Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Trout Stream Buffet

The forager must resist the temptation to think of the forest as a grocery store; however, if one is patient, observant, and a little bit knowledgable, there's a good chance that Nature will provide.

I've only fished one time this year. I loaded all my fishing gear one other time, and drove down to the Whitewater region--a considerable journey--but I forgot to fish. Well, I got distracted, is what. I went to a reliable spot for ramps and dug a few clumps, then I went to another woods where I had found a big patch of ostrich ferns last year, and there I gathered some fiddleheads.

The fiddlehead woods is also a popular spot for mushroom hunters, those seeking morels, specifically. I had run into a local forager at this spot a couple of years ago, and this year I met another local 'shroomer, a young guy who was frantically searching the grass for his lost cell phone. He was sure he'd had it with him in the woods, because he'd actually been talking on it while he was foraging. And now it was lost. I couldn't help thinking there was a lesson in there, somewhere.

But I helped him look for a while, to no avail. Then I went to gather my fiddleheads, and I wasn't going to look for morels, because I can never find them, and there are other ways to spend one's springtime hours in Great Nature's embrace, such as fishing. But on my way out I made the mistake of looking around a likely-looking tree (dead elm, bark just starting to peel), and I found a couple of very small morels. Then of course I had to keep looking, and at length I found a few larger ones. I was happy about that, naturally, but in the course of the hunt I had frittered away the afternoon. Any insect activity on the stream would occur in the heat of the day, this time of year, and it was already starting to cool. I took my foraged vegetables and headed home.

We had to settle for a pan-seared rib-eye from Greg's Meats on Highway 52 near Hampton, MN, instead of fresh-caught stream trout. Everyone has to make sacrifices, sometimes. (Greg's has really nice meat at very fair prices; we love their steaks, and their pork is also very good and cheap.)

The next time out, then, I left home a little earlier, headed for Wisconsin this time. I did gather ramps along the way, but I reckoned it too late already for fiddleheads. From the ramps woods I drove to the river, and stepped into the water a little after noon. Later in the summer, fly fishing for trout in a clear stream at midday would be generally futile. At this time of year the warmth of the day can bring hatches of caddis flies, small moth-like insects which, as they emerge from their immature, larval state, dashing toward the surface in the very midst of their transformation from odd little worms into wingèd beings, cause much excitement among the trout.

This is called a caddis hatch, and is something all fly fishers look forward to all winter. There wasn't a major hatch this day, but there were enough flies about to keep the trout interested, from time to time. I caught a few fish, all too small to keep, until a nine-inch brook trout came to hand and then to creel. I'd been out a couple of hours now. I had fished downstream as far as I intended to go. Where the river curved ahead of me I noticed a lot of dead elms in the woods along the bank. I went to have a look.

The first thing I found was the mushroom at the top of the picture. It's called a "Dryad's Saddle" (which is very poetic, mythological, even), or a "Pheasant Back" mushroom (more descriptively). It's a polypore, polyporous squamosus, to be exact, meaning that instead of the familiar gills of button mushrooms, its underside is covered with tiny holes, or pores. The reproductive spores come out here. Its an edible mushroom, and quite good when young and tender. All the guidebooks note its distinctive aroma--like watermelon rind. As a polypore it's in the same category as the esteemed boletes, what the Italians call porcini and the French know as cèpes. And the texture is very like those mushrooms, though the flavor is less compelling. Nonetheless, it's worth becoming acquainted with. It can be found in quantities in spring and early summer.

So I harvested the Pheasant Back, and then I flushed a grouse, like the bird on the plate above. Then I spotted a dead elm which looked to be in the perfect state of decay to host morels, and I propped my fly rod against a sapling and got down on my knees to peer into the dusky underbrush; the evidence of what I found is in the picture. I was pretty pleased with myself, and continued on the search around numerous other trees, also in that perfect state, and found absolutely nothing.

When I came back to the stream the insect activity had picked up, and trout were rising in response. I caught a few fish on dry flies, and two brown trout went into the creel.

As I walked back upstream toward the car I was thinking of a feeder stream I had passed on the way down, and planning to look for watercress there. But along the trail before I reached that point I saw a small patch of ferns, some still in the fiddlehead stage. That would round out the plate nicely.

This was one of those days that make me love our sometimes fleeting, often reluctant northern spring. It was a day that unfolded with some purpose and a lot of serendipity. You might say that the bounty of wild food I brought back was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and there's some truth in that. But more, to me it's about just being there, with an open mind and open heart and open eyes.

That approach can lead to a day that unveils itself in wonderful and satisfying discoveries, and ends with a meal that is so much more than a meal, more than food on a plate no matter how delicious.
The trout was poached in court bouillon a la truite au bleu. It had been killed a few hours earlier, so it didn't curl in the classic manner. The ramps flavored sautéed potatoes. The fiddleheads blanched, tossed in browned butter. The mushrooms simply sautéed. All very simple, to taste the real flavors of woods and stream.
This is my favorite time of year for eating wild foods...until the next time of year comes along.

Text and photos copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spring Green

Mother Nature is a pretty good gardener. While I'm still sorting through seed-starting supplies and flipping through seed catalogs, setting up lights in the basement, looking for lost tools, trying to remember what was planted where last year and what doesn't like to be where the other what was before, the Mother of Us All has her plan all laid out, and with the first breath of spring warmth is off and running.

So to find the first local vegetables of the spring I don't look to the garden or the farmers' market; I head for the woods.

Wild asparagus is an early crop, and an entirely mythical one to me. I only think of it in the autumn when I see the blown seed stalks and think I ought to make a note of the spot, to check back in the spring. But I don't. It was my friend Lynn Ann who told me what those tall, spidery stalks were, poking up from the sandy roadside ditches. She pointed them out as we drove home from a day of fishing, and she reminisced about asparagus-hunting outings with her parents when she was a kid, how jealously people guarded the locations of their prized asparagus patches. Now I always think of her when I see those very un-asparagus-like plants, those tall spindly weeds. If I never find fresh wild asparagus, that's okay with me.

Much easier to locate, though equally short of season, are fiddlehead ferns, which are simply fern fronds that have yet to unfurl. Many kinds of ferns are edible in this young form, though some should be avoided. The safest and most abundant--and by many accounts most delicious--is the ostrich fern. You may have them in your yard. I do. That's where I picked the fiddleheads pictured here. Ostrich ferns grow in clumps, have smooth stalks (not furry), with a distinct groove on one side of the stalk.

As long as the leafy part is well-coiled, fiddleheads are edible and delicious, even if the stalk is several inches tall. They resemble asparagus somewhat both in texture and flavor. Asparagus would stand in admirably for fiddleheads in recipe offered below. Like most wild edibles, fiddleheads take a lot of washing. There's a papery brown husk over the fiddlehead as it emerges, and that needs to be removed. You can rustle the fiddleheads around in a colander or salad spinner to chafe off some of it, then washing in several changes of clean water will take care of the rest.

While some sources say fiddleheads can be eaten raw, others report digestive problems from undercooked ferns. I play it safe and blanch them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, regardless of how I intend to finish them. Go on over to the Google and search up "fiddlehead ferns ostrich wild edibles" and you'll find more info than you'll ever manage to read on the topic.

A natural companion to fiddleheads, both gastronomically and geographically, is ramps. These are the wild leeks or wild onions (allium tricoccum) that seem to be more and more common in our northern woods. They're a springtime staple in Appalachia, where some towns hold ramp and trout fests. They've become common on fancy restaurant menus, too, as the local-seasonal eating ethic moves up the food chain.

I associate ramps, fiddleheads, and watercress with trout fishing, because I find them all along trout streams. The cress lives in clear cold springs, the others like the damp, shady woods along the stream banks. A plate of grilled or fried trout over a simple cress salad, accompanied by sautéed ramps and fiddleheads, is a ritual meal in our house. It means that spring is really here. It means, as Mary remarked recently, that we can turn away from the sauerkraut, the last of last year's carrots at the bottom of the crisper, the winter squash, the frozen tomatoes, and look to spring green.

Thanks, Ma.

This tart, or pizza, highlights the spring flavors of ramps and fiddleheads in a fun and tasty package. It gets some richness from cream and a sprinkling of cheese--of course use your best local products. We made this tart (which is somewhat inspired by the Alsatian classic tarte flambée, or flammekueche in Alsatian dialect) with Cedar Summit Cream and Roth Kase Wisconsin "gruyere."

Because I think a great pizza depends on great bread, I've gone to some lengths in describing crust options. There are two long-fermented versions, and a shorter one. All will be great. If you're a bread fanatic, of course you'll want to try the long-proofed versions, which you'll find at the bottom of this post. You'll get the very best results baking this on a baking stone ("pizza stone," if you like) at high temperatures, but the lower-temp baking sheet method will make a delicious tart, too. If you have a favorite pizza dough of your own, go ahead and use that.

Ramps & Fiddleheads Tart
serves four as a main course

The dough:

The short version:

1 cup warm water
1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast

Stir the yeast into the water and let stand for about five minutes.

1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp whole wheat flour (we like Whole Grain Milling's whole wheat bread flour)
Unbleached all-purpose flour, around 2 cups

Stir in the salt, olive oil, whole wheat flour, and one cup all-purpose flour. Then add all-purpose flour to make a soft but workable dough. Knead for a couple of minutes. Leave it alone for 10 or 15 minutes. Then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding flour as needed, till the dough is nice and smooth. Place the dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise till doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

The topping:

6 ounces ramps--10 to 20 depending on the size; once chopped, the white bulbs and red stems will measure about 3/4 cup
3 ounces fiddlehead ferns, a generous cup (or like amount of asparagus blanched and sliced into 1 1/2-inch pieces)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup cream

2 ounces gruyère, parmesan, or other grating cheese (aged gouda, perhaps?), grated medium-coarse

Wash the ramps well, then slice the white bulbs and red stems on the diagonal into 1/4-inch pieces. Slice the greens into 1/2-inch strips. Melt the butter in a sauté pan, add the white and red parts of the ramps and a good pinch of salt. Sauté over medium heat for a couple of minutes, till wilted. Add the ramp greens and cook one minute more. Add the cream. Remove from the heat, let cool.

Wash the fiddleheads well in several changes of water. Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the fiddleheads for three minutes, then drain and refresh them under cold running water. Drain and set aside.

If using a baking stone, preheat your oven to 525 or 510 convection.

If you don't have a stone, preheat your oven to 450 or 425 convection.

Shape the dough into a roughly 12 by 14-inch rectangle. If you'll be baking the tart on a stone, place the dough on a cornmeal-dusted wooden peel. If you don't have a stone, place the dough on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet. Spread the ramps and cream mixture over the dough, to within 1/2-inch of the edge. Distribute the fiddleheads over the top, just like pepperoni!

Let the dough rise for 20 minutes, then bake:

Stone users: Slide the tart onto the stone (make sure it's sliding freely on the peel before you stick your head in the oven!). Bake for three minutes, then sprinkle the cheese over the tart and bake for another three to four minutes, till the cheese is melted and the crust is brown.

Non-stoners: Bake your tart for five minutes, then sprinkle the cheese over the tart and bake for another four to five minutes, till the cheese is melted and the crust is brown.

Everyone, all together now: Remove the tart from the oven when it's nice and brown, let cool on a rack for a few minutes. Grind some fresh pepper over the top if you like. Slice and serve with a salad on the side, and a glass of chilled white wine, an Alsatian riesling or pinot blanc, or a dry vouvray from the Loire. Equally fitting, a light and lightly cooled red, a beaujolais or chinon.

Mixed-leaven dough (if you have a liquid sourdough starter around):

2/3 cup warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast

Mix the yeast into the warm water and let sit five minutes. Add:

1/2 cup liquid sourdough starter
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp whole wheat flour (we like Whole Grain Milling's whole wheat bread flour)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix well, then add additional unbleached flour--up to one cup more--to make a soft but workable dough. Knead for a couple of minutes. Leave it alone for 10 or 15 minutes. Then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding flour as needed, till the dough is nice and smooth. Place the dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for several hours, or overnight. Remove the dough from the fridge an hour before you plan to shape it.

"Poolish" Method (a poolish is a yeast sponge which somewhat approximates a sourdough):
1 cup warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast

Stir the yeast into the water and let stand for about five minutes. Add:

3 Tbsp whole wheat flour (we like Whole Grain Milling's whole wheat bread flour)
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix well, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for several hours or overnight.

1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
Additional unbleached all-purpose flour, around a cup

Stir the salt and olive oil into the poolish. Add unbleached flour a bit at a time to make a soft but workable dough. Knead for a couple of minutes. Leave it alone for 10 or 15 minutes. Then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding flour as needed, till the dough is nice and smooth. Let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at room temperature, or refrigerate, then remove from the fridge an hour before you plan to shape it.

Text and photos copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008