Monday, November 28, 2011

A Very Bide-A-Wee Thanksgiving

Martha took most of these excellent photos at the first Bide-A-Wee Thanksgiving gathering.  She and Tom were among the small group of pilgrims who travelled through the Wisconsin countryside resonating with rifle reports as the firearm deer season continued.  Also joining us were Jean-Louis and Nina, and their dog Georgia.  We started with Tom's delicious turkey paté and a relish tray that helped me thin the inventory in my pickle museum--spicy snow peas, soy sauce flat beans, asparagus, sweet gherkins, and cornichons. Then we feasted on confit of turkey legs and wings (salted and spiced then slow roasted in duck fat), maple-herb cured turkey breast cooked on the Bide-A-Wee fire with red wine-port sauce (none dare call it gravy!); pommes boulangère courtesy of Jean-Louis, chestnut-sausage stuffing, rutabaga remoulade (both mine), Tom's fresh cranberry-orange relish, and brioche nanterre au levain.  Then after a walk around the hilltop as dusk was coming down, we finished up with Martha's luscious pumpkin pie (recipe on the Libby's pumpkin filling can, she claims), and a beautiful apple tart on homemade puff pastry by (who else?) Jean-Louis. 

The turkey was a broad-breasted bronze, raised just down the road by our neighbors Mandy and Jeremy Berg. And even this turkey non-enthusiast must admit that it was a damned tasty bird.

By the end of the day we were sated, glowing, grateful, and exhausted as our guests started homeward under a sky full of stars as brilliant as any we've seen at Bide-A-Wee.  We hope your Thanksgiving feast was equally enjoyable.

The pilgrims:

Jean-Louis and Nina.

Mary with a better shot of J-L.

Tom holds forth.

Fearless fotog Martha; blurry but the best I got of her.

The pitmaster.

Groovy reflection shot with most of us.

Canine contingent:

Georgia, Nina, and Lily.

Annabel in standard dozing mode.

Lily, the great hunter.

A little local color.

The feast:
Tom has been working on perfecting his turkey paté for three years; I'd say he's just about there.

Country loaf, levain brioche.

The maple-herb-cured breast on the grill. It was grilled & smoke-roasted.

Rutabaga remoulade, with apple, sorrel, a mayo, sour cream, cider vinegar dressing.

Confit turkey legs and wings and chestnut dressing warm on the Haggis.

Cutting up the confit...

...and the breast.

Tom's cranberry orange relish.

Diverse libations enlivened the day.

A flavorful plate.

And another.

We forgot to take pictures of dessert.


A delicious and memorable day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Grilled Grouse at Bide-A-Wee

When I wound up with a grouse and a woodcock thanks to Lily’s miraculous pointing breakthrough and some fortunate shooting on my part, I started imagining a wild-inspired feast. I know some very capable hunters, expert gun and dog handlers, for whom ruffed grouse is basically a chicken substitute during the season. They take a limit of five birds almost every time out, fill the freezer by season’s end. Forget about pork—for folks like this, partridge is the other white meat.

This is not a situation that I can even begin to imagine. I feel fortunate to harvest a few game birds each year, and so each bird in the bag is an opportunity to experience unique flavors. Wanting to make the most of this precious meat places a certain amount of pressure on the ambitious cook. As I started planning how these first birds of the season would be prepared, I thought, nice as it would be to have them at Bide-A-Wee, in the midst of the landscape from which they came, I would be better off cooking them in my Saint Paul kitchen, where there’s an oven, hot and cold running water, lights, and all the other modern conveniences.

And then I thought: the hell with that. Cooking at Bide-A-Wee has its challenges, but Bide-A-Wee is where these birds belong, and that’s where we’ll cook them. There’s a temptation to get all gourmet and elaborate with “special” meat like game birds, but I managed to overcome that, too. I simply grilled both birds. The grouse was flavored with nothing but salt, pepper, a smear of butter, and smoke; the woodcock had nice deposits of fat stored up for its anticipated, interrupted, migration, so I eschewed the butter, but finished it with a glaze of birch syrup. I’ve been thinking of grilled woodcock glazed with birch syrup ever since we made the syrup last spring.

My original idea for a side dish to accompany the grouse was a bubbly, brown gratin of homegrown potatoes, cream, and chanterelles. With no oven

at Bide-A-Wee, we would have to Plan B that idea. It turns out that, while it wouldn’t have the nice brown crust of a gratin, a pot of potatoes simmered in stock and cream until the potatoes are tender and the liquid is nicely reduced is a gorgeous thing in its own right. I’d call it stovetop scalloped potatoes. To start I sautéed some sliced leek in butter, then added the sliced potatoes, maybe a cup of stock and a half cup of cream, sprig of thyme. That simmered very gently for quite a while. About halfway through (whenever that was) I added chanterelles that had been oven-blanched and frozen last summer. Salt and pepper and a bit of butter rounded it out; a slosh more cream toward the end.

For vegetable, sweet buttered cabbage—the recipe’s in the cookbook. It’s a simple preparation, but illustrative: in the past we would often just sauté shredded cabbage in butter or olive oil, perhaps with a bit of onion, leek, or garlic, add water and steam until tender. But while I was writing the cookbook I decided to make more of a “recipe” out of the dish—I blanched the cabbage first; used shallot and garlic to flavor the dish; tossed in a bit of sugar and a splash of white wine. Now that page in the book (page 190, as a matter of fact) is one of the most visited in our copy.

I’m not sure how to describe the taste of ruffed grouse. I will tell you that I just got shivers remembering the flavor of this one (either it was supremely delicious, or the woodstove needs stoking; probably a bit of each). The breast meat is the main event, and there’s a lot of it—we find that one grouse feeds two people easily. The breast meat is as white as chicken, finer grained, juicy when cooked properly, and variable according to what the bird has been eating, though it usually has a slight, appetizing tang to it. “Cooked properly” means as little as possible; you don’t want any of the meat to be flabby and pink, but if you can catch it just past that point, that’s perfect. When I first started cooking grouse I was absolutely paranoid about overcooking it, and so occasionally cut into grouse breast that had to go back to the stove for a refresher course. Don’t go away and forget about grouse cooking on the stove, grill, or in the oven, but don’t fret too much, either. Think about cooking it to medium, how a lot of us prefer our pork chops now that the fear of trichinosis is largely a thing of the past.

And cooking it on the bone is the way to go; unless you want an elegant preparation of slices of grouse breast fanned on the plate and bathed in a sauce made by reducing the superb stock obtained from simmering the carcass with a bit of white wine and lots of aromatic vegetables. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Well, our first game dinner of this autumn was a triumph, if I say so myself. These local flavors combined so beautifully on the plate. The grouse was cooked to a golden turn and flavored with oaky smoke. The potatoes were velvety comfort infused with the aroma of chanterelles. A very nice red burgundy wine was quite, quite suitable.

With ingredients like this, the “Eat Local Challenge” is one we’re happy to meet, any day of the year.

Next time, ode to a timberdoodle.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Birds of November

It’s been a while since I've written anything about hunting here. Simple reason: there has not been much to report. The last really notable outing afield occurred two years ago, when I shot a pheasant, grouse, and woodcock—the three main “upland game birds” of our region—on the same day, at a public hunting ground near Bide-A-Wee. That was a remarkable hunt for a couple of reasons. One, I’d never accomplished that “triple crown” feat before, and it had been a goal of mine. Also, the grouse was pointed in absolutely classic fashion by our young dog, Lily. Previously she had mainly been known for flying heedlessly through woods and field, launching anything avian in her path into the air well out of shotgun range. We knew she could point; we did not know if she would.

She found the bird at least a hundred yards ahead of me and remained staunch in her point for the two minutes or so that it took me to make my way over to her through gnarly terrain. Just as I came up to her rigid,
quivering form, the bird got up, and I dropped it with the first shot. That was a notable achievement for me, too; grouse are very fast flyers, hard to shoot, and I’m frankly not that great a shot. I already had a pheasant in my vest, a bird that I had walked up, shot, and retrieved with no canine assistance whatsoever. The dogs were running around back in an alder swamp. They heard the shot and came running out to find me standing at the edge of the field with a pheasant in my hand. “Hey, look what I found,” I said. “What have you two been up to?” They wagged their tails and sniffed the bird. I think they looked a little shamefaced. It was a classic moment in the field, one I’ll never forget.

The final bird of the day was a woodcock, which I shot over Annabel’s point, again on the first shot. I don’t think we encountered any other birds that day, though my memory on that point is not completely clear. If it’s accurate, this would have been a hunt on which I killed three birds with three shots, and no misses. That’s something that’s unlikely to happen again.

It was an extremely satisfying day afield, and one I had really hoped to build on in 2010, but you know what they say about plans. October last year was ridiculously warm, dreadful hunting weather. I had to make an unexpected trip to deal with family matters at the end of that month, I blew out my shoulder, then it snowed. In all of 2010 I hunted twice, fired the gun four times at two grouse, missing badly on all shots. The one time I hunted alone with Lily, I’m not sure if she was in the same county with me for much of the outing. And Annabel, then 12 years old and game but a little gimpy, and largely deaf—well, I didn’t know if we would ever again put the bell on her orange collar and send her out with a “Hunt ‘em up. Where’s a bird?”

Based on that dismal year, I couldn’t see things going anywhere but up in 2011, but the season did not have a promising start. Another too-hot October, another unanticipated October trip taking a week out of the brief woodcock season. With no real training in the interim, but lots of self-directed “hunts” on our land—home to both grouse and woodcock, and the occasional pheasant—Lily had become an over-stimulated bundle of bad
habits. I didn’t know if we would be able to bring her back. One short outing with Annabel showed me that she could come along on hunts, but only with a chaperone. I was feeling glum about the season, to say the least. I was feeling even glummer about my future as a bird hunter.

Lily is still a couple months shy of her sixth birthday. She’s in her physical prime, and she’s an incredibly athletic dog. There’s no mistaking the sheer, unabashed joy she displays as she catapults up and down the Bide-A-Wee hills. She is also a very sweet girl, eager to please, devastated when she disappoints (our joke about Annabel is that she, too, is eager to please…herself). I had Lily’s temperament going for me when I decided I had to give her a few more tries before reaching any conclusions.

Some memorable hunting and fishing outings are memorable for reasons quite apart from fish in the creel or a bird in the game pouch. Our hunt at a small hunting ground near Bide-A-Wee, just Lily and me, will stick with me for a long time. After several hunts where she seemed to be simply running around in the woods, no sense of purpose about her at all, she suddenly…started…to hunt. Some lightbulb went off for her. Maybe the “chats” we had had on previous outings impressed her. Maybe she just needed to encounter a few more birds in the proper context. The remarkable thing was how sudden the transformation was. From one hunt with absolutely no pointing, or intimation that she even knew how to do so, suddenly she was a pointing machine. Like someone flipped a switch, or switched dogs on me.

We went in to a stand of small aspen.  Lily was working ahead of me to the left. Even before the point I sensed something different in her manner. She was out of sight when her collar started a steady beeping (it’s an electronic collar that beeps every ten seconds or so when she’s running, then every second when she stops). As I came up behind her I could see from her body language that, yes, there was a bird, but maybe not right there. Close, not in front of her nose. I went in ahead of her, circled to right and left. No bird. I told her to hunt and she zipped past me, slalomed through a patch of dogwood. She drew up short, all four feet planted solidly on the ground, and swiveled her head sharply to the right. Then she did not move.

As I approached a woodcock flushed, mere feet from her quivering nose. It veered skyward, over the tops of the aspens, and I had to turn and get the gun up high, and I missed, and I missed again. I cursed, but I recovered from the disappointment quickly. Lily broke her point with the shots, but came to me when I whistled, and I praised her as few dogs have ever been praised in the history of bird hunting. Then we carried on, and in a few minutes she pointed another woodcock (or perhaps the same one), and again my shooting let us down. But again we were SO HAPPY! Finding and missing woodcock is the best game EVER! We had one more bird encounter that day. On the flank of a distinctive little piece of topography, a sort of rocky knoll covered with scrub oak, dogwood, and stunted jack pine, Lily stopped, her head directed downhill, a solid point. The grouse didn’t hold for long, though. It flushed within range of a shot, but entirely out of sight behind a patch of pines. That was it. Three birds found, pointed, nothing in the bag. A great day.

One thing that has been disconcerting this year has been a general scarcity of birds. Often in woodcock season, as the birds are migrating through, I’ll find eight to twelve birds in the best bits of cover. This season I think the most timberdoodles (woodcock have a lot of nicknames) encountered in a day was four. Lily and I hit a fresh piece of terrain on a cool gray morning, just a couple days from the end of woodcock season—pheasant stays open in Wisconsin through December, and grouse to the end of January, though it’s rare that conditions allow comfortable hunting much past the beginning of December. It was great looking cover—scrappy patches of dogwood and alder along a small creek, extensive stands of young aspen, or “popple” as it’s locally known. We didn’t flush a bird. Well, maybe a chickadee. Lily hunted well. She gave me a “false point” once, came to a dead halt and wouldn’t move even when I told her to hunt after I’d circled entirely around her. She was pretty sure there was something there, but there wasn’t. Could be a bird had flushed ahead of us, leaving a strong scent but no feathered evidence. We made our way back toward the car, and I was thinking it was going to be a lost day, but for a pleasant, if somewhat arduous, walk.

We came up out of a ditch and on to the dirt road that dead-ends farther back in the hunting ground. I could see the car in the parking area just ahead, and I broke open my gun—a side-by-side 20-gauge. I had Lily at a heel as we came up on the road, but when I saw the road deserted I let her go, and she immediately left my side and dropped down in the ditch on the other side of the road. I heard the collar start its steady beeping, and assumed she was stopped for a drink of delicious ditch water. But the beeping went on, and I heard no slurping. I realized she was on point.

I found her on a solid point beside a clump of alder. The cover was thick on the road side, more open farther in, and I was fortunate that the woodcock when it flushed did not veer for the road but rather followed the edge of the alders. The flush came as I was just even with Lily, so I didn’t have too much time to think—this is good—and I dropped the bird with the first shot. It fell in the center of another clump of alders, and was an easy find. I saw it before Lily did, but waited for her to come around and track it down. It had hit the ground dead—when I opened it I found that a pellet had gone right through the heart. Lily came up to the bird and sniffed at it, mouthed it a bit. Our dogs haven’t been trained to retrieve, and don’t seem to take to it naturally. I gave her a chance to bring it to me, but didn’t insist. I picked up the bird and put it in my vest with warm words of praise for my dog. First bird of 2011, first bird in two years.

We had another successful outing a couple of days later, the closing day of woodcock season, although we saw no woodcock. At the small hunting ground near Bide-A-Wee where Lily had had her turn-around day, we finally

started to see some grouse. I walked up one bird that Lily had run past, and missed my shot. Farther back in a mature woods with a boggy section I knew grouse frequented, Lily started to get “birdy”—that is, she broke out of her broad crossing runs and began working a smaller area in more detail, her nose close to the ground, her tail going like an airplane propeller. I turned to the left, she turned to the right—my instincts were better, and the grouse flushed in front of me. I took one errant shot before the bird curved out of view in a stand of pine. Lily came barreling back my way, and I told her “Whoa!” She didn’t seem to hear. I told her again, but it still didn’t sink in. Three times is too many times to have to tell a bird dog to freakin’ WHOA! Once I did get her attention, we had another of those “chats.” She promised she would try to do better, and almost immediately, she did.

Not two minutes later, in this same open area of mature oak, elm, and maple, she went on point again. Woods like this are not supposed to be good grouse habitat, but the grouse in these parts apparently didn’t know that (we have the same sort of joke about trout that don’t seem to know that they shouldn’t exist outside of “designated trout streams”). In dry years, and also in mid-winter, I think they seek out the spring seeps in this area for water and for the little green things growing there. This time Lily went on point along a big deadfall, an oak that had tipped over pulling its roots right out of the boggy ground. I came up near that tall root clump; Lily was on point around mid-tree. The grouse flushed, and flew straight away from me barely over head-high. I had to make a quick sidestep to clear the tree, get the gun up, and I would only have a single shot.

I took it; the bird did not drop, but it seemed to dip. I was pretty sure I had hit it. I stopped and quickly replaced the shell I had spent, then started walking briskly in the direction the grouse had gone. Lily passed me and I asked her if maybe it was possible there was a bird on the ground around here. Her answer was immediate: she went into tracking mode; she had found the scent of the running bird, and was following it avidly.

It didn’t take long to find the wing-shot bird. Lily subdued it, I came and took it from her, I broke its neck—not something I relish doing, but we who eat meat have to accept the fact that animals die for our pleasure; this was just a particularly intimate illustration of that fact.

Overall, in terms of the pointing, the adjustment, the shot, the tracking, that was one of the more remarkable bits of dog-and-hunter work I’ve been involved with in my brief hunting career. We had a quiet celebration over the bird that had given its life to make it possible, and made our way back to the car.

A lot of hunters wouldn’t see two birds in two outings as much to write home about. In spite of hopes and anticipation, my woodcock season ended with a single bird in the bag, an appetizer for two. But for me those

outings marked the beginning of my new hunting life with my “new” dog, Lily. It’s tough to leave Annabel behind—but it’s even tougher to hunt with her. I worry constantly that she’ll wander off in the woods, and with her deafness not hear us to find her way back. I worry that when her enthusiasm overcomes her physical limitations, as it always does, she’ll injure herself without even knowing she has done it. More than that, we’ve had a good run together. She brought me into this world which I find as compelling and challenging as anything I’ve ever done. It’s Lily’s turn now, and the education continues.

Next time, bird cookery at Bide-A-Wee.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"90 Percent of Good Cooking..."

" good shopping," is a chestnut (pun fully intended, as you'll see) I keep trotting out when I'm talking to people about the book.  I think sometimes people don't believe me.  I get these skeptical looks, as if people are thinking, "Well, yeah, you can say that 'cause you know how to cook...".  I stand behind the sentiment steadfastly.  But please note that I did not say the 90 percent of good cooking is shopping. I said: good shopping.  That means knowing where to get the best stuff; it means anticipating seasonal goodies like, for example, chestnuts.  And it means knowing when to get out of the way as a cook and just let the ingredients shine.

Case in point:  the dinner pictured above, prepared here in Saint Paul last night.  Bison blood sausage from  Seward Co-op; Iowa chestnuts, also from Seward; savoy cabbage, onions, and fingerling potatoes from the Minneapolis Farmers Market; Bide-A-Wee apples.  A splendid autumnal tableau, prepared in one skillet.  What I contributed in the area of cooking skills:  I used duck confit fat to brown the vegetables; I deglazed the pan at the end with a little chicken stock and a splash of red wine, little water.

That's right: I said bison blood sausage.  I imagine that this is the sort of thing that will have a polarizing effect.  On the one side:  blood sausage? Eeewww!  On the other: blood sausage!  (Accompanied by Homer Simpson-esque drooling sounds.)  But really, this is nothing so radical.  The Seward  butcher counter has become well known for its amazing array of sausages and their inventive combinations of flavors.  I prefer the subtler palate, and believe it or not, the bison blood sausage is definitely on that end of the spectrum.  The ingredients are:  bison, beef, pork, bison blood, buckwheat, onion, salt, sage, white pepper, granulated onion, marjoram, cardamon, nutmeg.  The spice profile is distinct and wonderfully appetizing, but not overpowering.  The texture of the sausage is fairly fine, not too rich.  The salt level is just right, letting the other flavors of meat and spice come through (this is surely a matter of personal taste, but I sometimes find Seward's sausage a bit too salty, which is about the only criticism I've ever had).

I don't have a drop of Scandinavian blood in me, but this sausage struck me as very Swedish, in a good way.  I can easily see it as the centerpiece of a Nordic holiday table, resplendent in candlelight that glints off the ruddy cheeks of a tow-headed crowd of hungry Swedes.  Please pass the aquavit.  Tak.

But I digress.  The sausage was excellent, and the chestnuts were lovely, too, sweet and fragrant with spicy, caramel notes.  Cabbage and fingerling potatoes cooked in duck fat--what could be wrong with that?  But the apple, from one of our Bide-A-Wee trees, browned on the outside, almost custardy within--that was the perfect match to the sausage, and a bite of each taken together was sublime.

Best of all, this was incredibly simple to put together.  I did the potatoes first, and moved them to the oven to keep warm.  Then the sausage, cabbage, and apple all cooked together.  I brought the apple and cabbage out of the skillet when they were cooked, and added the onion to brown a bit, then the chestnuts and a little water, covered and cooked five minutes or so.  When everything was done and out of the pan I added two cubes of frozen chicken stock, and maybe a quarter cup each of red wine and water.  Deglaze, reduce, serve it forth.

Peeling the chestnuts was accomplished by cutting an X into the flat side of the shell with the tip of a paring knife, then roasting them in a dry pan in a 375 oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until you see the flaps of shell start to peel back around the cut.  Then remove the pan from the oven, cover with a dish towel for five minutes, and peel while hot--the skin is likely to adhere to the nuts if you let them cool.  You'll be seeing a lot of chestnuts here in the coming weeks.  They're among the seasonal products I anticipate most eagerly.

Here's another great thing about honing one's shopping skills:  This meal was extremely economical, delivering maximum flavor for the dollar.  The chestnuts are a bit pricey, $9.99 a pound, but I probably used less than four ounces.  The sausage was just $6.99 a pound, so our .69 pound package cost $4.82.  So flavorful was the sausage, and really, the whole plate, that we had leftover sausage--bison blood sausage sandwich for lunch!  Everything else cost around a dollar, total.  The delightful bottle of bourgueil we drank with it was by far the most expensive element (what, 13 or 14 bucks?), and well worth it.  I'm not averse to spending money on food or wine.  I just want to be sure I get the good stuff.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Dinner Too Far / The Sirloin Strikes Back

Today's double feature showcases the struggles, hardships, and eventual heart-swelling triumph of a much-anticipated Bide-A-Wee supper in the first act; and in the second part of the double bill, the thrilling tale of how a modest piece of beef overcame an overly conceptualized side dish to win the admiration of hungry diners.

To put it another way:

In a world where overwrought home cooks obsess over the local and seasonal, and go to torturous extremes to distill gold from the dross of roots and grains, how can a humble piece of sirloin rise above the fray and stake its claim on the lawless frontier of dinner...on a plate...on, uh, the table?

Well, let's start with the wheatberries.  I've had this notion, a long time brewing, of a rich and satisfying risotto-like dish, based not on rice (which doesn't grow around here) but on wheatberries, which do--the wheatberries (wheat seeds, in reality) in my Bide-A-Wee cupboard come from just a few miles down the road in Connorsville, grown on the Bartz farm .  An earlier attempt at such a dish foundered on the shoals of underdone wheatberries.  I learned from that attempt that the wheatberries must either be cooked a very long time, or sprouted for a couple of days prior to cooking. 

I'm against the idea of a "risotto" that cooks for hours, and I like the idea of sprouting, which sort of precooks the berry, sans heat, and creates a natural sweetness in the grain.  Sprouting grains is the first step in malting, a process used in the production of whisky, beer, and, of course, malted milk balls.  As the seeds sprout, the starches therein are converted to sugars.  The soaking process also allows the hard seed to absorb water, so that after being kept nice and moist for two or three days the sprouted seed is quite edible--just like beans sprouts or alfalfa sprouts, though a good deal more al dente.

So: my idea was to sprout wheatberries for a couple of days, then combine them with some sautéed onion, a fine dice of celery root, chicken stock, herbs, a suitable amount of butter, and finally, some hen of the woods mushrooms.  This was to occur on Saturday night at Bide-A-Wee.  We would serve it with a piece of grilled sirloin we'd picked up at Seward Co-op .  Seemed eminently do-able.

But you know how things that seem eminently do-able in the encouraging light of morning can come to seem, by the end of that day, in the fading evening light, not so do-able anymore, and as delicious as that anticipated meal sounds, it would sound way better if someone else were making it?  That was where I was on Saturday evening, after a morning radio interview, family luncheon get-together, packing-up-driving-out-unpacking, fire lighting organizing, pour a drink and--hey, can we call out for pizza?

Well, at Bide-A-Wee, no, we cannot.  You just have to down that martini, buck up, and get on with it.  The first thing that went out of the picture was the grilling.  It was after seven, it was dark, and I had no desire to be going in and out of the cabin to tend a fire.  The woodstove was blazing away.  We would sear the steak in a cast iron skillet atop it.  I got going on the "risotto" of wheatberries.  I chopped a small onion and made a very small dice of half a small celery root--about 2/3 cup once diced.  In a saucepan atop the Haggis I melted a tablespoon or so of butter, added the onion, and as it began to wilt, the celery root.  As that took on a little color I dumped in the sprouted wheatberries.  That was half a cup to begin with, now swelled to a generous cup, so it appeared.  Stir that a bit, add salt and pepper, then around a cup of chicken stock.  When that got to a simmer I covered it and let it cook very slowly.  I figured that it wouldn't need to be stirred as often as a proper risotto.  I checked back in five minutes.  Didn't look like the wheatberries had taken up any stock.  Gave it another five. Same deal.  Ten more.  No real change, though the berries did taste like they were softening.

What I eventually learned from this round of wheatberry risotto experimentation was:

1) I should stop trying to make risotto out of things other than rice, and
2) When wheatberries sprout, converting starch to sugar, then the starch is no longer there to thicken the dish.

What I wound up with, in the end, was a sort of a brothy pilaf, and I let that cook uncovered while the steak cooked, to reduce the stock and intensify the flavor.  (A side note:  Originally I had planned to add some frozen sweet corn--also from Connorsville!--to the "risotto," but the wheatberries themselves had a crisp vegetable sweetness quite like corn, so I left it out--it went into the next night's lamb stew, instead.)

And so we turned to the steak.  I put the cast iron skillet on the stove, added wood and worked the bellows to get it really hot.  I salted and peppered the steak and brushed it with a little oil.  It was a Hill & Vale bone-in sirloin from the butcher's case at Seward.  You don't see bone-in sirloin that often.  It has always been one of my favorite cuts of beef.  It doesn't get the kind of press that a marbled ribeye or strip steak does, but the flavor can be extraordinary.  So I had high hopes, though I also knew that a simply cooked piece of meat can often be overshadowed by a meticulously planned side dish like the one that was...currently failing to materialize on the woodstove.

The skillet wasn't as hot as I would have liked when the steak went in.  On the turnover the sizzle was largely gone.  We added wood, we bellowed.  I figured this was going to be one that we would write off to experience.  Planning simple meals for the first night at the cabin was supposed to have been a cardinal rule by now, but, you know, you get cocky....

About this time I remembered the hen of the woods mushrooms that I was going to put in with the wheatberries.  They were precooked--in fact, they'd been roasted off in some pork fat rendered from a piece of belly I'd braised earlier in the fall--and they were--well, they were hen of the woods roasted in fresh pork fat, what more do I need to say?  As the sirloin rested (preparing to strike back!) I deglazed the pan with a little red wine, added some more chicken stock and the mushrooms.  That reduced quickly and wonderfully.  We served it up.

For a meal that bore little relation to what I had originally had in mind--no, strike that:  Without qualification, it was superb.  Let's start with the steak:  chewy-tender, deeply beefy, with a compelling tang and savor to it--the best piece of beef I've eaten in a long time, and not diminished at all for not having been grilled.  The mushrooms with their porky undertones provided a complementary meatiness and texture.

And then the wheatberries and celery root:  the wheat was sweet and slightly crunchy, the celery soft and savory.  Neither risotto nor pilaf, but a beautiful autumnal dish that I'll make again, and I'll just call it:  sprouted wheatberries simmered with celery root.

This is a lot of verbiage expended on one Saturday supper, I realize.  But in doing interviews to promote the cookbook, I've been asked about my approach to cooking, this expanded sense of "foraging" that I'm trying to shove down the public gullet(!), and what it means for cooking to be "ingredient-driven."  Well, I think this sort of goes to all those topics.  For what it's worth.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, November 4, 2011

Getting Fresh with Some Local Ladies

I'm really looking forward to a return visit to the Fresh & Local Show, to chat with Susan Berkson and "herb lady" Bonnie Dehn about all things local, seasonal, delicious, and maybe just a little bit wild. Live on the air tomorrow morning, Saturday, November 5, at 8:00 a.m. on 950AM  here in the Twin Cities. Or listen later, if you like, via podcast at that Fresh & Local site.

Also appearing on the show will be Kelli Abrahamian, who writes the blog I Had a Delicious Time , and who is an aficionada of farmers markets and leafy greens (she tweets as @crazy4kale).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Corn in the Mornin'

I woke up out at Bide-A-Wee recently with a powerful craving for grits.  White corn grits, the good, long-simmered kind, preferably hominy grits, with that appetizing masa-like aroma.  Since I woke up in the middle of Wisconsin, I quickly accepted the fact that my craving would not be fully satisfied that day.  While biscuits and sausage gravy--a dish I think of as being almost as southern as grits--is surprisingly common on Wisconsin diner and café menus (with wildly varying preparations, as well as levels of edible-ness), I've yet to encounter grits anywhere in Minne'Sconsin, other than a specifically southern-themed restaurant.

I first got a taste for white corn grits during the year I spent in graduate school in Roanoke, Virginia (1985-86, things were still cooling down from the Civil War...).  And honestly, most of the grits I consumed there, as part of a typical diner breakfast, were not very good.  Those generally were made from instant or quick-cooking grits.  Their flavor was wan, and their main function was to soak up butter, salt and pepper, Tabasco, and egg yolks.  Wishing to attempt a better rendition at home, I found that, even in Virginia, it was pretty hard to find honest, genuine, long-cooking grits.  And up here in the frozen north?  Think, "mail order."

I've tried two kinds of vaunted mail-order grits.  A few years back I ordered an assortment of ground corn products from the relatively famous, extremely expensive Anson Mills .  And I was not impressed, not by any of what I bought.  That turned me off of pricey excursions into southern foodstuffs, until I was introduced to Hoppin' John's grits by Mike Phillips--then the chef at  Craftsman restaurant , now the main man behind the utterly toothsome charcuterie of Green Ox Meat Co.  Mike did a demo at the Midtown Farmers Market where he grilled previously cooked, molded, unmolded and sliced chunks of the Hoppin' John's grits, served them with grilled vegetables, I believe, and perhaps some of his early ventures into prosciutto making.  A tasty day at the market, indeed. 

So I ordered a few pounds, and enjoyed them while we had them.  But then, you know, with that whole local-seasonal thing we've got going here, I didn't keep up on the food through the mail.  But I might have to order some again.  A steaming plate of fragrant grits makes an exceptionally appealing basis for a winter breakfast.  The most recent Saveur features another brand, Old School .  These sound like the real deal, and are reasonably priced, $3.49 for a two-pound bag, plus shipping.

Hoppin John's website is wonky today.

But back to that Wisconsin October morning, and a very reasonable solution to my grits craving, all things considered:  coarse polenta from Whole Grain Milling , finished with a handful of smoked Marieke gouda ; home-smoked bacon; Sami's delicious free-range eggs from Hilltop Pastures Family Farm .  While it did not move us to start conversing in a southern drawl, we gave it two hearty "You betcha!"s, and we cleaned our plates.

How we make polenta:  four parts water to one part polenta.  We find that 1/3 cup polenta makes a good two-person portion, so we heated 1 1/3 cups of water.  Bring the water to a boil, and stir in the grits using a fork or a whisk.  Keep stirring vigorously until the mixture is smooth--we haven't found lumping to be a problem with this polenta, so long as you stir briskly as you add them.  Now turn the heat down way low, and stir the polenta often with a wooden spoon or the like.  You don't have to stir constantly, but when you do stir, be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen anything adhering there.  They'll be done in 20 to 25 minutes.  Just before serving we always stir in a nice spoon of butter, and season well with salt and pepper.  And, as mentioned, a handful of grated smoked gouda enriched this breakfast version.

In a comment to a recent post here Tom mentioned "explosions of hot corn magma," those sometimes vexing and messy (and even painful, if you wind up in the line of fire) volcanic eruptions in the polenta pot.  We don't seem to have too much trouble with this, and I think that's because: 1) We keep the heat very, very low, and 2) The 4:1 ratio uses more water than many recipes call for; as the mixture only thickens toward the end, less likelihood of explosions.

As fall turns to winter and the braising pot rarely leaves the stove, polenta becomes a more and more common part of our meals--breakfast to lunch to supper.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw