Monday, August 17, 2009

Duck, Deconstructed

We eat pretty well out at Bide-A-Wee, especially considering that we have no kitchen to speak of--no sink, no refrigerator, no appliances of any sort as there is no electricity to run them. Well, we have an oven, but it has to be preheated for about three hours before it's ready to use. In the cold months we simmer and braise very merrily atop our woodstove, Haggis. At any time of year I'm happy to grill over hardwood coals--last winter I actually built a fire and grilled steaks in the midst of a wind-chill advisory.

In the warm months our main heat sources are the campfire/grill and a two-burner Coleman propane stove. Pretty basic equipment, but still there's not much you can't cook very creditably with it. For weekend trips we tend to keep things fairly simple--a steak and veg on the grill, potatoes in the coals, or even a made-ahead stew or hearty soup that we just have to heat up.

When we have a few more days to slow down and relax, it's often a pleasure to cook out of doors, and prepare things a little more elaborate. So on our last Bide-A-Wee vacation we brought along a duck. The breasts and thighs were grilled and napped in that unchaste berry sauce described in the previous post.

The carcass and neck, with all the fat and skin removed, were chopped up and browned well in our dutch oven. Then I added a variety of aromatic vegetables--leek, fennel stalks, carrot, onion, garlic--stirred those around with the duck bits for a while, added some thyme and black pepper, covered it all with water and let it simmer for a couple of hours. That provided the basis for my berry sauce, as well as a rich element in a South Shore fish chowder I prepared a couple of days later. I had enough left over to add to a cassoulet that I made at home in Saint Paul, using duck confit that I prepared at Bide-A-Wee.

Drumsticks, wings, heart and gizzard, liberally salted, peppered, tossed with thyme and a few cloves of garlic. At home I would have used the
quatres-épices confit spice , Madeleine Kamman's recipe. I had some b-b-q spice rub at the cabin, quite a similar thing, in fact. With a little piment d'espelette, it worked fine.

To make confit you need fat, lots of fat. Fortunately, ducks come with lots of fat. You obtain rendered fat by cutting the fatty duck skin into strips, about a half-inch wide by two or three inches long. Put those in a pan, cover the duck skin with water and bring it to a boil. Simmer medium briskly until all the water boils off. At that point most of the fat will have rendered out of the skin. Watch carefully as the duck skin turns a nice golden brown. At that point you've gotten out all the fat you're going to get.

Fish the cracklings out with a fork, and drain them on a paper towel. With just a little salt, these become one of the best things you could put beside an aperitif, a glass of scotch or a martini, assuming they survive until happy hour. At our house they often mysteriously disappear well before dinner time.

The duck legs and wings sat in their seasoning overnight, and I dried them with paper towels just before cooking. At home I'm usually making confit with four drumstick-and-thigh portions, and I use a big casserole or dutch oven. With the smaller batch I made at Bide-A-Wee I just put the drumsticks and wings right into the pan in which I rendered the fat, and when I was finished cooking a couple of racks of spareribs, I put the confit pot on the grate, under the lid, to cook slowly as the coals died down. I turned the duck once or twice while it cooked, slowly turning tender and unctuous in the bubbling fat.

I find it both enjoyable and satisfying to spend an afternoon that way, with lots of pots on the fire, making a lot from a little, anticipating the fine eating that will be my reward. Nothing went to waste. Instead of "Duck, Deconstructed," I could have titled this "Everything but the Quack".

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Grilled Duck with Promiscuous Berry Sauce

I should begin with a clarification: In no way should the title's "promiscuous berry sauce" be taken as a condemnation of the moral character of Bide-A-Wee's berries, which are just as forthright and upstanding as any berries could be, I assure you. Nor does it refer specifically to the sauce, which, though saucy, as is to be expected, was likewise found to be of sterling character, admirable in every respect.

Instead, the adjective describes the forage that resulted in the sauce (but not the foragers, indeed not...). The Random House dictionary (in an online form)gives these definitions of promiscuous:

–adjective 1. characterized by or involving indiscriminate mingling or association, esp. having sexual relations with a number of partners on a casual basis.
2. consisting of parts, elements, or individuals of different kinds brought together without order.
3. indiscriminate; without discrimination.
4. casual; irregular; haphazard.
1. unchaste. 2. hodgepodge, confused, mixed, jumbled. See miscellaneous. 3. careless.

Here we're taking defintions two through four as our guide, and #2 in the synonyms list. On one of our first days out at our Wisconsin land during a recent baking break, we took a walk, and on our walk we took a basket. Casually, without discrimination, we gathered what berries we found along the way. It's late in the year for our raspberries, but we found a few of both the black and the red. The gooseberries, which in their hard green form taste unpalatably sour, yet make a tasty fool, had begun to ripen, darken, and take on a slight dusky sweetness, not unlike black currants--a few of which we also found in an adjacent tangle.

And the first of the blackberries were just coming ripe. A couple of handfuls of those dark, juice-packed beauties rounded out the jewel-like bowl of berries that graced the Bide-A-Wee table at the end of the day.

We were in no hurry at all to turn the product of our promiscuous forage into anything more refined, whether jam, sauce, or syrup. The fragrance of the over-ripe raspberries did not fill our little cabin, but you would catch the scent of it when the breeze came your way, a fleeting, cheering sniff. And that hodgepodge of berries in the bowl, all the various colors, shapes and textures, glazed with the juice of a few berries that got squished at the bottom of the basket, was a delight to the eye every time we looked at it. Haphazard though it was, it couldn't have been more pleasing.

And, like all the joys of summer, and of the forager's world, be it a mayfly hatch, a fruiting of fungus, the moment of the berries' perfect ripeness, this pleasure was perfectly ephemeral. By the second day our lovely bowl of berries was practically begging to be puréed--indeed, some had started to take matters into their own hands (recognizing that berries don't exactly have, uh, hands...).

There's a time for everything, they say, and when it's time for dinner, and there's a duck on hand, and a bowl of berries ready for their next adventure, we know just what to do.

Grilled Duck with Berry Sauce

I feel this should be descriptive, rather than recipe-quantitative. This dish came about just as haphazardly as the berry forage. We had a whole duck, purchased at the Country Lane Farmers Market just north of Barron, Wisconsin. It was about a four-pounder, I think. I took it apart into its constituent parts--boneless breasts, separated legs and thighs, wings, carcass, skin. There's a use for every part of the duck, and I'll discuss more about what I do with them in my next post.

On a big fat duck like the ones that produce foie gras, the breast, or magret, is sometimes big enough to feed two, and I mean just one, single side of the breast. This duck was more of an Audrey Hepburn sort of duck, rather than a Dolly Parton type, so I decided to grill the thighs, as well (now I'm sorry I just gave you the mental image of Audrey Hepburn's thighs on the grill; try to focus on them pre-grilling, just resting lithe and elegant in a delicate marinade...).

From the carcass I made a stock--brown the chopped-up bones, add aromatic vegetables, herbs, water, simmer a good long while. But you could use chicken stock if you like. You'll need some good strong stock for the berry sauce.

The berries we just dumped in a saucepan, promiscuously, and we added a little water, brought it to a boil, and simmered until the berries gave up their individual identities, and now, no longer mixed, jumbled, or miscellaneous, came together as one, as a mystic surrenders ego to meld with the universal spirit in ineffable ecstasy.

And then we added sugar to taste. Not too much. We left it fairly tart, much less sweet than any jam you would buy, because I wanted that tartness to balance the rich stock, and the richness of the duck itself. But if you're using regular jam--blackberry, raspberry, or black currant (or a promiscuous melange!) all would be good--add an equal amount of dry red wine to your jam. I had meant to add wine to our sauce, but forgot, and I'm glad I did; it had more berry qualities without the wine.

Quantities: For two servings, reduce about a cup of unsalted stock to one-half cup. Add a good pinch of salt and a grind of pepper, then two tablespoons lightly sweetened berry purée, or 1 1/2 tablespoons jam and 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine. Simmer a couple of minutes, and at the end taste for salt, then swirl in a tablespoon or two of soft butter.

For the duck: I just seasoned it with salt and pepper and grilled it over hardwood coals. There's a lot of fat in duck skin, of course, but if you grill it over a moderate fire and turn frequently, you'll be okay. The thighs will take a couple of minutes longer, so while they finish just move the breasts to a warm part of the grill away from direct heat. When the skin is nicely crisp and evenly brown, the duck should be done. Moderate heat and frequent turning, I repeat, are the keys to successful duck grilling.

The result of successful duck grilling.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Snakes Alive

So as I took the tarp off the earth oven last week, here's what I saw:

That's a bull snake, a relatively small one, about the size of a large garter snake. Bull snakes can exceed six feet in length.

Anyone have a good recipe for barbecue snake?

This visitor is still alive, slipped into a hole in the oven base and slithered away. Seriously, though, does anyone know if bull snakes are edible?

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Cheese Course: Donnay Chevre

The cheese course, in this case, was also the main course. We had planned to have this for Sunday brunch, but we didn't get around to it, so it became Monday night dinner. It was a rare warm evening in this cool summer (I am not complaining...), so a cold supper of smoked trout, local chevre, salads and bread was perfect.

The Donnay (no website I can find) chevre (Kimball, Minnesota), is a fresh goat cheese sold in bulk in most co-ops and cheese shops in the Twin Cities. It's a lovely soft, mild cheese, rich and just tangy enough. I mixed some garden herbs--thyme, chervil, chives--into half the cheese, and left the other half nature, as the French say. Mary and I both found that we preferred it plain. Much as I love thyme, it was a bit strong, raw in the cheese.

Real Bread walnut bread is a perfect complement to goat cheese. We won't be at the
market this week (August 8), but we'll be back for the August 15 market, with walnut bread and much, much more.

That "Eat Local Challenge" deal is going again. Let's see how we're doing:

Smoked brown trout: caught it myself in a small Wisconsin stream, smoked it with Bide-A-Wee apple wood

Cheese: Donnay chevre, Kimball, Minnesota

Herbs: Chives, chervil and thyme from our garden

Carrots: Our garden

Cucumbers: From Honey Creek Farm, Joe and Laura, at the market

Tomatoes (added after the picture): Va Vang at the market

Bread: Home-baked natural leaven walnut bread (all local ingredients except walnuts and salt)and baguette (all local but yeast and salt)

Wine: Champalou vouvray, Loire Valley, France

I think we pass.

Text and photo copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


It started with the 'kraut, the wonderfully simple and seemingly fool-proof sauerkraut made in quart jars from The Country Gourmet . Then I got my hands on Sandor Ellix Katz's excellent book, Wild Fermentation , and I got to fermenting turnips, beets, kimchi, apples, eggplant.... Any vegetable or fruit I had too much of, into a jar of brine it went. Not everything worked out equally well. Beets, kimchi, apples=great. Eggplant, turnips, overgrown radishes=compost.

I've since gotten my fermentation fever under control. Sauerkraut and sour dills are the must-haves. Sour beets produce an amazingly flavorful borscht. I'll do apples again because we have many, many apples on those dozens of old trees out at Bide-A-Wee, and they look so very beautiful in the jar, and are a unique treat, fizzy in the middle, turning into salty cider from the inside out. Hard to describe.

This week I found myself with excess produce as a result of that old eyes-bigger-than-stomach type phenomenon that overcomes many of us at the farmers market. Oh, and I'd apparently forgotten that I have a good-sized garden at home. So the cauliflower and beets that had been lingering in the crisper, the larger green beans from a market buy, a red onion, the last of the garden snow peas and baby carrots I recently thinned out, all went into a gallon jar along with a few cloves of garlic, a dozen or so peppercorns, some thyme and tarragon.

The brine consisted of one-half cup of sea salt or pickling salt to three quarts of water. I heat the water on the stove just to warm, so the salt dissolves easily. Toss the vegetables and herbs and garlic together in a big bowl, then put everything into the jar. Add brine to cover. The recipe I was using, from
The Joy of Pickling (which I see has just come out in a new, revised edition, 250 flavor-packed recipes where before there were only 200!), called for two tablespoons of red wine vinegar added to the jar; I had champagne vinegar, so used that instead.

To hold the vegetables under the brine, you take a plastic zipper bag, fit it in the mouth of the jar, and add leftover brine so it settles in and seals.

I put up those pickles yesterday, and the beets, cut into chunks, started to color the brine immediately. Today the brine is dark as midnight, and you just see little starry glimmers of white cauliflower where the florets touch the glass. I'll leave that out at cool room temp (basement) for a week or so, at which point fermentation will be well underway. Then I'll move the jar to the fridge to slow things down. You can start eating the vegetables at any point, and they'll keep indefinitely--I'm just about through my last jar of sour dills from last year.

One other tip, from Russian master picklers: If you put a couple of oak, grape, or currant leaves in with your fermented pickles, they'll stay crisp, not go mushy. I'm not sure why that works, something to do with the tannins in those leaves, I guess. What I do know is that it works. I did an experiment a couple of years ago, made a jar of sour dills with currant leaves added, and one with nothing. The jar with currant leaves stayed nicely crisp;the jar without went mushy, and found the fate of all failed pickles, the compost pile.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Ramps of Summer

It's really kind of Mother Nature to have arranged things so that some of the first wild plants to emerge in spring are the edible, delicious ramps. Ramps begin to appear about the time our local (Minnesota, then Wisconsin) trout seasons open, and it's amazing to see the blank, barren forest floor erupt with the green, lush, and pungent leaves of ramps as April turns to May and spring really sets in.

Almost as amazing as their prolific emergence--I've stood in the middle of a patch of ramps in southeastern Minnesota and turned 360 to see ramps in every direction for fifty yards or more--is the disappearing act they perform when May turns to June and the warm weather arrives. The leaves begin to grow yellowed and spotty, to wither, shrink, and finally disappear altogether, and within a couple of weeks it's as if that sea of ramps never existed. They've started sending up thin flower stalks by this time, but those are quickly subsumed among the forest plants and wildflowers of summer.

The ramps are still there, of course, the underground bulbs that are the main edible portion of ramps. If you knew where to dig, you could find them all summer long, and into the fall. In mid-summer, though, they generously announce their presence once more, when those flower stalks open in white starbursts, little floral flags that say, "Here I am! Eat me!"

And so we did, in a pilaf flavored with seared ramps, garden carrots, and fistfuls of garden herbs, to complement fried, cornmeal-crusted brown and brook trout. Where springtime ramps are tender and edible from the top of the leaf to the bottom of the bulb, we only use the bulb portion of summer ramps. The flower stalks are tough, and there's nothing to them, anyway.

Some farmers market snow peas rounded out the plate. We sautéed sliced ramps and carrots in olive oil until they started to color, added the rice (2/3 cup is ample for two servings), twice that amount of water, covered, turned the heat down as far as it would go, steamed the pilaf for 17 minutes, turned off the heat. Then we tossed the peas in on top of the rice, and they steamed to tender-crisp in the residual heat while the trout finished cooking.

The trout were seasoned with salt and pepper, and coated with organic cornmeal. This simple coating creates a crisp crust and keeps the trout nicely moist. I sometimes use rye or even buckwheat flour to coat trout before frying--and then, often I don't put anything on them at all.

Those were very small trout, nine or ten inches at best, perfect frying size, perfectly delicious. They cooked for about three minutes per side in canola oil with a little butter added.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw