Thursday, February 24, 2011

Apples In Extremis

I've been dreaming of apple blossoms, both literally and figuratively. Can you dream figuratively? Can you dream literally? What I mean is, I've been having apple blossom night-dreams, and apple blossom daydreams, too.

I am, in other words, well and truly sick of winter now. There, I said it. You soldier on, keep 'er steady, even find many ways to enjoy the long, white season, and then.... The thaw brought hope, the snow sort of snuffed it--the final blow for me was falling ill just at that time, couldn't do anything, stuck inside, so the latest dumping was an unmitigated pain.

I'm getting better now, and hoping to get out on the skis this weekend. It won't stop me dreaming of apple blossoms. One productive thing we can get started on, an activity with the prospect of future rewards, is pruning the apple trees. This will be our fourth pruning season, but given how wild our trees were when we acquired the land, most still look entirely untended. By now we have a good idea about which trees are our best producers, so we can concentrate our efforts there. But it's not only the apple trees that are wild--the whole freakin' scenario is one of Great Nature run amok--so we have to start with clearing thickets of prickly ash and blackberry canes to even get to some of the trees. And it's tough to do that when there are still three feet of snow on the ground. Tough, but satisfying, and it's a pleasure to see the supply of apple wood being replenished, bringing thoughts of apple smoke drifting up around a rack of pork ribs on a long--nay, endless!--summer evening, as aspen shadows dapple the gravel garden and a warm breeze swirls gently down the valley....

In the meantime I take my apple-y longings down to the basement, see what's left of last year's small crop in our spare fridge. There I am reminded of what a remarkable fruit the apple is. Those shriveled, gnarly looking things will not win any beauty contests, but beneath the wrinkled skin the flesh of many of these apples is still juicy, a little crisp, and utterly delicious. They bring huge flavor to salads and slaws--last night I combined grated carrot with shredded ginger and apples with some cider vinegar and a splash each of maple syrup and grapeseed oil. The carrot, from the root cellar, was a little dull, and the ginger and apple flavors completely dominated. It was like some sort of laboratory demonstration of the alchemy of flavors.

Those winter apples are also good for grating into pancake batter (Mary makes a corn-apple cake that is our Bide-A-Wee mainstay) or into bread doughs. The apple disappears in the baking, but it gives a surprising lightness and background apple aroma to even quite heavy whole grain levain loaves.

Many apples develop surprising flavors in storage, flavors which are actually enhanced, concentrated, as the flesh loses moisture. I've noticed tropical, spicy, and honeyed notes in some of our long-keeping apples. It's an incredibly versatile fruit, but of course, as with so many other crops, the "variety" of apples represented in the stores is a tiny sliver of the whole picture, a largely homogeneous selection of reliably producing, keepable, shippable products.

At Bide-A-Wee a few weeks ago, as I was on the epic recipe-editing push, I recreated an apple "kimchi" I'd first made a year or so back, inspired by David Chang's Momofuku cookbook. "Recreated" is exactly the right word, as I wound up completely changing the preparation. Apple kimchi became

Sweet & Spicy Apple Slices

1 large firm tart-sweet apple (like a Haralson)
1 good pinch salt
1/2 tsp sambal chili paste
1 ½ Tbsp maple syrup-cider vinegar reduction*

Peel, quarter, and core the apple. Cut each quarter into 6 slices. Combine all. You can use it right away, or make it up to a day ahead.

* Combine equal quantities maple syrup and apple cider vinegar in a saucepan, say 1/4 cup each; bring to a boil and simmer briskly until reduced by half. Keep the heat moderate to avoid boil-overs.

Great with rillettes spread on crusty bread.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Escabeche, A Pretty Little Pickle

We're safely past the midpoint of February, and the big thaw continues. I'm hoping to be able to pluck the first wild watercress of the year this weekend, and getting some seeds started--for leeks, head lettuces, cabbage--may be optimistic, but not out of the question.

The root cellar continues to provide carrots, squash, potatoes, parsnips, leeks; from the freezer, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, corn; the fruits of my fermentations still give us sauerkraut, red kale/kimchi/seaweed, and sour beets. It's all good, and a good variety, when you look at it. Nothing could tempt me to indulge in asparagus or green beans, from the grocery store. For one thing, it wouldn't be an indulgence--those spring and summer veg in winter always taste weird to me. (I'll confess a weakness for guacamole, though; the avocadoes have been really good lately.)

What I start to miss this time of year is the freshness, the brightness of vegetables straight from the garden or market. The braising pot is my dear friend, but now and then my teeth need a workout, my palate needs a jolt.

Enter the escabeche: I'm sure I use the term quite loosely. It's generally applied, I think, to fried fish added to a vinegary marinade, then cooled. Or it may mean the marinade, per se. Which may include vegetables, or not. For me it's a quick hot pickle, eaten immediately, though it will keep. (Something about the word itself makes me think of fast: Vite, vite! Pronto! Escabeche!) It is particulary good with fish, like this trout with springtime escabeche of ramps and asparagus.

And then the other night we were preparing to broil a couple of Lake Superior herring fillets that would be served with a mildy hot chili oil vinaigrette (I'm cravin' a lot of spice these days), and I wanted something fresh and crunchy and tart.

Down to the basement for a carrot and a parsnip. Cuisinart makes a rare appearance: into the tube, slicer attachment installed, a carrot, a small parsnip (both peeled), a large clove of garlic, a small red onion.

Dump all that into a small saucepan, add about three tablespoons of olive oil, half that of cider vinegar, and some chili--I'd been soaking some lovely chilies kept from the market last summer, Red Rocket, I believe, so I added one of those, chopped. You could crumble in any dried red chili, heat to suit, or add a teaspoon of sambal. A grind of black pepper, good pinch of sea salt.

I just brought that up to a boil, turned off the heat, covered the pot, let it sit until we were ready to eat. It was just the thing against the soft and flavorful fish napped in my piri-piri style sauce (I made that recipe with olive oil, using half the amount of oil called for).

The pickle will keep a few days, and it was good with a chicken sandwich. The vegetables can be whatever's on hand--celery or celery root, fennel (a fave), green beans sliced, and I imagine an apple wouldn't be bad in this, at all. The piri-piri sauce will keep a while, as well--it was originally made to dress the grilled chicken that wound up in the sandwich....

Keep 'er rollin'.

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Sunny Soup for Winter; The Redemption of Dead Bread

One good thing about the dry indoor air of a northern home in winter: bread does not tend to get moldy. One bad thing: it dries out faster than you can say pain au levain. I throw away a certain amount of bread, I have to admit. Not proud of it, but there you go. I love the crust too much, so I will not plastic-bag my bread. Comes a time, then, that the last quarter of a batard, or a good-sized heel of a boule, becomes absolutely petrified, slicing is out of the question, you'd need a sledge hammer to penetrate the crust.

So a certain amount of dead bread hits the trash can here, but last week I found myself with an entire large batard of what had been delicious mixed-grain levain that had made the trip to Bide-A-Wee and back, then languished on our Saint Paul counter for a few days. When I finally took it out of the bag it was more suitable for inflicting blunt-force trauma than for sandwiches or toast.

But I couldn't toss it--a whole uncut loaf of bread? Not a chance. I recalled something I had read, I think it was from a Madeleine Kamman book, how in mountainous regions of France they do a massive baking after the wheat harvest in the autumn, and those loaves are then dried in the cool, dry mountain air, and then used through the winter. On top of that, it just so happened that Mary had encountered a similar account in the book she's now reading, Emilie Carles's memoir, A Life of Her Own (the original French title is way better: Une Soupe aux Herbe Sauvages). She writes:

This bread was meant to last the whole winter, and we carried it to the hayloft where we spread it out on the huge hanging trestles, and we'd go fetch it up there as needed. Obviously, it was as hard as wood; to soften it ahead of time, we'd hang a few loaves in the sheep pen, just above the sheep. The heat and humidity softened it to a point, but it was a far cry from fresh bread and from one end of winter to the other, we ate it stale. We used a special knife, yet it was so hard to cut that it shattered into fragments that scattered to the four corners of the kitchen. But it was good: that bread had an extraordinary smell, and what a taste! My sisters and I fought over the crusts, sucking on that bread with as much delight as if it had been cake. Dunked in café au lait, it was a feast.

Can we even begin to imagine that kind of life, that kind of approach to food and eating? It seems quaint and charming, appealing in a way, a bit repulsive in another (could that "extraordinary smell" and the fact that the loaves were softened in the sheep pen be at all related...?). Well, I love the idea of making something wonderful from what seem unpromising ingredients--that's the magic of good, simple cooking.

Dry bread immediately makes me think of soup, but I needed to treat the bread some way first, lest it empty the soup bowl of all liquid like a sponge. I took my rock-hard loaf and rended it into pieces with bread knife, cleaver, and brute force. I put the pieces in a big mixing bowl, and poured in some water, let it absorb. I checked back a couple of times, broke up the larger chunks, added a bit more water. When it somewhat resembled bread again, rather than rubble, I fried the pieces in a lot of olive oil with a couple of crushed cloves of garlic--this would be the richest part of my soup, along with the cheese. And now, I bet some of you are nodding and smiling right now, because you know what I'm going to say next: That old dead bread, shredded to raggedy pieces and fried, was uncommonly delicious. I had to stop myself snacking on it, or there would be none left for lunch.

In honor of the bare-bones salvage simplicity of my croutons, the soup itself had to be equally spare--just some oven tomatoes* from the freezer, stock, and a grating of cheese.

Salut! A splendid result. I won't be throwing away much dead bread from now on.

Winter Tomato Soup with Fried Bread
Serves two

6 ounces stale bread, preferably a whole grain levain type—something with character
12 ounces oven tomatoes (or excellent canned)
1 1/2 cups stock
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small onion, sliced
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Grated gruyere or similar

If your bread is merely stale, just cut or tear it into chunks roughly 2 inches square. If the bread is very, very dry, break it into large pieces and toss it in a bowl with ¾ cup of water and cover the bowl with a plate. Let stand 2 hours, mixing occasionally. If the bread soaks up all the water before it’s soft, add a bit more. If it gets waterlogged squeeze it like a sponge to extract excess water. When you have something workable, cut or tear it into 2 inch pieces.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet and add the bread and crushed garlic cloves. Fry the bread until nicely golden and a bit crisp. Remove garlic add the sliced onion. Cook until the onion wilts a bit.

Divide the bread into 2 soup bowls. To the skillet add the tomatoes, stock, salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes. Taste for salt. Spoon the tomatoes over the bread and top with grated cheese.

* Here's my method for those, for future reference; won't do you much good right now, but the pictures are pretty. I've altered the recipe somewhat; I now peel the tomatoes prebaking, and I don't cook them down quite so much, to leave distinct chunks.

a little ode to heirloom tomatoes from a while back, too.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scouting Spring

I'm under no illusions that winter is anything like over, or even that we've "turned the corner," with Groundhog Day behind us and the Pennsylvania rodent predicting an early spring. We can still see a lot of winter from mid-February to the end of March (indeed, it's minus 10 here in Saint Paul this morning, after a teasingly mild weekend).

Still, the sunlight has warmth now, it's even hot if you're in a sheltered spot on a sunny day. The male goldfinches are starting to color up out at Bide-A-Wee, and we see that our fox is digging out her hillside den again. We never see the actual fox--traveling with dogs isn't conducive to viewing wildlife--but our neighbors down the valley do. We see the snow around the den colored with the yellow soil the fox kicks out. These are signs, sure, but signs of progress only, not of any arrival. Best to keep a realistic view, hold on to our "mind of winter" as Wallace Stevens put it (without, I hope, becoming snowmen and -women ourselves...).

We found ourselves out and about in the Wisconsin countryside quite a bit this past weekend, looking for more signs, maybe. Started the day with a breakfast that some might just see as bread and jam and cheese, but we know it as la belle tartine--French bread and jam and cheese. Oh, and good butter, of course. I don't know why cutting the baguette in that French manner, separating top and bottom, is so evocative--maybe because I've only ever seen it in France, and at our house....

Home-baked baguette, our own runny blackberry jam from Bide-A-Wee fruit, aged cheddar and wonderful Marieke gouda, smoked fenugreek, if you please. A bowl of café crème would be the thing to accompany, but both Mary and I switched from morning coffee to tea recently, quite spontaneously. We drink plain old Tetley's or Red Rose generously whitened with raw milk that we get from our friend Renée at Bolen-Vale Cheese.

One day we packed a picnic lunch (optimists, yes, cock-eyed, for sure) and drove up along the Chippewa River north, through Chippewa, Rusk, and Sawyer counties, and meandered some side roads, just seeing the countryside. We stopped to scout a few putative trout streams, but the fact that most were ice-covered was not encouraging--the spring-fed streams that trout prefer remain open even in the coldest weather. But we saw moving water in the Chippewa River below the dam in the town of Radisson. The river flowed dark and ice-flecked, but the sight of it was encouraging, just the same. It made me think of stringing up the fly rod, stepping into my waders--though that pleasant moment is some weeks off, too.

In Radisson we also found this welcoming park with picnic shelter. You can practically smell the burgers and brats searing on the grill, can't you? We snowshoed across the park to the shelter. There were picnic tables under the roof, and one corner was relatively free of pigeon poop.

We had rillettes sandwiches with cornichon slices, butter and mustard, and a bottle of our own cider. I'd whipped up a quick soup just before setting out, an assemblage of vegetables, mainly--celery root, carrot, kale, potato, onion--made delicious by some of our home-smoked bacon. Just water to make the broth, and a little milk at the end.

A couple of cars passed on the park road as we ate, and we could see the drivers do a double-, maybe triple-take. We were very happy with our picnic spot. It was a very pleasant day, all 'round. We didn't see anything really remarkable, just the charismatic north country quiet under snow, under marbled gray skies mostly (Mary calls them India ink skies), the sort of light, the sort of scenes that can give you little shudders of delight for no reason you can fathom. And looking at the houses, cabins and trailers, we might have shuddered in another way, wondering what the long white season was like in that trailer in the shade of tall white pines, that once-gracious farmhouse now paintless and tilting, with the yard full of flotsam and jetsam that someone apparently thought worth keeping around, or just not worth removing. It was a little trip back into winter, in a sense, even if we were looking for spring (but we turned back before reaching the town of Winter, a few more miles up Wisconsin 70).

The dogs are excellent travelers, Lily on the left, Annabel right. The kitty litter is just for traction.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wedge o' Red, Dressed in Blue (Reconstructed Cole Slaw)

When the deconstructed food trend was at its peak a few years back, it seemed that there was not a single dish from any cuisine that was safe from its ravages. Bloody Marys, mac & cheese, turkey dinner, cheesecake, gazpacho, guacamole.* This technique of taking the well-blended elements of a tasty dish and, for some reason, serving them separately, seems to have mostly faded away.

And yet, what of the wreckage left in its wake, all those forlorn bits and shards of Humpty Dumpty recipes that still litter the culinary landscape? Where, I ask you, are the reconstructors, to step in and make things right?

I'll go first: In the new spirit of civil discourse and coming-togetherness that is sweeping the nation (uh-huh), I present here my recipe for Reconstructed Cole Slaw: The Wedge o' Red Dressed in Blue. No shredding involved (although a carrot, a pickle, and a shallot met quite a dicey fate, heh, heh).

The idea came from observing how pretty a slice of red cabbage is, the compelling marbling of purple and white along the edges of the leaves. I wanted to present a dish where you could really see that. On my first go I just soaked the cabbage in brine for a few hours, and it was good, but too crunchy. Your dinner guests would appear rather bovine, I'm afraid, presented with that chunk of raw cabbage to ruminate upon. The next time I blanched the cabbage in the brine--much more tender, and the cabbage took up more of the brine's flavor, too. A little of the color did bleed out, though; these are the compromises that make up our lives....

These are all strong flavors, which will really perk up a winter-weary appetite. It was part of a lovely lunch prepared at Bide-A-Wee while I was in recipe-testing and -editing mode recently. Bacon sandwich on bread made from "Le Bun" dough. No complaints.

Wedge o' Red Dressed in Blue (Reconstructed Cole Slaw)
Serves four

4 wedges of red cabbage, an inch wide on the wide end
1 ½ cups water
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar
½ cup cider vinegar

Take care to keep the cabbage leaves connected at the root end. Combine all the other ingredients in a saucepan or skillet large enough to fit the cabbage wedges. Bring the brine to a boil, add the cabbage, and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, and allow the cabbage to cool in the brine.

Make the dressing.

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 small clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons minced shallot
1 ½ oz crumbled blue cheese, about 1/3 cup
¼ cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar
2 Tbsp of the cabbage brine
2 teaspoons minced carrot
1 cornichon minced, about 1 tablespoon
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh thyme leaves, stripped from 2 sprigs

Place a wedge of pickled cabbage on a plate, swipe a spoon of dressing across the middle. Serve with bread to mop up the extra dressing.


* A quick Google revealed that Rachael Ray, of all people, was quite into the deconstruction scene. But deconstructed guacamole? I mean, just how constructed is avocado mush, to start with...?

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, February 1, 2011