Friday, December 13, 2013

Back With More Sandwiches

Where would this blog be without smorrebrod?  This year, at least, it would be pretty sparse.  Pretty sparser.

The open-face sandwich idea intrigues and delights me for three main reasons:

As a baker, I love pretty much any meal based on bread, and I enjoy the challenge of coming up with breads that work particularly well with this kind of dish.  In this case the bread was a sourdough rye to which I added some part-fermented apple cider and some Wisconsin sorghum syrup.  I used some starter I had sitting around on the kitchen counter for a while, not very well refreshed, so the dough was very, very slow to rise, especially now that the temperature in our kitchen is generally in the low 60s.  I decided to embrace the idea of slow bread.  I let the dough proof for over 24 hours, then put it in loaf pans where it rose at a glacial pace for several hours more.  And then I baked it in quite a slow oven, 350 if I recall correctly, adding steam both in the form of ice cubes tossed in at the beginning and middle of baking, along with a pan of water set on a rack under the stone.  It baked for around an hour, and the end result was a notable success, though I say so myself.  It just begged to be presented in an elegant Nordic fashion, so here we are.

As a cook, I find smorrebrod gratifying because of the way the bread canvas invites creativity in the toppings, which are not hidden as the filling in a regular sandwich would be.  Pretty much anything can serve as smorrebrod topping--vegetable salads, smoked or pickled fish, eggs, cheese, various sorts of charcuterie.  There's really no wrong topping except maybe PB&J, and someone could probably find a clever way to make that work, too.  This versatility makes smorrebrod ideally suited to local, seasonal eating, from early spring's first flush of wild foods through the garden glut of summer, harvest abundance, root cellar and pickle cabinet foraging.  The three sandwiches on the plate here all are based on meat:  a rustic paté of pork with chicken livers, bacon, and hickory nuts; a silky, rich chicken liver mousse; and wonderful venison backstrap roasted to medium rare in a salt dough.

And last, as an inveterate garnisher, I love the opportunity that smorrebrod provides to come up with finishing touches that complete the dish in both pretty and appetizing ways.  We have a joky saying here, "It's all about the garnish!"  And while plate prettifying can quickly turn precious, I think there's a serious point there.  In some ways it's the care taken in finishing touches that make the difference between a bowl of grub to be scarfed down and a plate of food that delights at many levels.  Garnishing, to me, really is an important part of cooking, and something quite different from slapping a sprig of parsley and a slice of lemon on every plate that leaves the kitchen.

For the venison, I more or less followed this recipe for venison baked in a salt-dough crust.  I didn't bother with searing the meat, and I skipped the sauce--though I did preserve the juices that gathered at the bottom of the crust, which I thinned with a bit of chicken stock to make a little jus in which I bathed my meat prior to placing it on the bread.  Before I wrapped the meat up in the salt dough, I rubbed it with a paste composed of garlic, thyme, parsley, black pepper, some home-ground chile powder, and sunflower oil.  I baked it at 375 for about 25 minutes, let it rest in the crust for 30 minutes or so after baking.  It was superb, and I would definitely do it again.  The salt from the crust permeated the meat without making it overly salty, and seemed to carry the other flavors from the rub deep into the meat.  The garnish here is a pesto of flat leaf parsley from our garden--the last fresh harvest before the brutal cold came down a couple of weeks ago--garlic, of course, lemon, Minnesota sunflower oil, and toasted hickory nuts.

The nuts were a delightful, surprising find, picked up at the little market in Ridgeland, the town nearest to us.  As we were checking out one day I noticed this plastic zip bag on the counter near the cash register and, ever-curious forager that I am, I took a closer look.  Turned out the bag was full of beautiful hickory nut halves, harvested from the market owner's in-laws' tree near Tomah, WI.  The bag held a pound of nuts for the amazing low price of $9.99.  Sold.  We've been enjoying these rich, sweet nuts in lots of different ways.  The flavor is like pecans but better, to my taste.

The chicken liver mousse I prepared following (again, more or less; I almost always stray from a recipe somewhere along the way) a recipe from Madeleine Kamman's In Madeleine's Kitchen.  It's an unctuous concoction of livers, a good bit of butter, shallots, onions, a splash of scotch whisky (my substitute for the called-for brandy), finished with some cream and sour cream that have been whipped together.  For seasoning I added thyme, a pinch of that home-ground chile powder mentioned above, Sichuan pepper (hua jiao), and a pinch or two of cumin.  The garnish here is all about our tree crops:  I combined chopped dried apple with apple cider vinegar and our maple syrup, set it on the warming ledge at the back of our woodstove for the apples to soften and take up the sweet and sour flavors.  Then I added chopped fresh apple and a pinch of two of salt, and a little more of that chile powder (it's so wonderfully sweet and fragrant, with a definite but not overpowering heat, I find myself putting it in everything).  It's a simple sort of relish or chutney, which cuts the richness of the mousse and complements its flavor wonderfully.  Big win.

The pork paté is a variation on this one I made a couple of years ago.  I used more of the hickory nuts in this one, in lieu of the chestnuts.  I skipped the breadcrumbs, used a bit more chicken liver, an additional egg yolk.  I put all the meats through the coarse grinder on my KitchenAid twice, then through the fine blade once; the texture of the paté is excellent, just what I'm looking for, and nothing that anyone would dare to call meatloaf.  The garnish here was a pre-made one, pickled cabbage and peppers from The Joy of Pickling.  It's kind of a sweet and sour pickle, made pretty much the same way as bread & butters.  With the rich and savory paté it was a nice change from the traditional cornichons.

We've been enjoying this little frenzy of charcuterie making for a week or so now, and at lunch today we inaugurated the freshly painted upstairs room where we had skylights installed last summer.  We just recently got trim put on the skylights, everything primed, then painted, including the very rustic floor.  We've done a lot to this house since we moved in, nearly two years ago now, but this room has probably seen the greatest transformation, from a veritable cave of a room to this light-filled space, cheering even on a dull gray day like today.  There's never an end to the projects with an old house like this, but it's gratifying to put on own stamp on our home.  In many ways it's already unrecognizable from the house we bought in early 2012; and yet, so much more to do....  Well, one thing at a time.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Smørrebrød

You don’t have to be Danish to appreciate smørrebrød, those open-face sandwiches—knife and fork sandwiches—composed upon dense, buttered rye bread, usually containing appropriately Nordic ingredients like pickled herring, beets, and pork paté. If you like bread, and noshy food in that tapas mode, you’ll like smørrebrød. As a summer evening meal it has the additional virtue that most of the toppings can be prepared ahead—or are themselves commercially prepared foods of the very best sort, like cheese, smoked fish, cured meats, etc. Finally, because finishing preparation is so simple, these mini-canvases beg to be decorated to the full extent of your garnishing imagination.

Bready. Noshy. Easy. Pretty. What, I ask, is not to like in that combination?

It’s usually this time of year, when we’ve just slipped past the solstice, and the gardens are really starting to produce, the market stalls are burgeoning as the plants make the most of that vital sunshine, that my appetite turns to smørrebrød. It’s an elegantly rustic (or is it rustically elegant?) kind of meal to enjoy in those long twilights as the strong sun softens on descent, spreading welcome shadows, and the heat of the day begins to mellow.

That pretty well describes the evening last weekend when we prepared a smørrebrød repast at the house and packed it in a cooler for a picnic on the hill. It was a bit warm and muggy in the valley, but we caught a nice breeze as we headed up the hill. I’d been cleaning up a little impromptu sort of dump at the edge of the woods this spring, hauling down old car batteries, car seats, beer cans and bottles, what have you. Then I ran the lawn tractor up there to mow a small picnic area. Among the detritus I’d found a piece of sheet metal and some cinder blocks, and these we turned to better purpose as a makeshift picnic table (pleasantly, though very rustically, reminiscent of a Parisian zinc bar). It was, I dare say, one of the best picnics ever.

We settled in very comfortably (so did the dogs, eventually) to enjoy the view of the green, green hills, mist-shrouded in the distance. The aspen leaves overhead kept up a  calming kerfuffle. There was even a floor show, of sorts, as the neighbor who rents our hayfield came to bale up the last few rows of the oats and grass they cut last week. Urban al fresco dining has its pleasures, but when was the last time you saw a John Deere tractor and baler on the Nicollet Mall?

As we ate our smørrebrød and sipped our pinot gris and watched the sun pass out of sight behind the western hills—though it would still be light for a couple of hours—I had a thought about terroir—you know, that idea that foods and wines can taste distinctly of the place they came from, express some quality of the soils in which they grow, the waters that sustain them, and the human cultures that have nurtured them through time. My idea had something to do with how a cuisine is shaped by the sense of the seasons experienced by the people who create it. And how, for us specifically and for northern peoples in general, our long annual journey from the abyss of winter’s frigid darkness to midsummer’s almost too abundant light and warmth, and back again, how this must have as great an impact on the savor of our food as the molds in the caves of Roquefort, or the chalky soils of Sancerre.

It profoundly affects what we eat, how we eat it, what we want to eat, and how we experience it in the context of the year. A midsummer picnic at 45 degrees north latitude must taste different from the same meal consumed in Florida or southern California; in those places, their own seasonal context would shape their experience of what they eat.  For me, high summer dining has meant that I’ve hardly wanted to look at a piece of red meat—give me vegetables, salads, simply prepared fish, cheese and bread. Oh, and maybe a glass of wine.

I made a small rye loaf that included a little birch syrup. You want a pretty dense bread, with a close crumb--not something like a baguette that's full of holes.  Then top to your heart's desire.  I don't let myself be constrained by any rules, but rather see the smørrebrød concept as the base for using the best of the local and seasonal.  One of my favorite, oft-repeated mantras--Ninety percent of good cooking is good shopping--is on full display here.  That is not to say, of course, that you should hie thee to a high-end supermarket, but rather that best ingredients make for best results.

The Superior shore was well represented in fresh herring from Cornucopia, smoked whitefish from Port Wing, cheese from Bayfield.  The Menomonie farmers market gave us snap peas, onions, beets, turnips, potatoes, and asparagus, and our garden contributed, too, with radishes, chives, and mustard greens.  There was a bit of home-smoked bacon in the potato and asparagus salad, and the yogurt cheese was home-cultured using wonderful fresh milk from just down the road.  Oh, and the mayo, also homemade, using eggs from our neighbor Tina's chickens, and Minnesota sunflower oil Smude.

On Wisconin! was surely the theme of this meal, especially as the sandwiches were literally presented on Wisconsin.  A more thorough description of the various toppin's below.

Smoked whitefish salad combined about four ounces of flaked smoked whitefish with roughly three tablespoons of peas—we shelled some sugar snaps—two ounces of Wisconsin hickory nuts, chopped and lightly toasted in a dry skillet. (The nuts were a generous gift from my buddy Lucas “The Beard” Madsen; hickory trees grow in his part of southeastern Wisconsin, though they’re scarce here. Other local, wild alternatives would be black walnuts or hazelnuts; a good storebought option would be pecans.) To the fish, peas, and nuts I added some sliced red onion and about three tablespoons of mayonnaise—homemade in this case, and for a dinner like this I think it’s really worth the effort. Garnish with a little more red onion and thin slices of sugar snaps.

I was inordinately pleased with my checkboard composition of roasted baby beets and turnips. The base was fresh yogurt cheese (with just a dollop of chevre added in for body, and flavor) mixed with chopped chives and lots of coarsely ground pepper. Lay down a good bed of the cheese mixture, and decorate to your heart’s content. You can leave the vegetables round and create a fish-scale effect. I really liked the geometrical drama of the squares—just cut straight down around the sides of each little beet or turnip, and then slicing across produces squares.

Asparagus and potato salad was originally going to be oyster mushroom and potato sauté, but the little critters had honeycombed my ‘shrooms, so it was Plan B, which was just delightful. The potatoes were preroasted (along with the beets and turnips). Wash and slice the asparagus bite-size.  Dice up some good bacon fairly coarse, begin to render, then add the asparagus. Then add a couple of generous pinches of caraway seeds, about half as much cumin seed, and…mustard seed! About a teaspoon. Add the cut-up potatoes to warm and brown just a bit, and absorb the other flavors. This I served atop a generous spread of that homemade mayo.

Brie and radishes. A study in simplicity and the wonder of felicitous combinations. This one was just delicious. The cheese was one you probably haven’t heard of, but of which I predict you’ll be hearing quite a bit in the near future. It was Happy Hollow Creamery's “Snowy Spring Brie,” which we picked up at Ehler’s store in Cornucopia on the shore recently. Happy Hollow lists a Bayfield, WI address. This cheese, beautifully ripened, was exquisitely flavorful. Not even terribly expensive. If you happen to come across it, just buy it. Their Lazy Daisy raw milk cheddar is also excellent. As I say, I predict you’ll be hearing more about these cheeses and this creamery. For the sandwich: butter, cheese, radish, pepper, boom.

Last but surely not least, grilled Superior herring atop mustardy mustard greens. I’ve said plenty about this superb fish, which never disappoints—we usually get it hours after it’s been caught, so that’s a good start. I’ll have more to say in a future post about the greens preparation, which combines oil, mustard or other strongly flavored greens, more mustard—a good, strong Dijon style—a bit of honey, some vinegar, salt and pepper. This is going to be a standard greens preparation at our house right through the summer and fall. Butter, mustardy mustard greens, a piece of grilled fish, and a radish flower—yep, radish flower, you knew? They’re a bit sweet and a bit peppery at the same time.

Partly what inspired us to climb the hill for supper was a story we heard on  WPR's new show 45 North .  Last week Anne Strainchamps interviewed the British adventurer and writer Alastair Humphreys , who has bicycled around the world, run a marathon in the Sahara, and rowed the Atlantic, and now (maybe because he's tired...) is promoting the idea of "micro-adventures," mini-excursions in one's own backyard.  He's encouraging people just to get outside, and outside one's usual comfort zone--just grab a sleeping bag, a sandwich, and a bottle of wine, and go sleep on a hill, look at the stars, watch the sun come up.  I think it's just a brilliant idea whose simplicity is at the heart of its brilliance, and while we retired down the hill with the last fading light to all the comforts of home, we did feel as if we'd been away for a while, even if our adventure was, literally, in our own back yard.

And the food, if I need to say it, was good to the last pea.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Poacher's Delight

It’s interesting that “poaching a fish” has those dual meanings. This is the legal, delicious sort of fish poaching, as easy as it is seemingly old-fashioned. It brings to mind whole poached salmon lacquered in aspic on a fancy buffet, silver serving pieces, white linen, and cucumber sandwiches. When you fry or grill, you're adding other flavors to the fish, but poaching gives you pretty much the pure fish flavor, with only a little influence from the seasoning in the poaching liquid. Therefore, I would only recommend poaching when you have utterly fresh, pristine fish. Which in this case was a whitefish fillet from my beloved Halvorson Fisheries in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.

I should like to point out that absolutely fresh doesn't have to mean fresh off the boat.  This fillet was three days old--we picked it up on a trip to the South Shore on Wednesday, and prepared it on Saturday.  But it had not acquired any off or "fishy" odors or flavors in that time.  Freshly caught fish properly cleaned and treated will stay fresh for at least three or four days.  

Makes you wonder how long some of the fish you buy, even from the top-end fish markets, has been sitting around.  You can pay $20+ a pound for Copper River salmon or Pacific halibut, and sometimes I do, but I never wind up with better fish than when we make the trip to the shore and fill a cooler with whitefish, herring, and lake trout for a pittance (might as well carry on with the old-time lingo, since we're talking about a throw-back way of cooking).  Even if you figure in the cost of gas, I think we come out ahead financially, and we absolutely win in terms of taste and pure enjoyment.

A classic sauce is de rigeur with poached fish.  A beurre blanc would be lovely, or a green sauce fragrant with tarragon, parsley, and chervil.  For this midsummer repast we made mayonnaise, and some of it I flavored with garlic--that's aioli--and to the rest I added herbs, tarragon and chives--that's not aioli, but rather herbed mayonnaise.  I sort of have this peeve, you might recall from past rants, about every kind of flavored mayonnaise being called aioli, because while aioli is usually a type of mayonnaise (there are variations that don't use eggs), it is not a synonym for it.  But, as usual, I digress....

The market this past weekend provided a good deal more than radishes and kohlrabi.  Lovely new potatoes, snap peas, asparagus, baby beets and turnips (and strawberries for dessert).

We boiled all the vegetables separately, till just tender--the beets went last, lest our entire meal come dressed in pink.  And for the fish I prepared a court bouillon, which consisted of:

Water, about a quart
White wine--what was left in a bottle of riesling that was hanging around, half a cup, say
The juice of 1/4 lemon, and then I threw the piece of lemon in, too
A couple of bay leaves, broken up
Some cracked black peppercorns

And the secret ingredient, this court-bouillon préparation:

It's mostly gray sea salt, flavored with thyme, bay leaf, dried shallots, fennel seed, and seaweed.  We picked it up in Brittany years ago; it keeps just fine, and it gives the bouillon a decidedly oceanic character.  Whatever sort of thyme is in there is particularly potent, too.  If you don't have something like this, just add the component parts separately.  The seaweed aroma is nice, but not necessary.  Combine everything in a saucepan large enough to hold your fish, bring it to a boil, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.  Then turn the heat off, add the fish, cover, and set aside.  The fish was probably cooked through within five minutes, but it didn't hurt it to sit in the bouillon as it cooled, absorbing some of the aromatics.

Service goes family style, the fish with a generous herbal garnish, the aioli and mayonnaise, the lovely vegetables prettily arranged by Mary and Melinda, our guest for the weekend, some crusty bread.  Such a civilized meal, poacher's delight, indeed.

Melinda picked and arranged the flowers, wild meadow bouquets.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, June 21, 2013

When the Market Gives You Radishes and Kohlrabi

You know it's been a sluggish growing season when, at the farmers market two days before the summer solstice, you greet the appearance of kohlrabi with...excitement isn't the right word.  Joy is too strong.  Glee? Nah.  It's, you know, kohlrabi.  How about interest?  That'll do.  It's something different, at least, adding a mild variety to the growers' tables which, since late May, have held monotonous tableaux of rhubarb, asparagus, spinach, lettuce, and spring onions.  Oh, and radishes, absolute rock stars compared to the other blah offerings.

Now, I'm not actually knocking any of those lovely spring delicacies.  The first salad of real fresh lettuce after the long white winter is an absolute delight, something to be celebrated.  It's just that, you know, it's supposed to be summer now, it's the freakin' solstice, is it too much to ask for some peas, a strawberry, even new potatoes?  The market in Menomonie has been a pretty sleepy spot so far this year, I'm afraid.

But, you make the best of what you have, don't you, and with the proper attitude and some good supporting players, that can be damn good.  What I love about this salad is that the title, "Radish and Kohlrabi Salad with Yogurt Chive Dressing," contains the entire list of ingredients, other than salt and pepper (and after I made this I wished I'd omitted the pepper; I only mention it because you can see it in the picture, so you might wonder, Hey why didn't he mention the pepper? if I hadn't).

The chives are a bit droopy this morning after last night's pummeling rain.

Chives!  I love chives.  They are usually the first thing to appear in the garden in spring, and they are an absolutely reliable perennial.  To my utter astonishment, our garlic chives failed to make it through last winter.  Our sorrel also perished, equally astounding.  But the chives soldiered through, as did what must be the world's hardiest tarragon plant--the true fragrant French tarragon, transplanted last year from our former house in Saint Paul.  It was in a container on the deck, too, making its survival all the more remarkable.

Anyway:  chives.  I love the flavor of chives, I love the blue of chive flowers.  The chives are usually up with the ramps, and when the ramps are all done, the chives are still going strong.  Chives are excellent in a tart dairy dressing based on buttermilk or sour cream.  In this case I used some wonderful yogurt that Mary cultured using fresh whole milk from our friend Renee's farm.

The sweet kohlrabi goes well with the bitey radishes.  The dressing, simple as it is, is both mellow and perky, and, of course, wicked chivey.  This salad would go well on a picnic or barbecue buffet.  You don't want a lot of it, but it's a lovely accent dish.  We had it as part of a noshy dinner that included superb charcuterie from the Underground Butcher in Madison (they do mail order, too, and their stuff is great), Marieke gouda (one of those cheeses which, as many times as I've eaten it, blows me away every time I try it), a green salad with market lettuce (our will be ready in a few days), and some simply boiled new potatoes (from Madison, again; they had strawberries down there last week, too, so it's on the way).  And of course some of our homemade sourdough bread.

Looking over the table I was so impressed with how various and delicious our local foods are, even if the market isn't booming yet.  And I was reminded of how simple is the answer to the question of how to keep a local diet: Well, just buy local stuff, that's all, or grow/make your own.  And as summer progresses, it will become easier and easier.

Radish and Kohlrabi Salad with Yogurt Chive Dressing

Serves two

6 radishes
1/2 a small kohlrabi
A fistful of chives (or a few chives more, for Sergio Leone), chopped
About 3 tablespoons excellent yogurt
Chive flowers for garnish

Slice the radishes into coins, not too thin, maybe six coins per radish.  Quarter the half a kohlrabi and then cut the pieces crosswise into wedges--you want the kohlrabi pieces roughly the same size as the radishes.  Combine the veggies in a bowl and toss with a couple good pinches of salt.  Add the yogurt and mix.  Stir in the chives.  Put it in a pretty bowl (mine from Theresa of Utile Mud, who appears to have moved from the Twin Cities to Everett, WA, I didn't know that).  Garnish with chive flowers.  We're done.

Happy Solstice to all.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, June 10, 2013

Attention, Madisonians! Trout Caviar Coming to Underground Butcher, Forequarter

Here's an extremely short notice notification of a cool event I'll be participating in, tomorrow!!! in Madison, WI.

The Underground Food Collective, which consists of Forequarter restaurant and the Underground Butcher, is hosting a Trout Caviar event tomorrow, Tuesday, June 11.

From 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. I'll at the Underground Butcher location, 811 Williamson Street ( ;608.338.3421), for a book signing.  We'll also be sampling a dish or two that I'll prepare from foraged ingredients, mainly ramps and nettles.

Then from 5:00 to 7:00, the chefs at Forequarter, 708 1/4 E Johnson Street ( ;
608.609.4717) will be preparing a couple of recipes from the book, and I'll be there again to chat, sign books, talk food, etc.

The regular Forequarter menu will be available from 7:00 to 10:00, along with the TC dishes, as supplies last.

I'll be joined at both events by co-conspirator Andre Darlington, a terrific writer whose work appears in the  Madison Isthmus and elsewhere.  Andre is the guy who really made this event happen, and I'm very grateful to him, and to the folks at Underground Food Collective, for getting me back to Madison, a city I like more each time I visit.

Reservations are not accepted, but you can indicate your intention to attend at the Forequarter Facebook page.

Sorry about the late notice.  If you're a Trout Caviar reader in the Madison area, I'd love it if you could stop by to either event.

Cheers~ Brett

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Brandade Rampante

This is most definitely one to file under "Happy Accidents."  A piece of whitefish rubbed with salt and birch syrup, intended to cure for a day and be served like gravlax, is instead forgotten in the back of the fridge for a week.  Upon being unearthed it is found not to be spoiled or to have turned fishy, but instead is beautifully preserved, though much too salty to be eaten as is.  But a clever salvage operation then turns it into something extraordinary:  brandade rampante.  Which is to say: a mousse of salt fish, potato, butter, milk, and instead of the garlic traditional in this Provencal dish, lovely fresh ramps, among the first of the season. (Rampante, by the way, is indeed a French word, but it has nothing to do with ramps, the wild leeks; actually it means creeping, groveling, or obsequious, so my made-up usage is purely fanciful.)

This was just damned exquisite, a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts dish which I may never to able to replicate exactly, but I will try, and try to give you the best how-to I can.  This was a polish-the-plate meal--we practically scrubbed the finish off the gratin dishes with our toast trying to get the last rich, rampy molecule of flavor.  And then the next day, when we were out running some errands, driving in the car and not talking, out out of the blue Mary comes out with, "Man, that brandade last night was good."  And I looked over to see her gazing at some point in space, rapt in happy taste memory.

I've made brandade a couple of times before using store-bought salt cod, a product which is a staple in Provencal cooking--odd, considering that they've got this rather famous source of fresh seafood, i.e., the Mediterranean, right on their doorstep.  It's well loved in Spain, too, particularly among the Basque.  Salt cod is generally very salty and very dry, and requires at least a day's soaking, and several changes of water, to make it palatable.  While I have enjoyed my previous iterations of brandade, I have found that the salt cod itself, even after soaking, poaching, and puréeing, still has a somewhat fibrous texture and a slight bitterness.  Probably because my salted whitefish had the sugar and acidity of the birch syrup, and was not buried in salt, it retained a lot more moisture.  There was no fishiness, no bitterness, and the texture was excellent.  It could still be easily cut into thin slices, as seen here:

 I'm kind of winging it here, because I don't remember exactly how much salt and syrup I used, but I did glance at my recipe for maple-cured lake trout gravlax in the book, and that calls for an 8 to 12 ounce fillet, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, and 3 tablespoons of salt.  I think I only had about 6 ounces of fish, the end of a big fillet, and I hit it with a generous tablespoon of birch syrup and a scant 2 tablespoons of salt. (I'll try to do a side-by-side taste test with my next piece of whitefish, one with maple, one with birch, and see if there's a difference; I realize birch syrup is not easy to come by.)

I did this on a piece of plastic wrap, snugged the fish up, set it flesh side down on a plate--and promptly forgot about it, for at least a week.  When I rediscovered it, all the syrup had dried up and the fish was encased in a salty crust.  I rinsed it off and dried it, tasted it and determined that it was still edible, then wrapped it loosely in parchment paper and put it back in the fridge--this is how I store my home-smoked bacon, too, and I believe the fish would have kept indefinitely in this state.

To make the brandade, I loosely followed Mireille Johnston's recipe from Cuisine of the Sun, my go-to book for southern French cooking.  But my recipe was heavier on the potato, lighter on the fish.  I subbed local sunflower oil (Smude) for olive oil, and of course, the ramps instead of garlic.  Here's my recipe:

Love my kitchen chalkboard.  That's just blackboard paint on a piece of plywood.  Now I'll translate:  I cut my fish into four pieces, and soaked it in water for a few hours, changing the water maybe three times.  It was still fairly salty at the end of this brief soaking, but I didn't add any additional salt to the dish, and when it all came together it was nicely seasoned.  After the fish soaked, I put it in a small saucepan of water and brought the water to a boil, turned it off, set it aside, and let it cool a bit.  Then I skinned the fish--you could remove the skin before boiling and/or soaking if you like.  It came off easily once the fish was cooked.

Previously I had quartered and boiled a small potato, a russet of about 5 ounces, I'd say.  I chopped my four small ramps, sautéed the bulb part in about a tablespoon of butter until just nicely wilted but not browned, then added the greens and removed it from the heat.

Then the puréeing:  this batch was small enough to do in my mini-chop, but you could use a regular food processor or a blender.  In goes the fish, peeled potato, the juice of 1/4 of a small lemon, milk, and sunflower oil.  In total I used 1/3 cup of whole milk and 2 tablespoons of oil--I added these a little at a time, so the whizzing didn't get too messy.  Once everything was in, I blended it very well, into a smooth, mousse-like texture.  Then I dumped it into a mixing bowl and added the sautéed ramps, 2 tablespoons more of soft butter, and a good grind of pepper.  Yes, it's rich, but the portion is not huge, and it was the main course for us.

I divided the mixture into two small gratin dishes, and topped them generously with homemade fresh breadcrumbs that I had moistened with a bit more butter.  Into a 425 oven for around 15 minutes, until the crumbs were toasty brown and the brandade was bubbling up around the edges.  And, serve it forth.

Nice toasts of a homemade sesame batard, a delightful white wine from the Loire, a chenin blanc (this wine was new to us; got it at Zipp's on Franklin in Minneapolis, and I would definitely get it again).  And a salad of Minnesota hydroponic frisée and Minnesota tomatoes--huh?  Minnesota tomatoes in May? Yes, Living Waters hydroponic tomatoes that we got at Seward Co-op, really remarkably good--and they come on the vine, with that gorgeous aroma of midsummer garden to them.  A surprise.

Brandade is not always served in a gratin like this.  Once you've whizzed it up, it's fully edible, and in Provence it might be served in a bowl along with a plate of crudités for dipping, or stuffed in a tomato, as we might do tuna salad (if we were ladies who lunched, that is...).  I hope I can recreate that wonderful salt whitefish on the next try, and if I do, this will go on the regular rotation.  One more use for our splendid local "seafood," Lake Superior whitefish, from Halvorson Fisheries in Corny on the South Shore, of course.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sapped Out

I'm doing the last boil of the sugaring season today, cooking about 10 gallons of birch sap down to what will probably be around a pint of syrup.  It has been a long, satisfying, at times grueling, few weeks--tapping the trees, awaiting the sap run, at first reluctant, then rising to a spate; checking the taps, hauling the sap, cutting firewood, and boiling, boiling, boiling.  All this in the midst of one of the most remarkable stretches of springtime weather...I was going to say "in memory," but I don't think anyone remembers such a season, as such a one has not occurred before, not in my time.

That's because water has been falling from the skies--mainly as snow--just as steadily as it has been pulsing up through the capillary systems of the maples and birches.  We thought that the April of storm after storm was remarkable, until we experienced a historic May weather event, a two day-plus storm that dropped around 16 inches at our house.  The Twin Cities record for a May snowfall was around three inches--and that record held, because the cities were on the rain side of the line.  Three inches is not a lot of snow, but then, May is supposed to be a spring month.  Well, so is April, for that matter. 

May 4, 2013, Ridgeland, Dunn County, Wisconsin

As the snow melts water flows down our hayfield hill, around the corner of the yard (and right across where I dug our garden last year, bad planning), and pools up in a low spot north of the garage.  From this holding area it then trickles out to form a perfect little brook past the lone pine tree behind the garage, and out into the pasture.  It's a good distance from there to the corner of our property at the crossroads of the county road and our town road, where tiny Hay Creek makes a hard southward turn, but some of those snowflakes from our hilltop surely make it to the creek, which meanders through some very pretty countryside about 15 miles, crow-wise, and who knows how many crooked stream miles, to the Red Cedar River.

The Red Cedar takes a more direct route south and empties into the Chippewa River south of Downsville (in summer we ride our bikes on the state trail that follows the Red Cedar down to this confluence).  The Chippewa in springtime is a mighty river, at some spots it can seem as broad as the Mississippi; until, of course, you see the Mississippi where the Chippewa enters, a shining, stirring inland sea--Lake Pepin--from which greening bluffs, grander than castles, rise on the western shore in Minnesota.

And the Mississippi, of course, it goes to the Gulf, where a warm wind picks up water molecules from the salty surface, and perhaps on some strange May day (or it could be March, December) a driven jolt of northbound air carries that laden breeze back up the course of the great river in an anomalous weather system that sets up a stationary line of torrential snow from Iowa into southeastern Minnesota, across west central Wisconsin, dropping nearly a foot-and-a-half of snow on a hilltop in northern Dunn County.  Did some of those snowflakes start here, years ago?  Seems crazy, but it's possible.  Clearly, I'd like to think that they did.

All this water coming down, water gushing down, the gathering of the streams, the boiling of the sap, it's had me thinking about accretion, and reduction.  All that water from the skies, gathering on our hilltops, in the woods, in our yards--in everybody's yards, forest, fields.  It comes down drop by drop, or flake by flake.  When you get down to where the Chippewa joins the Mississippi, you wouldn't have thought just a few snowflakes, a few raindrops, could amount to all that.  If all you see is the mighty flow, I think you're missing the bigger picture, which, oddly, only comes into focus when you start with a snowflake.

Accretion, it's kind of an odd word, but the one which, to me, sums it up (no pun intended).  Things gathering together, things piling up. "Any gradual increase in size, as through growth or external addition."  It's how every little bit helps, and every litter bit hurts, how the extra Christmas cookie, one more beer, or french fry, amounts in time to...self-loathing.  A garden is an accretion, created one seed at a time, then one leaf at a time until, there it is, a verdant expanse.  Since I've started cutting wood for next winter (and that wet, heavy snow has given me lots of broken limbs to cut up for the pile), I see the woodpile as an accretion, one split, one stick at a time until, by the time the frost returns (think not of that...), we'll have a winter's worth of heat, and cooking fuel, and dark nights' cheer stacked up to see us through.

A good novel is an accretion of detail and incident and image, all adding up to something marvelous, and all compiled one word at a time.  And running accretion backwards, in an abstract but very, very meaningful way, that's the phenomenon of moments slipping by, it seems to me, of time past and not to be regained--Proust can search all he wants.  More positively, what is life but an accretion of moments, experience, memory?  Whatever it is that's piling up, it's all happening in time, so a snowflake falling is a tick of the clock, and as the meltwater drips out of our ephemeral pond, it's a sort of liquid hourglass--though we won't be turning it over.

With the wet snow coming down, the saps coming up, we started to feel inundated from all sides.  When the snow stopped and the sun came out (it did, a couple of times in the last six weeks), things seemed better, but in another way it only sped the spate--the water flowed down the hill, the creek filled to the banks; the sap gushed from both maples and birches.  I couldn't keep up with it.  I dumped gallons and gallons of sap on the ground--I don't know why it felt wasteful, it was going to wind up there eventually, and the trees had all the sap they wanted.

Meantime, with all that accretion going on downstream, I was going against the tide, a few gallons at a time, engaged in the frantic race toward reduction--take 10 gallons of maple sap, 20 of birch, 80 or 160 pounds of liquid, turn it into something you can hold in your hand.  Pour on your pancakes, use to flavor a salad dressing.  Drop by drop, in wisps of steam, or through gentler evaporation in the final reduction on the woodstove overnight, as the fire gradually died down, I was sending all that water back into the air.  To harvest an essence, a distillation.  Some sweet stuff.  Here taking away everything extraneous, which is in fact all you could really see was there, the watery part, to leave something of which we only had the vaguest insinuation, that fleeting sweetness on the tongue.  An act of faith, in its modest way.

The pros at this business probably philosophize less and boil a lot more than I do, so in this bountiful year for sap I've seen syrup offered at $25 a half gallon, cheaper if you buy more and bring your own containers. 


I recorded the first drops from our maple taps on March 25.  With the back-and-forth spring going mostly back, it was a couple of weeks before I had enough sap to boil.  Thanks to Twitter, I'm able to report with utter accuracy that our first boil was on April 5: "My half-assed homemade sap contraption did a fantastic job on its maiden boil."  Thus I tweeted.  It went pretty steadily from there, reaching full spate by mid-April, wearing out my willingness to spend the day bathed in wood smoke by about the third week of April.

At which time I drilled an inch into a big birch, and sap came pouring forth.  Here we go again.

It's pretty easy to see how people started making maple syrup.  Although maple sap is clear as water, still it tastes faintly sweet to the tongue.  To the squirrels the sap that dries on maple trees, naturally flowing out from cracks in the bark or broken branches, definitely has a sugary appeal, and perhaps that's how aboriginal people figured out that there was something good here, from observing how the squirrels lapped it up.  Then there were probably a few steps involved, and a lengthy evolution, before getting to maple syrup and maple sugar, but the end result was reliable and delicious.

It's much harder to understand how birch syrup came to be.  A birch tree in a good year can provide an astonishing amount of sap, but when you taste it, it doesn't seem sweet, containing only about half the sugar of maple sap.  Perhaps I should modify that:  It doesn't taste sweet to me.  It doesn't taste sweet to the contemporary American palate, bombarded with sweetness from every side, sugar hidden in just about every processed food from salad dressing to crackers.  But maybe to a purer palate, way back when, the sweetness of birch sap was detectable, and desirable.  It you had a lot of birch sap, and firewood, and time, it was probably worth it.

As my last batch of birch sap boils away, with a pint of finished syrup in the fridge, I'm asking myself if it was worth it, and mainly coming down on yes, now that it's nearly over.  It's a fascinating product, unlike anything I've tasted before.  It's dark, dark, dark--more like molasses or sorghum syrup than even grade B maple.  And I'm not sure what accounts for this, but it is quite acidic, too, with a spiciness dominated by a menthol or wintergreen note, and a smokiness that may literally be from wood smoke wafting across the surface of the pan as it cooks.  But also, perhaps because of that acidity, it has a fruitiness, almost a wininess, that maple syrup lacks.  At first taste, I must say, it's not immediately likeable--it takes you aback and sits you up straight.  But part of what I like about it is that sense of extremity--that it is difficult to make, not easy to like, and that it requires some thought to determine how best to use it.

Here's what I've done with it so far, and how these preparations turned out:

Birch-cured whitefish gravlax.  I followed the method I used for maple-cured lake trout gravlax (in the book), but:  then I forgot about it in the back of the fridge for over a week.  Oops.  I was afraid it would be spoiled; instead, it is just very, very salty.  But the flavor, other than the oversalting, is good, and the texture is excellent, which I attribute to the birch syrup.  So I'll use it as I would salt cod, probably make something like a brandade, the Provencal dish of salt cod pureed together with potatoes, lots of garlic, olive oil or butter.  Maybe I'll work in some other seasonal things like ramps and watercress.

Pork chops marinated in birch syrup, ramps, and Sichuan pepper.  A couple hours ahead of cooking I brushed the chops with a couple of tablespoons of birch syrup, added chopped ramps, salted and peppered liberally, also a good sprinkling of roasted, ground Sichuan pepper (hua jiao).  On the grill, medium coals, 10 to 12 minutes total--excellent, and the interesting thing was, the birch syrup didn't burn as another sweetener would.  I'll look into this phenomenon further.

As a salad dressing component, birch syrup (you don't know how many times I've typed bitch while writing this post, and had to correct...) is superb, especially with assertive greens like watercress.  Since it brings both sweetness and acidity, you don't need vinegar or lemon juice in the dressing.  I've simply been mixing the birch, some sunflower oil, a wee bit of mustard, salt and pepper--terrific.  Shown here as the base for pan-fried trout with sauteed ramps and lardons, duck fat potatoes.

You experience the land and the season in a different way when you take up sugaring, and I'm as glad to have done it as I am that it's over.  I probably won't make birch syrup every year, and with three gallons of maple syrup in the pantry, I likely won't have to do as much next year.

On the other hand, I recently saw a link on Twitter to an article about making syrup from black walnut sap.  Oh, why did I have to look...?

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw