Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sweetness, Toil, and Smoke

The sugaring season, days of sweetness, toil, and smoke. It's great when it starts, maybe better when it's over. Coming to the end of our second season now, I realize it's a bit of a compulsion. Partway through I wind up asking myself, is this really worth it? The hauling, by hand, of heavy jugs of sap from the north end of our property, where the maples are, to the south end, where sits Bide-A-Wee; the cutting, hauling, splitting of wood; the expense of all that wood, and the tending of the fire, and the smoke in your face, day after day, and what do you get in the end, a gallon or two of syrup?

But if you're someone who's just a little fanatical about getting his food as close to the source as possible, and more than that, making the most of local treasures, well, how could you pass this up?

Concentration, distillation, that's what's at the heart of it. The thing that is fascinating and compelling about it is exactly what is also, at the end, somewhat disheartening--you start off with this vast amount of clear liquid, cook it for hours, and hours, and hours, watch it gradually take on color, sweeten, go from barely sweet water to a viscous, fragrant, indescribably sweet, and, to me, incomparably delicious nectar. How great and amazing is that? And at the same time, you go through...all that, as above, to wind up with...a little sticky sweet stuff, that now fits into a few pint jars? How depressing is that?

But it's deceptive. A little maple syrup, of course, goes a long way. And has magical properties. A couple of teaspoons in a vinaigrette makes a dressing that has people going back again and again to the salad bowl, though they couldn't say why. A glaze on a pork belly, or a duck breast, then exposed to applewood smoke and gentle heat for a few hours makes the best cured meat in the world.

And it's not bad on pancakes, or french toast. Or in a
cocktail. So, you know, I guess it's worth it.

We haven't come up with the perfect evaporation system, but I'm pretty pleased with this sort of Snuffy Smith-looking moonshiner's contraption, bunged together of cinder blocks and pieces of metal "repurposed" from some dismantled piece of farm equipment we found in the North Woods near the maples. I'm going to keep it, refine it, for a summer cookstove, add a grilling station adjacent.

And now, speaking of concentration, here's what you start with. These three containers of five, six, and seven gallons.

And then two more, given scale here by 60-pound, four-year-old griffon Lily. (Isn't she cute? She's turned out to be just a beautiful dog, and sweet as can be, a maniac out on the land, rarely
stopping unless we make her lie down, all day long; the only problem is she's unconscionably moist, and cannot control The Terrible Tongue. But I digress.)

That's, let's see, close to 30 gallons of sap. Imagine your refrigerator filled with 30 one-gallon jugs of milk. Imagine then reducing that over heat until you have less than one gallon, about three quarts. Or, as we see here, five gallons sap, one pint syrup.

Dinner one night at the cabin was slices of that just-smoked pork and duck, some plain steamed jasmine rice, and sweet-and-sour chard made with our syrup and apple cider vinegar. The chard dish was a keeper. Recipe to follow.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keep Up the Fire! Maple Syrup Time

WOJB , FM 88.9, started playing Pete Seeger's "Maple Syrup Time" a couple of weeks back, but at Bide-A-Wee the sap really started flowing just a few days ago. We have about a dozen taps in now, and I'll put a few more in over the next couple of days. Our best tree this year is putting close to three gallons a day in the repurposed pickle bucket from our corner burger joint. Yesterday we brought home a little more than 15 gallons of clear sap, which, after many hours of boiling, has been reduced to what will fit in Big Blue:

I think I forgot to mention, in my "Ode to a Pot," that Big Blue is also an excellent sap reducing vessel. I've done this batch on my stove in our kitchen here in Saint Paul. Everything I've read warns you not to do this, for fear that the billowing clouds of steam will remove your wallpaper and cause the plaster to fall from your ceilings, but we have a really well ventilated kitchen, with a skylight and lots of windows, and it seems to work okay. I mean, I wouldn't boil down hundreds of gallons of sap here, but for smaller batches, and finishing, it works fine.

Nonetheless, I plan to set up a burner for our very big enameled stock pot, light a fire, and do the next reducing at the cabin. Gotta get a move on here, the sap is calling me.

I tweeted about the bluebirds, appropriately enough. There's the dude bluebird in the birdbath. Big Blue, it turns out, is pretty close to Bluebird Blue.

Here he is in the "Grousekill" apple tree:

"Maple Syrup Time," is not just a charming little ditty, but also quite a comprehensive primer on how to make maple syrup. Since it's by Pete Seeger, it contains a nicely unobtrusive life lesson or two, as well.

First you get the buckets ready, clean the pans and gather firewood,
Late in the winter, it's maple syrup time.
You need warm and sunny days but still a cold and freezing nighttime
For just a few weeks, maple syrup time.

We boil and boil and boil and boil it all day long,
Till ninety sev'n percent of water evaporates just like this song
And when what is left is syrupy don't leave it too long
-Watch out for burning! Maple syrup time.

I know it's not the quickest system but each year I can't resist it.
Get out the buckets, and tap the trees in time
-Making it is half the fun, and satisfaction when it's done.
Keep up the fire! Maple syrup time.

My grandpa says perhaps it's just a waste of time.
Ah! but no more than this attempt to make a happy little rhyme,
So pat your feet or swing your tail, but keep in good time.
Keep up the fire! Maple syrup time.

I'll send this song around the world with love to ev'ry boy and girl,
Hoping they don't mind a little advice in rhyme.
As in life or revolution, rarely is there a quick solution,
Anything worthwhile takes a little time.
We boil and boil and boil and boil it all day long.
When what is left is syrupy, don't leave it on the flame too long.
But seize the minute, build a new world, sing an old song.
Keep up the fire! Maple syrup time.

Text (except the song) and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw (Mary took the bluebird shots)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What Color is Your Le Creuset?

As you can just sort of barely tell from that shot, mine is blue. Cooks become attached to their tools. I have a deep respect for my sauté pans, my go-to All-Clad saucier, a ready-to-hand paring knife, my baking stones. But I find, considering the question here and now, that I have actual affection for only four items:

**My Global Asian chef's knife which, to my utter astonishment, sat my once beloved Sabatier down in the drawer, rarely to emerge, practically the day I got it, probably ten years ago.

**My exceedingly well-seasoned wok, a dumpster dive find from the alley between Harriet and Garfield Avenues just south of 28th Street in south Minneapolis, twenty...two...years...ago--it didn't come well-seasoned, that's what the twenty-two years have been about.

**A magnificent black cast iron skillet, low-sided and about sixteen inches across, a true heirloom that was given to Mary by a friend, Karen, because Karen knew she wouldn't ever use it, and knew we would--what generosity there.

**And my Le Creuset seven-quart dutch oven, a birthday or Christmas present from Mary in a year I do not precisely recall.

Of those four, only one has a name. It's the dutch oven; we call it "Big Blue." There are a lot of reasons that from among all the saucepans, cocottes, terrines, skillets, gratin dishes, knives and cleavers and spatulas of all kinds, from all the drawers and cupboards full of tools, this one vessel has so distinguished itself, become almost more of a family member than a pot. To wit: it is beautiful, it is venerable, it is French. It is versatile in performing many tasks, and it is indispensible in a few.

It is stock pot, confit pot, bean pot, soup pot, stew pot. It is braising vessel, best when tucked into a low oven for some slow hours filled with oxtails in Belgian beer or short ribs simmering in red wine, pork shoulder soaking up cider. It is chicken in vinegar and rabbit in mustard sauce.

Big borscht, white beans and sausage, fish chowder. Choucroute garni, moules marinière, pot au feu, boeuf à la bourguignonne, poule au pot (I did mention that it's French, didn't I?).

It is classic and comfort; the ideal vessel for a precisely calibrated cassoulet or a tossed-off soup of refrigerator miscellany.

Last night it was a variation on garbure, inspired by Sally Vincent's excellent webite
Raining Sideways.

(Here I digress, abruptly, to note that I've recently added several great sites to the "We Read These" column at right. El is a former Minnesotan now living la vida local--and how--in southwestern Michigan and writing about it in
fast grow the weeds ; Sylvie is "French by birth, Virginian by choice," gardening, cooking, and expressing the joie de vivre of it all at Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener ; Patrick mixes Duck Fat & Politics very appetizingly and literately down in beautiful Northfield, MN; and Amy Thielen, a familiar byline to Star Tribune readers (most recently reporting on Red Lake walleye), writes compellingly of life and food in northern Minnesota at Recipe-Phile. All well worth a bookmark, and the rest of that stuff over there, the old stuff, well that's all good, too. I'll bet they all have Le Creusets; I wonder what color theirs are...?)

Back to garbure, a hearty vegetable, bean, and meat soup that is either Basque, Béarnaise, "French country," or southwestern, depending on how the Google rolls. Ours was Saint Paul, Dunn County,
Midtown Farmers' Market , and Seward co-op. It's frequently made with duck, or confit thereof, but we just used a ham hock from Hilltop Pastures Family Farm and a hunk of our own home-smoked bacon. The beans are de rigeur in a true garbure, it would seem; in our variation we subbed some sprouted wheat berries that Renée Bartz grows out in Connorsville, WI (Bolen Vale Cheese ), on the road to Bide-A-Wee.

Then the vegetables were carrots, leeks, and potatoes from our gardens, onion and garlic from the market, turnips, parnips, and cabbage from Seward, all local stuff. Simmer an hour or so. Grate some cheese (Roth Kase Wisconsin "gruyère here), and the soup-filled, cheese-topped oven-proof bowls go in for a melting--or a browning under the broiler, if you prefer.

Mary was kind of stressed yesterday about various life and work issues, and sat down to supper in a bit of a funk. After a few bites of cheesy veg, bacon and deeply delicious broth (and, yes, a couple sips of wine), she looked over at me and sort of sighed, and she said, "You know, it's gonna be all right."

Big Blue has that effect on people.

Little Bide-A-Wee spudlettes, "La Ratte," keeping well in the cellar.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, March 12, 2010

Raw Food, My Way

I have a bit of a problem with the whole raw food diet concept. Now, I'm a firm believer in to each his own and chacun à son gout and all that, and it's not that I don't enjoy a nice cold faux pizza made with faux cheese and dehydrated tomato purée on a pappy crust of compressed sprouts and seeds washed down with a refreshing glass of kale juice....

Okay, it is that. It's that exactly. I do not enjoy that sort of raw food. Not that I can say I've explored every corner of that realm of eating, because, well, I don't like that kind of food, so why punish myself? Beyond the fact that the application of heat does wonderful things for the flavor of food, the whole idea behind the raw food approach goes right over my head. I don't get the idea that people were meant to be pure herbivores, any more than I do to the absurd notion of "caveman cuisine" that has also popped up recently, a regimen centered around large portions of bloody meat and nothing else that has graced the human table since the dawn of civilization. I like civilization. Well, parts of it....

The raw food approach would be more appealing if one were allowed oysters on the half shell, sashimi, or well-seasoned raw chopped steak, but you always run into that whole "vegan" thing, if you know what I mean.

This is all just a snarky, roundabout way of saying: Is there anything better than a plate of good steak tartare, frites, levain toast, and a glass of red wine? The sort of steak tartare I like is a French invention, and I try not to think of its supposed origin in the barbarian practice of tenderizing a piece of meat by keeping it between horse and saddle over the course of a long day's ride. I think I would rather eat hemp and seaweed than that "authentic" sort of tartare.

I had my first steak tartare in Paris, at a chain wine bar called
L'Ecluse, off the Champs Elysées--you can actually see a picture of the dish at that link. What I remember most about it is that the portion was huge. I ate and ate and ate, and Mary had a few bites, too, and still the ginormous mound of meat did not recede. When I could eat no more and abandoned the plate in defeat, the manager came over and regarded my failure with a look of deep disappointment and hurt. He asked me if I hadn't enjoyed my dinner, and I tried to summon enough French to respond, yes, indeed I had, it was very good, but, Monsieur Dude, that was one honking hill of raw beef, n'est-ce pas?

I recall that we ended that meal with an astoundingly good, runny, salty, smelly round of st. marcellin cheese.

I've had steak tartare in France several times since then, and the sum of those experiences leads me to conclude: 1) The French really like steak tartare, as it still shows up on many, many menus, and 2) The French like very large portions of steak tartare. We're often told, and I find it generally true, that the French diet is not focused on large servings of protein, being comprised rather of a balanced approach, several courses, salad, bread, cheese, wine, and vegetables. When the meat is not cooked, though, all bets are off--chop it, mix it, pile it high. Bring on the toast, and let's eat raw beef. And what, I ask, is wrong with that?

Occasionally I've had steak tartare as a first course, but now I prefer to make a meal of it, indeed, an event, Bistro Night! Cue up the Serge Gainsbourg, the Aznavour, the Amélie soundtrack, bring up a bordeaux or a cru beaujolais, and sail across the sea on a dreary Minnesota March night to
Les Bacchantes on the rue Caumartin near the opera--STEAK TARTARE HACHE A LA COMMANDE 14.50.

But I'm getting carried away, and am yearning for Paris and all that it implies, so back to the topic of homemade steak tartare. The question of health issues will invariably arise, and all I can say is that that is something one must decide for oneself, and you should know the source of your beef, and it should be very fresh. I will also say that I have never been made ill by steak tartare, or, for that matter, by the many dozens of raw egg mayonnaises that I've made over the decades. Most bacteria on a piece of meat inhabit the outside surfaces, so if you want to be fastidious you could carefully cut away the outside and use the middle only. And, needless to say, I would never, ever eat raw beef ground by someone else. I want to choose it, see it, smell it, chop it, eat it.

Those are the caveats; on to the recipe.

The meat: sirloin is a good choice, or top round. The most recent version I made with a chuck-eye steak from the Seward Co-op. Pricier cuts like a strip or ribeye would be fine, as well, but you don't need to spend the big bucks to have excellent tartare. I certainly would not use tenderloin, which costs an arm and a leg and has no flavor, but that's what a lot of tartare recipes call for, so, whatever.

My seasoning is a bit idiosyncratic, and I like my tartare very well seasoned. I don't use the traditional raw egg, but I do add some mayonnaise, Hellmann's. This may cause outrage among purists, but I stand by it. It gives lot of savory depth and unctuousness to the tartare.

Finally I feel the steak must be chopped, not ground. I'll usually slice my beef into strips and put it on a plate in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes to make it easier to chop. Then I go through it with a very sharp knife just as if I'm mincing an onion or such, and when I've got it chopped quite fine I'll spread the meat out on the cutting board, and get another sharp knife, so a knife in each hand and I go chop-chop-chop-chop-chop until I'm tired of chopping, and taste a bit for texture, season, let meld, enjoy.

Steak Tartare Maison
pour deux personnes

10 ounces beef--sirloin or top round
1 small shallot finely chopped, about a tablespoon
1 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 shakes Worchestershire sauce, or to taste
1/4 tsp sambal oelek chili paste--or a few shakes Tabasco
1 heaping Tbsp Hellmann's mayonnaise
juice of 1/4 lemon, or to taste
2 good pinches salt
1 tsp capers, chopped fine
2 tsp dijon mustard
a few grinds of black pepper

Mix all together well and let sit at room temp for at least 30 minutes. Serve with good buttered toast,
oven fries, cornichons if you have some, and a green salad. Drizzle a little extra olive oil over the meat on the plate, if you like. You can also bring some of the condiments to the table for individual adjustments.

Our salad this night was our first harvest from the potted greens shown in the previous post. The potatoes came from our root cellar stash, from the market (things are getting pretty sprouty down there; I guess spring is on the way). I baked the bread, of course, made with Minnesota and North Dakota flours. The cornichons, grew 'em, pickled 'em--and this year I'll be able to use my own vinegar. The steak was either Hill & Vale or Grass Run Farm, I forget which--purchased at the Seward Co-op. The nice thing about shopping at co-ops is that you often wind up eating local foods without having to think about it.

But don't assume that because a store has a "green" reputation that they're actually walking the talk. I read something in a blog recently about Whole Foods 365 frozen "organic" vegetables which I found hard to believe, but I checked it last time I was there, and it's true: Many of those vegetables are grown and packaged in China. Talk about your food miles....

These greens traveled about 25 feet from "farm" to table:

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wee Leeks & Greens

I always feel good when I have the new season's leeks sprouting while there are still a few of last year's crop in the cellar. I didn't take very good care of my leek harvest from last fall, got most of them in at the eleventh hour and just bunged them in a drywall bucket, kicked that to a corner of the basement. And there they have whiled away the winter, drying slowly, layer by layer, retaining the germ of life at their hearts, coming out to flavor a stock, perk up a stew. I reach into the bucket now afraid that my hand will close on nothing but crepitant, papery husks, but so far that fear is unfounded.

I doubt there'll be anything left in that bucket when these new year's leeks go in the ground. For springtime alliums I rely on Great Nature--ramps from the loamy woods near a trout stream--or the market--spring onions from our farmers at Midtown. Those wisps of green are, right now, as much for encouragement as for agriculture. They're a sign that this, too, shall pass--this dismal in-between-time of dreary rain and melting snow, when fading winter seems all slush and grime, and diffident spring consists entirely of mud and potholes. My little green oasis of leeks and salad greens is a mental bridge to those warm and vibrant days ahead when everything is growth and sun and vigor.

I succumbed to extreme cabin fever and bought a "four-shelf greenhouse" for around 30 bucks at Menard's a few weeks ago. It's a cheap and flimsy metal frame with teetery shelves, the whole thing sheathed in a clear zippered cover that looks like a giant garment bag. But you know what, it works: In our sunny front room the atmosphere on the top shelf was registering around 100 degrees. I moved the flat down to the second shelf, and opened the bag a bit. The leeks we won't be harvesting for many weeks, but the greens--two kinds of Burpee mesclun mix that look exactly the same--we'll be eating tonight.

Encouraged by the excellent growth of that first planting, I seeded several more pots yesterday, with kale, radicchio, frisée, fennel, red oak leaf lettuce, basil, green onions, and more leeks. To get things sprouting quickly, I put the pots in one of our ovens with the door just barely ajar and the light on. It will keep a temperature of around 85 degrees, and many of the seeds will germinate in just a couple of days. Ordinarily I would then put the seedlings under lights, but now that I have a "greenhouse," I may see how they do in there, with spring bearing down and the equinox less than two weeks away, good strong sun in that room on clear days.

I have a cold frame outside on the south-facing side of the house. It's under a wide overhang so the ground might not be too wet. I know it's probably utterly foolish, but I suspect you'll soon see a report here of my first outdoor planting of radishes, spinach, rapini....

It has been kind of a long winter, hasn't it?

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, March 4, 2010


(Previous post Big Borscht is in the "Grow Your Own" Round-Up hosted by House of Annie. This pasty post would qualify, too.)

Pasty could well describe the skin tone of most of us northerners this time of year, but in this case it's not PASTE-ee, but PASS-tee, short 'e' sound, doncha know, hey. That's the Cornish treat beloved of Yoopers and Iron Rangers, hungry, hard-working miners of the North Country. It's a portable meal of humble ingredients that has achieved legendary status because, well, what other dish are the Cornish known for? Not to damn with faint praise, although I've had a few pasties that didn't really rise above the humble ingredients. Mine are sort of jazzed-up pasties that are almost hybrid empanadas. Like most other combinations of flour and fat in our household, the pastry benefited greatly from the tender touch of "Mary, Pastry Goddess."

The most basic pasty filling consists of ground beef, onion, potato, and rutabaga. Variations on the theme are myriad (and I must say, quite welcome, given the spartan flavors in the basic template). Some add pork, or other root vegetables, boullion cube or gravy, cream of mushroom soup (which I think is going too far down the Midwestern road). I look at this type of dish as a "use what you have" preparation, and what I had was: leftover grilled
Sheepy Hollow Lamb leg, leek, carrot, potato, turnip, squash and onion (all from our garden except the onion). And an open bottle of red wine, and lamb stock.

(I do enjoy chopping!)

A lot of the pasties I've had have tended to the dry side, that quality rectified by copious application of the Iron Ranger's favorite condiment "sauce de tomates a la Heinz." I served ours with frozen sauce from last year's garden tomatoes, freshened with a bit of onion, garlic, and a splash of white wine.

Here's my filling, which made enough for a dozen pasties and a pot pie. In other words, it's way too much, so adjust to your needs. But pasties are a great thing to have in the freezer. They made a quick late dinner for us just last night, and this time we had some of our apple ketchup on the side, and that was excellent.

Too Much Pasty Filling:

1 med leek, white and most of green sliced thin 1 cup
1 large carrot, in small dice (3/4 cup)
1/2 large onion chopped 1 cup
2 large potatoes peeled and diced 2 cups
1 small turnip peeled in small dice
1 cup diced squash
1 large garlic clove minced
2 cups diced cooked lamb
3/4 cup lamb stock
1/4 cup red wine
3 Tbsp flour

Mix it all up in a big bowl. The stock and wine are the "Gravy Train" factor; the flour thickens it.

The Pastry Goddess's Buttery Crust:

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
4 ounces (one stick) unsalted Hope Creamery butter, cold
1/4 to 1/3 cup ice water (and possibly a little more to get the dough to come together)

Combine flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal cutting (not dough) blade. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and add to the flour. Pulse a few times to break the butter down a little more. Add 1/4 cup of water and pulse a few more times. The dough should start to come together in a ball. If it doesn't, add more water a tablespoon at a time, and pulse until it does start to come together. It needn't be a totally uniform dough at this point, and you don't want to overwork it. It's okay if it looks a little crumbly still (tolerance of crumbliness, I have found from observation, is the key to the Pastry Goddess's powers).

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured counter, bring it gently together, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least an hour before rolling.

When you're ready to fill and bake, roll the dough out to about 1/8-inch thickness. Cut rounds of about 10 inches. Add filling. Crimp on the top or on the side. Brush with an egg wash, poke a couple of holes in the dough on top with the point of a paring knife to let steam escape. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes or so, until they are golden and steaming.

We served ours with a glass of our own hard cider, which is really quite Cornish, indeed--"...pint of scrumpy and a pasty in a pub," the Cornish "national meal" (with a nod to Rick Stein of The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow and many BBC cooking series).

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw