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.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sweet Trees X3

Boiling birch on the left, maple on the right.

Sugaring season came to an end this week.  The birches were running pretty good for a few days, but with afternoons in the sunny 60s the sap doesn’t keep.  The maples slowed and then dried up a good week ago, and are now breaking bud.  I also tapped our one big black walnut this year, but not soon enough to get much sap—enough to cook down to maybe a third of a cup, which isn’t bad, considering I only had about a half gallon of sap.  My minimal experience with black walnut tells me that the sap is at least as concentrated in sugar as maple, and that it probably starts running at about the same time.  Since our black walnut tree is always extremely late to leaf out, I had assumed the sap would run late, too.  Not so.

I took a very low-key approach to sugaring this year.  I tapped about five maples, exactly two birches, and the one black walnut.  I left my half-assed sap contraption in mothballs, and just reduced the sap on our woodstove, very gradually, and did the final brief boiling on our gas cooktop.  The result was not any great quantity of anything, but the process did produce some observations.

Shades of maple: from left, first to fourth boilings of 2015 syrup, and one from 2014 at right.
The maple syrup was the lightest in color that I’ve ever made.  Even the fourth and final batch, from sap gathered just before the trees dried up, is medium amber at most—the last syrup is usually very dark, verging on what sometimes is sold as “grade B”.  So there’s less of a caramel taste to the maple, but it’s delicious just the same.

Slow birch 2015.
The “slow birch” also made a much lighter, more delicate syrup than hard-boiled versions I’ve done in the past.  It's a gorgeous color, reddish mahogany. There’s still an edge of acidity to it, but it’s rounder, without the aggressive, almost bitter bite of the darker stuff.  I suppose you could liken it to different roasts of the same coffee bean, from light to Vienna, French, espresso.  Actually, I think you could very much liken it to that.  I could see using the lighter stuff to drizzle over grilled or roasted vegetables, where the darker version works better combined with other ingredients, in vinaigrettes, marinades, or glazes.
Hard-boiled 2014 birch.

Finally, the walnut.  As I say, I wound up with about half a cup.  It’s much more like maple syrup than birch, which makes sense—maple and walnut trees are more closely related to each other than they are to birches, aspens, etc.  Also, I believe, though I don’t know for sure, that walnut syrup is composed of sucrose, as is maple syrup, while birch syrup contains mainly fructose and glucose.  I’m just going from taste, and common sense(?) on that.

Black walnut syrup.
The main thing I was aware of with the walnut syrup was trying NOT to describe its aroma or flavor as “nutty.”  I resisted that characterization mightily, and in the end, I failed.  The finished product definitely has a slight, but undeniable, aroma of toasted nuts to it, and a maple-level sweetness.  

There you go.  That’s the sugaring report.  I think all three kinds of syrup are worth making if you have access to a few trees.  And as with my previous explorations of micro-batch pickling and preserve making, I hope I’ve shown that you can have fun with DIY foods without going overboard into tedious mass production.  Sometimes a taste is enough.

Birch in the final reduction.
Next time it’s on to the nettles and other wild greens.  ‘Tis the season.  And it’s been mild enough of late that I think I’ll hit the garden today and plant some radishes, mache, lettuce, and peas.

The Bide-A-While tree syrups family portrait, 2015.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Few Tastes of Maple

I got a chance today to talk maple syrup cookery with Rob Ferrett on the Food Friday segement of Wisconsin Public Radio's Central Time and have compiled here a few of the recipes I mentioned on the show.  I've made this dish a lot lately, while testing the recipe out for the cook-off, at the cook-off, and then as the featured dish I prepared at Kate's Occasional Cafe at the Dairyland Cafe in Ridgeland this past week.  I'm still not tired of it.

Sichuan-Spiced Maple Chicken Wings (This recipe was inspired by Teresa Marrone’s Two-Pepper Maple Chicken Wings from Modern Maple.)

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 to 6 as an appetizer

Serve these spicy-sweet wings over a bowl of rice, accompanied by a stir-fried vegetable, for a main course; or as a zingy appetizer—keep a cold beer close at hand.

2 pounds chicken wings (about 10 wings), tips removed, separated in 2 pieces
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon oil (sunflower, canola, or the like)
2 teaspoons sambal chile paste (or to taste)
¼ cup maple syrup
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

Preheat your oven to 425.  Combine all the ingredients except the scallions in a large bowl and toss to coat the wings with the seasonings.  Place the wings and seasonings in a heavy roasting pan, and bake, stirring every 15 minutes or so, for 45 minutes.  Add the scallions and continue baking, stirring occasionally, until the wings are well browned and the seasonings have become a glaze that coats the wings.  This will probably take another 15 to 25 minutes.

Options:  For really dark and glazy wings, turn on the broiler for the last few minutes of cooking, and turn the wings a couple of times so they brown evenly, being careful that they don’t burn.
            If you have a convection feature on your oven, you can produce excellent results without resorting to the broiler.  Bake at 400 convection and check every 10 minutes, adding the scallions after 30 minutes.  Total cooking time with convection should be 40-45 minutes.

These wings can be made ahead and reheated before serving.  

Maple Spice Grilled Sirloin (original post here)
serves 4--next time I make this I'm going to try it with venison

1 1/2-2 pounds sirloin steak 

½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons sunflower or canola oil
1 teaspoon sambal oelek chile paste
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Pinch salt
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 large clove garlic minced
Combine all marinade ingredients and pour over the steak, coating well.  Marinate the steak for a couple of hours at room temp.  Prior to grilling remove the steak to a separate plate, saving the marinade.  Add hte marinade to 1/3 cup chicken stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. 
Grill the steak over hot natural wood coals to desired doneness--about 3 minutes per side for rare, 4 for medium rare.  Let the steak rest on a platter for at least 5 minutes; add the juices that the resting steak produces to the stock and marinade mixture.  Serve with grilled vegetables and salad. 

The Thighs Have It

In terms of underappreciated, tasty bargain meats, chicken thighs are right there with pork shoulder steaks, in my opinion.  The thigh is my preferred part of the bird, though I fully appreciate the wing thing, too.  Chicken wings prepared in a Sichuan dry-fried manner are an exquisite treat.  The thighs, though, are more accommodating in a knife-and-fork meal context, and when they are boneless, why, they make positively civilized eating--cooking them over nice smoky hardwood coals keeps them on the rustic side.

Ramps season is starting as the maple season ends, and I often wind up putting the two together, frequently on chicken.  This is a flavorful, simple dish to celebrate the return of grilling weather (well, comfortable grilling weather; we cook over the coals year-round).

A paillard is a flattened out piece of meat.  I wail away at my thighs with the side of a heavy cleaver--a meat mallet, or even a small sauté pan will get the job done.
Maple-Ramp Marinated Chicken Paillards
Serves two to three

4 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
½ cup chopped ramps, whites and greens
Juice of ¼ lemon, and some zest, if you like
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon sambal oelek chili paste (or more, to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Purchase boneless skin-on chicken thighs, or bone them yourself. Place one thigh at a time on a cutting board, and with a meat mallet, the side of a heavy cleaver, or a small, clean saucepan, pound each thigh vigorously until the meat is about ½ inch thick—the surface area of the thighs should nearly double.

Combine the rest of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and add the chicken, coating it well on all sides. Let the chicken marinate for at least 60 minutes at room temp, or longer in the fridge. When you’re ready to cook, prepare a fire of natural wood coals, and grill the chicken over medium-hot coals, turning often, for 12 to 15 minutes total. The chicken should be very well browned on both sides.

If you have extra ramps, toss a few in what remains of the marinade, and grill them along with the chicken.

Sweet & Sour (Tree Crop) Chard (original post)
serves two generously
5-6 good-sized chard leaves (2 cups chopped)
1/2 medium onion, sliced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chicken stock (or 1/2 cup stock, 1/2 cup water)
2 good pinches salt
a few grinds black pepper
2 to 3 tsp maple syrup
1 to 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
options: a bit of thyme, a small knob of butter stirred in at the end

Cut the thick ribs out of the chard leaves, and slice these diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces. Tear or cut each leaf into four or five pieces. Heat a 10-inch skillet or the like, and add the olive oil, then the onion and the chard rib pieces. Add a couple of pinches of salt, the stock (or stock and water, or water). Cover and cook over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, until the chard is starting to soften. Then add the chard leaves, and as soon as they wilt into the liquid add the vinegar and maple syrup. Cook uncovered for another three to four minutes, until the chard is tender to taste and the liquid is somewhat reduced. Taste for salt, sweet, and sour. Serve in a dish

Roast Baby Carrots with Maple-Mustard Glaze (original post)
2 cups baby carrots, scrubbed (mine weighed 9 ounces)
1 1/2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp canola or grapeseed oil
pinch of salt, grind of pepper

Combine all the above in a gratin dish or small baking dish. Roast, uncovered, at 375 for 45 minutes, until they become a little brown and glazy. Stir them every 15 minutes during this time.

Remove from the oven and add:

1 rounded tsp grain mustard
1/8 tsp piment d'espelette, or a good pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 tsp red wine vinegar

Add another grind of pepper, taste for salt. Serve warm or at room temp.