Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Superior Supper

This was a sort of herring-inspired tapas supper, if you will, or perhaps smorgasbord would be more appropriate to northern provenance of the fish, and the Nordic twist I administered to a classic French preparation, fish quenelles.  Whatever you want to call it, a superior supper, indeed.

Quenelles de brochet, pike dumplings, is a standard in the cuisine of Burgundy and the northern Rhone.  Like most dumplings, it probably had humble origins--a way to use up bits of fish for the dumplings and the bones for the sauce.  But most of the quenelles recipes I'd encountered were from the haute cuisine end of things, exceedingly rich and fussy to make.  In these high-end versions, the fish was there to hold as much butter, cream, and eggs as possible.  The traditional lobster, shrimp, or crayfish sauce that anointed these ethereal pillows of poisson does not scrimp on the fat, either.  Which is okay with me, from time to time, but since we planned to sample a variety of dishes, I didn't want that much richness in the quenelles.

This was a preparation that had intimidated me for a long time--well, until last week, to be honest.  It seemed to have the potential to be phenomenally delicious, but the one time I tasted it in France, the dumplings were kind of rubbery, and fishy tasting, and the one time I tried to make it at home, following a New York Times recipe, was an expensive, extremely messy disaster--turned out the recipe in the paper was wrong, and my email prompted a correction, which was very small consolation, indeed.  I never made the corrected recipe.

I'm not sure what prompted me to try fish quenelles again--perhaps just to test the versatility of my splendidly fresh herring.  In one of Rick Stein's books I found the streamlined quenelle recipe I'd long been looking for.  This one used bread soaked in milk--a "panade"--to hold things together without too much butterfat.  Also, unlike every other quenelle recipe I had encountered, it did not ask you to push the fish paste through a sieve (how appetizing does that sound?!).  Before the days of the food processor, sieving the puree was probably necessary to achieve a smooth texture in the dumplings; modern technology has eliminated the need for that step, but a lot of French recipes have not caught up.  (Madeleine Kammen notes that she could never forget learning to make quenelles, pounding the fish in a mortar and pestle; she was always reminded by the painful bursitis in her shoulder....)

Although rich, most classic quenelle preparations make a dumpling that must be pretty bland.  There is rarely any seasoning besides salt and perhaps a bit of white pepper.  I wanted my dumplings to be flavorful independent of rich sauce, so I gave them strong, northern notes with apple cider vinegar, grain mustard, and shallot (and a nod to Mme Kammen with the pinch of quatre-épices, "confit spice," that I learned from one of her books; I have a tin of that in my spice drawer at all times).

Carrying on the Nordic theme, my chowder sauce is heavy on the hardy roots--rutabaga, parsnip, and celery root.  I toned down the smokiness of the bacon by first water-blanching the meat.  The sour cream and lemon added at the end of cooking gives this sauce a nice acid lift; it would be a bit flat without it.

Do not worry if you don't have herring caviar.  A garnish of chopped herbs would be nice, too--some snipped chives, perhaps, or a little dill.  I think thyme leaves would suit it, too.

While I was roasting my potato slices in duck fat for the caviar canapé, I added the "tails" of the parsnip and rutabaga, sliced in half the long way.  They made for a charismatic, savory garnish, and a very rustic-looking counterpoint to the elegant dumplings and roe.

For the other dishes in our Nordic tapas spread, Mary mixed leftover broiled herring with its homemade chile mayo accompaniment for a lovely canapé served on toast:

I combined smoked whitefish, apple, and roasted beets in a dressing of Smude sunflower oil, cider vinegar, some honey, about a quarter teaspoon of mustard seeds and a generous pinch each of caraway and cumin seeds, some shallot, I think.  A bit of a mess in the plate, but fresh and flavorful:

And then those luxurious rounds of duck-fat-roasted potatoes with sour cream and a liberal topping of the herring roe, home-cured:

I think we're going to start seeing more and more chefs exploring the possibilities of Lake Superior herring.  Anybody out there need a menu consultant?  I'm available....

Herring Quenelles with Nordic Chowder and Caviar

6 ounces skinless, boneless Lake Superior herring
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
1/3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon grain mustard
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 egg
3/8 teaspoon salt
A few grinds of black pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream mixed with ¼ cup cream

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the shallots.  Just as the butter starts to sizzle, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the bread crumbs, then the milk.  Refrigerate until well chilled.

Cut or scrape away the line of brown-gray fat running down the herring fillets and discard.  Cut the fish into ½-inch cubes and place in the bowl of a food processer with the bread-shallot-milk mixture, the mustard, vinegar, confit spice, egg, salt, and pepper.  Process to a  very smooth puree, about 2 minutes.   Then, with the processor running, add the cream mixture and process just long enough to incorporate.  Refrigerate this mixture until you’re ready to make your quenelles.

Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer.

Using two kitchen tablespoons, shape quenelles, little football shapes, from the fish mixture.  They should be about 2 ½ inches long and just over an inch wide.  Poach the quenelles in the water, adjusting the heat to keep a gentle simmer, for 3 to 4 minutes, until they are firm.  Keep warm in a warm oven until ready to serve.

Root Vegetable Chowder

2 tablespoons each celery root, rutabaga, parsnip, and onion, in very small—less than ¼-inch—dice
1 ounce slab bacon, blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes, drained and minced
1 teaspoon butter or oil
2 teaspoons flour
½ cup fish, chicken, or vegetable stock
½ cup whole milk
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream
Lemon juice
Herring caviar

Heat the bacon and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and as the bacon begins to render fat, add the vegetables.  Cook for about 3 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent.  Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, stirring with a wooden spatula.  Combine the stock and milk and slowly add to the pan, scraping with the spatula to deglaze.  Add a couple of good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

The chowder can be made two or three days ahead to this stage, and finished just before serving.  When you’re ready to serve, heat the chowder and stir in the sour cream and a squeeze or two of lemon juice, if you like.  Taste for salt and pepper and add more if needed.  Ladle some chowder into shallow soup bowls, place the warm quenelles atop the chowder.  Sprinkle herring caviar here and there on top of the chowder and the quenelles.  Serve.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 10, 2012


Having stooped to the depths of writing about avocadoes in this journal supposedly devoted to northern foods, it was probably in everyone’s best interests that I took a little break. The hiatus was not planned, just happened, as each time I considered a possible topic for a post, my inner editor said, “Meh.” I needed some fresh inspiration, and I got it from a road trip that Mary and I took up to the South Shore of Lake Superior (aka “The Cheesehead Riviera”; I just made that up...), destination Halvorson’s Fisheries in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.

There we watched the herring boats come in on a chill but beautiful afternoon. They had to break through a couple of inches of ice in the harbor—the trip was a preview of things to come, too, as our northward drive took us from the dusting of Dunn County snow to nearly a foot along the shore. We loaded a cooler with fresh off the boat herring—including several whole fish that yielded a pile of roe—along with smoked lake trout and whitefish. 

Lake Superior herring is an under-appreciated, misunderstood fish.  Its reputation suffers, I think, from its being confused with other fish known as herring to which it is not, in fact, closely related. The Lake Superior herring, Coregonus artedii, is more closely related to trout and salmon than it is to the saltwater herrings so well known in northern Europe. It’s a reasonable surmise that Scandinavian and German immigrants in the northland mistook this freshwater fish that schools in vast numbers for the ocean fish they knew from home—there are, indeed, superficial resemblances in size and color. And when you consider that for many people, their main association with herring is with the pickled variety, perhaps of indifferent quality, there’s a general reluctance to embrace the lake herring as the superb and versatile food fish that it is.

 As for the name confusion, lake herring is variously known as cisco, bluefin, and, where it occurs in smaller lakes, tullibee. There have been efforts in some circles to “rebrand” lake herring as cisco, but I doubt that is likely to gain much momentum—especially since I’ve seen smoked herring and smoked cisco resting side by side in the cooler case in lakeside fish shops over the years. There’s little consensus on what to call what, it seems, at least at the local level.  So I don't think the term herring is going away.  We just need to work on spreading the word about what a delightful fish it is to cook with.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve prepared herring in a half dozen ways, and I’m still not tired of eating it. Last night a herring fillet went into a Sichuan-inspired dish with fermented vegetables and tofu in a hot bean sauce. On the our first night back from Corny, I simply fried fillets in a cornmeal dusting and served them with a crunchy, savory garnish of fried bacon, leek, and jalapeno, with a splash of apple cider beurre blanc. Other nights I fried chunks in a tempura-like batter for the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten; broiled it and served it with a chile-laced mayonnaise; whizzed it up in the FP to make herring quenelles, fish dumplings that I served in a chowder-inspired sauce; and we snacked on the salted herring roe atop rounds of garden potatoes roasted in duck fat, with a dollop of sour cream.

That roe, by the way, is where the real money is for the Lake Superior commercial fisheries, Maureen Halvorson told me. Completing the ironic herring circle, it is shipped to Scandinavia, where it is considered a delicacy—even though it comes from a fish that does not exist anywhere near those northern European shores.

Here are a few more shots from our quick, fishy trip to Corny:

The beach at Corny, "The Cheesehead Riviera"

Cornmeal-dusted pan-fried lake herring with crunchy garnish, cider beurre blanc

It just occurred to me on this trip that they wear orange jumpsuits so they'll be easy to see if they fall overboard....

This was not the first time the three-hour drive to the South Shore was a time trip--that short distance often takes you to another season on the shore.

Waiting for the herring boats

Ice on the deck

The South Shore herring fishery is thriving; Halvorson's added another boat this year, bringing the fleet to four.

" the rooms of her icewater mansions...".

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, November 15, 2012

There and Here (Avocado with Black River Blue Dressing)

In spite of my mother’s best efforts to cultivate an avocado forest in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, in the 1960s and '70s, impaling the smooth round pits on toothpicks and suspending them in water-filled juice glasses on the kitchen window sill, I still have yet to taste a Minnesota- or Wisconsin-grown avocado.  Amazingly, those gargantuan seeds did sprout roots, then sent up spindly leaders, which produced a few leaves, and then…who knows their fate?  Perhaps a few got potted, but I don’t recall alligator pears drooping from any of Mom’s houseplants. So, no, avocadoes can’t be counted among the delights of local and seasonal eating in the northland.

Which does not mean that I don’t eat them.  I do.  Lots of them.  They’re among those non-local foods that are regulars in our kitchen, but which I rarely mention here, preferring to focus on the local, but perhaps that gives a weirdly skewed version of our diet.  I would say that probably 90 per cent of our diet is locally sourced—all our meat and most of our fish, all our grains except for rice, pretty much all our vegetables and fruits.  Dairy?  It would be kind of absurd to look outside America’s Dairyland for milk, cream, butter, and cheese, wouldn’t it?  

Still, I would find myself pinched in the kitchen without imported rice, lemon, olive oil, black pepper and other spices.  Our condiment cupboard is not terribly local, with its soy sauce, sambal, rice wine, sesame oil, canola oil, Chinese vinegar—though things have improved there with the relatively recent appearance of local pumpkin seed and sunflower oils; and I am going to figure out how to make my own sambal, with homegrown chiles, next year.  I rarely take a sip of orange juice anymore, and I think I might have forgotten how to peel a banana, but my morning cup is tea from afar, and I enjoy a cup of coffee every once in a while.  

In the pantry I find ketchup made from homegrown tomatoes, honey from hives a few miles down the road, wild blackberry jam distilled from Bide-A-Wee berries, and our very own maple syrup; there is pasta from North Dakota, but also from Italy, China, Japan, and Vietnam.  We should be producing good tofu in our region, but I’m not aware that any is made here.  It’s a staple ingredient in our house, the basis for one of our most common one-dish meals, Sichuan mapo doufu.  I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that, nearly five years into writing Trout Caviar.  I should have.

My point here, I guess, is that even as I become more impressed, year by year, with the ever growing breadth, depth, and quality of our local food sources, I don’t agonize over trying to make x-percent of my diet local, and I don’t apologize if a drop of Coke passes my lips from time to time, or a lobster from a distant sea finds its way into my pot.  I think it’s fair to say that my kitchen is locally based, and globally garnished, as this salad supper of avocado with blue cheese dressing illustrates. The proportions might seem reversed here, but there are more local ingredients in this than imported.

Avocado, mayonnaise, and blue cheese has been one of my favorite combinations since way back in my vegetarian days.  It’s sort of a study in close textural contrasts with wonderfully diverse flavors.  For the dressing I combined these local ingredients:

Wisconsin Black River blue cheese (1/2 cup crumbled?)
Minnesota Cedar Summit cream (2 tablespoons?)
Minnesota Smude sunflower oil (1 tablespoon?)
Wisconsin Menomonie Farmers Market red bell pepper and red onion and Wisconsin celery root from the co-op (about a tablespoon each minced for the dressing, more thinly sliced for garnish)
Menomonie market garlic, a medium clove minced

And these imports:

Hellmann’s mayo (couple tablespoons)
Sambal oelek (about a teaspoon)
Squeeze of lemon juice (I sometimes wind up with naked lemons after the rind has been stripped off bit by bit to garnish martinis….)
A few grinds black pepper

Mix well and adjust seasoning with sambal, lemon, pepper, and thickness with cream and oil—it should just flow. Unless you’re an absolute salt fiend, added salt is not necessary.

Spoon over sliced avocado—or over poached or sautéed shrimp; a nice grilled steak; any kind of salad; a sliced pear or apple; a hearty pasta like penne or rigatoni.

Serve with toast (from bread made with my nearly 10-year old house leaven, MN and ND flours) spread with Minnesota Hope Creamery butter.  Or serve on toast.  Not a bad breakfast using morning-after dressing.

Eat locally, think globally; shop thoughtfully, cook vibrantly, and have fun.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Honey Hua Jiao Braised Lamb Shoulder with Turnips (Welcome to Braising Season)

Braising season is full upon us, that time of year when meats and roots and wines and seasonings convene in the stew pot, the dutch oven, the cocotte, even the crockpot, and slowly simmer to succulence, producing homey, savory dishes that warm the hearts of those chilled of cheek who come in from the frosty outdoors to the warm kitchen with grateful appetite and glasses all a’fog.  Or perhaps it’s incorrect to speak of braising season, since that occupies better than half the year in these parts; more like braising semester, plus.  Or a twist on the old joke about the two seasons of the Northland—road repair, and braising season.

I do love a braised meal, both for the simplicity and for the phenomenally satisfying results.  But given that our climate is more than generous in providing us opportunities to enjoy braised dishes, it’s wise to look for ways to keep our simmered suppers interesting.  Case in point, today’s plate of Honey Hua Jiao Braised Lamb Shoulder with Turnips. That’s a mouthful—and a delectable one, though I say so myself.  Let’s break it down.

The danger with braised dishes is that they can all start to taste the same—the pot roast factor, if you will.  Exactly what is comforting about this type of cooking is what can also make it dull.  The deep, meaty flavors imbue everything in the pot, and without some thoughtful flavor additions, the end result can be kind of one-dimensional.  So we look for flavors to counter-balance the meaty, salty, and fatty; we want acid, maybe even a little bitterness, and perhaps sweetness, and interesting spice.

This dish has them all:  acid from wine, cider vinegar, and honey; bitterness, just a smidge, from the turnips; sweetness from the honey, of course, and also the turnips, shallots, and garlic; interesting spice, from the hua jiao, aka Sichuan peppercorns, and my beloved thyme, which goes so well with lamb and with honey.

I think it’s about time for hua jiao to burst upon the American culinary scene.  It’s such an intriguing, appetizing spice, I think it’s a simple matter of unfamiliarity that keeps it on the back shelf—or, more literally, on some dusty shelf in a corner of the Asian market, where it may be labeled Sichuan pepper, but just as likely flower pepper (the literal translation from Mandarin), dried pepper, or even xanthophyllum (the plant genus from which it comes, a type of “prickly ash” related to citrus).  For a long time it was hard to find good hua jiao; I don’t know if mainstream sources like Penzey’s even carry it.  What I’ve been finding in my local Asian markets lately is pretty good.  But if you happen to travel to China, or know someone who’s going, of course getting it from the source is the best way to go.

Hua jiao is the spice responsible for the ma, numbing quality, in Sichuan ma la dishes, the la being chile heat.  But it also has a wonderful aroma, slightly sweet, a bit tart and citrussy, appetizing in the way that a well balanced curry powder piques the appetite.  It goes well with hot, sweet, and sour flavors, and in a long-simmered meat dish it creates a flavor layer that tempers the richness of the meat—in this case, it mellows the potentially gamy flavor of the lamb.

You could put the hua jiao in cheesecloth and remove it at the end of cooking, but I like to bite into the individual peppercorns, which will have lost most of their numbing quality in the long cooking, but which still provide intriguing bursts of flavor.

I only made this dish for the first time last night, and as soon as the various components began coming to mind, I started to write it down, thinking this might be something I might want to replicate, and pass along.  We were not disappointed.  Served over soft polenta, with the brothy sauce combining all the aforementioned flavors beautifully, still allowing the individual elements to come through, it was beyond satisfying. 

The lamb was from the Lamb Shoppe  via Seward Co-op, a lovely piece of shoulder that actually contained the end of the rib rack—just spectacular meat.  Anyone who thinks they don’t like lamb should give Lamb Shoppe meat a try.  Often when people say they don’t like lamb, it’s because the lamb they’ve had was closer to mutton.  Knowing your source in matters of meat can make all the difference.

Honey Hua Jiao Braised Lamb Shoulder with Turnips

Serves four

3 pound lamb shoulder, bone in
1 ½ cups stock, water, or a combination
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
¾ teaspoon whole hua jiao, Sichuan peppercorns
6 to 8 small shallots, peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled and halved the long way
A few sprigs thyme
Salt and freshly ground glack pepper
4 small turnips, quartered

Season the lamb with salt and pepper.  In a dutch oven or similar, heavy-bottomed pot, brown the lamb in a little bit of oil (I used Smude sunflower).  Working over medium-high heat, brown it well on all sides.

Combine the stock, wine, honey, and vinegar, stirring to mix well.  When the lamb is browned, remove it from the pan and deglaze the pan with the combined liquids, scraping up the brown bits with a wooden spatula.  Return the lamb to the pan along with the shallots, garlic, thyme, and hua jiao.  Add a couple good pinches of salt and a few coarse grinds of black pepper.

Bring to a simmer and place, partly covered, in a 350 oven.  Roast for 30 minutes, then turn the lamb over and cook another 30 minutes.  Remove the lid, add the turnips, and raise the heat to 425.  Continue to roast, turning and basting occasionally, for about another 45 minutes, until the turnips and lamb are both tender.

Remove the lamb from the pot and let it rest for 10 minutes before serving.  While the lamb rests, reduce the cooking liquid on the stovetop to your desired consistency—I like it fairly brothy, but with a bit of viscosity.  Swirl in a knob of butter at the end, if you like, taste for salt.  Serve over polenta, noodles, or rice.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, October 22, 2012

Quel Fromage! (Warm Rush Creek Reserve with Coal-Roasted Vegetables)

This is one from the "90 percent of good cooking is good shopping" file.  Serving a warm Rush Creek Reserve, the soft, young, raw milk cheese from  Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, with roasted vegetables wasn't even my original idea--I got it from the Big Cheese himself, Uplands's head cheesemaker Andy Hatch.  I was fortunate to be invited on the Cheese, Spirits, and Brews Tour sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board  last week, and while I wasn't able to join the group for the first couple days of the four-day tour, I lucked out in being able to visit two of my favorite Wisconsin cheesemakers, Uplands and Crave Brothers,  near the town of Waterloo, last Thursday and Friday.  It was a really inspiring--and delicious--couple of days, about which I will have more to say in the near future.  For now, let us simply delight in the wonder that is gooey cheese:

Really my only contribution to this utterly satisfying repast--other than being able to recognize a great idea when I hear it--was to build a fire and roast the vegetables in the coals, giving them some very appealingly rustic char and complex flavors of smoke and caramelization.

The cheese was the star (even if it didn't stand alone...), molten when we started to eat, cooling through a spectrum of flavors and textures as it gradually congealed--and even at the end we were scraping bits off the bottom of the dish.  The roasted vegetables and good bread were the perfect companions--the turnips were especially good, sweet, soft, and just a little bit pungent.  The beets were also lovely.  Cornichons were too tart for this sweet-tempered cheese, although it carries a bit of its own tang.  Apple was also out of place here; I think slices of pear might have gone well.

Produced from raw milk in late summer, Rush Creek Reserve is a seasonal cheese.  Aged for just under the legally required 60 days before being shipped, this washed-rind cheese continues to ripen in the store or in your fridge, and Andy Hatch said it's at its best for the next 30 days.  The interior becomes softer in that time, the aroma stronger--but I've had a Rush Creek Reserve aged past 90 days, and it never became as assertive as something like a Muenster or Epoisses.  The cheese we ate was fresh out of the gate, released on October 17.  I'll be looking to pick up another one in the next couple of weeks to see how it develops over a month's time.

To cook the vegetables--leek, potato, carrot, little onions, squash, beet, and turnip--we just wrapped them in foil and nestled them into the coals.  You don't have to wrap each vegetable individually--we did a couple small potatoes together, three small turnips lined up and foiled together, big beet cut in half and both halves wrapped in one sheet of foil, etc.  Turn every 10 minutes or so, and use your asbestos fingers to give the packets a squeeze for tenderness when you think they're getting done.  And do note that you want a nice bed of glowing coals, not a raging fire, which will burn the outside of the vegetables before the inside is cooked.  Of course you could simply do your vegetables in the oven, tossed with a bit of oil and roasted until nicely brown and tender.

To warm the cheese, we baked it, the bottom wrapped in foil to keep it from all melting away (a precaution which proved unnecessary), at 300 for about 20 minutes.  That gave us quite molten cheese to start with, and if this somewhat Cheez Whiz-like consistency offends any connoisseurs, I make no apologies.  The flavors of the cheese still came through, and the fragrance of roasty vegetables and richly flavorful cheese produced a kind of aroma-therapy of a very delectable sort.

Rush Creek Reserve at the factory, ready to be wrapped; each cheese is bound with a strip of spruce.

I purchased this particular cheese at the Driftless Depot , a delightful market, deli, and café in Spring Green, just a few miles up the road from Uplands.  If you're visiting Wisconsin's enchanting driftless area, this is the place to fill your picnic basket.  (Am I sounding a little like the southern Wisconsin tourist board?  Well, chalk it up to the convert's zeal, and be assured that my enthusiasm is heartfelt and warranted.)

The Uplands website has  a map showing where to buy their cheeses, which seems not very complete or up-to-date, as it shows only three sources in the Twin Cities, and I know it's more widely available than that.  Check with your local cheese store or co-op.  Rush Creek and Pleasant Ridge Reserve are also available on-line direct from Uplands.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Speaking of Wretched Excess...

Well, I obviously know a little about the topic, to follow up poutine with chicken-fried venison in pickled ramp & jalapeno cream gravy.  But there's lots of good green stuff on the plate, too, in the form of a rice pilaf including leek, fennel, celery root, and shallot, and garden brussels sprouts and leeks roasted, yep, bacon.  Just a little.

I had a terrific time in Waupaca, Wisconsin last weekend at the Waupaca Book Festival, of which Nancy "Rivertree" Miller, who worked on the final stages of editing my book, was one of the organizers.  It was a terrific festival featuring 16 authors and a wide range of events over three days.  I got to do a cooking demo in the basement meeting room of the Waupaca library, preparing pork chops with blackberry-whisky sauce and celery root-potato purée on two little electric burners, which were struggling just to boil water until we figured out to plug them in to separate circuits.  Once that little confugalty was sorted out everything went badda-bing badda-boom, and I think a good time was had by all.  And we ate some bacon.

On Saturday morning I met up with a friend who had come over from the legendary town of Menasha.  We had hoped to hunt before my authorial duties, but a steady rain verging on deluge 86ed that plan.  Instead we took her dog Duchamp for a run in the rain, saw the sights of Waupaca, and in the evening ate fried food at the Chain O' Lakes bar and restaurant.  Then as we prepared to go our separate ways on Sunday, Lynn Ann presented me with a lovely parting gift--a hind leg of venison, which came my way in order to make room in her freezer for this year's deer meat that was already coming her way from generous bow hunter friends.

By the time I got it home it was partly thawed, so I trimmed back to the frozen part, refroze the bulk of it, and wondered what to do with the sort of scrappy pieces I had cut off.  I'm not sure why this preparation occurred to me; I've never made chicken-fried anything in my life.  I think my initial impulse was venison schnitzel, but when it came around to dinner time that concept seemed too daunting; chicken-fried made it seem homey and do-able.

So I pounded out the meat with a cleaver--I smacked it vigorously with the dull side of the blade to tenderize, then with the flat side to pound it about 1/3-inch thick.  I placed the pounded meat into a milk bath to which I had added salt and pepper, Worcestershire, and tabasco.  It sat in there a while.  When it was time to cook I removed the meat from the milk and dredged it in seasoned flour.  Then I whisked an egg into the milk, dipped the meat into that, and again into the flour.

Then I fried the meat in about a half-inch of very hot canola oil.  It was messy.  It only took two to three minutes per side to get it nicely brown, and by basting with the oil I actually did get some of that puffing up of the breading that characterizes a good schnitzel.

Then as the fried meat rested on paper towels in the warm oven I made the sauce:  In a tablespoon or so of butter I sautéed chopped pickled ramps (rinsed a couple times and well-drained) and chopped jalapeno.  Sprinkled on a tablespoon and a half (guessing) of flour, stirred that around a bit, and began adding stock--perhaps 3/4 cup.  Finally just a glug, probably three tablespoons, of heavy cream.  The vegetables in the sauce, with their crunch, pickled tang, and mild heat, made a beautiful contrast to the rich sauce.  Not something I'll make very often, but a fun and satisfying dish, for every once in a while.

And I have discovered that room-temp leftover chicken-fried venison makes a morning-after breakfast equally as appealing as cold pizza, if you like that sort of thing.  I do.

The brussels sprouts were okay; Mary like them more than I did.  They were roasted at 375 with the bacon, tossed in the fat as it rendered, and cooked for about 30 minutes, the leeks added halfway through.  I thought they were a bit dry, that I should have cooked them at a lower temp and added some liquid to keep them moist until browning them at higher heat at the end.  I'll have another try soon.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ma Poutine

When they write the history of popular food in the Twenny-Tens (if there’s anyone with enough arterial fortitude to survive it and write it), I imagine this moment, glistening with bacon fat and given gravitas by the six-pound cheeseburger, will likely go down—way, way, down—as The Age of Wretched Excess, and looking back through the haze of time and spattered fry grease, future food historians will recognize the imposing figure of Monsieur Poutine as one of our era’s most august ambassadors.

This French-Canadien concoction of french fries topped with gravy and smothered in cheese curds has somehow escaped the ghetto of post-hockey game Québécois bar food to become a poster child for the too-much-is-never-enough philosophy (if you will) of our food truck-obsessed culture (if you stacked up all the pulled pork sandwiches topped with runny mayo-slicked cole slaw served in America’s food trucks in a day, I imagine they’d reach to the moon and back a couple of times, though they probably wouldn’t stack very well, on account of all the grease…).  Martin Picard, of the fat-flecked Montreal abattoir-cum-gastro-temple Au Pied de Cochon, is likely responsible for bringing poutine into the foodie world, with his beyond decadent foie gras-topped version.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  As my friend Tom said recently after a home-based poutine foray went deliciously awry:  Poutine, always a good idea, always a bad idea.  Thing is, for me, poutine had always been just an idea.  Prior to constructing my own version as a Bide-A-While bachelor dinner the other night, I had never tasted the stuff.  Imagine that.  The idea just never held that much appeal to me—all I could imagine of the typical version was starchy, previously frozen french fries, poorly cooked, topped with indifferent gravy and obliterated by too-salty cheese.  Now, I’m a guy who grows sweaty-palmed and anxious when I pull my last piece of home-smoked bacon from the freezer, who always has a little pot of pork fat beside the stove—you know, for emergencies—but that image was too much even for me. 

Well, I guess it wasn’t so much the grease factor that put me off, but rather the uninspired monolithicness (just made that word up) of it.  After two bites, what would there be to taste?  Still, perhaps because of my Canadian heritage, or because I used to spend a night or two in bars after hockey games, the idea of poutine has always intrigued me, and I’ve cooked many a mental dish of it in the past few years.  This week, I finally put it on the plate.

I’m sure some chapters of the Confrèrie de Poutine would run me out of town on a rail for it, but I wanted vegetables.  Specifically, I wanted highly flavored vegetables, both tart and savory.  So homemade sauerkraut, rinsed and squeezed, formed a crisp and tangy bed for my poutine.  Celery root, one of the most umami-packed forms of produce, has been part of every poutine I’ve imagined, so a fine dice of that went into my gravy.

The base of my gravy:  bacon.  Duh.  And the potatoes were not deep-fried shoestrings, but rather wedges of wonderful, coal-roasted homegrown fingerlings browned well in that bacon fat.  This is sounding pretty good, isn’t it?  Adding more depth to the gravy were leek, garlic, and sambal.

To add a little wholesome heft—this was my dinner, after all—I fried an egg in the remaining bacon fat, and along with it I cooked a couple slices of under-ripe Green Zebra tomatoes, along with some thinly sliced jalapeno and shallots—nothing monolithic about the flavors of this dish.

La cuisine minceur?  Mais mon.  But neither was this a regrettable gut-bomb, and I cleaned my plate—well, gratin dish—happily.  I’ll make this again, but not for a while.  Some winter night when a wolfish wind howls down the valley and the stars overhead are so insanely clear and profligate in their splendor that it stirs something deep in my Canadian soul, I’ll look around the kitchen to see what we have, and remembering Tom’s dictum I’ll think, Poutine, that sounds like a good idea….

Ma Poutine

Serves one:

1 ½ ounces excellent slab bacon cut in 1/3-inch dice
3 tablespoons chopped white of leek
2 tablespoons finely diced celery root
2 cloves garlic, crushed and coarsely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons sambal
2 teaspoons flour
2/3 cup chicken stock (or another type of stock—mine was actually chicken-duck stock)

2 medium fingerling potatoes, pre-roasted, quartered the long way

1 ½ ounces white cheese curds sliced

A bit of butter
1 egg
2 slices green tomatoes
Thinly sliced jalapenos and shallots, optional

2/3 to ¾ cup excellent sauerkraut, rinsed in a couple changes of water, squeezed to remove excess liquid

Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 425.

In a medium skillet slowly cook the bacon until it is lightly browned and has rendered most of its fat. Remove and reserve the bacon. Pour off and reserve half the fat.  Brown the potatoes evenly in the fat that remains in the pan.  Spread the sauerkraut in the bottom of a gratin dish and place the potatoes on top of it.

Return the bacon to the skillet along with the reserved fat.  Add the leek and celery root and cook over medium until the leek is wilted.  Add the garlic and sambal and cook for a minute or two.  Sprinkle the flour into the skillet and stir and scrape with a wooden spatula for about a minute.  Add the stock a little at a time, stirring and scraping to deglaze the pan and dissolve the flour.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle half the cheese curds over the potatoes and kraut.  Top with gravy.  Wash the skillet and heat it with a bit of butter.   Fry the egg sunny-side-up, along with the tomatoes, jalapeno, and shallot.  Place the egg and tomatoes on top of the gratin, and sprinkle on the other half of the curds.  Place in the preheated oven until the cheese is melted.  Remove, top with the jalapeno, shallot and any fat remaining in the pan.  Open a beer, eh?  Dig in.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"One Can Dine Very Well on Potatoes"

You travel to France to see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, to sip an espresso at a sidewalk café and munch on tangy saucisson sec while you quaff a glass of Beaujolais in view of the vineyard from which it sprung.  You travel for the expected sights and pleasures, but of course it's the unexpected encounters that make a trip truly memorable.

I think of our visit to a tourist office in the town of Villefranche, in Beaujolais.  We came in speaking French, Mary in the lead--or perhaps I went first, to make Mary look good by comparison.  The petite, dark-haired woman working there listened to our request for info on restaurants and wineries in the area, and scurried about the office amassing a pile of brochures and pamphlets.  She and Mary chatted while the woman reached into cabinets and leafed through stacks of materials.  The woman seemed distracted, and was becoming more animated, even agitated, all the time.

When finally it appeared that she might burst with excitement, she overcame that deep-seated Gallic reserve which makes it nearly impossible to ask a direct question of a stranger, and dared to ask us where we were from.  We said we were American.  Not French at all?  Not a bit.  Alors.  What had the woman flustered was that she couldn't place Mary's form of French; her accent was so good, she thought she must be French, but....  The implication was that her grammar didn't quite match the accent.  What she finally concluded, she told us, was that Mary must have been a French woman who had moved to America, and forgotten how to speak French! It was probably the most endearingly backhanded compliment the woman could have offered.  And after that dish of quenelles de brochet has faded in memory, and the Delacroix and David and Géricault we admired in the Louvre start to blur together, that's the sort of landmark of a trip that stays with you for years and years.

The title of today's post comes from another such encounter, during our first trip to France in 2001.  We went in early October, less than a month after the September 11 attacks, and shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.  This was in that honeymoon phase when much of the world drew together in sympathy with America over the shock and horror of those events.  I can't recall how many French people spontaneously mentioned the 9-11 attacks, and expressed their condolences, and incidentally thanked us, retrospectively, for America's role in saving France during World War II.  The French have a longer historical memory than we have (who doesn't?), and it was remarkable to be the recipients of this kind of outpouring of emotion, simply because we were American.

Well, the Frenchman who inspired today's post wasn't quite so sentimental.  We met him about a week into our trip, which started in Brittany and took us down the Atlantic coast to the mouth of the Loire, then up that splendid river into the Touraine, the area around the city of Tours.  We wound up staying a few days near Chaumont sur Loire, home to a lesser chateau, which at any rate we were only able to view from behind the locked gates, à cause de la grève--"because of the strike," the public workers' rolling strike over...I don't recall what. A cause de la grève we couldn't visit the chateaux, à cause de la grève we couldn't get into the Rodin museum. etc.  It became the tagline to our trip, not that we were much put out.

But with the chateau in Chaumont closed, we were looking for amusement, so we went to the tourist office in town--which also served as baguette depot on days when the boulangerie was closed.  There we met M. Guérand, in his early 30s I'd guess, longish dirty blonde hair and a three-day beard, cowl-neck sweater--so very French looking.  If he didn't have a Gauloise perched on his lower lip at all times, he should have.  Typical he was, in appearance at least, but not your typical tourist office worker in almost every other respect.  He wasn't from the area and didn't really know it very well.  He was from Paris, a graphic designer, unemployed, and they'd shipped him out here to the boondocks to fill a vacancy at the tourism office.  Waving at the rack of brochures was about as helpful as he could be in helping us find lodging for the night.  And as for sights worth seeing, well, in his view, one thing was as good as another. Merci, bien.

But we got to talking, about...just about everything.  He was pretty bored, so little tourist traffic in the area, since it was the off season, and à cause de la grève.  And probably Mary and I were just a wee bit sick of each other's exclusive company after many days on the road.  We spoke mostly in French, as his English was poor, and we covered 9-11 and its immediate aftermath, the Afghanistan invasion, the American media and its lack of intellectual depth (when we got home I sent him a package of the "better" U.S. current affairs magazines, to show him there was some intelligent life in America, and never got a reply).  It got philosophical at some point, as we pondered together why so many people spent their lives chasing after money, and never stopping to realize that money is just a medium, not an end in itself, and if you thought it was an end in itself, you could never have enough to be satisfied.  Deep stuff.  He also confided to us that he really could see no point to existence itself.  Shrug.  Fire up a Gauloise....

Eventually we came back around to our immediate needs:  a place to sleep that night, somewhere to eat.  By sheer luck we pulled a brochure that led us to a very odd but perfectly wonderful auberge, Chateau de la Haute Borde.  As for dinner, well, there were some restaurants in town, but this was Monday, and most were closed.  Furthermore, he wasn't really supposed to recommend specific restaurants, and anyway, he didn't eat out much.  He didn't care about food, himself, and seemed slightly exasperated with his countrymen and -women for their obsession with this trivial chore, feeding oneself.  To top it off, here in the land of charcuterie, in a sea of rillettes and rillons and foie gras, he was a vegetarian.  It was a healthier and more humane sort of existence.


"I find that one can dine very well on potatoes."

He must have said it in French, but I have no idea how to construct that sentence.  We understood, we nodded.  We thanked him and said how much we had enjoyed our conversation, and made our way out into a gorgeous October afternoon in the storied Val de la Loire.  After checking in to La Haute Borde and confirming that their restaurant was closed, we drove into the city of Amboise and enjoyed a splendid dinner at a restaurant called La Comédie, where local young people came for pizza, and we ate sausage, duck, rabbit, as well as gratin dauphinoise--so yes, we dined very well on potatoes, among other regional delights.

Another thing you learn from travel, a cliché perhaps, but not a dreary one, is that sometimes it's the destination that delights, but often it's more about the journey.  An old verity appropriate to this shaggy dog story (histoire drôle sans queue ni tête!) about a dinner inspired by pommes de terre, though not composed exclusively of them.

I dug our potato bed this week, and I knew we must dine on them.  I plucked the first brussels sprouts from the garden, too.  Those things, along with some beautiful cippolini-type onions from the market we wrapped up in foil--a little salt and oil in the sprouts and potatoes--and into the coals of a fading fire they went.

Foraging in the fridge I found a piece of pork belly that I had brined as for bacon, but roasted in the oven instead of smoking.  To add variety to the plate, and for the hell of it, I put a couple of eggs in the coals for ten minutes at the very end.  I've never done eggs this way before, and they came out beautifully--yolk sunny yellow and set, white silky, not a hint of sulfurishness about them.

Then cheese, since we are in Dairyland--Marieke gouda both aged and smoked, Roth-Kase gruyère-style.  Hope butter, a sort of creme fraiche ersatz made by combining Cedar Summit cream and goat yogurt, some minced shallot added to that.  Pickles, since this was a sort of faux raclette meal.

This is how we dine on potatoes around here, and we dined very well, indeed.  Happy travels to all.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw