Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Roasted Squash and Apple Soup ("It's All About the Garnish")

It's a stalwart cook indeed who can look upon autumn's bounteous offering of bright, appealing squashes and pumpkins, and refrain from making soup.  I've failed that test again, but with a purpose.

The problem with squash soup...well, where to start?  Too sweet, too gloppy, too monotonously...squashy.  To cut into that imposingly bland flavor (which I like, don't get me wrong), strong spices are often employed, but the curried squash soup, for instance, is by now such a tired cliché, some people must think that squash naturally tastes like curry powder.  Sometimes squash soup gets the Thai treatment:  lemongrass, coconut milk, bird-eye chiles.  I think that's trying a little too hard.

And the texture, what to do with the texure:  add too little liquid, in the form of stock, milk or cream, and you've got baby food rather than soup; too much, and the result doesn't taste much like squash (I hear some of you saying, "And what's wrong with that...?").

This preparation is a step in the direction of a corrective to this gnarly dilemma.  Better cooks than I have ventured down that path, I'm sure, but here's my stab at it.  I don't think this is the end of the road, but it's good (a cup of Cedar Summit cream will tip most anything in the "good" direction).  Another autumn will bring more wagonloads of autumn's most recognizable vegetables, their colors nostalgically mimicking the turning leaves; and once again we won't be able to not make soup.

I counter the sweetness and blandness issues in one blow, by adding tart apple and fresh apple cider.  These are both highly seasonal ingredients, as well, so we're keeping with the autumnal soup spirit.  Roasting the ingredients until they are slightly browned brings up the flavor, too.  And why add maple syrup, if we're worried about the soup being too sweet?  Well, the maple has a different sort of sweetness, very complementary to the tart apple and cider, I think, and a little sharpness of its own, and a roundness.  To achieve a pleasant texture and deepen the flavor, I use good chicken stock to simmer the soup, and that good cream to finish it.

And: I garnish the hell out of it.  This is the "secret" to excellent creamy soups, I think, especially those that threaten to overwhelm the palate with sameness if not carefully disciplined with the application of fresh, complementary and contrasting flavors and textures at the table.  You could almost look at the soup per se as a blank canvas, and take on the role of the Jackson Pollock of soup in your extravagent garnishings.

We actually have a saying around here (you can ask Mary, she'll back me up):  "It's all about the garnish," is what we say.  Have a try. (If I seem to be damning this soup with faint praise, well, that's just how I am; in fact it is a very satisfying dish on a cool autumn evening; a piece of crusty bread and a green salad will make it a meal.)

Roasted Squash and Apple Soup
serves four as a main course, six to eight as a starter

2 pounds squash (trimmed weight), peeled, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces, 7 to 8 cups--butternut would be ideal
1 tart apple, peeled, cored, and quartered
4 large cloves garlic, peeled
3 shallots (each the size of a small egg, about 3 ounces total), peeled and halved, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sweet apple cider
4 cups chicken stock (unsalted or low-salt)
Sage and thyme
1/8 teaspoon espelette pepper or a couple pinches of cayenne, optional
1 cup heavy cream
4 teaspoons maple syrup

Preheat oven to 425.  Toss the squash pieces with the olive oil and a couple good pinches of salt, and place them on a baking sheet.  Roast for 20 minutes.  Set aside one half of a shallot--to be used later as garnish.  Add the apple, garlic, and remaining shallots to the baking sheet, toss to coat with oil, and roast for 20 minutes more, until the squash and apples are soft and a bit browned--they may even be quite mushy at this point, depending on the produce.

In a large saucepan combine the roasted vegetables and apple, the stock, cider, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and few grinds of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried), and 4 sage leaves, chopped (or 1/2 teaspoon dried).  Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 30 minutes.  Allow the soup to cool to lukewarm, then either pass it through a food mill, or puree it in a blender; return the resulting puree to the saucepan. 

The soup can be made a day or two ahead up to this point.  When you are ready to serve the soup, add the cream, maple syrup, and the optional espelette or cayenne.  Bring to a simmer and cook very gently for 5 minutes.  Taste and adjust for salt.  If the soup seems too thick, thin it to where you want it by adding a little more stock, water, or cream, as you prefer.

Serve with any or all of these garnishes:

--Finely diced apple tossed with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice to keep it from browning.
--Grated sharp white cheddar.
--The reserved shallot, minced, lightly browned in butter or olive oil: drizzle in a swirl over the top of the soup.
--Butter- or bacon fat-toasted small croutons or coarse bread crumbs from a good country or sourdough loaf.
--Crumbled bacon (or a fine dice of it; our homemade bacon doesn't tend to crumble).

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Playing with Fire: Campfire Stew with Lamb Patties, Beets, and Eggplant

I really got the most out of my campfire with this dish—I roasted beets, charred peppers, grilled eggplant, seared lamb patties, and toasted bread (and when it was all over I smoked a trout over the waning coals). It’s a bit of an elaborate preparation, but much of it is pleasantly, passively accomplished while you sit by that glowing campfire as the cool autumn evening comes on, barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day and touch the stubble plain with rosy hue, hedge crickets sing, gathering swallows twitter in the skies, and all that sort of lovely Keatsian stuff.

The original of this incredibly flavorful deconstructed stew was a recipe in Saveur magazine a year or two ago, and I’m thinking the country of origin was Syria. But I consulted no recipe for this version, merely retaining the combination of beets and lamb, with spicing no more exotic than a teaspoon of sambal and a little cumin. The wonderful flavors of the fresh, seasonal ingredients, intensified by the fire of hardwood coals, are what take it well above the ordinary.

I consider it as much a pleasure as a challenge to create a complex, sophisticated dish like this using caveman technology. Doing a lot with little is the mark of the good cook, I believe—and a lesson that applies in many areas of life other than the culinary. You could make this in a civilized kitchen, broiling the eggplant, roasting the peppers under the broiler or on a burner, pan-searing the lamb and oven roasting the beets before bringing them all together to simmer and meld at the end. It would still be a great dish. But there’s no question that uniquely rustic flavors develop in cooking over hardwood coals, and your appetite gets a boost from all that fresh air.

Since everything warms together at the end, the various parts are all made ahead, which takes a lot of pressure off. You could even roast your beets a day or more ahead, taking advantage of the remnants of one night’s campfire, as Amy “Sourtooth” Thielen describes so evocatively, cutting down the cooking time for finishing the dish. At Bide-A-Wee we grill at pretty much every opportunity—or cook over the campfire by other means, with cast iron skillet or dutch oven.

This is the perfect time of year for ambitious campfire cooking: the days are still long enough that there’s adequate daylight to illuminate your efforts, and the cool evenings make us yearn for hearty fare. From the equinox on it’s a slippery slope—diminishing daylight, evenings more chilling than bracing; once we fire up good old Haggis, our woodstove, we’ve ushered in the braising season (though we’ll still grill until the firepit is covered in snow).

The lamb “burgers” could be served as just that, a stand-alone main meat course on plate or bun, topped with well-grilled onions and/or other grilled vegetables, a ratatouille, cucumbers in sour cream or yogurt, couscous or a pilaf, what have you. On a bed of lentils, perhaps?  The "secret ingredients" in the lamb patties:  excellent sourdough breadcrumbs; a grated apple.

Why don’t I use ground lamb more often? Sourced from a small local farm (Shepherd’s Song in Connorsville, WI, in this case, though Minnesota’s Sheepy Hollow and Hill & Vale are also excellent), it is wonderfully flavorful, versatile, and affordable. I’m gonna do more with ground lamb.

Chickpeas would be good in this in place of the cannellini beans, and heighten the Middle Eastern inflection.

Campfire Stew with Grilled Lamb Patties, Fire-Roasted Beets, Eggplant, and Cannellini Beans
Serves four

For the lamb patties:

1 pound ground lamb
1 small onion minced
4 cloves garlic minced
1 teaspoon sambal chile paste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 small apple, grated, skin and all, about ½ cup
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat a 10- or 11-inch cast iron skillet and add the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until it is translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the contents to cool for a few minutes, then mix it into the ground lamb along with the apple, bread crumbs, sambal, cumin, salt and a few grinds of black pepper. (No need to wash the pan, as you’ll use it again to simmer the final preparation.) This mixture can be prepared up to a day ahead. Just before grilling, form the lamb mixture into meatballs about 1 ½ inches across, then flatten the balls slightly to form plump patties—they’ll brown nicely on the grill this way (and not roll away…). You should have 8 patties, 2 per person.

½ cup dried cannellini beans
1 small, firm eggplant
1 large red bell pepper
2 medium hot banana peppers
4 small beets
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup red wine
3 cups water
1 cup chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil

Cook the beans to tenderness by your preferred method, drain and set aside (or substitute a generous cup of canned cannellini beans).

Down at the campfire: wash the beets and wrap them in foil, two to a packet. Place the foil-wrapped beets in the coals and roast for 40 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes. Remove from the coals and allow to cool, then slip the skins off and quarter the beets.

Slice the eggplant the long way into ½-inch thick slices, and brush both sides with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then grill until soft and brown, and coarsely chop. Roast the peppers over the coals until the skin is blackened on all sides. Place the peppers in a paper bag or a covered bowl for 10 minutes to help the skin release. Scrape off the black skin and remove seeds and veins. Roughly chop the pepper.

Grill the lamb patties until well browned on both sides. To the cast iron skillet set on the grill grate (or use the stovetop, if you prefer; I finished this version on our Coleman camp stove), add 2 tablespoons olive oil, then the onion, and cook until it is translucent. Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook gently until the tomatoes have reduced to something of a paste. Add the wine, 3 cups of water, and then all the precooked ingredients, along with a ¼ teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes. Serve with grilled bread.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Publication Day

Friday, October 30, 2009:  I'm deep in the midst of the final Real Bread baking of the regular market season.  Since it is the last market, advance orders have been big.  It's a warm day, and I'm surrounded by a dozen bowls of fermenting dough.  It's the middle of the afternoon, and the ovens have been on since 8:00 in the morning, and they'll be blazing for several hours more.  Then there's the dough to make that we proof overnight and bake in the morning.  When I'm all done and slumped in the bathtub (most likely with a scotch on the rocks in hand), Mary will come in to return some order to the floury chaos, and set up ingredients for the scones she'll bake in the morning.

The last baking, and I should be in a good mood, anticipating more carefree weekends as we move into November and December.  I am not in a good mood, however.  I am, in fact, in an absolutely foul mood, downright owly, as my friend Lynn Ann would say.  I'm sick of bread, sick of spending my Saturday mornings in a roasting parking lot after spending all of Friday in a roasting kitchen.  I hate the feel of bread dough on my hands, and getting hit in the face by a blast of steam when I open the oven door and forget to step back.  As much joy and satisfaction as we've derived from being part of various farmers markets the past seven years, I'm just sick of it all right now.  There's no looking at the bright side.  I'm just burned out; or maybe more fitting to say, I'm baked.

Mary comes down the stairs and into the kitchen as I'm fuming under the blackest cloud of the day.  She says: "Somebody from the historical society press just emailed you.  She's been reading your blog and she wants to know if you want to do a cookbook." 

And I'm like, "Hell yeah, I do."  And all of a sudden I feel a little better.

When I get a chance for a break I go upstairs and read the email.  It's from one Shannon Pennefeather, and it begins:

Hello! I’ve been following your Trout Caviar blog and feasting my eyes on your fabulous cast-iron, propane, and grill cooking. Thank you for letting your readers visit Bide-a-Wee with you.

I wonder if you’ve considered collecting your recipes into a cookbook. Perhaps a wild game, freshwater fish, local ingredients approach, given your morel hunting, your trout sorrel sauce, your duck several ways. Enhance the narrative with the theme of living the good life, as every Francophile knows how to do.

I wrote right back with my utter willingness to turn the Trout Caviar blog material into a cookbook.  I met Shannon on a chilly November day a couple of weeks later, and submitted an official book proposal to the Minnesota Historical Society Press in early January, and had a contract worked out within a few weeks.  In early 2010 my deadline of February 2011 for a finished manuscript seemed a very long ways off.  Now I know that a year and a few months to pull together a book of recipes, essays, and photographs is, well, like no time at all.

The idea of the book went through some changes along the way.  We skewed the theme to focus on wild foods and foraging; I balked at being labeled a modern day hunter-gatherer (I mean, come on, I'm way too suave and sophisticated to pull that off!), but I happily donned the mantle of "a northern forager."  The notion of foraging gets some tweaking in the book's concept.  The Trout Caviar notion of foraging embraces seeking out the best possible raw ingredients from many sources--the wild, the market, the garden, specialty shops.  This approach, I hope, makes the book useful whether you want to take to the woods to find your supper, or are more comfortable gleaning the best local foods you can find at your co-op.  By providing accessible entrée into this way of thinking and cooking, I very much hope that the book will make foraging for wild foods seem not so daunting as it might to the uninitiated.

Some things I learned in the process: 

* Writing recipes that are both easy to follow and interesting to read is both an art and a skill, and a lot harder than it looks;

* I don't do desserts;

* But I love cheese;

* 150 recipes is a really lot of recipes;

* While I thought the book might stand out for its meat dishes, I'm really quite proud of my salads, soups, and fish dishes;

* Mushrooms are photogenic;

* Soup is not.

And a lot, lot more.  This truly was a learning and changing experience in many ways, some of which I'm probably not even aware of yet.

When I first announced that I was working on the cookbook I put out a call for recipe testers, and several people responded.  The fact that I didn't get around to assigning recipes for folks to try was due simply to the fact that I never got organized enough to do so.  As the months went by and the pages and recipes piled up, I just had to keep moving forward.  With recipes that I wasn't quite happy with, I just chipped away at refining them a bit at a time on my own.  I even had Mary test a few recipes for me (note to prospective cookbook authors:  DO NOT have your spouse test your recipes, especially when the result is supposed to be your supper).  So this is just to say that I really appreciated the offers of help, and I didn't snub anybody who offered assistance--the job just stayed in-house, is all.

I truly appreciate the support and continued readership of everyone who keeps up with Trout Caviar.  I'm also extremely grateful to all the great people at the MHS Press who helped put the Trout Caviar book together:  Shannon Pennefeather, my editor and the MHS Press managing editor; Pam McClanahan, director, and Ann Regan, editor-in-chief.  Dan Leary headed the production staff; Cathy Spengler produced a beautiful design and layout for the book, and Judy Gilats set the type.  Nancy Root Miller of Waupaca, Wisconsin, proofread the final version, and her enthusiasm for the book was really encouraging.

The book is dedicated to Mary, Pastry Goddess, Plate Licker, Bread Sniffer, Soup Smiler, and so much more.

Trout Caviar:  Recipes from a Northern Forager, sees its official debut tomorrow, Thursday, September 15, 2011.
Cheers, everyone.  Many thanks~ Brett

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Season of Too Much to Do

The title could apply to any of our non-snow-covered seasons, I know, but seems particularly apt this time of year.  So much so, my mind just stalled in looking for a place to start the list.  Well, the garden, of course, is reaching a crescendo which, were a garden a symphony, would resound of swelling, urgent strings, pounding timpanis, wildly bugling bassoons, capped off by a thunderous cymbal clap, signifying a kitchen counter covered with green and half-ripe tomatoes, fading into October.  My Saint Paul garden early in the year was a disgrace, an embarrassment, with carrots and even beans (beans, dear lord!) that wouldn't germinate or grow, lettuce that didn't thrive, reluctant leeks.  I told myself, well, radishes and turnip greens are my favorite vegetables, anyway....

The trick, as it turns out, was to ignore it.  I maintained a basic sort of order out there with the occasional frantic weeding, and focused on how wonderfully the tomatoes were doing in my tiny Bide-A-Wee garden, thriving in honest-to-god full sun.  And I enjoyed the wild harvests from ramps, cress, nettles and other wild greens, on into black cap raspberries, July chanterelles, August blackberries.  Watched the progress of the Bide-A-Wee apples, anticipated cidering time.

Cucumber and pole bean mountains.

In the interim, nature did what nature does, and found a way.  In early August something came over my pole beans, cucumbers, leeks, and kale.  Eruption would seem to describe it pretty well.  What was looking to be a very paltry harvest became, seemingly overnight, more than I would handle.  I made cornichons, bread & butters, sour dills.  I found many uses for romano beans--including an excellent bean-on-bean salad with flageolets and romanos, red onion, hen of the woods, loads of olive oil and some cider vinegar.  I hope to make that again while the hens are around, and will attempt to codify it into a recipe then.

Romano pole beans, good at any size.

Around mid-summer a squash or pumpkin vine sprouted in the compost, and grew timidly for about a month.  This is a typical occurence here, and always a nice surprise when free food emerges from the "trash."  This year's model is a sort of white pumpkin, and is now growing with alarming prodigiosity--seems like it extends its reach by a couple of feet a day, and is branching out in many directions.  I recall I picked up the parent pumpkin at a Wisconsin roadside honor stand last fall.  We admired its decorative qualities a little too long, and it rotted before we got a chance to taste it.  We'll be able to remedy that omission this year, looks like.

In a summer when I feel as if I've done little to no preserving, I take a mental inventory and realize that I've made all those cucumber pickles, plus an impromptu corn relish, pickled ramps and milkweed buds, blackberry runny jam, tomato sauce; and I've frozen corn (kernels sliced from the cob, fresh) and turnip greens and red kale (briefly blanched, packed into sandwich bags).  I've also kept that crock stocked with mixed vegetables, using up garden surplus and the remains of market purchases before they become compost-worthy.

Suyo long is my favorite cucumber variety for Chinese or western salads, and bread & butter pickles--much less seedy than most slicers.

Oh yeah, and then there's the apples....  Our apples, right now, are both a delight and a terror.  A delight because it has been a wonderful year for them, and our splendidly diverse half-wild orchard is producing abundantly.  It has been great fun to taste our way from tree to tree and week to week, as the apples progressed from "sour, astringent, spit-it-out," to "now that has interesting flavors (though you still spit it out)", to chewable, eatable, and finally, absolutely delightful. 

Now, the terror:  This year our apples seem especially prone to falling off the tree either just as they ripen or even slightly before they are ripe.  We missed a weekend at Bide-A-Wee for a lovely trip to the South Shore of Lake Superior, and when I came out to the land the Wednesday following, I found that several hugely laden trees had dropped most of their apples in the time we'd been away.  I commenced frenzied picking of anything left on those trees, and an assessment of the state of ripeness of the other trees.  Another brief absence from the land, just a couple of days, and more trees had dropped most of their fruit.  Panic.  We'd waited two years for a decent apple crop, since last year's was beyond meager, an off year in the biennial fruiting cycle worsened greatly by a late-May frost that followed a very warm April which had the trees flowering early.

I think we're going to be okay.  We've salvaged enough to fill a carboy or two with cider to ferment, and to freeze a few gallons for fresh cider--that's our morning "orange juice" these days.  It's just an odd, perplexing, and unhappy phenomenon, this premature dropping of the apples.  In past years we've picked apples well into October, I have photos of apples with snow on them, I really do, like, look here:

October 11, 2009

A few trees aren't nearly ripe, and are holding their fruit.  Even one heavy cropping tree can provide almost more apples than you know what to do with.  And then, there's always next year, or the year after.  By that time we hope to be living in the country full time, our attention not so scattered.  That's the other complication here, the back-and-forth life.  I treasure every day we spend at Bide-A-Wee, and the effort required to prep for the weekend there, and to close up for the return to the city, is entirely worth it.  But I've come to realize that between the coming and going procedures and the travel itself, it takes a whole day out of the week.  And there are only seven days in a week, you know.  You probably knew that.  I'm only just starting to realize it....

So the season of too much to do can also be the season of too much to think about, which may be even more taxing.  I find I've been suffering a bit of blog fatigue lately, not because I can't think of anything to say, or don't have finds and dishes and photos I want to share, but precisely because there's just too much of all that. 
The wild black cherries are excellent this year.

I want to do the dry-fried green beans, the corn spoonbread, the ode to the blackberry, an exploration of black cherries.  Then the hen of the woods come in, fishing season has just three weeks left, those apples aren't going to press themselves.  And one of these days those Trout Caviar books are going to arrive (hey, where are those Trout Caviar books?), and with them a lot more delightful complications.

I hope you're finding better ways to simplify in the season of too much to do than I am.  The list gets shorter with concerted effort, then it grows again.  Today I've got bank, library, laundry, pick the garden, water the garden, unload the apples brought home yesterday, return emails, pack a few things and the dogs, and head back to Bide-A-Wee to set up for a full day of apple picking tomorrow.  As the evening comes on with its cool and quiet, and I build a fire to sit by with a wee dram of scotch, I won't feel much burdened.  The fact that the lawn needs mowing, wood needs hauling, the woodstove needs painting...oh, why did I have to bring that up?  No, really, it'll be okay.  It's good to be busy; the efforts will bring their rewards.

Garden & griffon, Annabel, to be precise.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw