Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rat' on the Grill

I like the idea of ratatouille better than I've liked most of the ratatouille I've been served. It's a dish that sings out "Provence!" at the top of its vegetal lungs, with all that that implies--summer sun, the vibrant colors and flavors of the warm south, sweet pungent garlic, perfectly ripe tomatoes, olive oil.

The basic elements are constant: eggplant, summer squash, sweet peppers, tomato, garlic. But ratatouille's final form and function can vary greatly, from main dish stew to side dish gratin to a sort of elaborate salad. When ratatouille is done right, the various ingredients blend harmoniously, yet somehow remain distinct. The sound of a well-grooved jazz combo comes to mind (is it any surprise I'm suddenly hearing Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli in my head...?).

When ratatouille goes bad it becomes an overcooked, non-descript mush with the tinny back-taste of lousy tomatoes. Ironically, most of the bad rat's I've had, I've had in France--but in northern France, and that's the key. Much as I love French cooking, it must be recognized that the French are almost comically inept at incorporating foreign influences into their cuisine. When curry and chilies make their way into the French kitchen, the flavor is often so faint, it's as if the cook just held the jar of spice up for the stew pot to see, then put it away unopened. An "egg roll" we were once served at the vaunted Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris was such a silly, useless thing, any pho joint on University Avenue would kick its derrière right back to culinary school.

But I digress, just a little. My point is that the same lack of comprehension that befuddles French cooks dealing with foreign ingredients also seems to afflict northern chefs dealing with dishes from the south. They just really don't get garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes--not in a Provencal way, at any rate. But then, you wouldn't go out for choucroute garnie in Arles, would you?

Well, I'm not Provencal, and I haven't even traveled there, so I'm probably just talking through mon chapeau. What I do know is that when confronted with the gorgeous eggplants, chilies, tomatoes, garlic, etc., now spilling off the tables at our farmers market, you just have to put them together, one way or another, and this grilled ratatouille that we cooked up out at Bide-A-Wee last week made a fresh and delicious variation on the Provencal theme. We neglected to pick up any summer squash, so our grilled version is actually one zucchini short of a ratatouille, but I can't say we missed it much.

The eggplant was the star, a fantastic Italian heirloom variety that came from our market neighbors and pals Joe and Laura of Honey Creek Farm. It made a sweet, creamy base that really brought the rest of the flavors together. Many recipes using eggplant call for slicing and salting the eggplant to draw out bitter juices, but I think that with fresh, firm summer market eggplants, that's unnecessary (and it may go without saying, but I wouldn't do this dish with anything else; winter ratatouille, merci, non). The skinny Asian eggplants are always mild and sweet, and could be used here.

The peppers we had were mildly hot, splendidly red, thick-fleshed and sweet despite the heat. Wonderful. The traditional bell peppers can be grilled and peeled just the same. I would only use ripe red peppers, as I detest green bells, but that's a question of taste.

Here's what we did, then: For two people we had one medium eggplant, around a pound. One half red onion (but any other color would work as well). Two red chilies--the equivalent of one good-sized bell, I'd say. The white of one leek. One really big clove of SuperGarlic!, which would be like three large cloves of any other, mortal garlic--from Jackie of Sylvan Hills Organic Farm . A couple medium, exquisitely ripe tomatoes. A handful of fresh basil leaves.

The eggplant we sliced about 3/4-inch thick, and brushed the slices with olive oil. The other vegetables went on the grill as is--if you're using summer squash, treat it the same as the eggplant. Over natural wood coals, grill the vegetables until they are nicely charred and tender. For the eggplant, that meant four to five minutes on a side. Ours got pretty dark, but didn't taste burnt in the final dish. For the peppers or chilies, cook until the skin is blackened all over, let sit a while, then peel, seed and chop. (Placing grilled chilies in a paper bag to help loosen the skin is common practice, and does work, but isn't necessary.)

The leek we grilled until it was really black on the outside, then we took off that layer and chopped the rest. The onion, just keep turning until it gets nice color on all sides. (While the vegetables rested, we grilled Pastures A'Plenty country-style pork ribs, to be glazed and served with a cider-red wine sauce.)

To assemble, finish, and serve: Roughly chop all the grilled vegetables. Seed and chop the tomatoes. Slice the garlic medium-thin. In a large saucepan or sauté pan, heat about two tablespoons of good olive oil. Add the garlic and swirl it about until it just barely starts to color. Add all the other vegetables, and a couple good pinches of salt, and a grind of black pepper. Toss it all about for a couple of minutes only. Turn off the heat, tear the basil leaves up and drop them in. Serve.

The ribs, some polenta (organic, Whole Grain Milling Co.), the ratatouille, slice of Real Toast.

There was some of the ratatouille left over; it was even better two days later.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, September 18, 2009

About a Brioche

This is just to say
there will be a basket of these
golden beauties
at the market in the morning.

You can have one
for two dollars.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Good Morning

Wake up and smell the fresh baguette. Good morning, indeed. This is my idea of a really fine breakfast or brunch. A great baguette cut "tartine-style", hunk of cheese (Wisconsin seven-year cheddar there), heirloom tomatoes from the garden or market (I think that was a black krim), some smoked fish (in this case a South Shore smoked herring spread). The glass of our own fresh, home-pressed apple cider doesn't hurt, either.

But it all depends on the bread: You frequently hear that a good baguette should have a "crispy" crust, and a "light and airy" crumb. I just feel that that is so, so wrong. That pretty much describes every awful, styrofoam, grocery store baguette out there (sadly, it also describes too many "artisan" baguettes, as well).

No, the crust of a great baguette is not crisp, it is crunchy. The distinction is this: A crispy crust shatters into a billion little shards when you bite it, and offers little resistance to the tooth. A crunchy crust resists the tooth, you have to work a little to bite through it, and it sheds a minimal amount of crumbs.

A light and airy crumb, desireable? I think not: Dense and chewy, pocked with gorgeous craters, the insides of the larger holes shiny with gluten. It's a piece of bread that demands good teeth. It's a meal in itself, not an afterthought accessory. Well, that's how I feel, anyway. That's how I would describe the great bread I've had in France, notably the
Boulangerie Kayser baguette, and others. These bakeries often proudly display a baguette cut open as for tartine in their shop windows, so you can see that lovely landscape of irregular chasms, perfect for taking up plenty of good butter.

And as that top photo of Mary smelling her bread attests, a great baguette has that utterly appetizing fragrance, of wheaty crumb and golden crust. If you tear off a piece of fresh baguette and you're not moved to stick your nose right in it, something's wrong.

I forgot to mention the butter when I listed the elements of a great tartine breakfast. How could I? Hope Creamery butter for us, unsalted. None other. And the jam, blackberry, Bide-A-Wee fruit, sweet but with a beautiful brambly, savory scent to it--always reminds me of good pipe tobacco, vanilla notes, comforting. Blackberry jam on sharp cheddar. Is this heaven? No, it's Wisconsin....

The fish spread was made with smoked herring we picked up at
Halvorson's fishery in beautiful Cornucopia on Wisconsin's magical South Shore of Lake Superior. We mixed the flaked fish with some cream cheese and mayo (Kraft, sorry; and Hellmann's, no apology), a few chopped capers and some minced shallots from Jackie of Sylvan Hills at the market. That black krim tomato we got from Joe, Honey Creek Joe, some call him. Chervil and parsley from our garden, just a sprinkling of coarse salt.

And the cider: Yes, apples from our land, pressed just outside the kitchen door. I will show off our new Happy Valley Ranch cider press, right soon.

You can buy a freshly baked Real Bread baguette most Saturday mornings at the
Midtown Farmers' Market. If you come right at 8:00, the bread will still be warm from the oven. Don't come after 9:30 thinking you'll get one, period. Then you'll just have to make your own. It's not that hard. I got it right after practicing for just 20 years....

French “Off-White” Bread
The Real Bread baguette and bâtard

A portion of whole wheat flour gives added taste and texture to this basic bread. I usually make this bread into long baguettes or round “boules,” but you can make it into any shape you like: crusty ficelles—very thin baguettes; or plump bâtards; or a big round country loaf. Wheat gluten or "vital wheat gluten," is the part of flour that makes bread dough stretchy and baked bread nice and chewy. You can find it in most grocery stores and co-ops. Co-ops often have it in bulk bins, sometimes refrigerated, sometimes not.

1 cup warm water (around 110 degrees; it should feel quite warm, but not hot)
2½ tsp active dry yeast
2 cups water
1 1/2 Tbsp wheat gluten
¾ cup whole wheat flour
1 Tbl plus ½ tsp salt
5 ½ to 6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional if needed during kneading and loafing

Place 1 cup of warm water in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the yeast and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes to allow the yeast to soften—it will rise to the top in a kind of foam.

Add the additional 2 cups of water, the salt, wheat gluten, the whole wheat flour, and three cups of all-purpose flour. Mix well. Add another cup of flour and mix again, then another cup of flour. The dough will appear rather rough and “shaggy” at this point.

Turn the dough out onto a clean countertop or table. Knead for 2 minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. After this initial kneading, put the dough back in the bowl and let it rest for at least 10 minutes. The dough should be fairly uniform, but it doesn’t need to be completely smooth.

When the dough has rested, put it back on the kneading surface. Knead the dough for another 4 or 5 minutes, again adding flour as necessary—you will use most of the sixth and final cup of all-purpose flour during kneading.

By the end of the second kneading the dough should be smooth, elastic, and firm. When you poke it with your finger it should bounce back quickly. When you pinch it, it should offer some resistance.

Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

Two options now: For the best result, refrigerate the dough for several hours, five hours to overnight. Remove from refrigerator, knead briefly, and leave out at room temp until it has warmed and doubled in size. For example: I'll make the doughs I bake into baguettes on Saturday morning Friday afternoon, refrigerate until bedtime, knead down, leave out overnight. First thing in the morning, shape, proof, bake.

Short method, if you don't have time for all that: Refrigerate the dough for an hour. Remove from fridge, knead down, allow to rise at room temperature for two to three hours, until doubled in volume. At this point you can either knead it down again and let it rise one more time, or proceed to shaping and baking.

Loafing the bread: Lightly flour the kneading surface. Punch the dough down and place it back on the kneading surface. Knead it briefly, adding flour as needed if the dough is sticky. Divide the dough into pieces appropriate to the shapes of bread you want to make: baguettes, about 10 ounces; round “boules” or ovals, about 20 ounces; bâtards, the plumper baguettes, about 16 ounces.

A tip for shaping baguettes: Do it in several stages. First just knead a piece of dough briefly, and form it into a slightly elongated shape. Leave it alone for a couple of minutes. Roll it between your palms to elongate it further. Press it flat, and fold the sides over, and tuck them in. Leave it alone for another couple of minutes. Repeat this technique until your baguette is as long as your want it--don't forget to take the size of your oven/baking stone into account!

Preparing the oven: You may want to line the bottom of your oven with aluminum foil to make clean-up easier. To add steam to the oven, which helps create a better final rise in the oven, and produces better crust and color, we’re going to toss ice cubes and water into the oven right after the bread goes in. With an electric oven, you can throw the cubes and water directly on the oven floor. Warning: Over time (quite a short time, really), this will warp and discolor your oven floor. Alternately, with either gas or electric ovens, you can place a small cast iron skillet in the bottom of the oven—look at thrift stores or garage sales. With gas ovens, the skillet method is the only one I recommend. Using a cast iron skillet in this way will pretty much ruin it for anything else.

With baking stone and skillet already in place, preheat your oven to 455 degrees.

Dust your peel, cutting board, or baking sheet with cornmeal. Shape the loaves and place them on the peel, cutting board, or baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise about 40 minutes.

After 40 minutes transfer the dough to a peel dusted with cornmeal. Let rise another ten minutes.

Preparing the loaves for baking: Dusting the loaves with flour gives an attractive appearance, and makes them a little easier to slash, but is not necessary. If you like, place some flour in a small sieve and lightly dust the loaves. With a single-edge razor or very sharp knife (a serrated bread knife works well), slash the loaves—this is done to allow for even rising in the oven. For baguettes, make three overlapping slashes down the length of the bread. For boules I usually makes three slashes, creating a slanting “H” shapes. You may be creative and slash in any way you like, bearing in mind that a uniform final rise is what you’re after.

Have 4 ice cubes ready. Give the peel a little shake to be sure the loaves will slide off easily—if they stick, flour your hands lightly and gently lift the loaves to free them.

Now slide them into the oven. Thrust the peel forward toward the back of the stone, then pull it quickly back toward you so the loaves slide off onto the stone.

Throw the ice cubes into the skillet. Close the door.

For baguettes, bake 15 minutes at 455, then turn the loaves around on the stone to ensure even baking, and turn the oven down to 430. Bake for 10 minutes more, or until the baguettes are well browned and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

For larger loaves: Bake 15 minutes at 455, turn the loaves around, bake another 12 to 15 minutes at 430.

Remove the loaves from the oven when done, and cool on a wire rack. Always allow bread to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving—the inside of the bread is still very soft and moist just after it comes out of the oven.

An alternative to the peel method: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and dust the parchment with cornmeal. Shape the dough into loaves and place on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover and let rise as above. When you’re to bake, place the baking sheet directly on the baking stone. Halfway through the baking, slide the baking sheet and parchment out, allowing the bread to finish baking directly on the stone. This is a good method for baguettes, which can be a little tricky to slide off of a peel. You may see a slightly smaller final rise, and the crust may be affected somewhat, but you’ll still get a very good result.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

To the Woods

They're out there. Down among the oak leaves, on the hardscrabble slopes. Some stand out in cleared patches of soil like a single brilliant dahlia in a vase, like a jar upon a hill in Tennessee. Some shelter against logs, or under grasses, you pass by without seeing them, then turn around--hello! This is not a color we tend to see in the woods.

To describe it as "yellow" won't do; they deserve the designation that comes with the common name for
cantharellus cibarius: the golden chanterelle. My favorite wild mushroom. Incomparably fragrant, exquisitely beautiful, occasionally abundant, reliably recurring in the same area year after year--if conditions permit.

Last year I had a decent harvest, a couple of pounds, perhaps. Two years ago, if I recall aright, I finally found one, single, shriveled specimen after hours of foraging, several fruitless outings, hoping against hope when I should have known better. Three years ago, a good harvest, measured in pounds. This year: Maybe the season of a lifetime. I'll let you know after my next outing.

And the thing is, I'm late. I usually start to think about chanterelles in early August, and for some reason I have August 12 in mind as the date I really ought to get to the woods. This year I just wasn't able to make it until the last of August--too many other distractions and obligations. We have had a wonderful, action-packed summer, but as you all probably know, sometimes having fun can be just exhausting. Especially when you have to fit work in there, too....

So the first chanterelles I found, several large ones at the very edge of the woods that I think of as my chanterelle hunting grounds, were old, dried, bug-eaten. My heart sank. But I went a little farther, heart rising with each step, each glimpse of gold in the leaf duff. At length, I was feeling quite okay.

Along with the chanterelles, I discovered an abundance of
black trumpet mushrooms , what the French call trompettes de la mort, "death's trumpets." That Gallic nickname surely sounds a little off-putting, but it just comes from a fanciful notion that if Death decided to take up the horn, maybe form an underworld combo, his instrument might look something like this.

The black trumpet isn't deadly, far from it--it is edible and delicious, delicately scented, and lovely to behold whether raw or cooked.

Oh, yeah, and the hen of the woods mushrooms are fruiting, now, too. I picked one small, pretty clump, around three-quarters of a pound. I had thought to look for more, but I got distracted....

With mushrooms this special, especially the first of the season, we treat them very plainly. Just sautéed in good butter, and served over a soft omelet of fresh local eggs. Some fillet beans from the garden, roasted with sliced leeks. Piece of bread, glass of wine.

Man, do I love eating this time of year.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw