Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Or By a Cyder-Press..."

"...with a patient look
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours."

Earlier this year, when we purchased our Wisconsin land with its sixty-plus apple trees, many of which we had seen laden with fruit last fall, we had visions of heaping bushels of glorious fruit, rivers of cider (or "cyder," in Keats's world), an abundance of pommes beyond imagining. What would we do with all those apples?, we wondered. What a pleasant condundrum to face!

What a lot to learn we had! What a lot we have learned.

Lesson 1: Many apple trees, particularly older varieties, have a biennial habit--they bear a full crop of apples every other year, and bear sparsely or not at all in the other year. Several of the most heavily fruited trees that we saw last fall turned out to have this tendency. There went half the harvest.

Lesson 2: Apple picking is flippin' hard work. Modern apples orchards use dwarfing rootstock to keep the trees from growing very tall, and then those trees are severely pruned to keep them healthy, vigorous, and easy to harvest. Many of our trees, on the other hand, are anything but dwarfish, growing to twenty feet and more, and in their long-neglected state their crowns are a crowded tangle of branches and dead wood, impenetrable without a pruning saw in hand. Even with a good ladder, and one of those apple-picking gadgets with the basket at the end of a long pole, filling a couple of sacks of apples was hard, hot work. For several weeks this summer I brought apples to sell at our farmers' market , but when I look back and consider the time and gas it took to drive out and back, the time spent picking and hauling, and the paltry sum they brought at market, where they had to go up against apples from real orchards...well, financially at least, I'd have been better off staying home and baking a couple of batches of dog biscuits. (But honestly, I can't say I regret having spent those mornings here--

--rather than in a hot kitchen breathing in dog biscuit fumes!)

Lesson 3: There's a very good reason why organic apples cost so much in the grocery store. I stopped at our co-op mid-summer, before any of our own apples were ripe, to buy an apple, one single apple for a recipe I wanted to make. The cashier rang it up at a buck-fifty. That's because organic apples were priced at $3.89 a pound. I began to imagine that we were sitting on a gold mine, with our dozens of pesticide-free trees.

Then came the hail. Then the scab. Then the bugs, I'm not sure which ones, but I'm guessing, all of them. A couple of trees, well laden and ripening with gorgeous fruit, suddenly and inexplicably dropped all their apples in late August. It was heart-rending to see all that beautiful fruit moldering on the ground, useless for anything but feeding the wildlife.

In brief, if we had tried to fill just one bushel basket with perfect, unblemished, unbruised, bug-free fruit, well, I don't think we could have done it. Really. With trees this long neglected that's just the way it goes. There's a lot that we can do, in terms of pruning, of orchard hygiene, etc., to bring the trees back and have better harvests in the future. In the meantime, we've started planting more trees. Three weeks ago we put six heirloom cider apple trees in the ground just up the hill from "Bide-A-Wee." It felt pretty momentous, I have to say.

We did harvest a decent amount of apples this year, and while most of them were the furthest thing from perfect, they all looked good coming out of the cider press that our friends Emily and Dan Hoisington were nice enough to let us use.

We found that it takes nearly fifteen pounds of apples and rather a lot of work--washing the apples and picking them over, grinding them in the food processor and running them through the press--to produce just a gallon of cider. But what satisfaction in drinking your own home-grown, fresh-pressed sweet cider, and setting a carboy or two aside to ferment into hard cider. I'll report back on that topic in a few weeks.

Meantime, I mentioned a while back how easy it is to make small amounts of fresh apple cider at home, as here comes the proof. We will need:


A food processor (or even just a good grater)

The set-up:

For this demonstration I used just about a pound of apples--looks like six smallish apples there. Chop them up into chunks. Do not peel, do not core. A few bruises are no problem. Put the apple pieces in the FP and start pulsing to chop them up, then let it run. Most likely the apple bits will pile up on the sides. Now's the time to add a little bit of water or cider, to help get the puree going. Scrape down the sides and add a tablespoon of water or cider and let the FP run. Add a tad more liquid if needed. To process this pound of apples I had to add about 1/4 cup of water. Process until you have an applesauce-like consistency:

Put it into the cheesecloth:
And sque-e-e-e-e-e-z-z-z-z-z-e:

That pound of apples produced 1 1/2 cups of juice:

It's a delicious, local beverage--fresh cider has replaced our morning orange juice for some time now--and it's a great ingredient in the kitchen. Next time: Cider-Braised Pork, a wonderful autumn dish.

"To Autumn," stanza two

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes, whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner though dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with a patient look
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

John Keats, 1819

Text (except the Keats) and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wild Mushroom Lasagna

In a recent post I mentioned a wild mushroom lasagna I made a couple of years ago, a particularly memorable dish. Since I had a chunk of hen-of-the-woods and a bit of tooth mushroom to use up, I thought I'd try to recreate it. I made the original with hens, tooth, and a good amount of giant puffball, and it was sublime. This one wasn't as transcendent, but it was still very good. Worth making, and it will feed a crowd.

The usual way of making lasagna is to add the tomato sauce in layers with the bechamel, pasta, and cheese, and you can do that with this recipe if you like, but I prefer to leave it out in making the lasagna, then sauce each portion on the plate. If you want to add the sauce in with the other ingredients, you should double the sauce recipe I've given below.

I realize that wild mushrooms can be difficult to find and expensive to buy, and frankly, I wouldn't spend a lot of money on mushrooms to put in a dish like this. You can certainly substitute cultivated mushrooms for part or all. It will be best with a flavorful variety of fungi like shiitake, oyster, cremini, etc., rather than just, say, all button mushrooms (but even that would be pretty tasty...). Asian markets are often a good source for interesting and inexpensive mushrooms like oysters and shiitake.

Wild Mushroom Lasagna
serves eight

1 pound wild mushrooms (such as hen-of-the-woods, oyster mushrooms, sulfur shelf, puffballs, tooth mushrooms, etc.), chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 Tbsp unsalted butter or olive oil
2 Tbsp dry white wine or dry vermouth
2 Tbsp flour
1 1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock
2 cups whole milk
1/8 tsp pimente d'espelette or cayenne pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

12 ounces dried lasagna
8 ounces gruyere cheese, grated (or another nice melting cheese that you like)
4 ounces pecorino romano, grated (or another hard, fragrant cheese, parmesan, asiago, etc.)

In a large saucepan heat 2 Tbsp of the butter or olive oil. Add the mushrooms and onion, and cook over medium heat until the mushrooms begin to give off some liquid. Turn the heat to low, cover, and cook for five minutes. Remove the lid, add the garlic and a good pinch of salt, and continue cooking until the mushrooms are lightly browned and tender. (Some wild mushrooms, notably those hen-of-the-woods, will remain a bit al dente even after quite a bit of cooking.)

Add the white wine or vermouth, and scrape with the wooden spatula to deglaze the pan. Add the last Tbsp of butter or oil to the pan, and sprinkle the flour over everything. Stir with a wooden spatula for about a minute. Now begin adding the stock, just a little at first, stirring constantly. As the liquid thickens, add the rest of the stock, then slowly add the milk, stirring as you do. Add the espelette pepper (available in gourmet shops and worth seeking out) or cayenne, a couple sprigs of fresh thyme or a pinch of dried (dried thyme is about the only dry herb I use).

Simmer the mixture gently for about ten minutes, till it has thickened to a gravy-like consistency. Turn off the heat and stir in a handful of chopped fresh parsley. That's your mushroom bechamel.

At this point you can let it cool and refrigerate for a couple of days, or freeze it for...however long you need to, I guess. (I've never really understood recipe directions that say you can freeze something for, say, a month. I mean, it's frozen; as long as it stays frozen, what's going to happen to it? On day 32 does it suddenly go bad...?)

To make the lasagna: Preheat your oven to 375 F. Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Get out your 9" X 13" pan and spread a little of the bechamel in the bottom. Lay a layer of noodles over that. Cover that with one third of the remaining bechamel, and one third of each of the cheeses. Lay down more noodles, half of the remaining bechamel, half of the cheese that's left. The last of the noodles, bechamel, and cheese. Voila.

