Saturday, July 30, 2011

Our Own Private Chengdu

The hot and soupy weather we've been swimming through the last few weeks has at least one fringe benefit for me--it reminds me strongly of the year (1989-90) I spent teaching English at Sichuan University (sichuan daxue, Chuanda for short) in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in southwestern China.  It also makes my kitchen intensely fragrant with the scent of hua jiao, Sichuan pepper, that I keep in a bamboo container in a cupboard.  When it's this humid and warm, every time I open my cupboard I'm just about knocked over by that tart, citrusy smell.

The guide books characterize Chengdu's climate as "subtropical monsoonal"--so now you know how to describe this summer in a nutshell.  Whether the cuisine of Sichuan evolved as a response to the climate, or through other factors, it's certainly true that the vibrantly flavored food of Sichuan is just the thing to boost the appetite on sticky hot evenings.  Sichuan cooking--and Chinese cooking in general--also allows you to perform a leisurely prep of your ingredients (perhaps while sipping a cold beer), then finish the cooking--generally stir-frying--in just a few minutes (then pop another brew to drink with dinner).

The distinctive flavor combo of Sichuan food is the yin-yang duo of ma la: ma for numbing, from fragrant Sichuan pepper, la for spicy hot, from chile peppers.  In addition, Sichuan dishes are often quite salty, from soy sauce and fermented bean paste, and brightly piquant with vinegar, usually a pungent dark vinegar that gives Sichuanese liang ban dishes--salads, basically--a unique and exotic kick.

Of the dishes shown here, two are standard dishes that I and my friends and colleagues at Chuanda would order at the little open-fronted restaurants that lined the alleys just outside the university gates.  I'm swooning in memory to recall the full-sensory assault that a slow walk through those narrow lanes entailed on a warm damp evening:  the strangely pungent smell of raw rapeseed oil--the standard cooking oil--turning from repellent to appetizing as it heated in a wok; the funkily delicious aromas rising from bins of bean paste, dried shrimp, and other aromatic goods at a vendor's stall; the savory scents wafting from a hot pot restaurant where bubbling cauldrons, topped with a slick of fiercely red oil, held highly aromatic broth, the secret ingredient of which, so it was said, was an opium poppy seed pod.  There were less appealing olfactory elements, as well--a breeze from the east would bring the air off the river, far from pristine; a passing bicycle cart carrying a container of nightsoil left a fetid wake--it was my year-long nightmare that I would some day collide on my bicycle with one of these ripe vehicles that carried dilute human waste to fertilize the vegetable fields just outside the city (and there's your explanation for why the Chinese do not eat leafy green salads...).

Seated at a small table in one of the very basic restaurants, we would order tea and pijiu, beer, and never bother to look at a menu, which, at any rate, we couldn't read, since it was entirely in Chinese characters.  The thing is, the Chinese customers didn't bother with a menu, either, and it was about two-thirds of the way through my year in Chengdu that I discovered that my favorite small restaurant, "The Sisters," even had a written menu.  Instead, we just ordered according to the ingredients we saw displayed at the cook's station--if there was eggplant we'd get yu xiang qiezi, fish-fragrance eggplant; if there were fava beans, liang ban can dou, a salad dressed like the cucumbers shown here.  Always you could get mapo doufu, the wickedly ma la Sichuan tofu in meat sauce (which is never nearly ma enough at any American Sichuan restaurant--it should set your mouth tingling to where you think your tongue has swelled to twice its normal size), or shui zhu rou pian, perhaps the hottest Sichuan dish of all--pork slices stir-fried with hot bean paste, simmered in water, poured over vegetables in a small casserole, then topped with absurb amounts of ground dried chile and Sichuan pepper which is set sizzling when anointed with smoking hot oil; its name translates, innocuously, as "water-cooked meat slices."

Well, I could go on.  But on to the dishes here displayed, a simple, nearly vegetarian meal we put together on a recent, extremely Chengduvian evening.  First the cucumber salad, liang ban huang gua.  When I was in Chengdu I ate this at least once a week while cucumbers were available, but I've never seen it on a menu here, even though there are now several authentic Sichuan restaurants in the area (as for what passed for Sichuan cooking up until recently, the less said, the better).  There's often a cucumber dish on the appetizer menu, but it's often cooked--which is fine--and bland--not so fine.  This salad is one of my favorites, and especially good if you have the long, ridged Asian cukes, but fine with any kind.

Sichuan Cucumber Salad (Liang Ban Huang Gua)
Liang Ban means "cool, mixed", and generally denotes a salad

1 medium cucumber

If the skin is tender, leave it on; if it seems tough, remove all or part.  Trim off the ends, then halve it the long way, and if it is very seedy, remove some or all of the seeds--the Asian cukes tend to have fewer and smaller seeds than the typical American slicer.  Cut each half in half again, the long way, and with the side of a cleaver or chef's knife, whap these long pieces a few times--assertively, but not vindictively.  This opens up the flesh a bit to take in more dressing.  Now cut the cucumber strips crosswise into roughly 3/4-inch pieces.

The dressing:

2 large cloves garlic (or more, to taste--there's a sort of variation on this salad called suan ni huang gua, which is cucumbers in a sea of puréed garlic)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Chinese dark vinegar (see picture)
This is the brand of Chinese dark--not black--vinegar I buy
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons chile flakes in oil (or to taste; use some sambal if you don't have the chile oil)
1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1 scallion, chopped fine
sesame oil, optional

Peel the garlic, crush it with the side of a cleaver or big knife, then mince it very fine.  Combine the garlic with all the other ingredients except the scallion and sesame oil.  Toss the cucumber pieces with the dressing and transfer to a serving dish.  Sprinkle with the scallions and a few drops of sesame oil, if you like.

This will serve two to four, depending on how many other dishes you make.  The two of us polished this off easily on the night in question.

Corn in China is called yu mi, or "jade grain"--and in these pictures I think you can really see why. This dish is yumi chao lajiao, corn stir-fried with chile (or sometimes qing jiao yumi, green chile corn).  Corn, needless to say, is not native to China--but then, neither are chiles, which virtually define Sichuan cooking in most people's minds.  But corn is fairly common in Sichuan and Yunnan, and this simple stir-fry with chiles fresh and dried, garlic, and whole Sichuan peppercorns, is its most common manifestation. 

Sichuan Stir-Fried Corn with Chiles (yumi chao lajiao or qing jiao yumi)

2 ears corn, kernels stripped from the cobs
2 fresh chiles, halved, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch pieces--anaheim, hungarian wax, banana, a not-too-hot jalapeno
3 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
3 scallions, white and green, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 dried red chiles, broken in half
1 teaspoon whole, untoasted Sichuan peppercorns
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons oil (peanut, canola)
sesame oil, optional

Get a wok very hot.  Add the cooking oil, and as it just starts to smoke, add the dried chiles and the Sichuan pepper.  Swirl these in the oil, then add the corn, fresh chiles, garlic, and salt.  Stir-fry over highest heat for 2 to 3 minutes--watch that the garlic doesn't burn.  Add the scallions and stir-fry for another minute or two--some of the corn should be getting a bit brown on the edges.  Transfer the corn to a serving dish, and sprinkle on a few drops of sesame oil, if you like.

This dish can be made with frozen corn, thawed, patted dry with paper towels.  A little bit of sugar can be added if the corn isn't very sweet.

The third dish, chanterelles with bacon and garlic chives, was my own concoction, and while decent (it has home-smoked bacon, and chanterelles...), it's not one I'd make again.  The bacon overpowered the chanterelles--it might actually be better with something like oyster mushrooms, and more chile.

We always serve steamed jasmine rice in a small bowl for each person, and pretty much always drink beer with Sichuan food.  We take the Chinese approach of dipping into the communal bowls with chopsticks (though a spoon helps with the corn).

I'll pull out a Sichuan recipe--and reminiscence--from time through the rest of the summer, while the market stalls are full of produce begging to be stir-fried, and the hua jiao is at its most fragrant.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why We Eat In

It is not that I am not interested in restaurants.  As with most other areas of the contemporary food scene, I take a keen interest in ambitious restaurants near and far.  I keep up on local restaurant news via the food sections of our local newspapers, and particularly through the excellent local food website, The Heavy Table.  I'm even well informed about New York restaurants--reading Sam Sifton's reviews in the  New York Times is a Wednesday happy hour ritual for me.  I follow some chefs on Twitter (David Chang of Momofuku, Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's Noma, as well as top local, local-foods champions like Scott Pampuch ), and I admire like hell the dedication and artistry of other local chefs, like Mike Phillips--late of the Craftsman, now maitre charcutier at Green Ox Meat Co.-- and Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma , who possesses the subtle skill and intuition to make the best of any ingredient that comes before him.

Having said all that, I must admit that I rarely eat in restaurants these days, and at the high-end gastronomic ones, hardly at all.  The photos here should help explain why.  This was a Bide-A-Wee dinner of homemade buckwheat pasta with fresh-foraged chanterelles in Cedar Summit creamAu Bon Canard magret (the breast of fattened duck, via Clancey's) with a sauce of foraged black cap raspberries, red wine, and home-smoked bacon.  Farmers market green beans shriveled in the rendered duck fat. 

Now, I really enjoy cooking, and I think I've picked up some skill and a few bits of knowledge over the years that have made me both a more imaginative and more capable cook (which you wouldn't know from the big bandage on my left thumb right now, where I sliced off the thumb-tip with a Global chef's knife a couple of weeks ago...).  But I want to make it very clear that I do not consider my abilities to be anywhere near the level of the professionals who work the line every night.  I am very certain that if I tried to match that intense pace of cooking for even one night, I would have my sad ass handed back to me in a Cambro and run off crying for my mommy.  (Furthermore, I'm sure that my sense of food today has been formed in part by excellent restaurant meals in years past.)

What it is, it's the ingredients, the stuff we can get now, that hasn't always been available to us.  I could not have prepared this meal ten years ago--Au Bon Canard did not exist, nor did Clancey's.  The buckwheat and whole wheat bread flour in my pantry, from Whole Grain Milling, allowed me to create a pasta both rustic and elegant (and the dough skills I picked up during our Real Bread years gave me the confidence to whip up a batch of fresh noodles on short notice). 

Ten years ago I was still figuring out the fungal schedule in my local woods, and I'm sure that the whole foraging-friendly zeitgeist that has developed since then has had something to do with my continuing enthusiasm for wild foods (indeed, I don't think that Trout Caviar, Recipes from a Northern Forager would have come together in that earlier time; you can order it now at Amazon, by the way...!). 

Come to think of it, I'm not sure that Cedar Summit products were easily available ten years ago--Dave and Florence Minar were just starting to sell their superb organic dairy products at farmers markets in 2003, the same year we started Real Bread.  When they showed up for the first time at the tiny St. Luke's market where we were selling, we fell down before them in adject adulation, and cried, "We are not worthy!" 

Times have indeed changed for the better for those of  us who care what's on our plates.

I'll take some credit here for coming up with a really good buckwheat pasta formula, and an excellent sauce for the duck from a short pantry.

For the pasta I combined:

2 tablespoons buckwheat flour
1/4 cup whole wheat bread flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
good pinch salt
1 egg
water, about 2 tablespoons

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Crack the egg into the center and add a tablespoon of water.  Mix with your hand or a fork to combine.  Add additional water a tablespoon at a time if needed, but careful not to over-wet the dough; it should be fairly stiff.  Knead the dough for a couple of minutes, then let it rest, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes.  Knead again to achieve a smooth, stiff dough, then let it rest again, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes.  Divide the dough into four pieces and roll each portion out in a pasta machine, working down to the second-thinnest setting.  Let the sheets of dough dry for around an hour--I drape them on a chair back.  Then cut them into fettucini (or thickness of your choice--but I wouldn't go too thin, as the buckwheat makes them somewhat fragile) with the pasta cutter attachment.  Cook immediately, or drape them on your chair back to dry, and use within a couple of days.  Fresh or dry, the pasta will only take a minute or two to cook to al dente.

For the chanterelle cream sauce, I sautéed chanterelles in some of the duck fat left from searing the magret.  As they started to brown I added salt, pepper, and some chopped shallot and fresh thyme.  Another minute or so, then I sloshed in cream--about a half-cup--then I added the just-cooked pasta and tossed to coat.  Serve it up.

The sauce, black cap raspberry, red wine, bacon:  I was about out of chicken stock, usually the basis of my "fancy" sauces.  I had maybe a quarter-cup, two ice cubes worth, in the freezer.  But I had  bacon, the excellent home-smoked stuff .  I diced a thick slice very small, started rendering it in a small saucepan.  Add shallot, garlic, and a small not-too-hot chile, chopped fine.  As all became wilted I added my bit of stock, a slosh of red wine, and black raspberry juice, which I had made by simply  combining a generous cup of berries with water not quite to cover, bringing it to a simmer, then passing the berries through a food mill.  I reduced the sauce by half, then added salt and pepper.  I probably swirled a bit of butter in at the end, can't recall for sure.  All the flavors came together really well, and I liked the texture from the bits of bacon and vegetables.  It didn't taste like bacon--the smoky pork melded into the other flavors, and echoed the rich duck (which is practically like poultry bacon, on its own).

Just a beautiful meal, elaborate compared to how we tend to cook at Bide-A-Wee.  And while the result did show the the maker's care and imagination, I find it impossible to look at that table without recognizing that such a spread would not have been possible without the superb raw ingredients available to us now, with thanks to the people who bring them to us, not forgetting to mention the contributions of Great Nature, the great provider.  Salut.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Very Long Hot Dog Blog

Don't worry:  It's the dog, not the blog, that is long.  Way long.

Surely one of the highlights of  the two years that Mary and I spent peddling our bread in the Saint Paul Farmers Market system was getting to know the Wemeier family of Bar 5 Meat and Poultry. John and Laura Wemeier and family (Liz, Mik, Jake, and Jess) are the kind of people who make you love farmers markets, and meat. The Bar 5 motto--"Everything from Feet to Feathers"--may be literally accurate but hardly describes the glorious variety of their products. The beef, pork, and chicken are all excellent, but I really love that Bar 5 also has rabbit and duck on a regular basis. And then there are the cured and smoked meats, poultry, and sausage--this may be what really sets Bar 5 apart. Their smoked chicken is great, but the smoked duck is beyond--put a few thin slices of this stuff, just warmed in the oven, and a bit of the skin, crisped in a fry pan, on a plate with a few leaves of, I don't know, endive, or some tiny green beans barely steamed, and a drizzle of light vinaigrette on the vegetables, and you'd think you were in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

But I came here to talk hot dogs. Well, I just have to say that a couple of my other favorite Bar 5 products are the Hungarian bacon and Grandpa's Sausages. And also, I must quickly add that the Wemeiers are some of the swellest people I know--warm, welcoming, funny, kind of rowdy. It doesn't come close to describing them to say that they are salt of the earth, but they are that, and more--pepper of the earth, and zesty Hungarian spices of the earth, and probably still more.

I'm coming to the hot dogs. Just before the Fourth of July, Bar 5 "tweeted" that they were making foot-long hot dogs, the one time each year they do it. But we were in Wisconsin, an hour and a half from the Saint Paul market. I called my friends Fred and Kim to see if they were going to the market, and they were, and they scored me a pack of the attenuated weiners, and I was stoked.

But I was also presented with a challenge. As a bread guy, I've always contended that the most important part of a sandwich is the bread--well, as important as any other ingredient, anyway. I knew I wasn't going to be able to find top quality foot-long hot dog buns. I would have to make my own. I pondered the formula. Le Bun  is a great hamburger vehicle, but a bit dense as a hot dog bun. I would use less cornmeal, and maybe skip the honey. And then, this wasn't any hot dog, but a foot-long one, which puts it in a different category. In France they serve longish sausages on a section of baguette opened the long way--that is indeed the Gallic homage to le hot dog. I make a fine baguette, but I thought it would be too crusty for comfortable eating. A little milk and butter would soften things somewhat, while still maintaining a crunch to the crust.

I wound up making it a naturally leavened (sourdough) bread, because I had a nice bubbly sponge going for another batch of bread. I would not say that this is the perfect foot-long bun, but it was damn good. It is an excellent piece of bread with just enough "bunniness" to fulfill its functional role.

The Bar 5 hot dogs are all all-beef old-fashioned frankfurters, and they are superb.  I usually prefer a pork-beef frank, but I cannot fault this dog, not at all.  Great snap to the skin, beautiful level of spice, an utterly appealing meatiness to the whole thing.  I believe it's the same formula as the normal-length dogs, available each week at the Saint Paul and Minneapolis farmers markets.  Tell them Brett and Mary said hi.

On my dog I like mustard, ketchup, onions, and kraut.  Some hot dog purists will sneer at the 'chup, and go right ahead.  I've just made a batch of sour dill pickles, and we're having foot-longs again this weekend, and I will chop some of those to add to mine.  Can't wait.

 Foot Long Buns

2 cups very well refreshed liquid starter (400 grams)
1 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon salt
3 ounces melted unsalted butter
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
unbleached all-purpose flour

Combine everything but the AP flour, then start adding the AP. Add a couple of cups and mix well. Continue adding flour a half cup at a time until the dough is difficult to stir--sorry, I just never measure the main flour in any dough. Dump the dough on your work surface and knead it for a minute or two, adding flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until you have a soft but manageable dough. Leave it alone for at least 15 minutes. Knead again for a couple of minutes, return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temp until doubled in volume--at least four hours. Alternately, proof it in the fridge overnight, take it out in the morning, and let it come to room temp.

For the foot-long buns I portioned out five-ounce pieces--I also made a bunch of regular-size buns, three-ounce portions. Work the foot-long doughs into very long, skinny ropes, at least a foot long. Arrange the dough on parchment-lined baking sheets, cover with plastic wrap, and let proof at least an hour, probably more, until they are noticeably risen--my first baking was actually a little under-proofed; the second one, proofed an extra half-hour, was much better.

Bake at 400 for 18 to 20 minutes, until the tops are nicely browned. If you have a baking stone, carefully slide the parchment and buns off the baking sheet and onto the stone for the final two to three minutes of baking to nicely brown the bottoms, too.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Time of the Yellow Mushrooms

It's probably been a dozen years since I first encountered chanterelles in a western Wisconsin woods.  I was amazed to find them, frankly; I didn't even know that they grew here, and I'm not sure many other people did, either.  That was well before the days of the great foraging/wild foods explosion, though the spring morel hunt was a well-established rite of the season.  But by midsummer, when the chanterelles start to push through the oaky duff in our region, most people with an interest in food from the wild seek it from a comfortable seat in a fishing boat in a walleye lake, enjoying cool breezes and cold beers, not in a dank and musty wood, assailed by mosquitoes and deerflies, stung by nettles, scratched by prickly ash.  I will honestly admit that when I set out one morning this week, in the midst of this historic heat-and-humidity incursion, for a first check of my favorite chanterelle grounds, I wasn't sure if this constituted a hobby or a compulsion.  My glasses were fogging the minute I put them on in the morning; I sweated through my t-shirt just putting on my boots.  Well, the sacrifice makes the reward all the sweeter.

What keeps me going back is the fact that spotting my first chanterelle of the season each year is still as great a thrill as finding the first one ever, those dozen years ago--and each subsequent find is almost as satisfying.  While some wild foods offer a fair certainty as to where and when to find them, mushrooms, even the most reliable of them, are often a crapshoot, or a wild goose chase.  Chanterelles will be found year after year in the same places--except, of course, when they're not found at all, or sparsely.  But a warm, wet early July provides a pretty good set-up for the chanterelle fruiting, and if this miserable sauna-like spell of weather has any upside, it would certainly be the appearance of those lovely golden fungi.

I look on rocky slopes in woods of white oak.  The western exposures seem to fruit first.  If temperatures moderate, the picking can be good for a few weeks.  A little rain is good, but torrential downpours splash mud on the mushrooms, tough to clean out of the convoluted folds, and an overly damp and moist spell encourages rot and insects.

The harvest can be prodigious.  Best to enjoy them while they're fresh, for while there are various ways to preserve them, nothing compares to the fragrance, taste, and texture of the fresh ones.  Likewise, while a bumper crop can encourage kitchen experimentation, our first picking of the year is almost always a simple sauté served alongside a French omelet.

I clean the chanterelles as well as I can in the woods.  A pastry brush is handy for removing loose soil, but if the folds are very dirty I'll often use my knife to scrape them off entirely--there's really no other way to clean them of embedded dirt.  Back home I don't hesitate to use water in the final clean-up, no matter the copious opinion to the contrary.  I always fall back on the counsel of one of my food heroes, Jacques Pépin, who laid the situation out very clearly in one of his Today's Gourmet shows:  "It's not that you don't wash mushrooms," Jacques said.  "If they are dirty, then you wash them."

Of course, you don't want to soak them for any amount of time.  I'll just run each mushroom under cool running water, as briefly as possible, then shake it off and place it on paper towels to drain.  Mushrooms contain a lot of water to start with, so if they do absorb a little more, it's not the end of the world.  All the moisture will boil off in the cooking.

For the cooking, then:  Cut or tear the chanterelles into bite-sized pieces.  Get a sauté pan hot and add a tablespoon or so of butter (or olive oil, if you prefer).  Add the mushrooms and give them a good toss--the aroma that comes off as the first 'shrooms hit the hot butter sets me back in a swoon every year.  The liquid will begin to express quickly.  Stir the chanterelles from time to time until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Now add a good pinch of salt and a couple tablespoons of minced shallot.  Continue cooking until the mushrooms are a bit brown, and done to your taste.

For the omelet, I beat together three eggs with a good pinch of salt.  An eight- or nine-inch non-stick skillet is ideal.  Heat the skillet and add a couple teaspoons of butter.  As the foaming subsides pour in the eggs, and with a fork stir the eggs vigorously in a figure-eight pattern, shaking the skillet back and forth as you do so--this is to break the egg into very small curds, essential for a proper French omelet (and another technique I picked up from M. Pépin's excellent TV shows).  Stop cooking before the eggs are totally set, as they'll continue cooking after you've plated the omelet.  Lifting the handle of the skillet toward yourself, gently fold the near edge over toward the lower side once, then again.  Give a little shake to move everything toward the lower end, then invert the whole pan carefully over the serving plate, tipping the omelet out.  Correct the shape to an elongated football form with two forks.

Spoon the chanterelles alongside.  Dust some finely grated gouda or gruyère over the omelet, a grind of pepper, perhaps a scattering of herbs.  Now the itchy buggy woods are far behind, but your harvest carries the best sense of that place to the table.  There's no question you'll go back.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Blueberry Maple Toast

And now for something a good deal less demanding than whitefish ceviche with yada yada yada.  For what could be less demanding, less requiring of exegesis, than toast?  This is a typical sort of Bide-A-Wee breakfast--could be dessert, too, for that matter.  A very few very good and altogether familiar ingredients make for a lick-your-plate kind of breakfast.  Is it lazy man's french toast, or absolutely indolent man's blueberry pancakes?  Take your pick.

Of course it depends on good bread--a rugged, whole grain and/or sourdough loaf, preferably homemade (but if you live where you can easily find an honest loaf at a bakery, well, lucky you).  Here one of our deprivations at Bide-A-Wee--lack of electricity--actually proves an advantage.  With no toaster at hand, we make toast by heating a cast iron skillet, adding a little butter, then cooking the bread until lightly browned on both sides.  Our toast, therefore, is actually big butter-fried croutons.  No, I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with that.  This is a great way to use bread slightly past its prime, or even moreso.  If you can slice it, you can revive--nay, glorifry! [sic: that's a typo worth keeping]--your near-dead bread this way. 

Our neighbor up the hill and across highway 64 (down there in southern Wisconsin), Tina, has a gorgeous spread with gardens that are so beautiful and abundant, they could make you weep.  The blueberries came from her place, and the maple syrup is our own.  What I did here, I heated some maple syrup--say a half-cup for two people--added some blueberries--a third-cup? as many as you like--and brought it to the simmer.  The berries were then soft but not disintegrated.  Spoon that over your toast.  A lashing of yogurt--goat, here--helps balance the maple sweetness.  I garnished with a few black caps, the first few ripe ones of the season.  And that reminds me that you could use berries other than blue the same way.

I don't think I need to say a single thing more about this, except: Be sure to wipe your chin when you finish licking your plate.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Raw Green Prickly Fish (Whitefish Ceviche in Green Apple Juice with Green Prickly Ash, Salted Milkweed, and Honewort)

Here below, the epistemology of a northern pickled fish.

I used to do a lot more kitchen experimentation than I do these days.  I would wrap lobster up in wonton skins, brown those like potstickers, and serve them with a fermented black bean sauce; encase a trout in a crust made from pounds of salt; simmer down elaborate sauces of exotic provenance.  I had a run of really good dishes, which one evening ran aground on the now infamous "Brook Trout, Beets, and Bacon," which still sounds to me like it could work, but which, at least as I prepared it some years ago, most assuredly did not.  Oh, how it did not work.

I don't think I'm exactly a stodgy cook now, but I do tend to lean toward variations on the classics rather than flat-out innovation or experimentation.  In general, I'm more than happy to eat that way, tweaking preparations that I know make the best of what's available in the here and now.  Once in a while though, I'm happy to be jolted out of my rut--however pleasant a rut it is--and given a chance to try a new technique, or new ingredients--or old ingredients in a slightly different form.

In the case of this ceviche of Lake Superior whitefish, I wasn't quite jolted--more like nudged, gradually, to try something quite simple but also somewhat risky.  I've said it before and I'll say it again:  I'm really a rather cautious eater; I only want to eat delicious things, and so I'm hesitant to undertake dishes that might not ring the delicious bell, and which might leave me, at dinnertime, with a plate of something I have to either choke down or chuck out.  Such a sensibility really does work against innovation.  But--

Three things came together, over a period of several months, to produce this dish--which is quite a freight of influence when you consider it's just a few slivers of cured fish, but here goes:

1)  My discovery, last fall, that raw Lake Superior fish could be delicious.

2)  My desire to make more use of things growing wild out at Bide-A-Wee.

3)  Inspiration provided by "tweets" from chef Rene Redzepi at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen ( @ReneRedzepiNoma ).

The first two are self-explanatory, the third perhaps less so:  Noma is a restaurant intensely devoted to making delicious things from intensely local, Nordic foods.  The website states: "Noma is not about olive oil, foie gras, sun-dried tomatoes and black olives. On the contrary, we’ve been busy exploring the Nordic regions discovering outstanding foods and bringing them back to Denmark: Icelandic skyr curd, halibut, Greenland musk ox, berries and water. We comb the countryside for berries and herbs that others would not bother with and work with foods that aren’t part of any system of formalised cultivation and consequently cannot be obtained through ordinary channels of distribution."

It's a forager's restaurant, in other words, but one raised to the nth degree of culinary refinement, a restaurant that has been named the best in the world--an impressive accolade, even given the subjectivity of such ratings.  The few dishes listed on the website menus seem sort of normal: scallops, watercress, oysters, asparagus, veal, sorrel.  The inspirations that chef Redzepi "tweets" about are, to a forager, well, inspiring:  unripe juniper vinaigrette; a dessert of hay and chamomile; grilled onions, wild thyme, and gooseberry juice; "pig in the swamp with swamp juice."  Frankly, I have no idea what most of these things would taste like, or even what they literally are, in some cases.  But I find Noma's inventiveness with these down and dirty local ingredients utterly compelling.  I mean, I've got gooseberries and chamomile and hay, and rhubarb, fennel, sorrel, currants, raspberries, blackberries, venison--this is stuff from here.  Finally, it seems, there's a world-renowned chef who has embraced The Trout Caviar Manifesto, to wit:  Our stuff is as good as anybody's stuff, and part of the reason it's good is that it's ours.

But that it's ours is only part of the reason it's good.  It has to stand on its own, in the end, and then the trepidation comes in, for me, to create something really novel and delicious "with foods that aren’t part of any system of formalised cultivation."  It's a bit of a game, really--I mean, who cares what two people in Saint Paul ate one evening in July of 2011.  But to me it's also expressive, and goes again to that persistent question of why we forage, which I will answer this time around by saying that it's to know something, first by looking for it, then by finding it, then by cooking with it, then by eating it, and finally, for me, by writing about it.

I said this was a lot for a few bits of fish to support, but I'm in too deep to turn back:

Green apples, they fascinate me.  Apples fascinate me, ever since I became co-proprietor of our unruly Bide-A-Wee "orchard."  And I'm impatient--I don't want to wait for ripe apples to do something with them.  I used some green apple juice to flavor a cocktail a while back, but mostly I just taste my way around the land, spitting out mouthfuls of incredibly sour, astringent green apple, until the miraculous day of ripening occurs.  Then it occured to me, putting green apples together with my interest in raw local fish preparations, that that highly acidic juice might work like lime juice in a traditional Latin American ceviche.

When I got down to trying it, I found that I'd succumbed to impatience again.  The apples were so green, it was difficult to get any juice out of them.  I pureed a couple of cups in the food processor, and had to add some water to get it to blend.  I then ran that pulp through a food mill to press out the juice, and strained that through cheesecloth.  The resulting juice had some nice apple aromas, and was fiercely astringent.  I did not think it would taste good on its own, but I wasn't going to give up.  To 1/4 cup of green apple juice (the apples were green, but the juice was now a forbidding brown) I added 2 tablespoons of sweet cider, and 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.  That tasted acidic enough to cure the fish (and curl your hair), but balanced enough to enhance the flavor of the dish, as well.

The dish would need some other flavors.  An onion element, in the form of pickled ramps, was a natural.  Salted milkweed buds as garnish, another shoe-in.

We have growing on our land in great, wild profusion, groves of prickly
ash. We appreciate these thorny groves for the wildlife habitat they provide, for the beauty of their flaming red leaves in autumn, and, quite tentatively, for their fruit, which happens to be closely related to Sichuan peppercorns, one of my favorite spices.  The unlikely secret to the appeal of the prickly ash fruits is that the shrub bearing them is in the same family as citrus trees, and the "rinds" of these tiny fruits produce remarkably citrusy aromas--tangerine is the strongest correlation, to me.  They also, like Sichuan pepper, create a numbing sensation on the tongue.  The Chinese word for that sensation is ma, and so when you see a dish labeled ma la on a Chinese menu, you know the dish contains (or should contain) plenty of Sichuan pepper (and the la is for chili hotness).

I've done a bit with our local prickly ash berries, but mostly in its dried form, after the shells open in the fall to disgorge a hard, black seed--skip the seed and keep the husks.  I took that approach because dried is how I've always seen Sichuan pepper.  But our local prickly ash spice, though fragrant and interesting when green, didn't hold those qualities when dried.  Well, duh, then why not use them fresh and green?  And so I did.

One final herbal, savory element:  honewort, a new wild green to me this year, thanks again to Sam Thayer's books.  This prolific umbelliferous plant also goes by the name wild chervil, but it doesn't taste or smell like anise-y chervil.  It's more celery-like, to my taste, and a tablespoon or so of chopped leaves and tender stems brought a real depth of flavor to the dish.  Thayer says honewort makes an excellent broth, right up there with stinging nettles, and I believe it.  I also used a few of the green honewort seeds, which had the same flavor, even more concentrated.

I took a few thin slices from a fillet of Lake Superior whitefish, quarter-inch thick or so.  I tossed those with some fleur de sel and set them aside while I prepared the rest.  I crushed and roughly chopped a generous teaspoon of the green prickly ash berries, and chopped the honewort, stripped off a half teaspoon of the seeds.  Sliced one pickled ramp bulb.  Mixed everything into the fish, along with a splash of canola oil (wished I'd had some good local sunflower oil in the house, but alas).  I let it cure in the fridge for a couple of hours, stirring from time to time.

I served it sprinkled with a few salted milkweed buds.  The first bite of a dish like this always fills me with terror.  The first bite told me the apple mixture had "cooked" the fish, set up the proteins so it did not taste precisely like raw fish, but had a pleasant texture, both firm and yielding.  Having assured myself that it was not yucky, I attempted a more subtle critique.  The crunch of pickled ramp was excellent against the fish.  The prickly ash berries were in chunky pieces, and when you bit one--wow.  A citrus explosion (so nice in a northern ceviche) and just a fleeting hint of  the numbing quality.  The honewort greens gave resonant background flavor, the seeds were intense points of the same flavor.

It tasted like nothing I'd ever eaten, and like something I'd very much like to eat again.  It tasted vividly of where we live, and told me something new about that place.  Expressive, that's how the best food is, I think, and this one was there.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tasty Buds

I'm going to make a bold prediction:  milkweed will be the new ramps, the hot wild food that will grab the attention of chefs and home cooks alike.  And may I say, should this come to pass, it will be long overdue.  Whether you love, loathe, or linger in indifference toward ramps, it's hard to dispute the fact that they have become a bit overexposed, have held an exceedingly long reign over our springtime culinary imagination.  I think this may be because, as wild foods go, ramps are particularly reliable, abundant, and affordable.  Not everyone will shell out the $30-plus a pound for wild mushrooms, but a bunch of ramps at $2.50 per gives a lot of flavor for the dollar. 

Restaurant chefs know exactly when they'll be able to get ramps, and the cachet this wild springtime food gives to local-seasonal menus is a bargain for them, as well.

Milkweed is equally abundant as ramps--maybe moreso--it has a longer season, and it's edible in several forms, from shoots, to buds, flowers, smallish pods, and the immature silk that Sam Thayer calls "milkweed cheese."  It is, indeed, thanks to Thayer that I, and many others, have come to know and appreciate the culinary qualities of this long misunderstood plant.  It was thought for a long time, and by many so-called experts (including the venerable Euell Gibbons), that milkweed was inherently bitter, and that any form of it therefore required cooking in several changes of water simply to make it palatable.  In a thorough and utterly convincing essay (the first of his work that I encountered), Thayer laid that notion to rest.  I won't bother to paraphrase further what you can read for yourself right here.

So far the milkweed parts I've worked with have been the flower buds and small pods.  Our Wisconsin land must be rife with the shoots in spring, since it's rife with mature plants right now (our Saint Paul front yard has a nice crop, too), but I haven't managed to catch them at that stage.  What I've mainly done with both buds and pods, other than just munch on them, desultorily, during walks around our land, is to pickle them.  That's how I spent most of my day today.

I gathered maybe a quart of the bud heads (I doubt that's botanically accurate, but it will do), giving each a little shake as I picked it to dislodge any insects--many insects like milkweed, not just monarch butterflies.  My fingertips became sticky with the latex that gives milkweed its name, but I was able to rinse it off easily when I was done; I believe that Thayer reports a somewhat caustic effect from longer exposure of skin to the latex.  Once I got the buds home, I rinsed them thoroughly, then chilled them in the refrigerator overnight.  That actually seemed to have firmed them when I came back to them.  This afternoon I used a paring knife to cut the buds off the flower head, a pleasant little chore accomplished while watching "The People's Court."  I didn't bother about the little tails that remained attached to the buds; they're edible, as well, and likely will largely disappear after pickling.

I applied three different methods to preserving them. First, I took about three-quarters of a cup of buds and mixed them with nearly a tablespoon of coarse salt--fleur de sel, in my case. I bottled them and will refrigerate them. I imagine these may ferment somewhat and develop a bit of pungency with time. I hope so. Another cup I immersed in the sweet and sour and salt brine described here--I used the larger, "purpler" ones for this; these ready-to-open buds had a slightly sweet and floral taste that I thought might come through in that brine. The rest, a scant cup, I will prepare in the "cornichon method" also described in that post.

The flavor of unseasoned milkweed is nowhere near as assertive as that of ramps--but then, outside the allium world, what is?  It's mild, green, a bit like lightly steamed green beans, I'd say.  The buds have a nice crisp "pop" when you bite into them, the small pods, as well.  Up to an inch or so in size the pods remain tender enough to steam or stir-fry.  The uses of the silk, that "cheese," I have yet to explore.

I've been calling these pickled buds milkweed "capers," but I think I'll drop that term.  Nonetheless, you can use them in most of the places you'd use something like a caper--in salad dressings, to flavor an egg salad or deviled eggs, sprinkled over grilled or fried meat or fish.  I'm going to mix some into mayonnaise tonight, along with some chopped pickled ramps, to make a wild tartar sauce to serve with fried whitefish.

I would never advise anyone to use this blog, or any simple descriptive or photographic source, as a field guide to wild edibles--always consult a good field guide or two or four, or a trusted friend who knows about these things.  That caution registered, milkweed is among the easiest of wild foods to identify.  The buds will be on the plants for another week or two.  As you can see from the photos here, some have already bloomed.  It's not the sort of thing one wants to subsist on, but milkweed provides many opportunities through the spring and summer to get a delightful, safe taste of wild foods.

Milkweed:  It's the new ramps.  You read it here first.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Quick, Pickle! (Freezer Dill Cukes in Strawberry Vinaigrette)

I got thinking about pickles thanks to my friend Tom's recent post over at .  There hasn't been a lot around to pickle so far this year.  I did up a jar of ramps earlier in the spring, and I wanted to do some asparagus, but thought I might have missed the boat.  The Minneapolis Farmers Market came through for me--at the North Lyndale site on a weekday morning I was able to find excellent asparagus, along with hothouse cucumbers, snow peas, strawberries, and green garlic.  All of the above were put to use in a quick pickling session that produced a half pint each of pickled asparagus and snow peas,* and a quick cucumber pickle inspired by my friend Tata's method (see below).

The asparagus and snow pea pickles were quick in that they took little time to make, though they need to cure a few days to develop best flavor.  This is my main pickling M.O. these days, a sort of stealth/guerilla approach that allows me to get some pickles in jars before I realize I'm "preserving" or embarking on a "canning" endeavor. 

Fact is, I rarely process anything anymore (and never much did).  I don't make large batches of anything, prefer freezing my excess tomatoes rather than canning them, and have an extra fridge in the basement, purchased to hold cases of butter and many dozens of eggs during our market baking days.  So the few jars of cornichons, bread & butters, ramps, etc., that I put up go into that basement fridge, where they keep just fine.  If our apple and blackberry crops come through this year, as it's seeming they will, I'll devote a few days to jam and jelly making, for sure, but the processing kettle doesn't really see a lot of use here.

The strawberries hereabove mentioned didn't get pickled, per se, but they did meet up with vinegar and other things in a dressing for a rather oddball, but tasty and refreshing, salad.  We've had really, really fragrant, wonderful strawberries this year, mainly from Wisconsin, and I'd been thinking about ways to use them other than the usual sweet applications--not to say I have anything against strawberry shortcake, strawberries over ice cream, or, in an inspired Bide-A-Wee breakfast one-off, butter-toasted croutons with strawberries, cream, and maple syrup.

The notion of a strawberry vinaigrette intrigued me, but I didn't know what to serve it with.  I thought of blanched English peas, but they didn't seem substantial enough, and I thought the dressing would slide right off those smooth little orbs; snow peas, likewise, seemed too slippery.  I was stymied.  Then I read Tom's post, and I remembered Tata's quick freezer pickles, and I thought, Hmmm....  Seemed dicey, but if I wanted to use the strawberries in a savory way, I couldn't hedge my bets.  I can well imagine that the combination of strawberries, dill, and garlic will turn a few heads, but stick with me a minute. 

I think this hinges on how we think of fruits and their uses, and how we categorize flavors.  I got the idea last summer to put cucumbers and crab apples together in a pickle, and it was wonderful.  I thought then, and I was thinking in preparing this salad, that I was combining disparate elements, fruit and vegetable, but then I thunk again:  I do not know how all this shakes out botanically, but a cucumber is by nature what we widely consider a fruit, to wit, a melon.  It's a pale watermelon without the sweetness.  It's a juicer, milder zucchini.  In Chinese, of which I know a smidgen, and most of it food-related, the relationship is clear:  cucumber, huang gua (yellow melon); zucchini, nan gua (south[ern] melon); winter melon, dong gua (winter melon).  (I don't know what the Chinese for watermelon is, but I'm going to fling out a guess:  xi hong gua, literally "western red melon."  I'll Google it later.)  A salad of watermelon with feta cheese is in danger of becoming a cliché before it's time; strawberries and cucumbers might just work.

In fact, it worked very well indeed.  Combined with tart and savory things in the dressing, the berries expressed their tart and fragrant side.  Napping the chilled, salty, garlicky cukes, the vinaigrette provided a delightful counterpoint.  I think this would be good on blanched or quick-pickled green beans, too.  Perhaps they'll overlap for a week, so I can give that a try.

I tried the combination in a different variation this past weekend at Bide-A-Wee, tossing cucumbers with green garlic, goat yogurt, cider vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and topping that with sliced strawberry and salted milkweed flower buds--excellent.

It's worth noting that these quick salted pickles contain no vinegar--the combination of a vinaigrette on a vinegar pickle might be a little much.  Perhaps some intrepid soul will try that out and report the results.

The freezer pickles are good on their own, beside a burger or sandwich (hell, I'm sure you know how to eat a pickle...).  The dressing, too, could simply go over mixed greens--a gutsy salad, with some arugula, cress, mizuna, mustard, what-have-you, would be best, I think.

Strawberry Vinaigrette

1/2 cup chopped very ripe strawberries
1 tablespoon cider vinegar (preferably unpasteurized)
3 tablespoons canola or grape seed oil
1 teaspoon honey
pinch salt
a few grinds of black pepper
a good pinch of espelette or cayenne pepper

Combine all in a blender or mini food processor.  Blend until smooth.

Tata's Quick Freezer Garlic Dill Pickles

1 large cucumber
a few sprigs of fresh dill, chopped
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
coarsely ground black pepper, about 1/2 teaspoon
1 teaspoon salt
 Coarse salt, like French gray sea salt, or fleur de sel flakes

Peeling lengthwise, take a few strips of the cucumber skin off with a vegetable peeler, leaving a few strips of skin intact, creating a striped effect.  Halve the cucumber lengthwise and remove the seeds.  Cut each half into three long strips, then cut the strips into two-inch lengths.  In a quart zip bag combine everything but the strawberries, close the top and mix everything together thoroughly.  Place the bag in the freezer for 23 minutes.  Remove the bag from the freezer and mix again.  Leave it in the fridge until you're ready to finish the salad--or just use it as a pickle.

To make the salad, dump the cucumbers into a mixing bowl, dill, garlic, and all.  Pour off any liquid that has accumulated.  Toss with the vinaigrette.  To each portion add a few slices of fresh strawberries and a sprinkle of coarse salt.  Serve.

*I put up the asparagus and snow peas in the brine described here , except that I made the brine with a little more salt and a little less sugar than that recipe calls for. Also, to the asparagus I added chile, garlic, black peppercorns, and a good sprig of dill (volunteering willingly in my garden this year); to the snow peas I added chile, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, and a couple slices of ginger. A jar of each was quick to make, though these are not "quick pickles" in the way Tom uses the term. They need to cure for a week or so to be really nicely pickled, and I'll just keep them in the fridge and use them up within a few weeks.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw