Friday, December 16, 2016

Snow Day Cassoulet

We had our first real snowfall of the season last weekend, a half a foot of light, fluffy splendor that transformed the landscape overnight.  And with that snow came the first serious cold of the winter, bringing a definitive end to what had been a long, lingering, quite lovely autumn.  We had the woodstove blazing 24/7, and thoughts immediately turned to warm, filling, savory comfort cooking.  For me, nothing epitomizes that more than a fragrant, crusty and rich cassoulet.

Whether in the iconic brown pot of New England baked beans crowned with a square of salt pork, a French cassoulet rich with pork rind and lard fume, or Cajun red beans and rice simmered with ham hocks and sausage, dried beans and pork products go together like, well, pork and beans.  It’s one of those elementally satisfying combinations.  I love almost all iterations of this classic partnership, from humble baked beans from a can up to an elaborately garnished, ceremoniously presented cassoulet.  But the cassoulet holds a special place in my heart, being so very…gallic, as well as delicious.
In my younger days I would happily spend two or three days making a cassoulet that called for pork, pork rind, pork fat, salt pork, and sausage, along with a couple pounds of lamb and a whole duck.  It was a mammoth production, incredibly rich, delicious, and festive—and I’ll probably never make it again.  In some ways, at least as far as the meats were concerned, that particular cassoulet favored quantity over quality, since with so many different proteins in play it’s extremely difficult to get everything to turn out right.  And frankly, at this point in my life, the thought of contending with lamb, duck, pork, and sausage, all on one plate, leaves me feeling slightly bilious, and exhausted.

The cassoulet I make nowadays—and I make it a few times from fall through early spring—is a streamlined version, well garnished with savory pork, perhaps a leg of duck confit, but much less meat-centric than many.  The thing is, I really like beans, and I consider it the mark of a really good and thoughtful cook to be able to produce a cassoulet in which the luxuriously coddled beans draw as much praise as the meats.  Though streamlined, this is not a recipe to throw together for a quickie weeknight dinner (for that, make a big batch and savor the leftovers).  But it can easily be accomplished in a single day—get the time-consuming pre-simmering of the beans started after breakfast, and you’ll not be rushed to pull the crusty, fragrant, unctuous final product out of the oven at dinner time.
One key element of the streamlining is that I don’t soak the beans overnight, as so many recipes for dried beans suggest.  The reason I’ve omitted this step is simple:  it is completely unnecessary.  What I do, instead, is to parboil the beans for 10 minutes, drain them, discarding the cooking liquid, and then begin cooking them again, more slowly, with lots of aromatics.  Parcooking the beans and dumping the first water also helps to minimize the digestive difficulties that beans, “the musical fruit,” can produce.  Now that we’ve saved 12 to 16 hours, as well as potential social embarrassment, let’s get on with it….

There are beans under there, ready to simmer.

The key to a great cassoulet, as with many bean dishes, and long-simmered or braised dishes in general, is to use loads of aromatic vegetables.  I tend to think that back in the day cassoulet was sustenance food in which relatively small amounts of very flavorful meats were used to garnish and enrich a dish predominantly composed of vegetables.  Lately cassoulet has become a standard winter addition to the menus of many gallic-inflected restaurants, and the dish there presented is often more of a meat-fest than an exaltation of the humble, but delicious, nourishing, and versatile haricot sec.  (There was a recipe for the cassoulet from St Paul’s Heartland restaurant going around last winter; it called for roughly nine pounds of meat to garnish one pound of dried beans, and I just thought, woof, that is not my idea of a cassoulet.)

Bacon and pork shoulder browning.

And anyway, cassoulet is not a restaurant dish.  It’s a dish you want to soak in all day, luxuriate in the aromas of simmering duck confit, fall into the warm embrace of vegetables turning soft and yielding in lovely bacon drippings.  On a snowy winter day you want to get your beans simmering and then go for a brisk walk—or shovel the first real snowfall, as we had the opportunity to do this past weekend.  Then when you come back in, oh, the smell!  The warmth of the house and kitchen!  The anticipation of tucking in, come dinner time, to such satisfying food!  Yes, cassoulet is not just a dish, but an experience.  It requires a few steps, but none of it is difficult.

Roast pork shoulder rests amid yummy drippings.

 As to the meats I use in my cassoulet:  bacon is essential.  I always have a hunk of home-smoked bacon in the fridge and/or freezer, but good quality slab bacon is widely available now.  Take the time to procure some good, naturally smoked bacon—it’s one of the flavor backbones of this dish.  I also often add a piece of pork shoulder that I’ve either smoked or roasted.  In either case, I set it to macerate overnight with a rub of salt, pepper, and maple syrup.  Details below.  And finally, for the last half hour of baking, I’ll nestle into the beans either 1) a couple of legs of duck confit that I have previously set in a skillet to crisp the skin and warm the meat, or 2) some good smoked sausage, also browned in a separate skillet before adding to the beans.  You could add both, but then things are getting a little meatier than I like.  But—you could skip the pork shoulder and do confit and sausage.  That would be delightful.  
Ready for the oven.
Whatever meaty things you choose to garnish your cassoulet is up to you.  The main thing is the beans, unctuous, savory, yielding. You could do without added meat altogether, frankly—the basic beans with some crusty warm bread, a glass of red wine, a salad, this would make a lovely repast.  It could, I dare say, even be made vegetarian, with the addition of some extra vegetables into the mix, and perhaps something like dried porcini mushrooms or morels to give it added depth and umami.  I tasted a very good vegetarian cassoulet once, prepared by my friend, the chef Roger Payne.  
But hey, you know, those beans aren’t going to cook themselves.  Allons-y…

While not the most photogenic of dishes, cassoulet is soul-satisfying fare.

A Snow Day Cassoulet

Serves at least six

For the pork shoulder:
1 pound pork shoulder
2 teaspoons salt
1 ½ tablespoons maple syrup
Black pepper from the mill
2 tablespoons oil, bacon fat, or fat from duck confit

You need to start this at least the night before you plan to make your cassoulet, but it can be made several days in advance.  Rub the pork with the maple syrup and then sprinkle on the salt on all sides.  Give all surfaces a generous grinding of black pepper.  Cover and let stand in the fridge overnight, or longer.  Turn it a couple times during this time if you think of it.
The next day, heat your oven to 325 degrees.  Blot the meat off with paper towels and discard any liquid that has gathered.  Put the pork in a small baking dish (I use an oval ceramic gratin to both macerate and roast) along with the oil or fat.  Roast the pork for 2 hours, or until it is nicely browned.  Turn every 30 minutes or so to promote even browning.  Remove from the oven and set aside.  Be sure to keep the fat and drippings remaining in the baking dish.  We’ll add these to the cassoulet later.

1 pound great northern beans (I've also made cassoulet with cranberry beans; many dried beans would work. I think navy beans are too small.)
¾ cup chopped light green leek tops
1 small shallot, chopped (or use a bit of onion)
1 small carrot, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 small dried red chile, optional
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 or 2 bay leaves
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried
¾ teaspoon salt

Rinse the beans well and sort through them to remove any debris or stones (nothing ruins a lovely meal like biting into a rock).  In a large saucepan, add the beans and water to cover by at last an inch.  Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and simmer for 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the beans sit for another 10 minutes.  Drain the beans, discarding the first cooking liquid.  Return the beans to the saucepan along with all the vegetables, spices, herbs above EXCEPT THE SALT.  Again add water to cover by an inch or so, bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes.  Now add the salt and simmer for 30 minutes more.  Check the doneness—you want the beans to be cooked through.  Some may be even falling apart, a few may be al dente still, but overall you want the beans to be DONE at this point.
Set the beans aside when they’re cooked to your preference.  DO NOT DRAIN.

For the final assembly:
4 to 5 ounces good slab bacon, in ¾-inch squares, more or less
1 tablespoon oil or confit fat
1 small leek—about 1” in diameter—chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
½ cup canned tomatoes, chopped
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¾ cup fresh breadcrumbs
Duck confit or smoked sausage, optional—I would allow one confit portion, thigh or drumstick, or about three ounces of sausage per person

Heat your oven to 325.  Cut the pork shoulder you previously roasted into 4 pieces.  Heat a large dutch oven (enameled cast iron is ideal) over medium-low heat and add the bacon.  As it starts to render its fat, add the pork shoulder, and get it nice and brown while the bacon cooks.  When the bacon and pork shoulder are nicely brown, remove from the pan.  Remove excess fat from the pan, leaving about 2 tablespoons.  Add the leek, onion, and carrot, and cook these over medium heat until they are well wilted.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring, then add the tomatoes.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the tomatoes have given up all their moisture and even begun to brown a bit.  Then return the beans and their cooking liquid to the pan (if you happen to notice the whole cloves or the now leafless thyme twigs, take those out).  The liquid should cover the beans by a half-inch or so.  If it does not, add water or stock to that level.  
Add the bacon and pork shoulder to the pan, along with a couple more sprigs of thyme and a few grinds of black pepper.  Taste the liquid for salt and add a bit of salt if it seems under-seasoned, but note that it will take up some of the salt from the bacon and pork as it bakes, so go easy.  If you’ve saved the drippings from roasting the pork shoulder, scrape these into the beans, as well.  Bake uncovered for 1 ½ hours, stirring every half hour or so.  Cooking time varies a lot from one batch of dried beans to the next, so when the cassoulet is done is a bit of a judgment call.  They’re done when they have taken up most of the liquid and are very tender, but still holding their shape—well, a good part of them, anyway; some will certainly have collapsed, and that’s fine.  You want the beans to be a little bit liquid when you declare them done, as they’ll thicken as they cool.  You can take the cassoulet to this nearly done stage a few hours to a few days before you want to serve it—it reheats very nicely.

About 30 minutes before you want to serve the cassoulet, tuck the duck confit or sausage that you’ve crisped/browned into the beans.  Then toss the breadcrumbs with a tablespoon or so of fat or oil, and stir well to moisten them evenly.  Sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the top of the cassoulet and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the crumbs are brown.  If you have convection in your oven, this is a good use for it.
Serve hot from the oven.  Make sure everyone gets a portion of the various meats.  Serve with crunchy, warm country bread and a deep red wine—I would go for a Bordeaux, Cahors, Cotes de Rhone, or Rioja.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, May 13, 2016

Pheasant Back, Ramp & Wood Nettle Pâté

I’m usually pretty confident when I start to put together a new dish, because I’ve been cooking for a long time, and because, let’s face it, most “new” dishes are usually just a tweak or two on an old dish.  You swap out an unusual ingredient for a familiar one, turn an exotic dish local or wild, that sort of thing.  You have a basic template and play around with the elements within it.  The last time I recall coming up with something truly, stunningly original was when Iaccidentally burned some honey, and then decided to throw some rhubarb juice in the pot.  The result was something remarkable, delicious, and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

And, I’ve never made it again.  I should.  I think even I’m a little afraid of bringing honey to the burning point, though really the worst thing that could happen is that I would burn a little honey.  Well, maybe ruin a pan, fill the house with smoke.... Maybe my reluctance is wise.

Pheasant back mushrooms tops.  They also go by the fanciful name "Dryad's Saddle."  Dryads are not as common in our woods as they once were, so I haven't had a chance to examine their saddles lately....
Anyway:  the story of this pâté was this:  I had a mess of pheasant back mushrooms, which have been abundant this spring (they grow on dead trees, including elms, so you’ll often find them while not finding morels…).  These mushrooms are a polypore, like boletes, the family that includes porcini, but their flavor is very mild, just sort of vaguely mushroomy.  When young and tender, their texture can be excellent, and then they’re fine just sliced and sautéed.  I like to do them in butter, add a little garlic and a splash of soy sauce when they’re about done.  

Tops and bottoms; note the tiny pores of this fungus whose Latin name is polyporous squamosus.
But as they mature, they become chewy, then inedibly tough.  Sometimes you can trim the outer rim of a larger one and find it sufficiently tender.  The thing I’ve learned is that if my pocket knife blade doesn’t slide through the flesh almost effortlessly, don’t bother.  Move along, keep looking, you’ll find more.  On this evening most of my pheasant backs could have been eaten simply sautéed, but that wasn’t working for me as a topping for smorrebrod, those Danish-inspired open face sandwiches, which was the dinner plan.  Pâté came to mind, a sort of ersatz chopped liver. 

I chopped the mushrooms pretty small, threw them in a pan with some butter.  As they released moisture and started to shrink, I added chopped ramps.  Then as cooking neared completion, I splashed in some soy, for umami depth, and to make it more pâté-like, a glug of red wine (I considered cognac or sherry, but thought that would be gilding the lily).  It was smelling pretty good at this point—I had added dried thyme, and a pinch of chile flakes—but there wasn’t a lot of it, and I also was dubious about what the texture of ground-up pheasant backs alone would be like.

For both bulk and texture, wood nettles came to the rescue.  They’d just started coming up in our woods, so they were in prime condition, edible and tender pretty much from bottom to top.  I roughly chopped a cup or so, added them to the pan with a little water, steamed briefly.

After removing the lid from the pan and letting most the liquid evaporate, I let the mixture cool, then transferred it to a mini-chop food processor.  From here I took the chopped liver approach of working in as much butter as conscience would allow.  Tasting along the way, adding some salt and a good bit of black pepper, I was more and more impressed.

Smorrebrod dinner leftovers make a lovely lunch.  Closewise from top: smoked trout with goat yogurt cheese and chives; wood nettle-ramp pesto with local goat feta; the pâté; wild asparagus and homemade mayonnaise.
I’ll spare you the suspense and simply say that it was excellent, and distinctive, though built on a familiar chassis.  I will definitely make this again.  Most other shrooms—button, oyster, hen of the woods—could be used in it, and other greens, wild or not.  WARNING: the recipe below is my best estimate of the quantities of ingredients used.  Since I considered it quite possible that the resulting dish would be going in the trash rather than on the dinner table, I wasn’t writing things down as I went along.   But this is in the ballpark, and y’all are clever; you’ll figure it out.

Pheasant Back, Ramp & Wood Nettle Pâté

Makes about a cup

1 generous cup chopped pheasant back mushrooms
3 plump ramp bulbs, chopped
1 generous cup (loosely packed) wood nettles, young leaves and tender stems, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or a couple good sprigs of fresh, leaves stripped off
Pinch red chile flakes, optional
Salt and pepper

Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until they start to give up some liquid and shrink a bit, then add the ramps. Sauté another 2-3 minutes, until the ramps are translucent and soft. Add the soy sauce, wine, thyme, and chile. Cook, stirring, until the liquid is mostly gone. Add the wood nettles and 1/4 cup water, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes.

Remove the lid and continue cooking until most of the liquid is evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.

When the mixture is no longer hot, transfer it to a mini food processor or blender. Taste for salt and add if needed. Add a few grinds of black pepper. Add a couple of teaspoons of butter and begin to process. After a few seconds, stop the machine, scrape down the sides, and add a bit more butter. Repeat this process until all the butter is incorporated, then process for another 15-20 seconds. We're looking for a fairly smooth texture to the pâté.

Taste again for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if you like. I like a pâté to be well seasoned. Transfer the pâté to a ramekin or small jar, and serve as you would chopped chicken livers and the like--lovely on crackers or toast rounds as a cocktail nosh or first course, or as one element in a buffet or smorrebrod-type meal.
Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Ramps Report 2016

Those of us who have been tuned in to the world of local and seasonal eating for a while probably have a complex, somewhat complicated relationship with ramps.  Those “wild leeks” of springtime that have perfumed loamy woodlands and Appalachian kitchens for generations in relative obscurity leapt into the culinary limelight 20 or so years ago, and have been hogging center stage ever since.  I recall seeing them mentioned more and more often in reviews of New York restaurants in the late 1990s, then noticing them for sale (at what seemed like an exorbitant price) in Twin Cities food co-ops, and then came the big Ah-ha! moment when, walking the banks of a favorite trout stream, I was brought up short by a powerful garlic-chivey smell and looked around to find that I was standing in a veritable field of ramps, their crushed leaves under my wading boots sending up what was, to me, an incredibly appetizing aroma.

Thus began my journey along what one might call the stages of grief/stations of the cross for ramp lovers in the foodie 21st century.  Fascination and infatuation at first meeting, then falling big time for this humble but compelling new crush; then the skepticism, eye-rolling at the sudden bandwagoning crowds, the farmers market shoppers clamoring, the fancy chefs pandering; disillusionment—was I a fool to fall so fast, so hard, for a love that had turned fickle and trendy?; then acceptance: hey, it’s a stinking wild onion, it’s delicious, and when you pick it yourself, it’s free, and ridiculously abundant when you know where to look—get over it. 

I’ve reached acceptance now, indeed, a state of near ramps nirvana, if you don’t mind my mixing gastro-religious metaphors in reference to a common woodland weed.  I went fishing with my friend Tom during Minnesota’s opening weekend for the regular (i.e., kill ‘em & grill ‘em, hook ‘em & cook ‘em) trout season a week ago Sunday, and while the fishing was pretty good, the foraging was even better.  The warm start to spring meant that the ramps were already well up and sizable.  We each took home a sack, and I’ve been cooking with them nearly every day since.

Opening weekend trout stream rice bowl with ramps, cress, and of course, trout, brown.

While I’ve come up with a number of ramp-specific recipes over the years, now I tend to treat them like any other allium (that is, onion or lily family member, ramps being allium tricoccum), as a versatile aromatic.  So I’ve sautéed them to build a nice base for ramen stock, thrown a handful into a quesadilla, strewn slivers atop a pizza, sweated with other aromatics to flavor a pilaf—you get the idea.

Yesterday I did a little pickling, putting up one pint of ramp bulbs per this versatile method, setting a quart to ferment in a simple salt-water brine.  Looking through my blog index I find that I might have more recipes involving ramps than just about any other ingredient.  As far as that gnarly, evolving relationship with ramps goes, I guess I’m fully committed.

Charred Ramp and Watercress Soup

I used Madeleine Kamman’s cabbage cream soup as a template.  Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter

2 ounces salt pork or pancetta, in 1/3” dice (or 2 tablespoons cooking oil)
10 good ramps, well cleaned
1 small potato, about 4 ounces, peeled, cut in small dice, and rinsed, and well drained
4 cups loosely packed watercress (about 4 ounces), leaves and stems, well rinsed (especially if it’s wild cress) and roughly chopped
3 cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Optional garnish: croutons, good yogurt, cream, or thinned sour cream

Separate the ramp greens from the stem-bulb sections and set aside.  Slice the stem-bulb sections crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces.

If using salt pork/pancetta, render the pork cubes gently over medium-low heat until they have given up much of their fat and started to brown.  Remove the cubes from the pan and set aside.  Pour off—but save!—the fat, and return 2 tablespoons to the pan.
If you don’t have salt pork or pancetta, heat 2 tablespoons oil.

Turn the heat to medium-high and add the chopped ramps, then the potato.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the potato begins to brown and the ramp pieces take on color—indeed, we are looking for some of the ramp bits to become quite dark, even black.  Just don’t burn the crap out of it so it all turns ashy and bitter.

Getting good color.

When the potato is golden, the ramps nicely colored/charred, add the chicken stock, then the cress, a couple good pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper.  Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook at a gentle bubble for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Chiffonade (cut in thin ribbons) the ramp greens, and add half of them to the soup at the end of the 10-minute simmer.  Let the soup cool for a few minutes, then purée, using either an immersion blender, a regular blender, or, with great care and caution, a food processor.

The soup can be made to this point up to several days ahead.  Just before serving, reheat the soup and serve garnished with the recrisped salt pork/pancetta cubes, croutons from good, honest bread, perhaps a swirl of yogurt (I’m fond of goat yogurt), and the remaining ramp leaf chiffonade, or as you please.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Happy Birch Days

The Bide-A-While birch syrup family portrait.

It may very well be that we have reached peak birch here at Bide-A-While.  The sap goes on, though sluggishly, with afternoon highs just scraping up into the mid-30s.  Yesterday I gathered “ice birch”—the sap in the bags and containers was half frozen, so I poured the liquid portion into my collection container and left the ice behind, thinking that the liquid sap was probably more concentrated in sugar.  It’s on the woodstove now, and getting right down there.

I’ve also been reading a good bit about birch syrup making, though sources are not abundant.  There are some commercial producers in Alaska, and there have been some official studies of best practices.  It’s all pretty interesting, and useful, since I’ve been proceeding on a trial and error basis, leaning toward the latter.  This is a good compendium of articles on birch.

Pour the sap into a cauldron and light a small fire....

I would have thought that Magnus Nilsson’s massive new tome, The Nordic Cook Book, would show some traditional or novel uses for birch syrup; instead, it has no mention of it, at all.  But in Nilsson’s Fäviken cookbook he does include a “recipe” for birch syrup, along with a couple of interesting observations.  One, he notes that part of the distinctive taste of birch syrup comes from the fact that not only the sugars, but also the trace minerals found in the sap are concentrated in the syrup making process—and since birch sap must be reduced twice, or more, as much as maple sap, that’s bound to have an impact.  I think it’s part of what contributes to the savory edge that birch syrup has, even while it is intensely sweet.  The other, technical note Nilsson makes is that birch syrup contains carboxylic acid, which gives it “outstanding freshness.”  You can’t miss that acidic edge in tasting birch syrup; I just didn’t know what the particular acid was called. 

Oddly, none of the recipes in the rest of the book includes birch syrup.  Nilsson says that he uses it as one would balsamic vinegar, and I’d been thinking along similar lines, wondering what birch syrup would taste like drizzled over vanilla ice cream, as reduced balsamic is sometimes used.

Well, I need wonder no longer.  I fixed up a little late breakfast snack of vanilla ice cream (nothing special, just Wisconsin favorite Cedar Crest) anointed with a couple teaspoons of birch syrup and then a few grains of coarse gray sea salt.  Oh, my.  Why didn’t I think of this sooner?  It was really superb, with elements both of a root beer float and a butterscotch sundae.  If you can get your hands on some birch syrup, this would be the perfect way to end an elegant dinner party.  Your guests will surely have tasted nothing like it.  This was actually my first foray into using birch syrup in a sweet/dessert preparation.  I’m eager for more explorations.

R to L:  2016 no-boil, 2016 stove-boiled, 2013 woodfired.  Amazing range of colors.

If you’re interested in making your own birch syrup, you should pay attention to just how big an impact the way you reduce the sap makes on the final product.  In my first attempts I had rather a lot of sap, and I started the reduction in my homemade evaporator (the legendary half-assed sap contraption).  It really boiled hard, and sap caramelized (not to say burned, though probably some did) on the sides of the pan as the sap reduced, and this caramel got washed back into the sap, adding color and a variety of flavors.  As a result, that syrup was molasses-dark and very strong in flavor.  One of the articles I found online cautioned against making birch syrup this way, saying it would come out with a scorched flavor.  But I don’t think my dark syrup tastes bad or scorched.  It is very, very different from the lighter syrups I’m making this year, but it has its uses, too.

This year, with moderate sap flow and thus manageable amounts of sap to deal with, I’ve done all the reduction inside, first on the woodstove, then on the range, as previously mentioned.  And then with a few gallons I did in entirely on the woodstove, so that it never boiled at all, just slowly, slowly reduced as the water evaporated from the sap.  You can see what a difference that makes in the color of the final syrup.  The taste, as well, is mellower, but it still has that fresh acidity and good complexity.

Three 2016 batches.  I should start a paint line of birch syrup hues....

Fun stuff!  I feel like a bit of a pioneer in upper Midwest small batch birch syrup making.  If anyone else out there has tried his or her hand at this, I’d love to here about your experiences.  I will keep the home fires burning in the ever busy woodstove, and carry on with kitchen explorations, as well.  If you have any thoughts about how to deploy birch syrup in cooking, I love to hear those, as well.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, April 4, 2016

First Home Harvests 2016

One swallow does not a summer make, the saying goes, nor does a warm, sunny day or two in March guarantee that spring is here to stay.  April came in with cold, blustery winds, lashing snow squalls, all kinds of drama from the skies.  Then a day of mellow warmth, but overnight, a hard freeze, and in the forecast, more wintry weather.  It makes for lively conversation at the dump or the hardware store, but overall, it’s pretty much same as it ever was.  Maybe there are actually regions where spring slides mildly into place in a calm and predictable progression, but this ain’t one of them….

However:  there has been enough spring-like weather that the ground has thawed, and warmed enough to push forth a few greens shoots.  Chives are always the first things to come back in the herb garden, and stinging nettles take the vanguard among the wild edibles.  I was able to gather a handful of each last evening, and we added them to a simple dinner comprised of recombined leftovers:  lentils, some chickpeas in a spicy broth, to which I added some of the excellent German wieners that we picked up at the Chetek Café.

I started by dicing up and rendering off a some homemade salt pork, and to the drippings added diced potato, carrot, some chopped celery and shallot.  Browned off the sliced wieners and then in went the lentils, chickpeas and broth.  Simmered for 10 minutes, until the potatoes were just cooked through.  Then just before serving I brought it back up to a simmer and added the chopped nettles—baby nettle tips, really, the most delectable kind of nettles.

I enjoyed the fact that lentils and nettles are almost anagrams.  And we enjoyed immensely a warm and comforting plate of food that far transcended any usual notion of leftovers.  I sprinkled some chopped chives over the soup, and they added a fresh, vibrant pop—the first chives of the year are definitely the best.  They had me thinking a baked potato dinner later in the week might be a good idea.

Chives also went into a simple salad dressing along with—get this—Wisconsin-grown Meyer lemon.  You read that right.  On a quick getaway to Madison this past weekend we visited the Dane County winter farmers market.  And while this indoor market is a tiny fraction the size of the magnificent summer market that sprawls all around the capitol square, its grass-roots populism making a mockery of the craven shenanigans that miserably unfold beneath the capitol dome (ahem), there was still lots of great meat, cheese, and produce.  We didn’t buy a lot, but came away with some beautiful lettuce and a Meyer lemon that we purchased from a honey vendor.  It came from a tree that I think he said was planted in 1964, in a pot, of course, to shelter indoors during the Wisconsin winter.  Not exactly the kind of thing you expect to find at a northern winter farmers market, but a lovely surprise.  We were lucky to be at the market early enough to score one.

The first green harvests are always such a delight, even if they are small, scarcely more than garnish.  A chef writing in the New York Times recently, trying to sell the idea that hard, pink, winter tomatoes were worth your money and cooking efforts, went so far as to argue that we live in a “post-seasonal world."  Uhn-uhn, chef, you’re wrong.  Maybe you live in a non-seasonal food world, but only because you’re not looking, or trying, hard enough.  Out here in the frigid sticks, the "seasonal world" is pretty hard to avoid.  Not that I would want to.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Saps of Spring, 2016 Edition

March is a difficult month.  It promises spring, but often belongs equally, if not more so, to winter.  It makes you think of gardening, of growing things, but at our latitude all you can really do is pile potting mix into little pots, get the seeds of the earliest, cool season plants going—onions, leeks, lettuce, some herbs.   There are days of warm sun that tempt you to get out and till a plot, but when you turn one clump of frigid, sodden soil, you turn quickly to plan B.  Never mind, there’s always that minefield of winter-weathered dog treasures to clear, a perennial March activity that more or less sums up the spirit of the season….

Maybe this is why a lot of my March days since moving to the country have been spent drilling little holes in trees, gathering the cold, slightly sweet water that weeps out, and cooking it down to incomparable sweetness—tree syrups, both maple and birch, and even a bit of black walnut.  It’s nature’s little consolation prize for enduring these purgatorial weeks, equal parts reward and distraction.  Though sap season comes around every year, it’s always a little bit different.  And this year has been more different than most.

People on Twitter tend to get a little excited, you may have noticed if you frequent that world.  I think it’s the ability to communicate instantaneously with friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, all across the planet, that tends to heighten reactions exponentially.  This year I saw a slew of ecstatic tweets proclaiming that the weather for the week ahead looked perfect for maple sugaring…in the middle of February.  But the trees weren’t looking at the daily highs and lows to decide how to proceed; no, the trees were still frozen solid.

I forget exactly which March Surprise this was; we had a few....

But it did transpire that warmish weather continued—there were days with record highs, with record high lows—and I did wind up tapping a few maples, as well as the big box elder (a type of maple) in our yard, and our one majestic black walnut tree, on February 21, because what the heck.  And within a few days I did have a little sap, emphasis on the little.  The trees ran sluggishly for about a day, then the weather turned seasonably cold again.  Six trees gave me about one gallon of sap, which didn’t take too long to simmer down on the wood stove into a half cup of syrup; and so began the season of passive, micro-batch syruping, which continues to this day, as I reduce another five gallons of birch sap on the woodstove and then on the range top.  I’m not going to wind up with a vast reserve of syrup, but then, I don’t really need one.  The birch, especially, is sparingly deployed, maybe a tablespoon or so at a time, in salad dressings and marinades, mainly for grilled pork.
Birch syrup on the final reduction.

With small amounts of sap—5 to 8 gallons at a time—I didn’t bother firing up the labor-and-smoke-intensive half-assed sap contraption I’ve used in years past.  Instead, since we’re still stoking the woodstove every day, at least in the mornings and evenings, I’ve been setting a hotel pan and our Big Blue Le Creuset dutch oven on the stove and letting the sap slowly reduce to a manageable amount, at which point I boil the dickens out of it on our kitchen range top.  You may wonder, Isn’t that a lot of humidity to be adding to your indoor environment?  Aren’t you producing great clouds of water vapor, steaming the wallpaper off the walls, and covering everything with a sticky film? 

Legitimate concerns, to which the answers are: yes, I guess it’s a fair amount of humidity, but things are generally dry this time of year, so we haven’t noticed any issues; and as we have no wallpaper on our walls, none to steam off!  Finally, no, our walls and ceiling bear no resemblance to a movie theater floor after being deluged with Mountain Dew during the kiddie matinee.  The whole idea, see, is that the sugary part remains in the pot as the water evaporates.  Even if some of the sugar escaped a furiously boiling pot, I don’t think it would go very far, the sugar molecules presumably being a good deal heavier than water vapor. 

The long and short of it is this:  I think it’s a myth, one which I myself may have helped to promulgate in the past, that cooking sap down inside has these undesirable side effects.  When I’m doing the fast, final boiling, I’ve got the vent hood running, a couple of windows cracked, and there’s no noticeable change in our indoor weather.  Also, I’ve kept checking the walls near the stove, the inside of the vent hood, for that legendary sticky film—none to be found.  Now, if I had a hundred, or even 40, 20 gallons to deal with at a time, I probably wouldn’t do it inside.  But with these small batches, it works fine.  It’s also really nice to get double duty out of the woodstove, heat for the home on chilly days, tasty syrups for the kitchen.

The Puddock hard at work, multi-tasking.

It has taken me a while, years, in fact, to start to feel comfortable using the birch syrup.  It’s completely unlike anything else I have in my pantry, so it didn’t slide easily into any particular niche.  People ask me what it’s like, and I can only give vague analogies or general descriptions that don’t capture the essence of the thing.  It’s dark, dark as molasses, and it has some molasses qualities, but it’s not thick—in its body, its “mouth feel,” it’s lighter and thinner than maple syrup.  And banish any thought that it’s like maple syrup just because it’s sugar that comes from a tree.  While maple syrup is composed of sucrose, like plain old granulated sugar, birch syrup is glucose and fructose (I think I’ve got that right).  The flavor of birch syrup is much…edgier.  There’s acidity to it, and often a little intriguing bitterness.  It’s very aromatic, with sweet, menthol, spicy, root beer type notes.  Really, if you’re interested in distinctive foods, particularly distinctive northern foods, you’ve got to try it.

If you have access to a few birch trees, it’s easy enough to get, as long as, you know, nature cooperates.  You tap the trees exactly as you would for maple syrup, drill a little hole about 1 ½” deep, insert a tap, hang a bag, bucket, what have you, or attached food grade tubing to allow the sap to run into a container.  Then when you have a quantity, you cook it down.  And cook it down.  And cook it down….  Because, the thing about birch sap:  it’s generally less than half as concentrated in sugars as maple sap.  So if it typically takes from 30 to 40 gallons of maple sap to produce a gallon of syrup, with birch we’re talking about a roughly 80:1 ration.  Breaking that down into the smaller batches I’ve been doing, 10 gallons of sap gave me one scant pint of syrup.  

Syrup assortment: the small, very light one at center front is black walnut.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again:  you can look at the numbers, even the relatively reasonable maple ratios, and think you get it, but until you actually do it, you can’t possibly understand.  Still, it’s worth it.  I go to a lot of trouble, tapping the trees, hauling the heavy sap down the hill (luckily I do get to haul it down the hill), cooking the sap down and down and down, but at the end I’ve got lovely local products to work with through the rest of the year.

And here’s a handy fact of nature:  the birch trees tend to start running as the maple run is coming to an end.  So if you have access to both kinds of trees, you can move your tapping equipment over to the birches when you’ve had your fill of maple sugaring, and the trees start to break bud, rendering the sap bitter and unusable.  Making syrup, especially birch syrup, is a labor of love, and a rite of the season, a perennial celebration of those immemorial cycles.  A lot of work and time, sure, but hey, it beats picking up dog crap….

Earlier reports from sap season:
 Sapped Out, 2013
The Sweetest Tree, 2013
Sweet Trees X3, 2015
Sweetness, Toil, and Smoke, 2010

How I have used birch syrup:

·        *  As a marinade for grilled or smoked meat:  it’s great brushed on a pork chop, which I then season simply with salt and pepper.  For some reason, the birch syrup doesn’t burn on the grill the way maple syrup or honey would.  Perhaps because the sugar composition is different.  I’ve also used it on grilled game birds, particularly woodcock.  And I’ve used it in the cure for smoked duck breast and venison with wonderful results.
Grilled red wattle pork chops in a birch syrup marinade; pork and birch have a delicious affinity.

*  In salad dressings:  just a teaspoon or two in a vinaigrette really makes its presence felt, and brings that distinctive, aromatic birch flavor to any kind of salad.

·         *  In cocktails:  1 teaspoon birch syrup, a few drops of lemon juice, 2 ounces Scotch, bourbon, or rye, stir it up, add ice, garnish with a lemon twist.  Or for the lemon substitute blood oranges in season for a cocktail I’ve dubbed “The Nasty Bruise.”  For a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, stir a couple teaspoons of birch syrup into sparkling water, add ice and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice.

Those are the main applications I’ve found for birch syrup.  I’m having a decent year with the birch this spring, so I’ll have a good supply to experiment with through the year.  I repeat:  a little goes a long way with birch syrup.

Birch-Mustard Seed Carrot Salad

Two servings.  

1 large or 2 small carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon birch syrup
1 small garlic clove sliced very thin
A bit of chiffonade leek or scallion green, optional
Salt and pepper

Peel the carrots and slice them very thin—1/8” or less.   A Benriner mandoline is handy for this—watch your fingers!

Heat the oil over medium low and add the mustard seeds.  Stir them around until they just start to pop, then remove from the heat.  Add the lemon juice, birch syrup, and garlic and stir well.  Pour the dressing over the carrots, add a couple good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and stir well.  Let the salad sit for at least a half hour or up to several hours before serving.  Sprinkle the optional leek or scallion greens over top just before serving.

Maple syrup variation:  in place of the birch syrup, use 2 teaspoons of maple syrup and ½ teaspoon of Dijon mustard--I haven't actually tried this variation, but I don't see how it could be bad.

Here’s a brief record of weather, phenology, and such since syrup season began at the end of February:

Feb 27 record highs
Feb 29 1st ½ cup maple syrup done
March 1, “brittle and chill” and the trees aren’t producing sap
March 4, 3 inches of snow
March 8 red-winged blackbirds back & a scant half cup of black walnut syrup finished from 56 ounces sap—that’s all for black walnut, it didn’t produce enough sap after that to bother with
3/10 snow’s all gone and Mary notes, looking out the kitchen window, “It’s not winter anymore,” to which I reply, “It’s not spring, either.  It’s mud season.”
3/10 cooked down a tiny bit of box elder syrup, “single source”….
Shrimp on the barbie, definite grilling weather
3/11 picked garlic mustard along the Rush River at Brush Cr Rd; grilled pork chops; summery
3/12 summery; dinner at Tina’s, I wear shorts
3/16? 2” rain, thunder
3/14 woodcock return
3/17 SNOW again, grass covered
3/18 snow gone
3/22 tapped birches and they were running; seemed pretty vigorous, but didn’t get much for a few days
3/23 SNOW again! 3-4”.
3/24 snow gone!
3/27 finished the last maple, moved over to birch
3/28 5 gallons birch mostly cooked down
3/29 another 5 gallons birch gathered, mostly cooked down; sunny and warm, in shorts again
3/30 It didn’t seem that there was much sap flow, but the eight birch gave around four gallons total, which reduced gently on the woodstove overnight
3/31 The house is starting to smell birchy with the sap on the woodstove getting right down there.  It’s raining now, but the forecast is for an inch of snow by the end of the day.  April Fool!

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw