Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Back to the Stream 2015

I inaugurated the 2015 fishing season on Sunday with a trip to the Whitewater region of southeastern Minnesota.  It has become my tradition over the years to make a trip or three to Minnesota waters in the second half of April.  The regular (i.e., catch and kill, rather than catch and release) season in Minnesota opens a couple of weeks earlier than in Wisconsin, which opens for hook ‘em & cook ‘em the first Saturday of May, Kentucky Derby day.  Both states have lengthy catch and release seasons during the winter and early spring months, and some years ago I did fish Wisconsin streams in April.  You can have some impressive days of catching fish if you come upon an early mayfly, stonefly, or caddis fly emergence.  Also, it just seems that the fish are less wary at that time of year, maybe because there hasn’t been too much to eat over the winter.

But I have eschewed the early season fishing in recent years because I don’t agree with the catch and release “ethic.”  As much as I appreciate all the aesthetic aspects of flyfishing for trout, I’m a meat fisherman at heart, and I don’t like the “moral” distinctions that some catch and release advocates apply to the legitimate choices available to those who practice this pastime.  So I generally back up my position by not stringing up my rod unless there’s a legal opportunity to put a trout or two in my creel.  Which is not to say I won’t waver in my convictions on some bluebird day during the early season, maybe even next April; or indeed that I won’t find a principled justification for poaching the odd trout.  You just never know.  It pays to keep your options open.

I hadn’t been planning to round up the gear and head for the stream on Sunday, but when I looked at the week ahead it suddenly seemed like one of the few days I would be able to get away.  We have this new little creature in the house, a nine-week-old griffon puppy named Gracie, and she’s pretty high maintenance.  Actually she’s a sweetheart, and worth all the trouble (so far), but with Mary away at work part of the week, I knew I would have to be around the house, and then there were other obligations on other days…. It’s just really unconscionable that life often shows so little regard for fishing.

Sunday was actually looking like a prime day for fishing—overcast and spitting a bit, but not too cold or windy, and no downpours in the forecast.  My only reluctance arose from the fact that the Minnesota trout season had opened just the day before, and opening weekend can bring out crowds of fisherfolk who in those conditions do not always display the finest aspects of their nature.  Still I figured it would be worth a shot in the slightly rainy conditions; with some years of experience on southeastern Minnesota streams, and a little patience, I thought I’d be able to find some quiet water to fish.

There weren’t many vehicles parked along the branch of the Whitewater River, a nice surprise.  But when I reached the DNR lot in the wildlife management area through which the river flows, six vehicles had beaten me there—not much of a surprise there, since it was already late morning.  I hesitated only briefly.  There were miles of river upstream from here, with no easy public access.  It was also likely that some of the vehicles had arrived together for an opening weekend gathering, and so the fishermen would be clumped.  And then, if nothing else, it was a pleasant enough day for a walk in the woods.  I was pretty sure the ramps would be up, and so I would find something edible to take home.

I’ve been fly fishing for 25 years now, so recalling how to put a rod together and tie on a fly is not difficult, even if I haven’t done it in the last seven months.  I walked in waders, wading boots, vest, and a faded Badgers baseball hat down the rutted two-track with a steep wooded hill on my right and a stubble cornfield on my left.  Beyond the cornfield, across the river, limestone bluffs aspired, with birches, pine, and aspen on their flanks.  It’s a spectacular valley, and there are many good reasons to visit there, but it’s fishing that I know will always bring me back.

I had planned a good long hike to assure myself some undisturbed fishing, but as I came over a rise five minutes or less into my walk, I looked to the left and saw the river through the still leafless trees, and it looked like nice riffle water, and I saw no one fishing it.  My habit had always been to hike well upstream from here, but then aren’t habits made to be broken, I asked myself?  So I made the premature diversion thinking, well, if the hoards descend, I’ll revert to Plan A.  But it turned out to be a good call, with no need for second thoughts.  I fished happily for about three hours, and saw exactly three other people, at a distance.  No one walked into my water, and I did not round a bend to discover a party of raucous metal-chuckers.  It was an opening weekend miracle.

It wasn’t looking like a dry fly day: no rising fish, no apparent insect activity.  I tied on a girdle bug, a simple concoction of black chenille and white rubber legs; and then to a length of tippet tied to the bend in the girdle bug’s hook I knotted on a small hare’s ear nymph, which to the layman’s eye looks like a little brown fur wound around a hook, because that’s pretty much what it is.  Flies don’t necessarily have to be fancy to fool fish.

I waded into the stream in a shallow riffle with a rocky bottom, and as I sensed the water rushing over the top of my boots my blood rushed, too, with a sense of exhilaration.  Fishing writing can easily go over the top with evocations of mystical communion between the fisher and the natural world, but is indeed something of a sense of rebirth when you first step into a river after the long off-season.

Or as Nick Adams might have said: It was good.

Right away then, the fishing proved to be good, too.  Below the riffle where I entered the river the current divided into runs along either bank.  Casting first to the left I had a hit on my third cast, and failed to hook the fish, and then another hit a few casts later, and again my timing was off.  Nothing more on that side, but I was encouraged to know the fish were active, looking for food.  Casting then to the slightly deeper run on the right side, I lifted my arm after my third cast and saw the rod take on that splendid bend, and felt the line go taut, and there it was, fish on for the first time in 2015.

It was a lovely fish, too, a deep, chunky brown trout gold along its flanks, probably a little more than a foot long.  Meat fisherman though I am, I observe a small ritual of always releasing the first fish of the year, so once I had reeled the fish in close I ran my hand down the leader until I could grab the hare’s ear nymph stuck in the side of the trout’s lower jaw, gave it a quick twist and watched the fish turn and dive to safety on the bottom.  I never touched the fish or brought it out of the water.  
And from there the afternoon proceeded like…a really nice afternoon of fishing.  The only real negative was seeing several styrofoam worm containers discarded along the streambanks, which was irksome for two reasons--mainly because of the littering, also because this section of river is designated artificials only, no live bait allowed.  (The no worms rule was instituted to support a catch and release fishery, so I should probably feel a little more umbrage about it, if I were consistent.  When a fish goes for live bait it will often completely swallow the hook; this almost never happens with flies or other artificial lures.)

Probably the highlight—which was also, ironically, the biggest disappointment—was hooking a really good fish in a deep run not far downstream from where I started.  I cast across the run and let the flies sink and sweep through, and about in mid-stream my line took a jolt, my rod bent violently, and the reel whined as line peeled off.  I tussled with the fish for a bit, until it moved upstream, took the line down.  As the line went down I also had a sinking feeling.  One moment I was experiencing the thrill of playing a really nice fish; the next I was still standing there with the line taut, rod in that dynamic curve, yet everything was different.  The trout, which had taken the nymph, had found a log along the bottom of the stream and swum under it; the hook of the girdle bug had gotten stuck in the log, allowing the fish to break the tippet and swim away.  All I could do was roll up my sleeve, reach down the leader as far as I could without going snorkeling, give a tug and break the tippet.  I was lucky that the tippet broke right where it was tied to the hook, and I didn’t have to perform major leader repair.

I caught a few more fish, including one that was just barely under 12 inches, and that fish went in the creel.  Careful measurement is required on this stream to observe the regulations, for there is a no-kill slot of 12 to 16 inches, meaning all fish in that range must be released.  You are allowed to keep five fish under 12 inches, or four under 12 and one over 16.  I don’t think I’ve ever caught a 16-inch trout in that stream.

Although brook trout were native to this region, the introduced “German” brown trout now predominates.  I’ve never heard or seen them referred to as an invasive species, though.

The ramps were indeed in prime condition on this 18th day of April, and I picked a nice sack full.  A spring trickles through the ramps patch, and this year it was wearing a lovely coat of green—nice, perky watercress.  I brought some of that home, too.  Also a few sprigs of mint growing along the streamside path, which I used to make a sort of julep with a bit of birch syrup and 2 Gingers whiskey.  I noticed other wild edibles:  garlic mustard (always referred to as an invasive species) and stinging nettles.  When I have ramps and cress I’m not that interested in garlic mustard, and I have nettles a’plenty all around the edges of my yard.

With the opening day’s bounty from stream and woods I made a simple, seasonal meal.  I fileted the trout, chopped the bones and put them in a saucepan with a chopped shallot, stuck that in a hot oven to brown up.  Then I added some white wine, chicken stock and water, and let it reduce and infuse, still in the oven.   

To anchor the plate I prepared a recipe I had never made before, “schupfnudeln” from David Bouley’s East of Paris.  It’s a sort of noodle-gnocci hybrid, a potato dough with egg and butter that you roll with your hands into short, thick noodles.  It was really easy to work with, and very tasty, and I’m thinking I may make a couple big batches to freeze, since I have a lot of potatoes in the basement that aren’t going to be good for much longer.

You boil the nudeln, then brown them in a fry pan.  For the fat I chopped a little of our home-smoked bacon.  As the noodles were starting to brown I tossed in a couple generous handfuls of chopped ramps, mainly the bottom white and red part.  I also chopped a good handful of the ramp greens and added these to some melted butter.  The butter I brushed on the skin side of the trout before sticking it in a hot convection oven, and cooked it until it just started to brown.

I added a little more wine and a little butter to the reduced stock/sauce at the end.  Laid down a bed of the lovely brown, fragrant, bacony noodles, some fresh cress on top of that, spooned the sauce over that, and crowned it with the trout.  

This, to me, is the sort of meal so emblematic of the way we live, of the way we have chosen to live and eat, that it’s beyond the realm of food criticism of any traditional sort.  But it was wonderful, and we cleaned our plates.

That’s my story of the first fishing outing, and first trout stream meal of 2015.  If you’ve made it this far, I thank and applaud you.  It’s a perennial story that I always feel is worth telling again.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sweet Trees X3

Boiling birch on the left, maple on the right.

Sugaring season came to an end this week.  The birches were running pretty good for a few days, but with afternoons in the sunny 60s the sap doesn’t keep.  The maples slowed and then dried up a good week ago, and are now breaking bud.  I also tapped our one big black walnut this year, but not soon enough to get much sap—enough to cook down to maybe a third of a cup, which isn’t bad, considering I only had about a half gallon of sap.  My minimal experience with black walnut tells me that the sap is at least as concentrated in sugar as maple, and that it probably starts running at about the same time.  Since our black walnut tree is always extremely late to leaf out, I had assumed the sap would run late, too.  Not so.

I took a very low-key approach to sugaring this year.  I tapped about five maples, exactly two birches, and the one black walnut.  I left my half-assed sap contraption in mothballs, and just reduced the sap on our woodstove, very gradually, and did the final brief boiling on our gas cooktop.  The result was not any great quantity of anything, but the process did produce some observations.

Shades of maple: from left, first to fourth boilings of 2015 syrup, and one from 2014 at right.
The maple syrup was the lightest in color that I’ve ever made.  Even the fourth and final batch, from sap gathered just before the trees dried up, is medium amber at most—the last syrup is usually very dark, verging on what sometimes is sold as “grade B”.  So there’s less of a caramel taste to the maple, but it’s delicious just the same.

Slow birch 2015.
The “slow birch” also made a much lighter, more delicate syrup than hard-boiled versions I’ve done in the past.  It's a gorgeous color, reddish mahogany. There’s still an edge of acidity to it, but it’s rounder, without the aggressive, almost bitter bite of the darker stuff.  I suppose you could liken it to different roasts of the same coffee bean, from light to Vienna, French, espresso.  Actually, I think you could very much liken it to that.  I could see using the lighter stuff to drizzle over grilled or roasted vegetables, where the darker version works better combined with other ingredients, in vinaigrettes, marinades, or glazes.
Hard-boiled 2014 birch.

Finally, the walnut.  As I say, I wound up with about half a cup.  It’s much more like maple syrup than birch, which makes sense—maple and walnut trees are more closely related to each other than they are to birches, aspens, etc.  Also, I believe, though I don’t know for sure, that walnut syrup is composed of sucrose, as is maple syrup, while birch syrup contains mainly fructose and glucose.  I’m just going from taste, and common sense(?) on that.

Black walnut syrup.
The main thing I was aware of with the walnut syrup was trying NOT to describe its aroma or flavor as “nutty.”  I resisted that characterization mightily, and in the end, I failed.  The finished product definitely has a slight, but undeniable, aroma of toasted nuts to it, and a maple-level sweetness.  

There you go.  That’s the sugaring report.  I think all three kinds of syrup are worth making if you have access to a few trees.  And as with my previous explorations of micro-batch pickling and preserve making, I hope I’ve shown that you can have fun with DIY foods without going overboard into tedious mass production.  Sometimes a taste is enough.

Birch in the final reduction.
Next time it’s on to the nettles and other wild greens.  ‘Tis the season.  And it’s been mild enough of late that I think I’ll hit the garden today and plant some radishes, mache, lettuce, and peas.

The Bide-A-While tree syrups family portrait, 2015.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Few Tastes of Maple

I got a chance today to talk maple syrup cookery with Rob Ferrett on the Food Friday segement of Wisconsin Public Radio's Central Time and have compiled here a few of the recipes I mentioned on the show.  This first is a recent creation whipped up for the Maple Madness Cook-Off that took place at the Hungry Turtle Institute in Amery on March 14.  I've made this dish a lot lately, while testing the recipe out for the cook-off, at the cook-off, and then as the featured dish I prepared at Kate's Occasional Cafe at the Dairyland Cafe in Ridgeland this past week.  I'm still not tired of it.

Sichuan-Spiced Maple Chicken Wings (This recipe was inspired by Teresa Marrone’s Two-Pepper Maple Chicken Wings from Modern Maple.)

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 to 6 as an appetizer

Serve these spicy-sweet wings over a bowl of rice, accompanied by a stir-fried vegetable, for a main course; or as a zingy appetizer—keep a cold beer close at hand.

2 pounds chicken wings (about 10 wings), tips removed, separated in 2 pieces
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon oil (sunflower, canola, or the like)
2 teaspoons sambal chile paste (or to taste)
¼ cup maple syrup
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

Preheat your oven to 425.  Combine all the ingredients except the scallions in a large bowl and toss to coat the wings with the seasonings.  Place the wings and seasonings in a heavy roasting pan, and bake, stirring every 15 minutes or so, for 45 minutes.  Add the scallions and continue baking, stirring occasionally, until the wings are well browned and the seasonings have become a glaze that coats the wings.  This will probably take another 15 to 25 minutes.

Options:  For really dark and glazy wings, turn on the broiler for the last few minutes of cooking, and turn the wings a couple of times so they brown evenly, being careful that they don’t burn.
            If you have a convection feature on your oven, you can produce excellent results without resorting to the broiler.  Bake at 400 convection and check every 10 minutes, adding the scallions after 30 minutes.  Total cooking time with convection should be 40-45 minutes.

These wings can be made ahead and reheated before serving.  

Maple Spice Grilled Sirloin (original post here)
serves 4--next time I make this I'm going to try it with venison

1 1/2-2 pounds sirloin steak 

½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons sunflower or canola oil
1 teaspoon sambal oelek chile paste
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Pinch salt
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 large clove garlic minced
Combine all marinade ingredients and pour over the steak, coating well.  Marinate the steak for a couple of hours at room temp.  Prior to grilling remove the steak to a separate plate, saving the marinade.  Add hte marinade to 1/3 cup chicken stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. 
Grill the steak over hot natural wood coals to desired doneness--about 3 minutes per side for rare, 4 for medium rare.  Let the steak rest on a platter for at least 5 minutes; add the juices that the resting steak produces to the stock and marinade mixture.  Serve with grilled vegetables and salad. 

The Thighs Have It

In terms of underappreciated, tasty bargain meats, chicken thighs are right there with pork shoulder steaks, in my opinion.  The thigh is my preferred part of the bird, though I fully appreciate the wing thing, too.  Chicken wings prepared in a Sichuan dry-fried manner are an exquisite treat.  The thighs, though, are more accommodating in a knife-and-fork meal context, and when they are boneless, why, they make positively civilized eating--cooking them over nice smoky hardwood coals keeps them on the rustic side.

Ramps season is starting as the maple season ends, and I often wind up putting the two together, frequently on chicken.  This is a flavorful, simple dish to celebrate the return of grilling weather (well, comfortable grilling weather; we cook over the coals year-round).

A paillard is a flattened out piece of meat.  I wail away at my thighs with the side of a heavy cleaver--a meat mallet, or even a small sauté pan will get the job done.
Maple-Ramp Marinated Chicken Paillards
Serves two to three

4 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
½ cup chopped ramps, whites and greens
Juice of ¼ lemon, and some zest, if you like
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon sambal oelek chili paste (or more, to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Purchase boneless skin-on chicken thighs, or bone them yourself. Place one thigh at a time on a cutting board, and with a meat mallet, the side of a heavy cleaver, or a small, clean saucepan, pound each thigh vigorously until the meat is about ½ inch thick—the surface area of the thighs should nearly double.

Combine the rest of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and add the chicken, coating it well on all sides. Let the chicken marinate for at least 60 minutes at room temp, or longer in the fridge. When you’re ready to cook, prepare a fire of natural wood coals, and grill the chicken over medium-hot coals, turning often, for 12 to 15 minutes total. The chicken should be very well browned on both sides.

If you have extra ramps, toss a few in what remains of the marinade, and grill them along with the chicken.

Sweet & Sour (Tree Crop) Chard (original post)
serves two generously
5-6 good-sized chard leaves (2 cups chopped)
1/2 medium onion, sliced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chicken stock (or 1/2 cup stock, 1/2 cup water)
2 good pinches salt
a few grinds black pepper
2 to 3 tsp maple syrup
1 to 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
options: a bit of thyme, a small knob of butter stirred in at the end

Cut the thick ribs out of the chard leaves, and slice these diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces. Tear or cut each leaf into four or five pieces. Heat a 10-inch skillet or the like, and add the olive oil, then the onion and the chard rib pieces. Add a couple of pinches of salt, the stock (or stock and water, or water). Cover and cook over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, until the chard is starting to soften. Then add the chard leaves, and as soon as they wilt into the liquid add the vinegar and maple syrup. Cook uncovered for another three to four minutes, until the chard is tender to taste and the liquid is somewhat reduced. Taste for salt, sweet, and sour. Serve in a dish

Roast Baby Carrots with Maple-Mustard Glaze (original post)
2 cups baby carrots, scrubbed (mine weighed 9 ounces)
1 1/2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp canola or grapeseed oil
pinch of salt, grind of pepper

Combine all the above in a gratin dish or small baking dish. Roast, uncovered, at 375 for 45 minutes, until they become a little brown and glazy. Stir them every 15 minutes during this time.

Remove from the oven and add:

1 rounded tsp grain mustard
1/8 tsp piment d'espelette, or a good pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 tsp red wine vinegar

Add another grind of pepper, taste for salt. Serve warm or at room temp.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Greeting Spring Greenly

It seems every bit appropriate to write about first fresh, green harvest of the year, watercress, on the first day of spring.  I generally gather the year's first cress from a lovely Dunn County spring that seeps from a modest limestone outcropping and slides a dozen long paces before it freshens a sweet little stream; the stream has a name, but I’ve forgotten it.  It’s one of those myriad trout streams, as designated by the State of Wisconsin DNR, which, when you look at the published map showing all such waters, could fool you into thinking that our neighborhood would be a trout fisher’s paradise.  Northern Dunn and southern Barron Counties are as thickly veined with trout streams—color-coded blue, red, yellow, and green—as a diagram of the circulatory system.  But few are worth the trouble to explore; shallow, sandy, alder-choked or simply so tiny that a flycaster would need a marksman’s precision just to land a fly on the water.  But I digress.  It happens.  Have you been here before?

The stream whose name I know not is nonetheless a pretty stream with lots of character, riffle water, bends, promising pools for local kids to either drop a worm into or wade and splash in on a hot summer day.  As winter departs the spring, perhaps 10 feet wide, becomes carpeted with glistening cress, variegated light and darker green, with intimations of reddish veining and browned patches, scars from the last hard freezes.  I mentioned picking cress, but really I snip it—if I’ve had the forethought to bring a pair of scissors.  By snipping the upper leaves I disturb the roots as little as possible, making it a sustainable harvest.  If I don’t have scissors I use my pocket knife to trim the top rosettes.  Half a plastic grocery sack provides plenty of cress to work with for a few meals.

First and best is simply to eat it raw, and lightly dressed (if you’re eating raw cress be sure it comes from a spring or headwaters that hasn’t run through grazing land, particularly where sheep abide).  A straight-up watercress salad is often extremely assertive, but in early spring its peppery pungency is usually tolerable—and a welcome wake-up call to taste buds somewhat dulled by root cellar dining.

Watercress can be used as an herb.  In my cookbook I use it in a pesto with ramps, and to give green relief to celeri remoulade.  The first thing I did with this year’s first snipping was to make a watercress mayonnaise.  Though I almost always make mayo the old-fashioned way, with a bowl and a whisk, I used an immersion blender for this one, for three reasons:

1)      Laziness
2)      So as to really puree the cress into the mayo, and
3)      The immersion blender is a fairly new toy that I haven’t done much with

We smeared the mayo on bread to make bacon sandwiches, and also kept the extra on hand to dunk oven fries from garden potatoes.  In the manner of the old lady who swallowed a fly, the story of this simple, but rather labor-intensive meal, was this: 

I snipped the cress 
to make a mayo
to dress the fresh bread
that made a bed
for the bacon I smoked
from belly that bathed
in maple I tapped
from our own trees
a year ago, or so.

So, how are we doing with the old “eat local challenge” concept that well-meaning folks trot out to promote local produce, usually in September, when eating locally is at its least challenging?  Well, the bread was homemade and leavened with our now 12-year-old sourdough starter and all MN and ND flours; the bacon from MN-based Pastures A’Plenty pork belly cured in our own maple syrup and foreign salt; the mayo contained that Dunn County cress, Ridgeland eggs (Chicken Creek Ranch on county AA), Smude MN cold-pressed sunflower oil, and foreign salt and lemon juice; oven fries from our garden potatoes cooked in duck fat we rendered and more of the Smude oil; carrot slaw with local grower Kate Stout’s wonderful carrots, some of our garden shallots, Smude oil, our cider vinegar.

I would say we’ve met the challenge.  I go through this list not to gloat about how localler-than-thou our diet is, but to illustrate the fact that local eating year-round is eminently doable, even here in the frozen north.  You just keep a very local pantry, is all, and seek out your local producers.  It’s not that hard.  They’re not hiding, and actually want to be found, so they can sell you stuff!  Co-ops of course are a great place to start in shopping local, and there are many farmers markets that keep going through the winter, as well.

None of this is anything new.  I myself have made the point about a thousand times in various ways.  But as I reboot Trout Caviar I’m embracing the perennial, roundabout, here-we-go-again nature of, well, nature, and seasonal eating, which expresses nature in a very intimate and, I hope, delicious way.

The nose knows....

If you want to make watercress mayonnaise you could take as simple an approach as obtaining some watercress, mincing it well, and mixing it into prepared mayonnaise.  I am not opposed to storebought mayo, in fact am on record as a Hellmann’s devotee for many uses (including eating it right off the spoon).  But I think Hellmann’s has too strong a flavor profile, and would drown out the cress which, while very assertive when eaten straight, can get lost in a rich base like mayo.  So a homemade mayo with a milder oil (sunflower, canola; probably not EVOO, or with only a little of it) is the best way to appreciate the tonic bite of springtime cress.  For this particular one, made with the immersion blender, I more or less followed the method I found on this blog.. 

But I found that:

1)      I had to add a fair amount of oil right at the beginning, just to get the blending started;
2)      In the end, with 2 yolks to a cup of oil, it made a much stiffer mayo than I like; I’d try it next time with a whole egg and a yolk, or maybe just the whole egg.  At any rate, it made a mayo that is NOT going to break.  EVER.

Happy spring.

Text and photographs copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Starting Now

Our local food year starts, appropriately enough, with the first upwellings of sap from the maples.  Cold and clear, only barely sweet, maple sap straight from the tree carries the flavor of a small miracle.  Through it we tap in—literally and figuratively—to a perennial process that encapsulates what it means to live and eat seasonally like nothing else.  In the fall the trees sent all their resources down into their roots, to safeguard them through the long dormant season.  As days grow longer to the equinox’s tipping point, and the thaw-freeze cycle starts and continues, the trees call up that liquid food—it’s used to make leaves that enable to trees to utilize the sun’s energy, to make more leaves, to make seeds that make more trees, all of it cyclical, like the seasons, endless rise and fall and rise again.

We intercept the sap as it travels—simple enough, drill a little hole, stick in a tap, or spile, hang a bucket or a bag, collect sap, and when you have a quantity cook it down until most of the water is gone, all the sweetness remains.  Homemade maple syrup has qualities of terroir (the French term most often applied to wine), I believe; especially when the syrup is infused with traces of smoke from a fire stoked with wood from the same hillside where the maple trees grow.  All maple syrup is good; maple syrup from your own trees is both good and meaningful, and deeply satisfying.

I’ve been pretty slackardly in keeping up Trout Caviar for the last couple of years.  This year I’m going to make an effort to get back on top of it and document a year in local food from where we sit, at Bide-A-While just down the road from Bide-A-Wee in northern Dunn County, township of Wilson just southeast of Ridgeland, Wisconsin.  Starting now.  I tapped three maple trees today; the sap had not yet started to run.  But conditions over the next week and more look perfect--highs near 50, lows in the 20s.  It will be flowing very soon.

Lily found a really nice stick.  So awesome.


Mary made tartlets today, very local in nature, and appropriate to the early spring theme.  She wanted to test the recipe for the Maple Madness Cook-Off that's part of the Hungry Turtle Weekend program  of classes and cooking demos happening in Amery next weekend, March 13-14.  The tarts use maple syrup, dried apples from our trees, Wisconsin hickory nuts, dried cranberries.

The original recipe was for something called Ecclefechan tarts—it came along with a knitting pattern Mary bought a while back, Ecclefechan being a town in Scotland.  We’ve changed it up enough to make it our own.  We made these for a dinner/class at the Palate kitchen store in Stockholm, WI last spring, and came up with a fancy little accompaniment, the chevre maple cream, as below.  The tartness of the chevre works nicely against the sweetness of the tarts, but regular whipped cream would be great, too.  Or just eat them plain, with a cup o' tea.

Hickory Nut & Maple Tart(let)s with Dried Fruit
Makes 8 four-inch tarts or 24 tartlets

200 grams (1 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
120 grams (1 stick; or 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
Water if needed (Mary has found that water is usually needed, up to 1/4 cup; start adding 1 tablespoon at a time)

Cut the butter into ½-inch pieces and rub it into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugars and the salt, mixing well. Stir in the egg yolk and mix well. If the mixture is crumbly, add cold water a tablespoon at a time until you can form a dough that holds together. Knead very briefly, just so all the ingredients are well combined. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

50 grams (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
50 grams (3 tablespoons) maple syrup
100 grams (7 tablespoons; or a stick minus 1 tablespoon) butter
1 egg
50 grams (1/2 cup) ground almonds
50 grams (1/2 cup) coarsely chopped hickory nuts (or substitute walnuts, pecans, or almonds)
30 grams (1/2 cup, packed) dried apples, chopped
60 grams (generous ½ cup) dried cranberries
1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine the sugar, salt, syrup, and butter in a small saucepan, and place on low heat until the butter melts. Add the fruits and nuts and let this mixture cool for several minutes, then mix in the egg.

Roll the pastry out into a layer about 1/6-inch thick. Cut rounds appropriate to the pans you're using--mini tart pans, muffin tins, etc. Fit the pastry rounds into the pans, fill 1/2 full.

Bake at 375 until the pastry is golden brown and the filling brown and nicely puffed up. Depending on the the size of the tarts, this will take 25 to 30 minutes. Check after 15 minutes, then every 5 minutes until they're done.  Serve with chevre maple cream, plain whipped cream, a slice of sharp aged gouda or cheddar, or just a cup of tea.

Chevre Maple Cream

2 oz fresh chèvre, at room temperature
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup unsweetened whipped cream

Combine the chèvre and syrup, and mixing with a fork until well blended. Fold in the whipped cream. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Local, Seasonal, and Above All, Delicious: Farm Table Restaurant in Amery

[Update: As of February 20, 2015, Roger and Elsah Payne are no longer involved with Farm Table, I'm very sorry to say.]

For the December issue of the Hay River Review, a monthly newspaper covering the northern Dunn County and southern Barron County area, more or less, I did an article/review on a marvelous new restaurant in Amery, Farm Table.  I've been doing these restaurant articles since last spring; I focus on places I like, spots that are, as I think of it, better than they need to be, in an area where chain restaurants and Sysco cooking rule, and it can be pretty hard to find fresh, well prepared food when dining out.  I'll start putting my reviews up here on a regular basis, and post the other reviews from 2014, as well.  Who knows, if you're traveling through beautiful western Wisconsin, they might come in handy.  At any rate, I'm delighted to have this opportunity to showcase the work of people who are doing something out of the ordinary in our rural dining scene.

So, Farm Table article below, with additional comments, since I'm not restrained here by my print edition word limit, in italics.  In full disclosure, I must note that I have a relationship with Hungry Turtle Farm, with which Farm Table is associated, having taught cooking and foraging classes there.  So I know all the principals involved in Farm Table, though I have no ties to the restaurant itself.

Amery is about an hour's drive from the Twin Cities.

Farm Table is a new restaurant in Amery that serves fresh, flavorful food made almost entirely from ingredients supplied by local organic farms.  Head chef Roger Payne describes his cooking as comfort food, but that’s an extremely modest way to describe the complex flavors his kitchen coaxes out of local, seasonal produce, and the thoughtful presentations that make many of Farm Table’s dishes equally pleasing to the palate and the eye.

Farm Table co-owner Peter Henry; Kari Wenger, sadly, was OOT.

Farm Table is owned by Kari Wenger and Peter Henry, who also run Hungry Turtle Farm and Learning Center. And the restaurant is part of a larger, visionary endeavor, what Wenger and Henry have dubbed a “food hub.”  Based in a former Chevrolet dealership on Keller Avenue, Amery’s main drag, the 12,000 square-foot structure also houses a community kitchen and a distribution center for a cooperative comprised of those same local farms that supply the Farm Table kitchen.

Roger and wife Elsah Payne are Farm Table’s general managers.  While Roger runs the kitchen, Elsah manages the front of the house and HR duties, and does much of the restaurant’s baking.  By baking I don’t mean the odd batch of cookies or a pie here and there, for Farm Table is rather fanatically devoted to the idea of scratch cooking, and all their breads, buns, scones, even English muffins, are produced in-house.  And yes, there are cookies, which are excellent, and I can’t go another moment without mentioning the cupcakes, chocolate and vanilla with real buttercream frosting, which are out of this world. [I say this as someone who does not chase after cupcakes; the Farm Table version is in a league of its own.]

Other items produced in-house are mayonnaise, ketchup, and salad dressings.  The last time I talked to Elsah, she was making her own evaporated milk for Thanksgiving pumpkin pies.  Something about the canned stuff did not please her; she did not seem to think the extra work was much of a bother.

If you eat your salad, you can have a cupcake.

That level of dedication to quality runs through everything Farm Table does.  The small but thoughtful menu, offered at brunch/lunch from Wednesday to Saturday, and at dinner Friday and Saturday evenings, features soups, salads, sandwiches, a burrito, a “farmers bowl”, pot pies and stews.  The concept is not earth-shaking, but the combination of superb local ingredients and impeccable kitchen technique is rare to find in rural Wisconsin, and frankly, would stand out pretty much anywhere. [The farmers bowl is going to be a Farm Table staple; it's a changing combination of some kind of starch, whether rice, lentils, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, with a mess of roasted vegetables, some cheese, meat such as pulled pork, an egg. Simple, fresh, satisfying.]

Egg & bacon sandwich on house-made English muffin; best fries in western Wisconsin, with house ketchup; heirloom tomato soup with cheesy toast; one fine burger in back.

My wife, Mary, and I have eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Farm Table, and we’ve enjoyed every meal.  Some standout dishes have been a hoagie roll stuffed with meatballs at once light and substantial, in a perfectly balanced tomato sauce, and squash soup with enough squash flavor to make you feel virtuous, rich enough to have you scraping your spoon on the bottom of the bowl.  The Farm Table salad is an exquisite composition of tender local spinach garnished (bejeweled, I’m tempted to say) with roasted delicata squash and golden beets, feta cheese, radish slices, and toasted pumpkin seeds—sadly, the salad will only be available as long as local spinach is, but I can’t wait to see what they come up with to replace it.

Farm Table front counter; Kayla Frankson at left.

The burger of grass-fed beef, ground in-house, is simply the best burger I’ve had outside my own home, and I take my burgers seriously.  Pick your topping: jalapeno chile and cheddar cheese; bacon, lettuce, and tomato jam; or mushroom and swiss.  At $9 for the burger and another $2.95 for an order of superb hand-cut French fries, it’s one of the pricier burgers in the area, to be sure.  But here’s the thing:  the Farm Table burger and fries taste like real, delicious, nourishing food, not like grease and regret.  To me it’s more than worth the money.

House-ground grass-fed beef on their own bun, local organic spinach, house mayo, pickles; sharp Wisconsin cheddar, jalapeno; a seriously good burger.

Dinner main courses on a recent Friday included bacon-studded mac & cheese, seared Lake Superior herring with hand-cut potato chips, and a pulled pork sandwich ($12 to $16).  While Farm Table keeps the ingredients local, the menu is far from provincial.  One recent entrée of chicken enchiladas in a green chili sauce, complex and just a little piquant, showed off Roger’s southwestern background.  Risotto is a regular feature on the dinner menu.

Brunch fans will find plenty to like at Farm Table.  The egg sandwich on that homemade English muffin is a savory delight. The breakfast platter of egg, potatoes, toast, choice of bacon or pulled pork, is a bargain at $7.50. Mary and I were delighted one morning to share a sourdough waffle ($6) topped with aronia (chokeberry) syrup, real Wisconsin maple syrup, and a dollop of whipped cream that most assuredly did not come out of a can. 

I have not loved everything I’ve eaten at Farm Table.  The Brussels sprouts and kale salad one night required too much chewing of the beyond al dente kale.  Chicken pot pie, served in a pretty bowl and topped with a perfectly golden, buttery pastry lid, was not hot enough, and the filling, though flavorful, was a rather shreddy stew, not the distinct chunks of chicken and vegetables in rich gravy that I think makes for an excellent pot pie.  At lunch one day the oxtail stew, while warm, comforting, and deeply flavored, was a little one-note—a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette helped to perk it up.
Farm Table employee Kelly Kjeseth wears the restaurant's philosophy on her back.

But these are quibbles; the pot pie and stew were only lesser in comparison to the high level that Farm Table usually achieves, and in neither case did we leave any food on the plate. [Roger came by to chat the night we had dinner at Farm Table, and he noticed the uneaten kale on our plate; he agreed that it seemed chewier than recent versions of the salad, and that they might start massaging the kale with dressing prior to serving.  They had gone to serving the dressing on the side after several customers requested it that way.  But, the customer isn't always right (well, those customers weren't(!)).  One of the things that distinguishes the Farm Table approach is how extraordinarily accommodating the kitchen and front of house staff are.  Everyone really, truly wants patrons to enjoy the food, and the whole experience.]

Farm Table’s dining room is simply gorgeous, impressive and welcoming at once, a neat trick of thoughtful design.  The soaring ceilings are lined with homey corrugated metal sheeting; rough posts and beams and black metal accents keep the mood unpretentious, and the sun flooding in through big square windows on the south and west sides paints the room in soothing autumnal light.  [Outside the south windows is a courtyard that was created by taking a building down.  It's closed for the season, of course, but those al fresco tables are going to be a hot ticket when summer brunch season rolls around.]

[Farm Table's "beverage program" (as I think they say in the restaurant biz) is perfectly suited to the food, and delightful in its own right. The beer list features a nice variety of lesser known regional brews, all $5.  There are just three wines, two red one white, at $6 for a 5-ounce pour.  The coffee is excellent, True Stone out of Minneapolis; espresso and the like are also available.  The Rishi teas, Milwaukee, come in wonderful, unexpected combinations (like blueberry rooibos), and are served in darling little glass pots.  All the appealing drink choices, along with the bakery case offerings and lots of nosh-able menu items, make Farm Table a terrific place to linger and sip; if it were a little closer, I'd make it my winter office....]

It would take another article at least twice this long to really do justice to the story that led up to Farm Table’s creation.  Here is the “Cliff Notes” version:

Peter Henry was a high school and community college teacher in the Twin Cities area in the mid-90s when, in his words, “events conspired to eject me into the universe.”  He moved from teaching into the alternative energy industry, an area in which he’d had a long-time interest.  Previously, he had happened upon and purchased a cabin on the Apple River near Amery; that property would become the nucleus of Hungry Turtle Farm.

Trick-or-treaters roamed downtown Amery on the Saturday after Halloween.

Kari Wenger grew up in the Owatonna, MN area with a lifelong interest in nature and the outdoors.  As an adult she went to work for her family’s business, Wenger Corporation, which makes products for music and theater education.  Her earthier interests led her to purchase a farm near Owatonna, where she grew herbs for restaurants, and then to a cabin near Ely, MN.  Eventually she sold her interest in the family business and turned her full attention to creating a legacy of healthy soil and sustainable farming.

Peter and Kari met in 2008, married a couple of years later.  In 2010 they purchased the main Hungry Turtle Farm property, and began planning the food hub concept.  As Peter puts it, small organic farms are “dear, but vulnerable.”  The Amery food hub project aims to make these kinds of farms less vulnerable by providing business support, creating markets, and helping with distribution.  Some of the farms that are part of the Hungry Turtle co-op, and supply provisions to the Farm Table kitchen, are Bull Brook Keep, Beaver Creek Ranch, Turnip Rock, Black Brook, Seed to Seed, 13 Acres, and Red Wheelbarrow farms. 

The Paynes followed even more circuitous routes to arrive in Amery.  Elsah grew up in central Wisconsin,  where her family grew much of their own food, even made their own cheese—Elsah learned to milk goats at an early age. That early appreciation of where really good food comes from led her to pursue a culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu institute in Dover, NH.  It was there that she met Roger, who had worked his way up from the Taco Bell kitchen at the age of 14, through a stint as a medical corpsman in the navy, to studying at Le Cordon Bleu.  Originally from New Mexico, Roger also spent time close to the land as a child, on his grandfather’s ranch.  From New Hampshire Roger and Elsah followed jobs to Florida, New Mexico, and Florida again, starting a family along the way.

By the time they came to audition for the Farm Table job, Roger was a stay-at-home dad, caring for the new-born Chloe (now 1 ½); the Payne family also includes another daughter, Esme, 8, and son Maddox, 11.  Elsah, meanwhile, had become the culinary manager, producer, and senior food stylist for the Home Shopping Network.  Her duties there included working with celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck.  After over a decade building their careers, though, they came to realize that the road they were on in Florida was, if not a total dead end, at least a stifling cul-de-sac.

Although it seems almost impossibly serendipitous, the Paynes learned about the Amery opportunity by Googling key words like Wisconsin-farm-to-table.  That search turned up the Hungry Turtle job listing, and the rest is what I really believe will be history in the making for the western Wisconsin restaurant world.  But you won’t hear that kind of grandiose talk from the Farm Table staff.  “We’re taking food from here, cooking it, and giving it to people,” Elsah said.  Or in Roger’s words, “If you care about flavors and you like the way something tastes, maybe somebody else will, too.”

The care that goes into Farm Table’s cooking is evident in many ways; I think lots and lots of people are going to like it.

Farm Table is located at 110 Keller Avenue, Amery, WI 54001.  Telephone 715-268-4500. Website, http://ameryfarmtable.com/  ; on Twitter @ameryfarmtable

More about Hungry Turtle Farm and Learning Center at www.hungryturtle.net

Hours:  Wednesday & Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (drink specials after 4 p.m., dinner served 5 p.m. on)