Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Strawberry Days

It seems as though strawberry days were a long time coming this year. All spring long the weather was noncommital, leaning back toward winter as often as it strained ahead toward summer. Now summer is having the same problem making a stand--a few hot, humid days had us adjusting our expectations to July, and then today we're wearing sweaters and wool socks. Go figure.

But there has been summer enough to bring berries to
market these last couple of weeks. The best I've had were those we bought from our friend Alvin at the market. I think I'm the only one who got any of these perfectly ripe, sweet and fragrant berries, though, because Alvin was hiding them in the back of his van. Since he doesn't grow them himself, but rather distributes them as he does with honey, maple syrup, wild rice, and various other things, he didn't want to put them out until the other berry growers at the market had sold out.

I told Mala about it after the market, raving over Alvin's hidden cache. "God, he is so principled," she said, disgustedly....

Well, you can't eat principles, but having some standards about local, seasonal eating means you can enjoy these first fruits of summer to their fullest. While the berries are fresh, ripe, and local (and preferably organic, like Alvin's, and like the excellent berries that
Jackie had at the market last week) we indulge, we exult. When they're finished--and the strawberry season looks to be a short one this year--we don't buy those giant, pink, flavorless berries from California, but look forward to raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, melons, pears, apples....

The classic strawberry shortcake made with Mary's magnificent buttermilk shortcakes, whipped Cedar Summit cream, and market berries, is wonderful. Equally good was the impromptu berry breakfast pictured at the very top, made with leftover scones that we didn't sell at the market. We just broke up the two-day-old currant scones, sliced berries over the top, a sprinkle of sugar, a good pour of cream. Great day in the mornin'. I would eat that.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

First Pootzy Pizza

We're off the grid out at Bide-A-Wee, the radio our only form of modern entertainment. Sometimes even that is not so modern, as when Wisconsin Public Radio runs "Old-Time Radio Drama." The weekend we built the earth oven, we listened to
one about a young boy, Runyon Jones, who goes traveling across the universe looking for his dog that was killed while chasing a car. The dog's name was Pootzy. Pootzy was a good dog, but mischievous, so he has wound up in "Curgatory." We named the oven in his honor.

But on to the important stuff: How did it work? Well, okay. Small as it is, it didn't hold the heat very well. We need to add an insulating layer of material on the outside, and insulate underneath, as well. That's not to say we didn't enjoy a marvelous dinner as a result of our first baking in the earth oven:

First we had to dry the oven out. Though it had been sitting for a week, it had dried hardly at all. In the top picture you can see the color difference between the dry clay just around the door, and the rest. We kept a fire in it for several hours Sunday morning and afternoon. As it dried, it cracked a bit, probably because our clay mix was too wet; I think we can patch that.

When I got tired of tending the fire, I let it die down, then swept out the ashes and roasted baby beets and new potatoes from the market, wrapped in aluminum foil. That worked great.

Early in the evening we fired it up again. I made a simple, no-recipe dough--water, yeast, salt, olive oil, all-purpose and whole wheat flour. We topped the first pizza with lardons of our home-smoked maple-cured bacon, sliced spring onions from the market, and a bit of aged
Marieke gouda .

Into the oven, close the door, hope for the best.

The big question: Is it hot enough?

The answer:

We baked it for twelve minutes, turned it around once. It was wonderful. We made a salad of the roasted beets, tossing them with red wine vinegar, a bit of cream, dill, spring onion, salt and pepper. Mala, thanks for sharing your beet stash with us!

The second pizza, topped with Wisconsin baby swiss and mixed herbs from our garden, got cooked but not very brown. It had a sort of a breadstick quality to it, like those soft breadsticks you get with your soup at a lunch buffet; tasty enough, but it wouldn't win any pizza contests. As I said, more insulation is the key. We'll work on it. For now, we consider our first Pootzy firing and baking a solid success, and a base to build on.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, June 19, 2009

Inspired by Carrots

Lest it should come to be thought that, like a family of otters, we subsist on nothing but a steady diet of stream trout, I offer this simple repast well-rooted in terra firma. With some chicken. To tide us over until I can report on the earth oven pizza.

The star of the show is carrots, the first baby carrots from our garden, unusually early, for us, and sown in an unusual way. Two years ago I planted a little patch of carrots late in the summer, too late, it turned out, to produce usable roots that year. I mulched them well, and many of them survived the winter. In the spring they began to flower; many umbelliferous plants have this biennial habit.

The roots grew as the flower stalks ascended, but when I pulled one I found it had gone woody. I let the carrots go to seed, because the flowers were strange and beautiful, and in hopes of harvesting carrot seeds come fall. Which I did, planning to sow them in the spring, but something
wonderful happened before I could.

This spring I pulled all the old plants and weeds (conscientious gardeners do this in the fall; I am lazy) and dug the bed where the carrots had been, intending to put tomatoes there this year. While I waited for the ground to warm to tomato temp, the wonderful thing occured: nearly the entire four-by-eight foot raised bed sprouted with carrots. This was several weeks ago, surely the earliest I've ever had carrots growing. I did plant tomatoes in that bed, as well, and now I'm thinning carrots away from the tomato plants.

Yesterday I harvested a salad spinner's worth of sweet, succulent baby carrots, and we cooked them on the grill with some spring onions from Mee Vue at the market, chicken thighs (Kadejan), and served the lot over couscous with an olive-oil-lemon-herb dressing. Tasted like summer on a warm, humid night.

There's no real recipe here, just a general method:

--We gathered a mess of herbs from the garden: thyme, sage, mint, chives, fennel greens. Lots, you can't have too many.

--We minced a large clove of garlic, and chopped fine the zest of half a lemon.

--We salted and peppered four chicken thighs, added a third of the herbs and garlic, a glug of olive oil, and squeezed on some lemon juice.

--We combined the rest of the herbs, garlic, and lemon zest, drowned them in olive oil, a good half cup, all the juice we could get from the lemon half, good couple pinches salt, and a healthy pinch of piment d'espelette, a ground chili from the Basque region of France.

--When the coals (natural chunk charcoal, please!) were ready we browned the chicken well, then smoke-roasted it (apple wood) for twenty minutes or so, opened the grill and put on the carrots and onions--which had been coated with olive oil and seasoned--to cook until nicely browned and just tender.

--Couscous, two-thirds cup dry is a good amount for two people, you just add the same amount boiling water, cover and let sit fifteen minutes. Fluff, season, serve.

Couscous can be dry, but not when liberally drizzled with the herb-and-olive oil dressing, topped with smoky, crisp-skinned chicken and those wonderful grilled vegetables. I think even an otter might toss aside his trout for a meal like that....

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We Built Our Own Earth Oven!

We followed the simple, encouraging instructions in Kiko Denzer's book Build Your Own Earth Oven. We were further inspired by a recent story in our local newspaper, about 14-year-old Rebecca Gorlin of Hopkins, MN, who built her own earth oven, and even decorated it to look like her pet rabbit.

We bought some bricks and a piece of 3/4-inch plywood for the base. We repurposed a retired baking stone as the hearth surface. The brick base was 20" by 20". The stone is about 15 inches square.

We built a form from topsoil and sand, and covered that in wet newspaper to separate the form from the clay outside.

Clay is what we have plenty of at Bide-A-Wee. You dig out a shovelful of soil, and the cut edge shines. Getting in there with your feet is an effective way to mix the soil, some sand, and water. Good fun, too.

"Feet of clay."

We packed the clay mixture up around the form. I think our mix was a little wet, but it worked out okay in the end.

It felt a bit like a project for the junior high science fair.

In Denzer's book there are fanciful sculptural embellishments on many of the ovens. We were enamored by the simple organic shape, color, and texture of our first attempt at earth-ovenry. We let the decoration go with just a few light brushings with our fingertips.

That process took a morning. That evening we cut an opening for the door. The clay mixture was now exactly the consistency of fudge.

We made a door out of a cross-cut section of log, trimmed not at all symetrically, but that felt appropriate. The next day the clay seemed to be setting up nicely, just a few small cracks around the base. We emptied out the form material. It didn't fall down.

We had to get back to town and didn't have time to fire it. Next post, earth oven pizza...we hope....

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw and Mary Eckmeier

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fisherman's Lunch

To look at the maps in the Wisconsin trout regulations book, you would think that the area around our Dunn County cabin is a fly fisherman's paradise. Open the book to pages 12 and 13, and you'll find the maps right up the middle of the two pages, showing Dunn, Chippewa, and Barron counties (ChiBarDun-land!) vividly etched with streams and rivers color-coded according to their specific regulations--red, purple, yellow, green--like a very bad, but bright and cheery, case of vericose veins.

Within a half-hour's drive of Bide-A-Wee you'll find creeks called Gilbert, Lamb's, Little Lamb's (but no Mary's, that I can find...), Tiffany, Duncan, McCann, Hay, Hay, Hay, Beaver, Big Beaver, Little Beaver, Beaver, Moose Ear, Elk, Wilson, Knight's, Cady, Otter, Bronken, Como, Sand, Upper Pine, Lower Pine, Turtle, Dorrity, Jones, Silver, Popple, Four-Mile, Ten-Mile, and Eighteen-Mile. And a lot more. And a few rivers, too, and the odd brook, like Trout Brook, and the other Trout Brook, and the other one.

It all sends a fly-fisher's mind wandering down idyllic, summery paths, imagining bluebird days that unwind to the rhythm of a well-tuned casting stroke, blissful wading in pristine streams, a wild willing trout just a line's-length away.

The trouble is that many of these streams, while easy to find in the the regs book, are, in geographical reality, damned evasive. For instance: Following Wisconsin highway 25 from our cabin to the little town of Ridgeland, you travel for a distance along one designated trout stream, the Blairmoor Branch (love that), and cross three others--Farm Creek, the Lower Pine River, and Spring Creek. I only know this from having looked in the regs book, though I've traveled that stretch of highway dozens of times. These streams are very, very small, in other words, and frequently are invisible by mid-summer when tall grasses arch over them and hide any trace of water.

Others bear more resemblance to drainage ditches than to the sparkling waters that a fisherman fantasizes about--stagnant, greenish, scum-slicked pools trailing away into duckweed and cattail. Some of them actually are drainage ditches, I believe. It takes some patience and a spirit of exploration to turn up water that's wadable and clear enough of encroaching alder jungle to cast a line.

And then, sometimes rivers that meet those criteria fail in another crucial way: they are just too warm to support trout, which need cold, well-aerated water. This was the case with the stream I fished prior to my fisherman's lunch, McCann Creek, a "state fishery area," no less, which had been subjected to habitat improvement and boasted big impressive signage to that effect at several crossings, but which I now refer to as the McCann Creek State Chub Refuge, in honor of those plucky little rough fish, the only things I managed to hook in an hour's fishing some pretty tasty looking water up through a meadow. But I should have known what to expect: When you step into quality trout water, you feel a shock of cold through your waders, even in the heat of summer. Only after I'd left McCann Creek did it occur to me that, even after a very cool night, the water was running bathwater warm.

It wasn't a total loss. While looking for the upper reaches of McCann Creek, which I crossed over twice before I recognized it, I came upon a good-sized black bear ambling down county road AA, the first bear I've seen in that part of Wisconsin. There have been many reports of a growing bear population in the area--a record number of bear-car collisions in Sawyer County, a very large, hibernating bear killed when it was run over by a combine in a cornfield near Boyceville last fall, a friend of a friend's beehives near Wilson torn apart by an animal with a Winnie-the-Pooh-like sweet tooth. Now I have my own personal testimony to add to the list.

And there's always the consolation of lunch, even--perhaps, especially--so simple a one as homemade walnut rye spread with excellent butter and topped with a slightly sun-warmed slice of Wisconsin baby swiss, a mild, sweet and nutty cheese, and a fine local craft beer, in this case a New Glarus brewery "Hearty Hop" india pale ale. The focus isn't so great, but I think you can make out their slogan:

Thus fortified, I traveled a short distance to another stream and though I had to fight through alders and nettles, and ponder a stream that at times disappeared right in front of my eyes, split into rivulets and disguised by tall grasses, and was chased by an angry mother mallard, had to crawl under electric fencing and through barbed wire, and had my casting technique assessed by a herd of curious cows, I found water enough, and fish, our native char, the brook trout, which I have recently come to think of as "chickadees of the stream," and found my fisherman's reward.

And later, while the fish cooked over a fire of apple and oak, yet more reward:

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Company of Trees

It's good to keep the company of trees,
and of the towering stars. The trees are tall,
the stars are taller still, though unrooted.

The broke-down willow in "Will'r Holl'r"

In our yard in Saint Paul, our one-twelfth-acre plot in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood, we have exactly five trees: two mature arbor vitae, a wee mesabi cherry, a clumping birch also still quite small, and an accolade elm we planted a couple of years ago on the boulevard to replace the big elm that went down, like most of the other elms in the city, in the last and continuing scourge of dutch elm disease. Five, not counting a couple of lilac bushes, and the "nursery" of twiggy grafted apples we put in this spring.

On the twenty acres surrounding our Bide-A-Wee in Wisconsin, we have many, many more. We've only owned the land for a little more than a year. We've seen the trees color, drop leaves, green again, through two falls, two winters, two springs, now going into our second summer. We're continually amazed by the beauty, variety, the sheer magnificence of these tall, green-headed people* who share our rural idyll.

In the maple grove.

North meadow young birches.

Arching oak.

Big apple blooming.

"Grouse-Kill" apple, just out Bide-A-Wee's front door

North meadow apples.

Oak on the hill.

The big meadow, morning.

The "Troll Bridge" broke-down box elder


* See this charming
fable by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw