Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hen of the Woods Confit

The hen of the woods are starting to come in, pretty much on schedule this year--I expect to see them in early September and continuing through the month.  Last year they apparently started in mid-August, and since I wasn't tuned in, most of what I found late in August and early September were already way past their prime.  Which was a shame, because it's one of my favorite wild mushrooms, and certainly the most abundant, at least in terms of sheer weight, since a single specimen can weigh several pounds.

Not the most beautiful of specimens, but it worked well in the confit after some trimming.

The sudden influx of fungal flesh presents a problem, along with much pleasure.  It's a versatile mushroom, excellent sauteed, roasted, even grilled, and it's an amenable companion to pretty much any meat or fish.  With its firm texture it can add a meaty element to vegetable dishes, like a promiscuous ragout of the almost paralyzing variety of garden produce available now, served over polenta or noodles.  One of my favorite ways to serve it is a simple saute of hens and red onion or shallot in plenty of olive oil, tossed with noodles and sprinkled with excellent aged gouda, like Marieke.

Well-rinsed, shredded hens in the casserole with sunflower oil and tasty duck and pork fat.

So we eat a lot of it fresh when we have it, but can rarely consume it all, even after giving away a quantity.  I've yet to find a satisfactory way to preserve it.  I think some people dry it, and I should look into that some more, though that seems a last-ditch approach.  The best I've come up with so far is par-cooking it with oil, either in the fry pan or oven, then packing portions into plastic bags and freezing it.  The confit presented here today takes that approach to the extreme, cooking the mushrooms in a lot of fat for a long time.  Initial impression:  it's a winner.

After a couple hours in the oven.

I took 12 ounces of cleaned, trimmed hens, torn into shreds about an inch wide and three inches long--of course, these are going to be pretty irregular, doesn't matter.  I tossed the shreds with a teaspoon of salt, and added these to a lidded glass casserole along with:

1/2 a big shallot (2 ounces by weight) sliced
3 cloves of garlic peeled and halved lengthwise
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
10 black peppercorns
5 juniper berries, crushed
3/4 cup fat

For the fat here, I used 1/2 cup sunflower oil and 1/4 cup of a pork and duck confit blend.  Next time I'll try it with all sunflower oil.  I would add more shallots next time, too.

Stick the covered casserole in a 350 oven for an hour, tossing every 15 minutes.  Lower the heat to 300, remove the lid, and cook for another hour or so, again tossing from time to time.

The mushrooms will give off a lot of water at first.  In the long cooking this water will evaporate, and at the end the hens will wind up almost frying gently in clear, pure fat.  If you've made duck or another kind of meat confit before, this will sound familiar.  It's the exact same progression.

At the end I removed the hens from the fat, not bothering to drain them particularly well, and found that 8 ounces remained from the original 14-plus ounces of hens, shallots, etc.  And I was able to pour out a generous half cup of fat from the 3/4 cup that went in.  The hen shreds remain a firm, appealing texture, and they're imbued with the aromatic additions and the tang of flavorful fat.  I packed them into a Weck jar, and when I added back the fat, it came right to the top.  I'll keep it in the fridge for a while and see how the flavors develop.  With the next batch I may try freezing some.

For a lovely lunch on a cool breezy day, after spending the morning in the garden harvesting ahead of possible frost this weekend, I threw some of the hen confit in a pan along with some slivered jalapeno.  The hens shed a good bit of oil, and when they were hot and the chile wilted, I removed them from the pan and tossed them with a few leaves of parsley.  A little butter in the pan, and I soft-scrambled a couple of eggs.  Served with the hens on top, sliced tomatoes on the side, toasted sourdough. 

I'm ready to get back in the garden, then later perhaps into the woods again, to see if there are more hens about.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Most of the party crashers in our garden are both uninvited and undesirable, i.e., weeds, but some of the unexpected sproutings are are ones we actually look forward to and hope for.  These are the things that we did once plant, that went to seed in the garden, and come back for a return visit once things melt and warm up.  We refer to these plants not as weeds, but rather as volunteers, selfless, altruistic vegetables that don't have to be asked to pitch in, but show up fairly reliably, ask for little in the way of cultivation, and give their all without reserve.

Purple mustard greens are probably the most reliable volunteers in our garden.  When we lived in Saint Paul I planted them once or twice in the late 1990s, and then enjoyed their complimentary contributions for a decade and a half.  When we moved to Wisconsin we wound up bringing some compost out with us from Saint Paul, and by golly, if there weren't purple mustard seeds in there, and so the cycle has begun again.

I really enjoy the look of radish flowers, so I leave those be when they bolt, and I like pickled radish seed pods, so I pretty much leave the plants alone until, well, to be honest, probably the next spring; I've got to be better about fall garden maintenance, which makes turning things around in the spring so much easier.  At any rate, my slovenly gardening had the beneficial consequence that in earliest spring we had daikon plants shooting up in a variety of spots.

Lettuce is a common volunteer if you leave the bolted plants around long enough, and in the herb world, dill is a reliable reseeder.  Tomatoes often pop up in our compost, but they rarely amount to anything.

But the volunteers that provide both the most entertainment and nourishment are the squash plants that frequently erupt from our compost pile.  Given adequate water and space, squash and pumpkins will grow like crazy even in mediocre soil, and so it's pretty amazing what they can do when they feed on a diet of pure, well-rotted compost.  In mid June we started to see the squash emerging from one of our compost bins; probably a half dozen or more vines developed and competed for space and light.  The ones that got over the top and into the yard or meadow are now doing very, very, nicely, indeed.  Here's a little tour of our magnificent volunteer squash explosion:

Looking east.  These are all coming out of a roughly 4 by 4-foot bin about a third of the way in from the left.

The largest squash by far, with 60-pound Lily for comparison.  She stands about 2 feet at the shoulder.  This must be a Hubbard; we had one that rotted in the root cellar.

I'm guessing delicata.

And maybe carnival? 

Hanging in the adjacent bin.

Another view of the sprawl.

The volunteer squash are luring a variety of pests away from my cucumbers.

Viny ambition.

Having surmounted the wood pile.

Kabocha in there?

There's a bumblebee in there, along with what I think of as cucumber beetles.  But the beetles don't seem to be doing any harm to the squash, and must in fact be helping with pollination.

There you have it.  I'll report back when things start to assume their eventual colors and ripen.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Weeds Worth the Pain

I'm bringing the blog out of hibernation to write in praise of one of my favorite wild greens, wood nettles, laportea canadensis.  I've probably had something to say about this under-appreciated cousin of the better known stinging nettle pretty much every spring.  My favorite time to harvest it is just after it has emerged, at 8 to 10 inches high, say, when it has little sting and you can consume the whole plant, adding it to a soup of wild greens or tossing it with pasta.  Wood nettles are usually up by the second week of May, and can be found in that infant state through the end of the month, depending upon your latitude.

I managed to gather a few harvests of baby wood nettles this year, but for most of May torrential rains and various obligations kept me out of the woods.  By the time I got back to check my wood nettle patches, most of the plants were up at least 18 inches, with their broad, delicate leaves fanning out widely, and their potent sting in full force.  I've said it before, but it bears repeating:  even though there's no sting in the name of wood nettles, there's a wicked one in the plant, worse than stinging nettles, in my opinion.  Maybe I've just had more bad experiences with them, as they tend to grow thick and tall near trout streams, and there's also an abundant patch of them guarding my favorite chanterelle patch.  They can sting you fiercely even through your jeans.  Beware!

Those little hairs deliver a potent sting in mature wood nettles.

But even though the wood nettles are getting tall now, they still provide excellent eating, which you can't really say for stinging nettles of the same size.  Before the plants flower and reach full height, which can be four to five feet, the leaves are still tender enough to make a versatile cooking green, and there's an added bonus product, what I've been calling "haricots verts du bois," the slender green beans of the woods:  it's the upper stems of wood nettles plants, which, when blanched and peeled, make a delightfully mild and crunchy vegetable.

Peeled (mostly) stems.
 In fact, you can eat the peeled stems raw, too, but a quick blanching in boiling water removes the sting and makes them very easy to handle.  I don't bother with gloves when picking the nettle tops, but long sleeves are probably a good idea, at least until you get the knack for picking them.  Wood nettle leaves grow in rather widely spaced tiers along the stem, which allows you to reach in, carefully, and grasp the stem about a foot down from the top.  Don't I get stung?  Am I possessed of digits of steel?  Yes I do, and no, I'm not.  I do feel a bit of sting on my fingertips, but the fingertips, at least mine, are not all that sensitive to wood nettles's sting.  So I take hold of the stem and bring my fingers up until I feel where the stem breaks easily.  As with asparagus, this is how I know that the stem is tender.

I bend it over to snap it, and as I pull it away the skin usually peels off from one side--that's how easily they peel.  When the leaves are big, stuffing them into my sack without getting stung is the most perilous operation.  So, yes, there's usually some pain involved, but it doesn't last long, and for me, the reward is more than worth it.

Once I get my prickly salad home, I dump the sack into a big bowl and wash it thoroughly--use tongs to agitate, but be gentle if you want to keep the stem sections intact, for they are delicate and break easily.  By this time, having been jumbled around in your sack and swished in water, a lot of the stinging capacity is gone, and then a dunk in boiling water does away with the rest.  The liquid you blanch the nettles in makes a tasty tea, similar to stinging nettles tea, perhaps a bit milder.  I add a little maple or, in this case, birch syrup to sweeten it a tad.

You'll notice that you can still see some of the little hairs on the unpeeled stem sections, even after blanching.  There's no sting there anymore, as I've said, but you may taste a little prickle on the tongue as you eat them. This may be an acquired taste; myself, I don't mind it.

The blanched wood nettle leaves can be used anywhere you'd use spinach, or young turnip or mustard greens.  To me, the flavor is much superior to spinach, and it doesn't make your teeth feel funny....  With the stems, pretend that they are wild haricots verts, or chop them into anything to which you want to add some crunch, from tuna salad to salsa to deviled eggs.

Or to soup, such as a bowl of ramen, which is a common lunch at this forager's house.  And when I say ramen, I'm talking the packaged kind with dry noodles and little flavoring packets.  But not the 29-cent kind.  No, with my dorm-room dining days well behind me, I now splurge for the 99-cent to $1.39 per package ramen.  Some of these deluxe instant lunches come with three count 'em three different little flavor packets--the powdered stuff, maybe some kind of oily or bean paste stuff, and one with bits of dehydrated vegetables.  Livin' large!

To fancy up my ramen just a bit, I sauté some kind of onion (or leek, ramp, shallot) in a bit of oil, add a good teaspoon of sambal, or better, our homemade chile-garlic paste, then add water, and the noodles.  I'll usually add about half the packet of powdered soup base (can't imagine how salty it would be if you used the whole thing, because it's pretty salty with half).  A minute or two before the noodles are done I toss in some greens, today, of course, wood nettles.  And today I also had some veiled oyster mushrooms that I found in our woods on my nettle-gathering walk yesterday.  These are a lesser oyster, for though they can get fairly large, the meat of the cap is thin, and they're pretty chewy.  Good flavor there, though, and a good textural addition.  A few slices of radish and spring onion, maybe a few drops of sesame oil and/or a dusting of hua jiao, because it's all about the garnish!  Slurp on.

Working in the outdoor forager's lab is very pleasant duty this time of year.  Forager's assistant Lily keeping half an eye on things.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fun with Fermentation 2014

I'm putting this up for those who attended my fermented vegetables session at the Hay River Transition Initiative's 2014 Green and Traditional Skills Day, or anyone else who's interested.

Here are some of my posts dealing with the topic:

Crock-fermented vegetables


Mixed vegetable ferment in a gallon jar

Sauerkraut in jars

Choucroute garnie

And here are the key books in my fermentation library:

The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz

Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz

Wild Fermentation is more practical and recipe-oriented; The Art of Fermentation is encyclopedic.  I reach for Wild Fermentation far more often.

Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning, the Farmers and Gardeners of the Terre Vivante Collective

Fascinating traditional preservation techniques from the French countryside.

The Joy of Pickling, Linda Ziedrich

My go-to book for all sorts of pickles, relishes, chutneys, etc., fermented and otherwise.

That should keep you busy for a while. Go forth and ferment!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Winter Fuel: Porridge of Wheat Berries, Rye Berries, and Steel-Cut Oats with Dried Apple and Toasted Hickory Nuts

It was -26 here this morning, probably the coldest night of this very cold winter.  To get going on mornings like this, you need hearty sustenance, you need fuel.  Our favorite simple winter breakfast this year is this three-grain mush flavored with dried apples and toasted hickory nuts (and of course some excellent local milk, and a splash of our maple syrup).  We prepare it on the woodstove the night before, making a batch to last a couple of days.  In the morning I put a portion for two in a small saucepan, add some water and a pinch of salt, snip in some dried apples, and let it warm while we fix tea.

What I love about this porridge is that it's not just mush--it has bite, a satisfying chew, because the rye and wheat berries never totally succumb, no matter how long you cook them.  They have a natural sweetness, as well, and the apples add more subtle sweetness, along with tartness and yet another texture.  And then the hickory nuts, toasty, rich, lightly crunchy.

I think I'm ready for another bowl....

Steel-cut oats lower left, wheat berries right, rye berries top, hickory nuts, dried apple.

For four ample servings I used:

1/2 cup wheat berries
1/4 cup rye berries
3 cups water

Bring that to a boil and let it simmer a good long while, at least an hour, I'd say.  Check every 15 minutes or so to make sure all the water hasn't cooked away.  When the berries are yielding but still quite al dente, you can add the oats.

1/3 cup steel-cut oats
2/3 cup water

Add the oats and water right into the wheat and rye berries.  Cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside.

In the morning reheat the porridge with a little added water and a couple pinches of salt, and snip in dried apple or other dried fruit--or, as mentioned above, spoon your desired portions into a small saucepan, and do likewise.  When it's hot, dish it up, add milk, maple, top with toasted nuts.  We are in love with the local hickory nuts we found at the little market in Ridgeland, but walnuts or pecans, toasted pumpkin seeds, what have you, all would add that nice contrasting crunch.

This is the kind of cold weather breakfast that could almost make you wish winter would never end.


Text and photos copyright 2014 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, December 13, 2013

Back With More Sandwiches

Where would this blog be without smorrebrod?  This year, at least, it would be pretty sparse.  Pretty sparser.

The open-face sandwich idea intrigues and delights me for three main reasons:

As a baker, I love pretty much any meal based on bread, and I enjoy the challenge of coming up with breads that work particularly well with this kind of dish.  In this case the bread was a sourdough rye to which I added some part-fermented apple cider and some Wisconsin sorghum syrup.  I used some starter I had sitting around on the kitchen counter for a while, not very well refreshed, so the dough was very, very slow to rise, especially now that the temperature in our kitchen is generally in the low 60s.  I decided to embrace the idea of slow bread.  I let the dough proof for over 24 hours, then put it in loaf pans where it rose at a glacial pace for several hours more.  And then I baked it in quite a slow oven, 350 if I recall correctly, adding steam both in the form of ice cubes tossed in at the beginning and middle of baking, along with a pan of water set on a rack under the stone.  It baked for around an hour, and the end result was a notable success, though I say so myself.  It just begged to be presented in an elegant Nordic fashion, so here we are.

As a cook, I find smorrebrod gratifying because of the way the bread canvas invites creativity in the toppings, which are not hidden as the filling in a regular sandwich would be.  Pretty much anything can serve as smorrebrod topping--vegetable salads, smoked or pickled fish, eggs, cheese, various sorts of charcuterie.  There's really no wrong topping except maybe PB&J, and someone could probably find a clever way to make that work, too.  This versatility makes smorrebrod ideally suited to local, seasonal eating, from early spring's first flush of wild foods through the garden glut of summer, harvest abundance, root cellar and pickle cabinet foraging.  The three sandwiches on the plate here all are based on meat:  a rustic paté of pork with chicken livers, bacon, and hickory nuts; a silky, rich chicken liver mousse; and wonderful venison backstrap roasted to medium rare in a salt dough.

And last, as an inveterate garnisher, I love the opportunity that smorrebrod provides to come up with finishing touches that complete the dish in both pretty and appetizing ways.  We have a joky saying here, "It's all about the garnish!"  And while plate prettifying can quickly turn precious, I think there's a serious point there.  In some ways it's the care taken in finishing touches that make the difference between a bowl of grub to be scarfed down and a plate of food that delights at many levels.  Garnishing, to me, really is an important part of cooking, and something quite different from slapping a sprig of parsley and a slice of lemon on every plate that leaves the kitchen.

For the venison, I more or less followed this recipe for venison baked in a salt-dough crust.  I didn't bother with searing the meat, and I skipped the sauce--though I did preserve the juices that gathered at the bottom of the crust, which I thinned with a bit of chicken stock to make a little jus in which I bathed my meat prior to placing it on the bread.  Before I wrapped the meat up in the salt dough, I rubbed it with a paste composed of garlic, thyme, parsley, black pepper, some home-ground chile powder, and sunflower oil.  I baked it at 375 for about 25 minutes, let it rest in the crust for 30 minutes or so after baking.  It was superb, and I would definitely do it again.  The salt from the crust permeated the meat without making it overly salty, and seemed to carry the other flavors from the rub deep into the meat.  The garnish here is a pesto of flat leaf parsley from our garden--the last fresh harvest before the brutal cold came down a couple of weeks ago--garlic, of course, lemon, Minnesota sunflower oil, and toasted hickory nuts.

The nuts were a delightful, surprising find, picked up at the little market in Ridgeland, the town nearest to us.  As we were checking out one day I noticed this plastic zip bag on the counter near the cash register and, ever-curious forager that I am, I took a closer look.  Turned out the bag was full of beautiful hickory nut halves, harvested from the market owner's in-laws' tree near Tomah, WI.  The bag held a pound of nuts for the amazing low price of $9.99.  Sold.  We've been enjoying these rich, sweet nuts in lots of different ways.  The flavor is like pecans but better, to my taste.

The chicken liver mousse I prepared following (again, more or less; I almost always stray from a recipe somewhere along the way) a recipe from Madeleine Kamman's In Madeleine's Kitchen.  It's an unctuous concoction of livers, a good bit of butter, shallots, onions, a splash of scotch whisky (my substitute for the called-for brandy), finished with some cream and sour cream that have been whipped together.  For seasoning I added thyme, a pinch of that home-ground chile powder mentioned above, Sichuan pepper (hua jiao), and a pinch or two of cumin.  The garnish here is all about our tree crops:  I combined chopped dried apple with apple cider vinegar and our maple syrup, set it on the warming ledge at the back of our woodstove for the apples to soften and take up the sweet and sour flavors.  Then I added chopped fresh apple and a pinch of two of salt, and a little more of that chile powder (it's so wonderfully sweet and fragrant, with a definite but not overpowering heat, I find myself putting it in everything).  It's a simple sort of relish or chutney, which cuts the richness of the mousse and complements its flavor wonderfully.  Big win.

The pork paté is a variation on this one I made a couple of years ago.  I used more of the hickory nuts in this one, in lieu of the chestnuts.  I skipped the breadcrumbs, used a bit more chicken liver, an additional egg yolk.  I put all the meats through the coarse grinder on my KitchenAid twice, then through the fine blade once; the texture of the paté is excellent, just what I'm looking for, and nothing that anyone would dare to call meatloaf.  The garnish here was a pre-made one, pickled cabbage and peppers from The Joy of Pickling.  It's kind of a sweet and sour pickle, made pretty much the same way as bread & butters.  With the rich and savory paté it was a nice change from the traditional cornichons.

We've been enjoying this little frenzy of charcuterie making for a week or so now, and at lunch today we inaugurated the freshly painted upstairs room where we had skylights installed last summer.  We just recently got trim put on the skylights, everything primed, then painted, including the very rustic floor.  We've done a lot to this house since we moved in, nearly two years ago now, but this room has probably seen the greatest transformation, from a veritable cave of a room to this light-filled space, cheering even on a dull gray day like today.  There's never an end to the projects with an old house like this, but it's gratifying to put on own stamp on our home.  In many ways it's already unrecognizable from the house we bought in early 2012; and yet, so much more to do....  Well, one thing at a time.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Smørrebrød

You don’t have to be Danish to appreciate smørrebrød, those open-face sandwiches—knife and fork sandwiches—composed upon dense, buttered rye bread, usually containing appropriately Nordic ingredients like pickled herring, beets, and pork paté. If you like bread, and noshy food in that tapas mode, you’ll like smørrebrød. As a summer evening meal it has the additional virtue that most of the toppings can be prepared ahead—or are themselves commercially prepared foods of the very best sort, like cheese, smoked fish, cured meats, etc. Finally, because finishing preparation is so simple, these mini-canvases beg to be decorated to the full extent of your garnishing imagination.

Bready. Noshy. Easy. Pretty. What, I ask, is not to like in that combination?

It’s usually this time of year, when we’ve just slipped past the solstice, and the gardens are really starting to produce, the market stalls are burgeoning as the plants make the most of that vital sunshine, that my appetite turns to smørrebrød. It’s an elegantly rustic (or is it rustically elegant?) kind of meal to enjoy in those long twilights as the strong sun softens on descent, spreading welcome shadows, and the heat of the day begins to mellow.

That pretty well describes the evening last weekend when we prepared a smørrebrød repast at the house and packed it in a cooler for a picnic on the hill. It was a bit warm and muggy in the valley, but we caught a nice breeze as we headed up the hill. I’d been cleaning up a little impromptu sort of dump at the edge of the woods this spring, hauling down old car batteries, car seats, beer cans and bottles, what have you. Then I ran the lawn tractor up there to mow a small picnic area. Among the detritus I’d found a piece of sheet metal and some cinder blocks, and these we turned to better purpose as a makeshift picnic table (pleasantly, though very rustically, reminiscent of a Parisian zinc bar). It was, I dare say, one of the best picnics ever.

We settled in very comfortably (so did the dogs, eventually) to enjoy the view of the green, green hills, mist-shrouded in the distance. The aspen leaves overhead kept up a  calming kerfuffle. There was even a floor show, of sorts, as the neighbor who rents our hayfield came to bale up the last few rows of the oats and grass they cut last week. Urban al fresco dining has its pleasures, but when was the last time you saw a John Deere tractor and baler on the Nicollet Mall?

As we ate our smørrebrød and sipped our pinot gris and watched the sun pass out of sight behind the western hills—though it would still be light for a couple of hours—I had a thought about terroir—you know, that idea that foods and wines can taste distinctly of the place they came from, express some quality of the soils in which they grow, the waters that sustain them, and the human cultures that have nurtured them through time. My idea had something to do with how a cuisine is shaped by the sense of the seasons experienced by the people who create it. And how, for us specifically and for northern peoples in general, our long annual journey from the abyss of winter’s frigid darkness to midsummer’s almost too abundant light and warmth, and back again, how this must have as great an impact on the savor of our food as the molds in the caves of Roquefort, or the chalky soils of Sancerre.

It profoundly affects what we eat, how we eat it, what we want to eat, and how we experience it in the context of the year. A midsummer picnic at 45 degrees north latitude must taste different from the same meal consumed in Florida or southern California; in those places, their own seasonal context would shape their experience of what they eat.  For me, high summer dining has meant that I’ve hardly wanted to look at a piece of red meat—give me vegetables, salads, simply prepared fish, cheese and bread. Oh, and maybe a glass of wine.

I made a small rye loaf that included a little birch syrup. You want a pretty dense bread, with a close crumb--not something like a baguette that's full of holes.  Then top to your heart's desire.  I don't let myself be constrained by any rules, but rather see the smørrebrød concept as the base for using the best of the local and seasonal.  One of my favorite, oft-repeated mantras--Ninety percent of good cooking is good shopping--is on full display here.  That is not to say, of course, that you should hie thee to a high-end supermarket, but rather that best ingredients make for best results.

The Superior shore was well represented in fresh herring from Cornucopia, smoked whitefish from Port Wing, cheese from Bayfield.  The Menomonie farmers market gave us snap peas, onions, beets, turnips, potatoes, and asparagus, and our garden contributed, too, with radishes, chives, and mustard greens.  There was a bit of home-smoked bacon in the potato and asparagus salad, and the yogurt cheese was home-cultured using wonderful fresh milk from just down the road.  Oh, and the mayo, also homemade, using eggs from our neighbor Tina's chickens, and Minnesota sunflower oil Smude.

On Wisconin! was surely the theme of this meal, especially as the sandwiches were literally presented on Wisconsin.  A more thorough description of the various toppin's below.

Smoked whitefish salad combined about four ounces of flaked smoked whitefish with roughly three tablespoons of peas—we shelled some sugar snaps—two ounces of Wisconsin hickory nuts, chopped and lightly toasted in a dry skillet. (The nuts were a generous gift from my buddy Lucas “The Beard” Madsen; hickory trees grow in his part of southeastern Wisconsin, though they’re scarce here. Other local, wild alternatives would be black walnuts or hazelnuts; a good storebought option would be pecans.) To the fish, peas, and nuts I added some sliced red onion and about three tablespoons of mayonnaise—homemade in this case, and for a dinner like this I think it’s really worth the effort. Garnish with a little more red onion and thin slices of sugar snaps.

I was inordinately pleased with my checkboard composition of roasted baby beets and turnips. The base was fresh yogurt cheese (with just a dollop of chevre added in for body, and flavor) mixed with chopped chives and lots of coarsely ground pepper. Lay down a good bed of the cheese mixture, and decorate to your heart’s content. You can leave the vegetables round and create a fish-scale effect. I really liked the geometrical drama of the squares—just cut straight down around the sides of each little beet or turnip, and then slicing across produces squares.

Asparagus and potato salad was originally going to be oyster mushroom and potato sauté, but the little critters had honeycombed my ‘shrooms, so it was Plan B, which was just delightful. The potatoes were preroasted (along with the beets and turnips). Wash and slice the asparagus bite-size.  Dice up some good bacon fairly coarse, begin to render, then add the asparagus. Then add a couple of generous pinches of caraway seeds, about half as much cumin seed, and…mustard seed! About a teaspoon. Add the cut-up potatoes to warm and brown just a bit, and absorb the other flavors. This I served atop a generous spread of that homemade mayo.

Brie and radishes. A study in simplicity and the wonder of felicitous combinations. This one was just delicious. The cheese was one you probably haven’t heard of, but of which I predict you’ll be hearing quite a bit in the near future. It was Happy Hollow Creamery's “Snowy Spring Brie,” which we picked up at Ehler’s store in Cornucopia on the shore recently. Happy Hollow lists a Bayfield, WI address. This cheese, beautifully ripened, was exquisitely flavorful. Not even terribly expensive. If you happen to come across it, just buy it. Their Lazy Daisy raw milk cheddar is also excellent. As I say, I predict you’ll be hearing more about these cheeses and this creamery. For the sandwich: butter, cheese, radish, pepper, boom.

Last but surely not least, grilled Superior herring atop mustardy mustard greens. I’ve said plenty about this superb fish, which never disappoints—we usually get it hours after it’s been caught, so that’s a good start. I’ll have more to say in a future post about the greens preparation, which combines oil, mustard or other strongly flavored greens, more mustard—a good, strong Dijon style—a bit of honey, some vinegar, salt and pepper. This is going to be a standard greens preparation at our house right through the summer and fall. Butter, mustardy mustard greens, a piece of grilled fish, and a radish flower—yep, radish flower, you knew? They’re a bit sweet and a bit peppery at the same time.

Partly what inspired us to climb the hill for supper was a story we heard on  WPR's new show 45 North .  Last week Anne Strainchamps interviewed the British adventurer and writer Alastair Humphreys , who has bicycled around the world, run a marathon in the Sahara, and rowed the Atlantic, and now (maybe because he's tired...) is promoting the idea of "micro-adventures," mini-excursions in one's own backyard.  He's encouraging people just to get outside, and outside one's usual comfort zone--just grab a sleeping bag, a sandwich, and a bottle of wine, and go sleep on a hill, look at the stars, watch the sun come up.  I think it's just a brilliant idea whose simplicity is at the heart of its brilliance, and while we retired down the hill with the last fading light to all the comforts of home, we did feel as if we'd been away for a while, even if our adventure was, literally, in our own back yard.

And the food, if I need to say it, was good to the last pea.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw