Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Strong Cheese Accident

There's already a lot of weird stuff in my fridge, so why not add a jar of fresh homemade cheese marinated in ramps and cider? Right, no reason not to, at all.

I've been thinking quite a bit recently about blogs that rely on "adapted" recipes from other sources, about originality and creativity in food writing and blogging, and shaping influences, inspirations; about where ideas come from and how to properly acknowledge our debts and the contributions of others to our own development.  I'm far from sorting it all out, but I think that this little experiment, no matter how it turns out, is a great example of how a whole slew of sources and influences, from across continents and even centuries (the fromage fort method being very, very old, indeed), filtered through a curious (and not very organized) mind, might produce something which, while not new in any sense, may turn out to be unique in its own way.  That's what I love about food, and the diverse community of people who are compelled, perhaps obsessed, by it.

 My kitchen processes seem to be bouncing off accidents these days, from burnt honey to abandoned cheese. Home cheese making isn't difficult, I keep hearing, and I believe it. I'm sure it's just like smoking meat and fish, or fermenting sauerkraut: ridiculously easy when you know how it works and have done it a few times; incredibly daunting when you're looking from the outside and have never done it before. Plus, it's a commitment. You turn milk into curds and whey, and then you have to deal with the product. And while I knew that milk is mostly whey and just a wee bit of curd, I wasn't quite prepared to confront the reality of that. It's like boiling maple sap down for syrup. You can read and perfectly well process the fact that it takes around 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, but until you've done it, you can't possibly understand what's involved in getting rid of all that water.

Well, backing up a bit: I finally made cheese, the very most basic kind, simple set curds that we know from Indian cooking as paneer. I got the method from Tricia Cornell's nifty book Eat More Vegetables .  You just  bring some milk up to a simmer, stir in something acidic, and the solids congeal and separate from the liquid whey.  Pour the results through cheesecloth, which catches the solids.  Let that drain well, and you have basic white cheese.  From one quart of milk I got a half cup of cheese and 3 1/2 cups of whey.  I know there are things you can do with whey, from using it as liquid in pasta making to feeding it to your hogs.  I have no hogs, and was going out of town the next day.  I tossed the whey, feeling as if I was dumping perfectly good milk down the drain.  If any of you have clever uses for whey, I'd love to hear about them.

So, from my beautiful quart of whole raw milk I now had this rather paltry little sack of cheese, and obviously this swap which on one's first go seems like a pretty lousy deal is just something you have to get past if you want to make cheese.  Yes, I'm aware that milk is a liquid, and yes, at an intellectual level I realize that I shouldn't have expected a quart of milk to magically turn into a quart of cheese.  Just the same....  Sorry, don't mean to belabor the point.

But there's the set-up:  quart of delicious milk becomes sad-looking tiny sack of cheese, going out of town--bung it in the fridge, deal with it later.  And so today is later.  I peeled the cheese out of the cheesecloth.  It was a bit yellowed on the outside, and the cheesecloth stuck.  The texture was chalky, and it tasted like...nothing.  I was becoming depressed, and then, a lightbulb!

Dimly, from the addled recesses of my still somewhat jet-lagged mind, I recalled a preparation I'd been meaning to try, a variation on a marinated goat cheese recipe (which itself was a variation on the French fromage fort, or strong cheese) that I'd seen in one of Madeleine Kamman's books, In Madeleine's Kitchen .  My thought upon reading that recipe a while back was to try using Wisconsin white cheese curds, dry apple cider, and ramps in place of the goat cheese, white wine, and leeks that Madeleine uses.  And now I had my own homemade cheese to sub for the cheese curds--except, when it came down to it, I didn't have enough homemade cheese to fill even a very small jar, so I added an equal weight of cheese curds to fill it out.

The idea here is sort of double-fermented, or ultra-washed rind, cheese.  As Madeleine notes, the usual way to do this is to make a purée of leftover bits of cheese, along with wine, garlic, maybe some herbs, and let that sit in a crock until it becomes nice and...aromatic.  I wrote about that method here.  I can't really call this a recipe, this impromptu assemblage, but here's what I had:

2 ounces each fresh homemade cheese (unsalted) and white cheese curds, in 1/2-3/4-inch cubes
2 plump ramp bulbs, sliced thin
3/4 cup dry hard apple cider
2 generous pinches coarse salt
about 12 whole black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon sunflower oil

I combined the ramps, peppercorns, and cider in a small saucepan, brought it to a boil, and simmered for a minute.  When it was cool I added it to the cheese, along with the salt.  I spooned this mixture into a small jar, making sure the cheese was covered with rampy cider.  Then add the oil, put on the lid, shake it up, put it away in the fridge for a while.  Madeleine says to leave the marinated goat cheeses for three months.   I think I'll check mine in a week or so, and report back.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Bit of a Pickle

Just a bit, nothing too strenuous.  This is how I like to can, a couple pints, half-pints here and there, and by the end of the summer I usually have a good assortment.  Pickles are amusements; they should be as enjoyable to make as they are to eat (that's right, like Jiffy Pop).  I did two half-pints of ramp bulbs today, and a pint each of asparagus and rhubarb.  The ramps will be garnish for Ramp-A-Tinis (a wild Gibson), and will be chopped to make pickled ramp ranch (originally a David Chang  concept, which I adapted into a rhubarb ramp ranch inspired by Tory Miller's Madison restaurant Graze; I offer this in full disclosure, as I've been spouting off about bloggers adapting recipes on another site recently)  .

But let's get on with it, or I'll spend more time describing the pickles than it took to make them.  The asparagus is also an excellent cocktail garnish (vodka martini, bloody mary), and will certainly be welcome on a Thanksgiving relish tray.  The rhubarb--who knows.  I had a bit of brine leftover, we have this giant rhubarb patch, it seemed worth a try.

The brine:

2 cups water
1 cup cider or rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup sugar
Scant 2 tablespoons salt
3 whole cloves
2 small dried red chilies, seeds removed (or leave them in if you like it really hot)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Combine all in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil.  My method tends to vary, but what I did today was to add the ramp bulbs as the brine came to a boil, and blanch them for a couple of minutes.  Then I turned the heat off, added the asparagus, and left it for just a minute.  Prior to the blanching I had trimmed the pieces so they would fit their respective jars, half pint size for the ramps, pint for the asparagus.

For the rhubarb, I set the cut-to-length pieces flat side down and halved them the long way, to allow the brine quicker and fuller access.  I'll let you know how it turns out.

Don't let pickling intimidate you, it needn't be daunting.  I don't bother to process these kinds of pickles, usually; I just pop them in the fridge and check back in a week or two to see how they're coming along.  Small batch pickling is, literally, no sweat.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, May 21, 2012

Burnt Honey, Smoky Pork

This plate of smoked-grilled pork shoulder with burnt honey-rhubarb gastrique came about through an intriguing convergence, or maybe more accurately, a collision, of trains of thought and happy (mostly) accidents that fortunately did not result in a train wreck.

I had been thinking about bitter flavors as I tasted my way around our yard, where the dandelions are having a hell of a springtime.  These country dandelions often have leaves a good foot long, and through most of the spring they've been quite mild, with a rich green flavor and only a hint of bitterness.  As the flower stalks begin to emerge, and the flowers to open, the bitterness becomes more pronounced, to the point where, eventually, they are unpalatably bitter.  At least to me they are, and I imagine most American eaters would agree.  But there are cultures, notably Asian ones, where bitter flavors are more prized.  Bitter greens are common in Asian cooking, and then there's bitter melon, the apotheosis of gastronomic bitterness.  I've tried bitter melon a couple of times; I do not find myself craving it.

We like bitter in a cup of espresso, in hoppy beers; and in very dark chocolate, or dark caramel, where the bitterness is tempered with sweetness.  In a frisée salad we can enjoy the bitter greens when that flavor is played off fatty, salty bacon lardons and unctuous egg yolk.  Bitterness can really wake up the palate, open the taste buds for other sensations.  It's a matter of balance, then, of point and counterpoint.  Any single flavor is likely to be either boring or offensive when tasted out of context.  This point has really been brought home to me through my recent explorations with rhubarb juice.  This stuff tastes absolutely awful on its own--I mean, really, you can barely stand the tiniest sip--but when added to a dressing, a marinade, or in today's example, a type of sweet and sour sauce called a gastrique, it adds a fascinating complexity and an exotic edge.

Rhubarb juice. Pretty.

You'd think that that extremely sour and astringent rhubarb juice would only become more intolerable when paired with a bitter flavor, but that's where the happy accident comes in.  Or maybe, as some philosophers contend, there's no such thing as accidents.

I had a jar with about a half-inch of crystallized honey in the bottom.  Thrifty Scot that I am, I didn't want to let it go to waste, so I set the jar in a saucepan with a couple inches of water in it, and put that on the stove on medium heat.  Then I went off and became engrossed in something--I think I was reading about extreme couponers in the New York Times Magazine, weird world, that is.  I started to notice, half-consciously, an appealing aroma, sweet, but with an acidic edge, and I even remember wondering where that might be coming from.  But sometimes scents from last night's dinner waft out of the kitchen--maybe there was a deglazed pan sitting on the stove, whose scent molecules were mixing with those from that morning's tea and honey.

First foam.

Well, the smell grew stronger, and became more and more appetizing--until there entered into that scent a sharp, harsh, edge, and that's when I got off my butt and dashed to the kitchen to find, yes, the water in the saucepan all boiled away, and the bit o' honey in the bottom of the jar bubbling and quite dark.  I moved it off the burner (we've got this electric range at the new house that needs replacing, soon) and just left it to cool.  I felt fortunate that the jar had not exploded and sent daggers of hot glass flying all over the house.

Nearly there.

When I went back to look at it again, the jar was cool enough to handle, but the dark honey in it was still a bit molten.  I became intrigued.  I took a wooden spatula and scraped out what I could.  It was black honey candy at this point, hardening as it cooled.  I added a bit of water to dissolve it.  I tasted this burnt honey jus.   It was bitter, all right, but also sweet and complex.  Something else entered my mind at that point, something a friend had mentioned in response to my first blog post on rhubarb juice.  This friend (actually Bide-A-Wee Nomenclature Tsarina Lulu) used to be a pastry chef at fancy restaurants, and she recalled a caramel sauce she had made with rhubarb juice.  I'd been meaning to try it, but I rarely cook desserts; now I had an inspiration on how to turn that concept to a savory use.  I decided to try burning honey under more controlled conditions, then stop the cooking with rhubarb juice.

Juice added.

I won't drag out the drama any longer:  the result was excellent, and a compelling example of how combining extreme flavors can result in something unexpected and wonderful.  There was a delightful and surprising fruity quality that emerged, in spite of all the other strong flavors.  And I want to be clear:  This sauce is not for the timid of palate.  Also, it requires a suitably forceful companion on the plate, like my smoke-grilled pork shoulder.  It might be good with grilled chicken thighs, with their crisp, smoky skin and dark savory meat.  Or duck, yes--it could be excellent with magret or confit.  I'm also thinking it might be good tossed with ripe strawberries or other berries, à la reduced balsamic vinegar.  Or it could be, as in Lulu's original, a striking sauce for panna cotta, or ice cream.  It's worth exploring the possibilities. [Update:  I grilled chicken paillards (that's boneless thighs bashed flat with a meat mallet, bottom of a small saucepan, or the side of a cleaver) and finished them with a glaze of the straight honey-rhubarb gastrique, and they were excellent.]

The fantastic thing about the honey in a sauce like this is that honey, while obviously among the sweetest things in the kitchen, also has a good deal of acidity (average pH 3.9, thank you Great Google!), and good honey has many complex flavors beyond the sweet and acidic.  Then, when you cook it to this point, the various browning reactions and, finally, caramelization, create a whole new set of flavors and aromas.  It's almost a bit psychedelic, what all those swirling scents do to your brain as it tries to sort out the good, the bad, the weird, the alluring, and the scary.

Mostly, I stay within my cooking comfort zone these days, and am happy there.  I think I have a fairly wide zone.  Sometimes it's fun to try pushing the boundaries.  Regarding gastriques:  they are sweet and sour sauces usually made with a base of caramelized sugar to which vinegar is added, then perhaps other flavors, in the form of fresh fruit, booze, herbs and spices.  The addition of some stock rounds out the flavors; I finished mine with butter and the drippings from my pork as it rested. This Serious Eats post has a good rundown on this fascinating sauce.

How I made my

Burnt Honey Rhubarb Gastrique
Makes 1/2 cup

1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup rhubarb juice
pinch salt

To make the rhubarb juice, combine one chopped stalk rhubarb and couple tablespoons of water in a blender or mini-food processor and blend until a uniform slurry is formed.  Dump this into a strainer and gently press with the back of a spoon to extract the juice.  You'll get about 1/3 cup from one good stalk of rhubarb.

In a small saucepan combine the honey and water.  Cook over medium heat, and NEVER LEAVE THE STOVE!  I have left the stove when reducing maple syrup in the past, and let me tell you, friends, you do not want to see the kind of mess that makes.  The honey will start to bubble and foam.  Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spatula, until the honey starts to darken.  Use both your eyes and your nose to tell you when it's done.  It's hard to see the color of the honey with all the foaming--take the pan off the heat and the bubbles will subside, allowing you to judge the color better.  Your nose will tell you when caramelization is starting, and you want it go to the point where bitter notes emerge.  When the honey has reached the color of dark maple syrup, and the bubbles look like the crema atop a nice espresso, you're there.  Remove the pan from the heat and add the rhubarb juice all at once--be prepared for a good deal of foaming and sizzling.  Stir in a pinch of salt.  If you like, you can now reduce this sauce gently to further concentrate the flavors, but I don't think that will be necessary.

As we were getting ready to serve, I heated the gastrique, added a bit more salt, a good tablespoon of butter, grind of pepper, and the juices that accumulated near the resting pork.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pork Shoulder Breakdown

Put your banjos away.  It's not that kind of breakdown.  It is a song, though, a song of praise to a noble piece of meat, versatile, delicious, and cheap.  While the price of local, small-producer beef can be frighteningly high, excellent pastured pork remains a carnivore's bargain.  My quest for meaty nirvana used to center around the search for the perfect steak, and while great steaks are now easier to come by than ever before, I often pick pig over cow when I think of firing up the grill (honestly, I think about firing up the grill just about every day...).  For the ambitious cook, pork is much more versatile than steak.  What do you do with a steak?  Grill it or fry it, maybe make a sauce.  You probably want to just taste the great beefy flavor of a pricey bone-in rib-eye, and there's nothing wrong with that.  But pork is much more an ensemble player than a steal-the-spotlight diva.  You want to add flavors to the meat, because pork accommodates various seasonings so well, and you want to put interesting sides on the plate, because pork plays well with others.

Shoulder bone out.

Pork chops, pork steaks, spareribs, fresh ham, country style ribs, pork belly--I like them all (pork loin or tenderloin, less so).  When you pick up a pork shoulder you've got a cut of meat that has the qualities of nearly all those other cuts, except perhaps the spareribs.  Here's how I deal with a pork shoulder roast of a little more than four pounds, four pounds five ounces, to be exact.  At $4.19 a pound at Seward Co-op , the roast cost $18.01, and will provide the two of us with four meals.  Eight person-meals for $18.01 equals $2.25 per.  A steal, in my book.

This was a so-called "Boston butt," a misleading term, since it comes from the front of the hog, not the rear as "butt" implies.  The butt or Boston butt is the upper part of the shoulder, while the lower part is called a picnic shoulder or sometimes just a pork shoulder roast.  Here's the National Pork Board's explanation for the puzzling terminology, which I found on this appetizing website :

"In pre-revolutionary New England and into the Revolutionary War, some pork cuts (not those highly valued, or "high on the hog," like loin and ham) were packed into casks or barrels (also known as "butts") for storage and shipment. The way the hog shoulder was cut in the Boston area became known in other regions as "Boston Butt." This name stuck and today, Boston butt is called that almost everywhere in the US,. except in Boston."

A good boning knife comes in handy here, and I love my Global flexible boning blade, but a sharp paring knife will work, too.  The butt has just one smallish bone in it, and you extract it by keeping the knife close to the bone, working all around it.  It's kind of oddly shaped, so slightly tricky to remove, but with a little perseverance it comes out in just a minute or two.  It weighed five ounces, leaving me with four pounds of meat.  The bone isn't wasted, by the way--I smoked that to add flavor to a soup or bean pot.

Then, by cutting along the very obvious fat and membrane line between the two major muscles, you get what we see above.  On the left, a 2 1/2 pound piece that could be roasted or smoked whole, although here I'm going to break it down further, as you'll see; and the dimly lit piece on the right, which I ground up for sausage and Chinese preparations (like mapo doufu, fish-fragrance eggplant, ants-climb-a-tree).  You could get a couple more grill-worthy pieces off the righthand piece, too, or chunk it up to make stew.  And, of course, you can roast or smoke the shoulder entire, turn it into pulled pork, carnitas, or various other delicacies.  My purpose here is to demonstrate the versatile nature of this cut.

So I cut that solid block into four cutlets of about six ounces each (I quite amazed myself with my butchering exactitude, as each cutlet was exactly 5.75 ounces), and a one-pound chunk that I intended to smoke-roast.  And here's what that looked like when I did:

The cutlets are great grilled, broiled, or fried.  I recently wrote about a steam-grill technique that produced exquisitely good results.   These aren't dainty pieces of meat, and the cooking of them does not require extreme precision, which is another thing I love about pork shoulder--it's not going to be ruined if it sits on the grill for another minute or two, or five, or that matter, unlike that pricey T-bone that will lose much of its appeal if it goes a tad past medium-rare.

Last night we feasted, absolutely feasted, I tell you, on that smoke-roasted chunk, thinly sliced and bathed in an extremely interesting burnt honey-rhubarb gastrique, with cassoulet cakes and sautéed wood nettles and ramps, details to follow.  Tonight I'll fry off a quick sausage I made from some of the ground pork (added salt, some fennel, some really nice powdered chile from New Mexico, garlic, shallot), add some chopped wild greens and serve that on pasta in a dish inspired by this recent David Tanis "City Kitchen" column.

That's the pork report.  Good eating to all.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Stalking the Wild Spaghetti

The topic today is wood nettles, but wood nettles, while somewhat dangerous in the midsummer woods, are not terribly active, at any time.  Hence the Euell Gibbons-esque title, to lend some drama to the proceedings.  In fact there's a good deal of drama in our northern woods now, though of a subtle sort.  There are scenes of absolute sylvan splendor to be relished, as ostrich ferns unfurl, almost perceptibly, and trilliums blaze in gaudy constellations across the forest forest, accented by purple phlox, Virginia bluebells, wild geraniums.  Sometimes the drama is more apparent, as when I spooked a knobby-kneed fawn, a perfect little silken, speckled Bambi, from its hiding place just a few feet away from me.  The doe was no doubt watching nearby, but didn't make a sound.  Baby deer clumsily found its feet, and clattered off into the underbrush.

I found patches of ramps in surprisingly good shape, and harvested a weighty sack full for fresh eating and pickling.  As I dug those ramps with my  hori-hori, bar none the perfect tool for the job, I was struck by the density of life on the forest floor.  Where a few weeks ago this bit of ground had been nearly a blank slate, only sparsely adorned with the first trout lilies and ramps knifing through the loam, now there was vegetation in a stunning variety of shapes, colors, and textures crowding every square inch of earth.  When the ramps were at their peak, you couldn't imagine that there was room for any other kind of plant to grow, but now they share that space with the ostrich, lady, and bracken ferns; with rue and anemones, bloodroot and trilliums; wild ginger, solomon's seal true and false, mayapple, skunk cabbage, swamp saxifrage, nettles stinging and wood; and a couple dozen other plants that I don't even know the names of.  How remarkably rich that soil must be, to support that density and diversity of flora, and each plant so finely adapted to its circumstance.

This is a beautiful time of year in the woods, indeed, and it must be cherished while it lasts, for, like the adorable and loving child who transforms, seemingly overnight, into a gangling, pimpled, sneering teen, the spring woods come summer are an inhospitable place, the nettles eye-high, flowers all fallen and rotted, every sort of vicious insect out to suck your blood.  Now, it's nice.  You should make time for a walk.

On that walk you will find plenty of wild food, and one of my springtime favorites, the aforementioned wood nettle, laportea canadensis, is both abundant and prime for the picking.  Right now you'll find fresh new shoots as well as plants that have reached knee-high.  Both can be used; with the new sproutlets, you pinch them off just above the soil.  With the larger plants I reach down the
stem six or eight inches from the top and remove stem and upper leaves where stem breaks easily.  The smallest plants haven't really developed their stinging quality yet, and so present no threat to the forager.  Those knee-high specimens, though, can make their presence felt if you brush wrist or forearm against the leaves, so use caution.

What's great about wood nettles, and what elevates them over stinging nettles, in my humble, is their versatility.  With wood nettles, both the leaves and tender stems are edible and delicious.  It's sort of as if asparagus had leaves.  Or think of it as wild broccoli rabe, only leafier.  It is excellent steamed or blanched, then simply tossed with oil or butter, and I really like it topped with ramp brown butter--melt some good butter, and as it starts to take on color, toss in a handful of chopped ramps, cook until insanely fragrant, add to nettles.  Again steamed or blanched, it makes a lovely green bed--dressed or not--for a roast chicken or a grilled steak, chop, or fish.  Really, it's an all-purpose green, like spinach with character, and a little prickle (but it doesn't make your teeth feel funny).

While some reference books describe stinging and wood nettles as preferring different habitats, I often find them growing literally side by side, both in shady forests and in sunny, open areas along the trout rivers I fish.   They clearly share a preference for rich, riparian soils, and given that environment, are indifferent to sun or shade.  This provides a good opportunity to harvest both kinds at once, and do some comparative taste testing of your own. (By the way, if I haven't mentioned them often enough, any serious and/or aspiring forager must have the books of  Sam Thayer and  Teresa Marrone; Sam has excellent back to back chapters on stinging and wood nettles in his first book, The Forager's Harvest, and Teresa's Abundantly Wild has both practical info and appetizing recipes.)

A lot of the wild green of spring are quite, how shall we say, elongated?  Attenuated, Modiglianish, if you will.  Wood nettles, ramps, and dandelion greens all share a generally longitudinal quality.  That got me thinking of them as something like wild spaghetti, so I cooked up a mess to toss with noodles, and I was pleased with the result.

See below the recipe for more wood nettle images.

Pasta with Wild Greens
Serves one as a main course, two as a first course or element of a multi-course meal

Handful dandelion greens
8 small to medium ramps with their greens
12 stems wood nettle tops, the top 6 to 8 inches of young plants
1 1/2 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
2 ounces dry pasta (I used capellini; thin Chinese egg noodles would work), cooked to your preference of doneness
a few shavings of parmesan, aged gouda, or another hard cheese
salt and pepper
coarse breadcrumbs toasted in a skillet with a bit of oil

If the dandelion greens are quite bitter, blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds, drain, refresh in cold water, and squeeze out excess water.  Heat a large heavy skillet and add the oil, then the ramps.  Leave the ramps to cook on one side until they start to get a bit charred, then turn them over to get some color on the other side.  When they are nicely brown--even a bit black in spots is okay--add the nettles and a good pinch of salt, and stir them about until they wilt down.  Add the dandelion greens and sauté vigorously until your kitchen is redolent of ramp aromas and a bit smoky--cook the greens hard, in other words.

Remove the pan from the heat.  Add the cooked, drained pasta to the skillet and toss to mix well.  Serve topped with the breadcrumbs, shaved, cheese, and a few grinds of black pepper.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Very young wood nettle tip.

Bide-A-Wee wood nettles.  Everything above ground is edible at this stage.

Whitewater wood nettles, late April; SE Minnesota is usually a couple weeks ahead of our northern Dunn County woods.

Obligatory showy trillium shot.

Wood nettles and ramps in the pan.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Three, Count 'Em, Three...

...Minnesota Historical Society Press cookbook authors will be signing books and talking local, seasonal cooking tomorrow, Saturday, May 12, at the Mill City Farmers Market on the market's opening day.  I'll give you one guess only as to who one of them is, and I'll bet those of you here in our beautiful upper midwest have probably caught wind of the others, as their splendid books have been getting plenty of press in these here parts.  They are:

Kim Ode, whose book Rhubarb Renaissance is a lovely ode indeed (but her name's pronounced O-dee) to the scarlet stalks of springtime.

Rhubarb Renaissance

And Tricia Cornell with her book Eat More Vegetables, which will definitely help you jazz up your produce preparations.

Eat More Vegetables

The market opens at 8:00 and runs until 1:00.  I've got a bit of a trek in from the countryside, so I won't arrive in time for the opening bell, but I'm planning to be there from at least 9:00 to noon.  Stop on by if you're out and about in the Twin Cities.  There will be plenty of produce, thanks to the warm March weather, and other fine foods.  The market is conveniently located on the light rail line, nestled between the Mill City Musuem and the heroic structure of the "new" Guthrie Theater, a mere muffin's toss from the historic Mississippi River waterfront and Stone Arch Bridge and Mill Ruins Park. A very bikeable location, too.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Savage Soupage

I also like the sound of potage sauvage, but I'm trying to wean myself from always running to the French.  That one will go in the title pantry, though, and I'm sure it will find its way out.  This is one of the most foraged dishes I've ever made, although, wild as it is, it did not require a lot of foraging far afield.  Indeed, much of it--morels, nettles, dandelion greens--came from our yard or near outskirts.

We had a nice, surprising fruiting of morels twenty feet from the house, near some cottonwoods.  Stinging nettles encroach at every edge of the yard, and our dandelion crop is amazing--not just the sheer number of plants, but the size of the leaves, and their mildness.  I haven't done enough with them this year.

As I was putting this soup together I worried that it might turn out to be a bit challenging, might lean toward the medicinal or excessively "healthy" side.  Ramps, nettles, dandelion greens, and fiddleheads all have distinctive flavors, which I had never tried to incorporate in one recipe before.  The morels were there to lend their musky mellowness, modulate the highs (bitter dandelions) and lows (earthy fiddleheads); and then, there's just the magic of soup--and of cream (which I may have mentioned recently...).  I needn't have worried, not a bit.  This weedy wild soupage was far more comforting than challenging, though the textures of all the wild greens still intrigued.  A garnish of dandelion petals brightened things up and removed at least one of those darned weeds from my yard.   One down, 600 trillion to go....

Stinging nettle tips left, wood nettles right.

A big part of the greenery in the soup was wood nettles, the lesser known cousin (sort of) of stinging nettles. These are at a lovely size in our woods now, and not terribly threatening, yet.  I'll have more to say about these in my next dispatch.

I had some cress I could have thrown in, but with four kinds of greens already, I refrained.  I cooked up some wild rice, thinking I might need something to give the soup more body, but there was no room for it, and it would have diluted this full-on forager's feast.

Savage Soupage
serves four

6 ostrich fern fiddleheads, each with about 6 inches of stalk, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 good handful of nice big dandelion greens, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup chopped ramp bulbs and stems
Greens from the ramps, sliced
3 ounces fresh morels
1 1/2 tablespoons cooking fat--butter, bacon or duck fat, or olive oil
4 cups (loosely packed) young wood nettles
1 1/2 cups (loosely packed) stinging nettle tips
3 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup heavy cream

Blanch the fiddleheads in salted boiling water for 5 minutes.  Drain and refresh in ice water.  If your dandelion greens seem quite bitter, blanch them for 1 minute, drain and refresh, and drain well.

Chop most of the morels, reserving a couple of caps to cut in rings and fry for garnish.  In a large saucepan or dutch oven, heat the cooking fat and add the ramp bulbs and stems.  Sauté for a minute or two, until they start to shrink a bit, then add the morels and a good pinch of salt.  Cook until the morels shrink and start to brown a bit, 3 to 4 minutes.  Add the dandelion greens and stir them in for a minute.  Add the wood nettles and ramp tops (save a bit of the greens for garnish) and stir to wilt them.  Add the stock and a couple of pinches of salt.   Add the stinging nettle tips and fiddleheads.  Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer.  Simmer, partly covered, for 20 minutes.  Add the cream and taste for salt.  Simmer for 10 minutes.

Just before serving, fry the reserved rings of morel caps in a bit of butter until browned.  Garnish the soup with these, a few bits of ramp greens, and some dandelion petals, if you like.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cream of the Cream of the Trout of the 'Shrooms

Not to say that stream-caught brown trout, foraged morels, and farmers market asparagus couldn't have held their own quite ably on the dinner plate, but what took our Sunday night supper over the top was the cream.  Some of you are smacking your lips and murmuring, Amen, brother, amen, solemnly, and to you I need say no more than, "Bon appétit."  Others of you are cringing a little, but still eager to hear more, repelled by all that fat, cholesterol, artery-clogging stuff, and yet mmmm that does really look pretty good, but no, I couldn't....  To you people, let me me say a few words.

Cream is beautiful.  Do not fear it.  The reflexive revulsion that many people experience when they hear the words "cream sauce" is, for the most part, quite justifiable.  Whether it has its source in the gut-busting, gaggingly rich sauces that used to characterize classic French cooking, or their abominable ersatzes made with canned "cream of..." soups, the aversion to cream sauce often has a real and understandable basis.  But please note that I am not talking about cream sauce, a heavily reduced, butter-laden concoction that leaves you feeling bloated after just a couple of teaspoons.  No, I am talking cream, sweet gold from green meadows, the pure essence of pristine pastures, a gift from our gracious grazers.... Eh.  Right.  Sorry.  Let's try that again.

Cream is beautiful.  It is a wonderful ingredient, and when used properly--which usually means sparingly--it brings a quality to cooking that can be achieved in no other way.  Sure, you can blend some potato into your lo-cal soup, or achieve a creamish texture to a sauce via a flour roux or cornstarch, but in no case will the result be creamy.  For that, you need cream. (Cedar Summit cream is the best around, though available only in the Twin Cities area.  But the small-scale dairy movement is growing (is that an oxymoron?), so perhaps there's an excellent small dairy in your area.)

Because my cookbook doesn't shirk from employing cream, cheese, and excellent bacon in its recipes, I think some people have assumed that I'm a proponent of what we might call "The New Gluttony."  That's the approach to food that champions low-brow, high-fat eating as exemplified by "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives," "Man V. Food", and the like.  I'm brand new to pay TV, since we had to get a dish to get any television at all out here in the country, and I'm finding what passes for food programming, well, pretty appalling.  Why people keep tuning in to watch Guy Fieri shove yet another burger or piece of fried chicken into his plump, shiny face is beyond me, but there you go.  Obviously it sells, and I'm just an unknown food blogger with an oddball cookbook, so I should just shut up about it.  I won't even mention Paula Deen or Sandra Lee (whoops...), but the non-stop glorification of two-pound bacon cheeseburgers, doormat-sized pizzas, grease-soaked breakfast platters that would feed a Chinese family of eight for a week, at a time when roughly a third of the American public is clinically obese, that percentage expected to rise to over 40 percent in the next few years, well, where is your shame, you peddlers of slow, oily death, where, I ask is...your...shame?

Uh, so, where was I?  Oh yeah, I was telling  you to eat more cream.  Well, the point I was weaving towards was that while a lot of my recipes do call for cream, they rarely use more than a half a cup, nor do I reach for that bottle of liquid deliciousness more than once or twice a week.  Same thing with the bacon.  I smoke bacon three or four times a year, and do four pounds or so each time, but let's estimate on the high side and say that this household of two consumes 20 pounds of bacon a year.  That's ten pounds per person per year, or 13.33 ounces per month, or 3.33 ounces per week, less than a quarter pound--on the very high end.  I had bacon for breakfast this morning, by the way, from a batch I smoked up yesterday.  My day is off to a good start.

But I wonder if home-smoked bacon on sourdough wheatberry bread for breakfast can be linked to high levels of digressiveness.  What is wonderful about cream is that is makes dishes taste, yes, creamy.  But also, it brings flavors together in marvelous ways.  Using a couple examples from my book:  in Summer Lake Trout Chowder the cream--all of three tablespoons for two generous servings--marries the flavors of fresh and smoked trout and aromatic herbs and vegetables, and gives the broth a hint of richness that makes the dish; in Farmers Market Confetti Vegetable Sauce for pasta, a quarter-cup of cream in a dish that serves four enriches the broth that coats a market vegetable medley that would just be too...vegetal without it, and then brings together sauce and pasta, as well (yes, there's a little cheese on top, but cheese is another super flavor carrier that I use often and sparingly).

The trout dish served up here as an example of how large a flavor impact a little cream can have was inspired by one of Jacques Pépin's lesser known books, but one I reach for all the time: A French Chef Cooks at Home.  A French chef cooks at home rather differently from how you and I do, unless your daily menus run to dishes like Canard Montmorency or Cervelles de Veau Provencale, but it also has simpler dishes, such as Truites Grillées à la Crème--broiled trout with cream.

I usually do this on the grill, as Jacques suggests, but Sunday evening was rainy and blustery, and the broiler had to stand in for the grill.  Thanks to a little cream and a few morels, it did so admirably (and it kind of took me back a few years--why stop the digressions now?--because when I was a kid, broiling was one of my family's main ways of cooking.  We broiled everything, chicken, steaks, pork chops, bacon--those two aluminum broiler pans, one big, one small, scorched and dented from years of service, would go in a shrine if I had them here today.  My mom would broil chicken wings so hard, you could eat the whole thing, bones and all...).

Looking more closely at Jacques's recipe, I see that what I did was quite different from the original, where the trout is grilled over charcoal (back in 1975 Jacques was advocating for real wood charcoal over briquets), then placed "in a nice row in a gratin dish," the cream poured over, brought to a simmer, then served.  I did mine entirely under the broiler.  In the hopes of heading off further deviations, I revert to recipe style:

Broiled Trout and Morels in Cream
serves two

2  10-11" trout, brown, brook, or rainbow, bone in
2 tablespoons butter, divided
3 ounces fresh morels, quartered the long way (oysters, chanterelles, or hedgehogs would also be good)
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
1/3 to 1/2 cup cream
salt and pepper

Make a couple of diagonal slashes in each side of the trout to help them cook more evenly and take up more of the sauce.  Season the trout with salt and pepper inside and out.  Heat your broiler with the rack six inches or so below the heat source--not too close.  Place 1 tablespoon of butter in a gratin or baking dish, and place this in the oven just long enough to melt the butter.  Remove the pan from the oven and add the trout to it, turning them to coat with butter.  Place the pan under the broiler and cook for 2 minutes on each side, until the skin starts to blister.

While the trout is cooking, prepare the morels:  heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a small sauté pan and when it is hot add the morels and a pinch of salt.  Cook over medium high for a couple of minutes, until the morels give off some liquid, shrink, and just start to brown.  Remove them from the pan and set aside.  Deglaze the pan with the white wine or vermouth.

Remove the trout pan from the oven once the trout are brown on both sides.  Add the morels and deglazing liquid.  Pour about half the cream over the trout, and toss the morels in it.  Place the pan back under the broiler and cook for a minute, bring it out, turn the fish and stir the morels.  Add a bit more cream to the trout and broil for one more minute.  Remove the trout from the oven.  Serve the trout and morels over noodles or rice.  Add a little more cream to the pan sauce, if you like, and nap it over the fish and morels.

We broiled some pencil-thin asparagus and boiled up some excellent thick Mennonite noodles, both from the  Menomonie-Farmer's Market.  We felt blessed by the abundance of this place.


I was thinking about veganism recently (in a purely academic way, don't worry), and while I don't dispute the validity of anyone's personal dietary choices, and while I could consider a return to the vegetarian life I practiced as a young man, I realized that the vegan life would never work for me, not least because of its banishing of dairy.  Beyond that, looking at veganism as a movement, eliminating dairy from one's diet for arbitrary reasons seems to me not a terribly defensible position, in terms of sustainability of our food supply.  Living out here in America's Dairyland, it is clear that the earth is very, very good at making grass, and while we can't eat grass (leaving aside the current high-end trend for cooking with hay, which I'm eager to learn more about), cows can, and they can turn grass into rich, wonderful milk that gives us cream, cheese, yogurt, sour cream--splendid products on their own, and part of a culture that has linked humans to the earth for as long as, well, as long as there have been people and cows, I guess.  I could imagine the world without slaughterhouses.  Without dairies? No.

Cream is beautiful.  Therefore: you should eat more cream.  Just, not too much.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mighty Morchella

It is a mighty mushroom indeed that compels the sort of fanatical pursuit that morchella esculenta inspires. It's a rite of spring that sends hordes out into the ticky woods to scour the underbrush for the chance to spy that unique honeycomb cap in the moss or pushing through brown leaves.  A lot of morel hunters don't bother to hit the woods for any other mushroom, or any other wild food.  The spring pursuit is their only foraging interest.  I attribute this to the fact that 1) It is a rite of spring, a ceremony of the season, 2) Morels can be fairly predictable, 3) Morels can be extremely abundant, 4) Morels are easily preserved by drying, and 5) They are easily identified, with no really harmful look-alikes.  I don't think that it's because they are fantastically delicious.  They're good, sure, but on my list they fall below chanterelles, black trumpets, and hen of the woods.  For me, the hunt is the thing, and it is incredibly thrilling to slog over steep terrain, poke under currant bushes, probe beneath peeled bark, and finally be rewarded with the sight of that unique shape.  I keep going back, even though I rarely have much success.

This year is looking like a very good one for morels here in Minne'Sconsin (I may have to edit that moniker somehow, now that I live in Wisconsin full-time--Wis'Sota?).  I know it's a good year, because even I am finding them.  I've brought home a couple of pounds from the Bide-A-Wee woods so far.  My main haul came from a dead elm on a south-facing slope.  I look for trees that have been dead long enough that the bark is starting to peel quite a bit.  If I do spot a morel, then I step very carefully, and scan the ground assiduously, for a morel can seem to disappear from view even as you are looking at it.  From the base of the tree out to the edge of the dripline is where the morels will sprout; this Bide-A-Wee tree was a good example of that.  They were mostly downhill from the tree.  I went back a couple of times after my first find, and continued to find morels.  In fact, I managed to find a couple that I apparently had stepped on without noticing it on a previous foray:

And one that was completely hidden under a slab of bark:

I have always heard that morels are often found near apple trees, which I consider very good news indeed, because there are apple trees all over the Bide-A-Wee land; the bad news was that I had never once found a morel anywhere near an apple tree.  Until yesterday.  I was on my way back to the cabin, sweaty on an unexpectedly hot afternoon, prickly ash- and bramble-scratched, and I turned up that particular hillside just to stay in the shade.  Luckily I was still in ground-scanning mode, and the morels were quite conspicuous.  I wasn't really consciously looking and I stepped right over a couple of large morels, before noticing a couple of nice ones in the moss near the trunk.

Then I went and checked under the other apple trees in the area. Nada. Morels are just that way.

Collateral benefits to the morel hunt include spotting the first showy trilliums blooming on our land:

And a nice stand of wood nettles, one of my favorite greens of the spring.  Delicious and non-stinging at this size, though when mature, they sting worse than stinging nettles, go figure:

The entire young plant, stem and all, is delicious simply steamed  and  tossed with  butter.

One thing we have done with this spring's finds, a rabbit and morel hash on fried polenta:

The recent warm wet weather will add an air of urgency to the hunt.  Conditions for morel emergence are perfect, but in the hot and damp they won't last long out there.  Get 'em while you can.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw