Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Crock Art

When you mix up vegetables and salt, put a weight on top to extrude the juices, and tuck the lot away in a coolish spot for a few days, you expect a fresh and tangy batch of fermented goodness to result. But other tranformations can occur, as well. Fishing around in my most excellent Dunn County Pottery crock recently for veg to top a rice bowl lunch, I extracted this exquisite little morsel:  a quarter of a tiny eggplant that went into the brine with the first batch of vegetables.  It started out as a typical midnight-dark eggplant (though tiny), and faded in the brine--though faded doesn't quite seem the right word for this gorgeous change--to the lovely bit of vegetal jewelry you see here.  Almost too pretty to eat--and I must admit, it actually did look better than it tasted, a little on the tough side. 

But I still feel that it contributed more than its share to a weekday lunch. The fermented carrots, long beans, chile, and cabbage provided plenty of crunch and zip to help the rice go down very nicely.

The basic formula is 2 teaspoons of salt to a pound of vegetables. You don't need a crock to make fermented vegetables, either. A gallon glass jar will do, or a wide-mouth quart if you want to start small. Just about any good, fresh vegetables can be fermented this way. Though I warn you: If you put red beets in the mix, you'll get a color transformation far less sublte than my blanched eggplants. Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation is my guide in most things fermented.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, August 26, 2011

Got Corn?

Parcelling out the year into meaningful seasons can sometimes require keen observations of subtle natural signs--the buds breaking on apple trees, hen of the woods beginning to emerge on oak stumps, the slight shrinkage of the leaves that occurs after dog days' swelter breaks. 

Or, it may simply require that you keep your eyes open while you're driving country roads, where, this time of year, the signs of a much anticipated confluence of culture and agriculture spring up in glorious, homespun exuberance:  Get your sweet corn here!

Corn season was slow to arrive this year--a cool, wet spring kept a lot of farmers out of the fields, and slowed growth once they were able to plant.  The steamy July helped the crop to catch up.  It was
astounding to see how quickly the stalks ascended along the road to Bide-A-Wee once the hot weather hit.  We shook our heads in sympathetic dismay at the spindly sprouts of late June, which by the end of July were miraculously over our heads.

We haven't done much fancy with the sweet corn this year.  Boil it briefly or, preferably, put it on the grill, those have been our main method.  I've used it in a stir-fry or two, and yesterday I put up a couple of pints of a corn relish with eggplant, tomatoes, and cherry
peppers.  To grill corn, I've learned that the simplest method is the best.  I used to peel back the husks and pull out as much of the silk as I could, wrap it back up and then put it over the coals.  At a
cookout with the Bartz family last summer (they run the Bolen-Vale dairy and cheese shop on highway 64 in Connorsville, and grow sweet corn), I learned that the de-silking is unnecessary.  Renee just put whole ears in the husks, previously soaked in water, right on the grill.  Now I dispense with the soaking, too.  In the process of cooking, the delicate silk basically disappears, or is easily removed along with the husks, post-cooking, and there's plenty of moisture in the husks of really fresh corn to keep it from burning up.  I turn the corn until the husk is black all around, and it's perfectly done.

That's all the cooking advice I'm going to offer here.  Instead, I'd like to know how you best enjoy high summer's sweet corn bounty, and how you like to preserve it for the colder months, if you do.  Freeze, dry, pickle?  On the cob, or off?  In return for your kind suggestions, I'm going to dig around in the recipe books for a really good sweet corn spoon bread I came up with a few years ago.  Mary remembers it very fondly.  I'm hoping she can also remember where I put it....

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How to Overcook Green Beans, pt. 1

The first slender, delicate green beans of summer--those véritable haricots verts--are things of beauty, indeed, and in preparing them you must watch over the cooking time nearly to the second, a minor kitchen tragedy if they go even a shade past tender-crisp.  Just blanched or steamed off-raw, tossed with good butter or a slick of walnut oil, scattered over a salade nicoise, they're a treat worth anticipating through the bean-less months.  They can even be consumed raw, and with great pleasure.

But as the season wears on, if you miss a day or two of picking in your garden, and the market offerings swell past pencil-thick, the beans call for a different sort of treatment.  They're still perfectly edible, more than palatable, but they've developed a good deal more...beaniness, perhaps, as the seeds swell, the shell thickens.  They don't need the kid glove, dainty-doily treatment at this stage, and in fact long cooking can bring out a savory side of them you won't get in a quick blanch.

For this preparation the cast iron skillet is our friend, as is companionable bacon.  Then a bit of onion, maybe a sprig of thyme, dash of salt, and time--that's the recipe.  At Bide-A-Wee we'll often do this sort of dish on the campfire or woodstove, lacking an oven.  But the oven is great, too, if not so picturesque.  The dark, shiny things in the skillet, those are pieces of bacon rind--use it if you have it.

Here's all you do:  wash and stem a fistful of beans per person.  For each two people, a good thick slice of bacon, diced about 1/3-inch.  Again for two, a small onion, roughly chopped.  On campfire or stovetop (needn't be a woodstove, any fuel source is fine) heat a skillet big enough to hold the beans in one layer, more or less.  Add the bacon, and as it starts to render fat, add the beans.  Toss often, cook a long time, at least a half hour.  Halfway through, add the onion.  Stir occasionally until the beans are tender, dark, even black, in spots.  Be careful about the onions, which will become bitter if they get too dark.  Add a little salt at the end, a grind of pepper.

Oven version, heat at 375, ovenproof skillet, of course:  add the bacon to the skillet and put it in the oven for 5 minutes.  Bring it out and add the beans, tossing to coat with fat.  Bake 20 minutes.  Add the onion, toss well, bake another 20.  Finish as above.

It's a really lovely side dish to anything--or part of an all-vegetable meal--from August until the frost. To make it vegetarian, skip the bacon and toss the beans with olive oil. We sometimes add a few cloves of garlic in their jackets.

How to Overcook Green Beans, pt. 2 will take up Sichuan dry-fried beans.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Sweet Disorder

"A sweet disorder in the dress/ Kindles in clothes a wantonness" were lines that came to mind as I put together this not very composed salade composée.  It's more of a strewn salad, I suppose, though one deliberately strewn.  An artful disorder was what I was after, an arrangement of disparate bits in atypical combination, but expressing a sense of the season, what we see around us now in the meadows at Bide-A-Wee, at the market.

The poem, by the way, is by Robert Herrick, full text click here. At first I wrote "pome," an appropriate typo as there's a pome on the plate, slices of our first ripe-ish apples (whether they are crabapples or merely stunted, we can't be sure). Also blackberries, challenging to harvest, so redolent of August meadows. The taste of blackberries brings along with it the smell of crushed monarda, the hum of bumblebees.

Some meat is nice in a composed salad, and here it's smoked duck left over from that magret I smoked last weekend, sliced as thin as I could. Then beautiful little haricots verts (blanched about three minutes) from the Dallas, Wisconsin farmers market. We visited two Wisconsin countryside farmers markets last week, the Dallas market, and one in Boyceville. One had two vendors, the other just one. Dallas was the big one. And yet we came away with those beautiful beans, a bucket of tiny cucumbers that I'm turning into cornichons and sweet gherkins, ground cherries, lovely tomatoes, corn, a red cabbage, sweet onions.

We made a mellow vinaigrette for the salad, olive oil, just a splash of cider vinegar, pinch of salt, dash of honey, and I muddled a few berries into the dressing. While I'm not a fan of seeds in blackberry or raspberry jam, I actually enjoyed the crunch of the seeds in the whole berries on the salad. The apples were still quite tart but aromatic and flavorful, and combined with a bite of the smoky duck, perfect.

It's a salad that invites you to visit different parts of the plate, try different combinations--there's no prescribed way to eat it. A messy composed salad is art imitating life which imitates art, a studied disarray which "Do more bewitch me, than when art/ Is too precise in every part."

Text (except the Herrick) and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Smokey the Duck

I've been on a mission to demystify smoking since the very beginning of Trout Caviar.  I'm evangelical about it, in fact, ever since my lighbulbahaeurekacometojesus moment when I realized: "Hey, cavemen did this.  Maybe I can, too."  Now, it's nothing against cavemen (I gather they're sort of sensitive), and I'm quite certain I'd not survive an attempt to bring down a mastodon with crude weapons.  I give them lots of credit for that. I can, however, salt meat and expose it to moderate heat and smoke.  That's all home smoking entails, and it need not be an involved or mass-production type of undertaking.

Case in point, this hot-smoked duck breast I prepared out at Bide-A-Wee last weekend.  While packing food for the cabin I took my duck breast and salted it generously, at least twice the salt I would use if I were cooking it right away.  I added pepper, and sprinkled on some quatre épices. Then I rubbed a bit of maple syrup lovingly over both sides, and let the meat sit in a plastic bag for two days.

When I was ready to smoke it, I readied the elaborate smoking system we use out at the cabin. Built a fire so there were nice coals going, moved the coals to one side of the grill and added a piece of apple for aromatic smoke.

I laid the breast on the grate away from the heat.

Covered it with the custom-made "Bide-A-Wee Deluxe Smoke Catcher" (aka, the lid of a small portable grill).

Let it smoke a while. Maybe an hour.

You can imagine that we don't exactly have pinpoint control over the temperature in a set-up like this, and in fact this breast smoke-roasted a little hotter and faster than I would have hoped. But because of the cure of salt and maple syrup, the meat remained moist. It was also rich and smoky, nicely chewy, slightly gamy, exactly what I like about duck, maybe my favorite meat. At the end of the smoking/cooking, I cooked it skin-side-down over direct heat, to render some fat and crisp the skin a bit.

It did not hurt at all that the duck was served alongside a pile of very tasty rice mush: risotto with chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms. The hedgehogs, hydnum repandum, are interesting fungi, less common than chanterelles but fruiting at the same time (obviously). They are in fact related to chanterelles in realms of fungal classification, and have a similarly enchanting aroma, sweet, so they're sometimes called "sweet tooth" mushrooms. In either case, the common name refers to the spiky spore-producing structure this mushroom has where others have gills, which resemble the spines on those twee, beloved denizens of English hedgerows.

If you're fortunate enough to find hedgehogs, remember the spot. They come back quite reliably year to year.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bide-A-Wee Caponata (With Reflections on Unexpected Influences)

I find it amusing and instructive to look back over the years, think of how I cook today, how I cooked back when, and consider how I got from there to here.  I can see now a whole pile of  extremely various factors: Mom & Dad influences; my late-teen swing into vegetarianism; time spent on the east coast, and in Virginia; certainly my year in China, and travels in France, but also time spent on the shores of Lake Superior, and a bike trip in Nova Scotia.  People I met influenced me greatly, as well, and so did television cooking shows (I've mentioned Jacques Pépin's Today's Gourmet more than once, but I also fell in love with Madeleine Kamman through her long-ago cooking series), and books.

Among the books that have had the biggest impact on how I approach cooking, I'd love to be able to say that it was conscientious study of the methods of Escoffier and Careme that formed my culinary thinking, with peripheral influences of Basques, Tuscan, and Catalan gastronomy--but, you know, I'd be lyin'.  And while I've had Mastering the Art... on my shelf for many years, I mostly pick it up to put it down again.  I used to own a Joel Robuchon book written by Patricia Wells, Simply French that was so absurdly misnamed, it got me all rankled every time I picked it up--the recipes therein are simple if you own a truffle farm, and a flock of fattened fowl to harvest foie gras, and then there's the caviar....  I finally had to get rid of it.

But there's one modest, unassuming cookbook that I first purchased decades ago, and that has stayed relevant to me all that time.  I've mentioned it here before, The Country Gourmet, by Gil and Sherril Roth.  The Roths were New York chefs transplanted to North Carolina, where they set about growing most of their food, and procuring what they couldn't produce from local sources.  In other words, they anticipated the whole local-seasonal eating trend, with a strong strain of self-sufficiency in the mix.  The book is arranged more or less by the seasons, and it ranges from the stalwart basics to the oddly idiosyncratic--there's a chapter devoted to a dinner of Indian dishes, for instance, which still strikes me as odd when I'm flipping through the book, though I've tried some of those recipes, and they're good.

I suppose I just found The Country Gourmet at exactly the right time in my development as a cook; it amazes me to think of all the things I learned from it.  The bread recipes with variations expanded my bread baking horizons, and the homemade pasta section is still a go-to source for me, both for basic recipes and excellent rustic preparations like pasta with cabbage and onions--this book also introduced me to pasta alla carbonara.  Here's where I learned how to make sauerkraut in jars, picked up a winter-time staple that is Portuguese kale soup, and even a dog biscuit recipe that I used in our Real Bread years, and which earned a devoted following (right, Jen --or should I ask Lily...?). 

The personal tone of the Roths writing is utterly engaging.  They're not pushing any agenda or working some tricksy angle--they just share their enthusiasm for good, honest food and the joys of connecting with the seasons through gardening, preserving, and cooking.  Amazingly, you can pick up a copy for one red cent, plus shipping, of course.  I recommend you do so.

All of this is a (typically) roundabout introduction to a sweet and sour eggplant and green apple relish I whipped up this weekend, Bide-A-Wee caponata.  My first exposure to caponata was through a recipe in The Country Gourmet.  Caponata is a Sicilian dish made with eggplant, tomato, olives, capers, often raisins or currants.  Having not been to Sicily, I'm not exactly sure how it's served there.  I see numerous references to it as a component of an antipasti platter, and it's more often referred to as a relish than a vegetable side dish, from rather brief research.  It's often referred to as "Italian ratatouille," but I think that's misleading, as rataouille can be a meal in itself, and I don't think caponata would ever be served thay way.

The Bide-A-Wee caponata recipe presented here is very much my own interpretation, a Mediterranean-meets-Dunn County deal, fer sure.  To start with, I omitted two of the constant ingredients in every caponata recipe I've seen--tomatoes and olives.  My capers were salted milkweed flower buds, and the fruit component, chopped green apples. My vinegar was not balsamic but apple cider, and the sweetness to match the sour:  maple syrup, of course.

For the green apples I looked for ones that were starting to ripen--not the kind so tart and astringent you have to spit it out before you've even chewed.  In fact, I used three kinds of apples: one that was becoming sweet, but had little complexity; one still quite tart but developing interesting flavors; one tart and extremely aromatic, with the smell of excellent apple cider.  That said, you could make this with one kind of really firm, tart-sweet apple.

Otherwise it's pretty straight-forward.  Everything cooks in one pan; it's best if made a bit ahead to let the flavors blend, and served at room temperature.  Given that we had already strayed very far from the traditional preparation of caponata,  we served it idiosyncratically, as well:  first on tacos of flash-fried thin-sliced boneless beef short ribs; then on chicken sandwiches; finally, the last few bites, on crackers.  It's great stuff, complex in flavor and texture, silky and crunchy by turns, tart, sweet, smoky--compelling, I dare say.  I'm planning to make a big batch soon, freeze portions for the winter.  It's a vibrant taste of summer that I know will be welcome come January.

I'd love to hear about what cookbooks, or other sources of inspiration, have stayed with you over the years, unexpectedly, or not.

Bide-A-Wee Caponata: Sweet & Sour Eggplant, Green Apple, Salted Milkweed Relish
Makes about a cup

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 hot Hungarian chile, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 rib celery, chopped
3/4 cup eggplant, skin on, in 1/3-inch dice
3/4 cup green apple or crisp tart-sweet apple (see above), skin on, in 1/3-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon salted milkweed buds, rinsed (or use small capers, prefereably salt-packed)
salt and pepper

In a medium saucepan heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the onion, celery, and chile, and cook over medium-high until wilted.  Add the eggplant, apple, and a good pinch of salt.  Cook until the eggplant is soft, 3 to 4 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for one minute.  Add the vinegar, 1/4 cup water, and the maple syrup.  Simmer gently, uncovered, for 5 minutes, until most of the water is gone.  Remove the pan from the heat and add another good pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and the milkweed buds or capers--save a few buds back to garnish the top.  Set aside at room temperature until you're ready to serve; if you'll be serving it a day or more later, refrigerate, then bring to room temp before serving.  Drizzle one tablespoon olive oil over the top just before serving.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, August 5, 2011

Grilled Fingerling, Green Bean, and Chanterelle Salad

Here's a quickie as we zoom into the weekend:  Ladies and gentlemen, start your grills!  And make a salad.

It's been too hot to cook for a lot of the summer, with humidity that saps energy and appetite, but we can't let the splendid products of the summer--from market, woods, and garden--pass us by.  One night last week we summoned enough will to fire up the grill, prep a few vegetables, and grill ourselves a salad, which we served with some paté previously made, some bread, a glass of icy white wine; we were glad we did.

I like this simple dish for several reasons: it features an unusual--to my mind--combination of vegetables, with an intriguing variety of textures; it's a meal-size salad that isn't a voluminous pile of greens (though you could serve it on a bed of greens); though I made it with foraged chanterelles, it would be equally good (though perhaps not quite so pretty) with store-bought oyster mushrooms, or sliced portabellos; and I came up with a clever way to sort of grill/stir-fry vegetables over the coals without having everything fall through the grate, with no special equipment involved.

To start with the last, of which I thought I had taken a photo, but I guess not:  What I did was, I took a stainless steel rack, such as one would use to cool cookies, and I put that on top of the regular grill grate.  I'm talking about a rack with quite a fine grid to it, maybe quarter-inch squares.  When the coals were ready I spread my prepared vegetables over the rack, and nothing fell through!  It took a little care to keep everything above the fire line as I tossed and turned the vegetables to brown them, but it worked really well.  When it came to cleaning up the rack, because it is stainless it washed up nicely with a scrub from the Dobie.  No down side that I can see so far, though it remains to be seen how the lightweight rack will hold up after repeated uses.

To prep the vegetables for the grill, I cooked the fingerlings--beautiful rosy-skinned spuds we picked up at the Menomonie Farmers Market--for around ten minutes, shocked them under cold water, halved them the long way.  Then in a big bowl I tossed the potatoes, raw green beans, and mushrooms pulled into big shreds together with some olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh thyme and sage.  Those all went on the rack over medium-hot coals, and I turned and moved the vegetables around until everything had nice color on it.  About halfway through the grilling I tossed a good-sized sweet white onion, cut into rings, into the mix.  Some of the beans and some of the onion got quite dark--a good thing, I think.

Après grilling, I put everything back in the mixing bowl and added a little more olive oil and maybe two tablespoons of cider vinegar--but a wine vinegar or even light rice vinegar would work, too.  Taste for salt, add another grind of fresh pepper, perhaps some additional fresh herbs--bit of flat-leaf parsley, a few leaves of basil?

I had grated some Wisconsin asiago to sprinkle over top, but found it redundant, intrusive, even, to the fresh summery flavors and textures of the salad.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw