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

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