Friday, February 22, 2013

Smokey Deer

We’ve been on a steady venison diet here lately, thanks to one happy occurrence—the generous gift of a leg of venison from a friend—and one less fortunate one—the freezer dying on our spare fridge in the basement.  The venison had been in our freezer since it was passed along to me last fall, and as I was going to have to thaw it out all at once, I was waiting for the right moment.  But sometimes you choose your moment, and sometimes it is thrust upon you.  Hence, necessity being the mother of invention and all that, I got to work processing.  I was not a very experienced deer meat cook when I walked upstairs with that dripping, leg-shaped package; I’m a much more confident one now.

In the last three weeks I’ve prepared venison goulash, seared rye-crusted medallions, and that pan roast, which I’ve put to use in numerous ways.  But by far the most interesting and delectable preparation was this smoked venison “pastrami”.

I started by breaking the leg down into its component muscle groups.  Not all cuts of meat consist of a single muscle, of course—many are cross-sections of several groups.  But I don’t have a meat saw, and taking it apart at the seams, as it were, was the easiest, most logical thing to do.  I wound up with about a pound and a half of the dense meat from the shank, and several nice lean pieces from the upper leg, each around a pound and a half, also.  What looked at first like an enormous hunk of deer flesh yielded 8 or 9 pounds of usable meat—oh, and another pound-plus of trimmings, which the dogs greatly enjoyed.

To see what I was dealing with, I sliced off a small piece from each chunk and fried them briefly to assess the flavor and texture.  There were variations—this one a little more tender, this one a bit livery, etc.—but all were relatively tasty and tender.  They were, in effect, no different from something like the sirloin or top round cuts of beef.  The shank meat was destined for goulash.  From the other pieces I selected one to do the pan roast, and set a long, tenderloin-shaped cut aside to make medallions, and the last piece, more or less rectangular and about two-inches thick in the middle, I decided to smoke.

I cured it with a dry rub, and went for some fairly aggressive seasonings.  Here’s the recipe (chalkboard paint is fun…):

Hua jiao, once again, is Sichuan pepper, in this case the dry-roasted and ground up kind.  Ginger is the dry spice, chile a dried red one.  I used locally produced maple sugar, but you could substitute brown sugar in the same amount, or maple syrup, say 1 ½ tablespoons.  I massaged the meat with the seasonings and stuck it in the fridge for a couple of days, turning it several times.  Not a lot of liquid came off. 

Then I smoked it in my trusty Meco grill for about two hours at about 225, and I used wild black cherry as the main smoking wood, something I haven’t tried before. The end result was a delightful confluence of happenstance and experiment. I had no idea what the final product would look or taste like.  It smelled fantastic coming off the grill, and when I cut into it I was amazed at the color.  The taste is deep, layered, mysterious, and wild, but with a delicate texture that makes it seem refined, as well.  Really cool stuff.  What it reminded me of most was pastrami, which is smoked corned beef, so I guess that makes sense.

I have cooked slices to serve with eggs and polenta, and that was good, but I think it’s best straight up, on a slice of toasted country bread.  The sauce gribiche variation I came up with to accompany it doesn’t detract.  This is a really good time of year to dip into the pickle pantry for fresh and crunchy flavors.  The rhubarb pickles I made last summer have mellowed really nicely.  The sauce is composed of:

A grated hard-cooked egg
Dollop of Hellmann’s mayonnaise
A minced pickled ramp and a little of the pickling brine
Same amount minced pickled rhubarb
6 or 7 minced milkweed bud “capers”
A half teaspoon or so of sambal

I’ll run down the other preparations in another report.  All were worth recreating.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pan Roasting, Woodstove Style

Pan-roasted: it’s one of those menu descriptors that I always find appealing, like flame-broiled, wok-seared, fire-grilled. Maybe it has something to do with the muscular combination of noun and verb; maybe it’s the hyphen. The succinct combination is somehow far more appetizing than “roasted in a pan.” Whatever the source of that allure, if there’s a pan-roasted striped bass, pan-roasted duck breast, or pan-roasted double-cut pork chop on the menu, that’s what I’m ordering.

 Never mind that I’ve never been fully certain exactly what pan-roasted means, though I had an idea. So I looked it up, and found that the generally accepted definition involves starting a dish—usually a piece of meat—on the stovetop, searing it in a skillet or sauté pan, then finishing the cooking in a moderate oven. The idea is that the enveloping heat of the oven will finish the cooking more evenly than if you just left the pan on the burner. In some cases—that double-cut pork chop, for instance—I can see the logic. In others—the piece of fish—I think it’s probably more a case of menu puffery; once that fish fillet is browned on both sides, it’s practically done cooking. It really doesn’t require roasting. That doesn’t mean I’m not still a sucker for pan-roasted salmon with a ramp beurre blanc and nettle flan.

 All that being said, the kind of pan-roasting I’m talking about here is a method that doesn’t use the oven at all, but is ideal for woodstove or campfire cookery. And it elevates the importance of the pan, which should ideally be cast iron. The method evolved by happenstance, over years of cooking on the Bide-A-Wee woodstove, and really gelled in my mind with all the cooking we’ve been doing over the last few weeks on the new stove. It combines the qualities of the cast iron with the moderate, persistent heat of the woodstove. The results are savory, rustic, just the kind of thing you want to eat on a winter evening.

Now, I know some of the skeptics among you are going to say: You’re cooking stuff in fat in a fry pan on a stove top. How is this different from frying? Answer: It’s not. Except, when we talk about frying, I think it generally implies a fairly high heat, a larger amount of fat, a shorter cook time. You could call this low, slow frying, but in my mind the technique has more in common with pan-roasting, so I’m going with that. It’s a bit like the question of when something turns from a braise into a stew, from a stew into a soup.

Thelma Sanders Sweet Dumpling at harvest time

The two preparations I have here—acorn squash, a venison leg roast—are ideal examples of foods that respond well to this method. Both require a fairly long cooking time, and both benefit from long exposure to the hot—but not too hot!—pan. And in the case of the venison, there are beautiful drippings left to turn into a pan sauce (another of those simple yet supremely appetizing phrases).

The same squash, up from the root cellar a few months later; a wee bit wrinkled, still delicious

Given all that introduction, the method itself is pretty simple: for the squash, halve it, clean it, cut it into slices. With an acorn type, just go between the scallops, and with other kinds, make roughly 1-inch thick slices. What I used here was an acorn type called Thelma Sanders Sweet Dumpling—how charismatic is that? This has a fairly thin skin, which in fact is mostly edible by the end of cooking. The bottom, hollow part of a butternut also works well for this, and has nearly as tender a skin, once cooked. Delicata types would also work well. I would avoid drier types of squash with thicker rinds, such as buttercup.

So, you heat your cast iron skillet, and add some fat. Duck fat is beautiful, and my first choice for this. Rendered fat from excellent bacon is another good choice. Otherwise, the cooking oil of your choice, or clarified butter. You only need about a tablespoon. Add the squash slices and cook them on one side for 7 or 8 minutes. Turn them over and repeat. Keep turning at intervals until the squash is nicely brown all around and tender to taste. You could add a crushed garlic clove or a couple sprigs of thyme or rosemary along the way. At the end, season with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. A dusting of paprika or espelette pepper would also be excellent, and ground Sichuan pepper (hua jiao) is a nice complement to sweet squash. Other possible finishes: a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil or melted butter, some chopped fresh herbs, finely minced garlic, or the the garlic, lemon zest, parsely combo called gremolata. Which makes me think that you could turn this into a vegetarian main course by serving the squash slices over pasta. In which case I imagine you’d want some excellent grated cheese to finish it off. I think I have a new dish to try out….

For the venison: this piece of leg was about a pound and a half, and nearly two inches thick, an excellent candidate for this kind of pan roasting. I salted and peppered it liberally. Heated a bit of sunflower oil in the pan, and added the meat. Let it cook 8 minutes per side, turning several times. It cooked a little more than 30 minutes, in the end. After the first turns I added a couple crushed cloves of garlic, a broken up dried red chile, and a couple sprigs of rosemary. As the meat browned and cooked very gently, and the aromatics released in the pan, the house came to smell amazing.

The meat came out a beautiful medium rare, and tender as can be.  We didn't eat it right away, but a couple of nights later I sliced it very thin and piled the slices on top of a piece of homemade grainy sourdough.  I then doused it with a sauce--a kind of jus--I had made by deglazing the pan with red wine and water.  I extended the jus with some chicken stock, and because it was quite spicy from the chile, I added a little maple syrup to balance the heat.  I also stirred some powdered cocoa into the syrup--a sudden inspiration--and the combination was terrific.

You don't necessarily need a woodstove for this kind of cooking.  The keys, I think, are the cast iron pan, the low and slow cooking time, and the appropriate ingredients.  It's a really mellow way of cooking, and foods prepared this way can often be made ahead and reheated--an ideal way to stockpile some made-ahead meals on a winter weekend afternoon.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, February 11, 2013

Wood Fired Up

We closed on the new old  house on January 30 of last year, at the title company's office in Menomonie, a 25-minute drive from the house (as well as from the Bide-A-Wee cabin).  Roughly 30 minutes after the last document had been inked, the last hand shaken, Mary was in the first floor bedroom tearing out the ancient, filthy shag carpeting to reveal fir floorboards that had been painted around the outer two feet (roughly) of the room--presumably an area rug had once covered the center of the room. (While this initial deconstruction was going on, I was moaning under the down comforter at Bide-A-Wee, victim of a stomach bug that had made the closing an excruciating experience; I don't think I'll ever eat seafood sausage again....)

With that initial un-rugging of the bedroom began a year-long cascade of projects that involved wood floor refinishing and installation, taking down an acoustic tile ceiling and a half-wall, paneling of walls and a ceiling, putting on gutters, moving an exterior stairway, replacing an exterior door, finishing dry wall, relining a flue, replacing light fixtures, building a garage, and painting, painting, painting, painting.  A lot of the work we hired out.  Our move to Ridgeland has been very, very good for the local economy.

About three weeks ago, just shy of our one-year anniversary in the house, we marked the culmination of Phase One with the installation of a woodstove, a Pacific Energy Summit model.  It is simply the greatest thing ever.  As I sit at the desktop computer in my office writing this, I'm yearning to be back down in the living room, gazing at the fire--in front of which the dogs have installed themselves more or less permanently, probably wondering in their flame-warmed dreams why on earth it took us so long to welcome this marvelous object into our home.  I feel pretty much the same way.  We're taking the rest of the winter off from major home reno projects; a kitchen re-do looms when warm weather returns, and that will require us to gather a great deal of strength and resolve.

Let me count the ways we love our woodstove:  Well, for starters, who doesn’t love looking at a fire?  The Haggis woodstove we have at Bide-A-Wee is excellent in many ways, but you can’t watch the fire unless you leave the door open, which is dangerous.  The new stove has this big glass door, perfect for fire viewing.  I find it calming, thrilling, and mesmerizing, all at once.  In the evenings I tend to forget we even have a TV upstairs (though I remain a devoted People's Court and Jeopardy fan).

Two, it is age-old technology brought beautifully up to date.  A modern motor vehicle bears really no resemblance to a horse and buggy, except for the wheels.  Modern woodstoves look and work very much like their ancestors—indeed, some new ones are designed to look exactly like the vintage models—but they are much more efficient in every way.

Three, following from above, a woodstove is a pretty clean way to heat.  Wood is a renewable, sustainable, and local source of fuel, and new technology makes these stoves up to 80 percent efficient.  When it’s burning hot with good seasoned wood, you see no smoke from the chimney.  And the fuel to feed it travels all of a couple hundred yards to get here (oh, well, some of it did come a couple of miles, as we recently purchased a cord from our friend Tina, who has a several-years’ backlog of wood in her yard).  Wood is also a fairly carbon-neutral form of fuel; it does release carbon into the atmosphere, but only at a faster rate than was going to happen anyway, as the wood broke down out in nature.  I’ve been harvesting small dead oaks almost exclusively, basically just taking advantage of natural attrition before those trees fall to the soil and rot.  (However, I’m being sure to leave a good number of taller snags for wildlife habitat.)

The woodstove gives us total heating and cooking independence, as long as there’s wood in the box.  I think I mentioned that the house came with a wood furnace in the basement, which we’d been using up until we got the stove.  But even that depended on an electric fan to work properly.  The Summit has no moving parts, but the door.  If the power goes out we'll still be warm and well-fed; the electric pump won't work, so we we'll have no water, but that's a separate issue.

And:  it’s a handy clothes dryer, combined with a simple drying rack.  This also helps, a little, to humidify the dry winter air.

The woolens chest had gone a little musty, requiring wholesale scarf and mitten laundering.

It is fabulous to cook on.  You knew this was where we were headed, didn’t you?  I’ve always enjoyed cooking on Bide-A-Wee’s Haggis, even though it’s a much less substantial stove than this one.  The Summit has a nice wide, flat top, plus a warming ledge behind.  We start putting the stove to use first thing in the morning, boiling water for our tea in the red kettle.  It requires a little patience, since you don’t necessarily have high heat on demand after the fire has burned down overnight.  But I like that about it.  It seems fitting with the slow food type of cooking at which a woodstove excels. 

I’ve simmered chicken stock, and soup, and just last night a marvelously complex venison goulash.  I’ve also pan-roasted a venison leg roast, fried steaks, warmed duck confit and braised cabbage.  The cast iron pans work amazingly well with the steady, even heat of the woodstove.  Mary made pancakes a couple weeks ago that came out better than they have in ages—even browning, terrific height, and thorough, consistent doneness.  Slices of squash slowly browned to tenderness in some duck fat give new life to that root-cellar mainstay, of which even I, a dedicated squash fancier, have been growing a little tired.  Not when prepared this way.

Venison goulash bubbled gently for  hours, filling the house with amazing aromas.

You can’t really bake on it, although I have made dutch oven bread on the Haggis before, and you could certainly do other kinds of flatbreads.  Frittatas and slowly scrambled eggs come out just lovely.  I know it will be perfect for paella and jambalaya, I just haven’t had time to try those yet.

When we redo the kitchen we’ll put in a really nice range, for sure, probably a dual-fuel model with an electric convection oven—that’s what I’ve found to be the best for baking and roasting, though I don’t use the convection fan for bread.  But in the cool months, when the stove is lit, I know I’ll still do plenty of cooking there.

Onions slowly caramelize for the goulash, while a venison leg roast cooks with chile, rosemary, and garlic.  Our downstairs freezer died, so I had to process a whole deer leg all at once.

Oh, and a collateral benefit to the woodstove:  It introduced us to a new skill, laying tile.  We built the pad that the stove sits on, our first such project.  It was surprisingly easy, and really, really fun and satisfying.  I’m eager to do it again.

How we chose this stove:  we didn’t do a ton of research, but we did read up on on-line reviews, and talked to people in person and via our Tell-All and HRTI Share list-servs.  From an email shout-out we heard from numerous people, and nearly all of them had a different brand of stove—Pacific Energy, Jotul, Vermont Castings, etc.—and they all loved them.  I don’t think we got a single non-recommendation.  We picked the PE largely because Tina has this same model, and loves it.  Also, since the PE stoves are steel, not cast iron, they can be placed fairly close to combustible surfaces, within a few inches of the wall.  This allowed us to tuck it in the corner so it doesn’t overwhelm our living room.

In choosing the size, again, we had the benefit of Tina’s experience.  Her house is smaller than ours, and more compact, so we went with the same size she has, the big one, even though it’s said to heat 3000 square feet, and our house is right around 2000.  But those ratings don’t give you any sense of what sort of weather they’re calibrated for; the stoves are made in British Columbia, in a region where it doesn’t get nearly as cold as it does here.  And what we’ve found so far is this:  if the outside temperature is above 30, we don’t need to burn much wood to keep the house toasty.  When the high temps were barely topping zero for a week straight, we kept that baby stoked, and we were not roasted out of the house, by any means.

So that’s the woodstove report.  We couldn’t be more tickled with this new addition to the family.  We only await a visit from Lulu, our Nomenclature Tsarina, to properly assess its character and offer a suitable name.

We got the stove from Stoveworks, with stores in Rice Lake and Hayward.  They were great.