Thursday, May 28, 2009

Brown Trout "Escabeche" with Ramps and Asparagus

Escabeche, a Spanish dish, usually consists of cooked, marinated fish served cold or at room temperature. I'm taking liberties with these rye-coated fried trout fillets served hot over a tart sauce with seared ramps and asparagus. It's sort an escabeche-beurre blanc hybrid.

And it's a pure celebration of spring in the North Country: I caught the trout (as described, in excrutiating detail, in the previous post) in one of my favorite Wisconsin rivers; gathered the ramps from the loamy woods not fifty yards from the same stream; picked the asparagus from a patch we found growing wild out at Bide-A-Wee.

You could substitute rainbow trout, herring, whitefish, or mackerel for the brown trout. Any smallish fillets of fish convenient to fry would work. A fairly rich fish goes well with the acidic sauce. I dusted the trout with rye flour in this version. You could also use buckwheat, whole wheat, or all-purpose.

"Escabeche" of Brown Trout with Ramps and Asparagus
serves two

4 brown trout fillets
1/2 cup rye flour
salt and pepper
oil and butter, about 2 tsp each

6 thick spears asparagus
5 medium ramps (about 3/4 cup when chopped)
2 tsp canola oil or similar
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp mild, flavorful vinegar (such as
Leatherwood Vinegary's apple wine vinegar, or a good cider vinegar, or "white balsamic" which probably isn't authentic but I find it quite useful at times...)
1/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup fish stock
1/4 tsp sugar
salt and pepper

With really good, fresh, springtime asparagus, nearly the entire stalk should be tender, so we can avoid that whole horribly divisive snap-or-peel debate. Trim the bottom inch or so of the asparagus. Take a nibble; if it seems tender, off you go. If not, trim a bit more, or peel...but I said I wasn't going to go there.... Slice the asparagus quite thin on the diagonal, about 1/4-inch, leaving the top of the spear--about three inches--intact. Slice the ramp bulbs the same way; chop the greens coarsely and set aside.

Heat a skillet or broad saucepan, and add the canola oil and 1 Tbsp of butter. When it is very hot, add the sliced asparagus, reserving the spears. Fry hard for a minute or so, to give a little color to the slices. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and add the sliced ramp bulbs. Fry these at high heat for a minute or so, until they too begin to brown. Add the ramp greens and cook for 30 seconds to wilt them.

Add the vinegar, wine, stock, sugar and a good pinch of salt. Cook at a fast simmer until reduced by half.

While the sauce is reducing, cook the trout: season the fillets with salt and pepper, coat them lightly with rye flour, and fry in a little additional oil and butter (say, two teaspoons each), two to three minutes per side, till nicely browned.

Add the asparagus spears to the sauce and cook for one minute. Return the sliced aspagagus to the pan, add the remaining two tablespoons of butter, bring the heat to high and boil furiously for about 30 seconds to emulsify the sauce. Add a few grinds of pepper, taste for salt--it will probably need a good pinch or two, to help balance the acidity. Don't be alarmed if it tastes quite tart--that will also be offset by the rich fried fish.

Fish out the asparagus tops. Spoon the sauce into the bottom of large bowls or plates, arrange the fish fillets attractively atop, and surmount the whole with the asparagus spears for a jaunty garnish.

A couple of boiled new potatoes fill out the plate.

To me this just cried out for a crisp, dry Alsatian riesling--we opened a bottle from Pierre Sparr. A Spanish albarino would also be lovely.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fishing Lessons

The river valley widens in the lower section, downstream from the rod & gun club that sits on a piece of the world's most perfect real estate, on a broad sloping lawn with tall oaks and elegant willows, under a sheer, spectacular bluff, turkey vultures ever wheeling around its crest.

The river valley widens, and the character of the water changes with the lessened gradient. Above it is riffle, pool, riffle, pool, through the narrower valley where the river often runs up against limestone walls. The broader valley here is sand and gravel. The river bottom, likewise--easy wading, but the more langorous flow allows for long, flat, mirrored runs, not easy to fish.

Used to be, I didn't try. I was an impatient fisherman. I wanted action, and I wanted it now. Also, I did not want to be reminded of my shortcomings in terms of casting and fly presentation. I did not want to see trout fleeing in all directions as my line hit the water. I found that sort of thing discouraging. So I fished the faster, broken water--long raveled riffles, pocket water in the rocky canyon sections. When the surface of the river is fractured thus, the fish can't see you, don't spook. Also, they are conditioned to react swiftly and decisively--the food is going by quickly, and they can't hesitate if they are going to eat.

I fished large nymphs, and showy girdle bugs and other attractors, through these broken water sections. It is not mindless fishing, there's some technique in managing the drift, mending line to keep the fly on target, but it does not require much finesse. Or patience.

Patience was what I needed to catch that thirteen-inch brown and other fish that live where it lived, on the far side of a long glassy run, just out of the main flow of current, in a relaxed and productive lie among a few rounded rocks in just a few inches of water. You wouldn't expect to find many fish, or large fish, in water that shallow, but they are there. Trout don't always read the same books that we do about where trout ought to be.

In my earlier impatient days of fishing, I would come upon this run from below, and if there were fish rising, I would cast to them with dry flies. Most often I would put them down or scatter them. I would curse, I'd catch my backcast on a stalk of angelica, curse some more, retrieve the fly, head upstream to the next riffle.

I brought home fish, and let plenty go. I became very good at doing what I knew how to do. But over time, you know, you want things long-loved to be new again, and you want to learn again, and change, not stagnate, grow complacent. Even in fishing.

I didn't think it out, how to fish the glassy run, a perfect piece of water in many ways, with trout throughout in complex lies in layers of water, where from the hillside once a buck snorted at me, snorted again, stomped its feet, before crashing up the steep slope through the underbrush. I didn't think it out; I just tried everything, over time, many years, and what was left was what worked.

It's not complicated. It's not like sight-fishing to a nymphing trout, watching it feeding underwater, placing a sub-surface fly right in front its nose, lifting the rod to set the hook when you see its mouth open, the flash of white. I can't do that, can't see that well, frankly. And I still don't have that much patience or skill.

What I do is this: I stand facing downstream near the top of the run, on the right side of the river as I look down, and I am right-handed, and the fish I am interested in are along the far shore. There are many other fish in the deeper water of the main channel which lies between me and the far shore, but I am not interested in these fish. It is not that they are not interesting fish, in their own right, just not to me on this day.

I am holding a seven-and-a-half foot bamboo fly rod that a friend made for me. It is outfitted with a five-weight tapered silk French fly line, a new line though the material is very old-fashioned. (The line is wound on a Lightweight model reel from Hardy Brothers of Alnwick, England, though this is irrelevant.) At the end of the line there is a hand-tied monofilament leader, seven feet or so, and at the end of the leader is a length of 5X monofilament tippet, and at the end of the tippet is attached a small nymph, probably a size 14 or 16 pheasant-tail, or gold-ribbed hare's-ear, or buff-colored "bird-nest" with legs of wood duck feather.

It doesn't end there: To the bend of the hook of this fly I have attached another length of tippet, and if I am very brave or quite foolish this tippet is even thinner, 6X, ridiculous to use something this fine for nymphing. Tied with an improved clinch knot to the end of this tippet is another nymph, and this one is almost surely a size 16 gold-ribbed hare's ear nymph, and most often now it is a soft-hackle fly, with a tiny grouse wing feather wound round just behind the hook eye.

The set-up is a little complicated, and the method is simple. I strip out line, a lot of line, for I must get the flies all the way across the stream, and at an angle across the main current. I make a couple of casts into the water directly below me, well away from the fish I intend to address. Then when I'm ready I check behind me once more for that conniving angelica stalk or other tall weeds, and then I roll cast to get my line out straight, and I slowly draw back the rod, lifting the line in the air, feeling it load the rod behind me with its weight, and I must be patient now, too, not to bring it forward too soon, especially with two flies, and I make one false cast, two at the most, and let the line go, finish with the tip of the rod at eye level before me.

As the line hits the water I quickly mend, use the tip of the rod to flip a section of line upstream so it doesn't belly downstream so quickly with the current. Now the line is on the water--a silk line does not float, but rests in the surface film held up by surface tension--and the flies are in the water, and the trout are in the water, and I wait.