Bake for 40 minutes, till the top is brown and all is bubbly and aromatic. I like to serve this with a simple fresh tomato sauce, like this (this will sauce four portions):

1 1/2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes (if all you've got is styrofoam winter supermarket tomatoes, you're better off using canned--or, maybe you've got some delicious
tomato gratin in your freezer! That would do nicely.)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
large clove garlic, chopped
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp red wine
1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
fresh herbs to taste--basil, thyme and parsley my choice

Peel, seed and chop the tomatoes. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the onion. Cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Add the tomatoes, red wine, vinegar and a bit of salt. Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning, add herbs if you like. Spoon over lasagna hot from the oven.

Tutti a tavola, a mangiare! (With apologies to Lydia B.!)

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The View From "Bide-A-Wee"

In this

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,

Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines which 'round the thatch-eaves run,

To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core,

To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shell
With a sweet kernel. To set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer hath o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Thank you, John Keats. That's the first stanza of "To Autumn," typed from memory, so there may be a glitch or two from published versions.

"Bide-A-Wee" is what we call the little cabin we put on our Wisconsin land. It's Scottish and means "rest a while." Melinda came up with it. It seems to fit, especially the "wee" part.

Happy autumn.

Copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Titular Delicacy... evidence, at last. I know of only one way to obtain local trout caviar, and that is to drive to my local trout stream at the proper time of year (late September), string up my fly rod, catch a couple of fat female trout, knock them on the head, harvest their roe, painstakingly separate each individual egg from the tenacious grip of the membrane that holds the egg sack together, rinse the eggs, salt them, and let them sit for a day.

That is why it has taken me a while to get some pictures and a better description of the rare treat that gives this journal its title. (I talked about how this "blog" got its name here, back in my early, even wordier, days of blogging...!)

The end of the open season for trout in Wisconsin's inland waters looks like this at our house (if we're lucky):

That's a spectacularly colored brook trout at top, and two browns. The brookie and the smaller brown were females, and they gave identical amounts of roe. Aside from catching the fish, the only hard part about making trout caviar is separating the eggs from the membrane. Using our trusty Salter scale, the same one that gets a workout during each market bread baking, I found that each fish gave us 25 grams of roe. And I had read that caviar is usually made by adding from four to eight percent salt to the roe. I found that 1/4-teaspoon is about five grams. So I wanted less than half of that for each 25 grams of roe. What that amounted to was a couple of good pinches, just covering the surface of the eggs in their ramekins. That 25 grams, by the way, is just about two tablespoons in volume.

So in the end, here's what we had (brook trout roe on the left, brown on the right):

It was kind of a special evening, being as how I was celebrating an anniversary denoted in Roman numerals by the same letter as my last initial. So after the caviar we moved on to trout in sorrel sauce, with some beautiful little local fingerling potatoes. It made entering my second half-century pretty easy to take, actually.

Sorrel Sauce
Serves two. Sorrel is a relative of rhubarb and buckwheat. Its tart, lemony flavor is wonderful in this rich sauce for fried or grilled trout or salmon.

3/4 cup fish stock
3/4 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp dry white wine or dry vermouth
1/2 cup cream
1 small onion, sliced
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 small bunch sorrel
Salt and pepper

In a small saucepan combine the stocks, wine, onion, and 1/4 cup of cream. Bring to a boil, turn down to a quick simmer, and cook till reduced by half. Strain to remove the onion, then return strained sauce to to saucepan. Set aside.

Remove the thick stems from the sorrel. Take 3/4 of the sorrel leaves and chop them into rough confetti. Slice the rest into very fine ribbons--a chiffonade.

As your fish cooks, add the remaining 1/4 cup of cream and a pinch of salt to the saucepan and bring back to a brisk simmer. Reduce by one third. Turn the heat to low and add the chopped sorrel. Cook for one minute, then whisk the butter in a couple of teaspoons at a time. The sauce should now be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it's not, simmer a couple of minutes more. Taste for salt, add a few grinds of pepper.

To serve, spoon the sauce over and around the fish. Garnish with the sorrel chiffonade. Any extra sauce is fabulous on plain boiled new potatoes.

p.s: I've added a great new site to our "Friends" list at right--Mr Finspot of Seattle writes a wonderful wild foods blog, Fat of the Land --superb photos, too. I've also added a link for The Creamery Restaurant and Inn, Downsville, WI . Downsville is just a few miles south of Menomonie, a little more than an hour's drive from the Twin Cities. Chef Brian Griep has enthusiastically embraced the local-seasonal food philosophy, sourcing many of his ingredients from local, sustainable and organic producers, including Midtown's own Sylvan Hills Organic Farm (whom you market regulars know as "Jackie"!). Less happy news is that Callisters' Farm in the Market, in the Midtown Global Market, is out of business.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Big Fun(gi)

Having gone on at such length quite recently about the rigors of the foraging life, the sweat, the toil, the terrible encounters with thorn and bramble, etc., I feel just a little bit abashed to display this nearly effortless haul: close to twenty pounds of delectable wild fungi gathered in, oh, maybe, five minutes? Well, they came from two different spots, so there was some driving time involved. This is the joy of having a little foraging history, that I now know precisely where and when to look for some of my favorite wild mushrooms of the year.

What we're looking at here are two big hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, grifola frondosa, and one lovely specimen of a tooth mushroom, genus hericium. Whether it's the hericium commonly called a bear's head, lion's mane, old-man's-beard, or something else, I'm not sure. There's a lot of taxonomical confusion in the tooth mushroom world, I gather--and that's coming from sources far more knowledgable than I: David Arora author of the definitive (well, almost definitive, I guess I should say...) Mushrooms Demystified, for instance. It doesn't matter much, though, because all the hericiums are distinctive (as a group), edible, and, in my experience, delicious.

I've been finding these particular mushrooms for so many years now, they're like old friends. Old friends that you pluck, slice up or pull to pieces, saute, and eat.... Well, let's say they're like gifts from old friends, which is indeed what they are. The mushrooms you eat are the fruit of the fungus, which lives on after you've harvested said fruit, just as an apple tree doesn't mind if you gather its apples.

I see in my notes that I first located this tooth mushroom in 1998! It was growing in a scar in a maple tree near one of my favorite trout streams. It reoccured in that spot for several years, and then, two years ago, failed to appear. I figured that was the end of that but, hoping that it might have spread its spores to a receptive tree nearby, I checked back again last year, and found it fruiting again on the same tree, but in a different spot. It's now expressing its fungalness through another scar a couple of feet over my head, so I have to knock it off with a stick and catch it as it falls.

This year's specimen weighed just over two pounds. Those hens-of-the-woods, on the other hand, which I've been finding in the same spot for six years now, weighed in at over eleven pounds for the big one, more than five for the "small." Around here (Minnesota and Wisconsin), hens are almost always found at the base of white oak trees. They parasitize these trees, and after they've helped to kill them they'll often live on for years on the stump, which is where I found these two.

Though hens and tooth mushrooms aren't closely related, they're structurally similar, both put together a bit like a head of cauliflower, with lots of branches emanating from a solid central core. Here they are each in cross-section:

When you find mushrooms of this size, you get a lot of opportunities to experiment. We have sauteed, roasted, chopped into stuffing, grilled, used in pasta sauces. The simple saute, in good butter, with some onion or shallot and garlic, a sprig of thyme is still probably our favorite method, and we love to spoon that over a plain omelet, with of course a slice of toasted country bread alongside. These mushrooms are also fantastic when they soak up the fat and juices as they roast along with a chicken and chunks of autumn vegetables. Oh, and now I'm remembering a wild mushroom bechamel sauce made with hens, some tooth, and puffball mushrooms that contributed to the best lasagna ever.

In a cool autumn with enough rain, but not too much, you can find hens and tooth mushrooms over a period of weeks. We have finally had some decent rains here, and on a walk through the grouse woods with Annabel yesterday (seven flushes, two shots fired, zip in the game bag), I noticed more mushroom activity than I've seen all year, though nothing I knew to be edible save for a couple of water-logged oysters. It's a lovely time of year to be in the woods, anyway, even if no birds or mushrooms come home to the table. Take a walk, a pocket knife, a good field guide, and appropriate caution in approaching wild mushrooms. You're guaranteed a fine time.

Text & photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw