Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Of the Spring in Spring

The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning for parts of northern Wisconsin a couple nights ago.  That would not be a notable fact were this September, or mid-May; but the calendar insists that we're still a few days from the end of March, a month during which, in northern Wisconsin, the average low temperature is in the low 20s, i.e., well below freezing.  In the average year, then, no warning would be necessary for a March freeze.  Average, this spring is not.

The freakishly warm spell has held on for long enough that I think most of us have entered early May mode.  The trees here in northern Dunn County are leafed out past where they often are at the opening of the trout season, first Saturday in May.  Stinging nettles are up a good four inches in the Bide-A-Wee woods, and I'll be checking our wild asparagus patch, on its southerly slope, in the next few days.  I just hope that the fruit trees don't bloom for at least a couple more weeks--it's hard to believe that we're going to get through April without a hard frost, which would be devastating for any fruit crops in flower.  (As a side note, we completely missed the sugaring season this year, and we weren't alone; if you can grab some syrup at last year's prices, I'd advise you to do so.)

We'll just have to wait to see how it all shakes out, whether the other shoe's going to drop.  I found it really disturbing, I have to say, that spell of days near 80 degrees before we'd even reached astronomical spring.  One shouldn't have to worry about where to park with dogs in the car prior to the vernal equinox, unless it's to worry that they'll be cold.  In the last few days of cool mornings and highs in the 60s, I've come around a bit.  This time of year can be dismal, waiting for the dull brown landscape to snap to life after the snow has gone.  We have fast-forwarded through that phase this year, for sure.

One big plus to the mild winter and early spring is an uncommonly early start to the foraging season.  I happened upon this gorgeous watercress patch a couple of years ago on my typically meandering drive between Saint Paul and Bide-A-Wee.  A dirt road led me along a winding way, squeezed to one lane under a railroad trestle, opened into a pretty little valley, followed a narrow, twisty stream, and just past where the road crossed the stream, off to the left I saw a broad ribbon of vibrant green.  Stopped the car and saw a path, got out and followed it to its end--just forty or fifty feet off the road--where a spring sprang forth from the limestone.  My heart sprang, too; there is something about a spring that buoys the spirit, always, something so hopeful there.

Something hopeful, and delicious: fresh, succulent cress, with its distinctive, peppery bite and earthy undertones, for all that it grows pretty much hydroponically.  The pepperiness can be overwhelming by the time summer truly comes along; early in the year, as now, it is perfect, assertive without being overbearing.

As I was picking the cress I noticed a tiny commotion in the water at my feet, and came to see that the spring was teeming with scuds, very, very small freshwater crustaceans that are indicative of excellent water quality (and beloved by trout as one of their favorite foods; some theorize that pink-fleshed trout get that color from consuming these wee shwimpses, but I've pulled white- and salmon-fleshed browns from the very same stretch of water, so I wonder about that hypothesis).

Speaking of water quality, I should note that eating wild-foraged watercress is a bit of a controversial topic.  A stream that flows through livestock (particularly sheep) grazing grounds may harbor  the common liver fluke or sheep liver fluke, a parasite which uses freshwater snails as a host during part of its life cycle, and snails in turn favor watercress beds as habitat.  How a liver fluke goes about its business is really, really gross.  You would not want to find out through personal experience.  This is one reason that it's best to harvest cress as close to the source of a spring as possible--the picture just above, that's the the spring flowing out at the base of a small limestone outcropping.  I picked my cress no more than twenty feet from there.  With reasonable care and common sense, you can enjoy wild watercress through the spring months.  I've eaten plenty of it, and never suffered ill effects from it--or from any other wild foods, for that matter.

Also, I find it impossible to walk away from a spring like this without splashing my face with pure, cold water, and drinking a cupped handful of it.

We put the season's first portion of cress to use in the simplest possible way--raw and undressed as the bed for grilled pork that I glazed with a mixture of maple syrup, cider vinegar, garlic, and a bit of sambal.  The juices from the meat and the sweet-spicy glaze wilted the cress as we ate.  Just a lovely, flavorful start to the foraging season.

Whatever this uncommonly early spring portends, it's a delight to find wild greens back on our table.  Now it's the cress, stinging nettles, dandelion greens.  We be on the lookout for sheep sorrel, that wild asparagus, wood nettles (which I'll bet are already up in southern Minne'Sconsin), fiddleheads.  I've even seen a report of morels starting already in southern Wisconsin.  Crazy days....

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Croutons, Rusks, and Pain Perdu

I've thrown out my share of bread in my time, I'm not proud to admit.  There are times, especially in winter, when the indoor air is so utterly arid that a half a loaf may linger on the bread board until it is so petrified, you could hammer nails with it.  There are ways to salvage such an artifact, as peasant folk all over the bread-eating world know, but they're not necessarily the most delicious ways to enjoy bread.  I'll turn to these extreme methods once or twice a year, and feel virtuous for it, but a certain amount of bread does see the inside of the trash can in our house.

I'm trying to turn over a new leaf in this regard, and here's my approach:  If there's bread left from the previous baking when I bring out the starter to begin a new batch, the stale bread gets re-purposed.  One truly delightful re-use of old bread is to make croutons and rusks.  No point in discoursing broadly on the uses of the crouton, except to say that homemade croutons made from excellent bread have about as much in common with the store-bought kind as a Smithfield ham has with Oscar Mayer pre-sliced deli meat.  C'est a dire:  nada.

Rusks, on the other hand, may be less well known.  Basically, it's twice-baked bread.  When I cut up a loaf of bread for re-purposing, I cube up the crumb for croutons, and the crusty part (with a bit of interior included), I cut into strips about three inches long and three-quarters to one inch wide.  Croutons and rusks all get baked together, tossed in olive oil, with perhaps a crushed clove of garlic or two, some herbs (thyme or rosemary, classic) in a 400-degree oven for about ten minutes, check and stir after five.  Once baked and cooled, I keep them in a plastic bag--just tasted a couple samples from last week's batch with my tea:  excellent.

Rusks are good to nibble on their own, or to dip into anything dippable--tapenade, hummus, bagna cauda, baba ganoush.  Rusks and something to dip into make a delightful happy hour snack.

And then, of course, the other best-loved way to polish off past-its-prime bread is what we call French toast, and the French call pain perdu, "lost bread."  I sprang from the bed one morning this past weekend and got straight on to concocting a batch.  Along with some fried Bide-A-Wee apple slices (we've had some excellent keepers from last year's harvest), and some home-smoked bacon, a fine way to start the day--with a contented belly and the satisfaction of having done the best by an honorable loaf.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Petit Salé aux Lentilles

This will (probably) conclude the late winter pork fest, and end it on a lovely note, indeed. Petit salé aux lentilles-- simmered salt pork on lentils--is a traditional preparation from the Auvergne region of France, which is situated pretty much smack in the middle of the country, just a little south of center. The Auvergne is the source of some of the most celebrated French cheeses, including Bleu d'Auvergne, Fourme d'Ambert, Salers, Saint-Nectaire, and Cantal. It also produces some wonderful charcuterie, as Mary and I were forcefully informed by a rather aggressive Auvergate sausage vendor at the marvelous National Antiques and Ham Fair which we attended a few years ago on the Ile de Chatou just outside Paris.

I think the music of the name itself is as appealing as the comforting combination of savory pork and lentils. And I think it has intrigued me these many years because, well, it's not the sort of thing we eat around here--except that it is, since it's not that far a stretch from something like lentil soup with sausage, my old-time favorite dish at the Black Forest Inn, back in my Whittier days (I liked it because it was good, and because I was poor; good to see  it's still on the menu, and still cheap at a mere $4.50 a bowl).

Petit salé, "small salted," refers to the salt pork, and the recipes I've consulted indicate that this could be one or more of several cuts--pork belly, shoulder, hock, country-style ribs. The dish also usually includes smoked sausage--I'm a big fan of the uncured smoked bratwurst from Pastures A Plenty. The key to this dish is to make your own salt pork, and this is complicated, so please pay close attention:

Step one: Apply salt to pork.
Step two: Wait.

I can go through that again, more slowly, if you like.

Since I was on a mission to use up excess pork belly, that was my choice for this dish--also because it was the versions using salted belly that originally caught my interest. When we talk salt pork we're once again in the realm of a traditional method of preserving meat--as with bacon, ham, rillons and rillettes, confit of goose, duck, or pork--which we now appreciate for the unique flavors that those methods impart. We don't really put up a barrel full of salted fowl sealed in fat to last us through the winter, or have a slab of bacon hanging in the rafters. But to look at the amount of salt used in many recipes for this type of thing, you'd think we were still trying to preserve these meats for posterity. I see books and websites that literally call for burying duck legs in salt for days, curing pork belly in massive amounts of salt for days prior to smoking, and I just consulted a website where the recipe for salt pork called for over half a cup of salt per pound of belly--I used one tablespoon per pound....*

To make the salt pork, then: you'll need a piece of pork belly. I used a pound, and while I was thinking the finished dish would serve four, it was really more like three hearty servings; you'd want to do a pound and a half of belly for four servings. You'll want fairly lean belly for this--look for a piece that's about half and half lean and fat.

Starting with a pound and a half of pork belly: Cut the pork belly into three pieces. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt evenly over the meat on all sides. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, turning it over a couple of times if you think of it. Mine wound up sitting in the fridge for six days; the delay was the result of various life complications including the move, and a dog who for some reason enjoys consuming various utterly indigestible items, such as dish towels and bike gloves. But since it wasn't buried in salt, it did not become too salty. It was, in fact, perfectly seasoned after that time, but probably didn't change much after the first couple of days.

The simmering of the pork takes a while, an hour and a half to two hours, so plan ahead. You could also simmer the pork a day or two ahead, in which case cooking the lentils and finishing the dish will take around an hour.

I took one liberty with the classic method, which was to slice and fry the pork belly after simmering to brown it well, but on one side only. This gave an attractive appearance to the browned side, rendered a bit more fat, and lent a lighter texture to the belly. The veritable Auvergnate version would not be fried.

Petit Salé aux Lentilles
Serves four

1 1/2 pounds salted pork belly, in three pieces
1 small carrot, chopped
1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 a rib of celery or a bit of peeled celery root, chopped
some leek tops, chopped, optional
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Place pork and aromatics in a large saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour and a half to two hours. (Strain and save the flavorful stock; you'll need a cup of it to finish this recipe, and the rest will make the base of an excellent soup, maybe using leftover lentils.)

For the lentils:

1 1/2 cups green French lentils, such as lentilles de Puy
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib of celery or a bit of peeled celery root, chopped
some leek tops, chopped, optional
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the lentils and place them in a saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, blanch for one minute, then drain and rinse the lentils. Return them to the saucepan (it should be large enough to accept the expanded lentils, pork belly, and a couple of sausages). Add the carrot, onion, celery or root, optional leek tops, a solid pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cover with water by two inches, bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes.


3 smoked sausages, like smoked bratwurst (smoked polish or andouille would also be good)

Remove the pork belly from the pot where it has been simmering and drain well. Cut each piece in half, as if you were cutting very thick slices of bacon. Heat a skillet and brown the belly slices well on one side only. Add the belly to the lentils, along with the sausages and a cup of the strained belly-simmering liquid. Simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Remove the sausages and slice them on the diagonal 1/2-inch thick.

Use a slotted spoon to place a bed of lentils in a large, wide bowl. Add a little broth, if you like. Top with a piece of pork belly and two or three slices of sausage. Serve with good mustard (grain or dijon), cornichons, and crusty bread or toast.


* Looking critically at recipes and methods is something I always try to do, rather than just following instructions slavishly, even though the preparation may be long-established and time-honored--well, actually, especially in those cases. Those are the dishes that often need updating. One of the things I'm most proud of in my book is the streamlined, accessible instructions for smoking, fermenting, making confit, mayonnaise, etc.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, March 12, 2012

More Fun With Pork Belly: Rillons

Prior to the era of nose-to-tail/free-range/locally sourced/compassionate carnivorism, before this time of intense scrutiny of all things ingestible, when it seems as if there's a semi-professional charcuterie in every other pantry, pork belly was basically just the punchline in a hoary old Midwestern gag.  "Pork belly futures up a quarter," in the daily radio report from the mercantile exchange (on WCCO-AM eight-three-oh), epitomized all things quaint and farmy, and a way of life which, to the residents of the burgeoning metropolis, was about as relevant as covered wagon days.

All we knew of actual pork belly was bacon, and since that was the chemical-laced, water-logged, pre-sliced stuff hermetically sealed in plastic and cardboard, sometimes with only a representative single slice showing through the packaging, we surely didn't know that it was cured, smoked pork belly; hell, we might not have even known that it came from pigs.

Enter the cult of bacon, the time of lard love, of reverence for homely cuts and eating low on the hog.  Pork belly has found its time to shine.  And shine it does, what with all that fat, it really can't help it.  In fact, while it was ardently embraced by chefs eager to elevate the rustic and the local, it may have already begun to decline.  The problem with pork belly has nothing to do with its inherent lovableness (see above, that endearing fat), but perhaps that it's hard to coax subtlety from something that is so wholeheartedly what it is.  Like an overly cheerful companion on a long car ride, its very virtues can become cloying.  I recall a dinner not too long ago when I plated up a beautiful meal of braised pork belly for Mary and me, and we both started in with yummy noises a'plenty; but before we had finished half our portions we both set down out silverware, patted at our shiny chins with our napkins, and in unison uttered, "Woof."  The richness was just a little too much.

But lately I've discovered a new and excellent way with pork belly.  What I've "discovered" is in fact an extremely old method of preparation, one that, as with duck or goose confit, was originally a method of preservation: rillons, a specialty of the Loire River valley in France.  It's marinated chunks of pork belly which are browned and then simmered a good long while in fat.  Now, if you're anything like me you're already thinking that sounds pretty good, but here's the clincher:  the result is remarkably light and highly, highly edible.  The lean meat becomes as tender as a well cooked pot roast, and the fat turns ethereal.  This is seriously good pork, mes amis.

As with confit of fowl, the method is extremely simple, though the process may seem daunting, involving as it does large quantities of hot fat.  But here you can do quite a small batch, using a pound and a half of meat or so, and it's very manageable, and well worth it.  Because the cooking liquid isn't pure fat but rather a combination of fat, water, and wine or cider, it's not unnervingly oily.  Bonus:  since the chunks of belly render as they cook, you actually end up with more fat than you started with, and that lovely, fragrant lard is a splendid cooking medium for eggs or potatoes, or for making authentic and delectable flour tortillas.  Mary used some in cornbread that we had last night with our brisket and beans.

I've made rillons twice in recent weeks.  I took my basic method from an intriguing website I've just started reading, Cuisine Campagne--hey, she's tapping birch trees this week! Very cool. It's in French, but you can "translate" it, and while the resulting English is pretty tortured, you can get the gist. In my first try I used white wine and a combination of duck and pork fat; second time around, I kept it ultra-local with cider and all pork fat. Both times it was excellent, I really can't compare. Both the wine and cider add a tangy note to the finished dish, which further mitigates the unctuousness.

How to serve: In the Loire, rillons are often part of an assiette de cochonailles--a platter of pork pieces--served as a first course or filling lunch. You might get some pieces of rillons, a little pot of rillettes (I'm not sure what that rill- root means; anyone have a guess?), some sausage or a slice of terrine, some ham, headcheese--much like the now ubiquitous charcuterie plate, but entirely cochon-centric. With highly flavored red meat products, you might automatically think red wine would be the thing to drink--think again: in the Loire white wine rules, made from the sauvignon blanc (Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre, Quincy) or chenin blanc (Vouvray, Saumur, Touraine) grape varieties. The crisp acidity of these wines goes beautifully with the assertive pork flavors.

I turned my rillons toward Alsace:  the first batch made a nice addition to the choucroute garnie I recently wrote about. The second time around I also matched pork and cabbage, but this time the rillons stood alone on a bed of oven-braised fresh red cabbage (which was local stuff, Wisconsin-grown, purchased at Seward Co-op).  Here's how that worked:  I had the rillons luxuriating in the solidified cooking fat in the fridge.  I pried a few pieces out and let them sit at room temp so most of the remaining attached fat could melt off.  I shredded a couple cups of cabbage and spread it in the bottom of a baking dish, placed the rillons on top of that, stuck it in a 400-degree (guessing) oven.  After five minutes or so I stirred the cabbage so it was evenly coated with fat released by the rillons, and baked for 25 to 30 minutes, until the rillons were very well browned and the cabbage was tender with still a little bite.  After removing the rillons I added a splash of cider vinegar and some salt and pepper to the cabbage; serve it forth, it was great.  (The little galettes in the pictures were a spur-of-the-moment concoction of potato, apple, and shallot tossed with butter, cider vinegar and maple syrup, baked in little tart molds; not a bad result for a first try, but it could use some refinement.)

There you have it, more reasons to love our friend the pig.  I ordered too much pork belly for the smoking demo I did at the Hay River Transition Initiative event, so things have been very porky around here, indeed.  In the fridge I've still got a couple pieces of salted belly that will become petit salé aux lentilles, another traditional, rustic French dish that has always intrigued me, but which I've never made.  You will likely see the outcome right here.



1 ½ pounds pork belly in 2-inch cubes
¾ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon confit spice (i.e., quatre épices )
1 bay leaf crumbled
½ teaspoon thyme leaves

1 tablespoon duck fat or lard
½ cup duck fat or lard
¾ cup dry hard apple cider or white wine
1/2  cup water

Mix the pork belly with salt, herbs and spices, and marinate several hours at room temp or overnight refrigerated. Heat oven to 325. In an ovenproof dutch oven or large saucepan brown the belly pieces well, on all sides, in the 1 tablespoon of duck fat or lard. Add the additional ½ cup of duck fat or lard, the cider or wine, and the water. Bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The pork should be very tender but not falling apart.

Remove the pork from the fat to drain on a wire rack if you want to use it right away. To store, place the pork pieces in a glass or ceramic container and pour the fat over them. They will keep for two weeks or more in this way.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw