Sunday, August 9, 2015

Green Sauce

My current culinary obsession is a simple mix of chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, salt, and a splash of red wine vinegar.  We call it “green sauce.”  To call it salsa verde would give it some exotic flair, but also create confusion between the Italian version which, like mine, is mainly herbs, and the Mexican, which has a tomatillo base.  And anyway, the Italian salsa verde is likely to also include anchovies, capers, and other elaborations that I eschew, so in our house, green sauce it is.  

Odd little digression:  whenever I make green sauce I can’t help thinking of a Waitrose magazine article from years ago about Terence Conran, the British retail magnate and restaurateur.  The article described a typical summer gathering in Conran’s splendidly English garden, where the main course was grilled sliced sirloin with green sauce.  It seemed oh so civilized, and summery, and at once sophisticated and appealingly rustic.  Funny the things that impress you, and stick with you, at different points in your life.  Aside from the green sauce connection, I have no opinion whatsoever about Terence Conran.

As the tidal wave of fresh produce from garden and market begins to build through July and into August, our cooking becomes ever more rudimentary.  It’ a matter of light the fire, throw everything on the grill, bung it on a plate, devour.  Fresh romano beans, tomatoes, corn on the cob, new potatoes and mild sweet beets wrapped in foil and roasted in the coals—these things need little adornment.  But—they do benefit greatly from just the right adornment, and for me, for now, that is green sauce.  A summery herbed mayonnaise is lovely, but sometimes a bit heavy, generally too much work.  Traditional Genovese pesto is something I enjoy a couple times a summer, but basil’s assertive flavor can overpower delicate vegetables and cause palate fatigue.

And then, there’s just something about exalting humble parsley to a starring role that really appeals to me.  It does seem civilized, and grown-up, in a good way, the sign of a mature palate.  Mireille Johnston, in her excellent cookbook Cuisine of the Sun,  opines that the classic French dish pot au feu (boiled supper, in essence) can only really be appreciated by those over the age of 30.  The same can probably be said for green sauce.

While I wouldn’t push aside a plate of Sir Terence’s sirloin, I think fish is the perfect protein with green sauce.  We broiled some Lake Superior whitefish a few nights ago, served it up with oven-roasted potatoes and romano beans, a coal-roasted beet left over from a previous repast, and fresh green sauce—just perfect summer eating.  Cold roast veal with green sauce pops to mind as a dish that would be quite typical of an English summer supper, enjoyed al fresco.  But who ever roasts veal these days?  Pork loin could take its place very nicely.

Just writing about this kind of food makes me think I’ve unconsciously started channeling Elizabeth David….

But here, let’s get back to earth, with our feet firmly planted on mid-American northern turf.  I went out to the garden and gathered a handful of beans, a carrot, a watermelon radish, a few ribs of celery, and parsley, of course.  Flat leaf, “Italian” parsley has the best flavor, I think, but I wound up with some curly parsley in my garden this year, too, by accident, so I used a bit of that.   From the market I had sungold tomatoes (absolute flavor bombs) and sweet corn.  Sliced a levain loaf and walnut bread.  Quickly whipped up a fresh batch of green sauce. A more elaborate lunch than is typical for us, but while the season provides this kind of bounty, I’ll happily skip the tuna fish sandwiches.  Such a light and flavorful lunch, and how colorful!

I’ve never measured the ingredients for green sauce.  It’s a handful of parsley, chopped as fine or coarse as you please, a good clove of garlic, or a couple puny ones, minced very fine though not quite to a paste. Then olive oil, enough to inundate the herbs and make it a sauce rather than a paste (pesto), a splash of good red wine vinegar, just enough to bring an edge of acid, not so much that it becomes vinaigrette.  You could use lemon juice instead of vinegar, that’s the only substitution I’ll approve.  Salt, plenty, gray sea salt if you have it.

Needless to say, but as this sauce is predominantly olive oil, you want to use a good, flavorful oil.  For years I was devoted to Zoe Spanish olive oil, but lately we’ve been buying, and enjoying, the extra virgin kalamata olive oil from Trader Joe’s. 

DO NOT ADD PEPPER! I’m sorry, you just can’t.  Because, that’s why.  Pepper doesn’t go in green sauce, not in mine, anyway.

Now, you could vary the herb component, add a little chervil, maybe some leaves of thyme.  But I wouldn’t let basil anywhere near my green sauce.  Well, maybe the tiniest bit, and only in early summer, when the basil is still mild-mannered, not the bossy, arrogant, anise-scented basil of July and August.  And of course, you could go full-on salsa verde with the anchovies, capers, etc. 

But then, it wouldn’t be green sauce.  It would have lost its innocence, scuttled its essential simplicity.  Why did I even bring that up?  This sauce is perfect.  Enjoy it before our fleeting summer flees....

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Blueberry-Lemon-Ginger Jam

I’m not canning any jams or jellies this year.  I’ve rarely done large-scale preserve-making, preferring to grab a couple cups of raspberries, currants, or wild blackberries, and make a pint or two, or even less.  I’m often enticed by the beauty of fresh summer fruits, especially wild varieties, to put by some preserves, but the thing is, even a half-pint of jam or jelly goes a long way around here.  Our tastes run much more to the savory side, and we're not big breakfast eaters, so the fruit preserves tend to sit in a jam and jelly museum, through which I may meander once or twice a year, pondering this historical record of fruits preserved, considering their context—“Oh, there’s some of that wild grape jelly I made in ’08, the year the big wind blew down all those trees at Casey Lake, and with them their cargo of loaded grape vines!”

It’s amusing, to be sure, but not really worth it, in the long run.

The title of this post might seem to belie my no-canning intention; but note that I didn’t say I wasn’t making any jams or jellies, only that I’m not making them for storage or, as more often happens here, posterity.  We picked some blueberries at our friend Tina’s impromptu U-Pick operation last weekend, just a couple of pounds, and I came home with a clear plan:  freeze some; dry some; and make a small batch of jam for immediate use. 

And by golly, having a plan does sometimes work:  I have a couple trays of berries drying in low convection in the oven right now, a quart bag in the freezer, and one micro-batch of blueberry-lemon-ginger jam in the fridge.  It’s very low in sugar, so it won’t keep that long.  I’m hoping we consume it by the end of this weekend.  Then maybe I’ll go get some more berries.

I got a good start on it today with this lunch of homemade bread—a dense sorghum-cornmeal-rye loaf, and some chewy pain de campagne—with a wedge of Dandelion Addiction cheese from up Bayfield way, and a few spoonfuls of preserves.  With the minimal amount of sugar in the jam, it didn’t overwhelm the fairly mild cheese, and you can still really taste the blueberries. 

I couldn’t get my Ikea scale to switch from metric to American measures this morning.  Perhaps it’s just having a stubborn Swedish moment.  So all the measurements are metric, with my rough translations.

Blueberry-Lemon-Ginger Jam

360 grams (about 12 ounces) blueberries, fresh or frozen
50 grams (about 5 tablespoons) sugar
40 grams (about 6, 2-inch slices) crystallized ginger, chopped fairly small
Lemon zest, a couple 1-inch strips, minced
Juice of ½ lemon

Combine all in a heavy saucepan.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, then simmer briskly for about 8 minutes, until the berries are mostly, but not totally, broken down and the mixture is glossy and starting to thicken.  Cover and allow to cool in the pan, then transfer to a jar and refrigerate—but eat it as fast as you can!  It should last at least a couple of weeks in the fridge, I reckon.

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Tart Is Good!": Ode on Rhubarb and A Wild Spin on Rhubarb Chutney

Kim Ode (pron. OH-dee) was in our neighborhood last weekend to present a demo and talk about cooking with rhubarb, which has become her tart, seasonal calling card since she published Rhubarb Renaissance, the first title in the  Northern Plate series from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, in 2012.  Kim charmed a full house with stories about her rhubarb journey, from being gulled by a devious cousin into taking a big bite of a raw, naked stalk in her South Dakota childhood, to discovering the affinities and aversions of culinary rhubarb (ginger and shrimp, yes; beef, not so much).  As someone who has presented a few cooking demos and classes, I was amazed by Kim’s ability to measure and mix ingredients for savory rhubarb and cheese biscuits—a fairly precise formulation—all the while keeping up a calm, conversational patter in front of nearly 30 people.  When I expressed my admiration for her on-stage calm and efficiency, she replied: “Well, there have been incidents…”.

Bide-A-While rhubarb patch

Several people in the audience mentioned that their rhubarb patches had been propagated from divisions gathered from a parent’s patch, or grandma’s garden, the family farmstead, which led me to think that that’s the true sense of an heirloom vegetable, one literally passed down from generation to generation, by hand.  And that may be why so many people have a sentimental attachment to rhubarb, and why they’re so grateful to Kim Ode for showing them how to take rhubarb beyond the typical strawberry-rhubarb concoctions (Kim included one, count it, exactly one rhubarb-strawberry recipe in her book).
In addition to the biscuits, which baked up brown and crusty, with the cheese and rhubarb dancing dos-si-dos in an appealingly chewy crumb, Kim mixed up a kale salad with pickled rhubarb.  I prepared a couple of Kim’s recipes to round out a rhubarbish buffet.  I made Gingery Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake, and in the course of preparing it, it occurred to me that I had never, ever, in my whole entire life, actually baked a cake from scratch.  How could this be?  And yet I swear it is so.  I sort of freaked out when that realization started to sink in—it was about the time I realized that the butter I was trying to cream with sugar should have been much softer, as it just glommed on to the beater and the sides of the bowl, and went dismally round and round, not becoming creamed and fluffy, at all.  But I forged ahead, and in the end it came out well, delicious, in fact—wh ich is a testament to a well-written recipe, if even a total neophyte bad at following instructions (moi) can have success.

And I made a rhubarb chutney that Kim suggests be served on crostini spread with a goat cheese-cream cheese blend and garnished with prosciutto.  I simplified by serving it on crackers and 86ing the ham.  It was fabulous, addictive, I dare say, sweet, tart, and spicy, flavored with ginger, garlic, and jalapeno, and bulked up with dried apricots.
It got me to thinking that I could easily substitute wild and local ingredients for some of the chutney components, to make it more Trout Caviar friendly.  So I made a batch back home in which I subbed maple syrup for the brown sugar, chopped ramps in place of garlic; dried apples from our trees took the place of the apricots, and some kick-ass fermented chile paste my friend Melinda gave me brought a throbbing heat.  My palate leans toward the savory more than the sweet, so I upped the tartness with extra rhubarb.  I firmly endorse Kim’s book-signing tagline:  “Tart is good!”

One other wild element:  little bits of peeled wood nettle stem gave some crunch to the chutney’s texture and made a nice color contrast, the pale green nettle nuggets playing against the pink background, reminiscent of the pink and green madras plaid sports jackets and shorts my preppie friends used to favor, back in the day.  Whatever happened to all the preppies (ou sont les preppies d’antan…?)?  Wood nettles are one of my favorite wild greens (I say this every year about this time).  You can use the leaves like any young greens, though they are delicate when young, so be careful not to overcook.  Then there are the stems which, when peeled—and they peel very easily—are crunchy crisp and mildly sweet, haricots verts du bois, if you will, or as I’m also wont to say, my favorite trailside crudité (goodness, I’m quite French-y and rhyme-y this morning!).

Not to overlook the obvious: wood nettles sting at least as vigorously as stinging nettles, and like stinging nettles, they lose their sting when exposed to heat, as in blanching in boiling water for a minute.

The result of my wild alterations to the chutney: quite, quite edible.  And beautiful.  We served it with some farmstead cheese from Cosmic Wheel Creamery, the new venture from Rama Hoffpauir and Josh Bryceson, growers at Turnip Rock Farm.  

Kim noted that in working the rhubarb circuit she has found that very few people are on the fence about rhubarb, that it’s generally love or hate.  But me, I’m still kind of in the middle.  I am by no means a rhubarb lover.  I find I don’t care much for the typical rhubarb desserts (I did enjoy my upside-down cake, but maybe that’s just baker’s vanity!).  My fondest rhubarb memories still center around the patch we had at my childhood home in Eden Prairie, and eating stalks nibble by nibble, each tiny bite equal parts sugar and rhubarb.  But I’m intrigued by its uses in savory applications, like this chutney, and I’ll probably experiment a bit more each spring.  Call me rhubarb-curious.
Forager's lunch on black cherry slab

This chutney is great in Kim’s original recipe, a dollop on a crostini or cracker first spread with a 1:1 mix of goat cheese and cream cheese.  It also nicely complements a well-flavored aged cheese, and, for what it’s worth, thinly sliced smoked venison.

Wild and Local Rhubarb Chutney (after Kim Ode & Rhubarb Renaissance)

1/3 cup maple syrup
2 cups rhubarb in 1" pieces
4 ramp bulbs minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger root minced
1/3 cup dried apples chopped small
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Pinch salt
Chile or sambal to taste, or chopped fresh jalapeno
1/4 cup wood nettle stems, peeled, chopped in 1/4" pieces

Combine all but nettle stems. Bring to a boil and stir until the rhubarb starts to break down and exude its juices (rhubarb is about 90%  water). Then simmer for 8-10 minutes, until it is thick and jammy. Add the nettle stems and cook 1 minute more. Cool thoroughly before serving. Best if made a few hours to a day ahead. Will keep for a couple weeks in the fridge.  Makes about 2 cups.

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Season of the Ramp

It’s always a lovely thing to make that first foray to southeastern Minnesota trout waters in mid-April, for many reasons.  The drive south is exhilarating, as I cross tiny Hay Creek at the corner of our property and then trace the southward route of its flow that begins in springs just up the valley from us.  It finds its way to the Red Cedar River, and that pours into the broad, meandering Chippewa, a mighty waterway of this region.  The Chipp is wide, and in springtime often muddy and roiling, when it reaches the Mississippi; impressive as the Chippewa can be, it is shown its place by the Father of Waters, moving majestically, escorted by swans, gulls, and eagles, through the grand castellations of limestone bluffs.

Once across the Mighty One and into Minnesota, I now proceed against the flow, up the Whitewater and tributaries thereof, to fish more intimate water.  This modest journey is a compelling reminder of how hydrology and geology shape our lives in these parts, and the circular nature of a raindrop’s path from northern Dunn County to the sea, perhaps one day to be deposited back where it started, is appropriate to the beginning of another cycle of seasons—the beginning as we think of it here, as winter’s cold static grip is broken, and things again begin to flow, and grow.

And then, of course, it is delightful to get the wading boots wet again, string up the rod, tie on a fly, try to catch a fish.  Early season fishing is usually good, except when it’s not.  Or better to say:  the fishing is always good, but the catching may vary.

Something more certain than whether there will be fish in the creel on the homeward trip is the likelihood of taking home tasty greens.  Watercress springs are a pretty sure bet, and even when winter has been annoyingly persistent I’ve always managed to bring home at least a few decent sized ramps on that first outing, usually a few days past tax time.  It will be another couple of weeks, at least, before they’ve reached picking size in my local woods; that hour-plus drive south is a fast-forward through the season, as well.

I first became aware of ramps along a Wisconsin river maybe 20 years ago, and I’ve harvested them every year since.  Some years I’ve become tired of eating them before their season is out; some years I’ve grown jaded by the hype that has come to surround them in foodie circles.  This year, perhaps more than any other, I’ve simply embraced ramps for the seasonal delight that they are, and I’ve been eating them pretty much every day.  I haven’t really come up with any stunning new preparations of what is, really, just a wild onion, but I’ve explored its versatility by treating it as a commonplace, rather than an exotic, ingredient.

Rice bowl with brook trout, ramps, asparagus, pheasant back mushroom.

I’ve put ramps on pizza, into salad dressings, chopped into a soy-based sauce that anointed a rice bowl meal, and stir-fried for the same.  I made my chile-cheddar spread with ramps instead of onion, and slapped my head when it occurred to me I could have done that with the recipe in my book.  The ramp-infused version of that pimiento cheese variation is outstanding.  I’ve added them to a potato soufflé also   laced with chopped wood nettles, and used them to flavor a birch syrup cure for duck breast that I smoked using wild black cherry wood.

Cherry wood smoked duck magret, cured in birch syrup & ramps; bracken fiddleheads.

I made a bearnasie sauce where ramps stood in for the usual shallots, and ramp-roasted brown trout served with schupfnudeln fried with ramps and bacon, and the ramped up remoulade I wrote about recently.  Whole lotta rampin’ goin’ on….

Grilled herring with "rampearnaise;" the sauce was second-day salvage & broke a bit. Still delicious.

And still, I just want to keep eating ramps.  Maybe with age my taste buds are dulling.  I would prefer to think that the great variety of ways I’ve used them is keeping the flavor fresh and intriguing.  I’ve got a bunch in the fridge still, getting a little wilted in the greens, so I think I will pickle the bulbs of those ones.  With the weather having cooled off a bit, their season in our parts should last until the end of May, at least.  We’ll see if my rampish appetite can keep up.  

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Celery Root Buttermilk Rampoulade

Seasonal eating in the North Country in spring often involves a collaboration between the root cellar and the first wild greens.  So it was with this version of celery root remoulade spiked with pungent chopped ramps.

Nothing fancy, a simple roster of ingredients.  While my standard celeri remoulade uses sour cream, the buttermilk employed in this version brings a tangy lightness--and combined with the onion-garlic-chive flavors of the ramps, it creates a sort of ranch dressing feel, but subtle, even elegant.

Celery root requires a lot of cleaning up to be presentable.

Using the medium-fine side of a Microplane box grater produces delicate celery root snow--neige de celeri, bien sur!

Chop the ramps fine, including a little bit of the green.

Mix it all up.  A squeeze of lemon juice perks it up and brings all the flavors together.  It's good when made at least a few hours ahead, so the flavors blend.

Celeri buttermilk rampoulade

serves 2 to 3 

4 ounces trimmed celery root
2 good pinches salt
6 tablespoons buttermilk
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
A squeeze of lemon juice
3 ramps, white, red and a bit of the green, finely chopped

Grate the celery root fairly small--the medium-fine side of a Microplane box grater is ideal.  Add all the other ingredients and mix well.  Taste for salt.  Allow to sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving; it can be made a day ahead, too.

This salad is our standby with steak tartare, of late.  It also accompanies smoked fish nicely, and would go well with anything off the grill.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

We Smoke Our Own, 2015 edition

In the spirit of re-embracing that cyclical, perennial essence of the natural world of which food—real food—is a part, it’s probably worthwhile to take up again the basics of home smoking.  Brown trout are on the roster here, but the same basic principles apply to pretty much any kind of smoking.  To take away any stigma of the arcane or difficult about the process:  hot smoking, which is what constitutes the vast majority of home smoking, is simply indirect grilling at a fairly low temperature while adding smoke.

Trout, having been brined.

First you obtain a piece of flesh, then you cure it with a brine or a rub, next you build a fire, finally you cook that brined meat in low, smoky, indirect heat until it is well saturated with smoke, and cooked through.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s fish, pork belly, pork shoulder, chicken, venison, beef brisket.  If it’s something that spends a relatively short time in the smoke, like fish or bacon, we call it smoking; if it takes many hours to do the job, we tend to call it barbeque.  Same basic process.

So as not to overlook the obvious:  cooking with indirect heat simply means the meat is not sitting directly over the coals, as it would be when you grill a steak or a burger.  The coals are on one side of the grill, the meat on the other.  Simple as that.

Fish at the back, coals in the front.

The only difficult part of the task, in this age of constant distraction, is remembering to get your meat brined a day or two ahead, depending on size and what exactly you’re going for.  With these brown trout in the 12-inch range, an overnight wet brine is plenty.  My basic fish brine consists of 2 tablespoons each of salt and brown sugar per cup of water; that translates to ½ cup each salt and brown sugar/1 quart water.  I start with hot tap water, add the salt and sugar, stir to dissolve, let it sit until cool (or if impatient add a few ice cubes).

An instant-read thermometer stuck through the top vent gets you close enough.

The next morning, the fish sit out on a rack to dry a bit before being smoked.  In a smoker—just a regular home bbq grill, Meco my preference—maintained at around 200-250 degrees, the fish will be done in a couple of hours.  When the skin has that gorgeous reddish-gold smoky hue and the flesh feels firm to the touch, they’re ready.

For most people, the natural chunk charcoal (such as Cowboy brand) that’s widely available now will be the best choice for a heat source.  Briquets can be used in a pinch, I guess, but for god’s sake don’t start the fire with lighter fluid.  It kind of amazes me that they still sell that stuff.  A chimney starter is the way to go.

Foreground, grill purification by fire; background, why we don't buy charcoal.

These days I build a fire with local oak and use those coals as my heat source, usually adding apple wood for the smoke--the oak coals bring their own distinctive smokiness, too.  The apple wood is also locally harvested, and I just use whatever pieces are easy to obtain.  A lot of smoking guides tell you to soak your wood chips, if that’s what you’re using, and I suppose if the chips are very small this makes sense, but in general I don’t think it’s necessary; you’re trying to make smoke, not steam, and soaked chips are just going to steam until they finally dry out and burn.  I’m all for cutting out superfluous steps embedded in common practice by constant, unthinking repetition.

Smoked browns with celeri buttermilk rampoulade.

In general, I smoke food for the flavor—and other delectable qualities—it imparts, rather than for preservation.  With stream trout, though, extending the delicious life of the fish is part of the reason for smoking.  A fresh fish is good for four or five days (and sometimes actually improves with two or three days aging), while smoked fish will keep for two weeks or more.  I don’t feel that smoked fish freezes very well—when it’s thawed it can be watery, with a grainy texture.  Better, I think, to freeze fresh fish and then smoke it afterward, if you so desire.

Smoked trout can be a centerpiece of a plate, rounded out with a couple of salads.  And it’s a great ingredient for chowder, and appetizer spread, fish cakes, smoky trout brandade…. Many possibilities.  If you’re not a fan of the angling arts, or trout are out of season, you can always buy farmed rainbow trout, a sustainable product, and a tasty one, at that.  Also, this same method can be used with other kinds of fish—I’ve done it with Lake Superior herring, whitefish, and lake trout. 

There’s just a lot of satisfaction in smoking your own.  Have a try.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Back to the Stream 2015

I inaugurated the 2015 fishing season on Sunday with a trip to the Whitewater region of southeastern Minnesota.  It has become my tradition over the years to make a trip or three to Minnesota waters in the second half of April.  The regular (i.e., catch and kill, rather than catch and release) season in Minnesota opens a couple of weeks earlier than in Wisconsin, which opens for hook ‘em & cook ‘em the first Saturday of May, Kentucky Derby day.  Both states have lengthy catch and release seasons during the winter and early spring months, and some years ago I did fish Wisconsin streams in April.  You can have some impressive days of catching fish if you come upon an early mayfly, stonefly, or caddis fly emergence.  Also, it just seems that the fish are less wary at that time of year, maybe because there hasn’t been too much to eat over the winter.

But I have eschewed the early season fishing in recent years because I don’t agree with the catch and release “ethic.”  As much as I appreciate all the aesthetic aspects of flyfishing for trout, I’m a meat fisherman at heart, and I don’t like the “moral” distinctions that some catch and release advocates apply to the legitimate choices available to those who practice this pastime.  So I generally back up my position by not stringing up my rod unless there’s a legal opportunity to put a trout or two in my creel.  Which is not to say I won’t waver in my convictions on some bluebird day during the early season, maybe even next April; or indeed that I won’t find a principled justification for poaching the odd trout.  You just never know.  It pays to keep your options open.

I hadn’t been planning to round up the gear and head for the stream on Sunday, but when I looked at the week ahead it suddenly seemed like one of the few days I would be able to get away.  We have this new little creature in the house, a nine-week-old griffon puppy named Gracie, and she’s pretty high maintenance.  Actually she’s a sweetheart, and worth all the trouble (so far), but with Mary away at work part of the week, I knew I would have to be around the house, and then there were other obligations on other days…. It’s just really unconscionable that life often shows so little regard for fishing.

Sunday was actually looking like a prime day for fishing—overcast and spitting a bit, but not too cold or windy, and no downpours in the forecast.  My only reluctance arose from the fact that the Minnesota trout season had opened just the day before, and opening weekend can bring out crowds of fisherfolk who in those conditions do not always display the finest aspects of their nature.  Still I figured it would be worth a shot in the slightly rainy conditions; with some years of experience on southeastern Minnesota streams, and a little patience, I thought I’d be able to find some quiet water to fish.

There weren’t many vehicles parked along the branch of the Whitewater River, a nice surprise.  But when I reached the DNR lot in the wildlife management area through which the river flows, six vehicles had beaten me there—not much of a surprise there, since it was already late morning.  I hesitated only briefly.  There were miles of river upstream from here, with no easy public access.  It was also likely that some of the vehicles had arrived together for an opening weekend gathering, and so the fishermen would be clumped.  And then, if nothing else, it was a pleasant enough day for a walk in the woods.  I was pretty sure the ramps would be up, and so I would find something edible to take home.

I’ve been fly fishing for 25 years now, so recalling how to put a rod together and tie on a fly is not difficult, even if I haven’t done it in the last seven months.  I walked in waders, wading boots, vest, and a faded Badgers baseball hat down the rutted two-track with a steep wooded hill on my right and a stubble cornfield on my left.  Beyond the cornfield, across the river, limestone bluffs aspired, with birches, pine, and aspen on their flanks.  It’s a spectacular valley, and there are many good reasons to visit there, but it’s fishing that I know will always bring me back.

I had planned a good long hike to assure myself some undisturbed fishing, but as I came over a rise five minutes or less into my walk, I looked to the left and saw the river through the still leafless trees, and it looked like nice riffle water, and I saw no one fishing it.  My habit had always been to hike well upstream from here, but then aren’t habits made to be broken, I asked myself?  So I made the premature diversion thinking, well, if the hoards descend, I’ll revert to Plan A.  But it turned out to be a good call, with no need for second thoughts.  I fished happily for about three hours, and saw exactly three other people, at a distance.  No one walked into my water, and I did not round a bend to discover a party of raucous metal-chuckers.  It was an opening weekend miracle.

It wasn’t looking like a dry fly day: no rising fish, no apparent insect activity.  I tied on a girdle bug, a simple concoction of black chenille and white rubber legs; and then to a length of tippet tied to the bend in the girdle bug’s hook I knotted on a small hare’s ear nymph, which to the layman’s eye looks like a little brown fur wound around a hook, because that’s pretty much what it is.  Flies don’t necessarily have to be fancy to fool fish.

I waded into the stream in a shallow riffle with a rocky bottom, and as I sensed the water rushing over the top of my boots my blood rushed, too, with a sense of exhilaration.  Fishing writing can easily go over the top with evocations of mystical communion between the fisher and the natural world, but is indeed something of a sense of rebirth when you first step into a river after the long off-season.

Or as Nick Adams might have said: It was good.

Right away then, the fishing proved to be good, too.  Below the riffle where I entered the river the current divided into runs along either bank.  Casting first to the left I had a hit on my third cast, and failed to hook the fish, and then another hit a few casts later, and again my timing was off.  Nothing more on that side, but I was encouraged to know the fish were active, looking for food.  Casting then to the slightly deeper run on the right side, I lifted my arm after my third cast and saw the rod take on that splendid bend, and felt the line go taut, and there it was, fish on for the first time in 2015.

It was a lovely fish, too, a deep, chunky brown trout gold along its flanks, probably a little more than a foot long.  Meat fisherman though I am, I observe a small ritual of always releasing the first fish of the year, so once I had reeled the fish in close I ran my hand down the leader until I could grab the hare’s ear nymph stuck in the side of the trout’s lower jaw, gave it a quick twist and watched the fish turn and dive to safety on the bottom.  I never touched the fish or brought it out of the water.  
And from there the afternoon proceeded like…a really nice afternoon of fishing.  The only real negative was seeing several styrofoam worm containers discarded along the streambanks, which was irksome for two reasons--mainly because of the littering, also because this section of river is designated artificials only, no live bait allowed.  (The no worms rule was instituted to support a catch and release fishery, so I should probably feel a little more umbrage about it, if I were consistent.  When a fish goes for live bait it will often completely swallow the hook; this almost never happens with flies or other artificial lures.)

Probably the highlight—which was also, ironically, the biggest disappointment—was hooking a really good fish in a deep run not far downstream from where I started.  I cast across the run and let the flies sink and sweep through, and about in mid-stream my line took a jolt, my rod bent violently, and the reel whined as line peeled off.  I tussled with the fish for a bit, until it moved upstream, took the line down.  As the line went down I also had a sinking feeling.  One moment I was experiencing the thrill of playing a really nice fish; the next I was still standing there with the line taut, rod in that dynamic curve, yet everything was different.  The trout, which had taken the nymph, had found a log along the bottom of the stream and swum under it; the hook of the girdle bug had gotten stuck in the log, allowing the fish to break the tippet and swim away.  All I could do was roll up my sleeve, reach down the leader as far as I could without going snorkeling, give a tug and break the tippet.  I was lucky that the tippet broke right where it was tied to the hook, and I didn’t have to perform major leader repair.

I caught a few more fish, including one that was just barely under 12 inches, and that fish went in the creel.  Careful measurement is required on this stream to observe the regulations, for there is a no-kill slot of 12 to 16 inches, meaning all fish in that range must be released.  You are allowed to keep five fish under 12 inches, or four under 12 and one over 16.  I don’t think I’ve ever caught a 16-inch trout in that stream.

Although brook trout were native to this region, the introduced “German” brown trout now predominates.  I’ve never heard or seen them referred to as an invasive species, though.

The ramps were indeed in prime condition on this 18th day of April, and I picked a nice sack full.  A spring trickles through the ramps patch, and this year it was wearing a lovely coat of green—nice, perky watercress.  I brought some of that home, too.  Also a few sprigs of mint growing along the streamside path, which I used to make a sort of julep with a bit of birch syrup and 2 Gingers whiskey.  I noticed other wild edibles:  garlic mustard (always referred to as an invasive species) and stinging nettles.  When I have ramps and cress I’m not that interested in garlic mustard, and I have nettles a’plenty all around the edges of my yard.

With the opening day’s bounty from stream and woods I made a simple, seasonal meal.  I fileted the trout, chopped the bones and put them in a saucepan with a chopped shallot, stuck that in a hot oven to brown up.  Then I added some white wine, chicken stock and water, and let it reduce and infuse, still in the oven.   

To anchor the plate I prepared a recipe I had never made before, “schupfnudeln” from David Bouley’s East of Paris.  It’s a sort of noodle-gnocci hybrid, a potato dough with egg and butter that you roll with your hands into short, thick noodles.  It was really easy to work with, and very tasty, and I’m thinking I may make a couple big batches to freeze, since I have a lot of potatoes in the basement that aren’t going to be good for much longer.

You boil the nudeln, then brown them in a fry pan.  For the fat I chopped a little of our home-smoked bacon.  As the noodles were starting to brown I tossed in a couple generous handfuls of chopped ramps, mainly the bottom white and red part.  I also chopped a good handful of the ramp greens and added these to some melted butter.  The butter I brushed on the skin side of the trout before sticking it in a hot convection oven, and cooked it until it just started to brown.

I added a little more wine and a little butter to the reduced stock/sauce at the end.  Laid down a bed of the lovely brown, fragrant, bacony noodles, some fresh cress on top of that, spooned the sauce over that, and crowned it with the trout.  

This, to me, is the sort of meal so emblematic of the way we live, of the way we have chosen to live and eat, that it’s beyond the realm of food criticism of any traditional sort.  But it was wonderful, and we cleaned our plates.

That’s my story of the first fishing outing, and first trout stream meal of 2015.  If you’ve made it this far, I thank and applaud you.  It’s a perennial story that I always feel is worth telling again.  I hope you enjoyed it.