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