Friday, March 20, 2015

Greeting Spring Greenly

It seems every bit appropriate to write about first fresh, green harvest of the year, watercress, on the first day of spring.  I generally gather the year's first cress from a lovely Dunn County spring that seeps from a modest limestone outcropping and slides a dozen long paces before it freshens a sweet little stream; the stream has a name, but I’ve forgotten it.  It’s one of those myriad trout streams, as designated by the State of Wisconsin DNR, which, when you look at the published map showing all such waters, could fool you into thinking that our neighborhood would be a trout fisher’s paradise.  Northern Dunn and southern Barron Counties are as thickly veined with trout streams—color-coded blue, red, yellow, and green—as a diagram of the circulatory system.  But few are worth the trouble to explore; shallow, sandy, alder-choked or simply so tiny that a flycaster would need a marksman’s precision just to land a fly on the water.  But I digress.  It happens.  Have you been here before?

The stream whose name I know not is nonetheless a pretty stream with lots of character, riffle water, bends, promising pools for local kids to either drop a worm into or wade and splash in on a hot summer day.  As winter departs the spring, perhaps 10 feet wide, becomes carpeted with glistening cress, variegated light and darker green, with intimations of reddish veining and browned patches, scars from the last hard freezes.  I mentioned picking cress, but really I snip it—if I’ve had the forethought to bring a pair of scissors.  By snipping the upper leaves I disturb the roots as little as possible, making it a sustainable harvest.  If I don’t have scissors I use my pocket knife to trim the top rosettes.  Half a plastic grocery sack provides plenty of cress to work with for a few meals.

First and best is simply to eat it raw, and lightly dressed (if you’re eating raw cress be sure it comes from a spring or headwaters that hasn’t run through grazing land, particularly where sheep abide).  A straight-up watercress salad is often extremely assertive, but in early spring its peppery pungency is usually tolerable—and a welcome wake-up call to taste buds somewhat dulled by root cellar dining.

Watercress can be used as an herb.  In my cookbook I use it in a pesto with ramps, and to give green relief to celeri remoulade.  The first thing I did with this year’s first snipping was to make a watercress mayonnaise.  Though I almost always make mayo the old-fashioned way, with a bowl and a whisk, I used an immersion blender for this one, for three reasons:

1)      Laziness
2)      So as to really puree the cress into the mayo, and
3)      The immersion blender is a fairly new toy that I haven’t done much with

We smeared the mayo on bread to make bacon sandwiches, and also kept the extra on hand to dunk oven fries from garden potatoes.  In the manner of the old lady who swallowed a fly, the story of this simple, but rather labor-intensive meal, was this: 

I snipped the cress 
to make a mayo
to dress the fresh bread
that made a bed
for the bacon I smoked
from belly that bathed
in maple I tapped
from our own trees
a year ago, or so.

So, how are we doing with the old “eat local challenge” concept that well-meaning folks trot out to promote local produce, usually in September, when eating locally is at its least challenging?  Well, the bread was homemade and leavened with our now 12-year-old sourdough starter and all MN and ND flours; the bacon from MN-based Pastures A’Plenty pork belly cured in our own maple syrup and foreign salt; the mayo contained that Dunn County cress, Ridgeland eggs (Chicken Creek Ranch on county AA), Smude MN cold-pressed sunflower oil, and foreign salt and lemon juice; oven fries from our garden potatoes cooked in duck fat we rendered and more of the Smude oil; carrot slaw with local grower Kate Stout’s wonderful carrots, some of our garden shallots, Smude oil, our cider vinegar.

I would say we’ve met the challenge.  I go through this list not to gloat about how localler-than-thou our diet is, but to illustrate the fact that local eating year-round is eminently doable, even here in the frozen north.  You just keep a very local pantry, is all, and seek out your local producers.  It’s not that hard.  They’re not hiding, and actually want to be found, so they can sell you stuff!  Co-ops of course are a great place to start in shopping local, and there are many farmers markets that keep going through the winter, as well.

None of this is anything new.  I myself have made the point about a thousand times in various ways.  But as I reboot Trout Caviar I’m embracing the perennial, roundabout, here-we-go-again nature of, well, nature, and seasonal eating, which expresses nature in a very intimate and, I hope, delicious way.

The nose knows....

If you want to make watercress mayonnaise you could take as simple an approach as obtaining some watercress, mincing it well, and mixing it into prepared mayonnaise.  I am not opposed to storebought mayo, in fact am on record as a Hellmann’s devotee for many uses (including eating it right off the spoon).  But I think Hellmann’s has too strong a flavor profile, and would drown out the cress which, while very assertive when eaten straight, can get lost in a rich base like mayo.  So a homemade mayo with a milder oil (sunflower, canola; probably not EVOO, or with only a little of it) is the best way to appreciate the tonic bite of springtime cress.  For this particular one, made with the immersion blender, I more or less followed the method I found on this blog.. 

But I found that:

1)      I had to add a fair amount of oil right at the beginning, just to get the blending started;
2)      In the end, with 2 yolks to a cup of oil, it made a much stiffer mayo than I like; I’d try it next time with a whole egg and a yolk, or maybe just the whole egg.  At any rate, it made a mayo that is NOT going to break.  EVER.

Happy spring.

Text and photographs copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Starting Now

Our local food year starts, appropriately enough, with the first upwellings of sap from the maples.  Cold and clear, only barely sweet, maple sap straight from the tree carries the flavor of a small miracle.  Through it we tap in—literally and figuratively—to a perennial process that encapsulates what it means to live and eat seasonally like nothing else.  In the fall the trees sent all their resources down into their roots, to safeguard them through the long dormant season.  As days grow longer to the equinox’s tipping point, and the thaw-freeze cycle starts and continues, the trees call up that liquid food—it’s used to make leaves that enable to trees to utilize the sun’s energy, to make more leaves, to make seeds that make more trees, all of it cyclical, like the seasons, endless rise and fall and rise again.

We intercept the sap as it travels—simple enough, drill a little hole, stick in a tap, or spile, hang a bucket or a bag, collect sap, and when you have a quantity cook it down until most of the water is gone, all the sweetness remains.  Homemade maple syrup has qualities of terroir (the French term most often applied to wine), I believe; especially when the syrup is infused with traces of smoke from a fire stoked with wood from the same hillside where the maple trees grow.  All maple syrup is good; maple syrup from your own trees is both good and meaningful, and deeply satisfying.

I’ve been pretty slackardly in keeping up Trout Caviar for the last couple of years.  This year I’m going to make an effort to get back on top of it and document a year in local food from where we sit, at Bide-A-While just down the road from Bide-A-Wee in northern Dunn County, township of Wilson just southeast of Ridgeland, Wisconsin.  Starting now.  I tapped three maple trees today; the sap had not yet started to run.  But conditions over the next week and more look perfect--highs near 50, lows in the 20s.  It will be flowing very soon.

Lily found a really nice stick.  So awesome.


Mary made tartlets today, very local in nature, and appropriate to the early spring theme.  She wanted to test the recipe for the Maple Madness Cook-Off that's part of the Hungry Turtle Weekend program  of classes and cooking demos happening in Amery next weekend, March 13-14.  The tarts use maple syrup, dried apples from our trees, Wisconsin hickory nuts, dried cranberries.

The original recipe was for something called Ecclefechan tarts—it came along with a knitting pattern Mary bought a while back, Ecclefechan being a town in Scotland.  We’ve changed it up enough to make it our own.  We made these for a dinner/class at the Palate kitchen store in Stockholm, WI last spring, and came up with a fancy little accompaniment, the chevre maple cream, as below.  The tartness of the chevre works nicely against the sweetness of the tarts, but regular whipped cream would be great, too.  Or just eat them plain, with a cup o' tea.

Hickory Nut & Maple Tart(let)s with Dried Fruit
Makes 8 four-inch tarts or 24 tartlets

200 grams (1 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
120 grams (1 stick; or 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
Water if needed (Mary has found that water is usually needed, up to 1/4 cup; start adding 1 tablespoon at a time)

Cut the butter into ½-inch pieces and rub it into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugars and the salt, mixing well. Stir in the egg yolk and mix well. If the mixture is crumbly, add cold water a tablespoon at a time until you can form a dough that holds together. Knead very briefly, just so all the ingredients are well combined. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

50 grams (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
50 grams (3 tablespoons) maple syrup
100 grams (7 tablespoons; or a stick minus 1 tablespoon) butter
1 egg
50 grams (1/2 cup) ground almonds
50 grams (1/2 cup) coarsely chopped hickory nuts (or substitute walnuts, pecans, or almonds)
30 grams (1/2 cup, packed) dried apples, chopped
60 grams (generous ½ cup) dried cranberries
1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine the sugar, salt, syrup, and butter in a small saucepan, and place on low heat until the butter melts. Add the fruits and nuts and let this mixture cool for several minutes, then mix in the egg.

Roll the pastry out into a layer about 1/6-inch thick. Cut rounds appropriate to the pans you're using--mini tart pans, muffin tins, etc. Fit the pastry rounds into the pans, fill 1/2 full.

Bake at 375 until the pastry is golden brown and the filling brown and nicely puffed up. Depending on the the size of the tarts, this will take 25 to 30 minutes. Check after 15 minutes, then every 5 minutes until they're done.  Serve with chevre maple cream, plain whipped cream, a slice of sharp aged gouda or cheddar, or just a cup of tea.

Chevre Maple Cream

2 oz fresh chèvre, at room temperature
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup unsweetened whipped cream

Combine the chèvre and syrup, and mixing with a fork until well blended. Fold in the whipped cream. Refrigerate until ready to use.