Thursday, April 30, 2009

To Market, To Market...

It is upon us: The 2009 market season begins this Saturday, May 2. That's the Midtown Farmers' Market , of course, in south Minneapolis on Lake Street on the west side of Hiawatha and the light rail line, for you locals who might not know. It starts at 8:00 a.m. and goes till 1:00 p.m.

You'll find Real Bread there. You'll find Mala's delicious crepes.

And friendly, green people like Emily and Dan, who bring their own plates for Mala's crepes.

Mary showing good tong technique at the Real Bread booth.

Gopika's delicious vegetarian Indian cuisine.

Lisa and Dave and all the good stuff from Fireroast Mountain Café.

Fresh baguettes if you're there early enough.

Please join us to welcome the spring and a new market season.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

First Fish 2009

25 April 2009, Saturday: Fished first time yest. MN Whitewater. Beautiful, caddis, limit (5), ramps, cress, HOT—91 in Rochester. Today 38 and drizzle.

You turn off the four-lane, U.S. 52, at Oronoco, and roll east along state and county highways for 25 miles or so, through gently undulant farmland, pastureland. Then just east of the tidy, pleasant town of Plainview, the road falls off a cliff.

I take the Jetta out of gear and just sail down the long winding hill, as the crenellated bluffs rise higher and higher above, white pines and leafless birch at their tops.

Eventually the road comes out of the hills and into the broad valley. This is where the trout live, in streams like this:

A fish rose just under that overhanging branch, moments before I snapped the picture. You might just see the ring of the rise in the shot.

In this beautiful place, springs pour from the hillsides. There's a little sort of grotto shaped from limestone; cold, pure water issues forth.

Coursing up through limestone makes the water alkaline--a good thing for stream fertility. It helps the watercress grow.

It helps other plants grow, mosses and algae and such that trout stream insects thrive on, and the trout thrive on the insects, and fishermen thrive on the trout.

The ramps--wild leeks, they're also called--are up and doing well. There are places in the southeastern Minnesota woods where all you see on every side are ramps, carpeting the forest floor.

Bloodroot are blooming, and anemones, Virginia bluebells about to burst out, the first trout lilies flowering, too.

It's really and truly spring, the trout season's open, and wild foods in all their extravagent abundance are there to enjoy. It feels pretty good.

The harvest from this outing we took out to Bide-A-Wee to cook. That's for next time.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wolverine Cuisine

The author Walter Mosely was in town recently, and he was interviewed on public radio one morning during his visit. I caught bits of the interview between trips to Menard's, because I've been working on a couple of little building projects on our land in Wisconsin, and as any DIYer knows all too well, any project more elaborate than hanging a picture is going to involve at least half a dozen trips to Menard's.

As I got back into the van with some plywood and one-by-twos, Mr Mosely was talking about the question of influences. His unvarnished opinion: Every writer lies when asked about his influences. Well, maybe not intentionally, but if a writer claims to have had her style shaped by Toni Morrison (the example he used), she was really probably much more strongly influenced by, say, Nancy Drew. Writers naturally want to associate themselves, even by way of homage, with the all-time greats--Joyce, Faulkner, Austen, Hemingway, Cather, Flaubert, etc.--but their sensibilities were largely formed long before they ever held a copy of The Sound and the Fury, My Antonia, or Ulysses. More likely, in Mosely's view, one's literary imagination is first forged by the Hardy Boys, or My Friend Flicka.

Because it's the books we read as kids that open our eyes to the power of literature, open our hearts to the wonders of the imagination, and that's where a writer should look to see how he became the writer he grows up to be.

Then I had to get out of the van to load lumber, and when I got back in they had changed the topic.

But that notion intrigued me, and I came back to it in my mind over the next couple of days, and that's what brings us to Carcajou. That, and the beans and maple syrup. Carcajou, I mentioned in my previous post, is the French-Canadian name for the wolverine, a large member of the weasel family renowned for its ferocity, cunning, and downright orneriness. It's also the name of a novel by Rutherford G. Montgomery, published in 1936, a book that impressed me greatly when I read it in grade school (much later than 1936..!). A few years ago I was reminded of the book when talking with a friend about favorite books of our youth; Carcajou was tops with both of us, and, you know, what with the Almighty Internet at our service, it wasn't hard to get a copy in a few days.

The book is about an Indian trapper, Two Gray Hills, and his companion Mister Jim, a tame grizzly bear. Set in the deep snowy heart of a northern wilderness winter, Carcajou turns on the dilemma that Two Gray Hills faces when a wolverine shows up in the territory and starts wreaking havoc with the trap lines. You see, Two Gray Hills has sort of used Mister Jim as collateral with the white fur traders who supply him with food and other necessities at his wilderness cabin. If Two Gray Hills doesn't bring in a certain number of pelts, Mister Jim will be taken away and sold to a circus. Of course, the white traders have been guilty of a certain amount of skullduggery to ensure that the quota isn't met.

But the main foe that Two Gray Hills must contend with is Carcajou, who cleverly sets off or destroys traps without being caught himself, or eats or defiles the fox or martens that have been caught in the traps.

Long story short: Two Gray Hills and Mister Jim persevere through many perils, and things work out okay for them in the end. For everyone and everything else...not so much. Looking through the book again just recently, I was struck by how brutal and unsentimental its outlook is. Yes, there's some corny anthropomorphizing and purple prose, but it deals with the hard facts of life in the woods, and with frontier justice, in crisp, swift fashion. A reminder that kids' books aren't necessarily kid stuff.

But hey, this is a food "blog", and I promised to illuminate the notion of Wolverine Cuisine. It's all about the beans. And the sorghum syrup (though I would substitute maple). Because one of the things that really impressed me, as a hungry lad growing up in Minnesota, were the meals described in the book. I have this image in my memory of the trappers huddled around a wood-burning cookstove, eating from tin plates heaped with beans and salt pork--eating their beans with their hunting knives, the only utensils available. Such a romantic, appetizing image! And I recall when I was young secretively scooping up my wieners and beans on a kitchen knife, and dreaming of a snowbound cabin deep in the woods.

Looking at Carcajou now, I see that most of the really good food scenes actually involve...the bear:

"From a large earthen pot beside the fire [Red Heron] ladled out great mounds of steaming beans. Mixed with the beans were chunks of fat venison. Mister Jim rose upon his haunches and grunted loudly. His tongue was dripping, and his little eyes danced. Red Heron's leathery old face cracked into a grin as he shoved a heaping dish over to Mister Jim."

But Mister Jim is a bit of a fussy gourmand, and actually shoves the dish back to Red Heron. Then,

"...the Indian reached into a deep cavity in the wall above the fireplace and pulled out a jug. Jerking out its cork, he spread a thin stream of black sorghum over the beans. Shoving them back to the bear he turned to Two Gray Hills. 'You have spoiled the little one.'"

Mister Jim gets a second helping of beans, and dried apples for dessert. Lucky bear.

I think I'd have to conclude that I disagree with Walter Mosely on the question of literary influence. No question, early reading is hugely influential on one's view of the world, the way your mind and imagination are formed. But not everyone who reads as a child turns out to be a writer, and for those who do take up the literary life, then the work of their grown-up peers, the examples of that timeless pantheon, are even more influential.

No, I'd rather not write like author of Carcajou; but I'm happy to eat like Mister Jim.

Text (except the Carcajou) and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cassoulet "Carcajou"

We finished up sap gathering and syrup boiling a week and a half ago. We went through the woods and removed the taps from the maple trees, and as we did so we gave each tree a hug and thanked it for its sap (if you think I'm joking, you don't know us very well...; Happy Earth Day, by the way!).

It was fascinating to see the gradations in syrup color as we went through the season, from pale amber to something quite tarry-looking in the last pint we cooked down. It's a delight to see all the jars lined up. There are Christmas presents there for family and friends (sorry to ruin the surprise...); for us, there's something both delicious and significant glowing in those jars, the work of our first season sugaring on the land at Bide-A-Wee.

Naturally, with all that beautiful sweet stuff in the house, I've been looking for ways to use it, and one of the best we've tried so far is this "Cassoulet Carcajou," a casserole of cannellinis cooked in a cocotte, accompanying crisp confit de canard. (That really wasn't even hard....)

Whether you like maple syrup or you don't--and I know there are those who find it too sweet, too intense, go figure--all can agree that a little goes a long way. So just a couple of tablespoons infuses this bean pot with the fragrance of the sugar bush, and a subtle sweetness that complements the savory beans, bacon, and onions.

A true south-of-France cassoulet is an epic dish, cooked a long day or two and heavy on meats of various kinds, according to region--lamb, fresh and cured pork, sausages, confit of duck or goose. This abbreviated version, a cross between Boston baked beans and the French classic, is not a quick dish to prepare--it must cook slowly for three hours or more. But you just set it up, stick it in a low oven, and go about your day. Something both homely and fantastically delicious awaits you.

This is certainly hearty enough to serve as a main dish, with a salad and crusty bread. We each had a heaping serving (and seconds) with our confit, and then I got two lunches out of the leftovers.

Here's an earlier post with the method for
duck confit .

Carcajou is the French-Canadian name for the wolverine. I'll discuss its significance in my next post.

Cassoulet Carcajou (Sugar Bush Bean Pot)serves four as a side dish, two as a main course

1 cup dried cannellini beans (7 ounces, wgt.)
1 cup water
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped (about 1/3 cup)
2 ounces slab bacon, in 1/2-inch cubes (save the rind if you have it)
1 1/2 tsp good mustard, grain or dijon
2 Tbsp real maple syrup
1 bay leaf
1 small dried red chili, broken in half
a few sprigs fresh thyme
ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup bread crumbs tossed with a bit of fat--soft butter, duck fat, bacon fat, or oil

Place the beans in a saucepan with water to cover by an inch or so. Bring to a boil and cook at a fast simmer for ten minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit for 15 minutes or more. Drain the beans, discarding the water.

Combine the beans with all the other ingredients except the salt and bread crumbs in a glass or ceramic casserole, preferably one with a cover. If you have the rind from the bacon, place it on top of the mixture.

Cover the casserole and place it in a preheated 275-degree oven. Bake for 2 hours. After two hours, remove the lid add the salt, and top with half the bread crumbs. Bake for another hour. Taste a bean to see if they're becoming tender. They should be quite tender at this point; if they're not, continue baking until they are, and add a little more water if the beans are becoming dry.

Raise the oven temp to 325. Push the breadcrumbs already on the beans down into the liquid. Sprinkle the rest of the breadcrumbs over the top, and bake until they are golden and the beans are tender, about 20 minutes more.

Serve piping hot, as a main dish or side, with a little extra drizzle of maple syrup, if you like.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The Real Bread ovens were quiet this winter, but not completely dormant. Though we took the season off from production baking, we still bake to keep bread on our table, and to keep the sourdough starter lively and happy. Having a nice bubbly bucket of sourdough culture* on the counter made it easy to throw together a dough at a moment's notice; a dough which would then have to proof for twelve hours or so before baking, but never mind.

You hear all the time that tired old line that cooking is art but baking is science. Well, some kinds of baking, maybe; not my kind. Here's my very unscientific method:

First, wake up in the middle of the night. Some time between 2:30 and 3:30 is best. Lie there for a while trying to get back to sleep; now, give up. Get out of bed quietly, careful not to step on the dogs. Tip-toe downstairs in the dark, hoping that the vacuum cleaner hasn't been left at the bottom of the stairs. There will be quite a ruckus if it has.

Assuming we have reached the kitchen without stubbed toe or barked shin and attendant cursing, barking dogs and wife shouting in alarm: There are probably some dinner dishes to finish up, counters to wipe. And then there's that bucket of starter, refreshed the day before, looking perky and inviting, smelling tart and winy. Might as well make some bread.

An eight-quart stainless steel mixing bowl is always handy around here. Slop some starter in, about a cup. Slosh in water, about the same amount. In the pantry we keep whole wheat bread flour and rye flour in plastic bins that hold 25 pounds. I'll add a generous half-cup of whole wheat, maybe half that of rye. Sometimes some cracked wheat, too, or cracked wheat and no rye. If the jar of buckwheat flour catches my eye I might add some of that, and if I do I'm likely also to add a spoon of buckwheat honey to the dough, to extend the theme.

Then back in the kitchen I round it out with unbleached white flour to make a soft dough, and I just stir with the wooden bread paddle until it comes together. I don't bother to knead it at this point. I sprinkle some flour over top of the dough for no particular reason, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and go back to bed. Oh, wait--there's laundry in the washing machine. Hang that on the basement line, then back to sleep.

Then in the real morning, after coffee, scoop the dough out of the bowl and knead it a quick few turns, then weigh it. This is the "scientific" part. If you don't have a scale in your kitchen, well, what on earth are you thinking? You need a scale. Go get one, right now. You can order one on-line. We'll wait for you.... (We use a Salter scale like this one, only ours is white. )

The reason for weighing the dough is to know how much salt to add. I add about one teaspoon sea salt per pound of dough. Actually, now that I know that this method produces about two-and-a-quarter to two-and-a-half pounds of dough, I don't really need to weigh it...but I do.

So flatten out the dough and sprinkle the salt over it, roll it up and knead briefly--I mean, one minute or less--to distribute the salt. Then back in the bowl, cover with plastic, leave it alone to rise while you go about your day. It will be perfectly happy; bread dough likes to be left alone.

And it will be happy to see you when you come back to it in the late afternoon, to massage it again for just a minute to firm things up, and divide it into two plump batards which you place on a wooden peel dusted with cornmeal. The loaves must now proof for a good hour-an-a-half; you turn on the oven to 475 after an hour, and there's a baking stone in there. Ours are made of the miraculous FibraMent-D material, and were purchased at .

Ten minutes before oven time, slash the loaves with a sharp serrated knife or single-edge razor blade (or French baker's lame, if you have one). Oh, put the seeds on, or dust with flour for a pretty, rustic look, before slashing. The seeds: Sesame, poppy, gold and brown flax. Use a pastry brush to wet the surface of the loaf with water, sprinkle seed mix on generously. Then slash the loaves in an appealing pattern; it's totally up to you.

For a really brown and crusty loaf, the baking stone is one key element. Steam is the other. We keep a small (maybe, seven- or eight-inch?) cast iron skillet in the bottom of the oven. It stays there all the time, just as the stone stays in the oven at all times. It's an electric oven. We make sure the skillet isn't touching the element. When we're ready to bake we have four ice cubes at hand, and we open the door to the very hot oven, slide the loaves from the peel onto the stone (always do a trial shoogle to make sure the loaves will slide freely), and deftly, carefully toss the ice cubes into the skillet. Hearing that satisfying sizzle, now close the door--quickly, but don't slam it, that's bad form.

Turn the oven down to 455. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 430 and bake for another eight minutes or so, until the loaves are deep brown, and emit that "hollow sound" when tapped on the bottom. Let them rest at least a half hour before slicing. Leave one loaf on the bread board, ready for the eating. Freeze the other, if you like. When you bring it out of the freezer, take it out of the plastic bag to thaw, so the crust revives.

Of course, you could start this whole process before you go to bed, but then there'd be less to amuse you when you wake up in the middle of the night.

Here's the "recipe" for the pictured breads. It uses our own maple syrup! We just finished boiling down the last of the sap. The maple flavor is very subtle; the sugar gives the starter a boost.

Maple Cracked Wheat Levain

1 cup well-refreshed starter
1 1/4 cups water, room temp
2/3 cup whole wheat bread flour
1/4 cup cracked wheat
1 1/2 Tbsp real maple syrup
1 cup (or so) unbleached all-purpose flour--stir in a bit at a time until a soft dough is formed
2 1/4 tsp fine sea salt


* Here's a
nice, long-winded recipe for sourdough starter from an old Real Bread missive.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bean There

Ate that. Cannellini-chicken-chili stew. Some butternut squash from the
market in there, too. A spare sprinkling of Roth Kase gruyere. The beans--certified organic--from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, rivals in other arenas, get along very nicely in the stew pot.

I gotta tell ya, the root cellar is looking pretty sparse, and considering whether tonight's fresh veg is going to be squash, leek, carrot, or frozen kale...again...well, we find inspiration running low, too. But it does also seem, as this winter of eating locally draws to a close, that something new and interesting and good has always come along at just the right moment to see us through--a few handfuls of home-grown greens; remembering that mushrooms are a local, seasonal crop; getting liquid gold from tall gray trees; firing up the grill for delicious local bison and goat.

And most recently, these terrific beans. You might consider dried beans to be poverty rations, survival fare. It doesn't have to be that way. The key is finding the freshest dried beans, if you'll pardon the oxymoron. Beans that are from the previous fall's harvest will be better in flavor and texture, more tender, and will cook more quickly than beans that have been sitting around in some warehouse for years. Knowing your source is all-important.

You can sometimes find various kinds of shell beans--beans for drying--at farmers' market in late summer and fall. If you do, it's worth stocking up for the winter. Buy them in the shell and let them dry in an airy place until the shell is crispy dry. Then they're a cinch to shell, jar, and store.

If you can't get them from a local farm,
Seed Savers Exchange is an excellent source, and there was a recent New York Times Magazine article about Rancho Gordo beans, from California, dry legumes that have turned Thomas Keller's head, among other accomplishments. Top-quality beans are not cheap--$5 a pound or more--but they're worth it.

However: I am not saying you can't make and enjoy this dish with more economical beans from your local co-op, for instance. You certainly can, and should. But do try the "gourmet" kind some time, and see what you think. In my experience the pricier beans cook up to something much more like fresh.

And if you live in this area, by all means put a trip to Seed Savers on your agenda. We were just there for an apple-grafting clinic, and even in the chill gray of early spring is was a fascinating place to visit: an idyllic little bluff-encircled valley, a spring pond emptying into a perfectly burbling stream. Less natural but equally appealing, the gift shop is a gardener's and food-lover's nirvana.

I deviate from conventional bean wisdom in a couple of ways. For one, I eschew the overnight soaking that many dried bean recipes call for. One big reason for this is that I often don't know the night before that I want to cook beans the next day. The other reason is that I've found it unnecessary. What I do instead is to preboil the beans for a while prior to putting everything together in the pot. This speeds the overall cooking time, and by discarding the initial cooking water, you may somewhat decrease the legendary musicality, the windiness factor associated with eating dried beans. I do think it helps somewhat in that regard; but you know, nothing's perfect...enjoy these delicious, nutritious legumes among friends.

I do adhere to the admonition against adding salt early in the cooking of beans, lest they toughen. I've read debunkings of this practice, but I disagree.

Another little inspiration of local, seasonal cooking that I discovered this winter (don't claim to have invented it) is using pickled chilies in soups and stews. For this dish I used a couple of Mala's fantastic pickled jalapenos, and a couple of my own home-canned pickled anaheims. That gave a lovely brightness to the aroma and taste, and a subtle background heat.

The chicken: Chicken breast is not my favorite part of the bird, but I had a couple breasts in the freezer, and this seemed like a good way to use them up. It was. But chicken thighs would be as good or better. You could skin and bone them, or not. Cook them whole or cut them into chunks, either way would work. If using thighs, add them back to the stew about halfway through the cooking, rather than at the end as with the breast pieces.

Cannellini Chicken Chili Stew

This should feed four, but if you're serving hungry maple sap gatherers, it may only yield three servings....

1 cup dried cannellini beans

1 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic chopped fine (or more, to taste)
1/2 cup chopped pickled or fresh green chilis (I used 1 1/2 pickled jalapenos, 2 small pickled anaheims)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 dried hot red chili (serrano or cayenne), broken in half
1 bay leaf

2 chicken breasts, in 1 1/2-inch cubes (or 3 to 4 thighs, see above)

1 cup butternut squash, peeled, in one-inch cubes
1 packed cup chopped greens (mustard, kale, mizuna, escarole, chard, etc.)

salt and freshly ground black pepper
grated gruyere cheese, or similar

Place the beans in a saucepan with water to cover by an inch or so. Bring to a boil and cook at a fast simmer for ten minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit for 15 minutes or more. Drain off the water, again cover the beans with water by an inch, bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes.

While the beans are simmering, salt and pepper the chicken pieces and brown them lightly in the olive oil in a heavy saucepan or dutch oven. Remove the chicken from the pan and add the chopped onion and carrot. Sauté for about five minutes. Add the chilies and sauté another couple of minutes, then the garlic for one minute more.

Add the beans and their water to the pot along with the dried red chili and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer. Simmer, partly covered, until the beans are tender but not falling apart, 45 to 60 minutes.

Check on the beans every 15 minutes; add water as needed to keep the beans covered. By the end of cooking you want the liquid reduced to where the dish is more of a stew than a soup, and the starch from the beans will give the broth a lovely velvety quality.

Add salt to taste only when the beans are starting to become tender. Add the squash, greens, and chicken to the stew, and simmer for 20 minutes or so, until the squash and greens are tender.

Serve with a sprinkling of grated gruyere or other grating cheese of your choice.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Barron County Green

The vernal equinox arrived at Bide-A-Wee in the midst of a
snowstorm a couple weeks back, and we took our minds off the not-so-springlike weather with a little gastro-tourism jaunt around the magical kingdom of Chibardun (that's the local shorthand for Chippewa, Barron, and Dunn counties, Wisconsin). We wanted to celebrate spring, even if spring was making that difficult. I was thinking lamb, I was thinking green and wild, maybe watercress.

We had in our hands the best guide you could have to finding the best local food in our part of the state, the
Farm Fresh Atlas of western Wisconsin. This modest little directory is sort of the grown-up, local food fanatic's equivalent of the Sears "Wishbook" catalog. It lists orchards, cheese shops and dairies, maple syrup producers, pumpkin farms, berry farms, markets, honey makers, sources for beef, pork, poultry, bison, lamb, goat, ostrich, all manner of meat. Local organic farms, a coffee roaster; baked goods, ice cream, jams and jellies. You could spend weeks happily, hungrily wandering the hills and valleys of this beautiful part of the state visiting one local producer after another.

I remember when my sister-in-law Susan Beth, who grew up on the East Coast and now resides in Hollywoodland, came to Iowa (that's where Mary's family is from) for the first time. This being America's rural heartland, she came with idyllic visions of lush green gardens overflowing with all the bounteous variety of fruits and vegetables that nature can bestow, and tables abundant with garden-fresh delights, misty, sun-dappled, sweet and crunchy. So she was unprepared for mile after mile of corn and soybeans, and tables abundant with...Jell-O salads.

Well, Susan Beth, when you come to visit in the summer, we're going to take you around Bide-A-Wee-land, and show you another side of the rural Midwest. (On the brighter side of Iowa, we've just come back from a visit to Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, and that area rates magical kingdom status, too; report to follow.) Once things green up and get growing I'll set out a gastro-tourism loop of our favorite farms, shops, and restaurants in the area.

On our equinox outing
North Star Bison , near Rice Lake, was our first stop. Actually, as we arrived at the farm in the midst of a heavy snow squall that had quickly covered the road, we did a slide-by before the stop--I stepped on the brakes, the car kept going. Had to creep down the highway to the next intersection, make a U and go back. Once we had arrived safely we found ourselves in carnivore heaven, and in the welcoming company of Mary Graese. In addition to the naturally-raised, grassfed bison produced at the farm, the shop at Northstar sells local beef, lamb, goat, elk, and ostrich. We chatted with Mary about meat, local foods, local markets, and what-have-you, long enough for the snow to stop and mostly melt. We headed back out onto the highway with a nice supply of bison, lamb, and goat, and visions of grilled chops and braised shortribs dancing in our heads.

The weather wasn't looking sympathetic for a speculative forage for watercress. Farm Fresh Atlas to the rescue. We'd be going right past
DragSmith Farm . Mary called and talked to Gail Smith, who runs DragSmith with her husband Maurice (the "Drag" part is a shortened form of Gail's maiden name). She could sell us some good, green stuff. She said meet us at the greenhouse, and we'd go together to their house to do the deal.

I'd been aware of DragSmith for some time, and I had tasted their products at restaurants. You probably have, too, if you've dined at any of the locally-oriented restaurants around here--Craftsman, Corner Table, Lucia's, Heartland, the Creamery, etc. They sell their tiny, delectable "Mississippi Greens" mix, and other things, to all those places. Mississippi Greens are also available at co-ops here in town.

(DragSmith has a CSA, too; you can get a brochure by calling 715-537-3307, or emailing Gail and Maurice at .)

We found the DragSmith farm, and from a gray, chill Barron County afternoon walked in to a lush, warm, humid little paradise for eyes starved for green.

Since I'd been served DragSmith produce at some pretty high-toned places, I think I expected that the folks who grew it might come off a little high-brow, as well. I was quickly disabused of that preconception when, minutes after we met her, Gail pretended to be grazing on flats of pea sprouts for a picture.

The grazing pose was her idea, not mine, I should add. After tasting a bite of those intensely pea-flavored greens, we were tempted to do the same, without the pretend part.

Two greenhouses, maybe 20 by 40 feet each, were filled with shelves holding flats of baby lettuces, kale, mustard, pea sprouts, herbs, arugula, mizuna, and more.

They even had artichokes growing in a corner of one of the greenhouses, an amazing thing to see . A chef had asked for them, so they were giving it a try.

These plants had been growing for a couple of years, and hadn't produced a commercially viable crop, but they were making some handsome artichokes.

We left the warm, green surround of the DragSmith greenhouses reluctantly, and followed Gail to their house on the banks of the Yellow River. In their root cellar we had Gail fill a bag with Mississippi Greens for us, and we also were able to stock up on Antigo, WI potatoes--russets, reds, and fingerlings--local shallots, and a few other roots to see us through till spring.

And we met the resident llama, Tahoe, if I recall correctly. He'd gotten out of his pen and gone for a jaunt in the brush down along the river, and had found a prodigious patch of burdock, by the looks of it. His shaggy coat was absolutely thick with burrs. He didn't seem to mind; it looked like he'd had a grand old time.

I am a little nervous around large ruminants, I have to admit. Tahoe was a good sort, for a llama, though.

The greens saw us through a week of happy salads; we served slices of grilled bison sirloin--superb meat--in a maple-shallot glaze over a bed of greens. The potatoes have been fantastic, and the other roots have us set up until the market opens again. The lamb and goat we bought at Northstar were also excellent.

The food is great; we're extremely glad to have these kinds of local products at our disposal, and aware of how fortunate we are in that. But even more important, just about every time we walk outside Bide-A-Wee's door, we encounter wonderful people doing fascinating things. They're doing what they want, and doing it on purpose, and keeping their rural communities vital in the process.

We get to help in that, and all we have to do is eat.

Quick, where's my fork?

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Cheese Course: Black River Blue & Zelniky

Black River Blue is a medium-sharp, soft and buttery, altogether enjoyable cheese from the North Hendren Co-op Dairy in Willard, Wisconsin (just a little southeast of Eau Claire). It's a cheese to keep around for crumbling on a salad or a pizza, or eating on its own. It's less than $6 a pound at Bolen Vale Cheese where we buy it. Twin Cities co-ops and cheese shops carry it, too. While I appreciate the costs and labor that go into making expensive farmstead cheeses, I appreciate a bargain, too; this is surely that. I would wager that this modestly priced cheese would beat out cheeses costing three times as much in a blind tasting.

Zelniky are Czech sauerkraut crackers. First place I had them was at
The Craftsman Restaurant in south Minneapolis, where chef Mike Phillips serves them with his awe-inspiring charcuterie platter. No mere meat grinder or pork belly briner, Mike is turning out dry-cured hams (in the prosciutto style), aged salami, the real stuff. Here's Mike whipping up something delicious during a cooking demo at our market, the Midtown Farmers' Market, a couple summers back.

Mike also makes his own pickles, paprika, and various fermented vegetables, including the 'kraut that goes into the crackers. These rich and toothsome crackers, with underlying sauerkraut tang and funkiness, are great with cured meats, with cheese, or on their own, washed down with a beer or a glass of hard cider.

This isn't Mike's recipe, but an adaptation of one I found online. Really it's just a savory short dough with 'kraut mixed in, rolled out thin, cut up and baked. They'll keep a long time. This recipe calls for butter as the shortening; I actually used 2/3 butter and 1/3 chicken fat (schmaltz), which I had on hand from skimming a bowl of chilled stock. Good lard, on its own or in combination, would be tasty, too.

I used a food processor; if you're skilled with handmade pie doughs, you could make it by hand. As I mentioned, this is basically just a savory, short pie dough with 'kraut mixed in.

Zelniky (Sauerkraut Crackers)

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
6 Tbsp (3 ounces) butter
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1 packed cup sauerkraut (6 ounces by weight), drained but not rinsed
a little water if needed

Preheat your oven to 425. In a food processor fitted with the regular blade combine the flour, salt, pepper, and butter, and pulse until the butter is incorporated and the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Add the sauerkraut and pulse until the dough starts to form a ball. If this isn't happening, add water a tablespoon at a time until the dough just starts to come together. It will still be pretty crumbly.

Dump the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead it briefly to bring it together. Then use a rolling pin to roll the dough out to a roughly rectangular sheet about 1/4-inch thick. If it's anything like mine, your rectangle will be pretty irregular and rough-edged.

With a pastry scraper, cut the rectangle of dough into four pieces, and lift the pieces gently onto a baking sheet--the dough will cover a 14" by 16" sheet. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, till the crackers are lightly browned. Let them cool a few minutes on the pan, then move them to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw