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