Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A la Recherche du Pain Perdu

I got into the local food world through the little home-based bakery that my wife Mary and I run, Real Bread, but so far I haven't said much about bread in these...pages, can we say? The recipe you'll find below, Choucroute Bread Pudding (or Sauerkraut Stuffing, by a humbler name) combines the products of several of my favorite culinary activities: baking, smoking, and fermenting. (Choucroute is the French word for sauerkraut; choucroute garnie is the famous Alsatian dish of braised 'kraut and smoked and cured pork products.)

It's a way of using up what around here we refer to as "dead bread," the heels that were never claimed, the uneaten slices of baguette that dry up on the dinner table overnight, that sort of thing. Specifically, pain perdu, which is French for "lost bread," is what we call French toast. I'm taking the term here in a more general sense (and because I couldn't resist the Proustian allusion; now that I've actually mentioned Proust, is it still an allusion?). Anyway: This savory treatment is another way of effecting a very positive reversal of fortune for crusts that have fallen on hard times.

Although the bread in this dish is "dead," it still has to be good. Just as lousy bread makes a lousy sandwich, mediocre croutons make a soggy, forgettable stuffing. This dish is best when made with a variety of breads. Use some rye, if possible, or other whole grain bread. When you can combine--as I did for this dish most recently--pain de campagne, Danish rye, currant-stout bread, chestnut bread, baguette, Swedish rye, and brioche, the result is excellent, if I do say so myself. Mary agreed. I love this dish, and Mary is even more enthusiastic about it than I am.

Giving credit where credit is due, I've channeled this recipe through two very fine local chefs, Isaac Becker of the 112 Eatery in downtown Minneapolis, and Mike Phillips of The Craftsman restaurant in south Minneapolis. When the 112 Eatery opened a couple of years ago, there was a choucroute bread pudding on the menu, and I recall seeing it described as a "signature dish" in at least one review. For a signature dish, it didn't stick around very long. It was great, but it hasn't been on the menu for a long while now.

Then this past December a version of it resurfaced, having gone south to Lake Street and found suitable wintering grounds nestled up against an amazing double-cut Fisher Farm pork chop and flanked by addictively delicious espresso baked beans on Mike Phillips' comforting cold-weather menu at The Craftsman.

I'm calling this a pudding, though it contains no eggs and no milk or cream. It highlights the flavor and texture of the bread, particularly the savory, toothsome crusts. The tartness of the 'kraut contrasts to those flavors, and lightens what could be a heavy dish. Though it's similar to a classic Thanksgiving dressing, it's more assertive than most side dishes. In fact, I think that if you propped a poached egg or two on top of a serving and piled a bit of salad on the side, it could easily become a main course.

I've even included suggestions for making it a vegetarian dish, because, while my previous post might seem to belie it, I know and like many vegetarians, and I respect everyone's dietary choices. I just don't see how you can get the full joy out of life without bacon, is all....

You'll need to amass a certain amount of bread for this dish. It should be pretty dang dry, and once it is dry, it will keep indefinitely. The perfect environment for drying out bread, as many of you know, is a Minnesota home in winter! That super-dry heated air sucks the moisture out of everything. So if you find that part of a loaf went neglected a couple of days too long, cube it up before it's petrified (even if it's petrified, you can still salvage it with a good strong knife and your bold, but cautious, resolve), leave it out for another day or two, then put it in a plastic bag. In these dry, cool winter conditions there's little chance of it molding. But to be safe you might want to put the croutons in the freezer if you don't plan to use them pretty quickly; in summer the freezer is an excellent way to prevent spoilage.

Of course you can also dry your croutons in a low oven before using or storing them.

We are terrible about eating leftovers. Since we generally have a fair amount of bread around, I have to confess that I've thrown out more stale bread than I care to admit. A further confession: I am not a big fan of sweet bread puddings. But since discovering this savory way of reviving lost bread, we hoard every crust jealously and plan meals around it.

Homemade sauerkraut is almost a different entity altogether from the store-bought stuff, but if you don't have homemade use the 'kraut that comes in plastic bags rather than the canned kind. If you have a deli with a northern or eastern European slant, see what they might have. Here in the Twin Cities I would try Kramarczuk's in northeast Minneapolis, or Kiev Foods in the Sibley Plaza shopping center on West 7th in Saint Paul.
For future reference, there are instructions for making your own 'kraut in quart jars below. It's ridiculously easy. And it's fermented!

Two more brief asides: If you're serving this alongside a fowl that came with giblets, chop them up--gizzard, heart, and liver, all--and sauté them in the bacon fat along with the vegetables till they're nicely browned.

Aside #2, The Vegetarian Option: Leave out the bacon. Duh. Use vegetable stock instead of chicken. Sauté about four ounces of mushrooms, any kind you like, until they are nicely browned and concentrated in flavor. This sort of replaces the bacon. Sort of. Dried mushrooms--shitake, porcini, chanterelles, would also be really good in this. Adding a few more vegetables would fill this out into a veritable bread-veg casserole. Fresh cabbage, carrots, eggplant, kale, celery root--all would be fine additions. Just be sure everything is precooked and well browned for that deep umami flavor.

Choucroute Bread Pudding (Sauerkraut Stuffing)
Serves four to six

5 cups dry bread cubes (3/4" to 1" croutons), 12 to 14 ounces
2 1/2 ounces home-smoked bacon (or 2 or 3 slices thick bacon), cut into 1/4" by 1/4" by 1/2" lardons

1 medium onion, about 6 ounces, roughly chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tightly packed cup sauerkraut, preferably homemade
1/4 tsp dried thyme
5 or 6 leaves sage, chopped
salt and pepper
1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth (optional for deglazing the skillet)
Butter to grease the baking dish

In a skillet, cook the bacon gently over medium heat until most of the fat is rendered and the bacon is lightly browned. Remove the bacon from the skillet and reserve. Add the onion and celery and cook until the onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes.

Put the bread cubes in a large mixing bowl and add the bacon and vegetables. Deglaze the skillet with the wine or vermouth if you like; reduce the wine a bit, then add to the bread mixture and stir well. Add the thyme and sage, a few grinds of pepper and a good pinch of salt.

Rinse the sauerkraut a couple of times, then squeeze it in your hands to remove some of the liquid. Chop it coarsely and stir it into the bread mixture.

Add 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and mix well. Cover the mixture (I invert a plate over the stuffing) and let sit at least 20 minutes to let the bread absorb the stock. After 20 minutes mix again and check a few cubes of bread by pinching them with your fingers. They should be moistened and somewhat softened. Add more stock if needed.

Liberally butter a six-cup baking dish, gratin, etc. Add the bread mixture. Bake at 375 for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned.

Sauerkraut Made in Jars
Adapted from The Country Gourmet
Makes 2 quarts

5 pounds cabbage
3 1/2 Tablespoons canning or sea salt

Remove outer dirty or damaged leaves from cabbage. Quarter, core, and shred the cabbage. I like a range of thicknesses, which I get naturally by shredding with a knife. You may also use a mandolin or 'kraut cutter.

Place the cabbage in a large bowl and toss with the salt. Let it sit a while to express some juice. Pack solidly into quart jars. Fill to within one inch of the top. If there's not enough liquid to cover the cabbage, add a little cold water. Put the lids and bands on, and tighten the bands not quite as much as you possibly can--tight but not super-tight.

Place the jars on a platter to catch any overflow. Place in a coolish spot, around 60 degrees. The basement is fine. In just a day or two you'll notice bubbling and juice running over the top. If you're tempted to unscrew the lid to see how things are going, be careful! Juice can shoot out like from a shook-up Coke can.

In five to seven days the bubbling will die down and no more liquid will be coming out of the jar. Wash the jars and tighten down the lids. Then you can either refrigerate indefinitely, or process the jars in a water bath for 15 minutes, seal, and store in the pantry. It doesn't matter if the kraut isn't submerged in liquid at this point--it's preserved by the souring of fermentation.

I was a little worried that I wouldn't get around to writing about this dish while our wintry weather was still with us. N
o problem there. Here's what it looks like in Saint Paul today:

That white on the rooftops is not the glare of bright sun. We will certainly see snow into April this year, and I'm reminded of how, when I was a kid, I thought that if the groundhog saw his shadow, promising six more weeks of winter, that was the outcome to be hoped for. As winter drags on, everyone I talk to these days is looking for a little comfort, and this dish provides it. Do a good deed and help some poor lost bread find its way again.

Brett Laidlaw

copyright 2008 Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

I was a vegetarian way back when, believe it or not. For several years back in college, in that magical time between the death of Disco and the rise of New Wave, I eschewed the consumption of animal flesh with a self-righteous fury. Maybe you were content to take food right out of the mouths of children starving in Africa, India, and China, but not me. Do you know how many bushels of grain it takes to make a pound of beef just so you fat Americans can enjoy your disgraceful hamburgers? Well, I don't, either, but I'm going to guess it's about a thousand.

Maybe more. Maybe, a lot more. Whole villages might be starving just so you can wolf down that T-bone. You should be ashamed.

Of course, just because I was insufferably self-righteous about my dietary choices, that doesn't mean I wasn't hypocritical, as well, that I didn't succumb to temtpation more than occasionally. Hey, it happens to evangelists of all sorts, all the time. It wasn't meat, per se, that drew me. I could walk past the 'burgers and the roast chicken in the cafeteria line, the pork chops and the lasagna with meat sauce, en route to my healthful and politically correct zucchini egg puff, or broccoli cheese soufflé, or zucchini broccoli bake, no problem (one really does sacrifice in order to feel superior, sometimes...).

But come Sunday brunch, when the sausages and the bacon hit the grill, it was torture to be within sniffing distance of the dining hall. Likewise if smoked bratwurst or Polish sausage was on the menu.

There's a reason that bacon has come to be known as "the gateway meat." There's something about fatty pork flavored with salt and smoke that is just about irresistible. So now, having chosen the omnivore's path, I say: Why resist?

"We Smoke Our Own," was the motto of Mel's smokehouse in Knife River, MN, on Lake Superior's North Shore. What Mel's smoked was fish--salmon, ciscoes, herring, whitefish, and, above all, lake trout. Mel's was an exceedingly modest establishment, a small square building with an inviting front porch and a gravel parking lot with a capacity of maybe five cars, a herring's-toss from the rocky Knife River on the North Shore Scenic Drive.

I don't know when Mel's opened, but it had been an obligatory stop, both coming and going, for the thirty-some years that I have been visiting the North Shore (old, so old...). I wouldn't put smoked fish in quite the same siren-song category as good bacon, but cure and smoke have much the same effect on fatty fish as they have on pork. If I had to order up one last meal on this earth, it might very well start with an appetizer of Mel's brown sugar-cured lake trout on Ritz crackers spread with cream cheese, and to wash it down a glass or two of a single-malt Scotch (probably the Highland Park or Balvenie Doublewood) on the rocks--that beautiful clear professional ice from a North Shore gas station. Of course this aperitif would have to be enjoyed by a fire ring in a North Shore campground, or from the porch of a rustic cabin looking out over the entrancing waters of Gitchee-Gumee (for fantasy last suppers, you're allowed to make it a progressive dinner through time and space...).

I mean, the world-renowned artichoke soup with black truffles and parmigiano reggiano at Guy Savoy in Paris was good, but come on, we're talking about Mel's brown sugar-cured lake trout, for pete's sake!

Unfortunately, that meal will remain a fantasy, for Mel's is no more. I wrote last fall in a Real Bread email about our shock and grief at pulling into "Mel's" to find the famous "We Smoke Our Own" sign replaced by the "North Woods Candy Kitchen." Pretty much everything else was the same, except that the display cases once filled with chunks of glistening, ruddy trout and salmon, and red-gold whole herrings and whitefish were now displaying truffles and fudge and brittle. Given the rather powerful aura of smoked fish, you wonder if they were ever really able to clean the cases adequately; I know that I found the incongruity of confections where the ciscoes used to live more than a bit surreal, and not at all appetizing.

Our fallback sources for smoked fish are now Lou's in Two Harbors, and the Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais. Both are good; neither is Mel's.

And yet, there is another alternative, and therein an homage to magnificent Mel's: Go ahead and smoke your own! Home smoking is easy, requires no special equipment, and produces incomparable results. You get nitrite- and nitrate-free smoked meat and fish. And it's cheap, and it's delicious.

(On the subject of curing chemicals, I just went on-line and found a site from the "National Center for Home Food Preservation." This group recommends the use of nitrates and nitrites, with this mild caveat: "Extreme Cautions must be exercised in adding nitrate or nitrite to meat, since too much of either of these ingredients can be toxic to humans." Thanks for the heads-up.... To produce very long-keeping smoked meat products, these sort of chemicals may be necessary; for the sort of thing I'm talking about, smoking primarily for flavor and only minimally for preservation, you certainly don't want to use them.)

My smoking odyssey began about a dozen years ago. I was bringing brown trout home from the stream fairly regularly, and I wanted to find something to do with them other than pan-frying or grilling. I have described elsewhere the Aha! moment that led me to overcome my fear of smoking. For some reason I had been thinking it was a complicated process involving specialized equipment and arcane ingredients, beyond the understanding of a home putzer like me. Then one day I had that remarkable epiphany, to wit: Cavemen did this; maybe I can, too!

And it turned out I can, and so can you. Our first experiments were not so successful. The book I looked to for guidance had us curing the fish for 24 hours and then smoking them for nine or ten. That might work with big chunks of salmon or lake trout. This was in my early days of fly fishing for trout, and I was delighted to be putting eight- or nine-inch fish in the creel. A nine-inch brown trout subjected to this kind of treatment becomes...trout jerky would be generous; trout leather is more like it. Just a tad on the dry and saline side. Over time I learned to adjust the curing and smoking times to the size of the fish.

But let's go back to the pork, because home-smoked bacon is a revelation. You are going to need fresh pork belly (sometimes also called "side pork"), preferably with the skin on; salt, pepper, brown sugar; a charcoal grill (and if you can manage it, a second grill to keep extra coals going), natural chunk charcoal, and some kind of hardwood to make the smoke. An instant-read meat thermometer will also come in handy.

Any good butcher will be able to get you pork belly or side pork. I usually buy it at an Asian market, where it's almost always in stock (here in the Twin Cities, United Noodles and Shuang Hur are reliable sources). It usually comes in pieces like what you see here, a little more than a foot long and around two inches wide. I'm going to try it with a bigger chunk, like real slab bacon, sometime, but I've always been happy with cuts like this, too. You can choose beautiful, relatively lean cuts when you smoke your own.

Here's the recipe. It's worth doing a few pounds at once. I keep a chunk in the fridge, and the rest I freeze.

Home-Smoked Bacon
start the morning of the day before you'll be smoking

4 to 5 pounds fresh pork belly, skin on

Brown Sugar/Black Pepper Cure:

2/3 cup salt (I use fine sea salt, but kosher salt would be fine)
2/3 cup brown sugar
freshly ground pepper

Maple Syrup Cure:

1 cup real pure maple syrup
2/3 cup salt

Rinse the pork and pat it dry with paper towels.

For the brown sugar/black pepper cure, grind fresh pepper over the three non-skin sides of the pork, to taste. Place the pork on a large platter or other non-reactive container, like a glass or ceramic baking pan. Mix the salt and sugar well, and add the mixture to the pork, turning the pork over in the cure so it's fairly evenly coated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Turn the pork after a few hours; much of the cure will have liquified.

Next day, remove the pork from the cure and rinse briefly, then place the pieces on a wire rack set over a cookie sheet. Leave it out of the fridge and let it dry thoroughly for an hour or two, turning once or twice for even drying.

For the Maple Syrup Cure: In a small saucepan bring the one cup of syrup to a boil, and simmer briskly until it is reduced by one half. Let cool. Rinse and pat dry the pork. Rub it with the reduced syrup, then toss with the salt and proceed as with the brown sugar cure.

You can certainly add other spices or herbs to your cure, but I prefer the simple versions. That way you can really taste the pork and smoke, which is what I'm after. You also have an extremely versatile product with many uses.

We are now ready to smoke: Fill a chimney starter with natural chunk charcoal (we're going for a natural-tasting product here; using briquettes or, god forbid, lighter fluid, would not do). Light it with newspaper, and when they're blazing away nicely dump them out, just as if you were going to grill 'burgers, chicken, etc. What we're really doing is a very low-temperature, smoky sort of barbequeing with indirect heat. It's referred to as hot-smoking, but it's not very hot. It's called hot-smoking to distinguish it from cold-smoking, such as is often done with salmon, where the temperatures don't rise high enough to cook the fish with heat. Here we're looking for temperatures of around 180 to 200 degrees fahrenheit, ideally.

Once you've dumped the coals into the grill, now you want to take some away. Remove at least half the coals to a second grill. I do my smoking in our Meco grill, and use an old "Smoky Joe" (really old--the legs have fallen off, is why it's sitting on that bucket). Make sure the coals left in your smoking grill are all pushed to one side.

Now we need to add smoke. You don't want to use pine or other softwood, which can be pitchy and give a bitter taste to the meat. I would also avoid birch. Apple is excellent, as is maple. I've used oak and poplar, and hickory chips as well as bark. You can buy mesquite wood for smoking, but that wouldn't be very "locavore," round here. In the Northwest, alder wood is traditionally used to smoke salmon. We have various kinds of alder here, though I haven't smoked with it.

Very simply, if you or your neighbors have an apple or a maple tree in need of a little pruning, clip a few twigs, break them into three- or four-inch pieces, and throw a few pieces on the coals. Put the grill grate on, put the pork on the side away from the coals, making very certain that no meat is directly over the coals. Put the lid on. Open the top vent about two-thirds. Stick the pointy part of an instant-read meat thermometer in the vent hole. Watch as the temperature climbs, and make sure it gets over 200. Add a few fresh coals to the secondary grill, put the lid on that with the vent partway open, and go away for 45 minutes to an hour.

After an hour or so check to see how things are going. The temperature will have dropped quite a bit, so you'll need to add hot coals from the secondary grill. Turn the bacon over (it should now be looking quite baconish). Throw in a few more twigs or wood chips. Refresh the coals in the secondary grill, go away for an hour.

Repeat this process one more time. After three hours the bacon should be cooked, and plenty smoky. At this point I will often add the rest of the coals from the secondary grill, a few more twigs or chips, and just leave it till the coals are pretty much all out.

If you're uncertain about whether the meat is fully cooked, you can place it on a baking sheet and put that in a low oven, 175, say, for another 30 to 40 minutes.

Once you're done smoking, and before you store the bacon, be sure to cut yourself a slice to taste. Fresh, warm, homemade bacon is an amazing delicacy, to me. Every time I make a fresh batch, all I want to eat is bacon, and I find many ways to use it--in a frisée aux lardons salad, on an Alsatian tarte flambée, and, of course, with breakfast eggs and toast. I think it's better than even the priciest super-premium bacon you can buy, like Neuske's, and it's a fraction the price (albeit requiring a little more time and effort to obtain).

Since this bacon is fully cooked, you don't have to cook it further, and it's wonderful sliced very, very thin and added to a charcuterie plate.

You can do leaner cuts of pork this way, as well--country-style spare ribs, pork shoulder. With these cuts I just do a generous salt-and-spice rub a couple of hours before cooking, not the full overnight cure. Then smoke them with a little more heat, and just before serving boost your fire and cook directly over the coals to impart a nice char.

This last time out I did the bacon, then some pieces of ham hock and a couple chunks of lake trout.

I rubbed the two pounds of hocks with two tablespoons of salt, and let them cure overnight, then smoked as for the bacon.

For the trout, I did a wet brine consisting of:
3 cups water
1/3 cup salt
2/3 cup brown sugar

Heat the water in a saucepan and add the salt and sugar, and stir to dissolve. Let cool. Pour over fish (lake trout or salmon in one-pound chunks with skin and bones) in a non-reactive container like a glass bowl. Place some kind of weight--a plate will do--over the fish to push it down into the brine. Refrigerate overnight. Before smoking remove from brine and let drain and dry on a wire rack for an hour to two.

Smoke just as we did with the bacon.

I've gotten a lot better at smoking stream trout since my trout-leather phase many years ago. I like to smoke brown trout no smaller than 12 inches long, and up to 15 or 16 inches. My wet brine for this consists of:

4 cups water
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup brown sugar

Heat the water, dissolve the salt and sugar, let cool. Proceed as in the lake trout recipe.

Sometimes I'll throw herbs like dill, fennel greens, or thyme into the brine, or a couple pinches of peppercorns.

And finally a recipe to exalt all the products of the DIY locavore smoker. We'll call it

(Homage to Mel's) Smoked Lake Trout and Wild Rice Chowder
Serves four as a first course, two as a main course, generously
1/3 cup wild rice
2 1/2 ounces homesmoked bacon, with skin (about a 2-inch square)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small carrot, in small dice
1 rib celery in chopped fine (or 1/2 cup celery root in small dice)
1 medium potato, in 1/2-inch cubes, rinsed
1 Tbs flour
2 cups chicken or fish stock or a combination
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
5 ounces smoked lake trout without skin or bones, separated into flakes (or other smoked fish, such as whitefish or salmon

pinch dried thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
dash Tabasco, or to taste

Rinse the wild rice and add it to a small saucepan with 2/3 cup water. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook over lowest heat for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit 5 minute. Drain any remaining water and set aside. The rice will not be totally cooked at this point.

Remove the the skin from the bacon but don't throw it away. Cut the bacon into 1/4-inch slices and then into 1/4-inch lardons. In a saucepan or tall-sided sauté pan, cook the bacon and skin very gently until the bacon has rendered most of its fat but isn't too brown.

Remove the bacon lardons from pan, leaving the skin. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook gently till the onion is translucent, about five minutes. Lower the heat and sprinkle on the flour. Cook for one minute, stirring. Make sure the flour does not get too brown. Add one-half cup of stock, and stir till smooth. Add another one-half cup, mixing well again. Now add the rest of the stock and bring to a simmer.

Combine the milk and cream in a bowl, and ladle into that bowl one cup of the hot stock to "temper" the milk. Now add the milk and cream to the pot. (Tempering the milk and cream this way will reduce the chance of its curdling. The addition of the cream helps with this, too. If the milk does curdle it will affect the appearance but not so much the taste. It will still be quite edible.)

Add the potatoes, thyme, bay leaf, 1/4 tsp salt and a few grinds of pepper, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the drained wild rice and the reserved bacon, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add the smoked trout and a dash or two of Tabasco. Taste for salt and add if needed. Simmer another 10 minutes. Serve.

My father always dropped a dollop of butter on top of creamy chowders and oyster stews, a practice I recommend. And then a grind of pepper or a pinch of paprika or espelette pepper. Bring the Tabasco to the table. I think the perfect bread with this would be toasted slices of Cornmeal Rounds (if you're reading this in Real Bread land), or a country white or levain whole wheat.

And then, with your leftover smoked trout and a loaf of brioche, maybe some chestnut bread, breakfast becomes something to really look forward to.

Smoke on~
Brett Laidlaw

text and photos copyright 2008 Brett Laidlaw