Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Season's Soupage

This is sort of a shaggy soup story:

I had a housemate back in college in Connecticut in the early '80s, an engaging but frenetic guy whose name was...well, I won't give his actual name, but it was along the lines of "Langston Birdswell Beaseley III", that sort of thing. But you couldn't call someone that, so he was called Chip. Chip came from a long line of prep school, Ivy League Beaseleys. His family had all been Andover and Yale (we'll just say), but Chip had paled at the thought of walking to classes under the august oil portraits of his forebears that lined the halls of the family's traditional alma maters, so he'd wound up at Choate (for sake of argument), and Wesleyan (for real). Chip was outgoing, upbeat, and charming--in an off-kilter way--when he wasn't sullen, withdrawn and snappish. His manic manner wasn't much abated by his frequent and copious ingestion of a variety of not very nutritional products through a variety of orifices.

When he was in the sullen, withdrawn phase, Chip didn't communicate very much at all, thankfully, but when his mood was on the upswing he jabbered pretty constantly, and the language he employed, though it bore close resemblance to conversational English, was distinctive enough that we, his four housemates, deemed it worthy of unique designation: Chippanese. Chippanese was, well, it was Chippanese. All these years later I find it difficult to produce exact examples. It was a sort of rapid-fire hipster-preppy semi-aggressive pseudo-pseudo generally confused but occasionally brilliant quasi-Kerouacian stream of consciousness, fully comprehensible--if comprehensible at all--only to Chip himself.

And the reason I bring it up here is that now, coming on 30 years since I last laid eyes on Chip (though I heard tell of him here and there in the interim), the one indelible utterance in Chippanese that stays with me these decades later, well, it has to do with soup.

We lived in a sort of townhouse just off campus, five separate bedrooms and we shared a kitchen and a common room. Young idealists that we were, some budding gourmands among us, and some strapped for cash, we decided to try sharing grocery shopping and cooking duties. Now another memory of Chip springs to mind: He owned the only car among us, an old Volvo wagon, and so we had agreed to give him a break in the cooking and clean-up duties in exchange for his driving the shopping crew back from the Waldbaum's Foodmart (Foodbaum's) in downtown Middletown, over the college hill to our house on the oaky verge of town. But Chip's attention to schedules, or to anything else, really, tended to be pretty sketchy, and we were often left waiting, as if for a manic, preppy Godot in a Volvo, in the dim autumnal New England drizzle, in the Foodbaum's parking lot as November dusk dropped down, and still no Chip, and still no Chip....

Needless to say, our experiment in communal dining did not last the year, but while it did, there was that night of the soup. I won't go on about auld lang syne much longer--though I have to admit, I'm enjoying this little bit of time travel. Let's get to the soup--or rather, "soupage." My friend Melinda (now Bide-A-Wee's Nomenclature Tsarina, among other more shining distinctions...) was one of those housemates. She was the best and most knowledgable cook among us, by far, had even run a catering business with a friend up in Maine a couple summers before. She could make things like chicken breasts in cream sauce, and knew what to do with exotic fish I'd never seen before, like mackerel and bluefish. There was nothing so exotic on the menu this fall night. It was soup, lentil soup, and I seem to recall that everyone was in a really good mood as we came in from classes or a bike ride under the brilliant autumn leaves, on a chilly damp afternoon turning to evening, assembled in the narrow kitchen and the common room lively with talk and laughter. The soup had something to do with the jovial atmosphere--the simmering pot filled the air with savory, appetizing smells; the moist warmth from the kitchen steamed the windows.

Some of us set the table, brought out bread and butter, salt and pepper. Everyone got what he or she wanted to drink. And then the soup pot came out, and Melinda started to ladle it out and pass bowls down the table. We were so hungry, the soup smelled so good, such anticipation! We were a bunch of sissy college students, but we were as hungry as farmhands. Once all the bowls were filled the talk quieted down; there was no saying of grace--this was Wesleyan!, we were intellectuals, atheists, communists, Jews, or all of the above!--but there was a moment's acknowledgment, a giving of thanks. And we dug in.

No one spoke for a minute or so. All you could hear was slurping, spoon clinking bowl, satisfied yummy sounds. Chip was the first to raise his head, set down his spoon. He took a drink from his glass, wiped his lips, and then he solemnly intoned, "Wow, Macey. That is some crazy bad soupage."

Crazy bad soupage. "Crazy bad" was, of course, the highest superlative in the Chippanese lexicon, and about all I can remember of it now. Somehow I think that's a fitting legacy. I'm going to resolve to eat more soup in 2010, and every time I do, I'm sure I'll think of Chip, Wesleyan, and Melinda's lentil soupage. Crazy bad, but wicked good.

No lentil soupage this time; I don't think we can grow lentils here. But this parsnip-leek-apple soup brings Minnesota/Wisconsin and New England together in its own way. The stuff is all ours--market parsnip and onion, garden leek, Bide-A-Wee apple, homemade stock and Cedar Summit cream--but the recipe is adapted from one by Sam Hayward of the Fore Street restaurant in Portland, Maine. Hayward was a pioneer of local, seasonal cooking in his part of the country. The restaurant has been described as one big applewood-fired grill and oven. Everything I've heard about the place inspires me, though I've never been there. I'll get there one day, maybe via Middletown, Connecticut. I found this recipe in a back issue of Saveur.

Parsnip, Leek, and Apple Soup (à la Fore Street)
Serves four to six as a generous starter or light dinner or lunch with a salad, piece of cheese....

1 Tbsp butter
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 medium leek, white and light green part, sliced thin
1/4 cup water
5 or 6 parsnips (about 12 ounces) peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1/2 a medium celery root (about 6 ounces) peeled and diced smallish
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, quartered
5 cups chicken or vegtable stock
a bay leaf and a couple sprigs of fresh thyme, or pinch of dried
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often, until it is soft and translucent but not browned. Add the leek, a pinch of salt, and 1/4 cup water. Cover and cook for five minutes over low heat. Remove the lid, raise the heat to medium, and cook for another 8 to 10 minutes, until the onion and leek become quite brown, start to get jammy.

Add the parsnips, celery root, apple, thyme and bay leaf, and four cups of stock, and a couple of good pinches of salt to the pot. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook partly covered until the vegetables are very soft, about 30 minutes.

Remove the thyme branches and bay leaf. Allow the soup to cool somewhat, then purée it in a blender in two batches until it is very smooth. Return the soup to the pot to reheat when you are ready to serve. It can be made at least a couple of days ahead. When you reheat it, thin it to your desired consistency with the additional stock or water. It's a thick soup, but it should flow, a little, shouldn't be like porridge. Add a few grinds of black pepper, taste for salt.

To serve, ladle out the soup and drop a pat of butter into the center of the soup. Drizzle a couple teaspoons of cream over the top, if you like. Some little rye croutons provide a nice textural contrast to the creamy soupage. Crazy bad.

(Note: Sam Hayward's recipe asks for a cup of tender sorrel or baby spinach leaves to be stirred into the soup before serving.)

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Solstice from Bide-A-Wee

Light a candle, stay warm, eat good.

Welcome, winter. Happy solstice, all.

Brett, Mary, Annabel, and Lily

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Bread Board: Cider Polenta Levain

This is one of those "mutt" breads, a thrown-together, inspiration-of-the-moment dough. No-Knead breads are all the rage, but how many have ventured into the land of "No-Measure"? Well, the recipe below will show that I did eventually measure, so that I could provide a recipe, measurements being traditional in recipes. The original version was a couple ladles starter, slosh slosh of water, couple handfuls cracked wheat, that looks like enough salt let's taste no a little more, etc.

We get this beautiful organic polenta from
Whole Grain Milling Company. That's what inspired this bread. I've long made a yeasted loaf with cornmeal, milk, and honey. I'm moving toward all organic, natural leaven breads, very rustic and pure, so the coarse polenta spoke to me. When I poured some of our home-pressed cider over it, I knew I would have something good.

The quality of ingredients is often, oddly, overlooked in discussions of bread making, where technique is a topic of endless debate. Yet even in a complicated bread, like brioche, for example, the list of ingredients is very short and basic, compared to even a simple cooked dish, like soup. So to me it makes sense to pay attention to each and every ingredient. Use filtered water, because I doubt that yeast likes chlorine very much. And if you're lucky enough to live in America's grain belt, seek out the best local flours from small organic producers.

I have absolute reverence for the work and products and mission of Whole Grain Milling in Welcome, Minnesota. Their whole wheat bread flour is the magic ingredient that goes into nearly all of our breads. Their organic whole rye gives a round, sweet northern flavor to our rye doughs. That's the stuff to use if you can get it. Whole Grain Milling doesn't make an all-purpose white flour (probably something about that "whole grain" in their name...), so we round out a lot of doughs with
Gold 'N White from Natural Way Mills.

So anyway, here's my cider polenta mutt. You can clearly see the grains of polenta in the finished dough (and you can see that I have discovered the "Super Macro" function on my camera). The crust is crackly crisp, unlike any other bread I have made. It has slightly hard little nubbins of polenta on the outside of the crust, which I find very appealing. In the process of photographing the finished bread, I ate nearly half a loaf thickly smeared with Hope Creamery butter.

Cider Polenta Levain
Makes four one-pound batards

1 cup coarse polenta
1 cup sweet (not hard) apple cider
1 1/2 cups (375 grams) well-refreshed liquid levain (sourdough starter)
1 1/2 cups water
1 Tbsp salt
2 cups whole wheat bread flour
1/2 cup cracked wheat
3+ cups organic unbleached white flour (I use
Gold 'N White from Natural Way Mills)

Mix the polenta and cider and let sit for at least two hours. Combine starter and water in a large (I use eight-quart) mixing bowl, and stir in the soaked polenta, the salt, whole wheat bread flour, and cracked wheat. Add two cups of the unbleached white flour. The dough should be quite thick at this point, but still pretty wet. Add additional flour a bit at a time until you can't stir it any more, then dump your dough out onto a floured work surface. Knead for just a couple of minutes, adding additional white flour as needed. This will make a dense, relatively wet dough. Once you have what looks like a dough, put it back in the mixing bowl, sprinkle with a little flour, and leave it alone for at least 15 minutes. DO NOT overknead the dough; you will get a dull, dry final product if you work too much flour into the dough at this point.

After the dough has rested, knead it again for about three minutes, again adding small amounts of flour to your board to keep the dough from sticking. When it's nice and springy put it back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it proof. Note: When I say "nice and springy," I mean relatively nice and springy--with all the whole grains in this bread, and the coarse polenta and cracked wheat, this is not going to feel like a yeasted baguette dough.

Proofing: In a cool house such as one tends to have in Minnesota in the winter, I just leave the dough on the kitchen counter overnight, shape, proof and bake it in the morning. In warmer conditions, I'll let the dough proof at room temperature for an hour or so, refrigerate for two or three hours, take it out knead it down, and then let it sit out at room temp overnight. Overall, a dough like this wants to proof for at least 12 hours, though proofing longer, especially in cool conditions, certainly won't hurt it.

I bake this bread in batards of a little over a pound of dough. This batch makes four such loaves. You can make larger loaves if you like. Shape the loaves to suit your fancy and place them on a cornmeal-dusted wooden peel. Let the loaves proof in a warmish place (if possible) for at least an hour and a half, two hours, better. They should look noticeably risen, though not necessarily doubled.

Forty minutes before baking, preheat your oven with baking stone in place to 450. When your loaves are ready to bake, slash them with a razor blade or very sharp knife. Slide the loaves from the peel onto your stone. Add steam in whatever manner is convenient: we have small cast iron skillets permanently sitting on the floor of our ovens, and I toss four ice cubes into the skillet and close the door. Some prefer to mist with a spray bottle, or have a baking dish with water in it on another oven rack, heating as the oven preheats.

Bake at 450 for 15 minutes. Turn the heat down to 425 and bake for another 12 minutes. Allow to cool at least 30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing. But do catch it while it's still a bit warm, and have some great unsalted butter on hand. There's your breakfast, or lunch, or a snack beyond compare.

Bon pain pour tous!

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 14, 2009

Solstice Solace: Autumn Vegetable, Chicken and Sausage Hot Pot

At Bide-A-Wee as we enter solstice week the sun touches the distant southwest hilltops by a quarter past four in the afternoon. We take a walk around our own hilltop circuit to catch the last of the daylight. We turn to take in the whole horizon, we peer down into the shadowed, snowy valleys, as if to fix it all in memory, to capture it in case this sunset should fail to resolve itself, come morning, into the dawn of another day, as if this fading glow might be the last of light to grace the world--the immemorial fear of northern peoples facing down the shortest days, the longest nights.

The sunsets have been beautiful, but we can't look at them without a sense of longing, almost of regret. You almost want to reach out and try to pull it back, though the descending sun now seems a universe away. You want to implore, with Faustian gravitas: "Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!"

Good luck with that. We watch the light fade, and feel with its departure a deepening chill. We finish our walk and crunch and squeak down the snow-covered gravel driveway. By five o'clock it is completely dark, and we are in for the night.

In places where the winter nights are this long, or longer, and vodka is cheap, you can see how folks get into trouble. Rather than pouring out tumblers of cheap hootch, we go through our evening rituals: bringing in wood and stoking the fire in the Haggis, replacing and lighting of candles, fluffing up of dog bed, general tidying (in a 12-by-16-foot cabin everything must have a place), assembling of reading material (and scrounging of reading glasses), tuning in the radio to WOJB--"Woodland Community Radio, 88.9"--from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation in Reserve, Wisconsin.

And of course, dinner preparation. In general we try to keep our Bide-A-Wee cooking simple, ever so much moreso in winter. With a pot gently simmering on the woodstove we can sit down with a drink (make mine Balvenie Double-Wood), a glass of wine, and eat when we and the pot agree we're ready. I've written about a Bide-A-Wee hot pot dinner before, and I do so again here without shame. It's the sort of simple, satisfying food that really highlights the flavors of local produce--sweet onions, carrots, leek, potato, cabbage, parsnips, turnips. The fact that it's December, not late February, is relevant: we haven't been eating roots and cabbage for three months straight; we can still regard them as "fresh vegetables."

Fresh vegetables, each with a story: It occured to me as we peeled and washed and cut up the vegetables for this hot pot that I could connect people and places with every one of them. The turnips were those I rescued from the garden just before the Big Freeze, carrots and leeks garden produce, too; the cabbage, onions, and parsnips I purchased from market vendors, the families of Va Vang and Tim Vang, specifically, at our last markets in November. Peeling a parsnip, I recall the last cold, wet hour of our Thanksgiving market; the rain swept in to erase our
Real Bread sign, bringing an emphatic close to the 2009 season, but we were cheered by the comradeship of the vendors who stuck it out, the devotion of the customers who came out--even on foot, even on bikes!--in such dismal weather for one last market shopping.

And in the midst of making that meaningful mise en place, laying out that comfortingly monotone still life, I was reminded that the pleasures of cooking, especially cooking with local ingredients, go far beyond the satisfaction of eating good food. Eating, well, it's eating: you make food, you eat it, you're done. You extend the pleasure, and the meaningfulness, when you take time to think about your meal, to grow your own food or buy it from people you know (or forage, catch, or shoot it...), when you prepare it carefully, appreciatively, and share it at table with others who see as much in it as you do.

Then some humble roots and simple meats simmered together become all you might desire, a steamy feast, homely but delicious.

Hot pot, huo guo, pot au feu, boiled dinner. Grilling over an open flame may have been the first form of cooking; once mankind got a pot, the water-cooked meal probably superceded it in popularity. The simplest way to make a meal like this is to just put all your ingredients in a pot of water, bring it to a boil, simmer it until it's done. In this case I rendered the fat from some home-smoked bacon rind, browned the chicken and sausage to give it a little more depth of flavor, and added the vegetables in two stages, according to how long they needed to cook.

Leftovers can be served cold with a vinaigrette dressing, the pot au feu salad, a French classic. If you chop the leftovers, add some well-reduced chicken stock, and pour it all into a mold, you get an aspic-bound terrine, quite elegant as a first course with a dab of dijon mustard, some cornichons and crusty bread. We turned our leftovers into soup, chopping the leftover meat and vegetables into bite-sized pieces, adding a bit of stock and a few more veg; finish with a slug of red wine and a tablespoon of butter. You won't feel like you're eating leftovers.

Autumn Vegetable, Chicken and Sausage Hot Pot
Serves three, or two with lots of leftovers--it just happened we had three knockwurst in the freezer, and the packet of chicken thighs contained three. Vary the vegetables according to what you have, adding them to the pot according to their respective cooking times--squash, rutabagas, kholrabi, chard, other cooking greens, etc.

A couple of pieces of good bacon rind or a slice of bacon, optional, but highly recommended
3 chicken thighs (we like Kadejan, available at most co-ops here)
3 sausages, like knockwurst or bratwurst
1 parsnip, peeled, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 medium carrot, peeled or scrubbed, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 small leek, white and light green part, cleaned, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 small onions, peeled, halved through the root end so they stay together
1/4 of a smallish green cabbage
2 small potatoes, peeled or scrubbed, as you prefer
1 large clove garlic
1 small turnip, peeled and quartered
1 small dried or fresh chili, seeds removed, optional
a couple sprigs fresh thyme or a pinch dried

salt and pepper

In a large dutch oven slowly render the bacon fat from the rind or the bacon slice--if you don't use bacon or rind, just put a little oil or butter in the pot. Salt the chicken on both sides, and brown it alongside the bacon, starting starting skin side down. Brown the sausages, too; they shouldn't take quite as long as the chicken.

Add four cups of water to the dutch oven, along with the carrot, leek, onions, garlic, thyme and chili if desired. Bring to a boil and simmer very gently for 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, turnip, and cabbage, and simmer for another 30 minutes, at least.

As long as you keep it at a bare simmer--le fait frémir, as the French say, make it shiver--it's pretty hard to overcook it. Before serving taste for salt. Serve with dijon mustard, crusty bread or croutons, some cornichons or a freshly made vinaigrette, or all of the above, as you prefer.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Salvage" Kimchi

When the weather turns on you, as it did on us this past week, the best thing you can do is plunge in to some spicy fermentation--funky Korean ambrosia; kimchi, that is. There was frost on the cabbage leaves, what was left of them. I had planted some savoy cabbage rather late, but we got ten or twelve little heads, lovely they were, absolutely mignon. When I cut the petits choux from the plants, a lot of quite edible looking leaves remained, the ones that hadn't enrolled in the heading-up program. I felt I owed something to these hardy individualists. They seemed a little tough, but no more than, say, collards or big mustard greens. I thought a brining and a good dose of fermentation might turn them into something delicious.

The photo at right illustrates our current situation: the hot, and the not-so-hot. My chilies, which were hanging out to dry, are now pretty much freeze-dried.

I also had roots, all those carrots from my volunteer plot, and some turnips I'd forgotten about. With sub-zero temperatures on the way, it was all-ashore-that's-going-ashore and devil-take-the-hindmost, with a little bit of Katie-bar-the-door thrown in for good measure. Or something like that. The cold plays tricks on the mind.... I had to use warm water to dislodge some the turnips even before the real deep-freeze set in. Those roots and a few leaves of lacinato kale went into a mixed-vegetable ferment.

I got out my prized copy of
Wild Fermentation , by Sandor Ellix Katz, aka "Sandorkraut." The Momofuku cookbook I recently bought also has kimchi recipes, and I may try David Chang's version in future (though I must admit Chang's kimchi scares me a little, calling for dried shrimp or dried scallops in the seasoning). When it comes to fermentation, I trust Sandor Katz.

I made a brine according to Katz's instructions: 1/4 cup salt to 1 quart water. Washed the cabbage leaves, cut out the thick rib, shredded them. The turnips I peeled, the carrots, not; I sliced them thin on my "Benriner."

The sliced roots, the kale, and a bit of leek went into a separate brine. After a few hours in their salty baths, I drained the vegetables, reserving the brine, and rinsed them in fresh water, as they tasted a bit too salty.

I chopped the flavorings: garlic, ginger, chili, a couple of small leeks. I tossed the vegetables with liberal doses of this extremely aromatic mixture, and put them into separate jars. The cabbage really compressed--what looked like it would barely fit into a quart jar came down to less than a pint. The cabbage smelled bracingly "kimchi-ish" right away--spicy, mustardy, garlicky.

That was two days ago. The jars have been sitting on my kitchen radiator cover. I check them each day and make sure the vegetables are covered in brine. They're just starting to ferment, the mixed vegetable version moreso, because of the sugar in the carrots, I would imagine. Within a week they should be taking on a distinctly fermented character, and when they're as funky as I want them, I'll put them in the fridge. There they will keep for as long as you like. I just recently tossed out the end of a jar I'd made two years ago.

I will report back on my kimchi's progress, and how we wind up using it, in future posts.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 7, 2009

Duck Buns, Nouveau Roots, Steamed Greens

I am very pleased with myself. This meal was one of my first attempts at Momofuku-izing my kitchen, and it turned out very, very well. Call it fusion cooking if you like. But it's not that I'm not trying to cross one thing with another; rather, I'm drawing from all my favorite influences and the best that the place and the season have to offer, all the while taking dead aim at utter appetizingness.

No, really, it was damned tasty.

Smoked duck with homemade spicy "hoisin" sauce and steamed buns.

Roasted garden carrots with mustard-maple glaze.

Roasted garden baby beets with fish sauce vinaigrette, steamed beet greens.

The smoked duck was from the charming Wemeier clan, otherwise known as Bar 5 Meat and Poultry ("Everything from feet to feathers!"). They sell at the Minneapolis and Hopkins farmers markets in the summer and fall, and at the Saint Paul Farmers market year-round. All their products are great, but the smoked duck is in a league of its own. This was actually our third meal from this bird: we had the legs and a few breast slices with braised red cabbage and spaetzle, sandwiches of sliced breast meat topped with leftover cabbage, and I picked the carcass clean for this dinner.

The steamed buns: I used a standard "flower bun" recipe like this one, omitting the scallions and the fancy shaping. Here's the Momofuku version. This whole Internet-Google deal is just amazing....

The sauce: I was going to thin some hoisin sauce from a jar, but found I was out of hoisin sauce. In a mini food processor I combined some broad bean chili paste, some dark soy sauce, some maple syrup, and a splash of water. Whizzed till it was all puréed and a bit emulsified--who needs hoisin?

The beets were "baby" red and gold beets from our garden. In reality they were full-season, stunted beets; I'm not so good at thinning my vegetable garden. But no matter, they were sweet and tender after enduring many a frost. I roasted them, covered, in a Pyrex dish at 375 for about 40 minutes.

The tender tiny beet "greens"--really reds and golds--I placed in a bowl and steamed in my bamboo steamer, since I had it out for the buns.

I tossed both the beets and greens with
Momofuku's fish sauce vinaigrette. (This recipe writing is a snap when you can just cop someone else's stuff. And by "cop" I of course mean, "pay homage to.")

Well, I do take credit for the carrots, which were made this way:

Roast Baby Carrots with Maple-Mustard Glaze

2 cups baby carrots, scrubbed (mine weighed 9 ounces)
1 1/2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp canola or grapeseed oil
pinch of salt, grind of pepper

Combine all the above in a gratin dish or small baking dish. Roast, uncovered, at 375 for 45 minutes, until they become a little brown and glazy. Stir them every 15 minutes during this time.

Remove from the oven and add:

1 rounded tsp grain mustard
1/8 tsp piment d'espelette, or a good pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 tsp red wine vinegar

Add another grind of pepper, taste for salt. Serve warm or at room temp.

I don't think I ever saw a beet when I was in China, and though there were carrots, they were never served roasted, as most Chinese homes lack an oven. But the beets took nicely to that Asian "vinaigrette," (Momofuku chef Tien Ho refers to it as "Vietnamese ketchup"), and the
carrots glazed with maple syrup, punched up with mustard and vinegar, had a subtle, earthy, sweet & sour quality.

We opened a bottle of
Viking Brewing Company's "mjod,", a sort of malted mead, made by our Wisconsin neighbors Randy and Ann Lee in Dallas, WI. Skol, gan bei, bottom's up, and bon appetit.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sichuan Chicken with Chestnuts (with a "Mild Diatribe in Support of More Interesting Local Foods Restaurants" on the side)

People eat local and seasonal foods all around the world, you know.

Well, duh-uh.

Maybe so, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the menus of most American restaurants devoted to that culinary philosophy. For the most part, local foods restaurants in these parts offer a kind of cooking generally described as "contemporary American," which you could translate this way: French. Now, the contemporary American chefs purveying this kind of cuisine might protest, but when I see coulis, sabayon, consommé, fricassé, gateau, fromage de tete (these are all from one local menu I just peeked at online); when I see soufflé, brioche crouton, jus, terrine, crepe (from another)--if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck--c'est peut-etre un canard, n'est-ce pas?

Not that I have anything against French cooking. You kiddin' me? Love it to bits. But when I think of all the things we could eat, all the ways we could eat, I sometimes find this rigid adherence to what is, in many ways, an outdated way of putting together a meal--I find it kind of stultifying, uninspiring. I think it's often more about fulfilling diners' expectations of a "nice dinner" than it is about making the most of great local products. And now, not that there's anything wrong with fulfilling diners' expectations, but....

This creeping dissatisfaction with the typical "nice" restaurant format came into sharp relief for me during our lunch last month at
Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York (though even there, I now note, there's a prix fixe option; mon dieu). The flavors there came from China, from Korea, from Vietnam, from Japan; but also from Pennsylvania, Missouri, and New York. This, to me, was truly contemporary American cooking. It's not that I don't love my rillettes, but could I please have them with a side of kimchi?

Another meal we enjoyed on that trip was a dinner at
The General Greene restaurant in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn (don't know why their menus don't come up on the website, but you can look at the pictures, at least...). Here they don't quite reinvent the wheel in the manner of the Momofuku restaurants, but the eclectic menu and informal manner of service create a very contemporary dining experience overall. They skip the usual categories of appetizer, entrée, etc., and just list all the dishes together. The priciest thing on the menu was a whole fish, a dorade, for $24 (it was also, I thought, one of the less interesting things we ate, though I love fish). Everything else was well under $20.

We had five good eaters at the table, and so we ordered pretty much the whole menu: chicken liver toasts, sliced radishes with anchovies, roasted three-squash salad (some cheese in there), grilled hanger steak, cockles with potatoes (also a bit boring, though I love cockles!), candied bacon (as good as you'd imagine, $5 for two big hunks), dirty rice, green bean salad, kale sautéed with garlic.

When the waiter informed, rather than asked, us how the meal would be served, I admit I was a little taken aback (hey, I want my expectations fulfilled here!). Dishes would come out according to the kitchen's pace, and were intended for sharing, we were told. When the food started to hit the table, I quickly forgot my little silent snit. The flavors were bright and satisfying, and everything spoke of the season without being pedantic about it. It was truly fine dining, and truly good fun. (I thank my Brooklynite friend David for taking us to The General Greene; he claims to not know much about food, but he's modest. At least he knows a great restaurant when he sees one.)

I'm not knocking our restaurants that hew to the French program in presenting local foods. They do great work in promoting local products and opening people's eyes to the delicious foods our region has to offer. I just wish the local-seasonal ethic would trickle down a little, down to noodle shop level, say. There is one local restaurant that applies the local foods approach to less traditional fare, and it's a very good example, indeed:
Ngon Vietnamese Bistro on University Avenue in Saint Paul (Ngon is pronounced "nong," I've heard, and I believe it means "tasty" in Vietnamese). Ngon's traditional Vietnamese dishes are very, very good, and some of their more contemporary creations, like crispy rabbit dumpling with curry sauce, are superb. It's one of our top three lunch spots these days (I just wish they'd turn the music down a notch or two...).

Is Ngon the exception that proves the rule here, or am I just not getting out enough? If you know of Twin Cities restaurants that break the fine dining mold and feature local ingredients, I'd love to hear about them--examples from other cities would be great, too. I saw something recently about a new Doug Flicker restaurant that will swim against the Euro-centric tide. Welcome news.

I know it's hard to break out of old habits. Even cooking at home, I often fall into starting with a meat and adding on sides when I begin to plan a meal. I'm going to work on that, a great project for the winter. And so I begin here with a dish which, though I've titled it Chicken with Chestnuts, was in fact inspired by the chestnuts, beautiful, fresh, sweet chestnuts from Iowa. They're in the co-ops now, but they won't last long.

We served this with steamed rice and cabbage stir-fried with bean paste. This is an unusually mild dish for Sichuan fare. The original didn't even include the bit of chili and Sichuan pepper I added. I nearly burned the chestnuts, so be careful when you fry them. Good fresh chestnuts have lots of sugar, and will go from nicely brown to black in a flash. But in the end the combination of the deeply browned chestnuts, excellent local chicken, and good homemade stock created a sauce which would have been at home in--dare I say it?--a fine French restaurant.

Sichuan Braised Chicken with Chestnuts
serves two--you could easily double or triple this recipe

14 chestnuts
2 chicken thighs
6 thin slices fresh ginger root
2 scallions, in 1-inch pieces
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
1 small fresh or dried red chili, chopped (optional)
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp Chinese (Shaoxing) rice wine or dry sherry
2 tsp soy sauce, preferably dark soy
2 tsp brown sugar or equivalent of rock sugar
vegetable oil such as canola or peanut oil

First you need to peel the chestnuts. The Chinese cookbooks I've consulted suggest slicing off one end and boiling them, but I prefer to roast them: With the tip of a paring knife, cut an "X" in the flat side of the chestnuts, just barely going through the shell. Roast the chestnuts in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the little flaps of shell created by the "X"s you cut start to curl back. Remove from the oven, and as soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel them, making sure you also remove the papery skin that may adhere to the flesh.

Heat a wok or sauté pan and add a teaspoon of oil. Over medium heat, sauté the chestnut meats until they are deep golden brown--careful don't burn them! Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.

Whack the chicken thighs in half through the bone with a cleaver. Salt both sides lightly. Wipe out your wok or sauté pan, heat over high heat, and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add the chicken and brown over medium-high heat, about five minutes per side. Remove the chicken from the pan.

Add everything but the chicken and chestnuts to the pan. Stir to dissolve the sugar (especially if using rock sugar). Bring the liquid to a boil, add the browned chicken, partially cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the chestnuts and simmer, uncovered, for five minutes. At this point the sauce should be quite reduced. If it still seems too watery, remove the chicken and chestnuts to your serving dish and reduce the sauce over high heat to desired thickness. Pour over the chicken and serve.

Text and photo copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw