Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Super Sandwich Supper

So the New York Times Magazine put  "Photos of your open-faced sandwich" on their "Meh List:  Not Hot, Not Not, Just Meh."  I don't care. I'm still excited to share our version of a Danish smorrebrod dinner, composed of slices from a beautiful rye, cracked wheat, and cider sourdough loaf topped with gorgeous things from the woods, the garden,  farmers market, local farms, and Superior's clean waters.  Maybe a tuna melt is meh; not this, no way.

What I loved about this meal--besides how beautiful it was, besides how wonderful it tasted--was the way it combined such an amazing diversity of local products in a plate that was beyond delicious:  It was deeply and deliciously meaningful.  It was the kind of thing that led me to compose the Trout Caviar Manifesto, way back when:  "Our stuff is as good as anybody's stuff, and part of the reason it's good is that it's ours."  I'm more convinced of that all the time, as if I should need convincing.

Let me just tell you what this was made of, and where it all came from.  Oh, the smorrebrod concept, that's a Danish institution that's making a comeback and making the rounds thanks to the boom in interest in Nordic foods, foraging, and down-home ingredients.  It's open-face sandwiches--knife & fork sandwiches--usually built on a thin slice of sturdy rye, well-buttered, topped with savory things.  That'll work here.  Hope Creamery butter, unsalted, is our daily spread.

Roast Beets and Shaved Fennel in Maple-Blackberry Vinaigrette, Hard-Cooked Farm Egg:  Beets and fennel from our garden; vinaigrette with our blackberry-infused apple cider vinegar, Connorsville maple syrup, Smude Minnesota cold-pressed sunflower oil, farmers market garlic, eggs from Tina's hens

Smoked Lake Trout in Yogurt-Basil Dressing, Quick-Pickled Snow Peas, Carrot, and Onion:  Everett's (Port Wing, WI) Lake Superior smoked trout; peas, carrots, jalapeno, and basil from our garden, onion from the farmers market, pickled in our cider vinegar, Connorsville honey, salt; home-cultured yogurt from Connorsville milk (and a bit of Hellmann's)

Roasted Chanterelles and Yellow Rose Finn Fingerlings with Sweet Onion and Bacon:  Foraged chanterelles, farmers market potatoes and onion, home-smoked bacon, Marieke aged gouda from Thorp, Wisconsin

Excuse me for going a little giddy.  It's the height of summer, everything is ripe, and I feel like I'm sitting at the hub of a great wheel of extraordinary food.  A slice of good bread and butter makes a splendid canvas for showing off the best of seasonal produce.  Set your imagination free from preconceived notions of sandwich toppings.  Now I'll let these very, very not-meh pictures tell the story, with just a little commentary, and formulas.

The chanterelles really got going last week.  I brought home a couple of pounds from the Wisconsin woods.  Almost as good are the yellow rose fingerling potatoes that we purchased at a Menomonie farmers market--lovely red skins and buttery pale yellow flesh.  This is the kind of spud that earns an AOC.  I used 7 or 8 medium chanterelles (about 2 inches across the cap), 5 potatoes, half a small sweet onion, and just a few slivers of bacon.  I placed all in a gratin dish, started it at 425 and immediately turned the oven down to 350. Roast for about 30 minutes, stirring often, until potatoes and chanterelles are brown and tender.  Let cool to room temperature, mound on buttered bread, top with thin slices of cheese, not too much.  Of course this could be a side dish as well as a smorrebrod topping.

Roast beets in a covered baking dish at 425 until tender--40 minutes to an hour or more, it's always hard to tell with beets.  I always make more beets than I need for a given dish--cooked beets are great to have in the fridge in summer for quick salads or garnish.  There's often a bit of juice in the dish after roasting, and I used some in my vinaigrette this time, about a tablespoon.  It can be bitter, so taste it straight up to decide if you want to use it.  A little bitter is okay.  It adds a spicy earthiness to the dressing.  We harvested our first bulb of fennel from the garden, and it was amazingly sweet and aromatic.  It was a small bulb, and I shaved half of it into the salad with the Benriner, used some greens, too.

2 teaspoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon beet roasting juice
large clove garlic minced
1 tablespoon blackberry or raspberry vinegar (or red wine or cider vinegar, just fine)
chopped fennel greens, about 1 tablespoon
lots of freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
two good pinches salt

At the bottom of the page where Mary wrote recipe notes it says, "Outstanding."  We topped the beet sandwiches with sliced hard-cooked egg and a sprig of fennel green.

I have a problematic relationship with basil.  I love its summery scent, but I sort of ODed on it back in those distant days when America discovered pesto, so now I approach it warily.  However, a few leaves chopped into this yogurt-mayo dressing was wonderful, especially with the smokiness of the fish.

1/4 cup yogurt
2 tablespoons mayonnaise (I didn't make this, it was Hellmann's)
chopped basil and flat-leaf parsley to taste
couple pinches salt

Mix and add to a generous cup of flaked smoked lake trout or other smoked fish--herring, whitefish, etc.

For the quick-pickled vegetables, combine in a small saucepan:

1/4 cup water
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 a jalapeno seeded and slivered
1 teaspoon salt

Bring to a boil and add thinly sliced carrot (1 medium) and onion (1/2 small); simmer for 2 minutes.  Add a handful of snow peas and a few shelled peas, simmer 1 minute, remove from heat.  Let the vegetables cool in the brine.  Use to top the trout salad.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Terra Nova

The irony was not lost on me, that our move to an old farm on 33 acres from a 40-by-125-foot lot in Saint Paul resulted in a net loss of garden space.  Much of our Saint Paul back yard, and part of the front, had been given over to vegetable gardens in the 15 years we lived there.  In that tiny yard I grew leeks, kale, lettuce, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, fennel, beets, carrots, potatoes, squash, cabbage, turnips, peppers, eggplant, and all the herbs (check out Jennifer's site  for a tour of a gorgeous urban garden).  The new place came with a rhubarb patch.  That was it.  Oh, and some big planters on the deck.  But basically we were starting from scratch.

This was the first bed I put in, and the most prolific to date.  I wasn't that keen on sod removal, so I took a "lasagna" approach.  Around the farm I found some good-sized timbers and framed out a bed.  Then I covered the grass with cardboard--plenty of leftover boxes from the move--then added organic material.  And now, I was just delighted with the symbolic import of the organic material I used, for it consisted of two trash cans full of partly composted stuff and not-so-composted stuff, mainly apple mush, that we carted out with us from Saint Paul.  So it was a sort of passing of the torch from city garden to country garden.  More ironies, or just plain absurdities, in the fact that all that apple mush traveled--in the form of apples--from Bide-A-Wee to Saint Paul, got pressed for cider, and was now coming home to the country.  Rather a hefty carbon footprint, I suppose, but it's not like we made a special trip.  In the final throes of the move I just realized that we had to deal with that stuff out in the yard, and throwing it in the moving truck was in fact the most expedient path.  The moving guys were not that thrilled.

Anyway, all that semi-rotted stuff went on top of the cardboard, then some grass clippings, old straw and hay I found around the place over that, then a layer of soil.  I mined soil in the pasture and added three or four inches as the top layer, and planted in to that.  I took a boutique approach to this bed, planting one short row each of snow peas, lacinato kale, carrots, lettuce, fennel, savoy cabbage, beets, radishes, and bush flat beans (a row of celery root crapped out completely, no germination).  Miracle of miracles, everything has come through.  The snow peas even survived the heat wave, and continue to give us sweet pods and lovely tendrils.

In a cold frame brought from Saint Paul I took the same approach, and planted red cabbage and brussels sprouts seedlings purchased at a local nursery.  I have not grown sprouts before, and have little experience with cabbage, generally; therefore, this bed is absurdly over-planted.  But they seem happy, and I can't bring myself to thin them out now.  Peeking out from under the cabbage is a row of bibb lettuce, enjoying a cool spot in this blistering summer.

Peter Piper planted a patch of paltry peppers.  Pathetic.  When I got to building this bed I was sort of tapped out on organic matter to layer up, so I just put in soil from the pasture, and the difference is marked.  Eggplant seedlings failed to thrive and were yanked.  The anaheims in the foreground are starting to come around, but the rest look sad.  Let's move on.

I put cucumbers and pole beans along the fence, and added trellises for them to climb.  The beans didn't germinate well, but a fill-in planting did better.  It won't be long before we're wondering what to do with all the cukes and beans.

Tomatoes also went along the fence.  We just dug out a small circle of turf for each.  The surrounding greenery subsumed them almost instantly, but they're mostly doing well, climbing up the fence.  They are all heirloom varieties--Prudens purple, brandywine, green zebra, Amish paste, Mortgage Lifter, etc.

In the back bed, we've got a big mess.  Our neighbors Mandy and Jeremy are growing hay for their livestock in the field on our hill--row crops had been grown there in the past.  When Jeremy's dad Bruce came to plow the field, I had him plow up a chunk of the yard.  However, this did not result in a beautifully tilled garden bed.  Rather, it resulted in deep furrows interspersed with rows of intact sod, a corduroy effect. But with concerted effort I've put in a few hills of squash--even one of melons--a potato bed, shell beans, kale, and turnips.  These things all went in mid-June, what one would normally consider way too late.  But, you know, the way I approached it, if I had done nothing this year the whole place would have been taken over by weeds (which are doing well enough, anyway, particularly amaranth and purslane, absolutely prehistoric looking purslane; I know it's edible, but when large, it's also kind of slimy).

And I've got one huge thing going for me, something I haven't had in my gardens for years and years:  full sun.  I mean:  complete and total full sun.  Did I mention that this is huge?  In Saint Paul I thought some of my beds were fairly sunny, but when I looked at the fence over here, the garage in the middle of it, the fence over there, the trees, the house....  It's kind of amazing that anything grew but ferns.  The squash seemed slow to get going, but now they're cruising.  Every year in Saint Paul we had some volunteer squash come out of the compost pile, peeping out some time in late June, creeping tentatively out into the yard, and then absolutely exploding with growth.  It's what squash do.

One thing I know for certain is that nothing is going to grow if you don't plant a seed--if only accidentally, as with those volunteers.  Another thing I've realized is that gardens are hard to photograph on the large scale--they tend to look like mounds of green, pretty enough, but kind of boring.  In detail, though, they provide fascinating, beautiful scenes.  Below, a few such.  Happy gardening to all.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Midsummer 2012

There's a beautiful soaking rain falling in the Hay Creek valley of northern Dunn County this morning, after overnight storms brought us a blessed half inch.  We have not seen the kind of severe drought that southern Wisconsin--and much of the Midwest--has suffered through this summer, but it had been pretty dry since mid-June.  More than that, it has been hot, and muggy.  The heat has had us feeling like we've been under siege--you just try to get through it, get done what needs getting done, and little more.  They're talking about this kind of summer weather becoming "the new normal."  Well, normal is as normal does, I suppose, and what's to be done?  Even if the whole world smartened up tomorrow and put all possible effort into mitigating the human impact on climate change, I don't imagine the effects would be felt for quite some time--and it does not appear that we're going to smarten up, anyway, but rather, dumben down, if I may coin a phrase.  It seems lame to say that we're going to have to get used to it, but that's where I wind up.

I remember hot, sweltering summers from when I was growing up in Eden Prairie, a southwestern suburb of Minneapolis, nights when I couldn't stand to even have a sheet over me, and the still humid air weighed like wet wool.  But I recently went online and looked at some weather data from summers in the early 1970s, and while I found lots of 90-degree days in those summers, what was remarkable was the dewpoints (a term I don't think we even used much then, so it must have been figured retroactively from relative humidity readings).  Most of the dewpoints on those hot days gone by were in the upper 50s, while the tropical weather we've seen this summer has brought day after day of dewpoints in the upper 60s to mid-70s.  It used to be kind of a joke, that "it ain't the heat, it's the humidity."  No joke anymore.

As uncomfortably hot and sticky as this summer has been, I must say it has Mary and me feeling pretty good about our decision to move to the country.  Our house does not have central air, just a window AC unit in our bedroom, which we have used exactly one night this summer.  Yep, in a record-breaking summer we've run the AC just once.  On all the other nights it has cooled off sufficiently to make sleeping comfortable with only a fan running.  That's the effect of being outside the urban heat island, and at the bottom of a valley.  I had a book event in the Twin Cities one hot day in June, an evening talk at a bookstore, and as I got in the car to drive home, around 8:30, the car thermometer read 87 degrees.  It stayed there until I passed Woodbury, heading east, when it dropped to the low 80s.  The other side of the Saint Croix River, it fell into the 70s, and by the time I reached home the number on the dash read 66 degrees.  Granted, it had gotten dark in the meantime, but the temp in the cities was still in the 80s after 10:00 p.m.  Even on the hottest days, it seems that the temperature drops around ten degrees as soon as the sun falls behind the trees on the west side of our house.  The sweltering days are a bitch, but the cool evenings and mornings make it tolerable.

Still, this summer has felt like a bit of a slog.  We worry about the dogs--well, we worry about senior griffon Annabel, who turned 14 this summer, and never has liked the heat.  I water our new gardens nearly every day, and still a second planting of carrots and lettuce just burned up before they could get their roots to cooler depths.  I've spent fewer days on the trout stream than I have since the day I first picked up a fly rod more than 20 years ago.  I hardly saw the shady side of the woods from mid-June to just a week or so ago.  But things are starting to look up.  This morning's rain gives a chance to take a deep breath, reflect a bit, and look ahead.  It's less than a month and a half until September; I think we'll make it.

The chanterelles came in early again, which would seem to be another example of that "new normal."  And already we have blackberries, a good two weeks ahead of when I usually expect them.  I'm experimenting with black walnuts, since our new old house came with a big old walnut tree in the back corner of the yard.  As I was circling around under that tree looking for nuts, it occurred to me that you get to know a tree in a totally different way if you harvest from it.  Looked at from a distance, an apple tree is an apple tree is an apple tree.  But when you get in there to clear the brambles from around it, take out dead wood, water sprouts and extraneous branches, you really get to see the shape and structure of the tree.  When you climb up in one to prune or pick apples, you really develop a relationship with that tree, odd as that may sound.  Our black walnut tree had always struck me as an attractive tree, but spending a while in its atmosphere gave me an entirely new appreciation of it--the grandeur of its size, for one thing, but also the grace of its slightly drooping branches, the plume-like shape of its exotic-looking leaves and leaflets. It dropped a filigreed shade around it, and exuded a stately calm. The tree came alive for me; it is now a presence in my mind as well as on our little homestead.

To harvest any nuts, I had to employ the apple picker--that's how high the lowest branches start.  I'm pickling a jar full, and will steep some in Everclear with spices to make the liqueur that the Italians call nocino.  Here's an indicator of our peculiar microclimate:  our walnuts are still soft enough to cut with a knife here on July 18.  Just a little bit south of here they've been hard as rocks for at least a couple of weeks now.

It appears that the wild blackberry crop will be excellent this year.  That's what I originally sat down to write about this morning, but I had a sort of déjà vu all over again feeling that snuffed out all enthusiasm.  I'm into my fifth year of writing this blog, foraging, gardening, hitting the markets, cooking, and eating in the same place, more or less.  All the same stuff comes in at pretty much the same time, and I start to get this creeping feeling, Haven't I said this before, and before, and before?  Does anybody want to read this perennial rehash?

It's not that I've lost enthusiasm for foraging, or for the foods themselves.  Far from it:  so excited was I to see a good number of ripe berries on the blackberry canes yesterday that I spent a good hour and a half out in the heat of a stiflingly hot and humid day to pick a shy quart, and take pictures--and had to put the camera away when I noticed I was dripping sweat all over it, a 3-T-shirt day....  I'm imagining all sorts of fun new things to do with the berries this year.  It's just the conveying of that enthusiasm that needs some refreshing, I think.  Perhaps a new angle is called for, a fresh perspective. I'm not sure right now what that might be.

For the moment, I'll just say that there are few more satisfying ways to start the day than with a beautiful bowl of yogurt and berries with a lashing of maple syrup, such as in the photograph that heads this post.  It's one hundred percent local, and a splendid collaboration:  the yogurt was cultured here at home from Connorsville milk (the Bartzes' Bolen-Vale Farm), blueberries from our neighbor Tina up the hill and across the state highway, raspberries (wild, I believe) from our Otter Creek friends Don and Joni, our Bide-A-Wee blackberries, and syrup from Brook's Sugar Bush (mailing address Downing, but I think they're actually closer to Connorsville).  To me that's an inspiring, as well as delicious and healthful, way to start the day.

I sense a lot of anxiety in the air these days, and it's not just the suffocating humidity.  There's the poisonous political climate, international turmoil, economic worries that drag on and on, and then we've all got our own personal burdens, small in the context, perhaps, but plenty big in their immediate impact.  I'm grateful for this cool, gray, rainy morning and the opportunity to sit back and sort of parse things out, step out of the just getting through it, and see a brightening ahead.  That's the report from Near North Wisconsin, midsummer, 2012.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Oil From Pumpkins

The idyllic western Wisconsin countryside we now call home is a magical place, so perhaps it’s no surprise that amazing things happen here.  There are world-class cheeses produced on modest farms, the hills become flush with morels, then chanterelles in their season, and crystalline spring creeks vivid with trout thread through the lush valleys.  In one such valley two inspired men (with a little help from their friends) are squeezing oil from pumpkins, creating a product not merely distinctive for this region, but rare in the whole U.S.A.  Ken Seguine and Jay Gilbertson are the visionaries behind  Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil, which has been on the market since December 2006.

Pumpkin seed oil is a product well-known in Europe, particularly Austria, but when the first bottle of Hay River oil hit the shelves in 2006, it was the first
bottle of American pumpkin seed oil to hit the shelves, period.  I’m aware of at least one other company now producing pumpkin and squash seed oils, but it is still a fairly exotic ingredient in the American pantry.  Once more people learn about it, they’re going to like it.  It takes a little getting used to, since it is unlike any other oil we commonly use, but it is both approachable and versatile.  Think of it in the same vein as a high quality extra virgin olive oil in terms of how you might use it; now forget all about olive oil.  This uniquely fragrant oil is nothing like that.

The story behind the oil is as remarkable as the product.  Ken’s from suburban L.A., Jay’s from Eau Claire, and they were living in the Twin Cities when they started looking for a home in western Wisconsin to be near Jay’s parents in 2001.  It took nine months of looking until they found “our picture of heaven,” in Ken’s words.  (Another factor in their move to the area was the siren song of Roberts and Cash—that is, our friends Don and Joni of Otter Creek Growers, previously stewards of Elsie’s Farm, a near legendary endeavor that introduced many Twin Citizens to the wonders of this green, rolling land.  But not us; we didn’t really get to know Don and Joni until we started coming out to Bide-A-Wee. Along with Don and Joni, Ken also acknowledges local farmers Kate Stout and Mike and Patty Wright-Racette for helping them to get started.)

Once they were living in the country, the path to Hay River oil wound its way through their interests and experiences in an unpredictable but, in the end, undeniably organic fashion.  Ken was a life-long gardener with a plant science education, both Ken and Jay were extremely interested in sustainable foods, and they had encountered pumpkin seed oil via Ken’s one-time employer, Horst Rechelbacher—that’s the Horst, of the Aveda company, a native of Austria.  With no American pumpkin seed oil in production at the time, there was clearly a hole in the upscale oil market, and they decided to fill it.

For several years they tested a variety of “naked seeded” oil pumpkins, looking for the best match for the climate.  A trial pressing of their chosen variety took place in 2005.  “At every turn, we've had to invent our own way. Being the first pumpkin seed oil produced in the U.S. meant that there simply was not anyone to tell us what to do or warn us about the pot holes,” Ken wrote in an email.

The growing is the easy part, according to Ken:  “After all, they’re pumpkins, not orchids.”  And the oil, he said, practically sells itself, as well.  Keeping the whole endeavor very local, the seeds are processed by Botanic Oil in Spooner, WI.  Harvesting is probably the hardest part.  For the first few years everything was done by hand: “Very pleasant, very communal, very cool and very expensive.”  Twenty to forty people gathered for these great pumpkin emptying parties.  

When Mary and I encountered Ken and crew last fall they were in the midst of a maiden run with a new, custom-built harvester that wasn’t working very well.  Ken was cordial and smiling when we stopped on a drive to see what strange things were happening in that Barron County field on a choice October day, but he later told me that much cursing had preceded our arrival.  The custom machine was temperamental, and slow; they’re now looking in to buying a European-made harvester.

Ken Seguine and crew harvesting pumpkins

Now about the oil.  Maybe start with the color, which is remarkable.  The Hay River website describes it as dark red, but it can also appear to be a striking dark green, depending on the light and whether you’re looking at a thin or thick layer of it.  This phenomenon is called dichromatism.   Perhaps it has to do with red and green being complementary colors, which is also a factor in red-green color blindness, with which your faithful correspondent is blessed.  But still I have no trouble appreciating the beauty of the oil’s color; to me it appears mostly to be a deep forest green.  The color makes it a splendid choice for garnishing pale, contrasting foods—we’ve used it on polenta, and drizzled on poached eggs.

Polenta with pumpkin seed oil, pan-seared Superior whitefish

The way the seeds are processed contributes to both the color and the aroma of the oil:  the seeds are toasted, then cold-pressed.  The toasting lends a nutty fragrance and flavor, but there’s still a fruity component to the scent.  I’ve often found a simpatico between the smell of chanterelles and that of a fresh sliced pumpkin, and I get some of that in the oil’s aroma, too.  It’s one of the things that led me to concoct the salad below.  As dark as the oil is, you might expect a real noseful when you take a sniff, but it’s subtle, much milder than sesame oil, which can easily take over a dish.  The tempered insinuations of Hay River oil make it much more versatile than I would have thought.  It threads through a salad and nicely blends with the other flavors, while providing a uniquely silky unctuousness.  I wouldn’t splash it into every salad I make, but then, I wouldn’t do that with a really expensive olive oil, either.

Raw squash, celery root, and apple salad with pumpkin oil dressing 

Which brings us to the price.  At nearly $20 for a 250 ml (8.45 ounce) bottle, it’s certainly on the spendy side.  But a little does go a long way, and for adding unique, local flavor to my cooking, I’m happy to keep a bottle on hand (Ken and Jay did give me one bottle to experiment with).  Ken hopes that scaling up production and making the processing less labor intensive will help to bring down the price.  Cooking and salad oil have been one glaring lack in the pantries of those of us trying to keep our food as local as possible; with Hay River pumpkin oil and Minnesota’s Smude cold-pressed sunflower oil, I’m on the verge of phasing out canola, and I’m using way less olive oil than I used to.  I get really excited to see these kinds of products come on the market, and I feel extremely grateful to people like Ken and Jay and the Smude family, true visionaries, for making them available to us.

Ken suggests using the oil drizzled over squash soup, lightly salted as a bread dip, or even on vanilla ice cream—I’ve not tried the latter, but it sounds intriguing.  In a salad dressing made with pumpkin oil, I think the usual proportions of three parts oil to one of acid would be overwhelming.  In the dressing for the chanterelles and green bean salad below, I went one to one, and still the pumpkin oil flavor was pronounced, very pleasantly so.  Maybe the best way to describe the flavor of this oil is to say that it’s assertive, but not aggressive; so it won’t take over a salad made with tender spring greens, but can stand up to stronger flavors, like wild mushrooms, or beets.

Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil is pretty easy to find in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin  See here for exact locations.

Shaved Chanterelle and Haricots Verts Salad with Raspberries and Pumpkin Seed Oil Vinaigrette

Except for the salt, this salad is one hundred percent local, and with chanterelles and pumpkin seed oil, it combines two of the most distinctive flavors I know.  A total whim based entirely on seasonal convergence and my own personal association of chanterelles and pumpkins, it is a splendid blend of contrasting and complementary flavors, aromas, and textures.  If you don’t have a really good cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar might work, or try a bit less sherry vinegar.  The raspberries provide bright flavor and lovely color.  I used small wild red and black raspberries.  Chanterelles are unique among mushrooms in nearly every respect, but I suspect that a firm cultivated mushroom, like shitake, might work; or perhaps oysters?  Worth a try. This is a keeper.

Serves two

4 medium chanterelles, about 2 ounces total
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
20 small haricots verts
1 tablespoon minced shallot or sweet onion
2 tablespoons raspberries
Chervil for garnish, optional

1 tablespoon pumpkin seed oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon maple syrup
Pinch salt
Coarse sea salt

In a small saucepan blanch the beans in boiling water for 1 ½ to 2 minutes.  Drain and refresh under cold running water. Drain and set aside.

Place each chanterelle cap side down on a cutting board and slice very thinly through the stem end to the cap.  Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the chanterelles and a pinch of salt.  Toss the chanterelles in the butter for about a minute, then add 3 tablespoons of water, cover the skillet, and cook for 2 minutes.  Remove the lid and add the shallot or onion, and continue cooking over medium heat until the water has evaporated.  Cook for another minute, then remove the chanterelles from the pan into a mixing bowl.  Add the beans to the mixing bowl, as well.

Mix the dressing and spoon it over the chanterelles and beans.  Mound the salad on small plates and garnish with raspberries—a perhaps 8 per person.  Sprinkle a bit of good coarse sea salt--like sel de Guerande, fleur de sel, or Maldon--over top.  Add a sprig of chervil if you have it.  It is the prettiest of the herbs, I think.

(Disclosure:  Jay Gilbertson, a novelist, reviewed my cookbook on Amazon.com; the review was also printed in the Hay River Review and the Dunn County News.  It was pretty much a dream review, for which I am extremely grateful, and might seem to be beholden, except that I was a fan of Hay River oil well before the book or review appeared.)

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Chanterelles, the First of 2012

I considered a few clever titles for this post, along the lines of "There's Gold in Them Thar Hills!", that sort of thing.  Then I decided to cut the crap and get right to the important news:  the chanterelles are up in west central Wisconsin.  I brought home about a pound and a quarter from yesterday's outing.  It's the most thrilling wild harvest of the year, in this forager's opinion.

In fact, I recorded an essay on this golden topic for the  Wisconsin Life essay series on Wisconsin Public Radio last week.  The piece starts out, "When the summer has been warm, and wet, I start to look for them the first week in July...".  And so when I happened to look at the calendar and notice that it was the second week in July in this warm, wet (enough) summer, I wondered why on earth I hadn't been out to my favorite chanterelle woods.  Straight away, I remedied that omission.

This is the sort of woods I search in:

It's a mature forest, mostly oak, though I've found them in quantities in a friend's woods where the maples may outnumber the oaks.  An important feature here is the lack of underbrush, or even many weeds on the forest floor.  They're choked out by the thick mat of leaves.  This makes it easy for the forager to get around, and makes the mushrooms easier to see once they do push through the leaves.  It's on a steep slope, too.  Fairly steep, oaky hillsides are the only places I've found chanterelles.  That's not to say they might not be found elsewhere.  I'd love to hear about other foragers' experiences with chanterelles, my favorite wild mushroom.

On this day I was ready to conclude that I was too early, after all.  Nothing in the first spot I checked, nothing along the trail that is often spangled with them by now.  So I was about ready to exit the woods and head for the trout stream, instead, when I saw this:

Just a little button, which I did not pick, but it got me looking more carefully.  I found two or three larger ones in that area, and then I did a clever thing:  I backtracked up the path I'd just come down, to find the several nice-sized chanterelles that I had walked right past.  It wasn't that I had been inattentive, but sometimes the angle makes all the difference, and almost all the mushrooms I found this day were pretty well hidden in a thick layer of oak leaves.  Later in the season, even next week, I hope to find a lot that look like this:

But yesterday they mostly looked like this, so it was like playing "find the fungus":

Make that "find the fungi":

A while back I developed a superstition, on some foray when the chanterelles were harder to come by, that a turkey feather on the ground would point me to a find. For example:

My timing this year was perfect. It would have been a wasted trip if I'd become anxious and headed for the woods last week. The pound-plus that I brought home will keep us happy for at least a week, and it was delightful to find little babies like these, so pretty in a bed of moss (sorry for the crappy picture, but I wanted to show how small they can be when they're just emerging):

It fuels anticipation for next week, and beyond. You never can tell with mushrooms, but this chanterelle season is off to a promising start. We could use a little more rain, but not pounding cloudbursts that kick up mud on the mushrooms. The weather over the next few days looks fairly pleasant, but a chanterelle hunt is never a cakewalk, at least not the way I do it. I started the morning with a sweatshirt on, and got to the woods early, around 7:30. Nonetheless, I had ditched the sweatshirt before I started, and had sweated through my T-shirt well before I was done. I was swarmed upon by ravenous mosquitoes and buzzed by annoying deerflies, got stung by nettles and scratched by prickly ash. It's all part of the package, and well worth it.

 Hit the woods. You may strike gold.

Text and copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Cluck U

(Update at 6:35 p.m. July 4:  My friends Nate and Karen have just notified me, via compelling visual evidence, that this preparation requires a larger than average cast iron skillet: https://yfrog.com/Himg875/scaled.php?tn=0&server=875&filename=ma0bda.jpg&xsize=480&ysize=480   Nate's exact words, echoing a classic line from American cinema: We're gonna need a bigger skillet.... Mine is about 13 inches outside top measurement, about 12 inches inside bottom, the actual cooking surface.  Sorry for any inconvenience, and happy Independence Day~ bl )

Here’s how I like to do a whole chicken over the coals—the grill it & skillet method.  This technique combines the best aspects of grilling and roasting—a nicely browned and smoky piece of poultry, and really flavorful pan juices that flavor the other things cooked in said skillet (vegetables, mushrooms), which can also be deglazed for a simple sauce.  How it goes is:  you butterfly a bird by cutting right down the backbone with poultry shears, then bash the poor creature a bit to flatten it out.  Season well—more on this below.  Build a hot fire of natural charcoal, or actual wood, my choice.  Brown the bird nicely all around, then put it in a big skillet to finish cooking, during which time you can add those accompaniments mentioned above.  This method requires minimal supervision, and prevents those harrowing grease fires that nearly always come with grilling chicken over direct heat.

It was a hot and steamy day, and I had a hankering for spicy, garlicky chicken.  The original inspiration for my marinade came from a Saveur magazine article from some years back, about a region in Portugal (I think) where the specialty was grilled chicken with a very piquant marinade/sauce, and there were whole restaurants devoted to this single dish.  They used a special kind of chile grown in Africa, piri-piri, I think it was called.  At any rate, that was the inspiration, but I took a very simple, wing-it approach.  All I wanted was spicy, garlicky, and grilled.

I started by making some quick-pickled chiles by breaking a half dozen dried red chiles in half and dumping out the seeds.  Into a small saucepan I placed the seedless chiles, along with about a half cup of apple cider vinegar.  I brought that to a simmer, turned off the heat, covered the pan and let the chiles steep.  Once they had softened and plumped up I chopped four of the chiles (an arbitrary number, I didn’t want it too hot).  I chopped a load of fresh garlic, maybe five or six decent cloves.  To the chiles and garlic I added about ¼ cup of the soaking (spicy!) vinegar, a couple tablespoons olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and lots of coarse salt, maybe a teaspoon and a half to two teaspoons.  Smeared that all over the chicken in a big bowl and let it sit for a couple of hours.

At grilling time, then, I cleaned up my grill grate, lifted the chicken from the bowl letting the marinade drain back—we want this for later—and started grilling bone side down.  It took a few minutes to brown the bottom nicely, and then I flipped it.   Watch carefully for the first few minutes of skin-side cooking to make sure your fire is not too hot.  The skin lying flat over the fire will brown very nicely, of course, but there are folds and crevasses where the legs and wings meet the body that require a little manipulation to get brown—arrange birdie on either side to get those parts nicely seared.

I do a couple, three turns from bone side to skin side to get it really well browned.  Then into the skillet it goes, and you cook it, turning a couple times, once again, until done.  A meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast, near the bone, should read 160.  I have found that the legs actually cook faster than the breast in this method, and the breast is usually very moist and flavorful.  Just the same, we eat the legs and wings first, and save the breast meat for sandwiches.

Add accompaniments to cook in the skillet for the last half hour or so.  In this case, it was just Chinese broccoli.  Mushrooms, wild or otherwise, are great cooked this way.  Potatoes should be cooked most of the way, and only finished and browned in the skillet—they won’t have time to cook from raw.  When everything was nearly done I poured the marinade remnants over the chicken, and some of that dripped down and sizzled in the pan, making a nice base for deglazing into a pan sauce.  Add a little water if the drippings are threatening to burn.  Turn the bird a couple of times in those juices. 

Just before serving I returned the chicken to the grill over direct heat to re-crisp the skin a bit.  I deglazed the pan with nothing more than water (Chateau Sink, as Jacques Pépin says…).  We served it with a lovely couscous pilaf that Mary made, and drank cold, white Spanish wine.  We dined al fresco, and though we are in the longest days, it was already too dark to get a decent photo of the table.  A quite Iberian dinner hour.  I am certain that you can use your imaginations. 

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw