Friday, February 26, 2010

Big Borscht

Big Borscht is in the "Grow Your Own" Round-Up hosted by House of Annie.

Here's something a little more seasonal, a root around the root cellar, clean out the crisper, "Eeww, what is that thing?", "Oh, that's okay, I can trim that off..." sort of soup. We're getting down there in terms of vegetables, but March is straight ahead, I've got some green things growing in flats, and a big, robustly flavored soup like this is just the thing to buck up one's spirits for that last push toward warmer days.

This is truly a one-pot meal with no fuss at all involved--as long as you like to chop. Who doesn't like to chop? Bung it all in the pot, simmer until you feel it's done. The key flavor ingredients are some decent stock to bring it all together, some pickled or fermented vegetables to add a sharpness that balances the earthy roots, and maple syrup and cider vinegar, because I love using the products of Bide-A-Wee's tree crops. Tree crops. I love saying tree crops.

For my stock I used a combination of vegetable stock, chicken stock, mushroom soaking water and plain water to reach eight cups for this large amount of vegetables. The mushrooms are optional but my dried chanterelles added a lot of flavor and fragrance. Dried porcini are another good choice, or sometimes you'll see packages of mixed dried "forest mushrooms." If you've got a stash of dried morels, those would more than do the job. Shitakes are a last resort, though the chopped mushrooms would add good texture; shitake broth won't add a lot of flavor here.

Here's a good illustration of why dried wild mushrooms cost so much. The chanterelles in this bowl weighed one ounce:

The vegetables are whatever you have on hand, mostly roots. You need beets to call it borscht, I think, but you don't have to call it borscht. Here's what I had:

From our garden: turnips, carrots, potatoes, beets. From the market: parsnips, onion, garlic. My pickled (fermented) vegetables jar yielded gardens beets, beans, carrots, and snow peas, market cauliflower, snap peas, and onion. And of course I foraged the chanterelles.

If you don't have a big jar of fermented vegetables at your house, perhaps you have some sauerkraut, or a jar of pickled beets, or can manage to purchase some. Check the refrigerated section of your co-op for naturally fermented or pickled products. Be prepared for a little sticker shock; in my experience the "artisan" versions of this sort of thing do not come cheap. The upside of that is that it may encourage you to do more of your own preserving, next fall.

You can make this with or without meat. I put in some roast pork shoulder I had in the freezer. Other meat options: ground beef or leftover roast, smoked sausage, cooked chicken. Sour cream or home-cultured "crème fraiche" really elevates the dish. Fresh herbs should you have them--dill, tarragon, parsley, thyme--would be nice, too.

When I first made this soup I thought it would need more syrup and vinegar to get the slight sweet and sour flavor I wanted, but after it sat overnight, then simmered a bit more, I found that the natural sweetness of the roots, the natural sourness of the fermented vegetables, had filled in the blanks perfectly.

Then a loaf of crusty bread, glass of wine, beer, cider or as you please.

More soup, please!

Big Borscht
serves six generously, or three humans and one wire-haired pointing griffon*

8 cups liquid--a combination of meat and/or vegetable stock, mushroom soaking liquid, and water
6 cups chopped fresh vegetables (beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, turnips, onion)
1 cup chopped fermented vegetables (or ‘kraut, or pickled beets)
12 ounces cooked pork shoulder, or smoked sausage, or ground beef, cooked chicken (optional)
3 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 ounce dried mushrooms, soaked, then chopped (optional)
1 tsp salt or to taste
1 small dried red chili, crumbled (optional)
2 T maple syrup (or to taste)
1 T cider vinegar (or to taste)
Sour cream or crème fraiche
Black pepper to taste
Fresh herbs of choice--dill, tarragon, parsley, thyme (optional)

Combine all except sour cream or crème fraiche in a big soup pot. Simmer a half hour or longer, to desired doneness. Best when it sits a day or two. Adjust sweet/sour balance to taste with additional syrup and vinegar before serving. Serve topped with crème fraiche or sour cream.

* This recipe is griffon tested and approved. As we were getting ready to head to the cabin for the weekend, I placed a warm, open container of borscht in the snow on our deck to cool. Forgetting the disposition of said soup, I let the dogs out before we put them in the car. When Mary went to look for the borscht to put it in the cooler, I heard her call, "Where did you say the soup was..."? We're pretty sure Annabel ate it all. She had a guilty--but satisfied-- look, and Lily's beard was clean.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Baja Minnesota

It's not that we don't enjoy the traditional foods of winter, the braises, the stews, the soul-satisfying soups that simmer a long age on the wood-burning stove--we love that kind of food, we dream of it on sweltering July days, yearn for sweater weather and the steaming stewpot, crusty warm bread to dunk in collagen-rich broth.

But now it is the last week of February, Mardi Gras just past and images of Carnivale dancing in our heads, and while we're not cruise-taking, beachy sort of people, we appreciate a little southern comfort, from time to time. This time around, we took it out in tacos--southern comfort with a northern twist.

I love the idea of fish tacos, but in reality I'm frequently dissappointed by them. Too often they consist of indifferent (even unspecified) fish wrapped in not-so-fresh tortillas deluged with overbearing gloop--sour cream, watery salsa, shredded lettuce, boring pink tomatoes, even cheese!* Like many simple foods, a good taco relies on the quality of its few components, and each must be top-notch. The components of a great fish taco: the tortillas, the fish, the condiments.

First, the tortillas: Ours were freshly made--Mary-made--flour tortillas, which are nothing more than flour, water and fat, but in this case, what wonderful fat: in lieu of the traditional lard (which would be great), a combination of Hope butter and duck confit fat. The tortillas came out supple, silky, tender and incredibly fragrant from the duck fat with its many-times refreshed infusion of the quatre-épices spice mixture that flavors our duck confit. What a loaf of fresh homemade bread is to a plastic-bagged supermarket loaf, that's how these tortillas compared to the usual commercial product (not that there aren't some good ones out there; and, I would still make these tacos even if I had to use store-bought tortillas).

Second: The fish. The perfect fish for fish tacos: walleye. Who knew? Walleye is the "state fish" of Minnesota, of course. As a cherished symbol of our cultural identity as Minnesotans, its culinary qualities are, of course, vastly underrated. Now, this is not to say that the eating qualities of walleye have gone unnoticed here. Heck, everyone knows that they eat way better than northern pike ("slimy jackfish," my Grandpa Leitkie used to call them, but we still ate them), or bass. Neck and neck with perch as fish-fry fare, for sure. But because of its north-woods, cabin life associations, walleye doesn't have much of a gastronomical rep. At your typical supper club you'll get a choice of deep-fried or baked "almondine", if you can get it at all. Also, ordering the "state fish," even in a Minnesota restaurant, can be a bit of a buyer-beware situation, as it was revealed a couple of years ago that many restaurants were actually serving a farmed fish similar to walleye called "zander," imported from Europe. Euro-trash zander dressed as walleye, the shame!

I write the above as a great big mea culpa: Before buying the walleye for these tacos, I can't remember the last time I purchased it. I was always afraid it would pale in comparison to the taste memory of fresh-caught walleye from cold Lake Brereton in eastern Manitoba, where my family had a cabin when I was growing up.

When I decided to make fish tacos, I knew I wanted to make it with local fish. Looking into the counter at Coastal Seafoods, however, the choices were few. Farmed rainbow trout from Star Prairie is always available, and it's a fine product, but I wanted a thicker fillet, and preferably white fish, to work with. That left me with walleye, and here I must admit that "local" must be a relative term--this fish came from Canada, fished through the ice with nets, probably in Manitoba or Saskatchewan (at the store I was originally informed that it was from Lake Superior, but that didn't sound quite right to me, and a little more checking got me a more accurate answer--thanks to Chris at the Minneapolis Coastal store). The company that brings us this fine fish is the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp., and here's a pretty fascinating video showing how we get fresh Canadian fish from under the ice in the dead of winter.

And the quality of this fish, well, it was fantastic--smelled as clean as a northern lake, sliced up into dense, pearly fingers. I used larger chunks of fish than you usually get in a taco. That way the flavor of the fish came through even with the breading and the condiments. The flavor was all you want from walleye--sweet, clean, toothsome, utterly edible.

Finally, "the gloop," that is to say, the condiments: Something tangy-creamy is good; sour cream would be fine, sparingly applied, but I had made some home-cultured "crème fraiche" using Cedar Summit cream. It melted onto the hot battered fish. A fresh crunchy salsa is de rigeur, but we're far from tomato and cucumber season. I used sweet corn, frozen from the market last summer, which I simmered for a couple of minutes in a little water, butter, and salt. To the al dente corn I added some chopped red onion (market), and a small apple (Bide-A-Wee), peeled and diced almost the same size as the corn kernels. Crumbled a dried red chili in there, splashed in some of our own cider vinegar. In spite of the red onion and chili, this salsa was looking very Minnesotan, indeed--quite pallid. I remembered some pickled anaheims I'd put up in 2008. They keep forever, so I chopped a couple into the mix. They looked nice and added a bit of zing.

I put together another little salad of Wisconsin black radish and North Dakota blood orange...lying: the blood orange was from wherever those come from, surely a good distance from our beloved home in Zone 4. I peeled and julienned the radish, tossed it with some salt and let it set awhile. Squeezed it out and rinsed it. Zested the orange on a Microplane into the radish slivers, peeled and sectioned the orange, squeezed the juice out of the remaining membrane and tossed it all together (except the membrane), simple as that.

Now the batter, well, that was an instance of sheer genius. While a couple of inches of oil were heating in the wok I had Mary beat up an egg white to pretty firm peaks. To the beaten white I added a good pinch of salt, then ice water, about half a cup, I'd say, then around a quarter cup of corn starch and maybe a third cup of AP flour. I mixed that up quickly, not to develop any gluten; the batter was like very thin pancake batter. I salted my walleye fingers, tossed them in cornstarch to just barely coat them, then into the batter, lift and drain off excess, into the hot oil (canola). Cook till just lightly brown, turning them around, about three minutes total. I had quite a bit of batter left after cooking the fish, and half an onion just sitting there; these made tempura-battered red onion slices, of which I could have eaten a good many.

Remember the watercress? That added the essential fresh, green, seasonal component to the dish. Way better than shredded iceberg. But I probably didn't need to say that. I had high hopes for the corn and apple combination in the salsa; on its own it wasn't as good as I had hoped, but in combination with the cream, fish, great tortillas and the rest, it more than held up its end.

I know this sounds like a rather elaborate procedure for tacos, but it all came together quite naturally, because I was just working with what was on hand, nor reinventing the wheel in concocting any of the various parts.

The Lake Superior Special Ale we drank with this was in honor of the walleye coming from Superior, so I thought at the time. Since the U.S. and Canada do share Gitchee-Gumee's bounty, and since this meal relied entirely on its union of north-and-south-of-the-border components, we'll just say, "Hands across the water!" and "Cheers!" It went down right nice, eh?


*Our friend Melinda, aka Nomenclature Tsarina Lulu, has strong opinions about a variety of topics, and we concur with her judgment that the only proper unions of fish and cheese are in a tuna melt and a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Bit of Winter Green

It's become something of an annual tradition that on a sunny day in February, when the cabin fever is running high, I put the dogs in the car and head to a woods I know, a little ways south of the cities. A sweet little trout stream runs through this woods, and the stream is fed by a pretty spring, and in that spring lives the only green thing in the white winter woods (except for some tenacious moss): watercress.

Because cress grows in springs that bubble up from the earth at a fairly constant temperature year ‘round, the plants are protected in a sort of microclimate created by the 40-degree water. The plants dangle their fine white roots over the sandy bottom, but they take most of their
nourishment from the water itself—it’s Great Nature’s hydroponic salad garden. I carefully snip off a sackful of leaves, trying to leave the plants undisturbed—preserving the resource must be a key tenet of any successful forager. While a spring bursting with cress, or a forest floor covered in ramps, might look to be inexhaustible, I remind myself that it got that way because it has been left alone.

The spring is not bursting with cress at this time of year; the plants are holding steady, waiting for sympathetic signs from the season. I harvest sparingly, taking a few leaves here, a few there. When I'm finished I want the spring to look exactly as it did before I started picking.

Of course, I sample some leaves of cress while I’m picking, and that pungent, almost hot flavor, along with the brilliant green of it, acts as an absolute tonic to my winter-dulled senses. Then with a few servings of cress tucked away, the dogs and I take a wandering walk along the stream. They dash back and forth from bank to bank, kicking up a splashy ruckus. I’ll try to find a quiet pool to peer into, try to spot some trout. Opening day of Minnesota’s trout season is still weeks away, but a guy can dream….

This stream usually runs thin over sand and graveled riffles, only deepening in corner pools where the current digs into the bank, but this year I found I couldn't cross in the expected places, wearing only calf-high boots--beavers had built two dams a couple hundred yards apart. That extra depth could make for good fishing, for a while, though the dams might not survive the spring floods that often scour a narrow valley stream like this.

It was a great day to be out. I wandered from the path and had a pulse-raising trudge through knee-deep snow--should have brought the snowshoes--soaked up a good dose of vitamin D in sunshine that is strong and hot on a calm clear afternoon now.

The cress we use judiciously, as these winter leaves are especially pungent. Last night we tucked a few leaves into extraordinary fish tacos, local as hell, and more details on which to follow.

A fine weekend to all.


Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Book Drawing Winners Announced

So I finally got around to drawing for the book giveaway I offered last month, and of the folks who entered by sharing one or more of their local foods highlights for 2009, the winners are:

1) Macaroni John
2) Rob
3) Laura

The books, as pictured above. The Angry Trout Café Notebook and The Omnivore's Dilemma are hardcovers in very good to excellent condition; Jacques Pépin's The Apprentice is a paperback with a fold on the front cover (but it's a very entertaining read). Thanks to everyone who entered.

Oh, also, I've changed my font, from the sans serif trebuchet to lucida grande, what you're reading right now. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chicken Noodle Soup, "Comme Chez Nous"

I guess one knows that one does not approach cooking in the typical American way when one delights in dealing with lamb tongue and kidney, yet is flummoxed in the face of a boneless, skinless chicken breast....

I had bought a whole chicken to make stock. Boned it out, saving the thighs and breasts. The wings and drumsticks were sacrificed to the stock (but the dogs got the meat from those later). The thighs are our favorite part of the bird. We use them to make Nicoise chicken, chicken in vinegar,etc.; bone them out to make "kung pao chicken" (gong bao ji ding), or any other Sichuan stir-fried dish. But what to do with the breasts, devoid of fat and almost all flavor? Anything is good when it's swimming in a spicy, tangy, savory broth. Let's make chicken noodle soup, sort of southeast Asian style.

I don't know if this is from Vietnamese pho, or some Indonesian soup I read about--you start by searing some shallots and ginger (a couple small shallots, halved, four or five slices of ginger, no need to peel) in just a film of oil until they are really quite dark, nearly black. Add a dried red chili or two towards the end, letting them get dark and fragrant, too--ahh-ahh-ahh-choooo! Like that.

You've got some stock simmering. You want a couple cups of stock per person. I soaked four or five dried shitake mushrooms in boiling water for at least 20 minutes. So my stock consisted of: 2 cups chicken stock; 1 cup of shitake soaking water; 1 cup water. You could use more stock for the water if you want it richer, but it's full of flavor this way, too.

Put the seared shallots, ginger, and chili into the simmering broth. Slice the soaked mushrooms, and add those to the broth, too.

The searing continues, though more moderately, through the rest of this dish. That's a large part of the distinctive flavor of the soup--that said, if the vegetables get too dark, it can make the broth bitter, so you have to be a little careful.

Other than the mushrooms and the ginger, everything is local:

--Sweet dumpling squash from our garden, about half a squash, peeled and sliced about 1/3-inch thick.
--Frozen sweet corn from the market, a generous cup of kernels, thawed.
--Red onion (1/2 large) from market, sliced.
--Kadejean chicken breast (one), sliced crosswise, 1/3-inch thick.

Heat a large skillet and add a bit of oil. Lay in the squash slices and cook over medium high heat for a couple of minutes, until the one side is getting a nice charred appearance; turn over, do the same on the other side. Check for doneness, and if the squash isn't done to your taste at this point, add a little water, cover, and steam for a couple of minutes. Remove lid and turn heat to high until all the water is boiled away (this is the "potsticker method" of steam-searing vegetables).

Set the squash aside, add a little more oil to the pan, and add the sliced onions. Cook over high until the onions start to brown, then add the sweet corn and sauté until the corn starts to color, as well.

Remove the corn and onions from the pan. Add a little more oil, and when it's hot lay in the chicken slices. Cook over high heat for about a minute and a half, until the chicken is getting charred on one side. When the hot side is nice and brown, and the top still looks raw, add the chicken to the broth--do not sear the other side. This way the chicken has some slight chance of not being overcooked.

Add all the other vegetables to the broth. Let it simmer together for a couple of minutes.

Now put it together: Cook your noodles; we used thin Chinese noodles, the dry ones that come in plastic packages of eight bundles, and we used three bundles for two people.

Flavor your broth: I added several glugs of fish sauce, a couple teaspoons of soy sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, a little sugar. Taste for salt and general depth of flavor. Add more of above as desired. Place a portion of noodles in a wide bowl. Divide the meat and veg between the bowls, bathe it all in hot, wonderful broth. Garnish with lime slices, if you like.

Thank the chicken for all its parts, and the great wide world for its splendid spectrum of flavors. Slurping is not only permitted, but encouraged.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pop Pop Pop

And now for something completely different.

There's been a lot of meat in these pages lately, organs, even--livers and kidneys and tongues. Oh, my. Rich sauces, slaughtered bunnies.

Time for a little palate cleanser. Time for some popcorn. This will sort of wrap up the 2009 Food Highlights (I haven't forgotten the book drawing, will get to that this week). The subject here is not just any old popcorn, but the best popcorn ever, and a local, homegrown product, to boot: Clem's Homegrown Popcorn from Castle Rock Township, Minnesota.

I first came across Clem's popcorn a couple of years ago at Greg's Meats on U.S. Highway 52 in Hampton, MN, on my way home from a fishing outing to the Whitewater area. Unsuccessful at putting a meal of trout in the creel (that hardly ever happens...), I stopped at Greg's to pick up a
couple of steaks. A display of interesting cloth bags near the checkout caught my eye--hand-picked popcorn, "Minnesota Grown," how could I resist? And it was there, my friends, at an unassuming butcher shop in the middle of a cornfield, it was there, that day, that my lifelong quest for the perfect popcorn came to an end.

Popcorn is one of the world's most appetizing foods, and Clem's is the best popcorn in the world. It pops up into beautiful, full, tasty kernels with perfect popcorn texture. It leaves almost no "old maids," or whatever you like to call those unpopped kernels (recognizing that the term "old maid" is perhaps not considered quite politically correct these days). We pop ours the old-fashioned way, in a heavy-bottomed pan on the stovetop. We use canola oil to pop it, the least coating of the pan bottom, and top it temperately with Hope unsalted butter and sea salt. We eat it for lunch sometimes, or with happy hour, or as the classic TV-watching snack. And, as of today, I've eaten it as part of a salad! More on that below.

I've made my case, and now I'll let Cindy Plash, Clem Becker's daughter-in-law, tell the rest of the story. She tells it wonderfully well. It makes me like Clem's even more:

[15 February update: Cindy wanted me to mention a couple of other people responsible for making Clem's homegrown popcorn available to us. They are: "Randy Becker (Clem's son and my husband). He is the essential part of the whole popcorn business with his knowledge and strong back! Also, Imelda (mother-in-law) sews all of the bags (about 600 a year) that the popcorn is sold in--she definitely deserves mention." Happy to give credit where credit is due (and preserve family harmony!).]

Clem is my father-in-law who will be 90 years old this year. He started growing popcorn about 25 years ago, just for family and friends. I moved to Farmington and began learning how to grow popcorn in 1995. In 1998, we started marketing and selling the popcorn with the bag that features Clem picking popcorn. Clem still comes out to the farm to help with popcorn and last year he picked about 180 5-gallon buckets of popcorn ears. (I didn’t keep track of the number of buckets I picked.) We plant about three-quarters of an acre of popcorn.

We start picking the popcorn in late October and it will usually take about a month. Because we hand pick the popcorn, each ear is inspected and bad kernels are dug out with a special hand tool. The ears are then put on large screens to dry. We use a corn sheller to remove the kernels from the cobs. The kernels are put through a fanning mill that separates the large and small kernels (this is done because the large kernels will take longer to dry). The kernels are put into small boxes with screens on the bottom to dry to the perfect moisture for popping. After the corn is dried, we put the kernels through the fanning mill twice to remove the chaff (or "bees' wings"). The sheller and fanning mill are from the 1930s. All the popcorn is stored in five-gallon buckets and each bucket is popped to ensure quality and ‘popability’ (that’s my own made-up word) before it is packaged for sale. This past harvest was the best crop we’ve had at about 4,000 pounds.

Clem’s popcorn is available through mail order and the following retail outlets – Greg’s Meats in Hampton (on Hwy 52), Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls (31659 County 24 Boulevard), and Just Food Co-op in Northfield (516 Water Street South). We also participate in the Farmers Market in Farmington and plan to attend the Eagan Market this year.

We are a very small business and plan to remain small so that the quality of our popcorn will continue. Last year we sold out of popcorn by mid-October, but people will wait for the fresh crop, I think, because of our quality.

Here’s a recipe for popcorn salad:

Popcorn Salad

2 cups Clem’s Homegrown Popcorn, popped (use more or less popcorn, depending on taste)
2 cups diced celery
1/2 medium onion diced
1 can diced water chestnuts (drained)
8 ounce shredded cheddar cheese
½ cup bacon, fried and crumbled
2 cups of mayo

Chill for two hours before serving. Keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.

(Note: Don’t ever use flavored popcorn such as white cheddar, it’s too salty.)

I made a version of the popcorn salad this afternoon. I wanted to play up the popcorn aspect, so I cut back some on the supporting cast of ingredients. I subbed apple for water chestnuts to keep it more local, and I omitted the bacon. Here's my version:

2 cups popped popcorn, Clem’s Homegrown
1 rib celery, chopped, about 3/4 cup
1/2 medium onion, chopped, about 3/4 cup (I used a red onion, which added nice color)
1 small apple, peeled, in 1/2-inch dice
3 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese, about a cup
1/2 cup of mayo (I like Hellmann's, by which I mean, I adore Hellmann's, could live on Hellmann's...)

Yes, I was skeptical about popcorn salad. Who ever heard of popcorn salad? You know what? It's delicious. Put it on the salad buffet at next summer's barbecue gathering. You will get quizzical comments, you will get compliments, you will get requests for the recipe.

Thanks so much to Cindy for sharing the story of Clem's popcorn, and to the Becker-Plash family for their wonderful product.

A 2.25 pound bag of Clem's Homegrown Popcorn costs $5.00 (plus shipping if you get it by mail order). To place an order contact Cindy Plash by email-- --or phone, 651.460.8034. Look for Clem's listing in the Minnesota Grown directory.

Update on ordering Clem's popcorn: Cindy just let me know that Clem's popcorn can also be ordered in bulk, any amount, for $2 a pound. Also, please note that if you're ordering small amounts by mail order, the shipping may cost more than the popcorn. The flat rate box is the most economical way to go, so get some friends involved. At Christmas I ordered a half dozen bags, and the shipping was $10.35 for the whole thing. (Added 11 February 2010)

Text (except Cindy Plash's story of Clem's popcorn) and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Absolutely Offal

Here's a gallery of innards, what we did with the kidneys, liver, heart, and tongue of our Sheepy Hollow lamb.

Deviled kidneys after
Fergus Henderson:

You cut the kidneys open, snip out the bit of gristle, toss them in flour seasoned with dry mustard, cayenne (or espelette), salt and pepper. Fry in butter, splash in some chicken stock and Worchestershire, serve on toast. A little cress salad (bought, not foraged), cool and crisp, made a nice counterpoint.

This was really pretty good. If you don't eat offal on a regular basis--and we don't--there are textures and...aromas, let's say, that are unfamiliar and not necessarily appealing, at first blush. Mary and I both started in a little tentatively, trying to decide if this was delicious, repulsive, or something in between. Our final verdict: Much closer to the delicious end. We cleaned our plates. We could have eaten more.

Next up, my own interpretation of Leopold Bloom's "liverslices fried with crustcrumbs":

I soaked the slices of liver in milk for a while. I seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged in flour, dipped in egg, coated with crumbs. Fried the slices in butter until the crumb crust was brown. To accompany, I just sautéed some red onions from the market and a bit of celery (from California) briefly, leaving it all nice and crisp, the onions sweet, the celery savory. I was pleased with the presentation, but...I just don't like liver that much. There's something unrelenting about both the flavor and texture of liver that's off-putting for me.

That said, there are some kinds of liver I do enjoy:

I found some foie gras from
Au Bon Canard in the freezer, go figure. Seared and served with a dried apple-maple-vanilla compote, pretty good.

Our final offal offering was prepared a few nights later. We had some friends over for dinner, and as a starter we served an assiette of braised lamb tongue and stuffed, roasted heart (another of Bloom's favorites).

The tongue and the heart both are hard-working muscles--I'm thinking there should be something witty or trenchant to say about that physiological fact, but I'll let it go.

The tongue and the heart both are hard-working muscles, so they need a lot of cooking to become tender. The tongue was simmered in chicken stock with some garlic and thyme for a couple of hours. The heart I stuffed with breadcrumbs sautéed in butter with onions and garlic, moistened with red wine. Drape a couple slices of bacon over top, roast-braise with some chicken stock for a couple of hours.

For the sauce I combined the cooking stock from both, added some white wine, reduced. I served slices of the heart and tongue over a slick of this rich reduction, rained some chopped cornichons (our garden cukes) and some parsley over top. Being muscles, the heart and tongue tasted more like meat, less like innards. And they were good, but after our recent experiments with the edgier offal, also somewhat less interesting.

So there you have it. I wouldn't go out of my way to add any old offal to the menu. I would do kidneys again--our friend Jean-Louis, who shared the heart and tongue assiette with us, said that they're great on the grill. I would cook up another tongue, a bigger one. Heart, sure, I would give it another go.

On a trip in western France a few years ago, through the Sarthe region around LeMans, then through Normandy and into Brittany, I made it a point to try various kinds of offal. I had foie gras every chance I got, of course, and headcheese, marrow bones, veal kidneys. (About three days into a trip to France, we always notice that we've acquired "the breath of the carnivore," a ripe, carrion-like tinge in our exhalations; and we so eat salads for lunch for a couple of days.)

My biggest challenge came when I ordered "marmite de tripes Normandes," the symbolic dish of the region--tripe cooked a long time in a cocotte with vegetables. They brought the little dutch oven to the table, and ceremoniously removed the lid. As the fragrant heat rose up I leaned in to appreciate it with rich anticipation, and as the curling tendrils of steam reached my nose, my reaction was: Whoa! I think I'd like that better without the diaper! Which reaction I luckily refrained from expressing, just nodded and weakly smiled, instead, and wondered if there was a pizza joint in Domfront that might be open late....

But after that initial aromatic rush subsided, and I took a portion of tripe and vegetables on my plate, I found that it was quite to my liking, the broth rich and deeply restorative, the vegetables sweet, the tripe itself tender and satisfying, a bit like tete de veau, long-simmered veal head, a dish I love.

Expectations surely go a long way toward determining whether one is going to like a particular dish. In areas where tripe is commonly consumed, tripe is adored--Normandy, Rome, Mexico, even Philadelphia. Even with the current, somewhat faddish, appreciation of nose-to-tail eating, I don't think we're about to become a country of kidney-scarfers. I'm not a total convert to offal gastronomy, but I enjoyed our experiments with lamb innards, and I learned a lot from them. In future I'll take my offal where I find it, and be glad for the opportunity.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw