Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two Birds at Bide-A-Wee (Part One: Duck Breast, Haw Sauce, Celery Root Fries)

As much as I love cooking over an open fire--grilling over hardwood coals, smoking or smoke-roasting with apple and oak--it is also extremely pleasant to move indoors as the weather cools, fire the woodstove, heat the cast iron skillet, and listen to dinner softly sizzle or simmer while we sip an apertif by candlelight (which is both wonderfully romantic and entirely necessary, as we have no electricity at Bide-A-Wee). With all the gadgetry in the modern kitchen, and the widespread misconception that more expensive equipment will make you a better cook (and your life, therefore, complete), it's a particular pleasure to be able to turn out wonderful seasonal meals from a hunk of black iron sitting on a hot metal box. This time out, it's duck breast with haw sauce served on fried polenta with celery root fries and fillet beans. Next time, pan-roasted grouse with cider cream sauce, fingerling pototoes, red cabbage.

I've mentioned my fascination with the hawthorn tree, and with its fruit, the haw or hawberry. Hawthorn grow wild and profusely on our land in Wisconsin. Here above you see the haw, and the thorn. Wicked thorns. You want to be careful if you find yourself in the midst of a hawthorn thicket. The shrike, the only carnivorous songbird, sometimes impales its prey, small rodents and other birds, on the thorns of hawthorn. A perching bird, it doesn't have the raptor's claws to hold and tear apart its meal, so uses the thorn like a fork, its beak the steak knife. It has earned the nickname "Butcher Bird." (We saw a northern shrike take a vole from under our bird feeder last winter; a remarkable thing to see.)

There are lots of types of hawthorns. Some seem to make little or no fruit, and some bear pomes no bigger than a blueberry, and the best for eating that we have found carry bright red fruit that closely resemble rosehips, and indeed roses and hawthorns both belong to the botanical family rosaceae--apples are in there, too. Hawthorn trees are disctintive in the landscape, small and gnarled, the trunks and branches often colored with lichen. Those thorns set them apart from small, wild, seedling apple trees or wild plums. In late fall and into winter, they often hold their bright red fruit, and the contrast between those cheery berries and the tortured shapes of the trees is striking--a tormented artist who paints serene and beautiful canvasses.

That's our 3 3/4-year-old griffon Lily giving scale to a hawthorn tree with nice fruit. You have to taste around to find nice hawthorn fruit, and you have to use your imagination. Even the nice, plump haws that we have found are mostly skin and seeds, and what flesh there is is rather pulpy and dry. These are not for eating out of hand, though you could probably survive on them if you had to.

But when you cook them in water for a rather long time they soften, and then you can push the mash through a seive, and you wind up with a good amount of fragrant mush, slightly sweet, with an aroma that's somewhere in the midst of vegetable, fruit, and roses. You can sweeten that to make a simple jam. In Britain
hawthorn jelly is well known.

Those are nannyberries with haws, above. I sometimes fall into the lazy shorthand of describing the flavor of a wild food as "wild," and while that characterization is no doubt literally true, it also strikes me as close to meaningless. A mushroom, a berry, a game bird, a trout, all are wild, and may be said to taste "wild," but what does that mean, for each type of food, and do they share anything in common, all being wild? And then, on further consideration, I think that there is something valid there, as long as it is further qualified. In fact, all those things do taste wild, in that they have a flavor very different from their domestic counterparts. If you've ever picked wild blueberries from the top of a lichen-covered rock in northern Minnesota, Canada, or wherever those wild wonders grow, and compare their sun-warmed flavor with the bloated, bland, watery farmed type, I think you'll see what I mean.

When a wild food is domesticated, it is bred to emphasize certain characteristics, to eliminate others. Sometimes the favored characteristics are good ones--like sweetness or juiciness in fruit--and sometimes they are merely convenient--pickability, shipability, shelf life. And sometimes the characteristics that are selected out--well, rightfully so, one might say. There's often a slight or even a pronounced astringency to wild fruit that we rarely find in farmed fruit today. There is also, I would say, a much broader range of flavors than we are accustomed too, and it may take a bit of tasting to become so. Some will find it not worth it, but if you're a regular reader of these pages, I imagine you would want to try.

Start tasting haws in mid-September, and when you find they've acquired some flavor--some sweetness, some perfume--pick a good cup or so. They seem to improve with a frost, and the fruits stay on the trees long after the leaves have fallen.

Rinse the haws and remove any stems. Add three cups water, bring to a boil, slowly simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes. The haws may still look quite intact at this point, but if you press them they should yield, skin splitting, pulp emerging. Keep some of the water, which has quite a bit of flavor, and will help as you sieve the pulp. Just dump the berries and some water into a wire mesh sieve, and press with the back of a spoon. The juicy stuff with come right out, and with a little more pushing, the pulpy stuff will follow. Soon you'll have nothing but dry seeds and skin in the sieve. Be sure to scrape the last of the pulp from the outside of the sieve.

Now I realize this has been more about the berries than the bird, but everyone knows what a duck breast is, and how many have tried haws? But, on with the bird: You've got a nice fat magret de canard. That's the breast of a fattened duck raised for foie gras--ours from Au Bon Canard and Clancey's. These things usually weigh 12 ounces or better, so for us, one feeds two. You may have to look around, or use both breasts from a regular-size duck.

I have heated my cast iron skillet on the Haggis (our pet name for our woodstove; I know...), and I've cross-hatched the skin of the duck with a sharp knife or razor--just cut a titch down into the fat, not reaching the meat--to let the fat flow forth as it cooks. I cook it slowly, skin side down most of the time. As the fat flows forth I add to the pan about a half a celery root trimmed and cut into french fry shape, and also a handful of fillet beans, last of the season from the market, and absolutely wonderful. Now everything sizzles away in duck fat. Meanwhile:

On the propane camp stove my sauce is making. It's a generous half-cup each of chicken stock and dry red wine, which I reduce by half, to which I then add about three tablespoons of haw purée and a tablespoon of maple syrup, a grind or two of pepper, couple pinches salt, taste for seasoning. Simmer very quietly as the duck rests.

I have pan-fried some slices of set-up polenta. I finish my sauce with a knob of butter (I would call that a tablespoon and a half...). We find the magret properly rosé. We find in the celery root and beans a splendid counterplay of late-fall flavors. We find that haw sauce is something unique and delicious, and an excellent partner to the rich, savory duck in all ways--in its mild sweetness, its fragrance, and even in that lingering astringency. We find that we are happy campers, delighted to have made the acquantance of the haw.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw


ESP said...

Hi Brett.

Mmmm, you duck dish sounds really good, the haw sauce an excellent companion. Just wanted to hi again, always like your mouth-watering rustic posts.


Trout Caviar said...

Hi ESP: The wintry October just past really piqued our appetites for hearty fall foods. It was a historically dismal month--top ten for coldest, wettest, snowiest Octobers ever. Maybe that should be "bottom ten." Well, at least we're well fed. Thanks for checking in~ Brett

Kim Ode said...

Great post as usual, but what I liked most of all was your completely apt(and understandable) use of the word "titch."

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Kim: Titch, a charming little word, teetering on preciousness.... That one must have welled up from the deep subconscious--it flies my mind right back to grade school days in Eden Prairie. Titch--tetch--touch? I wonder if that's the derivation, though I think it must be entirely colloquial. Cheers~ Brett