Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Someone Tell Me Again...

...why I ought to make no-knead bread? See, I really don't mind kneading bread, in fact, I kind of like it. And it's not that I want to push my method on anyone, but the no-knead adherents can be pretty adamant about their technique, almost to the point, frankly, of insult in their implication that my "old-fashioned" method produces sub-standard results. Most recently it was a well-meaning (give him the benefit of the doubt) gent who insisted I needed (oops, first I typed "kneaded") to bake my bread in a dutch oven to get a proper crust.

So maybe I'm a slacker, but I'm perfectly happy with my crust. In fact, if my crust were any crustier, our dentist would probably have a lien on our house (because we would be breaking our teeth on the crust, and have a lot of dentist bills, you see, oh...).

Okay, I'll come clean, and admit that I do have bit of an axe to grind. I want to stand up right now and raise my muscled forearms, and make the case for old-fashioned, labor-intensive bread making, crying out, "I knead, and I'm proud!"

I may not have been né dans le pétrin (born in the kneading trough), but it's where I happily dwell. Salut.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett "Kneady" Laidlaw

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Just a Nice Shreddy Salad, Sparked Up with Green

I'm pretty close to a final list of recipes for the cookbook, which has me looking back to the early days of Trout Caviar (three years old now!). Where once the old standards appealed to me (and often still do), I find that I want to put a bit of a twist on things--and not inadvertently steal somebody else's recipe, just as important.

Céleri remoulade, the classic celery root slaw you find in virtually every French traiteur (like a Super-Deli), became a favorite the first time I ate it. It only suffers from being so...white, white shreds mixed with sour cream and mayonnaise, a polar bear in white tux and tails in a snowstorm. A sprinkling of paprika on top is a bit like lipstick on the pig, not really fooling anybody.

Perusing the produce section of the Seward Co-op for local greenery, I was drawn to a beautiful bunch of watercress from LaBore Farm in Faribault, MN. Chopping a handful into the dressing gave some green relief to that too-pale salad-scape, and a bit of pungency, and made the recipe my own. Also, in place of the usual sour cream, I used goat milk yogurt--a delicious switch. This salad really benefits from sitting for at least a half hour, one hour, better, before serving.

I've made a similar preparation using parsnips instead of celery root, and that was good, too. The parsnip seemed drier than the celery, so up the dressing amounts.

Celery Root Watercress Remoulade
Serves four as a first course

1 medium-size celery root, 9 to 12 ounces untrimmed, 6 to 8 ounces trimmed
2 pinches salt
juice of 1/4 small lemon

Grate the celery root medium to coarse, or shred it on a mandolin. Toss the shreds with the salt and lemon juice, and let sit 20 minutes. To the celery root add:

2 Tbsp mayonnaise
2 Tbsp goat milk yogurt (or sour cream)
A handful of watercress, stems and all, finely chopped, 1/3 to 1/2 cups
freshly ground peppper to taste
salt to taste

Mix it all together and let sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Cue up the Amélie soundtrack, and open a nice cotes-du-rhone.

Monday, January 17, 2011


A really great hamburger seems to be a sort of Holy Grail in these days of American burger-mania. Every other restaurant that opens lately seems to be a beer & burger joint, ground-beef-centric gastro-pubs of sorts. Many of them tout their "signature blends" of beef, and some use sirloin, or short rib, or brisket. Home cooks who try to replicate the creations of their favorite burger chefs are often frustrated. Other people effortlessly turn out world-class patties in their own frying pans or grills with a Zen-like calm and assurance.

I'm not going to make any exalted claims for my own version of the Great American Sandwich. I'll only say that I've been making burgers this way for years, that we consider a hamburger dinner a treat of the highest order, and that there is never...any...nitpicking...criticism once we are done. We just sigh and lick our fingers, consider briefly that we'd maybe like another few bites, conclude that no, that was just right. Sip the rest of our beers and settle into deep contentment with life as we know it.

Let's assume you've got a good bun. I said all I care to say about the wondrous "Le Bun" in the previous post, and I'll leave you to your own counsel as to how to proceed regarding the bread component. The next thing, truly the main thing, is the meat. I use ground chuck. I grind it myself. This makes a lot of difference. I don't experiment with blends of beef because,

1) Come on, it's a hamburger, and
2) Fresh ground chuck is delicious. Deepy beefy, fatty enough to make a really juicy burger.

For two burgers, I grind 11 to 12 ounces of chuck. I grind it twice through the coarse blade of my KitchenAid meat grinder attachment. This grind is definitely coarser than a supermarket grind, and I think that makes an important difference in the texture. It's loose, almost fluffy if you can use that word for ground meat.

If you don't have a meat grinder, or just don't want to bother grinding your own, you may do all right getting regular or, if you insist, lean ground beef from a butcher you trust. One thing I firmly believe is that you won't get a great burger out of ordinary grocery store ground beef. For one thing, I'd be scared to eat that stuff medium rare, the way I like it.

To the ground meat, I add: a couple pinches of salt, a few grinds of pepper, maybe three, maybe four shakes of Worcestershire sauce, and about a half teaspoon of soy sauce. The soy and Worcestershire both give extra umami to the flavor, and help the patties brown up beautifully in the pan. Mix the seasonings in with your hands, be quick and light, and form the patties with a quick, deft touch, too--too much handling will compact the meat and wreck the texture.

Then chill them until you are ready to cook. Cooking: I always used to favor the grill, and in the balmy months we definitely enjoy a char-grilled burger from time to time, but more often now we do them in a heavy skillet on the stove. Mary has gradually convinced me that this is the superior method. The direct contact between meat and metal assures an excellent char, we have control over the heat, flames do not erupt to carbonize our burgers, and juices remain in the pan to nap over the burgers as we serve.

Very hot skillet, a thin coat of oil, three minutes a side should do it. Start the heat out very high but turn it down to slightly off maximum once the patties go in (if you don't have a good vent hood, station someone near the smoke alarms to wave a magazine/disconnect if required...).

Remove the burgers from the pan when cooked to desired doneness, and let them rest while you condimentize your bun. Toast the buns if you like, though if they are very fresh they'll just need a little warming. We always fry some onions in the pan drippings. This night I added some slivers of aged gouda, sliced cornichons (I would use sour dills but I didn't have any), grain mustard on the bottom, a little apple ketchup on the top. I don't really like raw vegetables on my burger, the classic lettuce and tomato, since I feel they dilute the flavor too much. Chacun a son gout.

Oven frites, some pickled ramp mayo, a little carrot-sambal slaw, and a fine Wisconsin brew rounds it out.

That's my burger. I'd love to hear about others' burger preferences, secrets, peeves, etc.

Here concludes the Trout Caviar (Not So) Fast Food Extravaganza.


That chuck roast, Hill & Vale from the Seward Co-op, was about two pounds, and I took it apart like this, basically following the muscle groups. The solid, marbled piece at lower right, that I cut in half the long way to make a couple of "bistro steaks," as we call them, a sort of faux hanger steak--beautifully flavorful and quite tender. The chunk on the left was ground for the burgers, and the pile at top right and other trimmings I ground also, and that went to the dogs, literally. Not a scrap was wasted.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Check Out My Buns

It's junk food week here at Trout Caviar--pizza, hot dogs, and burgers--though I hope, and do believe, that we're managing to elevate the genre somewhat. It occured to me, as I was making all this dough--dough that proofs for hours--to facilitate this "fast food," that the common factor in great 'za, hot dogs, and burgers is great bread. A pizza is bread; pizzas that emphasize toppings over a great crust don't interest me at all. I've ordered pizza in restaurants extolling the glories of their own "homemade" pies, and been served a pile of ingredients--maybe nice ingredients, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, that sort of thing--on top of a perfectly round, perfectly tasteless, clearly industrial, premade, frozen crust that is basically nothing but an edible (barely) plate. Breaks my heart.

And as for the dogs and burgers, well, they're sandwiches, and the one and only thing that unites all sandwiches is that they are stuff on bread. Ergo, you cannot have a great sandwich without great bread. I think the pleasures of a hot dog can survive a mediocre bun better than a burger or a sandwich-sandwich--the spicy sausage and all its flavorful garnishes only require a fairly utilitarian vessel.

My hot dog lunch included a veritable salad garden of veg--sambal carrot slaw and pickled ramp mayo on one, sauerkraut and fermented red kale on the other, with kale chips and a couple pickled green beans on the side.

A great burger, on the other hand, does not exist without a great bun. Fortunately, I've come up with a great bun recipe, and here below, I share it. Recognizing that tastes will vary, this is nonetheless the world's greatest hamburger bun. This would be a greater achievement if I could honestly say that there's been much effort expended elsewhere in coming up with a great bun. By which I mean: There's been a great boom in upscale burger places in the last few years, and I've eaten at a few of the nouveau joints, where I've been astounded at the poor quality of the buns they use. The brioche bun is a popular pedestal for gastronomic burgers, but these are often too rich, too sweet, or just too soft to do the job. At one place (Burger Jones), I found my flavorless bun literally dissolving halfway through my meal.

Well, I'll say no more on that topic, only that I'm doing a service to the burger-eating world by disseminating this recipe, which is one that I really and truly came up with by my ownself. I "invented" a lot of breads during my Real Bread baking years, but most of them were just variations on a theme. This bread had a path, gradually evolved, and it's one of very few bread recipes I have where I actually follow my own recipe. It is delicious bread in its own right. It has the right texture to stand up to a juicy burger and a panoply of condiments without falling apart, but it is soft enough that you can bite into it without having said condiments all shoot out the side--not to say I can guarantee that some won't shoot out, I mean, you like avocado on your burger (I do sometimes), you're on your own....

Make them round with 3 1/2 to 4 ounces of dough for burgers. Make hot dog buns with 2 1/2 to 3 ounces dough--and now, I don't actually think this is the perfect hot dog bun, but it's very good. It is excellent as a lobster roll vehicle, and we serve shrimp burgers on it--make slightly larger hot dog bun shapes. This would take a po'boy to undiscovered heights; I'm looking forward to crayfish season to try that.

The leavening is active dry yeast, no sourdough involved. It's a rich, somewhat sweet dough that rises like the Dickens. You can have the dough mixed, proofed, shaped, and baked in three hours if you like. You can take a more leisurely approach, too. This recipe makes a big batch, about 30 buns worth. You can halve it, or, if you don't want that many buns, make the whole recipe and bake a couple pounds of the dough in loaf pans. It makes dandy toast or sandwich bread. If you halve the recipe you could mix it in a KitchenAid fitted with the dough hook.

The recipe:

Le Bun (The Cornmeal Honey Butter Bun--or, at the end of long day's baking for the market, "Corny Horny Bunny Bread")

2 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 cup warm water

1 cup boiling water
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup water
1 cup milk

2 Tbsp salt
½ cup honey
4 oz melted, cooled butter (unsalted)
7 to 8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use Dakota Maid)

In a large bowl (I recommend an 8-quart size) mix the yeast and warm water and let sit five minutes. Mix the cornmeal and one cup boiling water in a separate bowl, stirring to moisten all the cornmeal. When the yeast is soft and the cornmeal mixture somewhat cooled, stir a bit of the milk into the cornmeal, mixing well to avoid lumps. Pour this into the yeast mixture with the rest of the milk, the additional one cup water, the honey, salt, and melted butter.

Add four cups of the flour as quickly as you like. Add another two cups one at a time. You should have a very sticky dough at this point. Gradually add another cup of flour. You can start kneading a bit in the bowl, or dump the dough out onto your counter and knead there. Knead for just a couple of minutes, adding flour as required to keep the dough from sticking. Add just a little at a time, but don't worry about adding too much. The honey and butter make this kind of a sticky dough, but you need to be able to work it.

When you've kneaded it for a couple of minutes and it's coming together, leave it alone for at least 10 minutes. It will seem lumpy and awkward at this point, but everything will get smoothed out in time.

After this resting period, knead the dough gently for a couple of minutes, until it is smooth and firm. Place the dough back in the mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for two to three hours. It will rise rapidly, dramatically, even, especially in warm weather. You can punch it down and let it rise again if you like or your schedule dictates. You can refrigerate it for a while to retard fermentation, then take it out and carry on.

When you're ready to bake, measure out 3 1/2 ounce portions for burger buns, 2 1/2 for hot dog buns--a kitchen scale really is essential here, I think; but you can wing it knowing that a full batch makes 30 hamburger buns.

For burger buns shape balls, then flatten them with your palm. Let these little disks rest for a few minutes, then flatten them again to circles 3 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter. For hot dog buns, form little baguettes about 5 inches long.

Place the dough on parchment-lined baking sheets. You can put them pretty close, it's okay and actually kind of attractive if they grow together during the final proofing and baking. Let rise 30 minutes. Bake for 18 minutes in a preheated 400 degree oven. Turn the sheet pans around halfway through if your oven heats unevenly. Add steam to the oven, if you like; I keep a small cast iron skillet in the bottom of my electic oven, and I toss a couple of ice cubes into that at the beginning of baking.

If they're browning too fast before they're done, turn the oven down to 375. When the buns are brown top and bottom, slide them off the baking sheet to cool on a wire rack. These freeze well.

Next time: Secrets of a great burger revealed (hint: get out your meat grinder...).

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pizza Pizza

Now, I realize that this is a really, really stupid thing to say, but I'm going to say it anyway: We are nearly halfway through the winter!

I know what you're thinking--Gohhrr! 'E's daft!--that sort of thing. You're thinking that we just barely passed the solstice, there are still many weeks of white ahead. But bear with me: The solstice, December 21, is the start of astronomical winter, but meteorological winter started on December 1. That's, what, 42 days ago. Meteorological spring starts on March 1--48 days from now. So in three days, on Friday, January 14, we will reach the halfway point of winter. How's that for a TGIF treat? And when we get to March, you know what? Here's what: The average high in the Twin Cities on March 1 is 34 degrees! That's above freezing folks! Hooray for melting!

To celebrate, let's have some pizza: Another midwinter fact I'm grateful for is that a recent perusal of my produce selection shows that we're holding up pretty well in most areas. I still have fresh kale from our garden in the fridge--picked that a couple of weeks ago, and it's still in excellent shape. There's probably more out there, under the deep layer of white, under a couple of blankets, if the mice and rabbits haven't found it. We have loads of nice carrots, garden leeks in the the extra fridge downstairs, local celery root from the co-op, potatoes a'plenty, shallots, garlic, onions, parsnips, and squash.

Man, do we have squash. Last fall we were eating a lot of squash, stuffing it, roasting it, grilling it, gratin-ing it. It seemed we could not have enough laid by to last us the winter. I kept seeing serve-yourself squash stands in rural Wisconsin, and I was unable to pass them by. A lot of those squash went bad weeks ago--I expected that. Some had clearly been frost-bitten (those four-for-a-buck-ones from a help-yourself field), so I used those first, and the rest went rotty. But by now the ones that are sound should be good for the rest of winter (which is almost over, anyway...). And though we went off them for a while, I'm happy to get reacquainted.

If you do start to get sick of the repetitive winter veg routine, pizza is a great way to liven things up. Everything's better when baked fast and hot on tasty bread (almost as if you put it on a Ritz, right, Mme. Ed.?). These two winter-veg-topped pizzas are inspired combinations, though I say so myself.

The kale and blue cheese is something of a stand-by for us. I used to toss some currants on it, or chopped dried figs. This time I got the idea to use dried apples, because I have this idea that in many applications, one dried fruit is as good as another, and our dried apples are free and local. But when I chopped up a few, they seemed a bit dry, and tasted not so sweet. So I tossed them with the product of another recent brainstorm: Maple syrup-cider vinegar reduction. I was trying to come up with something that had the mellow, sweet-and-sour flavors of aged balsamic vinegar. This is not that, but it's very good in its own right. It is a bit mellow, it is sweet-and-sour, but the flavors really come at you, whereas in an aged balsamic I think they kind of coddle, reassure, and then gracefully retreat. This stuff is excellent to glaze grilled meats or vegetables, and it did the trick to moisten and soften the dried apples that I put on this 'za.

Some of them got very dark in the oven, almost burnt, not quite. Those charry pieces tasted remarkably like crispy bacon bits--Bide-A-Wee Bac~Os! The kale came up beautifully crisp, the blue cheese just oozed on down--great. It's important to toss the kale with oil, maybe a half-hour before baking. It will actually absorb a bit of the oil, and start to break down in volume, making it easier to keep atop the crust.

For the squash: I've made this twice. Both versions have been good, neither has been perfect. I think the third time will be the charm. First time: I sliced the squash very, very thin on my Benriner, but I left the slices pretty big, and I completely covered the crust with them. I suppose I was thinking of some potato pizzas I've seen and made. Well, the squash got nicely browned, and those very thin slices cooked just the right amount, but the full coverage sort of smothered the crust, it was a bit wet under the squash, tasted sort of steamed. The bottom of the crust was nicely crisp, so it held together and was good, but there was room for improvement.

Second time, last night: I didn't bother to cut the squash slices as thin, as I planned to cut the strips thinner, and not completely cover the crust. Again, a good result, but the thicker (still, not more than 1/8-inch) squash pieces, though they cooked nicely, did not become as brown as I would have liked. So, next time I'll combine 1 and 2, and I think that will do the trick.

Oh, and both times I added the goat cheese partway through the baking, fearing that it would all melt and run all over the place if I put it on at the start, but now I don't think that will be a problem. I would put it on with the rest of the toppings, and that's what I suggest in the recipe below.

In the next couple of posts here I'm going to carry on from pizza to hot dogs, then a really great burger--simple, happy food to keep our spirits up as winter makes that big turn toward spring....
But have you noticed, the sun is really warm now, when it's out. Which, today, it's not, and it's...snowing...of...course....

Whatever happened to the Little Caesar's mascot, the little dude in Roman togs? Roman toga. Toga togs. Pizza pizza. Cute.

And hey, just for fun, let's do the local audit: kale, leek, and chili, our garden; apples and maple-vin redux, Bide-A-Wee trees; squash from a farm on the banks of the Upper Kinnickinnic; garlic from Evan up near Turtle Lake; Minnesota cheeses, Donnay chevre, Saint Pete Blue; Smude sunflower oil on the squash; crust made from North Dakota, "Dakota Maid" flour and a little Whole Grain Milling (MN) whole wheat bread flour.

Not local: olive oil, salt, pepper, yeast.

Pizza Dough, "Poolish" Method (a poolish is a yeast sponge which somewhat approximates a sourdough)
Makes two approximately 12-inch pizzas, fairly thin crust

1 cup warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast

Stir the yeast into the water and let stand for about five minutes. Add:

3 Tbsp whole wheat flour (we like Whole Grain Milling's whole wheat bread flour)
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix well, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for several hours or overnight.

1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
Additional unbleached all-purpose flour, around a cup

Stir the salt and olive oil into the poolish. Add unbleached flour a bit at a time to make a soft but workable dough. Knead for a couple of minutes. Leave it alone for 10 or 15 minutes. Then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding flour as needed, till the dough is nice and smooth. Let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at room temperature, or refrigerate, then remove from the fridge an hour before you plan to shape it.

To shape the crusts, divide the dough in half. Form each half into a ball. Flatten the ball into a disk. You can now use a rolling pin, or just your hands, to extend the disk into a 12-inch crust. Do not hurry. Let the dough be your guide. Gradually roll, stretch, toss to flatten and broaden the dough. When it resists, leave it alone for a few minutes. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Go find your dog or cat and a tell her what a good dog/cat she is, yes she is, isn't she just a yummy snookums doggums/kitty-cattums yes she is! Wash the dog/cat goo off your hands. Stretch the dough a little more. You're almost there. Okay. My work here is done.

Place the dough on a cornmeal-dusted baking peel (if you're using a baking stone) or baking sheet (if no stone). Brush with olive oil, and let rise for 30 minutes or more, until the dough is looking puffy. Top and bake as below, or use your imagination and whatever's in the fridge.

Kale, Apple, Blue Topping

8 medium leaves kale, tough lower stems removed, washed, spun, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/4 cup chopped dried apples, roughly 1/3-inch pieces
3 cloves garlic, sliced very thin
3 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

Toss the kale with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and let sit 30 minutes. Mix the apple pieces with 1 1/2 tablespoons maple-vinegar glaze (*see below), and let sit at least 30 minutes. Stir the apples occasionally during this time.

When you're ready to bake, distribute the garlic slices evenly over the crust. Add the apples and glaze to the kale. Pile this on top of the pizza--it will look like too much, but the kale will reduce dramatically. Dot the blue cheese over the pizza. Bake at 550 (or your oven's top temp) for 5 to 7 minutes, until the crust is brown and the kale looks crispy, but not burnt.

Squash, Leek, Goat Cheese Topping

6 ounces butternut squash, a roughly 3- by 3-inch chunk from the solid top part, peeled
1 small leek, white and light green part, well washed, sliced thin on the diagonal
1 small dried red chili, seeds removed, crushed
salt and black pepper
1 Tbsp oil, sunflower, olive, or grapeseed
3 ounces fresh soft goat cheese, "chevre"

Slice the squash very thin, less than 1/8-inch--use a mandoline if you have one. Cut the slices into 1/2-inch strips. In a large bowl, toss the squash with the leeks, chili, a few grinds of pepper, a couple good pinches salt, and 1 tablespoon oil.

Just before baking spread the vegetable mix over the dough, and dot the goat cheese around evenly. Bake on a stone in a 550 oven (or as hot as your oven will go) for 7 to 9 minutes, until the crust is nicely brown and the vegetables are browned on the edges.


*To make the maple-cider vinegar reduction, combine ½ cup maple syrup and ½ cup apple cider vinegar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat—watch the pot constantly as it comes to a boil, to avoid boil-overs. Cook over medium-low heat—vigilance, again, is necessary to avoid a sticky mess—until reduced by half. Once cool, store in a small glass jar in the fridge. Use to glaze grilled meat or vegetables, or to add to salad dressings for a sweet-sour jolt. Or spoon it over vanilla ice cream, or into a baked apple.

Monday, January 10, 2011

January Apples

We had a really paltry crop of apples this past fall, but we made a point of storing away as many of the "good" ones as we could. "Good" is a relative term in our entirely organic (read, "more than half wild") orchard (orchard could have quotation marks around it, too, but that gets tedious...). You can see that even our good apples are often fly-specked, or worse. Still, enough of them keep so that we have fruit through most of the winter. Mainly it's cooking fruit--the apples are quite soft by now. We'll sauté apples to have with pancakes and bacon at breakfast, or to serve with grilled pork or duck confit--confit and apples is on the menu for this weekend. They're still fit for drying, even if they're soft--well, by this time they're halfway dry even before they go in the dehydrator.

I had a basket of our character-ful apples on our bread table at the Midtown market a couple years ago, all shapes and sizes and colors, and not a one meeting the Platonic, take-the-teacher-an-apple ideal. A young woman came up and beheld said basket for a few moments, then said with a smile, "Are you celebrating the beauty of imperfection?"

Yes, that's it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

December: My Life as a Sled Dog

I was feeling pretty good about the wood pile back in November, but when the cold came, and stayed, I quickly realized that my lumberjackin' days were not over for the winter. Every couple of Bide-A-Wee visits, I trudge on snowshoes to the north end of our property, harvest some small standing dead oaks. Often, when we get the wood into the cabin and it thaws out, it turns out to be not quite so cured as I had thought. Eventually it burns.

Navigating our bumpy land (pocket gophers) is actually easier in the snow, which levels things out. I put the black strapping around my chest like a harness, lean forward, and put one foot in front of the other. In time I make it back to camp. My real dogs, they just run around having fun. Annabel will often stop in the path in front of me. Impeding my progress is her main hobby.

Back at the cabin I spend some quality time with Pippi, the Swedish axe. The Badgers hat gives me the strength of Paul Bunyan.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

November: Turnips, Moon

Looking back on the winter so far, in a few images.


I planted the first little Bide-A-Wee garden plot at the very end of July, and it produced nice lettuces, radishes, rapini, and turnips right up until the snow. In fact, there are turnips still out there, under the snow, and there was lettuce we could have picked. It will all just be compost by the time we see the ground again, many moons from now....


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Not Too Local

"Most of my mother's family came from way out in west Texas in a little town called Lockney, which is somewhere close to Lubbock, but not too close to Lubbock--nobody likes to be too close to Lubbock."

Nanci Griffith, in between-song patter on her live album, One Fair Summer Evening

One key to making it through the winter, eating local here in The Frozen North, is not trying to eat too local. Though we may have our principles, this is not a contest, nor should we turn the celebration of local foods into a hair shirt of grim obligation and deprivation. While a hair shirt might provide welcome warmth, it's likely to be itchy. Pull on a nice cozy sweater, instead.

It's still the first week of the new year, but winter has been with us a fair while, already. Time for a little vacation to warm, exotic climes; spicy grill-smoked chicken wings can take us there. And we're not abandoning our principles, entirely: though the flavorings are foreign--lime juice, fish sauce, Sichuan pepper, non-local chilies--the chicken wings are local (Kadejan, in this case), and the carrots, too, and the leek is from our garden. You could make your own noodles, if you like, but we find it convenient to keep a few packages of Chinese egg noodles, thin and thick, in the pantry.

This was a treat on a cold, snowy evening. The wings are well and truly smoked--"Chicken bacon!", Mary exclaimed--as they are tossed with salt hours ahead of cooking. That cure allows the flavors of fish sauce, lime, chili, garlic, Sichuan pepper, etc., to penetrate the meat. Then add the applewood smoke, the char from the grill...oh, my.... I'm glad we made extra.

My sambal carrot salad, the carrots grated coarsely rather than shaved, made a crisp, sweet contrast. New Glarus bock, a fine Wisconsin brew, brought east and west together ably.

A bowl of extremely non-local guacamole whetted our appetites very nicely. No regrets.

Oh, and ma la, that's Chinese for numbing (from the Sichuan pepper) and hot (from the chilies), a classic Sichuanese formulation. This dish is not especially ma la. If you want it moreso, toss the wings with ground roasted Sichuan pepper and chili oil after grilling. We enjoyed the mild heat and spice, and interplay of flavors.

Smoke-Grilled Ma La Chicken Wings

3 pounds chicken wings, separated at the joints (save wing tips for stock)
¾ tsp salt
2 tsp fish sauce
1 ½ tsp sugar
Juice of ¼ juicy lime
½ tsp crushed black peppercorns
1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 large cloves garlic, sliced
2 scallions, chopped
2 medium hot red chilies (jalapeno or Fresno), seeded, cut into quarters the long way
2 small hot green or red chilies, Serrano or cayenne, sliced

Mix all the above ingredients in a large bowl, and let sit several hours or overnight.

Natural chunk charcoal
Apple wood or other smoking wood of your choice
2 small leeks, cleaned and sliced in half lengthwise, or 4 scallions
Thin Chinese egg noodles, a bundle-and-a-half per person (sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, salt)

Light a fire of natural charcoal in your barbeque grill. Have another, smaller grill on hand to keep hot coals going. When the coals are hot, move 2/3 of them to the smaller grill. Move the remaining coals to one side of the grill (the front in a clamshell-Meco-type grill). Add some wood chips to the coals. Arrange the chicken wings on the grill away from direct heat. Close the lid and smoke for 45 to 60 minutes, maintaining a temperature of at least 200 degrees—I keep an instant-read meat thermometer in the top vent of my grill to monitor temperature. Check a couple of times to make sure the grill is maintaining heat, especially in cold weather. Turn the wings over halfway through. Add hot coals from the smaller grill as needed, and add charcoal to the smaller grill to keep a good supply.

Once the wings are smoked, carefully transfer coals from the smaller grill to the larger, so as to have a hot fire for browning the wings. Now grill the wings over direct heat, turning often. Cook until they are very well browned and crisped. Remove them to a warm oven as they are done. When you have room on the grill, add the quartered medium-hot chilies, and the leeks or scallions. Grill until they are browned and tender. Chop the leeks for easier eating after they are grilled.

Serve over Chinese noodles tossed with sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a bit of salt, and sambal carrots (but shred or coarsely grate the carrots rather than shaving them thin). Place bed of noodles in a large shallow bowl, top with some of the carrots, then wings on top of that. Drape a few shreds of leek over the top, and the chopped leeks around the edges, and the grilled chilies around the edges, as well. Serve with cold beer and paper towels to wipe your hands and greasy chin. Pretend you are at a street stall in some steamy south Asian city. Forget the hell about winter.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw