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