Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Crock Progress

It's been about a week and a half since I stocked my crock, and I went poking around in there this morning to see how the fermentation was coming along.  The brine had turned purple from the cabbage pigment; that happened almost right away.  There were whitish specks on the surface of the brine, quite unappetizing; I skimmed most of those off.  The brine had a great flavor, sour, chile hot, savory with garlic and onion.  The cabbage was on top, and it tasted like fermented cabbage, which is to say, very good, as homemade sauerkraut generally is, not mind-blowing.

The exciting stuff was down below, specifically the green tomatoes and summer squash, which I had not fermented before.  One of the strange things that happens when fermenting soft vegetables is that they actually become firmer, and somewhat shrunken and wrinkled in the process--that's water being drawn out and replaced with salt from the brine solution.  Reaching back to our high school science courses, we will recall that this is the result of the liquids within and without the vegetables striving for equilibrium of salinity through osmosis.  If I recall correctly.  The fact that the tomatoes and squash were actually firmer than when they went in surprised me, though it shouldn't have.  I have this sort of "common sense" assumption about fermentation, totally wrong as it happens, that tough vegetables will soften while fermenting.  They do not.  So don't put gnarly old vegetables into the crock expecting that they'll come out tender in a few weeks; more likely they will just get gnarlier.

Anyway, circling back to an earlier point:  the tomatoes and patty pans had firmed up nicely, soured delightfully, and taken up plenty of flavor--and color--from the brine.  The beans were nice and crisp and flavorful, the chiles piquant.  And the onions, the humble onions, they were absolutely delightful.  I'll put more onions into my next crock.

I moved the vegetables to a gallon jar--in truth I could have done it in the jar to start with, but I really like stocking my crock.  I mentioned previously that the main use I make of a mixed ferment like this is as a base for winter soups, but the freshness of the tomatoes, chiles, and squash in this one have me thinking of fermented salsas, or choucroute garnie variations.  I'm feeling good about my winter pantry.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Anniversary Duck

Mary and I were married on September 21, 1991, a decidedly autumnal day,  in the front yard of her mom and step-dad's house on the east river road in Minneapolis.  So our 21st anniversary--which is, what?, sort of a numerological golden anniversary?--came around this past Friday.  Contingencies of our schedules and a hurried harvest to get three wheelbarrows-full of squash out of the cold before a really hard frost meant that we didn't sit down to a properly celebratory dinner until last night.  We grilled a duck, and served it with celery root-potato purée, and chanterelles and greens (turnip and kale) cooked down in the duck's pan juices; and it was splendid.

The duck was from Bar 5 at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, and it was the perfect size for two avid duck eaters.  I cut the duck up, yep, cut the duck up into leg-thigh portions and the whole breast on the bone.  Wings and carcass were chopped and went to making duck stock.  The excess skin I sliced and put in a baking dish with water to cover, and that went into the oven to render out fat while I was cooking down a roaster pan full of oven tomatoes to freeze.

About grilling duck:  Duck being among the fattiest of meats, to grill it with that luscious skin on presents certain challenges.  Basically, you have to act as a human rotisserie:  you can never leave the grill, and as The Byrds implored us, you must turn, turn, turn.  Just a few seconds' inattention can result in a vicious flare-up that will ruin your beautiful bird.  You want a medium-hot fire for this, a good deal cooler than you would use to cook a steak or chop that only needs four or five minutes on a side, but you need a good bed of coals, too, for the duck is going to be on there for, oh, a good 15 to 20 minutes, I'd say.  I wasn't timing it; meat cookery is all about looking, touching, smelling, very little about numbers, especially when grilling.

Use the duck to prop itself up in the various postures required to brown it evenly and deeply, all around.  It won't be quite done at this point, so we use the "iron on the fire" trick of bunging it in a cast-iron skillet to finish cooking.  As I've said before, this has the added benefit of creating pan juices in which to cook the mushrooms and greens (this was such a marvelous meal, I'm getting nostalgic thinking about it, even though we ate it just last night...).

And now about those chanterelles:  I've had them in the spare fridge downstairs for two months!  I had practically forgotten about them, and then when I remembered them, I was afraid to look, fearing they would be a deliquescent pool of fungal glop.  No, indeed!  I was stunned to see what excellent condition they were in.  You could have shipped them off to market, and no one would have been the wiser (which makes me think that the chanterelles I've seen in markets in France and the Pacific northwest might indeed have been around the block a few times).  Once they warmed up they even recovered a good deal of their haunting aroma.  Fabulous.

I had two fires going to facilitate the start and the finish cooking, but by the time the duck was well browned, dark had come down, and with it a piercing chill, so we moved operations inside.  All that good, smoky grill flavor came in with the duck, anyway.  In a low oven (275, I think) we cooked the duck and chanterelles together for a while, and then removed the 'shrooms and breast, added a mess of kale and turnip greens, a ladle of rich duck stock.  The greens and legs cooked together for around 15 minutes.  Then I cranked the heat up to 425, returned the breast and chanterelles to the pan, and roasted it until the duck skin was sizzling again, and the pan juices had reduced.  After serving it all out onto plates I deglazed the pan with more stock, a splash of the wine ('08 Gigondas) we were drinking with dinner, and a wee pat of butter.

The duck was superb, and I give most of the credit for that to the bird itself, though I did do a good job cooking it.  The leg meat came off the bone almost like confit; the breast, though cooked well past the rosé stage I would look for in a magret, was also tender and flavorful.  The skin was a treat, crisp and a bit chewy, well rendered of fat.  A lot of fancy French chefs say that their philosophy of cooking is based on how their mothers and grandmothers cooked--cuisine de maman--though if you looked at their elaborate plates, you'd be hard pressed to guess that.  This dinner reminded us of that approach (it's not that we only have one mind between us, but we both expressed the same thought).  While this was not a meal of Michelin-level fussiness, it did represent a preparation that elevated humble ingredients to an ethereal height.

Duck, chanterelles, humble ingredients?  Well, yes.  In many parts of the world duck is more common, and much cheaper, than chicken, and the chanterelles, well, they're just some grubby fungi I found on the dirty forest floor.  Pot greens?  Doesn't get much humbler than that.  Many people would turn their noses up at food like this; yes, I know, you're not those people, not at all.

So, it was a happy anniversary to us.  And that celery root-potato purée?  Every time I make it, we swoon.  The recipe may be here in the blog somewhere, but it's definitely in the book, and worth the $27.95 all on its own.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Comin' Up...

The frost we dodged late last week, we did not dodge for long.  Monday night, I think it was, the whip came down here in our chilly valley.  Depending on which crappy thermometer you looked at (anyone know of a source for really good, accurate thermometers?), it hit either 28 or 30.  Whichever, it was enough to scorch, coldly, the beans, squash, tomatoes, and peppers.  It wasn't cold enough to damage the actual vegetables--except a few tomatoes--but the plants are dead, and so now I've got some salvage harvesting to do.  I wonder if all the butternut squash will ripen off the vine--there is lots of it, seriously lots.  And let's hear about your favorite green tomato recipes!  Last night I sliced one and put it under the broiler with some sliced pork shoulder I marinated in hot, sweet, and salty stuff, and that was really good.

Those beans hanging among the very discouraged bean leaves are Sultan's Golden Crescent, which I was growing for shell beans, so I'll let them hang there and dry.  I don't know if they matured enough to be worth the effort; we shall see.

  Amy (Sourtooth) Thielen referred to this first killing frost as "the merciful frost," and I think I know what she means.  It's that seasonal turn that puts an end to many things:  Did you have some more pickling in mind?  Skip it.  And as for putting up more tomatoes, dilly beans, corn relish.  It's over.  But I really like the post-frost garden time, for it means the cooking greens are tender, the turnips sweet, while there's still lettuce--maybe better than the spring lettuce, even--and what tomatoes remain, and the cool evenings perk the appetite so well.  Certainly there are chores that remain to set the gardens up for winter, but mainly it's a matter of enjoying the harvest.  I have to say, considering that we started from go this spring, built and dug every single bed, I'm damn pleased, and damn proud of myself.  I have many plans for future projects, but we've made an excellent start in our first year here at the farm.

It's good that garden chores will be less demanding in the weeks ahead, because I've got the busiest month yet of book-related events coming up.  It seems a bit odd that it should be so, over a year after the book came out; but then, I always thought Trout Caviar would be more of a long-distance runner than a flashy sprinter.  If things keep on this way, I may even get a royalty check one of these days....

Here are some of the open-to-the-public events I'll be involved in from now to the end of October:

First off, this Saturday, September 22, I'll be doing a  cooking demo at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, the main site under the red sheds on north Lyndale.  That's at 10:30, and my topic is root vegetables.  There are lots of great farmers markets in the Twin Cities now, but the Minneapolis market on a brisk fall morning is just about the best place on earth you could be.  There's corn roasting, sausages grilling, buskers busking, and the market stalls are bursting with every color known to the vegetable kingdom.  That's where I fell in love with farmers markets, way back in the previous century, and I'm delighted to be invited to cook there this weekend.

Into October, I'll be at the  Hungry Turtle Farm and Learning Center on Sunday, October 7 for their Festival of Farms, from 1:00 to 4:00 pm.  Hungry Turtle Farm is an enchanting place on the banks of the Apple River near Amery, WI, about an hour's drive from the Twin Cities.  I participated in a brick oven building workshop there in August.  We're loaning our cider press to the farm for the event, so there will be fresh-pressed cider.  I'll be hanging out with a few copies of the book.  Here's the scoop on the day via Hungry Turtle:

The Hungry Turtle team created this free event with the purpose of building community around the enjoyment of good food. This year's event, as the very first Festival of Farms, serves to introduce Hungry Turtle to the surrounding community, with food sampling, CSA information, and tours of the farm at 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. Other local producers and artists featured at this event include Apple Hill Studio, with work by fiber artist Keldi Merton; Bluebird Hill Homestead, a nature school; Moo Oink Cluck, a natural meat producer; and Brett Laidlaw, author of Trout Caviar. Musician Mark Stillman will be playing the accordion from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Also in the plans are lawn games, a kids' corner, and cider pressing.

The following weekend we're off to central Wisconsin for the  Waupaca Book Festival on October 12 and 13, Friday and Saturday.  There's a dessert reception on Friday evening, and I'll be doing a reading/cooking demo Saturday afternoon, time TBA.  Waupaca is kind of a special place for me, as it was on the Tomorrow/Waupaca River that flows through the town that I first took up the fly rod, and to the extent that a hobby can change one's life, fly fishing certainly has had an enormous impact on mine.  Other authors in attendance will be Michael Perry, Terese Allen, Matt Tavares, Erica Bauermeister, Peter Geniesse, Judy Bridges, Lowell Peterson, Jasia Steinmetz, Marissa Meyer, Pat Schmatz, Geoff Herbach, Jacqueline West, Darien Gee, and Wendell Nelson.  There's a bit of a culinary theme to the festival this year.

And then on Friday, October 26, I'll be in Winona for a  Trout Caviar-themed dinner at the Book Shelf bookstore/Blue Heron Coffeehouse.  This should be fun.  I haven't done a book dinner before.  Space is limited for this dinner, of course, and, well, I really hope we sell out.

And finally, not events, but a couple of nice reviews of the book have appeared recently, one at the  Cookbook Man website, a fine resource for the cookbook-obsessed (and who isn't?), and one at  Langdon Cook's excellent forager's blog, Fat of the Land.

I am very grateful for these appreciations, and to everyone who's hosting me in the weeks ahead.  If you're in the vicinity for any of these events, I hope you'll stop by.  Thanks for stopping by here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Stocking the Crock

At around 6:00 last night, as the sun was slipping down behind the big cottonwoods, the temperature here at the farm had dropped to the upper 40s.  The sky was clear and the winds were calm.  I looked out at the gardens, and I thought, Ruh-roh.  I’d seen a forecasted low of 38, and down here in the valley you can usually subtract a few degrees from that.  Indeed, such are the microclimates in our hilly section of Dunn County, Wisconsin, that during the lovely cool weather of August, when we were seeing lows in the low 40s, our friend Tina, who lives two miles away, but at the top of a tall hill, reported overnight temps in the mid-50s.  And that is why Tina has apples this year, and we don’t.  So it goes.

I briefly considered a hurried harvest.  Then I said, Aw, skip it.  If it’s gonna freeze on September 13, it’s gonna freeze.  We’ve had frost at Bide-A-Wee as early as August 25, so it wasn’t out of the question by any means.  But as I made some dinner preparations and the sky grew darker, the thermometer’s needle stayed put.  Maybe it was stuck.  I gave it the benefit of the doubt, and decided that we would probably be all right.  I put on some wool socks, poured myself a drink, and went out to sit by the fire and listen for the barred owls and coyotes.

6:30 this morning I got up and peeked out at the basil in a planter on the deck.  It was green and perky.  Basil, cucumbers, and green beans are the tenderest of crops, in my experience, indicator species in that regard, if you will.  If the basil was okay, the rest would be fine.  There wasn’t even frost on the car tops, just a heavy dew.  Now the next few days look clear of frost danger, but it is the middle of September, and the end is near.  So as the sun warmed the yard on this splendid early fall morning, I made a tour of the gardens, picked a basketful of prime produce, and set about filling my crock.  A ferment like this is always a bit of an experiment: I have never fermented summer squash or green tomatoes, for instance, though  Sandor Katz says they work well in a mixed crock.  Chiles, beans, cabbage, and kale I have fermented many times with good results.

Rinse everything well, especially the kale:  all those attractive crenellations are custom-made for catching dust, and that stuff has been standing out there near the crossroads for months.

I stripped the kale from the stems, chopped it roughly, and massaged it with salt, mainly to get the volume down and make more room in the crock.

These little red cabbages were ones I thinned from my over-planted cabbage patch.  These too required careful cleaning, as it turns out some slugs were still in residence there.  Hate slugs, absolutely hate ‘em.  I cut these into quarters or sixths.  I’m not sure why the variation; just a whim.

Four kinds of chiles went in:  Anaheim, Serrano, jalapeno, and cayenne.  The Serrano were pretty hot, the cayenne slightly so, the anaheims and jalapenos, barely.  I took out the seeds, more for aesthetics than anything else, but left most of the veins for added heat.

For flavor I added a red onion and a few cloves of garlic—I’ll probably tuck in a few more cloves of garlic in a few days, but our kitchen supply was running low.

I placed a spongy bed of kale at the bottom, garlic, chilies, and onion on top of that, then built it up from smaller to larger pieces:  beans, green tomatoes, finally cabbage.  One of my secret talents in life is the ability to gauge volume with uncanny accuracy.  For example, when I go to the co-op for bulk goods, I nearly always buy just the right amount to fill the pantry jar to within a half-inch of the top.  So, were I a super hero, I would be Volu-Man, and I would be able to help humanity to, uh…tell how much stuff will fit in a certain container.  Okay, it’s not a cure for cancer, but it’s something….  Anyway, you see my extraordinary skill in evidence here:  

Working out in the yard on this absolutely splendid morning was pleasant duty, indeed.  The colors and textures of the vegetables in that clear northern light made a visual feast that has me anticipating the culinary feasts ahead even more.  

When the crock was well packed I took it inside and added brine consisting of 6 tablespoons (3/8 cup or about 90 grams) of sea salt dissolved in a half gallon of warm water.  I have a little plate that fits exactly inside the mouth of my crock, water-filled measuring cup atop that to weight it down.  In the next couple of days the contents should compact significantly, and then I can add a few more vegetables if I want to.

Fermented vegetables are delightful chopped as hot dog or sandwich garnish, for sure, but at our house their main role is as soup base.  The tangy, crunchy vegetables take up so much flavor in the process of fermentation, they add a remarkable freshness to our winter soups.  I think of these as borscht variations, though they may not contain beets.  And that reminds me that there are still plenty of beets out in the garden, and I should check on how my late planting of golden beets is coming along.

It is a bounteous time, to be sure, and while the end is near for the cold-sensitive crops, it’s only after a couple of good frosts that the hardier vegetables like kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and turnips really come into their prime.  Carrots are sweeter after a frost.  Lettuce can take a good bit of chill, too.  There is plenty of good eating ahead.

And now I'm curious to know, as I'm certain many of you reading this are avid fermenters:  What's in your crock?  What sorts of things have you had success fermenting, and which ones haven't work out as well?  Please do tell.  And happy fermenting to all.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, September 10, 2012

这 些不是中国菜 / Ceci n'est pas un repas chinois / This is not a Chinese meal

I honestly feel that the most important tool in my cook’s virtual knife kit is not any twist of technique, nor depth of knowledge gained from reading about cuisines around the world and avidly eating from Strasbourg to Roanoke, Tofino to Chengdu, nor skill attained from picking up the chef’s knife every day to slice, dice, mince, chop, julienne, chiffonade, and brunoise. No, the number one weapon in my kitchen arsenal these days is the ability to go with the flow.  ‘Twas not always so.  Back in the day I’d get a notion in my head—lobster-stuffed potstickered wontons with black bean sauce, say, or a salad of peaches and beets—and doggedly pursue the wildest hare to the bitter end, no matter if that involved blood, sweat, tears, and a disappointing dinner.  Well, often that approach yielded good results—the wontons were excellent (the peach-beet salad, less so).  But it was stressful, and if affairs in the kitchen went amiss, the evening could go completely off the rails.  Nowadays, when I let ingredients lead my cooking more than any overwrought conceit, things tend to turn out better, perhaps because I’m more willing to enjoy how things turn out.  It’s a culinary version of the old, “Wherever you go, there you are.”  Maybe I’ve embraced the zen of cooking, and maybe my standards have just slipped.  Whatever.

A case in point was last night’s dinner, which was supposed to be brunch, which might have become Chinese supper, which it was not, although it was eaten with chopsticks and rice bowls.  That might require a little bit of explanation. 

We had friends visiting at the farm and Bide-A-Wee this past weekend, and Sunday morning I started preparing some salads to have on a brunch buffet.  I was thinking of something a bit smorgasbord-ish:  there would be corn pancakes as the main event, and homemade herbed yogurt cheese, pickled beets, that sort of thing.  Maybe open a can of kippers. I found a couple of overgrown radishes in the garden which nonetheless were still firm and not too strong, and which sliced up into beautiful pink-and-white coins on the Benriner.  A couple of lovely Suyo Long cucumbers I also shaved into thin planks, and then sliced into veggie noodles, tossed those with a pretty hot chile-garlic oil, with just a splash of cider vinegar.  This could have been a Sichuan dish, except for the context.  Things were coming together nicely in my head for a delightful brunch.

But when Tim and Melinda came down the hill from Bide-A-Wee, it turned out they’d already had some yogurt and granola for breakfast, had enjoyed a walk around the Bide-A-Wee meadows, and were just about ready to head back to town.  No time or belly space for brunch.  No problem.  The salads could chill ‘til dinner.  We saw our friends on their way back home, then hopped in the car to do some shopping errands in Rice Lake.  On the way we stopped at the Crossroads Café in Cameron for Sunday dinner—Mary had the country fried steak, and I had chicken dinner (dark meat).  Both dinners came with a scoop of decent mashed potatoes, kind of soggy but still very tasty stuffing, and niblets corn (or you could have had Jell-O).  Mary’s gravy was white and specked with pepper; mine was chicken-dinner yellow.  Service was friendly and brisk.  My chicken was good, but not as good as the fall-off-the-bone version at the Sand Creek Café.  Mary’s country-fried steak was better, and she let me sample a generous portion.  After lunch we headed to Menard’s well-fed and content.  On the way to the checkout we were drawn to the looming Salted Nut Roll display, thinking that Nut Goodies would be nearby, but there were none to be found.  We settled for a Snickers (Mary) and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds (me).   Why am I telling you this?

Okay.  Back home, little nap, some minor chores, a walk.  Radishes and cucumbers do not a supper make, but as lunch had been substantial, we didn’t want anything heavy.  Indeed, with our counters constantly covered in produce, and more, so much more in the gardens coming ripe, we think of vegetable centerpieces to our meals more than meat.  So some of the lovely corn we picked ourselves from a field near Sand Creek (with the farmer’s permission and supervision, of course!), which was originally going to garnish pancakes, that I simmered with onion, jalapeno, garlic, ginger, sage, lemon, and plenty of butter.  I had some eggplants from the market, and a big basket overflowing with patty pan squash from the garden.  My only thought with those was to grill them, toss them with minced shallots.  The thought evolved:  add some Hay River  pumpkin seed oil,* garlic, then a couple pinches of quatre-épices, cumin, and finally some piment d’espelette.  This turned out to be the star of the show.  A recipe worth writing down, passing on, repeating very soon.

And we served it all with rice, and ate with chopsticks, because that seemed elegant and appropriate, although this was not a Chinese meal.  But why not?  The cucumbers, as I say, could easily have passed on a Chinese table, and the radishes too; the eggplant-squash dish, with its mild heat and cumin fragrance, would have drawn compliments but raised no eyebrows as part of a meal in northwest China, along the silk road, where the food can seem Middle Eastern, Indian, or even Mexican.  And the corn was pretty much the same combination of ingredients that I stir-fry together for yumi chao lajiao—corn with chiles—and happily serve in Sichuan meals.  Only the butter—and maybe the sage—took it away from Chinese territory.  And yet, the combination of dishes, and the overall context, made this seem more French than Chinese.  Although it started out Scandinavian.  And it occurred to me in the course of the meal that it was a bit like the banchan dishes—kimchi, salads, and other little bites—that precede and accompany a Korean meal.

Scandinavian-French-Chinese-Korean-American tapas.  That’s what I’d call it.  With chopsticks.**

We drank a French vouvray from Champalou, a longtime favorite wine; always beautifully aromatic, ranging from dry to slightly sweet depending on the vintage.

Good things happen when you go with the flow.

Grilled Eggplant and Summer Squash with Pumpkin Seed Oil and Exotic Spice

Serves two as a side or part of a SFCKAT meal

2 Asian eggplants
2 small zucchini, same size as the eggplant, or a medium patty pan or yellow summer squash
Olive oil
1 ½ tablespoons pumpkin seed oil
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 small garlic clove, minced fine
1 small shallot, minced
2 small pinches quatre-épices 
2 generous pinches ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon piment d’espelette (or another aromatic, mildly hot ground chile that you like)
Good squeeze of lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

Remove the peel from the eggplants on two sides, remove stem and trim bottom, then slice the eggplants in half the long way, through the skin, so you have planks with the flesh exposed on the broad sections and strips of skin on the sides.  If that makes sense.  Slice the squash how you like to do for grilling.  Toss both eggplant and squash with a generous amount of olive oil, and salt generously as well.

Grill the vegetables until nicely brown, perhaps a bit charred, and very soft.  Chop them into ¾-inch chunks.  Mix the remaining ingredients, along with another pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and toss with the vegetables.  Garnish with a few very thin shallot slices, if you like.
* This dish turned out to be my favorite-to-date use for our Ken and Jay's wonderful Hay River pumpkin seed oil.  Though the oil's flavor took a backing role to the fragrant spices, the oil's texture gave a real depth and heft to this all-veggie dish.  I don't know why unctuous often has negative connotations; this dish, which actually used three different oils, had a savory unctuousness that was extremely appetizing.

**All of which made me think of  this excellent article by (Dear) Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl on the sense of the authentic in contemporary cuisine, "culinary imperialism", and the Twin Cities Asian restaurant boom--which is much more the real deal than the so-called Scandinavian restaurant boom, which consists of one high-end restaurant and a lunch spot in the American Swedish Institute....