Wednesday, July 23, 2008

South Shore Idyll

When it comes to fish, freshness is all, and it doesn't get much fresher than this. And I don't know many commercial fisherfolk, but I can't imagine they come much more charming than Jessica Resac, who has just stepped off the good ship "Flowerpot" in the port of Cornucopia, Wisconsin, with buckets full of whitefish, lake trout, and the odd herring. Jessica fishes the waters off the south shore of Lake Superior for Halvorson Fisheries . Six years ago she was working toward a master's degree in biology in Marquette, Michigan when she was asked to come to Cornucopia (Corny, for short) to "drive a boat," as she puts it. She accepted that invitation, and six years later, here she is. The master's degree can wait. (I don't think it's required that south shore fisherfolks' nail polish match their slickers, but it's a nice touch, don't you think?)

Mary and I were down on the Corny waterfront looking for some fresh fish for dinner, wouldn't you know it, as Jessica was unloading the morning's catch and hosing down Flowerpot. Inside the Halvorson retail shop we had already picked up a fillet each of whitefish and lake trout for dinner, and some of the smoked version of each, as well. I've been to Corny many times over the years, and never even knew that Halvorson had a retail shop. They're open seasonally, mainly June to September according to their website. The shop carries the fresh and smoked fish, as well as local delicacies like whitefish livers (surprisingly good; read on), trout cheeks, and "poor man's lobster," which is actually burbot, a freshwater cod also known as lawyer in some parts. I only regret that, since we were headed back to the orchard campground after our Corny sojourn, we couldn't load up on south shore treats.

While we were there, we got our share. We'd come up from the orchard to spend a night at one of our favorite spots on the big lake, O'Bryon's Village Inn . It's been more than 20 years since I first ate at the Village Inn, when I was staying in a friend's cabin for a month in the spring of 1988 to finish a novel (didn't manage to finish it then; did eventually). It hasn't really changed that much in the interim. It has always had that classic Midwestern supper club vibe--your cocktail comes with a ramekin of cheese spread and a plate of plastic-wrapped bread sticks and crackers, the menu offers standbys like Chicken Kiev, Ribs & Chicken or Ribs & Shrimp combos, Caesar salad, mozzerella sticks, and the like.

But there's a difference here from your standard small-town country club fare, and it's what Jessica Resac is holding in that photo above. The Village Inn features, as "Specialties of the Inn," superbly fresh and simply prepared whitefish and lake trout which travel all of about three blocks from port to kitchen. Someday I would actually like to try their char-broiled pork chops with sweet chili dipping sauce, or those ribs. A new menu also listed a pork shank with dumplings, which caught my eye.

But I don't know how I could pass up a starter of those whitefish livers, sauteed with garlic, sweet onions and green pepper (I pick around the peppers, can't stand green peppers). I know that many people are going to recoil just thinking about fish and liver in one mouthful, and frankly, I can't blame you if you do. But the thing about whitefish livers, at least these whitefish livers, is that they don't taste like either fish or liver. Well, more like liver than fish, to me, but it's a very mild, sweet sort of chicken liver flavor, not strong or off-putting at all. They're just delicious, and if you're someone who bothers to read a "blog" like this one, how could you pass up something like whitefish livers? Maybe you're living vicariously; that's okay, too.

So, yes, it must be whitefish livers to start with, and when asked if I'd like soup or salad I always have to have a cup of the inn's fish chowder, made with lake trout and whitefish, potatoes, onions, sweet corn, butter and cream. And the main course, of course, is fish: broiled lake trout or whitefish--and, no, we have not gotten sick of fish yet, because it's so fresh, and variously presented, and so well and respectfully cooked. You get a side of starch, which is mainly plate-filler, because everything up to this point has been rich and filling, and the fish portions are also generous.

The O'Bryons, Wade and Cheryl, took over the Village Inn two years ago, and I give them enormous credit for:

1) Not messing up a good thing. Many new owners of an institution like this would fall prey to the urge to "bring the place up to date." This place didn't need it. They've added new touches like Wader's Tiki Bar, a screened-in bar with a very Margaritaville sort of feel to it, but they're dedicated to

2) Preserving local food traditions like the Lake Superior fish boil:

There was a private party having a fish boil the night we stayed there. I've actually never tasted fish boil fare, but I love the idea of it. We need a bunch of people; who's up for signing up for one at the Village Inn later this summer? What happens here is that the master of the boil builds a roaring big fire under a big black cauldron, and into boiling water he drops fish, potatoes, corn, etc. When everything is cooked, he throws some kerosene on the flames, which causes the pot to boil over, expelling the fish oils that have accumulated on the top. And I imagine you enjoy it with melted butter. Those of you with first-hand fish boil experience, please report.

Mainly I give the O'Bryons credit for

3) Their wonderfully warm and thoughtful hospitality. When we stopped there two years ago, we were on the run from an absolutely dreadful cabin that we had booked sight-unseen, figuring, Well, it's right on the lake, how bad can it be...? Think equal parts Bates Motel and National Lampoon Summer Vacation. We walked in, took one look at the place (and one smell), and said, Nope, not staying here.

So there we were, Friday evening in July, south shore of Lake Superior, two dogs--did I mention that? No place to stay. We figured we'd stop in at the Village Inn and ask if they could direct us somewhere, and we'd make a dinner reservation while we were at it. I'd forgotten that the Village Inn is, you know, an inn. With rooms. Where you can sleep. Or if we knew that, we maybe assumed they wouldn't allow two dogs in the smallish rooms above the restaurant. But it turned out to be a case of can't hurt to ask, and they sized up our dogs (Lily was just a puppy) and said, Sure, make yourselves at home. We were as stunned as we were grateful. We stayed just one night, then moved along the shore to Bayfield. Should have stayed in Corny.

I wrote in a Real Bread email a couple of years ago that the Village Inn was just about the closest thing we've found around here to a French country restaurant-hotel. I wrote that just a tiny bit facetiously, I think, not wanting to overstate its merits. I take back any facetiousness that might have crept into that previous description. I hereby declare the Village Inn of Cornucopia, Wisconsin a pure delight, which does not need to stand comparison to French anything.

What it does share with those small auberges scattered throughout the French countryside is its unpretentious charm, its authenticity, its wonderful local foods, its warm hospitality--what the French would call l'accueil chaleureux (I know I said leave the French to themselves, but I just really like that phrase; it sounds warmer than "warm welcome," which is what it means).

What it also shares with such places is that, since you're sleeping right upstairs, you can enjoy your wine with dinner knowing that you only have to toddle upstairs to bed after dinner. We had two dogs with us again (everyone there was so nice to our dogs; we would go back just because of that), so we toddled out to the stunningly gorgeous, and inexplicably empty, Corny beach.

I had a swim, so did Lily. Mary and Annabel remained mostly on dry land. We had spent the last couple of nights at the orchard watching evening come on, and exclaiming about how beautiful the sky was there, because the hills on our land seem to frame the sky in particularly attractive ways; and we have lots of time to contemplate that sky. But we walked down to the Corny beach after dinner, and with one glance out over the lake I said to Mary: "Dear, we have just had our ass handed us, sky-wise." I did mention the wine, didn't I?

We were the only ones staying at the inn, this Wednesday night, and as we made our way through the lovely little breakfast room/sitting area (fireplace, balcony, help-yourself coffee, tea, juice, etc.), we saw a note on the breakfast counter, instructing us to look in the fridge for a "special treat." Two pieces of strawberry shortcake, from local strawberries. We thought we were still full from dinner till we took a bite, and then we devoured the cake, and from there to sweet dreams.

Now, who's up for that fish boil? We need ten people....

A couple more pictures from the trip:

Tying up Flowerpot.

The Village Inn dining room.

We missed the Corny farmers' market. Maybe next time.

Some local wine--more on this in a future post.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Iron on the Fire

You can keep your Calphalon pans and your tricked-out Wolf range, your All-Clad and Viking, all your high-tech non-stick dual-fuel convection-roasted induction-grilled modern nonsense.

Give me a campfire and a cast iron skillet. And I will not make you wieners and beans. And I will not heat up a can of Dinty Moore. If I make pancakes...well, I'd let Mary do that.

What I will make with that most basic of kitchens is my very most favorite kind of food, dishes possessed of...what would I call it? Primordial elegance and savor. That says it pretty well.

We've been enjoying lots of campfire skillet meals this summer while camping on the land we purchased in Wisconsin last winter. "Leap Day Folly," "Le Val d'Hiver," "Woodtick Acres"--the land has tried on quite a few titles since we closed the deal on February 29. Now we just call it "The Orchard," for the 60-plus neglected, but still producing, apple trees scattered over the land in a not-very-orchard-like arrangement (we keep finding new apple trees back in the bush, with brambles, thorn trees, birch and poplar grown up around them). But even at home, with all the modern conveniences and some pretty nice equipment (All-Clad and Magna-Lite; Dacor), we still cook this way quite often.
Here's our outdoor kitchen, dining room, and cocktail lounge:

What I particularly like about this method is that the meat, seared directly over the coals, has all the smoky campfire char you want, but it finishes cooking in the pan, so the juices that would be lost to the coals annoint the vegetables, and everything comingles with the herbs and spices, the garlic and onion, etc.. In the end it's a one-dish meal cooked all or mostly outdoors--an excellent thing for a warm summer evening.

For the meal pictured here we used these vegetables, all from the market or our garden:

Baby turnips
New potatoes
Young kale, mustard, and turnip greens
Green garlic
Spring onions

We halved and blanched the turnips and potatoes for maybe five minutes in boiling water, 'til they're barely tender. We put the skillet on the grill and added some oil, then the onion and garlic, the turnips and potatoes, then the greens. When the greens were wilted and the roots starting to brown, we set the skillet aside and turned to the meat.

These are lamb sirloin chops that were marinated in a little olive oil, thyme, green garlic, salt and pepper. We grilled them for four or five minutes a side, to brown them nicely but not cook them through. Then we nestled them into the pan with the vegetables and let it all cook together, turning the meat and stirring the vegetables a couple of times, for another ten minutes. We plated it up, deglazed the pan with a slosh of red wine and swirled in a little butter for a very simple pan sauce. Voila:

Just because you're eating outdoors, there's no reason to be deprived of all that civilization has given us.

A wood fire is the ideal heat source for cooking in cast iron, which is great at holding heat but doesn't conduct it all that evenly. With the coals spread out beneath the skillet you get really even heat and great browning with little danger of burning.

On the second night of this particular outing we seared some country-style pork ribs over the coals and finished cooking them with a white bean and vegetable stew we made mostly at home.

We do fish this way, as well (WARNING! Very non-local--for Minnesota or Wisconsin--ingredients ahead): Sear a piece of salmon, halibut, or striped bass over the coals, add to the cast iron skillet where, with some lardons of good bacon, onions or leeks and garlic have been sweating, and where a few clams and/or mussels have opened in a splash of white wine. Grill some asparagus, some chard or summer squash, chop up the veg and toss them in at the last. Of course you could use a local fish like walleye, whitefish, or lake trout, and we certainly have. But edible shellfish are not so common in our local waters.

This is also THE WAY to make paella. I'll devote a whole post to that later. Right now Mary is packing the car and we're trying to get out of town, headed for the orchard, of course. The cast iron skillet is seasoned, packed, and ready to cook.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw