dutch oven or high-sided saute pan--a three-quart pan is a good size (I really love that All-Clad saucier you see in many pictures here--that's a three-quart pan). Season the pork belly well on all sides with salt and pepper. Add the teaspoon of oil (canola, grapeseed, etc.) to the pan. Add the pork and brown well on all sides over medium heat. It will take four or five minutes per side. Don't rush this stage, as a lot of the flavor in the finished dish is developed at this time.

While the pork browns, wash and chop all the vegetables. If your carrot is fresh and sweet you needn't peel it. Use all of the leek that seems tender, both white and green parts (and save the trimmings for stock). Just chop everything quite coarsely; it's going to cook for a long time and most of the vegetables will melt into the sauce.

Remove the pork from the pan and pour off most of the fat, leaving a couple of teaspoons behind. Add all the vegetables except the chopped garlic, and saute until they are lightly browned, five or six minutes. Add the chopped garlic and continue cooking for one minute.

Add some of the cider and scrape the pan bottom with a wooden spatula to deglaze (dissolve the brown stuff into the cider). Add the rest of the cider, the stock, the soy sauce, and then the pork. Here's what you're looking at:

Bring the liquid to a boil, then turn off the heat. Move the pan into the preheated oven, put on the lid, a bit ajar, and cook for 30 minutes. Turn the pork over and cook for 30 minutes more, partially covered. Turn the pork again and cook, uncovered now, for another 30 to 45 minutes, till the pork is very brown and tender--oh, and check to be sure there's still some liquid in the pan; we want the sauce quite reduced, but not all boiled away. Add a bit of water if it's getting too dry.

Here's what mine looked like after an hour-and-half:

That looks almost good enough to eat. If you want to try a little sort of "cheffy" trick, you can remove the pork from the pan and really crisp up the exterior by placing it under the broiler for a couple of minutes, or in a hot oven--I put my oven up to 425 convection and put the pork in on a baking sheet for about five minutes. (You might reasonably say that this is a clear example of gilding the lily; to which I would respond, "And...?")

We were going to serve this with polenta, but the polenta jar was empty. White corn grits (polenta by another name) stood in just fine. Noodles, rice, mashed potatoes--all would be great.

This is the sort of dish that cries out for a glass of really nice wine, and while the deep, dark richness of it might lead you immediately to a full-bodied red, don't rule out a crisp, aromatic white like an Alsatian riesling or pinot gris.

To Autumn (stanza the last)

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, though hast thy music, too--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Of sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats, 1819

Text (except the Keats) and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Or By a Cyder-Press..."

"...with a patient look
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours."

Earlier this year, when we purchased our Wisconsin land with its sixty-plus apple trees, many of which we had seen laden with fruit last fall, we had visions of heaping bushels of glorious fruit, rivers of cider (or "cyder," in Keats's world), an abundance of pommes beyond imagining. What would we do with all those apples?, we wondered. What a pleasant condundrum to face!

What a lot to learn we had! What a lot we have learned.

Lesson 1: Many apple trees, particularly older varieties, have a biennial habit--they bear a full crop of apples every other year, and bear sparsely or not at all in the other year. Several of the most heavily fruited trees that we saw last fall turned out to have this tendency. There went half the harvest.

Lesson 2: Apple picking is flippin' hard work. Modern apples orchards use dwarfing rootstock to keep the trees from growing very tall, and then those trees are severely pruned to keep them healthy, vigorous, and easy to harvest. Many of our trees, on the other hand, are anything but dwarfish, growing to twenty feet and more, and in their long-neglected state their crowns are a crowded tangle of branches and dead wood, impenetrable without a pruning saw in hand. Even with a good ladder, and one of those apple-picking gadgets with the basket at the end of a long pole, filling a couple of sacks of apples was hard, hot work. For several weeks this summer I brought apples to sell at our farmers' market , but when I look back and consider the time and gas it took to drive out and back, the time spent picking and hauling, and the paltry sum they brought at market, where they had to go up against apples from real orchards...well, financially at least, I'd have been better off staying home and baking a couple of batches of dog biscuits. (But honestly, I can't say I regret having spent those mornings here--

--rather than in a hot kitchen breathing in dog biscuit fumes!)

Lesson 3: There's a very good reason why organic apples cost so much in the grocery store. I stopped at our co-op mid-summer, before any of our own apples were ripe, to buy an apple, one single apple for a recipe I wanted to make. The cashier rang it up at a buck-fifty. That's because organic apples were priced at $3.89 a pound. I began to imagine that we were sitting on a gold mine, with our dozens of pesticide-free trees.

Then came the hail. Then the scab. Then the bugs, I'm not sure which ones, but I'm guessing, all of them. A couple of trees, well laden and ripening with gorgeous fruit, suddenly and inexplicably dropped all their apples in late August. It was heart-rending to see all that beautiful fruit moldering on the ground, useless for anything but feeding the wildlife.

In brief, if we had tried to fill just one bushel basket with perfect, unblemished, unbruised, bug-free fruit, well, I don't think we could have done it. Really. With trees this long neglected that's just the way it goes. There's a lot that we can do, in terms of pruning, of orchard hygiene, etc., to bring the trees back and have better harvests in the future. In the meantime, we've started planting more trees. Three weeks ago we put six heirloom cider apple trees in the ground just up the hill from "Bide-A-Wee." It felt pretty momentous, I have to say.

We did harvest a decent amount of apples this year, and while most of them were the furthest thing from perfect, they all looked good coming out of the cider press that our friends Emily and Dan Hoisington were nice enough to let us use.

We found that it takes nearly fifteen pounds of apples and rather a lot of work--washing the apples and picking them over, grinding them in the food processor and running them through the press--to produce just a gallon of cider. But what satisfaction in drinking your own home-grown, fresh-pressed sweet cider, and setting a carboy or two aside to ferment into hard cider. I'll report back on that topic in a few weeks.

Meantime, I mentioned a while back how easy it is to make small amounts of fresh apple cider at home, as here comes the proof. We will need:


A food processor (or even just a good grater)

The set-up:

For this demonstration I used just about a pound of apples--looks like six smallish apples there. Chop them up into chunks. Do not peel, do not core. A few bruises are no problem. Put the apple pieces in the FP and start pulsing to chop them up, then let it run. Most likely the apple bits will pile up on the sides. Now's the time to add a little bit of water or cider, to help get the puree going. Scrape down the sides and add a tablespoon of water or cider and let the FP run. Add a tad more liquid if needed. To process this pound of apples I had to add about 1/4 cup of water. Process until you have an applesauce-like consistency:

Put it into the cheesecloth:
And sque-e-e-e-e-e-z-z-z-z-z-e:

That pound of apples produced 1 1/2 cups of juice:

It's a delicious, local beverage--fresh cider has replaced our morning orange juice for some time now--and it's a great ingredient in the kitchen. Next time: Cider-Braised Pork, a wonderful autumn dish.

"To Autumn," stanza two

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes, whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner though dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with a patient look
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

John Keats, 1819

Text (except the Keats) and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wild Mushroom Lasagna

In a recent post I mentioned a wild mushroom lasagna I made a couple of years ago, a particularly memorable dish. Since I had a chunk of hen-of-the-woods and a bit of tooth mushroom to use up, I thought I'd try to recreate it. I made the original with hens, tooth, and a good amount of giant puffball, and it was sublime. This one wasn't as transcendent, but it was still very good. Worth making, and it will feed a crowd.

The usual way of making lasagna is to add the tomato sauce in layers with the bechamel, pasta, and cheese, and you can do that with this recipe if you like, but I prefer to leave it out in making the lasagna, then sauce each portion on the plate. If you want to add the sauce in with the other ingredients, you should double the sauce recipe I've given below.

I realize that wild mushrooms can be difficult to find and expensive to buy, and frankly, I wouldn't spend a lot of money on mushrooms to put in a dish like this. You can certainly substitute cultivated mushrooms for part or all. It will be best with a flavorful variety of fungi like shiitake, oyster, cremini, etc., rather than just, say, all button mushrooms (but even that would be pretty tasty...). Asian markets are often a good source for interesting and inexpensive mushrooms like oysters and shiitake.

Wild Mushroom Lasagna
serves eight

1 pound wild mushrooms (such as hen-of-the-woods, oyster mushrooms, sulfur shelf, puffballs, tooth mushrooms, etc.), chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 Tbsp unsalted butter or olive oil
2 Tbsp dry white wine or dry vermouth
2 Tbsp flour
1 1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock
2 cups whole milk
1/8 tsp pimente d'espelette or cayenne pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

12 ounces dried lasagna
8 ounces gruyere cheese, grated (or another nice melting cheese that you like)
4 ounces pecorino romano, grated (or another hard, fragrant cheese, parmesan, asiago, etc.)

In a large saucepan heat 2 Tbsp of the butter or olive oil. Add the mushrooms and onion, and cook over medium heat until the mushrooms begin to give off some liquid. Turn the heat to low, cover, and cook for five minutes. Remove the lid, add the garlic and a good pinch of salt, and continue cooking until the mushrooms are lightly browned and tender. (Some wild mushrooms, notably those hen-of-the-woods, will remain a bit al dente even after quite a bit of cooking.)

Add the white wine or vermouth, and scrape with the wooden spatula to deglaze the pan. Add the last Tbsp of butter or oil to the pan, and sprinkle the flour over everything. Stir with a wooden spatula for about a minute. Now begin adding the stock, just a little at first, stirring constantly. As the liquid thickens, add the rest of the stock, then slowly add the milk, stirring as you do. Add the espelette pepper (available in gourmet shops and worth seeking out) or cayenne, a couple sprigs of fresh thyme or a pinch of dried (dried thyme is about the only dry herb I use).

Simmer the mixture gently for about ten minutes, till it has thickened to a gravy-like consistency. Turn off the heat and stir in a handful of chopped fresh parsley. That's your mushroom bechamel.

At this point you can let it cool and refrigerate for a couple of days, or freeze it for...however long you need to, I guess. (I've never really understood recipe directions that say you can freeze something for, say, a month. I mean, it's frozen; as long as it stays frozen, what's going to happen to it? On day 32 does it suddenly go bad...?)

To make the lasagna: Preheat your oven to 375 F. Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Get out your 9" X 13" pan and spread a little of the bechamel in the bottom. Lay a layer of noodles over that. Cover that with one third of the remaining bechamel, and one third of each of the cheeses. Lay down more noodles, half of the remaining bechamel, half of the cheese that's left. The last of the noodles, bechamel, and cheese. Voila.

Bake for 40 minutes, till the top is brown and all is bubbly and aromatic. I like to serve this with a simple fresh tomato sauce, like this (this will sauce four portions):

1 1/2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes (if all you've got is styrofoam winter supermarket tomatoes, you're better off using canned--or, maybe you've got some delicious
tomato gratin in your freezer! That would do nicely.)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
large clove garlic, chopped
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp red wine
1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
fresh herbs to taste--basil, thyme and parsley my choice

Peel, seed and chop the tomatoes. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the onion. Cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Add the tomatoes, red wine, vinegar and a bit of salt. Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning, add herbs if you like. Spoon over lasagna hot from the oven.

Tutti a tavola, a mangiare! (With apologies to Lydia B.!)

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The View From "Bide-A-Wee"

In this

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,

Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines which 'round the thatch-eaves run,

To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core,

To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shell
With a sweet kernel. To set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer hath o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Thank you, John Keats. That's the first stanza of "To Autumn," typed from memory, so there may be a glitch or two from published versions.

"Bide-A-Wee" is what we call the little cabin we put on our Wisconsin land. It's Scottish and means "rest a while." Melinda came up with it. It seems to fit, especially the "wee" part.

Happy autumn.

Copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw