Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Clearing in the Mist

In spite of the fact that the October landscape is often wreathed in mists, I find autumn to be a season of clarity. The clarity comes in part from a sense of ease, the space to breathe, that accompanies the end of the growing season. Everything that comes with summer, whether pleasure or chore, builds together to create a sense of busy-ness that, by late August or early September, can be as oppressive as July’s humid heat. There’s the garden to weed, mulch, water, harvest, preserve, reseed…. There are trout to be caught, mushrooms to be foraged; then apples to be picked, pressed, dried, sauced. The Haggis needs reblacking, we ought to get a shed. And the city house is no less demanding.

Comes a day, after the frost, when, whatever one did accomplish from that never diminishing list, it doesn’t matter. That list is over. Did you set that extra gallon of sour dills to brine? Nothing to be done about it now, either way. When the September freeze in Connorsville brought an abrupt end to the sweet corn season, there went my chance to try Amy’s aunt’s method of preserving it; also vamoosed, the obligation to trot out the corn spoonbread recipe I’d meant to put up on the blog. Big plans to test out various methods for keeping hen of the woods mushrooms were dispatched by the September drought.

If those examples seem a little on the negative side, it may be because autumn does confront us with many scenarios of subtraction, but in what is taken away we also find benefit, and renewal—the leaves drop from the trees, but give us back the bones of our Bide-A-Wee hills, and a new sense of trees, stark and graphic, perhaps, but beautiful, too. As the corn is stripped from the fields, the last cutting of hay rolled into shining round bales, we see the contours of the land again; I take an elemental sense of reassurance from that.

On the topic of hay I could become ponderous—mainly because, while I find it utterly compelling, I don’t really know that much about it. It seems to me the most basic of crops, the least intrusive form of agriculture, almost in line with foraging. While it doesn’t occur without human intervention, still it seems a nearly pure form of the alchemy of soil and sun that drives the planet and all life thereon; in the rituals of the haying season, hardly changed since people first cut grasses to store as livestock feed through the winter, it ties us to early ancestors. Hay gives us milk, butter, cheese, meat. The wedge of cheddar is the iconic Wisconsin headwear, but I’d like to see people here sporting haybale hats.

I spend a fair amount of time driving around the Wisconsin countryside, and at this time of year I notice a change in the residents of the small towns. I notice less traffic, for one thing, fewer people moving to and fro. I also sense (could be it’s just me) subtle changes in how they interact. I see pairs of pick-ups parked cab to cab on the side roads, the drivers chatting, in no hurry to be anywhere. In town a white-haired lady will cross the street to lean in the window of a car that pulled to the side of the road and called out. Small groups of people, just pairs or trios, linger in front of the post office, the grocery store, the cooperative. They are mostly older, and in the afternoon sunlight that slices through low gray clouds, and filters through the waning leaves, there is something poignant in how that light, at once forgiving and foreboding, brings out the features of their faces: they seem extremely human. As if Grant Woods got together with Edward Hopper to paint these tableaux.

The days are short, and even for an autumn-lover like me, now shrinking with alarming pace. The light compels remembrance. Try not to let it slide into nostalgia, which once was thought to be a fatal disease. But the stillness of an October day of sunlight and cloud, warmth in the light and a penetrating chill in the shadows, seems to require one to reflect. There are no endings that are not as well beginnings, but the balance isn’t always doled out equally to all, with passing years. See entry “Nostalgia, as fatal disease…”. Let’s move along.

I go out looking for something to forage, as if finding wild harvests will suspend the season here, or at least the day. By the parking area of a hunting ground I find the wild plum trees plum-less, but strung with grape vines thick with dark purple fruit. Many of the grapes are shriveled half to raisin state, but when I taste them I find that they are some of sweetest wild grapes I’ve ever found. I pick a small sack full; I have no idea what I will do with them, but I feel a responsibility to find a use for them. In a streamside woods I go digging for ramps—a thin tan stick topped with a monochrome starburst of small black seeds is the giveaway; the pungent bulbs lie beneath. I gather just a few, because it’s hard to work around the edges of a clump when you don’t have the leaves to guide you, and I don’t want to remove whole clumps.

In the Bide-A-Wee north woods I seek out the stinging nettles patch, and find that quite a few small plants have sprouted from seed late in the summer. The head-high patch of mature plants has mostly vanished, flattened by frost, wind, falling leaves of oak and maple. Back at the cabin I make a glass of nettle tea, sweeten it with maple syrup from trees growing in that same woods, tapped for sap that was boiled last spring into this perennial sweetness. The tea is clear, slightly green-gold.  It’s a libation with all sorts of implications that I think would be spoiled if I tried to sort them out.

I sit down at the laptop on the tippy table of white pine that Ivan Schrock made, and start to write about autumn, its sense of clarity.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

October Bonus

When one is able to harvest tomatoes, green beans, and basil from a Minnesota garden on October 24, I think that is an event worth commemorating with the creation of a new dish.  Well, a new-ish dish, maybe, not a reinvention of the wheel, but at least a let-the-garden-take-the-lead sort of dish.  Braisey.  To serve atop polenta, to feed to a hungry wife coming home in the dark from her training session in preparation to ski the kortelopet at the American Birkebeiner this coming winter (I'm going to ski it, too, but as a bagged-out but still (unjustifiably) cocky former athlete, I'll wait to start my training until a couple weeks prior--I mean, how hard can it be to ski 23 kilometers?  A kilometer is only like, what, 50 feet or so?  Piece of cake).

In addition to the fresh green beans--which are flat romano beans, and by no means of haricots verts tenderness at this season--there are also the ghostly, apparently useless husks of dried-up beans hanging on the vine.  Appearances are deceiving here, for you can open those dry white shells to extract the dried bean seeds, which are just like the dried navy beans you'd buy at the co-op, only much fresher and tastier.  They'll provide a creamy sweet undertone to the stew.

A leek previously pulled and cleaned up should be used up; the kale is the most prominent vegetable remaining in the garden, and will lend a leafy note.  This will need a lot of garlic: it goes so well with beans, tomatoes, and greens.  Foraging in my fridge, I found a cup of brown chicken stock--that goes in, plus another cup of stock or water; you could use vegetable stock to keep it meat-free.

I sauté the leek in olive oil, then add four crushed cloves garlic, then tomato (a cup and a half total, chopped cherry and larger tomatoes), cooking gently to let the tomatoes dry out a bit.  Then in go the dry(ish) shelled beans, stock, and a few torn leaves of basil.  Simmer 30 minutes.  Add a good fistful of fresh beans, sliced on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces, and a few leaves of kale, stripped from the stems, shredded or torn.  Simmer another 30 to 40 minutes, adding water as needed to keep it brothy, until everything is tender.  We are NOT looking for al dente vegetables here.

Now cook up some polenta, finishing with a nice dollop of butter.  A grate of cheese makes it a rich, filling vegetable dinner, BUT: 

A slice of bacon makes it a vegetable dinner with BACON!  I just brought a fresh batch out of the smoker.  It is a rule in our house that some of the bacon gets eaten hot, fresh from the smoke.

I picked one more meal's worth of beans from the surprisingly still-green vines. I much prefer pole beans to bush--longer harvest time, easier to pick, and as they grow up a trellis, they take up less garden space. There's frost a-comin' this weekend, but I can't feel anything but grateful for this Indian summer harvest. A bit of frost will sweeten the kale, turnips, and carrots, anyway. To everything its season.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, October 14, 2011

Radio Day

Imma be on the radio this afternoon, 3:00 to 4:00, talking with Jean Feraca on the Here on Earth show's "Food Friday," on Wisconsin Public Radio: .  I'm going to try to retain some semblance of calm, but in reality I'm absolutely giddy about this opportunity.  I'm kind of a WPR groupie, and Here on Earth is my favorite WPR show (though I enjoy the whole weekday line-up--Joy Cardin, Kathleen Dunn, Veronica Rueckert*, and Larry Meiller). 

It's a call-in show, and I'd really love to hear from Trout Caviar readers if you're out there listening.  You can hear it on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio, or stream it live from their website (I'm certain that most of you are much more clever about this sort of thing than I am; there's a "Listen" tab just above the blurb about me and my idyllic childhood).  If you'd care to listen to the show later, it will be archived promptly after airing.

Okay.  Wish me luck.


* One of Veronica Rueckert's interviews led to this lively Trout Caviar discussion a while back, about where food and cooking fit (or don't fit) in the realm of the aesthetic:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Cheese Course: It's What's for Breakfast (Roth Butterkäse with Cornmeal Crusted Fried Apples)

This was a simple delight, and a bit of a surprising combination.  Not that there's any secret to the simpatico between apples and cheese, but the maple syrup (Bide-A-Wee brand) snuck in there as an unusual and pleasant liaison.  Walnut bread--a favorite (of mine and our customers) during the Real Bread era, and which I've rarely made since we stopped the mass baking--completed a wholly satisfying breakfast plate.

Roth Käse Butterkäse  is a soft, buttery cow's milk cheese from the folks who make award-winning gruyère-type cheeses down in Monroe, Wisconsin.  It is mild and mouth-filling, not a challenging cheese, just an entirely enjoyable one.  It reminds me a bit of havarti.  We pick it up from our friend Renee's Bolen-Vale cheese shop on highway 64.

For the apple:  Peel and quarter a good-sized firm tart apple.  Remove the core and cut each quarter again so you have eight wedges.  Mix a quarter-cup of cornmeal with a bit of salt.  Dip the apple pieces in milk, then toss them with cornmeal to coat.  Fry in butter over medium heat, turning several times, until the cornmeal crust is brown and the apples are tender.  Serve with slices of cheese and maple syrup.

Walnut bread:  Add whole raw walnuts to a sourdough rye or whole wheat dough in a ratio of 1 part walnuts to 4 parts dough (e.g., 4 pounds dough, 1 pound walnuts).  Knead the walnuts into the dough just before you shape and proof the loaves pre-baking.  Adding walnuts to the dough when you first mix it will make the bread go purple in a reaction with the tannins in the nuts.

And I can't go without mentioning the coffee!  Café au lait made with  really strong Café du Monde New Orleans coffee, from a can that one Don Roberts of Otter Creek dropped off at our place some while back, with warmed raw milk from the Bartz's Bolen Vale Farm.  This was the farthest thing from just-roasted arabica beans freshly ground and gently brewed, but it was delicious--tasted just like Paris.

Bide-A-Wee breakfast table--liberally garnished with apples full of charcacter

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pesto: Not Just for Basil Anymore

What I'm about to say will likely astound some of you, particularly any of you young whipper-snappers who've know little or nothing of the days before burrata, Neapolitan pizza, foie gras carts as common as hot dog stands, and free-range artisan single source heirloom poultry in every pot, but here goes: I was there when pesto was invented. Well, maybe not "invented," but I do recall very well those days when basil pesto arrived in a great fragrant tsunami on these shores. That was also the time, not surprisingly, when rare and exotic foodstuffs like real parmesan cheese, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil were first becoming known here. Funny, huh? Before that time, all we knew of food started at Hamburger Helper and ended at Shake N Bake chicken. This was a mere twenty years ago. I know that many of you recall those innocent days as well as I.

The reason I'm taking this trip down memory lane is to help explain why I don't really like basil pesto anymore. The reason: so smitten was I with this rarified blend of fresh basil, garlic, cheese, pinenuts, and olive oil, I gorged on it until, frankly I was sick of it. I burned out on basil pesto in the mid-90's, and I've never really recovered. That tragic occurence also took away a lot of my enjoyment of basil itself. I mean, I don't dislike basil, but I'm really much more of a thyme guy.

My solution for getting back into the pesto game after my disillusionment with basil is this here mixed-herb pesto, which allows me to put away some summery herbal freshness without the Genovese flashbacks. Interestingly, basil is the main herb in this mix, since it's the most abundant in my garden right now, but it recedes under the influence of the other greenery. To the basil base I always add plenty of thyme, a good amount of mint, parsley, and some cutting celery.

Poking around my Saint Paul garden at this time of year is really a sort of domestic foraging, and while I was wending my way through renegade squash vines, I spied some neglected carrots, and grabbed a few sprigs of the freshest green tops to add to my pesto. I also pinched off a few tomato leaves, which are indeed edible, and bring that appetizing savory quality. I also came across some rather sad, underachieving fennel plants that I planted mid-summer. No bulbs to speak of, but I was able to glean a few feathery, anise-scented fronds. Add some sorrel, and a handful of chives. I think that's all of it. Rosemary and tarragon I avoid--they'd be too assertive in the mix; well, maybe just a little of each, but be careful.

Rinse and spin, jam it all in the FP. I added also the juice of one-quarter lemon and a couple good pinches of salt, then about a quarter-cup of olive oil to start. Start blending, and add more olive oil as needed to make the emulsion. This herb base can be amended later with cheese, garlic, nuts, or used as is.

How I will use it: drop a cube into the soup pot just before serving; smear on lamb chops, chicken, or fish pre-broiling; stir into a wine-stock pan sauce for a steak or chop; melted into hot polenta, or rice pilaf; or on pasta, of course, with the traditional additional flavorings.

Conveniently, one FP-load of herbs made enough to fill one ice cube tray. Knock another fall chore off the list.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October Foray

I have to admit, I've been in a rather prolonged blogging slump, and a lousy time it is to have one, too.  What with the book just out, I ought to be keeping these pages sparkling with gorgeously appetizing photos, irresistible recipes, and scintillating prose.  What I've been feeling, however, is a general feeling of:  Meh.  Or rather, that's how I feel when I'm back in Saint Paul, contemplating sitting down in my office, going through photos, transcribing recipes. 

It's odd:  Many times, out and about in Wisconsin, or even in my garden here in town, I've got sort of a running voiceover going for the blog, with a ton of things I'm eager to talk about:  coming across the Hay River pumpkin seed oil crew processing pumpkins in Dunn County on a perfect fall day; picking the last of the apples, and pressing them into cider; picking nannyberries at Bide-A-Wee (which I'm still not sure what to do with); the whole lamb we roasted out at the cabin a couple of weeks ago; even the potato truck that turned over on Wisconsin highway 25 in downtown Ridgeland last weekend, sending a tidal wave of russets spewing across the roadway (no one was hurt; some townsfolk partook of the gleaning opportunity, filling drywall buckets with scattered spuds).

What I need to learn to do, I think, is to quell the internal narration and save all that inspiration for when I can use it.  I really wanted to get a post up today, but nothing was coming.  So I did what I often do when I'm backed up like that:  I headed for the woods.  The idea wasn't even so much a forage as just a head-clearing and a have-a-look-around.  I can't remember when the last measurable rain fell here, and the woods were extremely dry the last time I went out, at least a couple of weeks ago.  Not ideal conditions for mushroom hunting, to say the least.  Pleasant for walking though, which creates a bit of a forager's paradox, that often the best times for foraging, the warm, damp times, are the least enjoyable times to be in the woods.  Mushrooms, mosquitoes, deerflies, and nettles all like it wet and hot; me, I prefer cool and dry.

And then, you know, while it's always nice to come back from the woods with some material product of the foray, it's hardly ever a sure bet.  If you're going to keep at it, you have to be able to deal with coming home from time to time with an empty collection basket.

Things actually started off in promising manner when I came upon a cluster of honey mushrooms (pretty sure those are armillaria mellea; I haven't gathered any in a couple of years, and I haven't gone through the ID process with these ones).  Attractive though they were, and seemingly sound at first glance, I discovered that  most of them were buggy--some sort of larvae had eaten their way up through the stipe and hollowed out the center of the cap.  Nothing for the table there.

Around the base of the stump (oak, I believe) on which the honey mushrooms were growing were these specimens with the singularly unappetizing name of "abortive entolomas" .  These blobbish white mushrooms occur when the entoloma abortivum fungus parasitizes the armillaria.  These are edible, though I have never eaten them.  Like the honey mushrooms, these were a little the worse for wear.

That turned out to be the fungal theme of the day:  too dry, too late--shoulda been here last week, and what do we have to do to get a little rain around here.  The most impressive fungal find of the morning was this:

I guess this is a hen of the woods, but a very washed-out looking one, indeed.  (The grifola umbellata shown here   looks more alike in color, but it's listed as very rare.) It's the biggest specimen I've found this year, and in some time.  But this, too, was considerably past its prime, soft-textured, yellowed underneath, somewhat bug-infested. 

And it went on that way.  A barely-there sulfur shelf, or chicken of the woods:

A withering hen:

"The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight
The water mirrors a still sky...".

There are always the consolations of poetry. It wasn't twilight, and no water to be seen, but those lines from Yeats's "The Wild Swans at Coole" kept going through my head.  Though the days of late have been unseasonably warm (bouncing back resoundingly from a frosty 25-degree morning at Bide-A-Wee last weekend), it certainly feels as if nature is staging its rehearsals for retirement.  Keats wrote of the gathering swallows that twitter in the skies in autumn, but the turkey vultures are gathering, too, taking it all in from their splendid vantage until the north wind blows again to sail them south.

I came home empty-handed from this outing, but at once fuller and lighter of heart, if that makes any sense. And I didn't get a recipe out of it, but I got a little something to pass along, which I think is really what keeps this going, anyway. So: happy forays to all.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw