Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wake Up and Smell the Trout

I hear all the time, mainly from Wisconsinites, that brown trout make poor table fare. Well, to put it a little more in the local vernacular, they "don't eat very good," or "they taste muddy," or "livery." I beg to differ--or, as The Bard might had said, had he hailed from Wasilla, AK, "I refudiate that."

We eat brown trout for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, though generally not on the same day. Last Saturday was an exception--trout with bacon and apples for that breakfast/lunch thing, grilled trout with deviled cream sauce for dinner. The next day it was whitefish fresh from Lake Superior courtesty of Halvorson Fisheries in Cornucopia on the South Shore. I think I could eat fish every day, when it's this fresh.

What with the trout season closing out in a couple of days, I've been taking every chance to be on the stream. Unlike most fly fishermen, I fish to harvest, as much as to partake of the graceful art of the long rod. The September rivers gave up a few small fish on a recent outing, ideal for this breakfast dish of rye-coated fillets cooked in bacon drippings (my friend Twink was making fun of me recently for saying fillet, pronounced FILL-ette, but that's the way my Canadian Grandpa Leitkie said it, and he's the one who taught me to FILL-ette a fish, at Lake Brereton in eastern Manitoba way back when, so I'm sticking with it).

At any rate, having harvested, having filleted, I simply salted the fillets lightly, dredged them in rye flour, and fried them in the drippings from a few slices of our home-smoked bacon. I got the idea originally from a Rick Stein recipe for oatmeal-coated herring with bacon. My Bide-A-Wee innovation was to add apples fried in the bacon drippings, too. They made a delicious addition to the plate, bringing brightness and tartness.

Another lovely example of simple, seasonal fare highlighting the best local stuff. A pretty good way to start the day.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hen of the Woods, Marieke Gouda, Red Onion, Fettucine

Complicated cooking isn't necessarily better than simple food, nor is the reverse always the case. A mackerel grilled over Nova Scotia driftwood, a sweet potato hot from the clay charcoal roaster of a Chengdu street vendor, a Breton oyster slurped down within view of the briny beds where it was born--these are some of my favorite memories of perfect, simple food.

But I also recall with extreme tenderness the first dinner I ever ate in France, a composition of salmon and red mullet napped about with a sort of foamy sauce made from jerusalem artichokes and certain magically delicious things, with perfectly cooked coco de paimpol beans, at the Hotel Pen' Roc in Brittany. And on that same trip, a seared duck breast served with sautéed champagne grapes and a peach galette.

So there are dishes that are worth the effort--especially when it's someone else's effort--but when you can hew to simplicity and achieve extraordinary results, I say, so much the better. One case in point that springs right to mind was another dish from Pen' Roc, on a subsequent visit: a local duckling--Paul Renaud's duckling, to be exact--roasted, the roasting pan deglazed with walnut wine, served that simply: duckling, jus. Amazing, unforgettable.

A great simple dish requires great ingredients, and the good sense to get out of their way. I think we came up with such a dish last week, practically by accident, just trying to get something tasty on the table after a long day. I had something more elaborate in mind to make with those hen of the woods mushrooms; I'm glad I pooped out.

You could try another wild mushroom in this preparation, but I think the chewy, crunchy texture of the hens makes it. That and the wonderful gouda, Marieke, produced at Holland's Family Cheese in Thorp, Wisconsin, out highway 29 between Chippewa Falls and Wausau (I visited the farm and had a nice chat with the on-farm store manager Christine Anderson; expect a field trip/tasting report soon). We made this once with their smoked gouda, a second time with aged gouda (12-months-plus); one time with Sunrise pasta (made in Hibbing, MN), and the second time with homemade.

Well, I'll not go on in rapturous detail. Just, from practically the first bite, I knew this would become a standard at our house, to be anticipated each fall as September rolls around, and the first autumn rains soak the woods, coaxing those remarkable fungi out into the chill air. As for superb "minimalist" cooking, well, Mr Mark Bittman can just...have a real nice day.

A plate of sliced garden tomatoes and a piece of bread are fine accompaniments.

Fettucine with Hen of the Woods, Gouda, Red Onion
serves two

6 ounces hen of the woods mushrooms, pulled into shreds roughly 1/2-inch by 2 inches, about 2 cups
1/2 of a medium red onion, sliced against the rings 1/4-inch thick
1 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
3 ounces grated good gouda, aged or smoked, a generous cup
salt & fresh ground black pepper
5 to 6 ounces fettucine, or pasta of your choice--I particularly like the wide noodles in this preparation

Heat a 10-inch skillet and add the butter and oil. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. The mushrooms will start to give off liquid right away. In a couple of minutes, when some of the liquid has evaporated, add the sliced onions. Sauté over medium-low for 8 to 10 minutes, until the onions and mushrooms are lightly browned.

Have the pasta cooking in the meantime. When the pasta is done to your taste, drain it briefly and add it to the mushrooms and onions in the pan. Add about 2/3 of the grated cheese and a good pinch of salt, grind of pepper, and mix it all up well with tongs. Serve with the additional cheese to sprinkle on top at the table.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Here's Hens

More to follow. Go get yourself some good aged or smoked gouda, a red onion, some fettucine, and a nice chunk of grifola frondosa. Look at the base of white oaks, or on stumps of same. For the mushroom, that is. For the rest, I'd probably go to the co-op....

Thursday, September 16, 2010

At Bide-A-Wee

We've had our little rustic cabin (yclept "Bide-A-Wee") in rural Dunn County, Wisconsin, for a little more than two years now, and many Trout Caviar posts have originated from there. Stuff charring on the grill, or braising away on the woodstove (ycelpt, "Haggis"), shots of apple trees, reducing maple syrup. So naturally I assumed that I had presented a fairly detailed picture of what our part-time life in a 12' x 16' off-grid cabin entails, but something a friend said recently made me examine that assumption. And my conclusion: Not so much. There's an awful lot of food, a certain amount of scenery, not that much of the day-to-day. Which might perhaps be of some interest. Hence, this pictorial "Tour de Bide-A-Wee."

This is looking down from the hill to the southwest. In the foreground is one of the dozen or so apple trees we planted--all traditional cider varieties, mostly French, go figure. The cabin, as I said, is 12' x 16', one room with a small sleeping loft (which we use mainly for storage). It's made of local white pine which was milled at the Schrock lumber mill on "Schrock's Hilly Acres" between Dallas and Chetek. There Ivan Schrock and his crew also built the cabin. When it was finished they put it on the back of a flatbed tow truck and drove it (had it driven, that is, as they're Amish...) the 15 hilly, winding miles to our land, and deposited it on the parking pad. It sits on treated lumber skids, no other foundation.

It came uninsulated, just bare stud walls and rafters. We insulated it the first fall, put birch and oak plywood on the ceiling, and cheap pine paneling on the walls. But I'll show more of the inside in a future post, when we've had a chance to tidy up....

Here's the view from the "gravel garden" patio. One thing we're quite proud of is the fact that we did most of the landscaping structures using wood recycled from an old deck that the previous owner had left in the woods on the north end of our property--Bide-A-Wee sits on the south side of our 20 acres.
The wood rack, too, was built from these repurposed materials.

We heat the cabin, cook, and regale ourselves around the fire ring with oak--mostly culls of small dead trees in the north woods--and apple from our attempts to prune the many long-neglected apple trees on the property--upwards of 80 at last count, I believe, and we keep finding new wild seedling trees in the woods.

The hearth. Most of our cooking, spring through fall, until the deep snow comes, takes place here. Raising the cooking surface just a bit with the cinder blocks was a great help. Another tier of blocks would make tending the grill a bit easier still, but I think that would make general campfire enjoyment more difficult. To start with, we remove all that stuff on top, the grill grate, the flat (-ish) metal plate, and build a fire. When we have a good bed of coals we spread them out, and then we can grill in the front, put pots to simmer on the back. We smoke fish and meats here, too, in which case we put the grill at the back and the things to be smoked on the grill, cover them with that there lid from a portable Weber grill, and keep a fire going in the front, adding aromatic apple wood near the back from time to time. It is not at all precise, but it gets the job done.

We haven't put in a well yet, so we have to bring all of our water in from Saint Paul, or refill at our neighbors, at parks or rest areas. Given how much water the "Average American" uses in a day, it's kind of remarkable just how little water you really need to get by very comfortably. Even with both of us taking a shower in the treehouse stall, warm water courtesy of the "Eco-Friendly Solar Shower," and the dogs guzzling their fill, we use about eight gallons a day, at most.

Until recently, the only fresh produce at Bide-A-Wee (except that from Great Nature's garden) came from the few pots of herbs and struggling tomatoes on the south side of the cabin.

But a few weeks ago I constructed a 5' x 10' raised bed, framed up with more of that recycled deck lumber, and used a sheet mulching technique to built up the bed. I turned the sod within the frame upside down, laid newspapers over that, some hay on top of that, then the soil. Our soil is pretty heavy, good fertile clay but it needs some lightening. I took advantage of the mounds of earth that the resident pocket gophers throw up all over the land--soil nicely aerated, absolutely fluffy by comparison to what I could dig up--and added peat moss to that.

I planted the garden--with radishes, turnips, lettuce, broccoli rabe, various kinds of kale--at the very end of July, and it just took off. We've been harvesting from it for three weeks now, and those hearty greens should provide for us well into October, if not later. Amazing what a true full-sun bed, and un-tuckered-out soil can do.

At Bide-A-Wee we practice mushroom identification. I don't think any of those are edible. The larger ones with the rusty brown gills I believe to be a type of cortinarius. The white ones might be an entoloma, potentially edible, difficult to pin down. The pretty yellow ones--well, I got distracted in the midst of the ID process. I set some aside to get a spore print. Forgot about them, in the night it rained. I'll have to start over with those if they're still out there.

We had Ivan build the cabin with lots of windows, and the big screen door. In the summer, with everything open, you're a little bit outside even when you're inside.

We joke sometimes that we bought the land for our dogs, but there's more than a little truth to the joke. Senior griff Annabel wasn't so sure at first, resistant to change as she is, but she's come around. Our younger dog, Lily--she's four-and-a-half now--never had any qualms. She has made the land her own, running it from end to end several times a day. Sometimes she scares me with her daredevil, breakneck descents of the hummocky slopes. She is a goofy little dog and annoying in many ways, but she is a prodigious athlete of an animal, and a sheer joy to watch.

Every season has its pleasures in this beautiful countryside, but this time of year, right now, and for the next few weeks, this is the best, to me, as the season turns and we move from the glory of the late summer meadow wildflowers to hills luminous with the autumn colors of maple, aspen, and birch. It can absolutely frickin' break your heart.

Go ahead and make fun of the obligatory Country Squire Wellies. They get an honest workout, and I feel that any day spent in the rubber Le Chameaux is a good one.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday, 6:23 a.m.

Sunday, 6:23 a.m., I've got loafed dough rising (cornmeal-whole wheat levain, splash of maple syrup to help the starter); trout brining (two small Kinnickinnic browns, will smoke at Bide-A-Wee); pork shoulder to break down (cutlets for the grill, a chunk to dry rub and smoke, the rest to grind).

On the counters: tomatoes, chilies, dried black trumpets, patty pans, wild hazelnuts in the husk, cantaloupe, buttercup and butternut squash, fingerling poatoes, onions, garlic, sweet corn, shallots, apples--did I mention tomatoes?

Just a typical day in the September kitchen. It's all here, an astoundingly abundant time of year. What will it look like in a month?

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Field Work

It's a quarter after ten, and I just polished off a plate of squash blossoms stuffed with a small dice of sulfur shelf (aka, "fried chicken" or "chicken of the woods") mushrooms, shallots, patty pan squash, and some sprouted, simmered wheat berries. It's research, you see, for the cookbook. No, it really is. Off hand, you might say I have too much time on my hands; but with summer very suddenly having turned to fall, I'm feeling like I have all too little.

There are only three weeks left in the trout season--I've got to get some fish to test recipes with. I've got to harvest trout roe, because I need some really excellent pictures of trout caviar. Likewise, on the mushroom front, the season is on the wane. I've found a couple of hen-of-the-woods, but I haven't come across a giant puffball. Those are great in the wild mushroom lasagne I came up with a couple of years ago, and I want to try that recipe again.

When hunting season starts, I will feel absolutely compelled to spend as many days afield with gun and dogs as I possibly can--there are grouse preparations to test out, woodcock recipes to develop. This is definitely a case of nice-work-if-you-can-get-it, but it's a weird feeling to think that when I drive to the stream or the woods, lace up my wading or hunting boots, that I'm going to work. The life of the professional trout bum and mushroom hound--I guess there are worse things I could be doing....

I hit a familiar woods this week to look for hen-of-the-woods. The forage did not go exactly as I expected, which I suppose is what I should have expected. It was a day of high, scary winds, and as I made my way through the woods among tall oaks, ash, and aspen, the treetops convulsed with each gust. I heard limbs snap off and tumble more than once, and it occured to me that this wasn't necessarily the safest place to be on a day like this. But at ground level, in the midst of the thick forest, it was virtually still--I was in one world, while another raged by overhead.

Having seen the beginning of the hen-of-the-woods season, and knowing this to be a prolific woods for them, I was surprised that I actually found more chickens than hens--those sulfur shelf mushrooms mentioned above. I think of them as a fungus of the mid-summer, concurrent with chanterelles, more or less; so with the chanterelles coming extremely early this year, it just figured that the sulfur shelf would be late, right...? In fact, I saw many sulfur shelf 'shrooms that were well past their prime that day. The two clumps I found were just late bloomers, I guess.

I harvested what I found, a little reluctantly--I've never had success cooking with these mushrooms in the past, even when I've found very young specimens, oozing liquid when I sliced them off the tree. They have always tasted unpleasantly fibrous when I've cooked them before, and I was on the verge of swearing them off, but I've been hearing delighted reports of dishes made with them this summer, so I decided to give it another try. I'm glad I did. Maybe these were just better specimens, maybe I prepared them better, or knew more what to expect. I fried some in butter and some in chicken fat, stuffed the squash blossoms, and all these preparations were excellent. And, they do not taste like chicken--not even the ones fried in the schmaltz.

That day in the windy woods, as I wandered from oak tree to oak tree, in circles or in zig-zag lines, over swales, through thickets, it occured to me that foraging involves a kind of deviant meandering. You put yourself in Great Nature's hands, you let a glimpse of something guide you, follow vague intuitions, or outright superstition--I've come to believe that a turkey feather will point me to a find. You lose yourself in it, you lose your mind, in a way. In talking to Mary about this topic over dinner recently, I mentioned that I find it very difficult to write about foraging in a way that captures the experience, because, while thoughts and sentences are constantly going through my head while I'm foraging, they are glancing thoughts, sentences inchoate and obscure. Sometimes I even jot down notes while I'm in the woods, but when I look at them later I find I've written things like, "A woodcock is a flying mushroom," or "Following the archipelago cantharellus"; and what are we to make of that?

It's really no wonder that the conventional world has always looked at foragers a bit askance. We are literally on the fringe, in the woods, out there, and just a little gone.

Nice work if you can get it.

Slice your sulfur shelf nice and thin. Cook it long enough, but not too long--it does have that in common with chicken, that over- or under-done is not good. Eat it while it's hot--that grainy, fibrous quality seems to increase as it cools. That's what I've got for now.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Delicious Failure: Wheat Berry "Risotto" with Hens and Squash, Cider-Thyme Cream

The report on wheat berry "risotto" is this: wheat berries do not make "risotto," no matter how many "quotation marks" you put around "risotto." I'll stop doing that now; I realize it's annoying....

And yet the dish was delicious, memorable, even. It had a concept, a conceit--hot cereal for supper--and that even worked. The picture I had in mind was of an island of, say, Red River cereal, hot and grainy, in a sea of milk. But in my savory version the grain mush would be studded with shreds of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and nuggets of squash, napped about with a rich reduction of cream and cider, infused with thyme.

In a sense, the whole thing came about because of thrift, and Rene Bartz. As for the thrift, I had most of a pint of Cedar Summit heavy cream in the fridge, two weeks past freshness date but still remarkably good; I had to use it before it went. As for Rene Bartz, well, she's our friend who runs the Bolen Vale cheese shop at the family's dairy farm on highway 64 in Connorsville, Wisconsin. We pass the shop coming and going from Bide-A-Wee most weeks, and we buy most of our cheese from Rene. We also occasionally buy whole wheat flour, and wheat berries, which Rene grows. I often put the sprouted wheat berries in bread, and it occured to me recently that maybe you could use the whole grain in a risotto-type dish. Barley is sometimes substituted for rice in risotto, why not wheat?

So I forged ahead with plans for a dish that would be extremely local, seasonal, and perhaps a revelation. I have a deep and abiding affection for rice, any kind of rice. I love risotto, paella, pilafs, sushi, rice noodles, rice crust; a fragrant bowl of jasmine rice with a Chinese meal, or basmati with an Indian curry. But rice will never make it into a Trout Caviar recipe, because it is the farthest thing from a local product here. I think you'd have to travel to Louisiana, or North Carolina, to find the nearest rice field. Wild rice is wicked local, of course, but it's not rice. I didn't think it would make a tasty risotto.

Hence, wheat berries. But a wheat berry, it turns out, is just a little too unprocessed to make a creditable risotto. It's really a wheat seed--soak it in water for a couple of days, it will sprout; plant it, you'll grow a wheat stalk. Very Northern in its character, a wheat berry keeps to itself, discreet and a bit stoic. For surviving life on the cold plains, these are admirable traits; for making risotto, not so much.

To get to the point, separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were: The wheat berries in my risotto, even softened by a couple of days' soaking, did not give themselves starchily, creamily to the pot, as the grain in a good risotto must. After 10 minutes cooking they retained a resilient al dente texture, after 20 minutes, exactly the same, and after 25 or so, no change, and we said, "Hey, let's eat." Since the berries weren't opening to meld in the pot, the typical risotto method of stirring while adding small amounts of stock didn't work. I wound up just putting the lid on and steaming it.

In the end, our jaws got a workout, our tastebuds were delighted. The textural contrasts were intriguing--both the wheat berries and the mushrooms had a crunch to them, but different sorts of crunches; the squash, buttercup that we picked up at the Dallas Farmers Market, which I was afraid would go to mush, be lost in the mixture, provided a really welcome creamy component.

The cider-thyme cream was a total winner. I reduced the cream by about a third with a small handful of thyme sprigs, added the cider and reduced by a third to a half. It seemed a little sharp, on its own, I was afraid I'd used too much cider, but a little salt balanced the sharpness, and spooned around the fragrant, grainy, not-quite-mush, it was a lovely, lovely pairing. We cleaned our plates. A sprinkling of grated smoked Marieke gouda from Holland's Family Cheese just a little ways east of Bide-A-Wee down highway 29, didn't hurt a bit.

I would not make this again, not exactly this way. I'll keep working on a wheat berry preparation that comes closer to the risotto ideal--cook the berries longer before starting, make in a pressure cooker? Soak them, then whiz them in the FP a bit to open them up? The quest goes on. All suggestions welcome. Thank you very much.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Warm Salad of Wax Beans with Caramelized Shallots, Blackberry Vinaigrette

This one was inspired by our visits to the Dallas, WI Farmers Market over the last couple of weeks. While you won't find the variety at this small-town market that you will at larger markets, everything we've had from the Dallas market has been excellent. The market is held on Friday evening from 4:00 to 8:00 on main street Dallas in Barron County, in front of the Viking Brewing Company (soon to be former Viking Brewing Company; they've got a big name change coming up...).

A couple of weeks back we bought a beautiful braid of shallots from Morgan and Ben Tartakoff. We hung it on the French porte-clef at Bide-A-Wee, and admired it every time we sat down at the table. Next time wewere at the market, we mentioned how much we'd been enjoying the shallot braid as home decor, and Ben said, "The hell you say, decoration? You should eat the damn things." Actually, he didn't say anything like that. He merely implied, with all due politeness, that they were at least as good to eat as they were to look at.

And I agreed, chastened. Along with leeks, I think shallots are one of the secret ingredients in French cooking. They're both related to onions, of course; the flavor of leek is on the mild end of the onion spectrum, while shallots lie toward the more assertive end. Shallots are frequently chopped fine and added raw to salad dressings, or sliced and sautéed to make the base of pan sauces for steaks and chops. These shallots from Morgan and Ben are some of the best I've seen in a long time--plump, firm, very flavorful. Shallots keep well in a root cellar or cool, dry basement. We plan to stock up before season's end.

For this dish I cooked the shallots slowly in a nice amount of oil and butter to concentrate the sugar. That, along with some blackberry jam, gives a sweet and sour character to the dressing.

I didn't have to look far to find what I'd pair with the shallots, just the next table over, where Rhonda Johnson had a pile of lovely yellow wax beans. Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough, but you don't seem to see wax beans that much anymore. They have really homey connotations for me, the kind of thing my mom used to serve with baked pork chops and acorn squash when I was growing up. I decided to give them the central role in this warm salad. You blanch them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, till they're tender-crisp, and toss them in the pan with the well-cooked shallots (and some garlic), then slick everything down with the blackberry vinaigrette. It's best if it sits for 20 minutes or so, to let all the flavors come together.

The vinaigrette dressing was the Bide-A-Wee element in this salad, flavored with our own blackberry jam and blackberry vinegar. (That and the fact that we first made it out at Bide-A-Wee, on our wood-fired "stove.") You could substitute raspberry jam for the blackberry, and red or white wine vinegar if you don't have berry vinegar. You'll taste the difference using homemade jam instead of store-bought, so do try to find some good local product if you want to try this dish.

We've made this salad twice now, and both times we wound up having it alongside pasta, but I think it would be great with pork chops, grilled chicken, even flavorful fish like salmon or lake trout.

You could also use green beans or flat romano beans in place of the wax beans. I particularly like the colors of the yellow beans, shallots, and blackberry dressing.

Warm Salad of Wax Beans with Caramelized Shallots, Blackberry Vinaigrette
serves two

2 good handfuls of yellow wax beans, 24 to 30, rinsed, stem ends trimmed
2 shallots about the size of small eggs, peeled, sliced 1/4-inch thick (about 2/3 cup)
2 large cloves garlic, slice thin
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp blackberry jam
1 Tbsp vinegar, preferably blackberry, or, in order of preference: raspberry, red wine, or white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt & freshly ground black pepper

fresh thyme leaves, optional

In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter and add 1 tablspoon of olive oil. Add the sliced shallots and a good pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat until the shallots start to wilt, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cook gently, stirring often, for 10 to 12 minutes, until the shallots are very soft and are just starting to brown. Add the garlic and continue to cook for 2 minutes more.

Wipe the shallots are cooking, blanch the beans for three minutes in boiling water. Drain and set aside. Mix the jam, vinegar, olive oil, a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. (Note that this vinaigrette is light on the oil compared to a usual dressing; that's because it's going to combine with the butter and oil already in the pan.)

After adding the garlic to the shallots, add the beans and sauté for about a minute. Turn off the heat, pour the vinaigrette over beans and shallots, stir it all together, and transfer to a serving dish. Let sit at least 20 minutes before serving, and stir it up again just before serving, and taste for salt. If you like, strip some fresh thyme leaves from the stem and sprinkle over the salad to taste (if all you have is dried thyme, leave it out).

The whole salad can be prepared a day or two ahead, refrigerated, then brought to room temp before serving.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw