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.