More often than not it is the end of the day when I come to this run to fish it this way. The hills and bluffs make the thermals that the hawks and vultures love, and that convection keeps a steady wind in the valley on sunny afternoons. But now it's evening, and still. The river is in shade here and wears a dark glossy sheen with highlights of reflected leaves and glints of sun through the hilltop green. I'm windblown and sunburned and perfectly content after several hours on the stream; I am tired and my shoulders hurt from the weight of the vest, I'll have a good mile walk to get back to the car, maybe through the dark, through the tall weeds, and I couldn't be happier.

Now the flies are drifting downstream, and I am waiting. I may flick the tip of the rod just the slightest, mending the mend, but stillness is key.

It's like looking for mushrooms, a bit, like when that clump of brown leaves does disclose a chanterelle, you knew something you shouldn't have known, if you did in fact know it, because often when you've thought you knew something like that, you really didn't, under the brown leaves there were more brown leaves, but you hang on to those times when you did know what you shouldn't have known, and make that the norm, that and not all the empty graspings, just to keep yourself going.

It's like that, when you've waited long enough, the fly must be there, and you lift the rod and that nearly weightless filament of silk is anything but weightless, it is heavy and it is trembling with the trout at its end, an impossible connection is made inevitable. There you are. That's how it works. You knew it would be there, you just knew it.

You only have to land it now, and that's good fun, and it's good to put a trout in the creel if it's legal and you feel like it. But you can see what it's really all about.

That particular fish, in the picture above, it didn't want to admit what was happening. It took the fly and when I set the hook it made one quick downstream run, then when I stopped it, it turned and came slowly upstream, at the bottom of the main channel. I could see it very clearly, the ruddy gold flanks, those brilliant, distinct spots. It didn't leap, it didn't take any more runs, just resignedly held in the deep water until I reeled it close enough to net it. It was a deep and heavy fish for its length, put a strain on the rod as I brought it in close.

I will end with prologue. Just above that section of water there's another stretch quite similar. It is not quite as deep or complex, but I haven't really learned how to fish it yet. Toward the end of the run there's a downed tree in the river, with the rootwad facing upstream, the sort of spot where the current is directed downward by the shape of the tree and scours out a deep pocket that always holds good fish. On this day I employed my patience in this run, got the fly just where I wanted it in front of the rootwad, and was rewarded with a take. As I set the hook I could tell I had just hooked a very good fish, and this feeling was confirmed when the fish turned and went down, and the line sang off the reel (Lightweight model from Hardy Brothers of Alnwick, England, now quite relevant).

And then, as we say, I got schooled. One moment the line was tight, the rod was bent, and the fish was on. The next, the line was tight, the rod was bent...and the fish was gone. The line led my eyes down into the rootwad. I gave a couple little jerks to see if I could free it, but it was stuck tight, and there was a weight on the line but it was a dead weight. I waded toward where the line disappeared under water, reeling up as I went. I rolled up my sleeve and reached down into the tangled roots--this was a little scary, snapping turtles, I'm thinking--and freed the hook from where the big brown trout had left it when it swam away free.

Text and photo copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Forage Not Too Far (or, "There's Gnome Place Like Home...")

There's little I like more than a full-fledged, woods-and-stream foraging and fishing outing, even if I do sometimes succumb to doubts about the overall "green-ness" of the activity (see previous post). But there's also something uniquely satisfying about walking out one's back door and harvesting a plateful of fresh, flavorful green things of the springtime. This is green foraging in every possible way.

In the bowl there, under Gnomie's watchful eye, there are fiddleheads of ostrich ferns, lamb's quarter, dandelion greens, volunteer purple mustard and a couple of kinds of lettuce, some tiny sorrel leaves, and a few snips of volunteer dill. The only thing there that we actually planted for food is the sorrel, which adds its delightful, tart zing to early spring salads, and to autumn
sauces for trout . (Through the summer we just keep deadheading the seed heads, so that we still have sorrel in the fall.) It's a very hardy perennial; since I've forgotten how long ago I planted it, I now consider picking sorrel leaves a kind of foraging.

The fiddleheads I washed thoroughly to remove the papery husk, blanched them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, then sautéed them in butter with some ramps. They're served alongside an omelet (Schultz organic eggs) topped with home-smoked brown trout and Roth Kase gruyere.

Teresa's beautiful bowl makes any salad prettier, tastier, and is a fitting vessel for this salad of wild and volunteer greens tossed with a dressing enlivened with chives and the first tender fragrant sprouts of tarragon.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Apologia Pro Vita Foragia*

I have to admit I suffer qualms sometimes, I do. Like many slightly neurotic, over-intellectualized local foods enthusiasts, I fret about my "carbon footprint," am troubled by thoughts that my dinner might carry too many "food miles," that sort of thing. We don't eat tomatoes in winter, or buy grapes flown in from Chile; most of the meat we consume has been raised by people we know personally, and many of our vegetables we grow ourselves.

But trouble can sneak in where you least expect it, and it occurred to me this spring that some of our most local, least processed foods might actually be suspect, might in fact be not-so-green in some way, although they are utterly natural. I'm talking about the wild-foraged foods, the ramps, cress, fiddleheads, trout, and (sometimes) mushrooms that are a rite of spring for us, with which we celebrate the end of the long white winter, the greening of a new season.

Here's my problem: Yes, these foods are totally natural, grown in Great Nature's own garden. And I take care to harvest respectfully, to not take more than I need, or than the resource can sustain. But, the thing is, when I head out from Saint Paul to fish and forage in the Whitewater region of southeastern Minnesota, I burn at least a half a tank of gas on each outing. I try to stay on guard at all times against becoming complacent, self-satisfied and smug about what and how I eat, or anything else, for that matter. So I've been asking myself: Half a tank of gas for a few fish, a sack of ramps, a bunch of watercress. Does this trade-off pass the sustainability review?

Answer: I don't know. From a purely environmental view, probably not. The systems we have for transporting commercial food to market are likely much more efficient than my hopping in the Jetta (even at 35 mpg) to drive a couple hundred miles round-trip to get food for a few dinners. But then, going out fishing, or foraging in the woods, is not the same as a trip to the grocery store. That nature is not a grocery store is a lesson I should have learned by now, but I still sometimes "plan" a dinner of trout before I have even strung up my rod, and more than once I've been put in my place for my presumptuousness, coming home hang-dog and empty-creeled.

I fish for the sake of fishing, to be on the stream: Not just to put fish on the grill or in the smoker, but for sight of the forest floor bursting first into brilliant green, then a riot of wildflower color; to witness the silhouette of a turkey vulture flit across a sparkling riffle, through the soft shadows of the limbs of a tall white pine, or a pair of canada geese patiently shepherding their young, who sometimes seem to be paddling in place, across a quick current.

And I forage for the sake of foraging, to be in the woods looking for something that might not be there, the finding of which--if I find it--is always a gift and a surprise. It's an experience that borders on the mystical for me. It makes me use senses I don't otherwise employ, and sometimes I think I can smell chanterelles in the woods, or tell by the shape of a clump of brown leaves that there's a mushroom hidden there. Sometimes, spookily, I'm right.

So my conclusion is something of a non-conclusion. Whether or not driving as far as I do for these fishing and foraging expeditions is the greenest thing I could do, I'm going to do it anyway. I'd be miserable without it, and make everyone I know miserable, and shouldn't the way we use our life, our happiness, have some weight in the whole balance of things? I think it should. Is this a blatant case of self-justification? Maybe so. But I hope there's also some larger, positive trade-off, that in the process I can spread a little understanding, espouse a view of the world that takes in the great wide world, instead of tinier and tinier video screens, encourage listening, the kind you do without something stuck in your ear.

Not that I'm opposed to music. I've been listening recently to Jolie Holland's new album, The Living and the Dead. It is wonderful in many ways, and its final track seems fitting here. The entire lyric from the closing song:

"Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.... "

(I started this writing to describe a backyard forage that had the dual purpose of producing a lovely salad and vegetable dish, and somewhat mitigating my "food miles." But I've gone on long enough here. That will be for next time.)


* Not real Latin!

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

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Tartine is one of the most beautiful words I know, in any language. It's French, of course, and it most often denotes, rather mundanely, "bread spread with butter or jam." That definition hardly does it justice. When you order a French breakfast, say at the little café at the
Kayser boulangerie on the Rue Monge in Paris, you're offered the choice of a pastry--croissant, pain au chocolat--or a tartine.

If you go for the tartine, what you get is a slab of baguette from a loaf cut in half the long way, into top and bottom (imagine a hot dog bun; now, forget I said "hot dog bun"). Cut this way, the baguette reveals all the glory of its fragrant wheaten interior, pocked with irregular, gluten-glazed crevasses. There is glorious golden crust all around the pliant but substantial crumb.

You contemplate it for a moment. You take in your surroundings. Along with a fantastic piece of bread, you have the Paris sunshine, a bowl of café crème, and--not to overlook the obvious--your beloved companion, sitting across the little table, contemplating the same things. Enough contemplation: Let's eat.

Start with butter, and maybe end there. The rich unsalted butter fills the holes in the bread, and with bread this good, I usually find jam superfluous. The crunch of crust, the yielding crumb, the butter melting in your mouth: You have entered le monde de la tartine, and life is good.

A great tartine is so much more than "bread and butter" would imply. It can be more than that literally*, too, as seen above in the smoked trout and herbed cream cheese tartine which, with a salad of wild greens, made a Bide-A-Wee supper last weekend. The baguette was a couple of
days old--not ideal, a baguette is a bread of the day, better, of the hour--so we warmed and browned it over the coals. That revived it quite nicely.

Into the cream cheese I mixed chopped chives and watercress and a squeeze of lemon juice, and a little soft butter, because the cream cheese was rather cold and hard--letting it come to room temperature would make that easier. We just spread that on the grilled bread and topped it with home-smoked brown trout, but any smoked fish would do. The salad was wild watercress, dandelion greens from the Bide-A-Wee hills, and a few white violet (oxymoron?) flowers for pretty.

Simple, delicious, springtime fare. We may not always have Paris, but we can always have a tartine.


* Eric Kayser's book 100% Pain has a mouth-watering section of gourmet tartines--the picture of the grilled scallops tartine always makes me hungry.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Saturday, May 2, 2009

First Spring Supper (Stream to Bide-A-Wee)

Build a fire, pour yourself a drink, put the big cast iron skillet on the grate. The chopped-up ramps cook slowly in a little butter until they're nice and brown, concentrated and sweet. Ramps--wild leeks they're often called--are in the onion family, with all the sweetness
inherent to that pungent clan. Cooked long and slow, they become almost a jam.

In the pan is a fistful of ramps, like if you were grabbing a hank of pasta. I put the white and thicker red stem in first, and the greens later, after the first have wilted well. The whole thing can be used, from bottom of bulb to tip of leaf
. At right are ramps straight from the ground. A beautiful color scheme, don't you think? Ramps, onions, garlic, leeks--all alliums. Lilies, too, and there are lilies that are poisonous and might somewhat resemble ramps, but the oniony, chivey smell when you crush a bit of leaf tells you you've got the right plant.

Then while the trout are frying in the ramp-y remnants left in the pan (and a little more butter), mix up a sweet mustard vinaigrette. This will get you pretty close:

1 tsp good mustard (grain or dijon, as you prefer)
2 tsp maple syrup or honey
2 tsp vinegar (red or white wine, or sherry, or good cider)
2 Tbsp oil, your choice
salt and freshly ground pepper

Just mix it all up. Add as much of the ramp jam as you like. We saved some out to smear on top of the trout.

Toss the dressing with fresh watercress or other salad greens. A handful of dandelion greens, very abundant now, or lamb's-quarter, or sorrel, add a seasonal touch.

That's a perfect picture of the joys of local, seasonal food, to me. Maybe I should coin a new term: "Watershed eating." Trout, cress, and ramps all from the same stream-scape. Next week we should be able to add fiddlehead ferns to the plate, and a morel or two, if I'm lucky.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw