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