Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Bide-A-Wee Week That Was

At Bide-A-Wee, this is what we mean when we talk about an "open kitchen." I get a kick out of the ads for pricey kitchen equipment that you see in the glossy food magazines, the ones that more than imply that a $5,000 range or a $300 sauté pan will magically allow one to produce gourmet meals of incomparable scrumptiousness. Now, I believe in quality equipment--we've got Le Creuset, All-Clad, Magnalite, Global, etc., in our kitchen in Saint Paul--but I also believe that it's the cook who makes the dish, after the farmers make the food, and that's the important part.

Anyway, it's just a blast (sometimes resembling a blast furnace) cooking on a fire of oak, birch, and apple. You don't necessarily have pinpoint control over temperatures, but there's an undeniable thrill in working with windblown flame.

With that, and a little help from the Coleman stove, a cast iron skillet on top of the woodstove to pan-roast the duck breast, we enjoyed this:

Au Bon Canard magret with blackberry-whisky sauce on celery root-potato mash, rapini from the Bide-A-Wee garden (the rapini, cooked off in the duck drippings, was very nice, though I hadn't really meant to focus on it quite so much). Over the course of the long weekend last, we also had the chicken-chestnut dish I just wrote about, and an atypical Trout Caviar fish dish, deviled whitefish fried in potato chip crust, a one-and-a-half-martinis inspiration that was utterly delicious. But, I should probably try it again, without the gin prelude. We served that with an apple-turnip matchstick salad with buckwheat honey dressing--our way with coleslaw.

And then Sunday night we used a bit of whitefish we had left, and a mess of wonderful vegetables--leek, onion, celery root, tomato, carrot, potato--in a lovely soup, sprinkled with some Wisconsin "asiago." It was a memorable weekend of cooking and eating, the moreso because we also did this:

Introducing the Bide-A-Wee annex, or clubhouse, and when I say "we did this," I'm lying, because it was our friend Jean-Louis who did most of it, driving out from Minneapolis to Bide-A-Wee and back nearly every day over the course of three weeks. But coming down the stretch we helped shingle the roof, and we did the insulation and the interior paneling and most of the exterior siding. With no electricity at the cabin, this was labor intensive work--Jean-Louis had a small generator that he fired up for a few fine cuts, but most of it was done by hand. And that is why, since a couple of days ago, when I move my right arm in certain ways, my shoulder punishes me the way I punished it in pushing to get the buildling done before the weather turned. Which it did, the very afternoon we got the last of the siding and exterior trim in place. And it hasn't stopped turning, yet.

We're aware that the new addition doesn't quite match the original, but that's very typical of rural Wisconsin add-ons, we've noted. The new room is 10-by-12 feet, and it only looks so imposing because Bide-A-Wee proper is so small. When you consider the space that the Haggis woodstove and entry door take up, the new room effectively doubles our space. The first time we had to close up all the doors, back in late September, the sense of claustrophobia that instantly descended made us realize this was necessary if we were to enjoy another fall and winter at the cabin. The ceiling is low. It reminds me of a houseboat. And another interesting feature: When you stand in the addition and look through what were the double barn doors into the original cabin, you can see the whole layout of the place in a way we never could before, and the effect is like looking at a diorama in a museum--Here we see how pretend-homesteaders lived in west-central Wisconsin in the early part of the 21st century.... I'll do the inside Bide-A-Wee tour when we get a few loose ends tied up.

Since a few months back we'd planned a vacation for last week. The plans started out rather grand and far-flung--we were thinking about France, then considered Montreal. Portland, Maine, is somewhere we've long wanted to visit, so we looked in to going there. Plans contracted further to a circle tour of Wisconsin, staying at B & Bs, seeking out interesting restaurants and markets. Then as the annex construction progressed, we said, Hey, why don't we stay at the new and improved Bide-A-Wee, and do some day trips. Then, as construction continued, we said, Hey, why don't we get the insulation in before the snow flies, and, Hey, why don't we get this siding on, 'cause the Tyvek is really ugly.

So, on our vacation we visited the Menard's in Rice Lake a few times, the Woodlund's building center in Bloomer, the Lampert's in Ridgeland. We also got to have lunch in the gravel garden with Jean-Louis, hone our carpentry skills under expert guidance, and in the end luxuriate in all that space--Bide-A-Wee has grown to over 300 square feet! We're livin' like kings...!

And the season has turned, for sure. We finished up the exterior work, save for painting, Monday afternoon, as the skies darkened and the weather radio warned of record low pressure, impressive wind speeds, and indeed, it has been a blustery few days. Most of the leaves are down, and the woodstove is put to use each night at the cabin.

Throughout the summer we saw several broods of bluebirds matriculate from the houses we've put up around the land. In the last warm days they came in flocks to the birdbath. They don't eat seeds, apparently, so eschewed the feeders, but eagerly drank and splashed--one day I counted eight young bluebirds at once in the small birdbath. Now they've headed for warmer climes. We'll welcome them back in the spring.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chestnut Season

Just when you think the last of the seasonal delights has come and gone from the market stands, when the corn and tomatoes have gone by the bye, when even Brussels sprouts and celery root are seeming old hat, and the next new thing to anticipate are the pungent ramps of April, May's asparagus, many wintry months away: Along come the chestnuts.

I wasn’t at all expecting to see them as I made my way through the produce section at the Seward Co-op last week. I had a mess of other dishes on my mind, based on the plethora of squashes, the verdant bouquets of kale in my garden, the last few pickings of green beans, and my newly dug potatoes. But there they were, the first of the season, fresh up from Iowa (I’m not completely sure, but I think they must have come from the J & B Chestnut Farm in Winfield, Iowa), and I couldn’t resist them. They should be around for a while now, so I just bought a small sack full, and traipsed gaily to the checkout with glowing anticipation of many happy chestnut moments to come.

Yes, I’m a produce geek, I can’t deny it.

Chestnuts are by no means as common as squash or Brussels sprouts, of course. They’re a relatively new arrival in our market, as a few growers see their hybrid chestnut groves mature, bringing back a once-common tree that disappeared with the chestnut blight that swept the continent with a terrible swiftness in the early part of the 20th century. Chestnuts, indeed, are something of a rarity, certainly a delicacy, with a price tag to match, $10 a pound or more. The best ones are meaty and sweet, and they suggest nut, fruit, and vegetable all at once. They can go savory or sweet, main course to dessert, equally well, and they cross continents and oceans in their appeal--you’ll find chestnut recipes from France and Italy, and well as China and Japan.

Before the Real Bread hiatus, our chestnut bread was a seasonal favorite, inspiring fervid devotion among our customers. Indeed, there were people we didn’t hear from all year until chestnut bread time--generally early November, when the chestnut flour was ready--came around.

I’ve got a Sichuan chicken and chestnut recipe that I love, surprisingly mild considering its region of origin. This recipe is a simplification and Westernization of that dish, using hard apple cider where the Chinese version would use rice wine, increasing the amount of meat to make a single main dish. I really like the Chinese way of making a meal from several dishes of equal status, along with rice, but when I’ve got the season’s first chestnuts, I don’t want anything else stealing the spotlight.

We used our own hard cider from home-pressed apples. I realize that good hard cider can be hard to find, and if you can’t find one that you like, I suggest this ersatz: In place of the cup of hard cider called for below, use a ¾ of a cup of good sweet cider, 1 tablespoon of good apple cider vinegar, and top it off with a bit of water. That won’t be the same as the hard cider, but it won’t be bad, at all.

Chicken with Chestnuts and Cider
Serves two generously

16 chestnuts
4 chicken thighs (or thighs and wings, legs, whatever parts you like; we prefer thighs)
2 tsp canola oil
1 medium onion sliced
1 small carrot sliced
1 cup dry hard apple cider
1 cup chicken stock or water
Salt and pepper
3 sprigs fresh thyme

First you need to get the chestnuts out of the shell. With good, fresh chestnuts, this isn’t difficult. Begin by cutting an X into the flat side of the shell, just barely penetrating the shell without cutting into the meat. I like to take a small paring knife, and (CAREFULLY!!!) grasping nearly the entire blade in my fingers, draw the tip of the blade across the shell. Once the shells have been scored, you can roast them on the stove top (our woodstove, the Haggis, is perfect for this) in a heavy skillet (like cast iron), until the flaps of shell created by your Xs start to peel back; or place the nuts in a pan in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Peel the nuts as soon as they’re cool enough to handle. Carry on as below.

Salt and pepper the chicken pieces. Heat the canola oil in a high-sided skillet or dutch oven, and brown the chicken well on both sides, about 15 minutes total. Remove the chicken from the pan. Brown the chestnuts over medium low heat, watching carefully, turning frequently so they don’t burn. Remove and set aside. Pour off excess fat, leaving about 2 teaspoons. Add onions and carrot. Saute until the onions are wilted about 5 minutes. Add the cider, scraping up the brown bits with a wooden spatula. Add stock or water, the thyme, and a pinch of salt. Return the chicken to the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook partly covered for 30 minutes. Add the chestnuts and cook for another 30 minutes. By this time the liquid should be considerably reduced. If you want a thicker, sauce-like consistency, remove the chicken and chestnuts and reduce the sauce over high for a couple of minutes. Taste for salt, and add a little more pepper if you like.

Serve with buttered noodles, or just a piece of good grilled bread.

Variation: Finish the sauce with a quarter-cup of heavy cream, and you’ll have something that would be quite at home in a Normandy farmhouse.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lamb-Apple-Bread-Stuffed Delicata Squash

I don't have the fondest associations with stuffed vegetable dishes. It goes back to my virtuous days as a vegetarian, now near 30 years behind me. It's the slumped, dispiriting green pepper stuffed with bland rice filling, the watery zucchini boat filled with...more watery zucchini, oozing glumly across the plate. These sort of dishes were standard fare in the meatless line at the college cafeteria, and I perpetrated more than a few such atrocities in my own fledgling kitchen. It was as if the bold culinary daring of scooping out the insides of a vegetable could compensate for a general lack of flavor in the entire dish. The best thing that could be said for preparations like this was that they didn't contain meat. And, ironically, they did a grave disservice to the very vegetables that a vegetarian diet ought to exalt.

Well, one was left with that virtuous feeling....

Now, I know that vegetarian cooking can be great. At this time of year, particularly, I'm thrown into a frenzy by the piles of produce still pouring in from our gardens, and from the markets where I just can't help myself (one really can't go into winter with too many celery roots squirreled away, can one?). I also find, having reached a certain age, that I can't--and don't want to--pack away the grub the way I used to, and so as my plate capacity declines, I want its contents to be as flavorful as possible. I like meat just fine, but the vegetable kingdom offers a much wider range of flavors and textures, if you ask me. I could see myself living without chicken, but you'll pry that leek from my cold, dead hand, mister.

A drive through the Wisconsin countryside a couple of weeks back led us to an end-of-season squash and pumpkin field. There'd been a couple of frosts already, the vines were all dead, but many dozens of butternut, acorn, and delicata squash still lay on the dry, cold ground, and the sign by the side of the road said that we could take our pick, four for a dollar. We filled a tote, left a check in the box 'cause we didn't have change. We had barely pulled back onto the highway before I was putting the delicata together with some ground lamb I knew I had in the freezer, some good bread, stock, a ton of aromatic vegetables, and some apple.

This is a stuffed vegetable dish with nothing to apologize for--well, except that it's not vegetarian, maybe. But you could make it so by substituting vegetable stock for the chicken, and in place of the lamb perhaps some walnuts or chestnuts?, or mushrooms, a mix of wild and dried? You want a good, chewy, flavorful bread in the stuffing, a natural leaven type, if possible. I used the remains of that fougasse I wrote of recently.

A lovely, delicious way to pay homage to the harvest. We served it in a puddle of a light roasted tomato sauce, with roasted kale on the side.

Stuffed Delicata Squash
Four servings

2 delicata squash
3 to 4 ounces stale bread--coarse crumbs or small dice, 2 cups--hold 1/2 c back to grind smaller, mix with cheese
1 rib celery
1 small onion or 1/2 onion and small leek
2 large cloves garlic
1 small apple, peeled, cored, in small dice
1 small carrot, peeled, in small dice
1 cup chicken stock
10 ounces lean ground lamb
1 small hot chili, like a Serrano, or half a jalapeno; or a half teaspoon of sambal chili paste
grated gruyere--2/3 cup about 2 oz.
salt and pepper
1 medium tart tomato like a green zebra, or use an underripe red tomato, seeded and chopped (no need to peel)
A few sprigs thyme, four or five large leaves of sage

Preheat your oven to 425. Halve and seed the squash--a good sharp heavy knife is useful here. Start in the middle and cut through one end, then turn the squash around and cut through the other end. Place the squash halves cut side down in a lightly oiled baking dish. Add ¼-inch of water, cover the pan with foil, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 10 minutes longer. The water should all be gone by now, and the squash should be soft.

Carefully turn the squash over while it’s still warm--otherwise it may stick. Tent the foil over the pan and let the squash cool. Then, careful not to tear the skin, scoop most of the flesh out with a spoon--leave a thin layer of flesh next to the skin if you can manage it. Chop the squash flesh coarsely.

While the squash is baking, saute the ground lamb, and a good pinch of salt, in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until the meat is lightly brown, and excess moisture has cooked away. Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon to a large mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Add the onion, leek, carrot, celery, chili, and a pinch of salt. Saute over medium-high until the vegetables are wilted, about five minutes. Add the apple and tomato, and cook for one minute.

Add the sautéed vegetables to the lamb. Add the squash flesh and 1 ½ cups of bread crumbs or cubes. Deglaze the saute pan with the chicken stock, then pour the stock into the mixing bowl. Strip the thyme leaves from the stems, chop the sage, and add to the mixture, along with a few grinds of black pepper. Mix well. Taste the mixture for salt, and add as needed.

Combine the cheese with the reserved bread crumbs, along with a teaspoon of olive oil. If you’re using cubed bread, turn the reserved ½-cup into coarse crumbs in a blender or spice grinder.
Lightly oil a baking dish--the one you prebaked the squash in should be perfect. Lay the squash shells in the dish and divide the filling among the four shells. Sprinkle the cheese-crumb mixture on top and bake at 400 for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is brown and crusty.

The whole dish can be prepared a day or more ahead of time, up to the point of the final baking. Refrigerate the stuffed shells, and bring the baking dish out of the fridge an hour or two ahead of baking. Sprinkle the cheese and crumbs on just before baking.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

October Garden

This is my potato harvest for 2010, from our Saint Paul garden. It's not a lot. But then, I didn't do much to get it. I decided to try the "vertical" approach to earth apple cultivation, where you plant pretty intensively in an enclosed area--like a cylinder of chicken wire, say--then keep adding soil, compost, straw, leaves, etc., as the plants grow up. At the end of the year, so I'm told, if all goes well, you just remove the enclosure and a great wealth of spuds tumbles out before you.

It didn't quite work out that way for me, but as I say, I can't complain--I devoted a three-by-three foot area of the garden to it; I planted whatever sprouty things I had left over in the cellar last spring; I added new material to the bin a couple of times, but when it got to be a hassle, I quit. As a result, my "vertical" potato tower loomed at least, oh, six inches?, from the ground by season's end.

Meanwhile, the wire enclosure served as a cucumber trellis. So I'm okay with a fairly meager harvest. As a result of over-planting, I got a lot of really small potatoes, little thumbnail-size spudlets that make you understand why the Chinese name for potatoes translates as "earth beans." I'm going to make an end-of-the-year new potato salad with those, tossing them with well-fried shallots and fried sage leaves, cider vinegar and sunflower oil--wicked local and seasonal.

It's been an odd gardening year for us, mostly because of our back-and-forth Minne'Sconsin life this summer. I finally planted a small garden at Bide-A-Wee in late July, but with no water or other amenities, making use of all that land and rich soil has been difficult. Everything we do at Bide-A-Wee is extremely labor-intensive--satisfying, but time-consuming. We're hoping to move more of the gardening out there next year.

At the same time, my city garden went woefully neglected this year. My weeding forays were strategically spaced enough that the garden was not completely subsumed, but the slugs got the upper hand in the bean plots, the carrots took three seedings before anything grew, some of my cucumbers never sprouted at all (or came up and were instantly eaten).... It was that kind of year.

And yet: The kale plants I've ignored all year are flourishing, my leeks are abundant, the pole beans are still giving (and have produced an interesting Blue Lake/Romano hybrid...). A late planting of carrots is coming along well, the tomatoes produced plenty in the very warm late summer. From where I'm sitting now, it's all good. Out at Bide-A-Wee it's Indian Summer, as we had a good frost in the last week of September. In the city I guess it's just a summer reluctant to depart.

But my recipes to work up for the week ahead include cider-braised pork shoulder, chicken in cider vinegar (maybe get some of my potatoes into that), delicata squash stuffed with a ground lamb-apple-breadcrumb mixture. Pretty autumnal stuff.

I'm off to the kitchen. I leave you with this oddity from the potato patch:

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, October 8, 2010

Howdaya Like Them Fougasses?

The Provencal hearth bread called fougasse is one of the most fun, most satisfying breads to bake. Linguistically and boulangerically (!) it's related to the Italian focaccia, and both derive from the Latin focus, which means hearth. How great is that?

The way you do it, you flatten your dough out--mine is a mixed-leaven, mostly unbleached organic white with some whole wheat bread flour, a glug of olive oil, scant teaspoon salt per pound of dough, and chopped sage--into an oval, stretch one side out wider and pull the other end out long--going for something vaguely triangular. When the dough resists, let it rest for five minutes (or more). Keep going till your dough is about 1/2-inch thick. Then with a single-edged razor blade, very sharp kitchen knife, or baker's lame, slice your holes in a pattern you find pleasing--stretch the holes out with your fingers, or they'll just close up again in the final proofing and baking. This sort of "tree of life" design is traditional, as is a simple ladder fougasse (in which case just stay with the oval shape as you flatten the dough).

I proof the loaves on cornmeal-dusted peels, brush with more oil just before baking, and bake them at 450 for 18 to 20 minutes. Any herb or combinatin of herbs can flavor them. I've also used leeks and gruyere, ramps, olives. A beautiful, festive bread, easier to make than it looks.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fall Colors

Not all the appealing colors of autumn are found in the turning trees. The soup pot can take on its own sort of autumn splendor.

In a nice pool of olive oil, sweat down a leek, a half a red onion, that leftover piece of shallot; add a chopped anaheim, a rib of celery or some fennel stalk, a diced carrot. A couple of large cloves of garlic, chopped, are next. Now the red cabbage and some biggish chunks of butternut, or another squash. Add water and/or stock about two-thirds the way up the pot. Salt can go in now, just add it by the pinch, and taste. You'd be surprised the sort of savor you can get out of a mess of vegetables. When you're getting your simmer on, toss in diced patty pan, green beans, a potato.

Some shell beans, a bit of kale, a tomato--all those would be welcome. Have to have thyme in a soup like this; I'm pretty much addicted to that herb, I think. Simmer it until you're ready to eat. A drizzle of olive oil, a piece of grilled bread, a scatter of grated cheese, if you like.

The soup simmered on the Bide-A-Wee hearth while three brown trout from the season's final outings smoked on the grate on this sunny October Sunday.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, October 1, 2010

Happy October

This will be a fine weekend for leaf-peeping and pumpkin-gazing in west-central Wisconsin. Wander Dunn County--Bide-A-Wee country--weaving back and forth across Wisconsin highway 64. Make it cheesy with a stop for some curds and sharp cheddar at Bolen Vale Cheese in Connorsville. Turn north on Dunn County K in Connorsville and you wind along the South Fork of the Hay River. That's a pretty road. If you make it to the sweet little town of Sand Creek, where said brook joins the Red Cedar River, a burger, a malt, a bowl of chili at the Sand Creek Café might be in order. Biscuits and gravy recommended if you make it there in time for breakfast.

A bit farther east, out Wisconsin 29, just east and south of the town of Thorp, you can find the area's finest gouda, Marieke, at its source, Holland's Family Farm. Then head south along Clark County Road M, through gorgeous hardwood forests--Clark County has nearly 183,000 acres of county forest, impressive. The maples will be resplendent.

I found the pumpkins on County M, and obviously it's not just your typical jack-o-lantern stuff, but heirloom eating pumpkins and the like. This one just above, I do believe that's the famous galeux d'eysines. No one was around when I stopped, I left my money in a cup, weighted down on that windy day with an acorn squash. I'd love to know how they came to raise this fascinating selection of cucerbits.

Happy October, all. Quite possibly my favorite month of the year.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw