Thursday, February 28, 2008

Roots Rock

For dinner last night we had a salad buffet. Why? Because we could.

The wind was rather howling down the plain, and a comforting bowl of hot soup might have been more suited to the weather (in fact I had a pot of sour borscht in reserve, just in case). But I wanted to show that even at the end of February, four months after the last farmers' market of October, you could put together a locally grown salad bar, a meal made up entirely of fresh, local vegetables.

So I took myself down to the root cellar--which is to say, the second fridge we have in our basement--and I pulled out the makings of an assiette de crudités that would make any northern locavore proud. We still had leeks, beets, carrots, and celery root. (We also had cabbage, squash, pumpkins, apples, and various preserved things, but I decided to focus on the roots, for thematic coherence.)

All the root vegetables came from our garden. All had been keeping fairly well in the fridge since last fall. The carrots and celery root hadn't suffered at all from the long cold storage. The beets were a little soft but roasted up just fine. The leeks didn't look awfully appetizing, a bit dried and withered with some black fungal patches, but those outer layers peeled away to reveal a perfectly edible vegetable within.

I wasn't consciously planning to put together a French salad bar, but the ingredients naturally suggested classic bistro treatments: carottes rapées, céleri remoulade, and leeks in vinaigrette. The beets I bathed in a dressing that was an inspiration of the moment based on various dregs we had sitting around--of a few not-quite-empty bottles of red wine, and the last of a jar of buckwheat honey. The result was very good; I've dubbed it "Bloody Beets."

Here's what the finished products looked like:

I don't know about you, but I find that awfully appealing. I just ate all that last night, and looking at it this morning makes me hungry again. I think the picture makes my point, which is the point of this "blog" as a whole, that eating local foods isn't a "challenge," as some would have it, nor should we undertake it in some sort of attempt to achieve salvation through suffering, donning the hairshirt of culinary penance in a misguided epicurean ascetic endeavor to prove that I can do without more than you can, that my table is greener than yours, or hoist a self-righteous banner of provincial gastronomy to shame the supermarket-shopping hoi polloi into genuflecting before an iconic poster of St. Pollan the Pure!

No! That isn't it, at all.

I want you to eat this stuff because, like my "Bloody Beets," it's bloody good. I hope I don't protest too much. Trout Caviar has a philosophy, is a philosophy, and that philosophy is that our stuff is as good as anybody's stuff, and part of reason that it's good is that it's ours. Mary remarked during dinner last night that maybe part of the reason these foods taste so good to us is that they come from our terroir, and that same terroir is in us, just as it is in these foods. And so a sort of sympathetic magic occurs when we consume them, making it all more than the sum of its parts. Could be.

Back to the roots, and a few radical recipes. We all know carrots, and we've all had carrots in salad, but how many of us would think of making a salad entirely of carrots? If you've been to France you would. If there's a traiteur (French deli) in the whole of the republique that doesn't carry this simple carrot salad, I haven't found it. As cole slaw and potato salad are to the American deli counter, carottes rapées and céleri remoulade are to the French traiteur: ubiquitous, in a word. The name simply means grated carrots, which is sure not to impress your guests, so I suggest you use the French name with company, for maximum, you know, pretentiousness.....

Fortunately, the recipe is as simple as "grated carrots" would make it seem:

Carottes Rapées

2 medium carrots, about 8 ounces, peeled

Grate the carrots medium to coarse, or shred them on a mandolin. Mix with:

1 Tbs grapeseed oil (or other light vegetable oil)
1 tsp apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
good pinch sugar
pinch or two salt

Let sit at least an hour before serving, if you have time.

Then add.... Nothing. That's it. That's the whole recipe! Bon appetit!

I mentioned a "mandolin" just there, and I don't mean a stringed instument commonly heard in bluegrass music. You probably know I'm referring to a fixed-blade slicing device that will make quick work of tough root vegetables, turning them into paper-thin slices, fine julienne, and perhaps other shapes, depending on the sophistication of the machine (and will do the same to your fingertips and/or knuckles if you're not very careful).
This is one of the lower-end versions, the venerable "Benriner." Note that it counsels you in both English and Japanese to "Watch your fingers"!

These can usually be found at Asian supermarkets. Or you can pay a couple hundred dollars for the stainless-steel European versions that do pretty much the same thing. I'm sure that my Benriner has been serving me well for at least fifteen years. I think I'm due for a new one. It's a tool that gets a lot of use in our kitchen.

Celery root, or celeriac, is slowly becoming more familiar and more available in this country. This knobby, dirty, hairy root presents a most unpromising facade, but once you get through to its crunchy, savory, fragrant heart, you'll find it's worth the work. (That's trimmed celery root pictured with the Benriner above.) It's not the root of the celery we're most familiar with, but a related plant. The celery-root plant does produce stalks and leaves not unlike regular celery, but thinner, darker green, a bit tougher, and much more intensely flavored. You never see the tops of celery root in grocery stores, which is a shame. We've grown celery root in our garden the past couple of years, and have found many uses for all parts of the plant. The stalks we chop fine to mix into egg salad and the like, or to flavor soups, stews, stocks and braised dishes. The leaves lend an intensely green, slightly bitter flavor to salads.

The root can be eaten raw or cooked. It takes a lot of peeling, as the pictures show. Céleri remoulade is the classic salad treatment. You can boil the root along with potatoes to give a twist to mashed potatoes. You can throw chunks of it in to roast along with a chicken. We've enjoyed an oven-fry of mixed sticks of celery root, potato, carrot, and squash. Pretty much anything you would do with other dense root vegetables can be applied to celery root.

This recipe is adapted from Julia Child's and Jacques Pepin's Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.

Céleri Remoulade

1 medium-size celery root, about 12 ounces untrimmed, 8 ounces trimmed
1/8 tsp salt
juice of 1/4 small lemon

Grate the celery root medium to coarse, or shred it with a mandolin. Toss the shreds with the salt and lemon juice, and let sit at least 30 minutes. To the celery root add:

1 1/2 Tbs mayonnaise
1 1/2 Tbs sour cream
1 tsp Dijon mustard
freshly ground peppper to taste

Mix it all in, let sit at least an hour before serving if you have time. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh herbs like chives or parsley, or a dash of paprika or espelette pepper for color.

Leeks are sometimes referred to as "poor man's asparagus" in France. They're a little more common here than celery root, but still under-appreciated. They're useful in many more ways than just the leek-potato soup that springs immediately to mind. They, too, can be cut in chunks and roasted along with other root vegetables. They can be slowly braised in stock and finished under the broiler with a glaze of butter for a first course or side dish with a luxuriousness not usually associated with oniony roots. Blanched and halved and annointed with olive oil, salt, and lemon juice, they do very nicely on the grill.

A lot of recipes tell you to use only the white part of the leek. We use the whole thing. You usually have to remove a few of the tough outer layers, and trim off much of the dark green leaves, but the lighter green parts are perfectly edible. Save the trimmings for stock. You can just wad them up and jam them in a plastic bag and bung it in the freezer. At right is what I look for in a trimmed leek. Well, you'll want to trim the root a little more than that, acutally.

Leeks Vinaigrette
four servings

4 small leeks, about 1 pound trimmed

Clean the leeks well--a lot of dirt can hide in the layers of leaves. Trim off the root end, then, using a paring knife and being quite careful, push the tip of the knife through the leek just above the root end. Slice the leek all the way through the top of the green end. Do the same thing again to slice the leek in quarters the long way, with the whole thing held together by the intact root end. Wash thoroughly.

In a saucepan with a lid bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil. Add the leeks, cover, and simmer briskly till the leeks are tender, about 5 minutes. Now that the leeks are soft, I like to take a fork and roll them up, sort of like you were twirling spaghetti. Place them in a serving dish. Save the cooking water. Top the leeks with a vinaigrette made up of:

2 tsp grain mustard
2 tsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs of the leek cooking water
a good pinch salt, several grinds of the pepper mill

This can be made several hours or even a couple of days ahead. Bring to room temp before serving. With a piece of crusty bread this makes a delightful first course, a real bistro classic.

And finally, those

Bloody Beets

1 1/2 pounds beets--an assortment of red, golden, and chioggia makes a beautiful salad

Wash the beets, place in a covered baking dish, and roast at 400 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, till they pierce easily with a paring knife. Beets larger than, say, tennis ball-size will cook faster if you cut them in half. Let cool, then peel and cut into bite-size chunks, like 1/2-inch thick and 1-inch square pieces. Make the bloody dressing:

1/2 cup red wine

In a small saucepan bring the wine to a boil and reduce till there are just two tablespoons left. Watch very carefully as you near the end, or it will all boil away in a flash. Pour the reduced wine into a bowl and add:

2 tsp buckwheat honey (other flavorful honey could be used, but the earthiness of the buckwheat matches that same quality in the beets very well--Talking Oak raw buckwheat honey is available at Farm in the Market in the Midtown Global Market, and from Sandy the honey lady herself at the Saint Paul Farmers' Market)

1 small clove garlic, minced
1 Tbs grapeseed oil
1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
good pinch salt & a few grinds of pepper

Mix well, toss with beets.
A nice dollop of a soft fresh goat cheese, like the Donnay chevre, also available at Farm in the Market, goes really well with beets.

All of these salads can be made well ahead, and indeed benefit from a rest of a few hours or overnight. The carrot salad was even better on the second night. They'll be tastier if you let them come to room temperature before serving.

Now, this isn't the cornucopian abundance of the farmers' market in September, but people!, this is Minnesota at the end of February! (That big, gorgeous pumpkin, by the way, is a Musquée de Provence that we grew, the biggest one ever. A lovely eating pumpkin, too.) Those are Denny Havlicek's apples, Keepsake, and the sea-green pumpkin behind the leeks is from Peter Marshall (Peter's Pumpkins), as is the cabbage. If you didn't lay in enough winter veg to get you through till spring, you might still find some local produce at the co-ops--parsnips, celery root, beets, and squash are often available late into the winter.

I keep saying that we shouldn't say it's a challenge to eat locally and seasonally, that we should really look at it as a celebration. That said, there is a bit of a challenge to keeping things interesting with this rather restrained palate to work with. Nonetheless, it can be done, and out of it comes abundant pleasure and the satisfaction in keeping that connection to the land hereabouts and to the seasons. And then the celebration can begin.

Brett Laidlaw

text and photos copyright 2008 Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, February 21, 2008

M. Potato-Head

It was our first full day in Paris in December of 2006. We were staying at the Hotel Langlois near the Trinité church in the second arrondisement, Right Bank. We arose late and groggy and walked out into a gorgeous day that could have passed for Indian summer in Minnesota. We had slept through breakfast at the hotel—indeed, it was now lunchtime—and we hadn't gone far before hunger overtook us.
It was our good fortune to be standing at that moment at the intersection of the Rue Richelieu and the Rue Quatre Septembre. Directly across the street was an unassuming little neighborhood brasserie called L’Ami Georges. The sidewalk blackboard listed a lot of the old warhorses—quiche, steak-frites, escargots, smoked salmon—but also less common dishes—house-made rabbit terrine, foie gras with oyster mushrooms, brandade. We had a feeling someone was actually cooking in this kitchen, and once we poked our head in the door we were quickly drawn in by the comfortable dining room and the patron's warm welcome.

Mary ordered quiche with fries and a salad. I was intrigued by the sight and smell of some kind of potato gratin that arrived at several tables while we waited. It turned out that this was the "tartiflette maison," potatoes baked with cream, bacon, and onions, with a copious layer of melted cheese on top. I could think of worse things to eat after a long day of travel and a restless night’s sleep.

We passed the time till our food arrived with a few sips of red wine from a demi-carafe, and a few bites of a really good sliced baguette (you're not guaranteed great bread in French restaurants these days; on one previous trip we'd been in the country for three days before we were served a piece of bread worthy of the name). We didn't have much to say to each other. We were just settling in to the feeling of being in Paris again, getting over the jet lag, the culture and language shift. And we were hungry. When our food arrived with the patron's sincere "Bon appetit," we didn't stand on ceremony, but dug right in.

I didn't know what kind of cheese it was on top of the tartiflette—I guessed brie at the time, and was wrong—only that it was highly aromatic and extremely delicious. I had taken a few healthy forkfuls before I set down my knife and fork, took a bite of bread and a swallow of wine, and began to declaim.

"You know..." I said, which is how many declamations begin, and Mary looked up from her plate with kind attention. (One of my wife's many charms, though surely not her greatest, is her willingness to let me declaim, even over lunch, even in Paris.)

"You know," I said, indicating the dish of creamy, smoky, cheesy potatoes before me, "when you say 'French food,' people tend to think of exotic, expensive ingredients, and fancy sauces and elaborate presentations. But this, this is what French food is really about: potatoes, bacon, cream, cheese. Just simple, great ingredients treated with care and respect. This is what it's all about." Mary reached over with her fork and took a bite. She nodded in agreement. We were both too hungry to brook further declamation. The point had been made. We were glad to be in France, eating real French food, and it's rude to talk with your mouth full, regardless of what continent you're on.

I did make a mental note, though, to track down the origins of tartiflette. Not to imply that I have read the Larousse Gastronomique from cover to cover, but I tend to think that I'm pretty well versed in French cooking, both high and low. To discover a dish that I have absolutely never heard of is rare. It was clearly a country, "peasant" type of dish, the sort of thing you’re served in a half-timbered tavern on a mountain road where you sit beneath ancient beams as the afternoon sun filters in through the thick leaded window panes wavy with age. You’d have a pichet of rough young red wine to go with it, and crusty country bread from a wood-fired oven, and when you broke through the crust of cheese to release the aromas of cream and bacon and onions you took a deep, satisfied sniff, and when you put the first bite in your mouth you thought, “Yes, everything’s going to be all right.”

nd so, having concocted in my imagination this venerable romantic history for the estimable tartiflette, imagine my surprise when later that same day, as our train pulled out of the Metro station on our way back to our hotel, there on the tiled station wall we beheld a gigantic poster, in garish red and orange, advertising, "La Maxi Tartiflette" at...Pizza Hut.

It’s the small ironies like this that really make travel interesting. And serve as cautions against letting one’s imagination roam too far unattended.

I'll spare you the suspense and let you in on the secret: Tartiflette is not a dish of ancient peasant lineage, but the relatively recent invention of cheesemakers in the Savoie region trying to move a few more rounds of reblochon. It is, nonetheless, an excellent dish, and worth recreating while the land around us is still white and cold. Like a brand-new piece of furniture expertly distressed to pass for antique, tartiflette wears its novelty well. (As to the Pizza Hut version, I couldn't say.)

I decided to write about tartiflette this week for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons is so I'd have an excuse to show you some pictures of Paris. Now, I know pictures of Paris don't have much to do with local foods (unless, of course, you happen to live in Paris, lucky you), but I see by the calendar that we are smack dab in the middle of February, arguably the most gruesome month of the year here in Minnesota, and seeing a few photos of Paris probably can't hurt. Just to help take your minds off the ice, the snow, and the windchill.

The other reason is local-foods related, though, and it's this: tartiflette and similar dishes, casseroles or gratins, are a great way to make appealing meals out what few local vegetables we still might have access to at this time of year, mainly those that come in root form.

Getting back to the tartiflette before getting on to a recipe: A little research revealed that the term and the dish were invented in the 1980s by the producers of reblochon cheese, a raw cow's-milk cheese from the mountainous Savoie region. It was a good gambit by those French cheeseheads, since the "recipe" (of which I found dozens of variations in an Internet search) generally calls for an entire round of reblochon, about a pound-and-a-quarter, for each four-serving tartiflette. It’s rib-sticking fare, for sure, the après-ski entrée par excellence.

Madeleine Kamman, one of my favorite food writers, has written a book called Savoie: The Land, People, and Food of the French Alps. It was published in 1989, focuses on the unique foods of the region, and contains not a single mention of tartiflette, while reblochon cheese receives a rhapsodic three-page description, and occurs as an ingredient in a number of dishes.

Kamman is an uncommonly intelligent and engaging writer. Her memoir-with-recipes, When French Women Cook, should be on every Francophile’s shelf. And given the climatic similarities between alpine France and our upper Midwest, Savoie... turns out to be an excellent resource for local-foods enthusiasts in our part of the world. The section on gratins, in particular, is full of appetizing ideas for simple main-course dishes based on seasonal ingredients—potatoes, squash, leeks, cabbage, turnips, apples.
Kamman is never shy with her opinions, and I especially enjoyed these introductory remarks to the gratin chapter:

No recipe followed to the ¼ teaspoon will ever give you a civilized gratin….

No two vegetables once sliced give the very same volume when measured in cups; so if a dish is too large, use a smaller one, and if it is too small, obviously, use a larger one. The same applies to the amount of stock or cream needed; if there is not enough cream or stock to cover the vegetables, by all means add more without worrying whether you are doing the right thing or not.

Worrying about amounts of ingredients takes all the fun out of cooking. Make sure that you always have enough cream or broth, or both, when you make a gratin, and proceed from there, cooking the gratin with your eyes and your nose; both will tell you when it is done. One thing is certain, it should look tight and well reduced, not soggy with unreduced liquid. Now good luck, you will make it, I am certain; generations of peasant women have done it very successfully before you.
With those encouraging words as preface, I give you my own take on tartiflette, as well as full permission to tweak it as you like to suit your tastes.

There’s only one small problem with making a true tartiflette here in America: we can’t get reblochon cheese. Until yesterday afternoon I thought we could, because I had purchased something labeled as reblochon at Whole Foods. But while I was out on a cheese research mission yesterday, looking for some sort of local equivalent to reblochon, I found at the Wedge co-op a cheese called “Fleur des Alpes,” which was described as a reblochon-type cheese made with pasteurized milk. That’s the key: Reblochon is made with raw, unpasteurized milk, and since it is aged less than 60 days, it cannot legally be imported to the U.S.

If you were in Paris, however, you'd no doubt have access to enough reblochon to fill the river Seine from right bank to left.

The “reblochon” sold at Whole Foods is labeled as a raw-milk cheese, but I saw the wrapper it came in, and it was called “Fromage de Savoie,” not reblochon, which is one of those watchfully managed appellations d’origine controllée, or AOC for short—if it ain’t certifiable reblochon, you can’t call it reblochon.

So the bad news is you can’t buy real reblochon here. The good news is the alternatives are quite satisfactory, especially when melted over potatoes, bacon and cream. We did a taste test last night of three reblochon imposters, and here’s what we found:

The winner was a Wisconsin cheese called “Les Frères” made by the Crave Brothers dairy in Waterloo, Wisconsin. I found it at Farm in the Market in the Midtown Global Market, as well as at Whole Foods. This is just a lovely, distinctive cheese, rich, sharp, aromatic, and earthy. This was really a find. This cheese would earn its place on any local artisan cheese cart. Definitely not for melting only.

The runner-up was the “Fleur des Alpes,” the pasteurized reblochon stand-in. This was also an estimable cheese to eat on its own. It was perhaps a bit creamier than Les Frères, a bit more refined tasting. We preferred the slightly barnyard-y quality of the Wisconsin farmstead product.

And coming in a distant last was the so-called reblochon from Whole Foods wrapped in the “Fromage de Savoie” label. Proving that raw milk isn’t everything to a cheese, this was the blandest of them all, and though it must have been aged more than 60 days, it also seemed the least well matured. Having said that, this was the cheese we used on our first tartiflette, thinking it reblochon, and it produced a very tasty dish. So, you really can’t lose.

Another local-cheese option would be a nicely fragrant German brick cheese. We’ve used brick on a tartiflette, and found that it has just about the right texture, and melted very well into the potatoes. The only drawback was that the brick is a good deal more…aromatic, let’s say, than reblochon-type cheeses. If you don’t mind the smell, it’s a pretty good substitute.

This recipe calls for four ounces of cheese per person, which is rather a lot, but remember it’s a main course, and most of the rest of it is potatoes. And the portions are hearty—it serves two if those two have good appetites and have been working or playing hard in the cold for a couple of hours. Otherwise it will probably serve three at dinner, or someone gets a nice warming lunch next day.

Serves two

1 ½ pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, 3 or 4 medium-large spuds
½ pound "reblochon", brick, or other flavorful, melty cheese
2 slices thick-sliced bacon (about 3 ounces), cut into ½-inch lardons
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup heavy cream (Cedar Summit our local choice, of course)
Salt and pepper

Peel the potatoes, quarter them, then cook in boiling water till they are nearly done but still a bit al dente, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and let cool, then slice them ½-inch thick.

Heat your oven to 375.

In a small skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon lardons slowly till they have rendered most of their fat and become golden. Remove the bacon from the skillet and set aside. Leave a couple of tablespoons of fat in the pan and add the onions. Cook till tender and translucent, about five minutes.

Remove the skillet from the heat and add the wine, then put the skillet back on the heat and cook till the wine is reduced by half. Set the skillet aside.

Rub the inside of a 6-cup gratin (oval baking) dish (or 9-inch pie plate) with the crushed garlic clove. Discard the garlic clove. Add the potatoes, bacon, and onion-wine mixture. Season with a couple of good pinches of salt, and a few grinds of the pepper mill. Pour the cream over the top.

If you’re using reblochon-type cheese, slice it in half across the middle, leaving the rind on. Cut these pieces into largish chunks, and arrange them on top of the potatoes in the baking dish, rind side up. If using another type of cheese, cut ½-inch slices and arrange them over top of the potatoes. They probably won’t cover the whole thing.

Bake for 20 minutes, then check to see if the cheese is nicely melted and the top is getting brown. If not, leave it a few more mintues.

Remove and serve immediately.

Here’s a nice winter salad that we enjoyed with our tartiflette a couple of weeks ago:

Cabbage, Carrot, and Apple Slaw
1 small carrot, peeled and julienned or grated
1 wedge cabbage, shredded (about a cup)
1 small apple, peeled, seeded, cut cut into slivers to approximate the carrot and cabbage

Put the shredded cabbage in a bowl and toss with a pinch of salt. Let sit at least 15 minutes.

Add the carrots and apple, and toss with a vinaigrette made of:

1 tsp honey
1 tsp good mustard—we like grain mustard for this, but a good Dijon will work fine
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon grapeseed or other light vegetable oil
Pepper to taste

Mix it all up and let it sit awhile. You can use green or red cabbage, or Savoy or napa, for that matter. All sorts of winter roots and greens can be used in slaws like this.

Of course you’ll want some good crusty bread with that (a pain de campagne, our Strasbourg Seedy or Wheaty), and a glass of wine—nothing fancy, a crisp dry white from the Savoie would be perfect, or a gruner veltliner or a sauvignon blanc. A lighter red like a beaujolais or a cabernet franc from the Loire (Chinon, Touraine), slightly chilled, would also do very well.

It has been a long, cold winter here already; hey, it’s Minnesota, what did you expect?

Just the same…. A dish like tartiflette can make you not mind the cold so much. Might even make you wish for snow, at least once more before the thaw.

Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Something Wild

In searching out great local foods, a farmers’ market is a good place to start. Better still is your own garden—it doesn’t get much more local than your own backyard. But if you want to really get to the heart of the question, and bring to your table the most distinctive of local foods, you need to leave civilization behind altogether: you have to go out into the woods and forage.

Or take to the stream and fish, or go afield to hunt. Over the course of a year I partake of all three methods. I do so avidly, even a little obsessively, I’m afraid. For me there’s nothing like the satisfaction of putting a meal on the table composed entirely of things I've found or caught or shot myself—grilled trout on a bed of watercress with sautéed oyster mushrooms and ramps in spring, or roast grouse accompanied by hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and a wild black currant sauce in autumn.

In years of mild winters with little snow (of which this year is clearly not an example) we often manage to get food from the woods in every month of the year. A couple of years ago I shot a ruffed grouse over Annabel’s point with half an hour left in the last day of Wisconsin’s grouse season, on the last day of January. (It was an atypical point: the bird was hidden in the branches of a big white pine, and though Annabel wasn’t certain where the bird was, she knew one was nearby, and wasn’t budging. As I moved past her the bird took flight, dropping first before rising sharply, then arcing to my right, and I dropped it with my second shot at the limit of the gun’s range. A bird like that presents an extraordinarily difficult chance, and if I had a few more shots like that as precedent I would have said that was some damned good shooting. In all honesty, however, I must admit that it was pretty much a miracle.)

So in a good year, December and January might see game on our table. Come February, when the cabin fever is running high, I often go out to find the only green thing in the woods: watercress. Because cress grows in springs that bubble up from the earth at a fairly constant temperature year ‘round, the cress is protected in a sort of microclimate created by the 40-degree water. The plants dangle their fine white roots over the sandy bottom, but they take most of their nourishment from the water itself—it’s Mother Nature’s hydroponic salad garden.

Now, watercress isn’t exactly a meal, but if you’re able to top it with the last of the beets stored from market or garden, a dollop of local goat cheese, with some walnut bread on the side, it comes pretty close. More than that, the brilliant live green of it, its pungent bracing flavor, remind you that the earth is just napping, and she’ll be waking up soon, yes, very soon.

March: Well, March doesn’t really offer anything more than February, and even a dedicated forager can grow weary of a steady diet of cress. You might get a few early dandelion greens to add to the salad. But let’s move on to April.

April is as abundant as February and March are sparse. There’s wild meat on our table again, when Minnesota’s trout season opens in mid-month, and to go with it all the exuberant bounty of woods and fields springing forth again: ramps, fiddleheads, wild mint and nettles; oyster mushrooms and a few other wild fungi, including some early morels if you’re lucky enough to find them, which I never am. We forage in our garden for volunteer lettuce, mustard and fennel greens, reseeded dill and parsley. Last fall I made a note of several patches of wild asparagus gone to seed along Wisconsin country roads, and I’ll try to beat the local wild-food fanatics to them come spring.

The call of the wild is less pressing in full summer, when the domestic products are so attractive. What shall we have for dinner: Heirloom tomatoes warm from the sunny garden and sweet corn at the market still damp from morning dew? Or some dirty old weeds from the sweltering, itchy, bug-ridden woods? Civilization does have its rewards. But later in the summer I’ll go back to the woods to see how the mushrooms are coming along, and in the process gather raspberries and black currants, then blackberries, wild grapes, and plums. An abandoned orchard I discovered in the Whitewater area a couple of summers ago gave us bushels of “wild” apples.

September often means excellent trout fishing, and the opening of the grouse and woodcock seasons. At the same time, if conditions are right, the woods may erupt with wild mushrooms: hen-of-the-woods, sulfur shelf, giant puffballs, chanterelles, black trumpets, boletes, honey mushrooms, oysters, and more.

Pheasant season opens in October, and for a couple of weeks the seasons for grouse, woodcock and pheasant overlap. Their habitats coincide, too, in some of the covers we hunt, and I look forward to the day when all three birds find their way into my game pocket on the same hunt. Maybe next year.

Woodcock season closes in early November, generally, and pheasant runs through December, while in Wisconsin grouse hunting is open through January. Our hunting ended abruptly last year with the cold and snow of late November.

Our corner of the world is uniquely blessed in our abundance of wild food, and our access to it. Our trout streams are open for all to wade, and Minnesota and Wisconsin offer vast areas of county, state, and national forests in which to forage and hunt.

Sometimes I feel a little guilty shooting a lovely little bird like a woodcock. But any woodcock, grouse, or pheasant I kill has lived natural and free up to the moment it falls to the gun. It has never seen a cage or crowded pen. Also: The biggest threat to many species of game birds and animals is loss of habitat, and the hunting population lobbies tirelessly to preserve those wild lands. The income from hunting licenses provides the resources to manage them.

Ironically, no one cares more about a woodcock than someone who goes out to kill it.

Yet another part of me settles a lot of qualms with anticipation of a uniquely delicious meal. Handling game has made me a much better cook, because I always want to do justice to those rare creatures.

That’s the overview of fish, hunt, and forage 2007, and here are the highlights of last year’s wild feasts and finds:

"Trout Caviar" is the title of this journal, and here's how that came to be: I’m a fly fisherman. I fish for trout in the spring creeks of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. A lot of fly fisherman are catch-and-release advocates who like to quote the not-unreasonable axiom that “a game fish is too precious to be caught only once.” My feeling is that a trout is too precious not to be appreciated to its fullest—recreationally, gastronomically, aesthetically, communally.

As a result, I have opened up a lot of fish in the past two decades. One of the things you find when you open up a trout is evidence of how trout make more trout. In the males it’s not that conspicuous, just a slick strip of white milt you could easily overlook if you weren’t paying attention. In the females, especially late in summer and early fall, it’s impossible to miss the fat, yellow-orange egg sacks composed of hundreds of glistening jewels, each the size of, say, a peppercorn. Over the years I’m certain that I’ve discarded hundreds of them—not without considering them, but I didn’t know what you could do with them; I’d never heard of anyone eating them.

It was through a Russian, appropriately enough, that I discovered how to make trout caviar, though not directly. I’ve never been to Russia, but I know a few Russians here in Minnesota, and I’ve read enough to conclude that if there’s any group of people more devoted to wild foods than Russians, well, you wouldn’t be able to tell it to a Russian. See Turgenev, "A Sportsman's Notebook," etc. The Russian appetite for wild mushrooms is unmatched even by the French or Italian. And can you think of salted fish eggs—caviar—without imagining blini, iced vodka? I can’t. I believe I even hear a balalaika….

We don’t tend to think of caviar as wild food, but it is. The classic sturgeon caviars—beluga, ossetra, sevruga—came traditionally from wild fish in the Caspian Sea (now drastically overfished, and either banned or soon-to-be banned in this country, I believe). Those luxury versions are what usually come to mind when “caviar” is mentioned, but the eggs of any fish, salted, can bear that name—salmon, lumpfish, flying fish, even herring (a Midwestern locavore delicacy from Lake Superior, available at the Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais—quite tasty).

Last spring Mary was working with a Russian woman, Irina, at a contract job out in the suburbs. In that fluorescent-lit, piped-in-music, dull beige cubicle world, when Mary and Irina got together they bonded over talk of food and travel. Mary mentioned the joy we take in foraging, and learned that Irina and her husband still keep a house in Russia, which they visit a couple of times a year, and particularly in the late summer or early fall, when they go into the woods with family and friends to gather mushrooms. Somehow the topic of caviar came up, and Irina told Mary that they used to make their own out of all kinds of fish roe, and that her favorite, which she preferred even to the renowned sturgeon caviars, was salted trout roe.

You can well imagine that this fact caught my interest. I got on the Internet to search out recipes for trout caviar, and though I only found one, and a slightly dubious one at that, that was all it took. I knew it could be done, and I was eager to try.

When it came right down to it, I abandoned recipes, fears and preconceptions, and just followed experience and common sense. I liken it to how I finally overcame my fear of smoking food, when the epiphany one day stuck me: “Hey, cavemen did this, maybe I can, too!” Making caviar, it turns out, is even simpler than smoking food.

I came home from the stream one night in September with a couple nice fat female brown trout. It was late, I was tired, but I had told myself I was going to do this. I set aside the egg sacks as I cleaned the fish, and then considered. The eggs were all held together by a membrane that surrounded the sack and others that ran through it. You were supposed to separate the eggs. This was not easy. It was tedious work using fingers and a couple of paring knives to carefully scrape the eggs free of the membrane without breaking too many.

When I finally finished, I had a half-a-ramekin full—a quarter cup or a little more. I considered the wet brine method, the one I’d found on the Internet, and rejected it. The way they make caviar, I told myself, is they put salt on fish eggs. So that’s what I did. I rinsed the eggs and drained them well, then I sprinkled on some fine sea salt, then a bit more, till they were pretty salty. This was, originally, a method of preservation, I imagined, like smoking, curing, or storing in fat a la confit. I covered the ramekin with plastic wrap, put it in the fridge, took a shower and went to bed.

It was a couple of days before I pulled them out again. I was worried they’d have gone all rotten-fishy. I turned back the plastic wrap with some trepidation and took a sniff. Nothing fishy there. I just dipped a pinkie finger in and tasted the ambient juices. Pleasantly salty, that was all. I got a little spoon and dipped out just three or four eggs. The color had intensified, the eggs held a lovely golden light in their centers. I closed my eyes as I raised the spoon, and I told myself that if this wasn’t delicious—not, “not too bad,” or “okay,” or “hmm, that’s interesting…,” or even “pretty good”—if this wasn’t flat out delicious, straight in the trash it went. I wasn’t going to try to convince myself or anyone else that this was really good if I wasn’t instantly convinced of it.

It didn’t go in the trash. Unctuous is certainly one word to describe it. Also both briny and fresh, from the marriage of salt sea and fresh stream. It was a pleasure to burst the eggs between tongue and roof of mouth, and feel and taste the unctuous liquid run out. I only had a couple more opportunities to make more before the trout season ended. We made caviar from both brown and brook trout roe, and both were delicious. We served them on brioche toast points spread with a little crème fraiche. This year I’m looking forward to growing totally bored with trout caviar.

With the usual caveat about eating raw foods, I would recommend homemade caviar to anyone. I imagine other kinds of fish eggs would work, though I only fish for trout, so I don’t know if I’ll find out for sure. I see from a quick search of how commercial caviar is made that it ranges in salt content from four to seven percent, the better caviar containing less salt, malossol in Russian. I wish I’d paid more attention last fall, weighed the eggs and measured the salt. To a quarter-cup of eggs I think I added about a quarter- to a half-teaspoon salt. The last batch kept for over two weeks in the fridge.

I’ve recovered from the remorse I felt over having obliviously discarded such an amazing delicacy for so many years. Sometimes it takes that long to figure out even something so simple, then once you’ve got it, you’ve got it for good. If the coming year brings a discovery half as delightful, I’ll consider myself lucky.

You can purchase trout caviar from Petrossian for around $100 a pound, minimum order half a pound. But I recommend that you string up a fly rod and go get your own. It’s the sort of humble, local luxury that’s worth going to some trouble for.

The drought of early and mid-summer, followed by the deluges of August and September made 2007 a poor year for mushrooming. When the late fruitings finally did come they were reduced by the early dry weather, and didn’t last in the sodden woods once they emerged. But like the bumper sticker that opines that a bad day fishing is better than a great day at the office, a lousy foraging outing beats a stellar trip to Cub, any day.

Foraging is not only about food on the table, any more than a fishing trip is ruined by an empty creel. I go to the woods to be in the woods, and if I bring home wild food, it’s a bonus. I’m going to be 50 this year, a time of one’s life when one starts to assess things, a bit. When I look back over those five decades, I see that one constant has been the joy I take in being out in nature. Now I may go out to the trout stream with a fine bamboo fly rod strung with a French silk line (I really do, no kidding), and walk the grouse woods with a modest 20-gauge side-by-side to hunt over two pedigreed pointing dogs, and know the Latin names of more fungi than I’d care to admit—but really I’m just a kid running around in the woods, just like when I was eight years old in Eden Prairie. The impulse is the same, the joy in the freedom, the beauty, the sense of discovery in every trip afield.

Which means that I am either admirably constant in my passions, or a case of arrested development. It could go either way, honestly….

Whichever way it goes, it suits me. While the foraging didn’t yield bushels of mushrooms last year, there were other remarkable finds in the woods.

On a Monday night in early August a series of storms passed through the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. One line of thunderstorms produced straight-line winds that dismantled houses and flattened barns and disposed of mature trees as if they were toothpicks. It was a narrow swath of destruction that hit the outskirts of New Richmond, Wisconsin, and just happened to take dead aim on a smallish patch of woods where I hunt and forage.

There’s an open field on the north side of these woods, and I could see a few poplars down along the edge as I drove up. I still had hopes that the heart of the woods had escaped the destruction I’d seen along the highway—corrugated barn roof panels contorted like origami, huge oaks splintered in the yards of farmhouses. It wasn’t until I walked across the fields and into the woods that I saw the extent of the damage. There were ancient oaks, four feet and more across the trunk, snapped off a few feet from the ground, and maples similarly shattered, and tall white pines lying flat, uprooted. Whole stands of poplar lay down in parallel lines as if they’d been arranged that way. A big beehive had been ejected from one demolished oak, and the pieces of honeycomb were scattered on the ground. The air was thick with the scent of honey, and the remaining bees were still going about their now hopeless work.

There were large sections where so many trees were felled, it was impossible to walk. A lot of those tree had held sulfur shelf or hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. The previous year I had found more hen-of-the-woods than I could carry. This time around, I was happy to find a couple of decent clusters. But a toppled poplar covered with vines gave me a nice sack full of wild grapes.

I called the photo series I took there “Exploded Woods.” I don’t know what it will look like next year. In my lifetime it will never again be the woods that it was. Looking at those pictures now, I remember thinking about the astounding contrast between that calm, clear day in the aftermath, and the utter chaos and almost unimaginable violence that had descended on those woods just two nights previous. I'm also struck by all the sunshine in these pictures: Before the storm that forest floor never saw the sky.

Sometimes when you go out looking for mushrooms, you come back with jam. Or the makings of jam, at any rate. I'm not sure why I hadn't found more wild fruit in the past. It could be that, distracted by more abundant crops of fungi, I just hadn't bothered to notice. This year, when the shady woods were more often than not empty of mushrooms, I spent more time in the sunshine, gathering black cap raspberries, blackberries, grapes, and plums. Some of the fruit made it to the market as plum tarts on Mary's puff pastry.

I could go on (obviously, I do). As a "blogger," I clearly have a few things to learn about restraint. On a topic like wild foods, I have a particular enthusiasm, hard to rein in.

But I couldn't end this chapter without mention of scolopax minor, the American woodcock, a small, migratory gamebird much prized in Europe and generally scorned by American hunters, who dismiss it by saying the dark, savory meat "tastes like liver." Well, maybe it does, but it also tastes like woodcock, which is to say that, to me, anyway, it tastes of the wild woods, the scrappy, brambly margins of forest and marsh where it is found; it tastes of autumn, and it tastes of this place. When it is grilled with a bit of home-smoked bacon and a few sprigs of thyme, and served with grilled apples, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms in a cloak of cream, and braised garden leeks, it tastes very good, indeed.

Brett Laidlaw
copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008