Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why We Forage (Part II)

Sautéeing bracken and ostrich fern fiddleheads
Why we forage is so as to know our way around this place.

I spend a lot of time flipping through books on wild foods, like those by Sam Thayer and Teresa Marrone (linked at right under "Bide-A-Wee Friends and Neighbors"), and I'm constantly amazed to see how little of  the surface of wild foods I have even scratched.  I don't think of myself as an expert, at all; rather, in this area, as in many things that I enjoy, I prefer to remain the happy amateur, noting that amateur comes from the Latin "to love."

But you do, you know, if you stick with something, come to know a thing or two, and so here's a list of the wild food plants I've cooked with, just running them off the top of my head:

Oyster mushrooms
Wood nettles
Stinging nettles
Ostrich fern
Bracken fern
Wood sorrel
Sheep sorrel
Hen of the woods mushrooms
Black trumpet
Golden chanterelles
Hedgehog mushrooms
Haw berries
High-bush cranberries
Sulfur shelf mushrooms
Tooth mushrooms
Fawn mushrooms
Boletus variety mushrooms
Staghorn sumac
Black cap raspberries
Burdock root
Maple syrup
Birch syrup

And I've probably forgotten a few.  My point here is that I never set out upon a concerted study of wild foods, never have devoted myself to eating them exclusively or primarily--though this year I've been making more of a point of it.  I pick up a new wild food item or two each year, and I learn by going where I have to go, as Theodore Roethke put it, so compellingly, in his poem "The Waking."

I am sure that the wild foods trend will ebb down in time; I am just as certain that as it does so it will leave behind, like bright baubles of beach glass on a sandy shore, a few devoted souls who became caught up in it, for whatever reason, and who found in it that compelling something that will have them heading out to the woods again, year after year, and they'll take someone with them, and if it's the right someone, that right someone will lead another newcomer into a woods full of ramps or chanterelles, a blackberry patch or a plum grove, and a lovely and sustaining tradition will endure.

Furthermore, I would say:  See Patrick's comment on the previous post.  He boils a lot of my thinking down far more succinctly than I've been able to do.

Bide-A-Wee Chop Suey: wild asparagus, ramps, bracken and ostrich fern, morels


I've been working pretty intensely on the cookbook for a good few months now.  The end is really and truly in sight:  one more read-through of the proof-read page proofs, then it's off to the printer and nothing more to be done.  (You can place an advance order alreadly at Amazon, by the way.)  Having spent so much time poring back and forth over what is basically the content of this blog, I'm feeling, for the moment, that anything I put up here is something of a rehash--you might have noticed that I was citing myself in the previous post, which, while amusing in some ways, I do not think is an awfully good sign, over all.  Therefore, so as not to become tedious, I'm taking a couple of weeks off, with every expectation that I will return refreshed.  We've been eating well here, and coming up with interesting preparations of the swell foods of the season, from woods, stream, market, and garden.  I just haven't been able to find interesting ways to write about it.

So happy June; eat well, have fun.  Thanks, all.  Back soon.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why We Forage

I can well recall the first time I encountered ramps.  I was making my way through the woods along the Rush River in Wisconsin, below the 570th Avenue crossing (what used to be called Northview Road).  I kicked through a patch of broad, spear-shaped leaves, what looked like overgrown lilies of the valley, and I smelled something oniony, chivey--good.  I bent down and picked up one of the leaves my wading boots had crushed--smelled even better up close.  I didn't gather any, but I filed the moment away in my mind.  I had no idea then what the plants were called, or whether they were edible.

Probably a year or two went by, and then I started seeing mention of chefs serving wild leeks called ramps in fancy New York restaurants.  There were also articles about ramp and trout festivals in the Blue Ridge region.  That caught my interest particularly.  At the co-op one day, in the produce section, I noticed bunches of some kind of green onion, broad, spear-shaped leaves, an attractive reddish section to the stem, a thick white bulb on the end.  They were ramps, and they were going for three dollars a bunch--I weighed one on the hanging scale, not quite four ounces, over $12 a pound.  Huh.

I took a trowel with me the next time I went fishing, found one of those oniony smelling patches, dug a few up.  Yep, the very same.  I looked around me.  Ramps were everywhere.  Twelve bucks a pound.  I was rich!  Except, they weren't my ramps, I was trespassing, technically (you're only actually trespassing if you get caught, I reckon), and even had they been my ramps, it was a long trip from the loamy streamside forest to cash in the pocket.  I found that out a few years later, when I harvested ramps to sell at the farmers market where we mainly sold bread.  I did it to bring some interest to the market in the very early weeks of the season, and it turned out to be a lot of work for a little money.  Responsible market foragers do not get rich, quick or ever.

From the very beginning I enjoyed ramps--I mean, it's great to bring fresh, free vegetables back from the stream to cook up with my trout, and they are one of the first wild foods to appear in the spring.  But I couldn't wrap my mind around $12 a pound, or quite understand the cachet that ramps came to have with the chefs of fine restaurants, especially those devoted to local and seasonal cooking.  They're a wonderful, seasonal treat, but in the greater world of alliums I wouldn't give up leeks, shallots, or regular old onions to make way for ramps, if I had to choose.

Now those days when we were all just discovering what a ramp is seem like very innocent times, in light of the explosion of interest in wild-foraged foods, the logical extension of the local, seasonal foods movement.  Everyone's a forager, or wants to be--wild foods are the hottest trend in high-end gastronomy, and foraged vegetables like morels, watercress, fiddleheads, and ramps draw crowds at farmers markets and co-ops. The trend worries me a bit, because wild plant communities are often more sensitive than might first appear.  A clump of ramps, it turns out, takes years to grow to size; watercress can carpet a spring, seeming inexhaustible, but if you're not careful to only snip the upper leaves, not disturbing the roots, the patch can be wiped out in short order.  And I wonder if anyone's checking to see that those wild foods in the produce section are being harvested responsibly.  I wonder because, for a time, I was an irresponsible ramp harvester--I would fork out a whole clump, never imagining that it might have taken seven to ten years for it to grow to that size.  The realization struck me one day:  that forest full of ramps, the spring full of cress, well, they look that way because they've been left alone for years and years.  And what Great Nature took years to produce, one ill-informed forager can lay to waste in no time.

Ahem.  Well, I didn't actually set out here to write a sobering lament.  But I find my mind in conflict as I take up the topic, because for me foraging--and cooking with wild foods--is a quiet, personal, intimate activity, full of meaning and ineffable satisfactions; but the burgeoning of interest in wild foods, along with the ability of everyone with a keypad to express their every thought instantly to the whole universe, seem to put the world of wild-foraged food out there in flashing lights, blaring fanfare, Technicolor billboards.

To each his or her own, and I don't hold myself above anyone in this regard.  I will admit I rankle a bit at foraging "authorities" as newly sprung as a spring mushroom, who pompously proclaim upon the topic as if they were the first to discover that you can eat dandelion greens, whose knowledge of the topic is wafer thin and whose interest in it lasts just as long as someone is paying attention to them.  Myself, I'm Socratic in my approach:  All I know is that I know next to nothing, and try to keep learning.  And I know I'll be back in the woods next spring, and the next, and the next.

The pretty picture that heads this post, that is what I really want to talk about.  It's the product of a peripatetic forage at Bide-A-Wee and environs--wild asparagus and ostrich fern fiddleheads picked from the roadside; wood nettles, bracken fern, and morels found on our land.  When you have some familiarity with a few wild foods, and with the places where you find them, foraging becomes every bit the pastoral idyll that it's cracked up to be.  The learning curve can be steep, worrisome, and sometimes painful--the darling little nettle shoots you can pick with bare fingers in May become a formidable, neck-high barrier between you and your chanterelle grounds in July.  Answering the question of why we choose to do it is complicated, and constantly shifting, for it is a different activity depending on the time of the year, and the wild food in question.

With these easily accessible, early spring foods, the answer is easy:  They're there, they're fresh, green, delicious, and free.  Given that one enjoys the taste of these foods, the question becomes not why forage, but why not?  This time of year, we just take our usual walk at Bide-A-Wee land, and I always have a few bags tucked in my back pocket.  By the time we get back to the cabin that empty vegetable larder is magically overflowing.

On the other hand, just yesterday I drove 180 miles round trip to trudge through the southeastern Minnesota woods for a few hours in search of the elusive (to me) morel.  I found, maybe, twelve, got scratched up by currant and blackberry vines, strained my sore left knee, got sunburned, and enjoyed every minute of it--which would seem to point to a certain perversity in my character, and illustrate the masochistic streak not uncommon in foragers, generally.  (In my defense, I also brought home trout from the trip, along with ramps, wood nettles, and ostrich fiddleheads--but I could have gotten all those things with a much shorter drive.)

Why one forages also has something to do with that intangible quality of wild foods, to wit, wildness.  At first this is an exotic aspect of wild foods--who knew you could walk around your own back yard and make a salad from wild weeds?  Who knew that sought-after, expensive luxury foods like chanterelles, black trumpets, and porcini grew wild in our own local woods?  With time and experience the exotic becomes familiar, of course.  Wild foods never lose the allure of their wildness, though it recedes.

I've been reading this rather interesting book lately, Trout Caviar:  Recipes from a Northern Forager, which also includes some thought-provoking essays.  A passage from one seems to pertain here:

Wild foods have been a part of my diet for enough years now that I don’t really make a distinction between wild and cultivated foods anymore. It’s not that I can’t tell the difference between my vegetable garden and wild nature—well, in truth, that distinction does become a bit blurred at times, when weeds run rampant. But I do know the difference between a ramp and a scallion, nettles and spinach. Once they reach my kitchen, though, they’re all the same to me: food, good food, local food. When I look in my refrigerator and see jars of cornichons, pickled ramps, bread and butters, and milkweed “capers,” I don’t think, “Grown food, wild food, bought food, wild food”; no, I think, “Pickles.”

And yet the fact that wild foods are found, not grown in one's own garden or raised on a farm, not bought, is an essential part of what draws us to them.  There is magic in peering into the shadows of an overarching currant bush at the base of a dead elm tree and espying, in the cushion of bright green moss, a morel.  Miracle!  There is magic, too, in the annual return of the ramps, knifing up through the chill loam once the snow is barely gone, even though I know exactly where to find them. 
Wood nettle
There is magic in nature, in a word, and something inexpressible that draws us to it, makes us keep looking at it in stark wonder, makes us feel better just by being in it.  That's how it is for me, anyway, and for many people I know.  In our ever more technologized, connected and yet profoundly fragmented world, I think the greatest danger lies in losing touch with our connection to nature, seeing it as other:  living, breathing, mortal animals, we are in and of nature, inextricably.  It is us and we are it.

What I think one gains from the foraging experience, beyond some interesting things to eat (and, of course, the bug bites), is an awareness that all food really comes from nature, even those products of big industrial farms. The sun above and the soil below, that alchemy I mention elsewhere, pertains in every case, though the sterilized soil that grows industrial crops is a perversion, to be sure. But if you were to leave those dead zones alone for even a little while, Great Nature would make things better.

To be continued....


Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Italicized sections from Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager, to be published in September 2011 by Borealis Books of the Minnesota Historical Society Press.  Copyright 2001, all rights reserved.  No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, write to the Minnesota Historical Society Press, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

TC on the Radio

If you're up early here in the Twin Cities area this Saturday, tune your radio in to AM 950 to listen to the Fresh & Local Show . I'll be talking with Susan Berkson and Bonnie Dehn about all things fresh, local, wild, and delicious.

It's the first show of the 2011 season, 8:00 a.m., Saturday, May 14, 950 on the AM dial.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Shoulder to Cry For

We were planning a Mother's Day gathering at Mary's mom's house, around a dozen people, and we were in charge of the meat and potatoes.  A nice long-cooked pork shoulder came immediately to mind, but when I started looking at the offerings in the meat case at the excellent Seward Co-op all I was seeing were smallish shoulder roasts.  I went to the counter and asked the friendly Seward butcher--I'm pretty sure it was Karl, with whom I've chatted a few times, though we haven't been formally introduced [yes, it's Karl Gerstenberger; see his comment below]--I asked Karl if they had a whole pork shoulder in the back.  He said, yeah, he thought they did, but it was...big.  How big?  Well, let's see, said Karl. 

He went in the back and returned with a piece of meat of truly Flintstonian proportions (Pastures A'Plenty pork, I assume).  Once he took the shank out, I think it was still around 15 pounds.  I said:

"I'll take it.  I'm cooking for a crowd on Mother's Day."
"You're good to your mother," said Karl.
"Mother-in-law," said I.
"You're really good to your mother-in-law."

Well, I have a pretty great mother-in-law (I have a great mother, too, but she lives too far away: Hi, Mom!  Wish you could have been there...).  Karl asked what I was going to do with it, and I said I thought I'd just cook it a really long time, basting with cider.  We discussed the question of smoke, so good with this cut of meat, and I said I might do that.  The initial thought was more of a braise, but the meat itself dictated the final method:  I simply did not have a  pan large enough to braise a hunk of porcine exquisiteness that large.  Karl said he wanted to see pictures, and I said I could do that.  Hence, pictures:

Cooking the pork shoulder turned out to be an interstate affair--started Saturday evening at Bide-A-Wee in the Wisconsin countryside with a liberal salt and peppering, that's all.  We don't have a fridge there, but it dropped off to refrigerator temperature as evening came on, so the pork spent the night in the car.

In the morning, bright and early, I started a fire of oak and apple wood.  I browned the meat on the grill:

Then transferred it into this makeshift oven/smoker constructed of cinder blocks and pieces of some old farm implement we found in our woods:

After about four hours in the smoke the meat was not nearly done, but it had absorbed lots of smoke flavor. 

We packed up and headed back to Saint Paul, where the pork went into a 350 oven for another four hours.  I basted frequently throughout the cooking with some of our hard apple cider sweetened just a tad with maple syrup.  Only in the last hour of cooking did it really start to give up juices which, mixed with the cider baste, made a superb pan jus.

Mary made some biscuits.  I put together a potato gratin with a wild touch of sautéed ramps and blanched nettles mixed in--less rich that a gratin dauphinoise, the liquid was whole milk and chicken stock, and I tossed a bit of flour with the sliced potatoes and flavorings.

As we were getting ready to pack up and head over to Willie and Don's, I looked over the food waiting on the stove and said to Mary:

"Hey, look:  We made ham and scalloped potatoes!"

The meat was beyond, the potatoes, too, and the rest of the potluck was wonderful, as well.  A Mother's Day to remember.

Be good to your mother every day, and be good to yourselves, too.

Cheers, all~ Brett

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Thighs Have It

In terms of underappreciated, tasty bargain meats, chicken thighs are right there with pork shoulder steaks, in my opinion.  The thigh is my preferred part of the bird, though I fully appreciate the wing thing, too.  Chicken wings prepared in a Sichuan dry-fried manner are an exquisite treat.  The thighs, though, are more accommodating in a knife-and-fork meal context, and when they are boneless, why, they make positively civilized eating--cooking them over nice smoky hardwood coals keeps them on the rustic side.

Ramps season is starting as the maple season ends, and I often wind up putting the two together, frequently on chicken.  This is a flavorful, simple dish to celebrate the return of grilling weather (well, comfortable grilling weather; we cook over the coals year-round).

A paillard is a flattened out piece of meat.  I wail away at my thighs with the side of a heavy cleaver--a meat mallet, or even a small sauté pan will get the job done.

Maple-Ramp Marinated Chicken Paillards
Serves two to three

4 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
½ cup chopped ramps, whites and greens
Juice of ¼ lemon, and some zest, if you like
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon sambal oelek chili paste (or more, to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Purchase boneless skin-on chicken thighs, or bone them yourself. Place one thigh at a time on a cutting board, and with a meat mallet, the side of a heavy cleaver, or a small, clean saucepan, pound each thigh vigorously until the meat is about ½ inch thick—the surface area of the thighs should nearly double.

Combine the rest of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and add the chicken, coating it well on all sides. Let the chicken marinate for at least 60 minutes at room temp, or longer in the fridge. When you’re ready to cook, prepare a fire of natural wood coals, and grill the chicken over medium-hot coals, turning often, for 12 to 15 minutes total. The chicken should be very well browned on both sides.

If you have extra ramps, toss a few in what remains of the marinade, and grill them along with the chicken.

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Good Green Start

That breakfast is the most important meal of the day is an enduring and rarely challenged axiom; as a frequent breakfast skipper, but one who does not like to miss a meal, it raises in me a faint sense of guilt and regret. When I hear or read about the epic morning repasts of farmers of yore, those giants in the earth, who would have one breakfast in the dark before dawn as they prepared to head into the fields, and have another brought to them mid-morning, I feel absolutely puny, and under-nourished.

But I wonder, for how many modern Americans is breakfast actually a "meal," rather than some form of sustenance frequently grabbed on the go, or rapidly ingested in the rush to get out the door? I certainly wouldn't consider a bowl of cold cereal a meal--while I could probably devour an entire box of Cap'n Crunch in one sitting, given the opportunity, store-bought breakfast cereal hasn't been seen in our pantry since I can't remember when. I like a plate of bacon and eggs, but only once and a while, and Mary makes a mean corn-apple pancake, a lovely vehicle for consuming unseemly amounts of maple syrup.

In general my taste in breakfast runs to savory rather than sweet, and to interesting rather than rote. If someone were to show up at my door each morning to wheel a dim sum cart through our sun room, I would be a pretty happy camper. In fact the one period in my life when I ate breakfast regularly was during the trip to China that Mary and I made in 1992 (wow, coming on 20 years ago, more than that since I returned from teaching there). We were traveling by the seat of our pants through western China--Sichuan, Gansu, Xinjiang--staying in far from luxurious accomodations, so we were usually more than eager to get out of the hotel first thing in the morning. Our first stop would be a teahouse or noodle shop, and with our green morning tea we would order up a plate of pork-filled steamed buns--bao-zi--warm, soft, dripping juice when you bit into the center. They often came with a small bowl of broth for dipping, or we would make a more pungent condiment by mixing dark vinegar, soy sauce, and chili oil. I never tired of that morning treat; if we had a noodle shop in our Saint Paul neighborhood, I'd be there most mornings.

Another excellent Asian breakfast is the rice porridge that goes by various names, depending on where you are in China. In Sichuan it's called xi fan, but most people probably know it as congee. And now congee always reminds me of that trip in '92, for an odd reason: We flew into Hong Kong to start our odyssey, just ahead of a typhoon. Storm warnings went out the night we arrived, and while the city was fairly bustling as we found our way to our hotel that night, when we headed out to catch the train to Guangzhou (Canton City) in the morning, the place was deserted, a ghost town. The air was warm, humid, and breezy, the sky soft gray, and the streets of Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities on earth, were empty. It felt odd, and we were eager to get to the station, but we were hungry. A small diner-looking restaurant beckoned. We went in and ate congee. I think mine was preserved egg and green onion. I don't remember what Mary had. We each had a fried bread stick--you tiao--traditionally eaten with rice porridge. We felt happy and sustained on the rest of the walk to the station, and we made it to Guangzhou ahead of the storm.

When we go for dim sum we'll sometimes have a bowl of congee, but it's usually disappointing--I mean, that typhoon congee is a tough act to follow. And it's easy enough to make, though I rarely do. For some reason the fancy struck me, out at Bide-A-Wee this week, to cook up a congee chock-a-block with wild greens. And it was so satisfying, even without a tropical storm looming (indeed, snowflakes and a high barely scraping 40!), that it could be my ticket to reforming my morning eating habits.

I know I should take it easy on the resolutions, but along with making a real effort to include wild foods in my diet as often as possible, I'm going to work on being a better breakfast eater. I'm thinking of baking up some nut and fruit breads--which I haven't made since we ceased the market baking last summer. I see it, also, as an opportunity to eat more cheese.

Oh, this morning it was granola--Mary made a fresh batch on Sunday--with raw milk from the Bartz farm in Connorsville, Wisconsin. It seems to have made me rather chatty....

So, I'm curious, what's breakfast in your house like? Is it actually a meal, a grab-and-go, a skip-it-altogether? I'm looking for inspiration here, and a sort of get-back-to-breakfast support group.

Because, have you heard? Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Wild Greens Congee
for one

This rice porridge is usually cooked much longer than mine was, I think. I still had grains of rice apparent, where it's often more of a homogeneous mush. In recipes I've looked at the ratio of rice to water varies a lot, as do cookings times. This is sort of a quick, cheater's congee, made fresh in the morning; the rice-mush base can be made ahead, reheated, and garnished to taste. And as for what to garnish it with, well, what's on your left-overs shelf, in your pickle crock, vegetable crisper, etc. ? Let your pantry and your appetite guide you. The base is pretty bland, so it's all about the garnish--a hard-cooked egg, sliced; some crumbled cooked ground pork or sausage; Chinese sausage; julienne vegetables; shreds of ham or cooked chicken; kimchi or other fermented veg.

In the night markets of Chengdu xi fan stands were popular, and the customer chose garnishes either sweet or savory.

For a richer porridge, use chicken stock in place of the water, or go half-and-half.

Mine was made like this:

1 thick slice bacon, diced
4 or 5 small ramps, chopped
1/3 cup jasmine rice
Foraged greens: watercress, stinging nettles, dandelion greens, sheep sorrel (garden greens and herbs, of course, would be just as good)
Soy sauce
Sambal oelek--chili paste

In a small saucepan cook the bacon over medium heat, and as it starts to brown, add the ramps. When they have taken on a nice bit of color, add the rice and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, turn down to very low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 minutes.

For the green garnish: I blanched the nettles and dandelions in boiling water for a minute, drained and chopped them; just rinsed the sorrel and cress.

When the rice is quite soft and porridge-like, stir in the greens--I used a lot, probably two good cups of raw mixed greens, as they really wilt down. You may need to add a little more water at this point. When the greens have wilted into the rice, add water to your preferred consistency. Add a good pinch of salt, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add a teaspoon or so of soy sauce, sambal to taste, and serve.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw