Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is Cooking an Art? Can Food Be Art? Discuss

A bit of thought-fodder to get the New Year off to a provocative start:

I was driving out to Bide-A-Wee one day in September, listening to The Ideas Network of Wisconsin Pubic Radio, 88.3, WHWC, Menomonie-Eau Claire, "Talk about issues that matter to you," (in Jim Fleming's emphatic reading). Veronica Rueckert* was talking to Denis Dutton, who wrote a book called The Art Instinct, the thesis of which was that art has an evolutionary function in human history, that artists, rather than being the outlandish freaks some see them as, in fact contribute and have always contributed to societal development in ways that assure for art, artists, and the aethetic sensibility a veritably Darwinian niche in our cultures. People were calling in with amazingly thoughtful comments and questions. I was learning about flint-knapping and throat singing and all kinds of interesting stuff, and I was thinking, "Man, I love WPR," and I was thinking that Professor Dutton, though he sounded a bit academic at times, really did have a feel for the subject, for art itself.

And then this:

Veronica Rueckert: An email here from Matt who says: "Please address the art of cooking, where does flavor end and art begin?"

Denis Dutton: It’s quite interesting, because cooking involves some aspects of the arts, but others are conspicuously missing. And one of the ways in which I’ve noticed when I’ve spoken about this is that if I do get on cooking people become extremely sore unless I come down flat out and say, “Oh yes, cooking is a high art and cooks are among our highest artists, and this has to be seen as some kind of an art form.” I don’t completely buy it. …I think I enjoy good cooking and I appreciate the great chefs and the great cooks of the world, in a sense, perhaps, as much as anyone. But the problem with cooking is this: Though it involves pleasures, and a lot of deep and I think intense pleasures—I’m not sure how deep they are, but they certainly are intense pleasures—and they involve smells, they involve taste, and they involve textures; and though the creation of these…involve a lot of high virtuosity and high skill…the one element that’s missing from cooking…is emotional expression. That is to say, there’s something expressive in singing, in a Bach violin partita, there’s something expressive in a Raphael painting, which actually, in a way, breaks our hearts, it actually…brings us to the point of tears. Food only brings you to the point of tears if the bill was vastly too high and you wish you hadn’t paid all that money for it. It’s not expressive in the same way…. …People become very annoyed when I’ve said this in the past, and I’m afraid some people will be annoyed at my saying it now. I do think that there is a lot in common with the arts with culinary art, but it’s not fully a canonical art in the way that music, painting, and literature are, because it doesn’t involve the sense of the transmission of human emotion in the way that the arts at their highest do. That’s my answer to that. As I say, it’s not going to satisfy everybody.

Veronica Rueckert: Hmm, yeah we could obviously talk about that one more…. I’m sure that there are people listening who would say “I cook with passion, and the emotions are there in the food…”.

Dutton: …I’m sure that the best cooks actually do feel a sense of the transmission of emotion, but whether or not, if they were in the kitchen and people were just indifferently getting the food and eating it out in the dining room, whether they would actually experience this emotion, well, I think that would be a pretty tough ask.


I will admit that I sometimes roll my eyes when chefs are treated like a sacrosanct, effete tribe of Michaelangelos in toques and whites, and I was going along with Professor Dutton for a while, hearing him out, at least. The lame joke about the cost of a fancy meal bringing one to tears kind of made me cringe, but what really soured my porridge was the bland, bald assertion that a plate of food could categorically not be expressive in the way that the traditional, "canonical" arts can.

I also had to take issue with the professor's claim that he appreciated fine cooking as much as anyone, because, well, I think it was pretty clear from his attitude toward it that he doesn't (the dogs, in the back of the car, agreed, I think). But then, it's a pretty boring world in which everyone agrees with your opinion (or you agree with theirs), and as I thought about that exchange I found that I wasn't entirely sure where I stood on the topic. On the one hand, I certainly feel that food can be expressive, that it can transmit emotional impact. On the other, food has a utilitarian function that the traditional fine arts generally don't, and yet.... And yet, I can indeed think of food that has brought me near the point of tears with its deliciousness and meaningfulness--but I'm still not sure that makes it art.

So without going on at ponderous length about my reactions, I'd just like to say:

Please discuss. I would love to hear whatever thoughts you clever people have on this topic.

Can food and cooking be considered art? If so, in what contexts? Must it be self-consciously "artful" food, prepared by an ambitious restaurant chef, or could Ukrainian grandma cooking rise to the level of art in some way?

Okay. I'll say no more. I will, however, offer a couple more tidbits, to whet your intellectual appetites, as it were:

'“I’m one of the few men in France who cooks for himself every day with only fresh products,” [Gérard] Oberlé tells us, with what we come to realize is characteristic immodesty (and probably not great exaggeration). “In my house I have not one single industrial food product. I don’t like food that’s been chewed before I get it. And I make only a cuisine of the season. I don’t eat strawberries at Christmas. It’s not a philosophical decision—it’s purely animal, hedonistic. I know personally all the people who make the products I consume. I’m my own chef and my own gastronome. But for me, cuisine is not one of the beaux-arts. A chef is just someone who makes soup. I ask only that the soup be good.” '

Colman Andrews in Saveur magazine, November 1998

'Perhaps it is even inappropriate to use the same adjectives with food that we do for Mozart and Gauguin. If the veal chop is “marvelous,” what do we have left for Van Gogh? Quite a puzzle, and it bespeaks once again our limitations with language rather than the limits of language itself. '

Jim Harrison, "Thirty-Three Angles on French Cooking," from The Raw and the Cooked

(There's a Jim Harrison connection in the Saveur quotation, too, as it was he who put Colman Andrews in touch with Gérard Oberlé, who also appears in Mr. Harrison's book, and who, upon being offered a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast at Mr. Harrison's house, utters the timeless phrase, "Gérard does not eat cow food...". )

Click here for the link to the WPR audio archive. The show aired September 10, 2010.

Star Tribune's "restaurant of the year," Doug Flicker's Piccolo, which serves a celery root custard described as "a work of art." How so?


*I originally said that Ms Rueckert was sitting in for Kathleen Dunn, but in fact Rueckert has the regular Friday slot from 9:00 to 11:00 am, and rightfully so.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Smelts in Your Mouth

Smelts in our mouths, and in our hands, and then in our mouths again. A very good thing. Boxing Day lunch consisted of fried smelts on brioche toast (the continuing dividends of a rather harrowing South Shore excursion), with a delightful little salad of watercress, lardons, thinly sliced red onion, and some shreddies of aged Wisconsin cheddar.

Served with a duo of mayos--pickled ramps and sambal-maple. Libation, a really delicious lager from Dave's Brew Farm, an intriguing operation that's literally right on the way from our house in Saint Paul to Bide-A-Wee (though we picked up the beer at The Four Firkins, a great little craft beer store in Saint Louis Park; I stopped in at Dave's last week, but no one was around).

So, smelt: Those little silver beauties that navigate the cold waters of Lake Superior in shoals. I remember back when I was a kid hearing about epic migrations of smelt fishers to the North Shore of Lake Superior in the spring when the smelt were running. They'd wade into the icy waters and net out prodigious hauls of these little fish in the dark of the night. I also seem to recall that copious ingestion of peppermint schapps was an integral aspect of such outings, and so frequently one or more of the smelting party would be picked up off his tipsy feet by a wave, be swept out into the lake, and fetch up some months later at the locks in Sault Saint Marie, a little the worse for wear, perhaps, but still clutching both smelt net and schnapps bottle.

But maybe those were just stories.... At any rate, it seems like many years since I've heard any yarns from the smelt fishing grounds, and this brief, interesting article from the Minnesota DNR site tells why. In even briefer thumbnail: smelt are an exotic that came into the lake early in the 20th century; as another outside invader, the sea lamprey, decimated the lake trout population, smelt boomed. Once lamprey controls took effect, the trout came back, and they ate up the smelt faster than a van-load of Norwegian smelt fishermen fully fueled with schnapps. So there's still a smelt population, but nothing like what it was in the 1960s and '70s.

My smelt, they were a sort of by-catch, came up in the Halvorson nets when they were out for herring, whitefish, and lake trout. I brought home a couple of frozen pounds from my visit earlier this fall.

And now, I'm really, really leery of frozen products, especially fish, but some experience with Halvorsons has made me a believer. When I cut open the plastic cryo-wrapper on these fish and dumped them into a bowl, then stuck my nose in there, I was swept right back up to the Cornucopia beach. The fresh, clean scent had nothing fishy about it at all; except, it reminded me remarkably of the smell of a really good, freshly opened oyster, a scent of the sea, though of course the smelt live in freshwater, and oysters in salt.

The smelt were gutted but not boned (I couldn't help admiring the skill of the hands that processed these fish, each cut pristine). The tiny spines become entirely edible when the fish are fried, and we honored that time-tested method, just tossing the little fish with some salt and flour, and dropping them into canola and grapeseed oil for a couple of minutes. After that, the wee fish were rather exalted upon pedestals of home-baked brioche with a dab of homemade mayo--Mary thought the maple-sambal one was a little too sweet, preferring the pickled ramp version. I liked them both, though I could see her point, and I would make the maple-sambal one both less sweet and a bit hotter.*

Street food is all the rage these days, with gourmet food trucks proliferating in cities across the country. I'm all for that trend, but personally, if I were to open a low-overhead food biz, I think I'd like to have a concession stand. The thought occured to me as I was walking past a local ball field the other day, and I thought of the concession stand at the Little League field at the old Glen Lake School when I was growing up, and the one serving out hot beefs at the Dunn County Fair in Menomonie this summer, and the one in the Dallas town park where one of the Hay River Transition Initiative "Stone Soup" meals was held last summer. Just a simple sort of structure, a wooden counter and plywood panels that swing down to close it up at the end of business. Simple, tasty food, and a picnic table in the shade nearby to sit and eat and not worry a damn about what you were going to do next. Instead of Orange Crush and hot dogs, I'd serve out smelt po'boys with a good local beer or cider to wash it down, maybe excellent fries cooked in lard or duck fat, and some quality slaw or other salad. You wouldn't need more than that.

But for dessert, it's gotta be a Creamsicle.

Salad details below.

Watercress Bacon Salad
serves two

Good local watercress and other organic greens are available at co-ops year-round. This cress was from LaBore Farms in Faribault, MN.

1 small bunch watercress, leaves and tender stems about 2 cups washed leaves
1 slice thick cut bacon in 1/4-inch lardons
Juice of one quarter lemon
1 clove garlic sliced very very thin
Shaved red onion, about 1/4 of a small one
1/4 cup grated aged Wisconsin white cheddar

Gently render the bacon in a small fry pan. When it is lightly browned remove it from the pan and reserve. Squeeze the lemon into the pan drippings, and add a pinch of salt.

Place the cress in a salad bowl and distribute the onion and garlic slices and lardons over the top. Drizzle the drippings-lemon dressing on. Top with shredded cheddar.


* Here's my suggested proportions if you want to try the sambal-maple mayo: To 1/2 cup of mayonnaise (homemade or Hellmann's), add 2 tsp maple syrup, 1 1/2 tsp sambal, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt. Maybe start with less sambal; you can always add more. You want a balance of sweet, tart, salt, and heat that pleases you. Nice served with regular French fries or oven root veg fries.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, December 24, 2010

Warm Wishes

If you don't have a yule log to cozy up to, we offer this toasty view of the belly of the Haggis. Warm wishes to all upon this Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Consider the Shallot

Beautiful shallots, beautifully braided, from Morgan and Ben Tartakoff, whom we met at the Dallas (WI) Farmers Market last summer.

To get right to the point, I think if one wants to understand the delicious mysteries of French--or of Italian, Spanish, or even Chinese--cooking, a really good place to start is to learn more about onions. Or rather, perhaps I should say, we ought to explore the many expressions of the allium family, lilies all, many beautiful, some poisonous if ingested, but many others exquisitely edible.

I've been flipping through some vintage cookbooks recently, and one thing that has struck me (along with that whole canned soup thing), is how timidly flavored many of the recipes are. Now, I'm all for simplicity, but when your palate of flavors goes no further than salt, pepper, and a bit of onion, that seems like a recipe for monotony. Rarely in these sorts of mid-century middle-American dishes will you even see a clove of garlic. A scallion is something rather exotic. Leeks, shallots? Unheard of.

Along with making your own stocks, I think adding more alliums to your cooking is one of the main keys to big, savory flavors in home cooking. And come to mention it, adding more alliums to your stocks--the tough outer layers of leeks, trimming of shallots, bits of scallion greens--makes them that much better, too. It's a synergistic thing....

Now, by no means to I mean to dismiss the contributions of the everyday onion, yellow, red, white, what have you. Those are still the most-used alliums in my kitchen. But when you move into the realm of leeks and shallots, you get layers of flavor, both savory and sweet, and, I'd have to think, wickedly umami, just utterly delicious. A lot of times when we're heading out to our cabin in Wisconsin, I'll nip into our garden in Saint Paul and pull a leek out of the ground, peel off the dirty parts and toss it on top of the groceries tote. In the hour and a half it takes to drive to Bide-A-Wee, the car fills up with such an appetizing aura, it's like being inside a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos--I mean, if those things were actually good, instead of being fake-good.

And shallots are another beautiful onion-family member you ought to get to know. They're becoming more common, though you still won't find them everywhere. They can be pricey in grocery stores, cheaper at Asian markets, usually very reasonable at farmers markets. Used raw in small doses, like in a sauce mignonette to drizzle on a raw oyster, or minced in a vinaigrette, they bring a pungent kick. Sliced and sautéed to serve over a steak or chop, they make for magical bistro deliciousness. Employed more liberally, whole or halved, added towards the end of a long braise, so you can still pick them out in the final dish, they're mellow and toothsome, sweet and savory at once, with still a little vegetable crunch.

And then, cooked a long time, they become a sort of jam, so utterly edible that, once you take a bite, it's hard to stop eating. You could do this same thing with onions. I took half the basic jam this recipe below produces, warmed it up with a quarter-cup of heavy cream, and served it beside warmed smoked herring. I served what seemed an ample portion on the plate with the fish, brought the leftovers to the table in a little bowl. It's all a little fuzzy now, but by the end of the meal I think Mary and I were fighting to lick the last drop from the bowl. I'm pretty sure Mary won....

Then the other half, we served that plain as a condiment on a lovely charcuterie plate, all store-bought, mostly from the excellent Seward Co-op. Oh, brave new world, that has such speck and coppa picante in it!

At lower right. The stuff is not too photogenic, but it's damn good:

Cidered Shallots

8 ounces gray shallots, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 Tbsp butter
½ cup sweet apple cider
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 large clove garlic, sliced
¼ cup water
3 sprigs thyme
¼ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and the ¼ tsp salt. Cook gently, stirring frequently, for 6 minutes, until the shallots are much reduced in volume and starting to look and smell a bit caramelized. Stir in the garlic and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook for 2 minutes. Add the cider, vinegar, water and thyme, bring to a simmer; cook at a quick simmer until almost all the liquid is gone. Taste for seasoning.

You can take the recipe to this point several days ahead of time. You can serve this jammy mixture--as is or with the addition of a spoon of grain mustard--alongside charcuterie or a cheese plate, or on a turkey sandwich.

To make the warm sauce to serve with warm smoked fish and steamed fingerling potatoes: Combine half the shallot-cider reduction with ¼ cup heavy cream. Warm gently, stirring. Serve with smoked herring, whitefish, or lake trout, wrapped in foil and warmed in a 400 degree oven.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Solstice from Bide-A-Wee, 2010

And happy birthday, dear Mary, a light in the darkest days. It gets brighter now. Light a candle, embrace the season, cook something wonderful,warm, and heartening. Gather and regale. Get out there and roll around in the snow. Cheers, all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Real Time Ribs and Cabbage 4, The End

So there we are. The cabbage is tender, nicely sweet and sour. It will improve by sitting for a couple of days, as will the ribs, which are absolutely falling off the bone.

To go with it, we'll have spaetzle if Mary feels like making it, noodles if she doesn't. I think a bottle of reisling would be bliss with this; or, cider would be excellent, too.

My work is done here--except, this is going to be Sunday dinner at the cabin, so I still have to think of something to have tonight....

Real Time Ribs and Cabbage 3

This recipe goes back to my mom's mom. It's a classic German preparation. The fancy formatting I think is thanks to some ancient computer recipe program that my brother had--I'm sure that was printed out at least a couple of decades ago. My mom would most often serve this with spareribs, too.

The apples, though wizened, are absolutely fine for a preparation like this. In fact, they've developed a ton of flavor and aroma sitting around getting wrinkled these past few weeks. No cosmetically perfect New Zealand grocery store specimen would even come close.

I used my trusty Benriner, Japanese mandoline, which made short work of the cabbage:

And the apples, which I shredded up skin and all (unusally pristine within, for Bide-A-Wee apples):

One small liberty I took with the recipe was to use some local maple sugar (from near Connorsville, Wisconsin), instead of white sugar. Thinking it would be sweeter than regular sugar, I halved the amount to start with. I can always adjust the sweet/sour balance later. Oh, and of course I used our own apple cider vinegar.

All together in the pot and simmering away now--and I just checked it to find it had run out of water, so I added a bit more, and also more salt. Another 15 minutes should do it. This is not the sort of vegetable dish that you want to cook al dente.

Real Time Ribs and Cabbage 2

Then the aromatics: onion, carrot, some celery root, garlic, a piece of leek I had lying around.

And the real magic, hard apple cider, from the Bide-A-Wee trees:

Along with about a cup of chicken stock, some thyme, and a grind of pepper, that'll do it.

Into a 275 oven it goes, and that's just fine for a couple of hours. I'll get on to the cabbage.

Real Time Pork Spareribs and Mom's Hot Red Cabbage

I'm putting together meals for a Bide-A-Wee weekend, and the thought occured to me to do a sort of "real time blogging" experiment. I already made up some oxtails earlier in the week, and now I'm working on braised pork spareribs which I'll serve alongside my mom's red cabbage and apple dish (given just a mild Trout Caviar treatment). The idea is to have meals made ahead that can just warm and finish atop the woodstove. I'll post each step of this process within ten minutes of its completion.

I don't have a recipe for the ribs, but recipes are highly overrated, I think (said the author of a cookbook-in-progress, oh dear...). I've got great ingredients and a nearly foolproof method, browning, then braising. It starts with Big Blue, our Le Creuset dutch oven:

And a couple of pounds of Hilltop Pastures Family Farm spareribs. Pasture-raised, wonderful pork. Salt, then brown in a bit of oil.

Okay. I'll be back shortly.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hazelnut-Crusted Goat Cheese

I wanted another crack at the warm crusted goat cheese I mentioned in the previous post, the one that sort of dissolved on me when I made it out at Bide-A-Wee. While we often have ample time to cook at the cabin, by the time evening rolls around we don't have...light, or space, or equipment beyond the very primitive. I frequently find myself attempting preparations way too complicated for the surroundings. It builds character, is what I tell myself; Mary might describe it differently.

But back in Saint Paul this week I found I had some goat cheese left, as well as some of the cranberry maple chutney I detailed in the previous post. My second go, executed in the plain light of a chilly winter afternoon, taking lessons from the previous attempt, turned out pretty well, and made a delightful snack for tea.

This can be a little tricky, but it's worth the trouble, I think, at least a couple of times a year. The difficulties come from either the cheese melting too fast, or separating from the crust (another symptom of the same problem). The cheese I used was Donnay chevre, an excellent fresh goat cheese from Kimball, Minnesota.

This is a beautifully rich and tangy chevre; but for this preparation, it's a little soft, I must say. I try to get around that by freezing the cheese pre-frying, as described below. If you have a choice, I would go for the firmest fresh chevre that is still easily moldable--I mean, I wouldn't give up flavor for firmness, but all other things being equal, go for the firmer cheese.

It’s fun and local to make this with foraged wild hazelnuts. Look for the fascinating, frilly green husks on hazel shrubs in late summer. It’s best to pick them when they’re still a bit green; if you wait until they’re fully ripe, the squirrels will likely beat you to them. I’ve found that you can harvest them just after some of the husks start to open up. As they dry, the husks will open up around any nuts of a decent size. When you come to cracking them open, sort out the larger ones, and discard any that show little pinholes in the bottom—these have been eaten inside-out by some kind of insect, apparently one with a formidable proboscis (unless the hole is the result of some larva that grew up inside the nut, and burrowed its way out).

Wild hazelnuts are smaller than the cultivated kind; perhaps to compensate for this, their shells are much tougher to crack. You need a stout nutcracker that can handle small nuts. It takes a lot to get a little, but fortunately, for this dish we just need a tablespoon of nuts per person. Of course, you can save a lot of time and effort by just using store-bought nuts. But you’ll miss the fun, and sense of accomplishment!

Warm goat cheese is one of my favorite first course dishes. It really perks up the appetite, while at the same time taking the edge off if you’re ravenous. Walnuts or pecans could be used in place of the hazelnuts.

Hazelnut Crusted Goat Cheese, Maple Cranberry Chutney

Per person:

1 1/2 to 2 ounces fresh goat cheese, “chevre”
1 Tbsp hazelnuts, chopped fairly small
1 Tbsp bread crumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
Canola or peanut oil

Wet your clean hands, and form the goat cheese into little discs, or pucks, about 1 inch thick and 2 ½ inches across. Mix the chopped nuts and bread crumbs together. Grind a bit of coarse pepper on one side of the cheese. Pat half the nut-crumb mixture on that side, turn the cheese puck over and press the rest into the other side. Place the coated cheese pucks in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.

Heat a small skillet over medium heat—a non-stick one will work well. Add a thin film of oil, about a teaspoon, and let it heat for 20 seconds. Fry the cheese pucks on one side for 20 seconds, flip it over, cook for another 20 seconds; flip again, 20 seconds, flip again, 20 seconds, remove the cheese very carefully to the plate you’ll serve it on. If the cheese is starting to melt too quickly, turn the heat down, or remove it from the pan.

These are great with a chutney or relish, or atop a salad of tender lettuces or frisée tossed with your favorite vinaigrette. Then a slice of toast or baguette is all you really need, and the classic wine accompaniment for this Loire-inspired dish would be a white sancerre or saumur.

An alternate method: Frying a disc of soft goat cheese can be a bit of a daredevil operation. You can get a similar effect by placing the chilled, uncoated—“naked”—cheese discs on a lightly oiled piece of foil on a baking sheet, and heating them for 5 minutes in a 400 degree oven. While they heat, toast the nut-crumb mixture in a bit of butter or olive oil. Place the warmed cheese rounds on plates and top with the toasted topping.

Yet another thought, simpler still: Pack the cheese into a ramekin, sprinkle the raw nuts and crumbs over the top, and bake until the top is brown. For a crowd, holiday buffet, say, you could do a larger portion in a gratin dish, then either make canapés--toast point or cracker, schear of nutty cheese, dab o' chutney--or let the guests self-serve. Making holiday entertaining a tasty breeze! That's the Trout Caviar way!

And, of course--last thought on the topic--fresh chevre is often the vehicle for a number of mix-in flavorings--fresh herbs, cracked pepper, lemon zest, minced garlic or shallots. It can be a canvas upon which to daub your toothsome imaginings. Me, I like it plain, and a little crusty.

Speaking of crusty: The toast pictured here is kind of interesting: It's actually a batch of my standard yeasted pizza dough, "poolish" method, that I'd made up thinking to test a couple pizza variations at home, then didn't have time, so stuck it in a plastic bag and took it out to the cabin. Out there, without an oven, I had to improvise: I put a cast-iron skillet atop the Haggis woodstove, set a dutch oven in that, and let it heat while the dough warmed and proofed. Then I slid the dough into the dutch oven, clapped on the lid (sprinkled a bit of water on the dough), and covered it with a dish towel and a couple of hot pads. About an hour later I removed a loaf that, while rather pale and doughy, was nonetheless recognizably bread, rather than dumpling, biscuit, or bird food. Toasted up, it was A-OK.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 13, 2010

White Out

It was indeed white out this weekend, and very cold, windy, but thrilling, as well, and beautiful. We got out to Bide-A-Wee Friday afternoon, did some housekeeping, took a walk, brought in firewood, fried a couple of steaks, listened to some music, as well as to the increasingly emphatic predictions for the weekend snowstorm. Late in the evening it started, so that by bedtime, when I opened the cabin door it swept away snow as it opened, with a good six inches clearance from the deck.

Then Saturday morning looked like this:

And the afternoon, and evening, as well. We hunkered down. Mary shoveled a path to the woodpile, no farther. The car was parked at the top of our steep drive, just far enough from the road so the plough wake wouldn't bury it. Saturday brunch, scrambled eggs with smoked fish. Saturday supper, leftover sauerkraut, added smoked sausage (Whole Farm Co-op), and fresh Polish (Seward Co-op).

Sunday morning, bright, clear, cold, and white. The dogs were indignant at the bitter chill, lifted one frosty foot after another, looked at us as if to say, "Fix this, would ya?" They wouldn't stay out long, though long-legged Lily got some running in.

We had corn-apple pancakes for breakfast, listened to the radio, stoked the woodstove. All Sunday the wind worked the snow, shaping drifts, sculpting intricate designs on the surface. Occasionally it blew the windows open.

Sunday afternoon the plow came by--a road grader fitted with a massive wedge plow in the front, a wing plow on the side. I dug through the deep wake it left, and determined that we could get out if we needed too. The plow had made a pass on Saturday, too, but that only served to create a void into which prodigious amounts of snow could drift. Just east of our driveway entrance, the drifts were chest-high.

Sunday afternoon I worked on a relish to have with warm goat cheese. I meant to coat little pucks of fresh chevre with bread crumbs and black pepper on one side, crushed wild hazelnuts on the other, then fry them. I wanted something a bit tart-sweet to serve with them, and I've been noticing the fresh cranberries from Wisconsin Rapids at the co-op. The chutney would be the blast of color in a white weekend and an evening of white food. It was a total success. It needs a day to rest. I discovered that if you've forgotten or run out of dried apples, you can slice an apple, line a sieve with the slices, set the sieve in a cast iron skillet atop a Four Dog woodstove, and have dried apples in a couple of hours. They gave a nice, slightly chewy texture to the chutney.

I cooked the cheese a little too long, so it was difficult to turn and the crust kind of fell off. I shouldn't have turned my back on the frying pan; I should have stuck the coated chevre pucks in the freezer for a while before cooking them. It was tastier than it was beautiful:

Cranberry Maple Chutney
makes about one-half cup

½ cup fresh Wisconsin cranberries, quartered
1 small shallot, minced
¼ cup dried apples, chopped
2 tsp butter
Pinch salt
½ a small dried red chili, crumbled*
2 Tbsp maple syrup
½ cup water

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the shallots. Gently sweat them without browning for 4 or 5 minutes, until a bit soft and translucent. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, and simmer, partly covered, until the mixture is thick and most of the water has evaporated, 10 to 15 minutes.

This is best if you make it a day or two ahead and give it some time for all the flavors to come together. Delicious with a round of hot goat cheese, and it would be great with pork, bison, venison, turkey, or game birds.

*Note: This was quite spicy; reduce the amount of chili if you’re concerned about it being too hot.

We followed that up with a creamy potato soup. Comfort food, indeed.

I'm not sure how much snow we got. My best guess: A lot. Over 18 inches was reported in the Menomonie area. With all the blowing and drifting, precise measurement is pretty hard, but I can say that there was knee-deep snow everywhere, and like, ridiculous snow everywhere else. A different world out there now. And I do believe that hunting season may be over (aside from plunking the odd rabbit in the front yard...).

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Delicious, Wisconsin

On the excellent Heavy Table website last week, editor James Norton took the author of a recently published cookbook to task for what he saw as a serious misrepresentation of the history of cheesemaking in Wisconsin. He carried the argument beyond mere factual error, ascribing the off-hand dismissal of a long history of artisan cheese in the state to the condescending attitude of the coasts toward the middle of the country in general:

Artisan cheese is haute cuisine, an art that is most naturally associated with Italy and France. These are places that the California and New York gastronomic communities look up to.

California and New York look down upon the Midwest on general principle (and not totally without reason, if you’ve ever dined poorly in a large Midwestern suburb). Midwesterners who move to California or New York are often the worst offenders on this front — no one wants to be seen as an apologist for something uncool.

Therefore: World-class fine food cannot come from the nation’s heartland. Burgers, fries, smoked fish, and other folk food; fine. Raw materials for California and New York chefs, fine. But world-class cheese? No; that would be a disruption of the natural social order.

There was a lot about that article, the response of the cookbook's author, the comments on Heavy Table, that got me thinking. My first reaction was almost one of shock, to think that folks elsewhere would look down upon the amazing food resources that we have access to here in "flyover-land." I must have assumed that since I, and many others, have been extolling the virtues of our local, seasonal delights for so long, with such enthusiasm, our impassioned hymns of praise must have been heard the world over(!).

Personally, I eat so well, every day, relying almost entirely on our local bounty, that I would tend to respond to any coastal slight with a satisfied little burp and a smile, acknowledging that, yes, you there in New York, in California, you've far more Michelin stars to gaze upon than us bumpkins, it's a shame we suffer so, and I'd wish them well, and then get back to my meal.

And then there was the whole question, the distinction Jim Norton raises, of "haute cuisine" versus "folk food," and his assertion that artisan cheese belongs to the former category. And now, I'd have to agree that artisan cheese is surely looked upon as exalted foodstuffs, it has the price tag to prove it, but at heart I think it's one of the folkiest foods you can find. I mean, take some milk, make it curdle, stick it in a cave to get nice and moldy...? Does it get any more peasant than that?

I think it points up, once again, a profound and meaningful paradox that runs through the whole history of cuisine both haute and basse, which is: Many of the most sought-after, priciest, most rarified ingredients in the world of "high cooking" come from the lowest of places, and have traditionally been fare not for princes, but for peasants. Wild mushrooms that spring from the forest duff, those cheeses moldering in dank country caves, wild game and fish and shellfish--these are often abundant and common in the places where they arise, and only take on the patina of luxury in the context of the gourmet table. Any culinary cook would drool at the chance to cook with ruffed grouse and pheasant and fresh venison, but in the hunters' kitchens lots of fine game birds get the cream of mushroom soup treatment, and tons upon tons of venison wind up as terriyaki jerky sticks....

I guess it's really a question of perspective, as to one person the scent of a black truffle is the world's sexiest, most exquisite perfume, while to the next it evokes nothing so much as a pair of sweaty socks left in the gym bag over winter break. It's a shame to see the whole fascinating history of Wisconsin cheese tossed-off in one ill-considered headnote; on the other hand, I really could not care less about what anyone else thinks about this region, our food, our goofy accents, or even our Jell-O salads. I know we've got it good, and as to the question of high cuisine and low, in my own life and cooking I don't see the paradox I described above--I don't even recognize the distinction.

I'm as happy with a great piece of smoked fish as with a finely wrought dish at a gourmet restaurant (my home-smoked herring turned out really well, by the way). On the cheese plate we set out for a Bide-A-Wee brunch in honor of our friend Pete visiting from Montana, we had a sort of fancy cheese ( Marieke gouda*), a lovely but not pricey, nonetheless "brand-name" one (Black River Blue), and a no-name aged white cheddar that we often buy from our friend Renee Bartz at Bolen Vale. All were excellent, but the cheddar was especially good, to me. I think Pete really liked the blue.

And on the pickle plate, while chanterelles are generally considered a delicacy, milkweed is generally considered...a weed, go figure. And ramps, while they now enjoy a vaunted culinary reputation, are almost a symbol of Appalachian peasant food. A green bean is generally considered a green bean, and that one was a salt-brined fermented version thereof.

Used to be the aristocracy ate white bread while the hoi polloi bitterly gnashed away at their grainy loaves, but what goes around does come around, and now it's a sign of culinary sophistication to enjoy whole grain sourdough breads. What was traditional is new, the low becomes high. I'd have to say, when push comes to shove and my back is up against the wall to make the judgment call:

It's all good.

And pretty much everything on that table came from Wisconsin--by which I do not mean to slight Minnesota, don't want to start another fight! Great Hope butter from Minnesota, and Whole Grain Milling, Natural Way Mills flour in those "peasant loaves." Pickled green beans, Minnesota grown, right here on Princeton Avenue. I love it when everyone gets along, so deliciously.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


* When I originally posted this I said it was Roth Kase "gruyère"; that was incorrect. But that's another excellent Wisconsin cheese.