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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Roasted Vegetable Stock / Autumn Vegetable Ragout on Polenta

The last week of October is nearly upon us. How on earth did this happen? I really enjoyed the cool summer just past, and I liked the warm September, too. I even appreciated the gusting, rainy, snowy drama of autumn's premature arrival. I guess I just thought we'd have another little respite, an Indian Summer idyll, before we had to pack it all in for the season.

So it goes. It's looking every bit November outside my window this morning, though we have a long week of October to go. We've been stocking up on vegetables at the market, pulling things in from the garden. We have more produce that we know what to do with...except, fortunately, we do know what to do with it, a lot of it, anyway. One great thing to do with the glut of autumn vegetables is to make a batch or two of vegetable stock. And then, to reward yourself for your industry and economy, cook up a beautiful vegetable-lentil ragout to serve over polenta. Or, call out for pizza. It's up to you.

The beauty of a vegetable stock like this is that it's made largely from stuff that might otherwise wind up in the compost pile. The tops of a celery root do not look very appetizing. You would not use this to make a plate of "Ants on a Log" to munch with your happy hour martini. But it adds great flavor to stock. Likewise, those overgrown leaves of kale. Chop them up, stems and all. When they're roasted, and then simmered, they impart a deeply savory quality to the stock. It's that sort of "sixth flavor" called umami, I do believe.

I like a lot of oniony things--onions, of course, and leeks, garlic, shallots--in a stock, veggie or otherwise. Not too much of the sweet things like carrots or parsnips. The well-washed skins of organic potatoes could go in. A tomato added toward the end of the oven browning adds depth of flavor.

So here's the basic method for...

Roasted Vegetable Stock
makes about seven cups

Preheat your oven to 450. Add one tablespoon canola or olive oil to an oven-proof dutch oven or stock pot. To the oil add around six cups of vegetables, chopped into smallish pieces--this won't cook for hours and hours like a meat stock, so you want the pieces fairly small.

An example of the vegetables you might use:

a rib of celery, or some celery root tops
three or four leaves of kale
one ear corn--chop it up, cob and all; slice off some of the kernels
one onion
one medium leek or equivalent--I used some tops of leeks I found in the crisper, and some of the tough outer layers
3 or 4 cloves garlic
celery root trimmings
one carrot

You could also add mushrooms fresh or dried, shallots, scallions, parsnip, potato skins. Maybe a few chard stems. Green beans, why not? Other greens, like turnip or mustard, would probably be fine--just don't use too much of strongly flavored or "cabbage-y" things.

Roast the vegetables for 30 minutes stirring every 10 minutes, until the vegetables are getting brown and a nice glaze is developing on the bottom of the pan--but watch that the pan-bottom stuff isn't getting too brown, as there's lots of sugar in many of these vegetables, which could burn and make your stock bitter. If it looks like it's getting too brown, add a little water and scrape with a wooden spatula.

After 30 minutes, stir in one tomato, chopped. Roast for another 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven. Deglaze with a cup of water, then add three more quarts of water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, a couple of bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme, a couple of whole cloves if you like, and give it a few coarse grinds of pepper. I added some additional leek greens, some fennel stalk, and a few carrot greens (which you might not have known are edible; they are, but use sparingly), all chopped up.

Simmer for one hour partially covered, and then 45 minutes more, uncovered. Strain the stock, then put the vegetables back in the pot, add another cup and a half of water, sluice it about, strain this into the rest of the stock.

There you go. What I wasn't going to use right away I froze in plastic containers, popped the frozen stock out of the containers and returned to the freezer in a zipper bag. Use it as a soup base, in braises, sauces, rice dishes, etc.

That same day I made this

Vegetable-Lentil Ragout on Polenta
serves two

Parcook 1/2 cup lentils in boiling water for 20 minutes; drain and set aside.

Preheat your oven to 400.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add one half onion and one half a small leek, chopped. Sauté for one minute.

Add a couple of wedges of cabbage, six leaves kale stemmed and chopped, one half delicata squash, seeded, cut in chunks (you don't have to peel delicata squash, but I used a vegetable peeler to remove some of the rind). Cook over medium-high to lightly brown the cabbage and squash and wilt the kale.

Add one or two cloves garlic, chopped. Cook one minute more.

Add the lentils, one and a half cups vegetable stock, one half cup water, a good pinch salt, a few sprigs of thyme and a few leaves of sage. Put the pan in the oven and cook for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables and lentils are tender and the top is nicely browned. Add additional water or stock if needed. Serve on polenta, if you like.

We garnished this with a drizzle of olive oil and a handful of grated Roth Kase gruyere. It is entirely vegetarian. If you omit the cheese (and the butter we stirred into the polenta), it's even vegan, for cripes sake. This is easily adaptable to whatever vegetables you have on hand. You could also substitute dried beans or chickpeas for the lentils. A damn fine way to eat your vegetables.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


A few weeks ago, on a warm September morning, I took a pleasant amble around the land out at Bide-A-Wee. The meadows were full of glorious color, goldenrod and asters, and nearly every tree and shrub I saw held some tasty, brilliant bit of fruit for me to taste. Before noon I had sampled wild black cherries, blackberries, chokecherries, apples, crabapples, wild plums, hazelnuts, grapes, nannyberries, haws (the fruit of the hawthorn tree). The last three weren't ripe yet. The grapes were especially, tremendously, mouth-puckering (so maybe the fox was right!).

After lunch I felt I still had a little rambling in me, so I drove to a nearby woods, a small piece of state land where we hunt grouse and woodcock in the fall. Just a five-minute drive from our cabin, the terrain could hardly be more different. Where Bide-A-Wee's acreage is nothing but up and down, and the soil is heavy clay, and there's no water on the property, this pleasant woods is flat, sandy, wet and low, with boggy forest and a couple of small streams running through. A nice change of scenery. I found some mushrooms under a stand of jack pines, and to my fruit tally I added highbush cranberries, elderberries, and rose hips.

It has been, needless to say, quite a fruitful year in west central Wisconsin. We've been somewhat frantic trying to figure out what to do with all of it. Apples have gone to cider, crabapples and plums to jelly, blackberries to jam. We have sacks of black cherries in the freezer, waiting for the calm of November to be processed.

Many of these fruits I had never tasted before--notably nannyberries, which ripen to dark, shriveled, sugary nuggets that remind me mostly of dates; and haws, which taste absolutely awful before they ripen, but once ripe take on a fascinating, complex flavor, mildly sweet, slightly astringent, with a perfume which--I swear--reminds me of roses, to which they are related. More about those two fruits later.

And highbush cranberries: Well, I'd heard of them but had never seen or tasted one. Then over lunch that day between rambles, I was scanning my main resources for wild fruit identification, our friend
Teresa Marrone's books, and Sam Thayer's Forager's Harvest , paying particular attention to highbush cranberries (which are not actually related to cranberries, but are a type of viburnum). And dang if I didn't go out that afternoon and find some, in a wet area in the woods, bright red berries on a leggy shrub. Their flavor was tart and vibrant--easy to see why they're compared to cranberries.

I didn't get a lot of them, just enough to cook into a bit of syrup, adding some sugar, which I then stirred into iced vodka, thereby creating the first ever Bide-A-Wee Highbush Cran-Tini (or, perhaps, a "Bide-A-Wee-Breeze"?). Just the thing to refresh a weary forager after a long day in the woods.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cider-Braised Chicken with Cabbage and Bacon (Not Half Bad)

I've been having a hard time keeping up with all the great foods of this autumn which arrived about three weeks ago with a definitive gale. In one blustery weekend thoughts went from what to throw on the grill to what shall we put in the braising pot tonight? I made a chicken braised in cider and cream a few days ago, and I wanted to write about that, but I would have to make it again to have a real recipe to share. I'm doing this all the time, making up a dish at dinnertime, taking a few photos of it, thinking I'll remember what I did when I sit down to write about it a few days later, and inevitably, of course, I've forgotten important points because I didn't make detailed enough notes.

This dish, chicken in cider with cabbage and bacon, I threw together in the midst of making doughs and mixing up sourdough sponges for our market baking last night. And while making it I came up with a trick to help me remember what I was doing: I added most of the ingredients in "half" measures--half a leek, half an onion, half a cup cider, of stock, etc. I should be able to relate this in no more time than it took to make it, so here goes.

Preheat your oven to 275.

2 ounce chunk good slab bacon, cut into 1/2"-inch cubes
4 chicken thighs (skin on or off, according to taste)
salt and pepper

1/2 a small onion, sliced
1/2 a small carrot, cut in half the long way, then across into thin half-moons
1/2 a small leek, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1/2 a small cabbage, cut into four wedges

In a dutch oven or deep-sided sauté pan that can go in the oven, slowly cook the bacon over low heat until most of the fat has rendered and the bacon is brown. Remove the bacon from the pan, pour the fat into a small dish and reserve. Salt and pepper the chicken on both sides, then add it to the pan, bring the heat to medium high and brown the chicken well on both sides, about five minutes each side.

Remove the chicken from the pan, and drain off any fat. Return a teaspoon of bacon fat to the pan, add the onion, carrot, and leek, and cook for about five minutes, until the vegetables have softened and just begun to brown.

1/2 cup apple cider
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup water
1 sprig sage

Deglaze the pan with the apple cider, then add the stock and water, the sage, and return the chicken to the pan. Add a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring it up to a boil, then cover the pan and place it in the oven. Cook for 40 minutes (check it after about 10 minutes to see that it's bubbling gently; if it's not, increase the heat to 300 and check again in another 10 minutes.)

After 40 minutes add the reserved bacon cubes to the pot and nestle the cabbage wedges in between the chicken pieces. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes.

Increase the oven heat to 375. Remove the cover from the pan, turn the cabbage wedges over, and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender.

Serve the chicken and cabbage out into wide soup dishes. If the sauce seems thin, reduce it over high heat on your stovetop for a couple of minutes to desired thickness. Serve it forth. Taste for salt.

I was going to serve this with boiled potatoes, but Mary discovered some leftover spaetzle in the fridge, so we used that instead, briefly fried in a little butter. We drank an Austrian gruner veltliner, a crisp white with good body; an Alsatian riesling or pinot blanc would have been another good choice. Or a lighter red, a cabernet franc like a saumur, or a modest pinot noir. Or, indeed, a glass of honest hard cider.

Nothing hard about this dish, and by the time it has braised all that long while, the cider is completely integrated into the sauce--you'd be hard-pressed to tell there was cider in it, at all (I really didn't intend the pun, but I'll take it...).

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Harvest Time

It has been a very good year for apples, and we've been trying to keep up with picking, pressing, and preserving before they all hit the ground. That's why communication has been a little sparse here lately.

But now that the weather has turned toward autumn (26 degrees at Bide-A-Wee Wednesday morning! Deep frost covering all!), that's when we really hit our stride, kitchen-wise. Be back soon with warming, sustaining foods of the season.