Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Morchella, Mon Amour

"Seek and ye shall find," goes the biblical admonition (Matthew 7:7, merci Google), but it doesn't specify what ye shall find. And that's really rather clever, I think, because if you're all sort of type-A, compulsive-obsessive, goal-oriented in your seeking, well, you're much more likely to be disappointed than if you're prepared to be happy with whatever ye may find when ye goes a-seeking.

Case in point: I've been very up front about my abject failure to locate morels in years past. I've looked and looked, followed all the sage advice, and basically come home empty-handed. Seven or eight morels has constituted a major haul for me, so when I hear about people bringing home grocery bags full, I confess I have succumbed to debilitating morchella envy.

So I quit looking. Mary reminded me that many of my best foraging finds have come when I was doing something else entirely, or looking for something that was not what I found--a cress spring or a big tooth mushroom hanging from a streamside tree while fishing, hen-of-the-woods when I was after woodcock, a hill covered in chanterelles when I was just out walking with the dogs.

We were out at Bide-A-Wee last weekend, practicing some of our favorite Bide-A-Wee activities, "Peering Into Thickets" and "Swimming Through Bramble Patches." I was doing a little thicket peering, just scanning the ground under mixed brush, thinking I might see something much more humble than the vaunted morel--a patch of ostrich ferns, maybe, even some nice wood nettles--and the first one popped out at me. A small yellow morel, maybe two inches tall. When you've looked so often and not found morels, it's pretty amazing to not be looking, and then see one. I called Mary over and we started searching the area more closely. It didn't take long to pick around 30 morels, from an inch-and-a-half to about three inches long. We were pretty excited.

We sautéed some to have with a steak that night. They were good, but their flavor was a little overwhelmed by the beef. The next day for lunch we prepared them according to my favorite method for enjoying the best flavor of wild mushrooms--alongside soft-scrambled eggs flavored with salt, pepper, a sprinkling of chives, topped with the sweet, chivey flower stalks. I added a little milk to the eggs for a soft texture. Glass of our own cider to wash it down.

I'm hoping to be not looking for morels again this year.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Shanks of Spring

This was our paschal dinner, of the season and the place, in all simplicity, not standing on ceremony. Lamb shanks cooked in Abby Normal Belgian-style beer from our local Viking Brewing Company , ramps and stinging nettles foraged from the woods, salt and pepper, a little butter to finish the sauce, grilled bread, that's it.

We have nettles growing under one of the apple trees nearest the cabin. I wrote last post about the early emergence of ramps in the woods near one of my favorite trout streams. These young nettles, just a few inches tall, were easy to pick even without gloves. You just carefully reach in and pinch off the stem near the ground. Even if you do brush your hand or arm against the leaves, the little ones don't have much sting.

Sheepy Hollow Lamb shanks. Everything cooked on the outdoor stove. You could brown the shanks in the dutch oven, but since we had a fire going I decided to sear them over the coals.

The Abby Normal makes a great braising liquid, deep and rich, a little bitter and slightly sweet. I poured in a bottle minus a swig, and nearly another bottle of water. I added the greens of the ramps first, and the chopped lower stems from a couple of cups of well-rinsed nettle leaves. It cooked away for about three hours, and halfway through I added the whites of the ramps and the rest of the nettles. It was absolutely edible in that time, the meat easy to flake off the bone, still with a bit of chew to it. Another hour or so wouldn't have hurt, but I don't like dishes where the meat is braised into oblivion.

At the end the sauce was well reduced. The flavor, of beer, ramps, nettles, and lamb was pronounced--this is not a dish for timid palates. I wasn't sure at first that I liked it that much. But I had set out to create a different sort of flavor, I reminded myself, something very simple, elemental, expressing this terroir in this season.

That's what we got. I would make it again. I might try some of our cider in place of the beer. It's the kind of cooking that just makes total sense to me. You don't have to characterize it as French, New American, or whatever. You don't have to say to much about it, because it speaks for itself.

So I'll shut up now.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Barron County Ramble

When I got to the stream it was flowing the wrong way. Bull grouse drumming, the boomingest I’ve heard. Spring beauty and ramps on the spongy forest floor. I kicked a brook trout out from overhanging weeds, it skipped across the stream, held in the sunlight over weeds and gravel, convinced that stillness was invisibility in this context.

Clam shells and snail shells. Bloodroot. The markings on a brookie's back are described as "vermiform," worm-like, but I would choose serpentine, or byzantine.

Why the stream was flowing the wrong way, it was the wrong stream, that's why. I was following--or thought I was--the path of the main watercourse, but from some distance back from its banks, in the woods of black oak and white pine where the walking was easier than along the alder-crowded stream. I knew the feeder stream was there, I expected and hoped to come upon it, but now I had walked too far, so I thought, and needed to see some familiar terrain, a known piece of water. I turned eastward from my southing path, and soon came through a patch of gray dogwood to find a creek roughly the size of the main branch I was shadowing--but flowing the wrong way.

These sorts of streams, of this northern-west-central part of Wisconsin, which fall somewhere between the southwestern spring creeks and iron-tinted northern rivers, are highly variable in size. In the course of a couple of hundred yards this one changed from a quick, open meadow brook you could nearly step across to a much wider, shaded stream sliding past limestone cliffs. And back again.

There was plenty of beaver sign and I kept looking for the dam. There it was at the very mouth of the feeder. Icy water flowed under it into the main stream; I wondered if brookies could get up past it, to take refuge in the colder water when summer warmed the main branch.

This walk had no purpose, as aimless as this tale. To tramp about the countryside, that was as focused a goal as I could propose. It's a wonderful time of year for a ramble, without the tall grasses, nettles, thick brambles that overtake the woods by midsummer. Without the heat, the bugs. And the countryside displays intriguing forms that summer will hide.

Following the main branch now, I wandered farther downstream than I had ever fished before--all my previous visits to this place, I'd been wearing waders, carrying a fly rod--found this inviting rustic bridge. A little cabin stood off at a distance, at the edge of the woods and a hayfield. I did not approach. Crossed the bridge instead and went back up through the woods on the other side.

I reflected as I walked, and have several times since, on how lucky we are to have lands like this, open to all. I strayed on to private land at that bridge, I know, but there were no postings, no menacing signs or fences. Most of the land I crossed was public, county land, where anyone may hunt, fish, hike, birdwatch. No amenities here--oh, one fishing parking lot now has a paved path down to a sort of deck-like structure overhanging the stream, I call it "The Pontoon Dock," for some reason. But no picnic tables, shelters, trashcans or port-a-potties. Just a natural place, surrounded by farms.

The people who live near it probably do not see it as an oasis. But more than once, fishing here, I've encountered a youngish grandmother with her grandson. They spend a couple of hours drowning worms before she has to go to work, she's told me. The grandson is intense. He always wants to know what I've caught, and what I caught it on. He wants to see the fish. They don't catch much. They're just there to have fun, the grandma says. The grandson might differ. He's got that fisherman's hunger, burning through his wiry eight-year-old frame.

By the end of my walk, coming back to the car, I do now find a definite purpose to my ramble, as I knew I would. The woods are full of ramps already, in this very early spring. I have borrowed the Japanese digging knife I gave Mary for her birthday last year, which I find to be an ideal tool
for separating a few ramps from a clump, leaving the rest to keep on growing. We've used ramps in a couple of dishes already this year, but you don't want to overdo it too soon. They've got a strong flavor, and you can get sick of them if you're not careful.

So I gather just a moderate portion, and most of that I'll wind up giving away. There are so many, it's hard to stop, but they will be there next week, and the week after, and likely the week after that.

Just across the dirt road from the little parking turnout where the Jetta sits there's a metal gate, and the land is







That's on one of the wooden posts of the barbed wire fence. And on the adjacent one, there's this:

Which made the no trespassing notice seem just a little more friendly.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Round Again

In which the last of the past meets the first of the new, via soupage. So here some of the last of last year's garden leeks, potatoes, and carrots meet the vanguard of early spring, the chives, the sorrel. I could have added a little mint. It's a variation on a Madeleine Kamman recipe for nettles soup--not that we can't get nettles now, we can, just not in the yard. (Lots of other "weeds" out there, though, and several edible.)

I grew all that stuff, by the way. Proud of meself, I am.

It is puréed, enriched with some cream, topped with a bit of grated Wisconsin "gruyère," or as you please--as Mme Kamman says, it "does not hurt." A dish both rich and green in flavor, the tart nip of sorrel subdued but still influential. A fine transitional soup to say merci and au revoir to the root cellar, and a big bienvenue to the gardening year. If you have sorrel, chives, garlic chives, and mint in your garden you get the first green of spring, year after year, without doing a thing.

Leek and Sorrel Soup
serves two

1 large leek, cleaned, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter

2 medium potatoes (about 8 ounces total) peeled, sliced 1/4-inch or thinner

3 cups chicken stock

1 packed cup young sorrel leaves

1/4 tsp salt

1 small carrot, grated

1/2 cup heavy cream

chives, about a dozen blades

grated cheese, such as gruyère, about a cup, optional

salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot melt the butter and add the leeks. Cook over medium heat until they are soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the potatoes and the stock, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil. Line the sorrel leaves up with the stems all facing the same way. Chiffonade up from the bottom, slicing halfway up the leaves. Add the sliced stem ends to the pot, set the top halves of the leaves aside. Cook at a high simmer for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are very soft, falling apart.

Turn off the heat and let the soup cool for a few minutes, then run it through a food mill or push it through a sieve (you may blend it if you like, before sieving--not necessary if using a food mill). Return the smooth soup to the pot and bring back to a simmer. Set a bit of the grated carrot aside for garnish, and add the rest to the soup. Cook for 5 minutes. Chiffonade the rest of the sorrel, and set a little aside for garnish. Add the rest to the soup. Chop the chives, save some for garnish if you like, add the rest to the soup. Add the cream and cook another couple of minutes without letting the soup come to a boil. Add a few grinds of black pepper if you like, taste for salt.
Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw. Recipe adapted from
When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman, one of my favorite books.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


We're still drying apples from last year's store. Well, to give credit where credit is due, the apples are doing a pretty good job of drying themselves. Some of the apples reside in our spare fridge in the basement, some in an old cooler in a chilly part of the basement. Almost all have softened, and many are basically rotten, but it actually smells really good down there, sweetly fragrant, orchardy; makes you think of hayrides, mulled cider. Apples may be unique in this quality of smelling good even when frankly spoiled.

The ones that are not spoiled are still not all that appetizing in appearance--shriveled, shrunken, they'd be garbage at worst, compost at best, to the too-fastidious eye. No one would put them into the kid's lunchbox, except as a cruel prank. But I don't look at them as halfway gone fresh apples; rather, I see them as being halfway to greatness as dried apples.

We dry them in this gizmo here, our mighty Nesco American Harvester. I started to research food dehydrators last fall, and quickly became bewildered in a maze of sizes, shapes, prices, energy efficiency. I gave up. Then one day at Menard's we came across the Nesco, on sale for around $30, I think. I remembered that Emily and Dan, our young heroes, use one of these babies. We snapped it up. Haven't looked back.

We also bought a corer-peeler device, which works a treat on fresh apples; with these soft, well-aged beauties I left the skin on, just cored and sliced. They only took a couple of hours to finish drying up to tart-sweet, chewy, aromatic morsels.

We use them as: Doggies treats--Annabel and Lily love them. People treats--Mary and I scarf them eagerly, too. In granola, in salads, and as a local (and free) alternative to many dried fruits in recipes. Today I'm going to make a recipe for lamb meatballs with beets that's been calling to me since I saw it in a recent Saveur. I've got the last of our garden beets from 2009, and Anne (Sheepy Hollow) Leck's awesome lamb. The recipe calls for currants; chopped dried apples will take their place.

You'll still find last year's apples at whatever farmers markets are open through the year, and there likely will be some at markets getting set to open in May. I know Denny Havlicek brought some holdovers to our market (Midtown Farmers' Market ) last spring (we hit the Lake Street parking lot May 1 this year, three weeks from Saturday, yikes!).

Remember: It's never too late to dehydrate.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sweet & Sour (Tree Crop) Chard

A recipe, plain and simple, which takes chard's beetiness and melds it with the sweet and sour flavors that go so well with...beets. We were forced to use alien chard, alas, from California this was. But we dressed it right local, with some of the last market onion, and our own cider vinegar and maple syrup. Our vinegar is quite mellow, not as acidic as most commercial products, so if you think yours is more on the harsh side, you could add one tablespoon, let it cook a bit, and see if you think it needs more. You can get a very nice unpasteurized apple cider vinegar in bulk at many co-ops.

On the sweet side: A tablespoon of syrup made it a little sweet for my taste, but Mary thought it was just right. Again, you can add some of the syrup, taste, see what you think. The stock rounds out the flavors nicely, but if you don't have any, use water and stir a bit of butter in at the end. This dish accompanies rich meats, like duck, pork, or sausage, very well.

Sweet & Sour (Tree Crop) Chard
serves two generously

5-6 good-sized chard leaves (2 cups chopped)
1/2 medium onion, sliced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chicken stock (or 1/2 cup stock, 1/2 cup water)
2 good pinches salt
a few grinds black pepper
2 to 3 tsp maple syrup
1 to 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
options: a bit of thyme, a small knob of butter stirred in at the end

Cut the thick ribs out of the chard leaves, and slice these diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces. Tear or cut each leaf into four or five pieces. Heat a 10-inch skillet or the like, and add the olive oil, then the onion and the chard rib pieces. Add a couple of pinches of salt, the stock (or stock and water, or water). Cover and cook over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, until the chard is starting to soften. Then add the chard leaves, and as soon as they wilt into the liquid add the vinegar and maple syrup. Cook uncovered for another three to four minutes, until the chard is tender to taste and the liquid is somewhat reduced. Taste for salt, sweet, and sour. Serve in a dish.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw