Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"It's as if there's something in there that you may never get again, so you don't want to eat it too fast, but you can't stop eating it."

Smoked Trout with Gooseberry Mayonnaise, Grilled Wild Oyster Mushrooms, and Garden Forage Salad

Sometimes the path to a delectable plate of food is short and direct, and sometimes it wanders through an unexpected forage, a sorrel juice swamp, fatigue-induced lowering of expectations, and several happy discoveries before arriving at its destination. This is a case of the latter circumstances.

 The first thing I must confess to: I DID NOT CATCH THE TROUT. No, indeed, I purchased it. Farm-raised rainbow trout from the  Bullfrog "Eat My Fish" trout farm south of Menomonie. See, a writer contacted me asking for a recipe to accompany an article on fly fishing along the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. I said, can do, but I didn't want to recycle a recipe. To come up with a new preparation, I needed trout. But with all the recent rain, our streams are flowing bank-full, unfishable. So it was off to the fish farm, which I'd been meaning to visit, anyway. It's a totally charming spot not far from the confluence of the Red Cedar and Chippewa Rivers, and I look forward to a return visit on a weekend when the music is playing and they're cooking up shore lunch trout fries.

I bought four fish. Two of them I grilled and served over market and garden greens with a bacon and spring onion jam. It was great, but that is not the dish I'm writing about today. With the two remaining trout, I had an ambitious plan: one I would grill, and serve with a gooseberry sauce that appears in Judith Jones's memoir, The Tenth Muse ; the other I would poach, and serve with a mayonnaise in which sorrel juice would take the place of lemon. The mayonnaise was an idea I'd been toying with since I started having fun with rhubarb juice. I'd been planning to make that complex meal on Sunday night.

Sunday morning Mary and I loaded the bikes on the car and drove to Downsville (not far from the fish farm, in fact) to take a ride on the Red Cedar State Trail--our first ride together of the year, and a perfect day for it. I had not planned to forage, but sometimes you seek out wild food, and sometimes wild food is thrust upon you. The first thing we encountered was elderberry bushes in bloom. No surprise there, as we had noticed the pretty white umbels along the roadways. We stopped to savor the flowers' delicate aroma, then moved on.

We didn't get far before the gooseberries caught our eye, big patches along a considerable stretch of the trail. We had no bags or other containers (except what our lunch was packed in), so we picked a few handfuls and dropped them into Mary's pannier. Black cap raspberries were also starting to ripen, and we tasted a few of those before moving on (I walked into a patch of wood nettles trying to get at some of the black caps, and was reminded that one ignores the stinging qualities of those innocuous-looking plants at one's own peril--I was scratchin' and pedalin', pedalin' and itchin'...).

We made it without further incident or delay to the end of the Red Cedar trail, where it joins the Chippewa River State Trail, very near where the two rivers meet. The Chippewa drains a considerable watershed, and it was high and roiling after all the June rain. Usually by midsummer the Chippewa meanders sweetly along broad sandy beaches--it always makes me think of the Loire River in France; if only west central Wisconsin were home to the lovely restaurant/inns that are so prevalent in the Loire. It's an up-and-coming wine area, but I honestly don't know where I'd go in this area to enjoy a meal with any kind of French finesse.

Well, we had sandwiches, hard-cooked eggs, and sweet little carrots from the farmers market. But before our déjeuner pique-nique, we were lured to the trailside bushes again by what I first thought were black currants, but which turned out to be ripe gooseberries--the two plants are, of course, very closely related. We picked gooseberries for a while, and also gathered about a cup of black caps--we ate the eggs as an hors-d'oeuvres to free up a container. The day's last foraging surprise came in the form of two clumps of white on a dead standing elm. I made a U-turn and quickly confirmed that they were oyster mushrooms. I used my bike pump to thrash a path through the nettles (succeeded in being stung, nonetheless--you can't say I'm one to learn from painful experience...), reached the tree, and was able to knock both clumps off with a dead branch--one flew off into the nettles, but the other I nimbly snatched before it hit the ground. Both were in reasonable condition (more than I could say for myself) when I put them in my bag--just a few of those beetles that seem to always inhabit oysters.

We ate our sandwiches in a shady spot where a spring trickled out of a limestone wall and made a little cascade as it flowed toward the river. We made it back to the farm in mid-afternoon (after a stop for a root beer float at the Menomonie DQ, utterly satisfying). It was a lot of sun and activity for us oldsters who hadn't been on the bikes much. I took a nap. When I got up I took a shower. I started thinking, grilled trout poached trout sorrel mayonnaise gooseberry sauce.... I started thinking, "Plan B." We had some chicken andouille in the freezer from Seward Co-op. I said to Mary, honey, we're having sausage tonight.

But the thought of those trout in the fridge was nagging me. I'd bought them on Thursday, now it was Sunday, three days later, and they still smelled fine, but another whole day.... I wasn't sure they'd be delicious simply grilled by Monday night. Into the brine they went, to get all tasty for a date with the smoker on Monday.

Late Monday afternoon I built a cottonwood fire while the trout rested after being removed from the brine. I love a homemade mayonnaise with smoked trout, and I still had that sorrel idea in mind. I gathered a few leaves of sorrel from the planter on our deck, chopped them roughly, whizzed them up in the mini-chop with a bit of water. Sieved the resulting slurry, and...oh, baby, that was some nasty stuff. The raw, unsweetened rhubarb juice was pretty harsh, but this stuff was in the chemical weapons department.  Once the initial shock subsided, I took another whiff. It smelled a bit like the rhubarb juice, and very, very strongly like fresh-mown grass--so I wonder if that was precisely the smell of chlorophyll.  I think I'm going to leave the sorrel alone until after a few fall frosts have mellowed it.

At any rate, we were now at Plan C level...or was it D? Enter gooseberries. Judith Jones's gooseberry sauce is an extremely basic concoction of berries, sugar, and water. Intriguing in its simplicity. I was still hankering for mayonnaise. So I took a half cup of gooseberries, half green and half ripe, and put them in the mini-chop with a quarter cup of water, whizzed it up, strained it. Gooseberries have a lot of pectin, so my juice was more of a puree. But it smelled and tasted good, tart but a little sweet. I added half a teaspoon of sugar. That gave me three tablespoons of puree.

I proceeded with my mayonnaise, omitting the mustard I usually start with.  My oil was half plain canola and half Smude cold-pressed sunflower oil.   It took a bit more whisking and slightest dribbling of oil at the start to get the emulsion started, and once started it was looser than usual, but that turned out to be a plus. When the oil was half in I added some of the puree, then near the end the rest, along with a couple pinches of salt. I separated the finished sauce into two ramekins, and to one added a few green gooseberries finely minced, so one ramekin was smooth and one was chunky. Mary and I agreed that we preferred the chunky. The gooseberry flavor was subtle, but there.  I think if I had cooked the berries briefly to extract more of a juice, it might have given a stronger gooseberry flavor, but I don't necessarily think it would have been better.

Here's what Mary said about this mayonnaise at dinner (and she had only had less than one glass of Sancerre--the perfect wine, as it happens, to accompany smoked trout with gooseberry mayonnaise): It's as if there's something in there that you may never get again, so you don't want to eat it too fast, but you can't stop eating it. 

As for the rest: The Bullfrog trout that we had grilled had seemed a little bland compared to stream trout; the smoked fish, however, was some of the best I've ever had. That had to do partly with the moist, fatty flesh of those rainbows, and partly with the cottonwood smoke, another happy accident brought about by the fact that we have all these cottonwood logs lying around the yard. I'd been impressed by the grilling qualities of the wood, so decided to give smoking with it a try. It had a subtler flavor than the apple I usually use, more like Pacific Northwest alder-smoked salmon. (I was about to write that that might make sense, since alder and cottonwood are in the same tree family, but a quick Google reveals that they are not closely related.) It was beautifully smoked fish, moistly sweet and savory, and delicious with a dab of mayonnaise or without.

The grilled oyster mushrooms: Mary said it before I could: Bacon for vegetarians. I had tossed them with a bit of sunflower oil, salt and pepper, and grilled them until well brown. Fungi cum bacon, say no more.

The salad: A proud achievement for us, our first salad entirely from our new gardens. It required a bit of foraging/weeding in the form of the succulent purslane, which will be appearing in many more salads this summer, as it is abundant in our garden, and delightful on the plate, with a refreshing crunch and a lemony twist. Pea tendrils, whoever knew you could eat these, back in the day? I first tasted them when I was teaching in Chengdu, more than twenty years ago, now, and then literally jumped for joy the first time I saw them at the Saint Paul Farmers Market. Now they're everywhere, and more than a bit trendy. I consider it forage, and delicious. Then some red leaf lettuce, bit of sliced radish.  It was dressed with some  Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil, a bit of our homemade cider vinegar, and a little coarse salt.

 Many detours later, then, a memorable meal.  I hope to get back down to the Red Cedar Trail to gather more berries. Right at the trailhead there's a sign saying that the public is welcome to gather mushrooms, berries, and nuts from this state-owned land. It says to leave the flowers alone, so I'll get my elderflowers elsewhere. They're blooming like crazy now.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Maple Spice Grilled Sirloin

Submitted for your approval, my idea of the perfect summer supper:  Grilled Hill & Vale sirloin marinated in maple syrup, cumin, sambal, and garlic, and a catch-all salad of market and garden produce.

What could be more appropriate for solstice eve?  We've been lighting a fire to cook dinner more often than we've been turning on the oven of late.  There are these cottonwood trees looming over the house, and we had a lot of the dead wood cut back late last winter, so there's an abundant supply of firewood lying in the yard.

 I get my exercise knocking these rounds into manageable pieces, and we have no need to buy charcoal for our cook-outs.  Cottonwood produces a clean, hot fire; the coals don't last terribly long, but that's fine for quickly grilling a piece of meat and some vegetables.

My trick for grilling vegetables is to set a wire cooling rack with about a 1/2-inch grid atop the regular grill grate.  This way we can grill things as small as green beans and snap peas without having them slip through the grate.

The only problem with this kind of cooking is that I come in to dinner smelling like I've been out fighting a forest fire.  Oh, well; there are worse problems in life..

While I tended the grill, Mary put the salad together:  lovely leaf lettuce from the Menomonie farmers market, radishes from our garden, some cubes of very non-local avocados.  Grilled snap pea and the season's first green beans from the market went on top.  Into her dressing strong with mustard and garlic she added fresh herbs including chives, thyme, parsley, and mint.  The mint went beautifully with the cumin in the steak marinade, a very North African flavor combo.

It was the cumin, in fact, that inspired the whole dinner--a fresh little baggie from the co-op sat on the counter perfuming the kitchen powerfully in this warm, humid weather.  Here's the marinade:

½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons sunflower or canola oil
1 teaspoon sambal oelek chile paste
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Pinch salt
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 large clove garlic minced

I marinated the steak for a couple of hours at room temp.  While the steak grilled, I put the platter with the remaining marinade and a couple of cubes of frozen chicken stock into a warm oven.  When the steak was done I put it back on the platter to rest, and the juices combined with the now melted stock and marinade to make the simplest of sauces.

Things could get a little repetitive around here from the cooking perspective.  While the thought of doing more elaborate preparations might tempt me from time to time, I imagine that for the next few weeks I'll probably brush those notions aside, and go out to light a fire.

Happy Solstice.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, June 15, 2012

Here's an idea...

...for an extremely delicious, simple, seasonal weekend supper, even if it ain't all local:  grilled or pan-roasted Copper River sockeye salmon on a bed of (grilled or roasted) greens (here daikon flowers, yeah, who knew...?), roasted baby beets, green garlic-tarragon mayo.

I went fishing this week and last and encountered amazing, complex mayfly hatches, and fish churning up the water in their bug-eating fervor, just a stunning phenomenon to behold.  As far as the catching went, I got schooled by the fishes.  The trout can become incredibly selective in the midst of hatches like this, and therefore difficult to fool.  I caught a few fish, but brought nothing home.  Oh, well.

The upside of this is that if I had brown trout in the creel I probably wouldn't have gone shopping for salmon, and the wild Copper River sockeye that's in the markets now is some of the best fish I have ever tasted.  It's particularly rich and succulent for sockeye, which, while always flavorful, can be dry, and easily turns tacky if the least bit overcooked.  These fat fillets could have passed for king salmon.  I got mine at Seward Co-op, and they get it from Coastal Seafood.

I've done it on the grill, and it was fantastic; in the wake of yesterday's deluge we cooked indoors, pan-roasting the fish, oven roasting some baby beets and daikon flowers from the market.  Oh, and the plate was garnished with salted milkweed flower buds that toasted up for a couple minutes in the pan the salmon was cooked in.

Daikon flowers were a discovery at last week's Menomonie farmers market--never seen them before.  They look a bit like broccoli rabe at first glance, and the flavor and texture are somewhat comparable, with a bit more radishy pungency.  I have tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and put them on the grill.  Yesterday, oven roasted with a bit of sunflower oil, coarse salt, and sliced green garlic, at 425 for about 10 minutes.  Wonderful, fun to eat, and if you can get your hands on some I imagine you will impress even the most up-to-the-minute of your trendy foodie friends.  Use whatever flavorful cooking greens you find at your market or in the garden--you know, pea tips would have been really good.

Beets, the beets, oh my god the beets!  So sweet and tender and with a caramel spice fragrance that was incredibly appetizing.  Roasted in a covered baking dish at 425 for 35 to 40 minutes until they pierce easily with a paring knife.  Beets this tiny do not need to be peeled.  The little whiskery tails were a delicacy, intensely sweet, a bit burnt, a tad licoricey tasting.  They were great with the mayo flavored with lots of very finely minced green garlic and just a little tarragon, which will take over.  Show it who's boss--I used the chopped leaves of a four-inch sprig for about 2/3 cup of mayo.  (My basic mayo method here; in this case I did a two-yolk batch, and the oil was 1 1/4 cups canola and 1/4 cup olive. I've taken to making mayo in our 8-quart stainless steel mixing bowls, which may seem like overkill, but keeps me and the kitchen a lot cleaner.)

We find that six ounces of salmon per person is an ample serving of this rich fish.  We cooked it in a cast iron skillet, and (secret ingredient) I used a bit of rendered fat from our home-smoked bacon.  Cook it skin-side down 75 percent of the cooking time to get the skin nicely crisp--the skin didn't brown as evenly as I would have liked, but was still delicious.  I blame the crappy electric range that came with the new old house.  I cooked the salmon on the stovetop for perhaps six minutes on medium-high,  then flipped it and put the pan in a 275 oven for a couple of minutes to finish.

For these last couple of minutes I also added the milkweed flower buds which had been rinsed, drained, patted dry, and salted generously, to make a quick caper ersatz.  A nice wild and seasonal touch, tasty and pretty.

There's this thing I like to say, sums up my foraging philosophy:  90 percent of good cooking is good shopping.  Case in point.  Bon appétit.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, June 14, 2012

While the Muses Snooze: New to the List

Our move to the country has been inspiring, also exhausting.  Last month these pages showed the fruits of inspiration; this month, exhaustion takes its turn.  I've been on the verge of a fresh report several times in the last couple of weeks: on a market forage that produced a terrific new vegetable, daikon flowers; on the gardens' progress, and the hay field sprouting on our hillside; on Bide-A-Wee neglected, and reclaimed; more early efforts at home cheese making; an ambitious update on how it is where we are.

It will all come.  In the meantime, I want to point out a few blogs that I've added to the "We Read These" list recently, and that you may find worth your while.  Some of these writers give whole names, some first and initial, lending the air of an AA meeting to the proceedings.  I'll identify them as they do themselves, on their blogs or Twitter accounts.

An Herbalist Eats is Jen's record of her life and eating in Fargo, ND, the Twin Cities, and in between.  I'm not sure why I find myself reading her reviews of the good, bad, and ugly of the Fargo-Moorhead restaurant scene, but it's a testament to her fresh voice and distinctive perspective that I do.  Really, she writes about whatever strikes her fancy, and it's almost always interesting.  She has what she calls a "sister blog" (not sure what that means) at Like a Fish Out of Fargo --excellent title.

Jamie Carlson is the sort of outdoorsman I hope I grow up to be.  At You Have to Cook It Right he relates his hunting, fishing, foraging, cooking and eating adventures in straightforward writing utterly free of pretension, and his cooking is ambitious, fearless, often thrilling.  I think it was his post on foraging local snails that totally won me over.

Tina T.'s Chinese preparations as described at Minneville often swoon me straight back to the time I spent in China, over 20 years ago--even though I was in Sichuan, southwest China, and her family hails from Hong Kong.  Pig's feet simmered with aromatic spices, tomato and egg, steamed eggs and shitake mushrooms--these are the sorts of dishes, exotic and comforting at the same time, that Tina writes about in a most engaging, accessible way.  She just had a baby (felicitations!), so we might not be hearing from her quite so often, but her reports will be worth the wait.

Back to the woods with Lucas Madsen, the thoughtful, literate, witty voice behind A Tenderloin Runs Through It.  This is fin, fur, 'n' feathers writing with a good deal of both soul and polish.  The topics practically beg the writer to maunder away down Cliché Lane, but Lucas blazes his own trail, to our benefit.

More ecumenical in subject matter is John Valentine's Gastrofine .  He writes of his cooking creations and other topics--his post calling out bloggers who help themselves to others' work a little too freely brought this blog to my attention.  (And it looks like he just moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts, so we'll see where that transition takes him.)

And finally, urban homesteading in Minneapolis is Jennifer Rensenbrink's subject in The New Home Economics.  Backyard gardening (she's a Master Gardener, and it shows), co-op shopping tips, thrifty yet tasty cooking, Jennifer expounds on these and other topics in sunny, intelligent prose.  (Full disclosure:  Jennifer referred to me as her "culinary hero" on Twitter, so I can't be totally objective here--flattery will get you everywhere--but if you like the other stuff on my "We Read These" list, you'll surely find her approach muy simpatico).


Maybe inspiration will return when this downpour relents, the winds abate, and these dark clouds slide on by--it's a stormy morning rumbling into afternoon here in northern Dunn.  A good time to sit down to write, what with more garden work off the table for a couple of days at least, I'd guess.

I read and hear a lot these days about how the Almighty Interwebs, in the form of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are making us (pick one or all):

1) Narcissistic
2) Lonely
3) Stupid
4) Neurotic
5) Disaffected
6) Inattentive
7) Callous
8) Fat
9) Thirsty
10) Wan

Sounds a bit like the characteristics of Bizarro-World Boy Scouts....  Personally, I think it's more a case of "Ever-So-Much-More-So"--you know, from the  Homer Price book by Robert McCloskey?--which supposedly accentuated the properties of anything it touched (like MSG...), memorbaly some already pretty delicious-looking doughnuts.  But in the end it was a snake oil/emperor's new clothes/placebo effect situation--which is to say:  all in our heads, what we want to believe, what we say something is versus what it really is (which is...?).  I think all the punditry about the social effects of the Internet will turn out to be much the same, same as it ever was, same as it ever was....  In the four plus years I've been writing Trout Caviar (and particularly since the book came out) I have met, virtually and actually, a lot of really cool, fun, smart, inspiring people via blog-, Facebook-, and Twitter-world.  Luddite that I am, I'm amazed to be saying that.  I'll take it a step further:  my life would be greatly different and, I think, poorer, were it not for this PC in front of which I sit, and the connections that flow from it out into the great wide world.  There's a saying that really annoys a good friend of mine, so I say it to her as often as I can:  It is what it is.  But it's actually not what it is; it's what we make of it.  So I believe.  That perspective puts us a little bit in control of our situation, whatever else may be true.

Take a click and make some new virtual friends.  Bak sun!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Country Lunch

I didn't do any plowing (much less ploughing) this morning, but I did haul a couple of loads of stuff to the sheds (still unpacking and organizing here), set up the compost bin, did some soil mining (digging topsoil from the pasture to fill planters and raised beds), and planted a washbucket full of herbs (chervil, basil, thyme, parsley) on the deck, so I was feeling pretty accomplished, and very hungry.  I felt I had earned a ploughman's lunch.

Some leftover biscuits (Mary's delectable handywork) I set to warm in the solar oven (Mary also made that, at a  Hay River Transition Initiative workshop a couple weeks ago).  Sliced some lovely aged cheddar and threw down a few curds.  Spooned up a newly minted salsa composed of  pickled rhubarb, pickled ramps, and dried apple.  I was thinking of this as a chutney originally, but since it's entirely uncooked, I think salsa, or maybe relish, is the more apt term.  Here's how that came together:

1/2 cup chopped dried apples
3 pickled ramp bulbs and
1/4 cup pickled rhubarb, both chopped small
1 tablespoon of the ramp brine
1/2 tablespoon of the rhubarb brine
1 tablespoon sunflower oil

Mix all let sit and few hours or overnight.

A glass of our home-fermented cider was de rigeur.  This was actually cold-fermented cider, which is to say:  it was simply fresh apple cider that hung around in the fridge long enough to ferment, turn slightly fizzy and a bit alcoholic.  That's how simple cider making can be.  If you want to try this yourself, just be sure to check on your fermenting cider occasionally and take off the cap to release excess pressure.  This makes a really refreshing beverage provided you've started with excellent, unpasteurized cider free of preservatives.

I think that pickles fall into roughly two categories, in terms of how they are used:  there are those meant to be eaten as is, such as bread & butters, sour dills, watermelon pickles, etc.; and there are those that are most valuable as ingredients in other dishes.   Some pickles--cornichons, for example--go both ways.  The rhubarb and ramp pickles definitely fall into the second category.  I can't see myself going to the fridge to grab a snack of a ramp bulb or rhubarb stick, but they'll be great to have on hand to add zip and flavor to dressings, potato salads, sauces and relishes.

Right.  That was really good.  Now, where did I put my plough?

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw