Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Saps of Springtime

You'd have to be a sap to believe that we're done with winter just because it's spring according to the calendar. This was the view from Bide-A-Wee on the first official day of spring, 2009. And it looked like this the next morning:

But by mid-morning the fog had burned off, and the snow was all gone by afternoon. As evening came on we were standing around in T-shirts watching maple sap boil down over a wood fire. Winter, spring, and a taste of summer, all in 24 hours or less! Theater of the seasons, you betcha!

Let's skip the traditional seasonal designations, and just say: It's sugaring time. In the woods on our Wisconsin land the birch, aspens, and oaks predominate, but we have a few nice-sized maples, and we were eager to have a first try at tapping them. Here below, our "sugar bush." You can see the sophisicated gathering equipment--pickle buckets from our local burger joint, various jugs that were cluttering up the basement, camping water containers, pots and pans.

We were fortunate to have recently made the acquaintance of
Teresa Marrone and her husband Bruce Bohnenstingl. Teresa is the author of Abundantly Wild (which I wrote about earlier this year ) and several other books. She didn't literally write the book on home maple sugaring, but she did write the article, in the recent Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine of the Minnesota DNR (that article is written for kids; just my speed!). Bruce and Teresa tap two trees in the front yard of their south Minneapolis home, and get enough sap to boil down for a few pints of syrup in a good year. They showed us the basics, which are pretty...basic. Drill a whole in a big enough tree, smack a spigot in, hang a bucket.

The only really tricky part is boiling the sap down to syrup. It takes around 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. That's a lot of water to dispose of; you don't want to do it in your kitchen, unless you like the idea of life in a sauna. A wood fire is traditional; a good-sized propane burner is more efficient, and results in less ash in the syrup.

It hasn't been great sugaring weather so far this year, at least not in our little corner of Wisconsin. It was cold through the middle of March, and then when it warmed up, it got too warm, often not dropping below freezing at night--the cycle of cold nights and warm days is what really gets the sap flowing. So far we've managed to gather enough sap for exactly one-and-a-half pints.

Hey, look, we made maple syrup! We are very, very pleased with ourselves.

It is also possible to make syrup from birch sap, and we're looking forward to trying that, as well. Birch sap is not nearly as sweet as maple, so it requires a lot more boiling down. It's also a completely different type of sugar from that produced by maples: maple sugar is sucrose, exactly the same as table sugar; birch syrup is mainly fructose. I was really surprised to learn that. Anyone know the reason these two trees produce completely different kinds of sugar? This is not a rhetorical question, or a quiz--if anyone out there knows the reason for the difference, I'd love to hear.

There are other ways to take advantage of maple sap without all the rigmarole of reducing it to syrup. This
New York Times article describes the rituals of maple-tapping time in South Korea. These guys drink sap by the gallon, and having tried it myself, I can understand why--sap straight from the tree is cold and clear as tap water, slightly sweet, a touch woody, extremely refreshing.

Look for maple-inspired recipes here in the weeks to come.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Soup is Good Food

A couple of weeks ago Trout Caviar took an imaginary journey, following the 45th parallel across the Atlantic until we arrived (with a little northward jog) in Alsace. The idea was to find ways to keep the northern table interesting through these last lingering weeks of winter. That was fun, if a little bit porky, by the end. While there's no disguising a certain francophilia in this endeavor, French food isn't the only cuisine that interests me, nor the only place to find inspiration for local, seasonal delights.

If you follow the 45th parallel the other way, across the Great Plains, over the Rockies, right out to sea and across the Pacific, you'll just catch the tip of northern Japan, cruise through Russia just a tad north of North Korea, and on into China.

I was thinking about Japanese and Korean cuisines in this Asian-inspired hot pot soup. I don't know a lot about those styles of cooking, but I'm intrigued by what I do know. The two share certain techniques and ingredients that are particularly useful to northern cooks: Lots of root vegetables (radishes, burdock, sweet potato); noodles, especially buckwheat noodles ("soba" in Japanese); lots of preserved foods, dried, pickled, fermented (chief among these, Korea's fabulously pungent kimchi, fermented cabbage and other vegetables).

This soup is not authentically anything but Trout Caviar cooking, but it's fresh, light and savory, and it makes excellent use of what local vegetables remain available. I think it's worthwhile to parse the provenance of the ingredients, because I impressed myself with how many local products, especially vegetables, went into this:

The broth from
Hill and Vale beef chuck; the beef in the soup, Hill and Vale top blade steak
Golden turnips, black radishes, Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin, purchased at Seward Co-op
Carrots and leeks, Our Garden
Butternut squash, Pflaum Farm, Midtown Farmers' Market
Gourmet's Delight in Eden, WI. I had completely overlooked mushrooms as local, seasonal produce, but in fact they are grown in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The kimchi, house-fermented, Midtown Farmers' Market napa cabbage, vintage 2007 (a very good year!)
The homemade buckwheat noodles used flours from Whole Grain Milling, Welcome, MN

(Ironically, this whole thing started out as a quest to find a use for burdock root; ironic because, well, there's no burdock in the dish. That's still sitting in the crisper, waiting its turn....)

I'm not going to give a recipe, just a method: Cut your vegetables, whatever you have and like, into pieces that will cook quickly. Slice the meat as thin as you can--putting it in the freezer for about 20 minutes will make it easier to slice.

For two servings, take about four cups of flavorful stock (mine was a five-spice* beef stock, but you could use chicken, or vegetable, or fish for a seafood hot pot), bring it up to a simmer, and season to taste. Then add the vegetables according to cooking time (I put in leek shreds, carrot ribbons, and mushrooms to start, then squash and turnip squares a few minutes later). The very thinly sliced beef will cook in literally seconds. Just turn the heat off as soon as you've added it, and serve.

If you have one of those
"Mongolian" hot pots , the ones with a chimney coming up through a moat holding the stock, kept hot with coals in the bottom, you can be very authentic and cook each piece of meat or veg as you want it. Otherwise, just serve it up in a big soup bowl, as at top. I drizzled a little sesame oil over it at the end, and a little chili oil on mine.

We accompanied the soup with a salad made from black radish (peel, cut into matchsticks, blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds, refresh; toss with a soy-sugar-chili oil-vinegar-sesame oil dressing) and some truly kickin' kimchi that has been aging in the back of the fridge for nearly two years.
Wild Fermentation and The Joy of Pickling are two good guides for making kimchi and other fermented vegetables.

I went a bit over the top with this one and made my own "soba," buckwheat noodles. My soba technique could use some work--these noodles, made with half buckwheat flour and half whole wheat bread flour held together (just) through rolling, cutting, and cooking, but they fell apart as we ate them. Amazingly, I was unable to find good instructions for homemade soba anywhere on the almighty Internet. Several videos of Japanese guys making them, but no useful instruction in English. You can buy dry soba noodles at any Asian market, of course; you could also use egg noodles, or rice sticks, or bean threads.

Finally, we made a dipping sauce to serve along side:

1/4 chicken stock
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 tsp rice wine or apple cider vinegar

Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a small saucepan, stir in the sugar. Pour into a bowl and add the rest of the ingredients. Serve alongside the soup to dip meat, veg, and noodles, if you like.


* Chinese five-spice generally consists of cinnamon, star anise, fennel seed, cloves, and Sichuan pepper. Simmering the whole (not ground) spices in stock imparts a subtle background spice market flavor.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rillettes de Porc

This is just about the simplest of all patés to make. It's really just fatty pork slowly simmered with a few seasonings until it's falling apart. Then you smash it up with your hands, beat it with a spatula, and pack it into ramekins. The area around the city of Tours in the Loire valley is known for its pork products, particularly rillettes. A little crock of rillettes, with its constant companions, grain mustard and cornichons, is often served with an aperitif. Or it may be part of an assiette de cochonailles, a things-made-from-pig plate--a bit of ham, dried sausage, a slice of terrine--served as a dinner first course or casual lunch.

We often simplify even further, making lunch out of a lump of rillettes, some crusty bread, a few salad leaves, maybe a piece of cheese. This is such a simple, honest dish, so evocative of its rural origins and a frugal way in the kitchen that does not trade flavor for economy. In other words: It is cheap, delicious, and reeks of terroir.

As with all very simple preparations, the quality of its few ingredients is all-important, and here the pork is practically all there is to it. Therefore, use only the best natural or organic pork you can find. It calls for an inexpensive cut, pork shoulder, so it won't break the bank. We're lucky here in Minnesota to have a number of excellent local producers whose pork is widely available--
Pastures A Plenty , Hidden Stream Farm , Chase Brook Natural Meats , to name a few.

Rillettes takes advantage of the scrappy bits of pork, the butcher's left-overs, and of the pig's good fat, as well. The pork for rillettes should be at least one-third fat. That's all the more reason to use only excellent natural pork, as anything suspect that is fed to an animal is concentrated in the fat. And I'm sure I hardly need to say it, but please avoid at all costs the so-called "enhanced" pork often sold at the big-box grocery stores, industrial product injected with water and various salts, to make it "juicy," because all the flavor has been bred out in the effort to transform the noble swine into "the other white meat...".

The fat of a well-raised pig is dense, white, and creamy. It renders into exquisite lard, a venerable fat with a thousand uses. In the context of a diet rich in the whole blessed variety of local, seasonal foods, and of a life rich in interest, exercise, and joie de vivre, it can be enjoyed without fear, without guilt.

You can eat the rillettes right away, but they are best if allowed to age for a day or two and, sealed with a layer of fat, they'll keep for at least a couple of weeks, improving with every day.

Vive le cochon, and would you please pass the mustard?

Rillettes de Porc
makes enough to fill three four-ounce ramekins; this recipe can easily be doubled or tripled

1 pound pork shoulder, at least one-third fat, cut in 1-inch cubes
3/4 tsp salt
coarsely ground black pepper
bay leaf
pinch quatres-épices
three sprigs fresh thyme

Place the pork, salt, bay leaf, thyme and spices in a heavy saucepan. Add water to cover by an inch or so. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, cover, and cook until the pork is falling apart, three to four hours. You may need to add more water during this time.

At the end of the cooking all the water should be gone, but only just at the very end--you don't want the pork frying in its own fat. When the pork is done it will crush easily with a fork. Let the pork sit, in the pan, overnight.

In the morning, roll up your sleeves and wash your hands. Now, dig right in to the solidified mass of rillettes and crush the pieces with your fingers. Working methodically and joyfully, you may be reminded of the mystical communion experienced by the whalers in Moby Dick as they worked together to render the blubber, their arms immersed in liquid fat, their hands glancing off each other as the ship rocked on the cold, gray sea; you may not.

Work the pork with your hands until it is fairly a paste. It will be pretty melted already, but put it back on a low heat to melt it thoroughly. Remove three tablespoons of clear fat and set it aside; this will be used to seal the top of the ramekins.

Now, transfer the rillettes to a large bowl, and working over ice (or a snowbank, deer skull optional; it really has been a rough winter here*), beat the rillettes with a wooden spatula until it is quite cold and it forms a homogeneous mass. Taste for salt as it cools--you'll probably want to add a pinch or two, as it will taste less salty as it cools. Add another grind of black pepper, too.

I followed the basic recipe laid out by Jacques Pépin in A French Chef Cooks at Home. Once the rillettes are nearly done, he says you should, " it with the wooden spatula for 1 or 2 minutes to whiten it and make it more fluffy." Then he says (I love this part): "Remember, it should not be too fluffy. Therefore, do not overwork it." What more do you need to know? I'm not sure I would call this "fluffy," at all, never mind "too fluffy." It will be white and paté-like, and you will be tired of stirring it. So stop, already.

Divide the rillettes among three 1/2-cup ramekins. Pack it in nice and tight. Melt the fat you have saved, and pour it over the top of the rillettes, turning the ramekin to cover the top completely. Refrigerate. About an hour before serving, take a ramekin out of the fridge to warm and soften just a little. Serve with crusty bread, grain mustard, cornichons; or with a salad.

A glass or two of cold sauvignon blanc from the Loire, such as sancerre, pouilly-fumé, quincy or reuilly is especially sympa with rillettes.


* Actually, that's a souvenir from the Wisconsin woods; Annabel found it for me a few years ago when we were fishing on the lower Kinnickinnic River.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Beets, Neeps, & "Beauty Heart"

A salad which I offer not so much for contemplation of its refined perfection, but as example and inspiration to those looking for new ways to approach the vegetables of a northern winter. All these beautiful roots--red and chioggia beets, turnips of various hues, "Beauty Heart" radishes (as well as spanish black and daikon)--have been available from local farms (sold at the co-ops) until very recently.

Salads using cooked beets, whether roasted or boiled, are of course quite common. And then it occured to me, looking at a recipe from my Alsatian cookbook for leftover pot au feu ingredients tossed in a vinaigrette, that we might be able to take other winter roots, roast them, and go straight to salad.

This was certainly beautiful, and simple, and good to eat. Don't overcook the turnip or radish--it surprised me that they cooked so much more quickly than the beets, and they'll turn mushy if overcooked. Beets, it seems, can take any amount of cooking and hold together. Turnips and radishes (which I've come to think of as simply spicy turnips) are both in that cruciferous, cabbage family, and they'll have that overcooked-cabbage smell if roasted too long.

I used aromatic French walnut oil in this salad, from
J. LeBlanc et Fils, specifically. Locally I've noticed this same oil at Cooks of Crocus Hill and at Whole Foods. It's a bit pricy (around $20 for eight ounces), but a little goes a long way--I'm nearing the end of the bottle we picked up in Paris, over two years ago! Time to use it up; it has remained very fragrant, with no sign of turning rancid, kept in the fridge that long time.

Do note that this is the dark walnut oil, as opposed to the light oil commonly available. The light oil has little aroma, but could be used in this salad, as could olive or grapeseed. Garnish with some toasted chopped walnuts, if you like.

Salad of Mixed Roasted Roots

2 small beets, one red, one chioggia
1 small turnip, any color
1 "Beauty Heart" radish, tennis-ball size
1 Tbsp apple syrup* (or 1 Tbsp mellow apple cider vinegar mixed with 1/4 tsp sugar)
1 Tbsp walnut oil
a squeeze of lemon juice, optional
good pinch salt
ground black pepper to taste

Place the root vegetables in a covered baking dish and roast at 400 F until they pierce easily with a paring knife. They will cook at different times: the turnip will probably be done first, in about 30 minutes; the beets will likely take 10 minutes more, and the radish another 10 minutes. Peel the vegetables when cool, cut into roughly 3/4-inch chunks, toss with the dressing ingredients.

We served it with a few green leaves and a lump of rillettes de porc, country pork paté (recipe for that next time).


The local-foods tally: All local except the walnut oil, salt and pepper, and lemon juice.

Pastures A Plenty pork shoulder, Kerkhoven, Minnesota
--Beets, turnips, and radish all from
Harmony Valley Farm , Viroqua, Wisconsin
--Salad greens, Our Sunporch
--Apple syrup from our own apple cider

* Apple syrup is a tart-sweet condiment made by boiling apple cider down until reduced by three-quarters, e.g., start with 2 cups cider, boil until just one-half cup remains. Stored in the fridge it will keep indefinitely, and can be used in place of flavorful vinegars in dressings, sauces, or marinades. It is not as acidic as most vinegars, so you may need to add a little oomph in the form of a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of wine or cider vinegar.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, March 16, 2009

More Salads, More Pig, More Roots: Oh, My!

I really don't know where to start. I guess I'll start with what is most new, most fun, most exciting on our table, and that is: fresh greens a-growing. I'm talking real, live, roots-in-the-dirt salad greens, which couldn't possibly be more local, as they are growing a mere twenty feet from our kitchen. Check it out:

A few weeks ago Mary and I attended a workshop put on by the Land Stewardship Project . It featured Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel talking about their "Garden Goddess" CSA. Carol and Chuck came up with the brilliant idea of doing a winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)--they start deliveries in October, when most normal CSAs are winding down, and go through April. Their CSA shares include root vegetables that they've grown outside the previous summer and stored, but its main appeal is the fresh local greens that they grow all winter in a passive-solar greenhouse attached to their home in western Minnesota.

I want one. Really bad. But while it is fairly simple in concept, actually creating something like Chuck and Carol's set-up requires a fair amount of planning, equipment, and labor. Throwing some seeds in potting soil, getting them started under fluorescent lights, then moving them to our sunny sun porch window, that was a piece of cake.

I began with frisée, lettuce, radishes, beets, and mache. I wasn't expecting roots from the radishes and beets-everything is grown for the tender greens. I planted those in seed-starting mix, because that's what I had on hand. There's not a lot of nutrients in that stuff, so I've fed with fish emulsion once, and ought to again. Those were planted in mid-January, and we were able to take the first snippings by February 21.

For the second planting I used potting mix that I sifted to remove big sticks and chunks, and I made a bed around three inches deep in a plastic container. In this I planted mesclun (Burpee's Spicy Mix, Five Zesty Varieties!), red kale, and turnips. These have been doing great; in the mesclun, arugula and mizuna dominate.

Now, we are not harvesting heaping bowls of robust greens. We are snipping delicate handfuls of greens for small salads, for garnishes, to top a bowl of noodles or scatter over an omelette.
And it is absolutely worth the effort and then some. Based on this limited experiment, I would say that the frisée and mesclun have been most successful. The turnips and kale are looking good now, but have been a little slow. The radishes came along quickly, but were slow to come back after cutting. The beets, no. Too slow, too little. Maybe try chard.

I would do this again even if we got nothing to eat from it, at all. It's such a joy just to see something growing at this time of year, to touch the tender shoots and feel them bounce back, to smell something a little like dirt. As it is, with the sun stronger every day, the equinox just days away (Happy St. Pat's, BTW), we'll be getting more and more salad each week. Then I'll put the flats out in the cold frame, where they'll really get sun, and before long it will be time to actually plant in the ground. Hooray!

Tomorrow look for the root vegetable salad recipe, and the rillettes a couple days later; by then I hope you're hungry for pork again....

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, March 13, 2009

Choucroute Salad

A fringe benefit from preparing the choucroute garnie in the previous post. We had some leftover bacon, sausage, and potatoes. There was a bit of sauerkraut left, too. I made a simple vinaigrette, stirring in the 'kraut, chopped fine, at the end:

2 tsp
Leatherwood Vinegary apple wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp grain mustard
2 Tbsp canola oil
pinch salt
several grinds black pepper
about 2 Tbsp finely chopped leftover sauerkraut

1 link sausage sliced, browned
2 thick slices bacon, cut into lardons, browned
2 boiled potatoes, chunked up, tossed in with the meats to warm
2 eggs, poached
1 small shallot, sliced, fried till crisp in a little butter--optional
Hearty salad greens like frisée

co-op had some local, hydoponic salad greens from LaBore Farms,near Faribault, mostly frisée with some purple mustard, tatsoi, that sort of thing. Wash, spin, and dress the greens, saving back a little dressing. Top the greens with the meats and potatoes, drizzle the rest of the dressing around. Top with a poached egg, and give it the gratuitous gourmet garnish of fried shallots, if you please.

I love this kind of bistro dinner salad, topped with a poached egg. Very local, very simple, very delicious.

The local products involved: LaBore Farms greens, home-smoked bacon, homemade sausage from Hidden Stream pork, home-fermented sauerkraut from Midtown Farmers' Market cabbage, Leatherwood vinegar, Schultz organic eggs, Midtown market shallots (still have a few left!), MFM potatoes, homemade bread from all organic Minnesota flours, Hope Creamery butter.

How're we doing?

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


This really is an interesting moment in American culinary history. You have, on the one hand, an explosion of sushi, Thai restaurants taking over as the neighborhood café, fish tacos in fresh warm torillas with mango salsa as commonplace to our young people as the seasoned ground beef in crunchy Old El Paso shells kind were in my youth*.

And then, there are those of us who rhapsodize over sausage and bacon served atop fermented cabbage. Choucroute garnie, simmered sauerkraut served with pork in its several guises--smoked, cured, as sausage--is one of the best known Alsatian dishes. If the 'kraut is treated well, thoroughly rinsed, squeezed dry, gently simmered with good wine and aromatics, and if the meats are best quality, the potatoes good and sweet, it can be transcendent, humble as its individual parts may be--Franco-Teutonic synergy on a plate.

But if the 'kraut is indifferent, too sour, salty, or mushy, the sausage and bacon dull industrial products, it can be an utter gut-bomb, not to put too fine a point on it. It's all in the preparation, and the ingredients.

So let's aim for the former version, the transcendent one. If you can start with
homemade sauerkraut, that's half the battle. If you don't have that, you can still make something wonderful. Some German or eastern-european markets make their own and sell it in bulk. Failing that, you may find good quality "artisan" 'kraut in jars in the refrigerated section of the grocery store (near the fresh pickles); and then, the stuff in plastic bags will do, too, if the rest of your ingredients are top-notch. If all you can find is canned 'kraut, though, I would choose a different dish for dinner tonight.

(And here's a little tip: You can help your 'kraut along by adding some finely shredded fresh cabbage. In fact, this is good even if you start with excellent 'kraut.)

When I say "transcendent" in describing choucroute, I mean transcendent in a hearty but surprisingly light way, a reassuring, comforting, but also intriguing sort of way. The cabbage will keep a mild crunch and sourness, but will be enriched by the wine, stock, and bacon, and made aromatic by spices that might surprise you in so Germanic a dish--juniper, cumin, coriander, clove. All that plays off against the meats, rich, salty, and smoky. It really is a wonderful dish, just the thing to buck up one's spirits in these waning (we hope) days of a very long winter.

Which is not to say I would turn up my nose at a nice plate of sushi....

In Alsace this dish is often served with a veritable mountain of meat atop the cabbage, an absurd sort of lollapalooza sundae of fresh and cured sausages, ham, smoked pork shoulder, bacon fresh and smoked. I used just homemade bacon and sausage in this more manageable version for two. Use whatever top quality pork products you can find. A piece of good bacon for simmering in the choucroute is the one thing I wouldn't omit or substitute.

(A confession: The choucroute pictured in this post is not the most beautiful I have ever made. After I browned the sausages and bacon, I thought it would be a good idea to deglaze the pan with a little water and add that juice to the 'kraut. The result tasted fine, but it turned the cabbage dark brown, when what you want is nice whitish 'kraut. A word to the wise....)

Choucroute Garnie
serves two, generously

8 ounces sauerkraut
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 tsp butter
1 tsp oil (grapeseed or canola)
1/3 cup + 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup water
3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
4 whole coriander seeds, or a good pinch ground
1/8 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 juniper berries, crushed
1 whole clove
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper

6 to 8 ounces smoked slab bacon
2 to 4 sausages, fresh or smoked, as you prefer (I used fresh in this version)

Rinse the sauerkraut thoroughly in two or three changes of water. Drain well and then squeeze it to remove most of the moisture. Taste the 'kraut. If it still tastes very sour, or too salty to your taste, rinse it again. It should be just a bit sour, and then more of the sourness will dissipate in the cooking.

In a 10-inch skillet with a lid (or similar size saucepan), melt the butter and add the oil. Add the onions and sweat them over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the sauerkraut and the spices
, the 1/3 cup wine, stock and water. Nestle the piece of bacon into the center. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a slow simmer, cover, and let cook for about an hour, checking occasionally to make sure there's still a bit of liquid in the pan. Add a bit of water if necessary.

After an hour, remove the bacon and cut in into four thick slices. In a separate pan lightly brown the bacon on both sides, and brown the sausage, too, if you like. Return bacon and sausage to the sauerkraut, along with 1/2 cup of wine. Cover again and simmer another 20 minutes.

Serve with boiled potatoes, crusty sourdough bread, grain mustard, and a glass of cold riesling.


* Actually, that was pretty exotic fare, back in the day, on North Eden Drive in paradisiacal Eden Prairie. Homemade tacos and those Appian Way pizzas in a box were what we had for international flare. I must have been destined for a life full of fermentation--I am transported as I write this, remembering the smell of the pizza yeast reviving, liberated from its tiny foil envelope. Well, Proust had his madeleine, and to each his own!

And as far as the fish tacos go, I'm going to take it up as a challenge to come up with a Trout Caviar/Bide-A-Wee rendition once the trout season opens; all local, no ahi or mangos need apply.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Nice Fatty Pork Shoulder Tied Up in String

Has to be one of my favorite things. So pretty was that piece of Hidden Stream Farm shoulder from Clancey's , it almost put me off my mission, which was sausage. I could see that layer of fat browning, crisping in a slow oven, I could smell the drippings crystalizing in the pan, and I could taste the rich, yielding meat, flavored with nothing more than salt and pepper and its own innate, juicy porkiness....

I should have bought two roasts. Well, I know where to get more. I carried on with the sausage plan. Some people might look at the task of sausage-making and ask, "Why?" I look at a beautiful piece of pork, some hog casing, my KitchenAid meat grinder, and ask, "Why not?"

You see, in keeping with the Alsatian theme introduced in the previous post, I was going to make a choucroute garnie, sauerkraut simmered with wine and aromatics, served with various sausages and smoked meats. I made the sauerkraut myself, and the bacon; it seemed only fitting that I should go whole hog (pun purely intended) and stuff my own sausages.

There is also the matter of what I might call the modern "sausage paradox." To wit: There have probably never been more kinds of sausages available to us, from hot italian to andouille, wild rice bratwurst, sun-dried-tomato-turkey, blueberry-lamb; bangers, merguez, chorizo, boudins blanc et noir, swedish potato; there are fresh, smoked, dried, cured, fermented, natural, organic, free-range, grass-fed, humanely-raised and gently-slaughtered (!) sausages. Sausage, sausage, everywhere!

And yet, I have found it impossible to find the kind of sausage I often crave: a simple fresh pork sausage, with a good aroma of garlic, a side note of shallot, and the slightest wafting atmosphere of spice. Sufficiently fatty; not too salty. Where you taste the meat, exalted by its companionable flavorings, not the sausage-maker's overbearing hand. It comes down to DIY.

(As a side note, I'd like to point out, in this time when "charcuterie" is all the rage, that making fresh sausage is not that. The word comes from the French chair, flesh; and cuit, cooked. So smoked meats, dried and cured sausages, patés, terrines and mousses; rillettes, rillons, grillons, rillauds--these qualify as charcuterie; stuffing ground meat in casing does not. I bring this up spurred by the bitter memory of driving across town some years ago in avid anticipation to a restaurant where there worked, said one food writer, a "master charcutier," turning out exquisite examples of that ancient art. Turned out what they had was a guy with a meat grinder, and not much skill at using it. Anyway....)

The main thing I want to say about sausage is this: It is not at all difficult to make. The only complicated part of making this sausage was getting it in the casing (Clancey's sold me the casing, BTW; a lot of butchers make their own sausage, and will be willing to sell you natural casing). For that you need the pig guts, which might make you a little squeamish--they do me, I admit--and the equipment--the meat grinder and the sausage-stuffing horn. But you don't have to stuff it in casing. You can make patties, just like a hamburger, or those "Jimmy Dean"-type breakfast sausages. You can form a larger sausage by wrapping the ground, seasoned meat in plastic wrap, tying off the ends with kitchen twine. Then you can steam or simmer the whole thing, in the plastic, and either serve it straight away (without the plastic, of course!), slices on a lovely bed of lentils or a big frisée salad; or, let it cool, then slice it and brown the slices, serve aside a French potato salad, whatever.

These turned out just gorgeous, in looks and flavor. There are good sausages out there, from the smaller, artisan-type butchers, but there's nothing like knowing that only the best ingredients have gone into your sausage.

And just think of the foodie street cred you'll get from stuffing your own....

Good Fresh Pork Sausage

2 pounds fatty pork shoulder, or a mix of leaner shoulder and pork belly--it should be at least one-quarter fat
1/4 cup dry fragrant white wine, such as Alsatian "gentil"
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 small shallot, minced (about 2 Tbsp)
1 tsp butter
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/8 tsp quatre-épices (
recipe in this post)
1/8 tsp piment d'espelette
1/2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed (as for mignonette)
2 bay leaves, broken in pieces
a few sprigs fresh thyme

Hog casing

Cut the pork into strips small enough to fit into your meat grinder.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for just a minute, to soften slightly and take off the raw taste. Remove from the heat and let cool a few minutes. Add the vinegar and swirl it around. Add to the pork along with the rest of the ingredients. Mix well and let marinate several hours or overnight.

Remove the bay leaf and any thyme stems. Grind the meat: I like some texture to my sausage, so I use the coarse blade on my KitchenAid grinder. I run all the meat through once, and then run most of it--2/3 to 3/4--through again. For a finer texture run it all through twice; for even finer sausage, switch to the fine blade after the first grinding and run some or all the meat through again.

Work the ground meat with your hand or a spatula for a minute or so, until it is well mixed and starts to stick to your hand.

Remove the blade and the cross-shaped grinding doo-hickey from the mixer. The screw mechanism, the thing that fits into the mixer body and turns to move the meat through the grinder, will be just sort of hanging there. Make sure it's pushed all the way back into the mixer, and tighten the fastening screw very well. Put on the sausage-stuffing horn. Fit the casing over the horn, gently working it on until it's all snugged up to the end of the horn nearest the mixer. Tie a simple knot in the dangling end. Have at hand something to poke little holes in the casing as you stuff, to let air out and get the meat packed tightly in. I used a bamboo skewer.

Now turn the mixer on to 1 or 2, and feed the ground meat into the feed tube, pushing it down with the plunger. Take your time. If you haven't done this before, it might be a good idea to have someone help you. As the meat starts to come out the horn and into the casing, work it to the far end with your hand. Use your skewer to poke out the air pockets. You want the meat in there good and tight. Keep feeding, poking, packing, until all the meat is in the casing. If you still have air pockets, or the meat isn't in as tight as you want, you can still fix it once the sausage is off the machine. Tie off the loose end, squish, push, poke until your sausage is nice and plump, then retie the end to keep it all together.

I did not have good instructions for making the links; it did not matter. I simply decided how big I wanted the sections--five to six inches--and pinched and twisted at intervals. The casing was surprisingly durable. I made several twists at each interval, then set the whole thing on a rack set on a baking sheet.

Now let the sausages sit out at room temperature for a couple of hours, then stick the whole thing in the fridge, uncovered, to dry out a bit overnight. This drying process did the trick in having the links set up and keep their shape. I was then able to cut them into individual sausages.

Keep in the fridge to use within a few days, or freeze for later use.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bienvenue en Alsace

Keeping the northern table interesting through the winter can be a matter of looking at familiar ingredients in different ways, or of looking at different places on the globe. Looking between the 45th and 50th parallels and traveling east across the Atlantic, we find ourselves in...France! Lucky us. Of the regional cuisines we can choose from, we've got Bretonne , Normande, Auvergnate, Tourangelle, Savoyarde, and today's stop, where we'll remain for the next couple of posts, Alsace, in the northeast corner of La Belle France.

The beauty of this approach is not only that we get to try delicious Alsatian "pizza" topped with crème fraîche , onions, and bacon, and succulent simmered sauerkraut served with savory charcuterie; it also gives us a chance to learn about working in imaginative ways with the limited winter larder. The cuisines of these regions are a great deal older and more sophisticated (for all that they might now be labeled "peasant food") than Jell-O salad and hot dish. There's a wealth of knowledge here about making the most of what we've preserved or cellared from last year's harvest.

With its blend of German heartiness and French refinement, Alsatian cooking provides a great template for cooks in the upper midwest, or other northern climes.

We were in Strasbourg a couple of years ago, and picked up a cookbook called La Cuisine Alsacienne Traditionelle. It didn't seem like such a find at the time, a bit "Better-Homes-and-Gardenish," but the more I look into it, the more I like it. This recipe for tarte flambée is a fairly literal translation of the recipe from that book.

Tarte Flambée (Flammekuche)serves 3 to 4

1 cup warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups (approx.) unbleached all-purpose flour
optional-- 1/4 cup whole wheat flour as part of the 3 cups
1 ounce (2Tbsp) softened unsalted butter

Pour the warm water into a large mixing bowl, and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand five minutes. Add the salt and half the flour, mix. Add the butter in small pieces, mix. Continue adding flour a bit at a time until the dough is too stiff to mix with a spoon. Turn the dough out onto a floured
counter and knead, adding flour as required to keep the dough from sticking, for one minute. Even if the dough isn't perfectly smooth, set it aside, dusted with flour, for 10 or 15 minutes.

Knead the dough again for just a couple of minutes. After the dough has rested it shouldn't take much kneading to achieve a smooth, elastic dough. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature one to two hours; or, place it in the fridge for a longer, slower rise, taking it out an hour or two before you want to bake the tarte.

For the topping:

3 medium onions, chopped
2 tsp butter
2 tsp grapeseed or canola oil
freshly grated nutmeg
4 ounces best quality slab bacon
1 cup crème fraîche, or 3/4 cream mixed with 1/4 cup sour cream
1 egg
salt and pepper

Sauté the chopped onions in the butter and oil for a few minutes, until they are soft but not browned.

Slice the bacon into 1/4-inch slices, and then cut the slices into 1/4-inch little sticks, or "lardons."

Mix the crème fraîche with the egg and a good pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and a few scrapings of nutmeg.

Preheat your oven to 500 F. Prepare the dough: This amount of dough will make three or four tartes--I originally made two larger tartes, but smaller ones would be better. Keep in mind the size of your oven and/or baking stone--you may only be able to bake one or two tartes at a time. For four tarts, divide the dough in four, then stretch and/or roll the dough into roughly 8-by-10-inch rectangles. If you're using a baking stone, place the dough on cornmeal-dusted peels. If you don't have a stone, place the dough on cornmeal-dusted baking sheets.

Spread the cream mixture on the rectangles of dough. Spread the sautéed onions on top of that, and sprinkle the bacon lardons evenly over the top.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the crust is well browned and the cream bubbling. Serve with a salad, like
carrotes rapées , and plenty of cold Alsatian wine, such as riesling or pinot blanc, or the Alsatian blend known as "gentil."

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Cheese Course: Marieke Aged Gouda with Blackberry-Apple Compote

We discovered a new cheese (new to us) at our favorite country cheese shop, Bolen Vale Cheese in Connorsville, Wisconsin. It's an aged raw-milk farmstead gouda, "Marieke," from Holland's Family Cheese in Thorp, WI. According to the good old Google Maps, that's exactly 69.7 miles from our Bide-A-Wee, out Wisconsin 29 east of Chippewa Falls.

I'm not sure how much age is on this cheese; it's not so old that it's getting those crystalized salt encrustations, but it has started to develop lovely caramel notes. It's also nicely sharp and rich, definitely a cheese-stands-alone sort of cheese.

To accompany it I made a little apple-blackberry goop--apples from our land and the blackberry preserves also made from our own hand-picked berries. To match the caramel flavors in the cheese (and to fill the cabin with the smell of browning apples), I let the peeled, chopped apples (two quite small ones) brown slowly in a little butter, till they were quite dark in spots. Then I just added a couple tablespoons of the homemade preserves, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper. Served it with toasted whole-grain sourdough.

It's best if you prepare this on top of a wood-burning stove, while outside the windows the hills are resplendent under a fresh coat of snow. It makes the endless winter a little easier to take....

Our woodstove, from the Four Dog Stove company of St Francis, Minnesota, has a name. It's name is "Haggis" (thanks to Melinda, Bide-A-Wee's official Nomenclature Tsarina).


The local foods* tally for this cheese course:

Marieke gouda from Thorp, WI, 69.7 miles from Bide-A-Wee
Apple-Blackberry Compote, Our Land
Homemade whole-grain sourdough, all Minnesota flours, from Whole Grain Milling and Natural Way Mills
Hope Creamery butter, Hope, MN

Non-local ingredients: salt, pepper. The sugar in the preserves is beet sugar from Crystal Sugar HQed in Moorhead, MN; so, while industrial, it's more local than, say, C & H.

This is a pretty dang local cheese course, in my opinion.

* I am swearing off the term "locavore." It is a dumb and awkward-sounding word. It would seem to designate someone who feeds on the locals, or on places. I've gone along with it in the past because it is in fairly common usage, but I've decided we need some standards, and not just any old thing will do. If someone comes up with a better term for the philosophy and practice of local, seasonal eating, I'll be happy to consider it. I'm still mulling the pros and cons of my own coinage, terroirista.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw