28 August 2008


Beets, deep red beets, baked in foil, cooled and peeled. Pulled out of the refrigerator for lunch, sliced and drizzled with olive oil, vinegar and pepper. Earthy and exalted, my tastebuds are transformed into terroir: they are the earth itself, exposed rock rooted in sweetness, rich soil to which we'll return, concentrated life densely lived, fruit of the earth and memory. I am the earth in which they grow; strike me dead and beets will grow where my spirit deserts my empty body.

24 August 2008

Northwoods Bouillabaisse

I’ve been making my own northwoods bouillabaisse for a few years now, savoring the fish that Minnesota has in abundance, extracting from these fish, almost all of which are the ones most anglers throw back as too small, a rich and flavorful stew that, while not bouillabaisse, is as rich and satisfying as a trip to Marseilles to indulge in the real thing. That’s an advantage, I guess, of having children for whom the sheer excitement of catching a fish surpasses the need for a mountable trophy – we shamelessly keep the small sunnies, crappies, rock bass and smallmouth bass that look like muskie bait, turning them into the stock that is the foundation for my northwoods bouillabaisse.

Like gardening, part of the pleasure of a good fish stew is catching the fish yourself, and the pleasure is heightened when they’re caught on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, a ten thousand acre lake that is cold, clear and deep. We fish off a little point and stand with the water lapping our feet and loons swimming by; fir and pine trees line the shore, islands dot the lake and fade into a grey distance that evokes elemental Milton Avery and Chinese ink drawings.

When the fish are biting we put a nightcrawler on a hook and let it fly, a ¼ oz sinker dragging it to the bottom where rocks abound. If we avoid the numerous snags it’s not long before there’s a gentle tug, that thrilling feeling of an imminent strike. And sometimes a good sized bass will inhale the hook and a jolting yank on the line immediately awakens the senses for the beginning of a chance to land a big one.

My stew is a simple one, and I change it as new herbs or ingredients seem good to add. I start by scaling and gutting all the fish. If any of the fish are large enough I also cut out the fillets and put them aside. Usually I have only a few meaty fillets, but when I fry these in butter and bacon fat they add a lot of richness and flavor to the stew.

Cover the fish in water and bring to a boil, skimming off all the scum that surfaces. Usually when I’m up north I have limited ingredients, so I usually add only an onion, carrot, and maybe a bay leaf to the stock. Cook for thirty minutes to an hour and strain. If any obvious chunks of fish are visible and easy to get at, I usually use a fork to pry them from rib cages and other bony areas. In a wide sauté pan, I like the 3 qt size because of the wide surface area for evaporation, I add garlic and onion to olive oil, butter, bacon fat or a combination of those delicious cooking fats. For this stew I almost always sauté the onions over a high flame, usually because I’m hungry and don’t want to wait for lunch. Next, I add a tomato, usually just one to begin with, and I crush it and let it be absorbed into the onions. Keeping the pan really hot I slowly add a few more tomatoes by ones and twos, breaking them apart with my wooden spoon (is there any kitchen tool as wonderful as a wooden spoon? It is primitive and prehistoric and essential) and watching them sizzle, adding another when the now-emerging sauce is reduced to almost no liquid. While I’m sautéing the onions I add basil, thyme, parsley and a few pinches of sea salt, and then I add anise seed and saffron, keeping some semblance of a traditional bouillabaisse. I let this get really thick and fragrant and then I start adding ladlefuls of fish stock, one at a time, keeping the flame hot and adding the next ladleful only when the previous one is almost completely evaporated. The longer I’m willing to cook it the richer it is – on the first night it’s always the thinnest, but as I save some for each subsequent night the resulting stock, when chilled, becomes thick like rubber.

Because I always eat lunch with my wife, I add stock and continue to reduce it until there’s enough for two bowls. As I near the end of the reduction, I sauté the fish fillets in butter over high heat, browning and crisping them with a bit of salt and pepper. A little leftover penne is another good addition at this time, and so are chunks of potato. Pour into a big bowl, place the fried fillets on top, and enjoy.

12 August 2008

Corn (Corn Chowder)

Considering that we’ve been eating corn in North America since before recorded history, I’m surprised we don’t have a more robust and rooted culinary tradition of corn. Today, most Americans eat corn on the cob in August, and lots of people eat corn bread throughout the year. A few regions specialize in corn puddings, and roasted ears of corn are a favorite at county fairs around the country. But, considering the ubiquitous role of corn in American agriculture, why aren’t there dozens of corn dishes that every kid in America grows up eating and making? Why, after all these generations, don’t we have a glut of regional recipes that celebrate the season of corn?
I know I can search the internet for corn recipes and find hundreds, but I’m not talking about recipes; I’m thinking about a culinary understanding of the most widely grown plant in this country. Corn is everywhere and we still approach it like a novelty each year. Perhaps we can’t improve upon boiled corn with butter and salt, but even if that represents the pinnacle of culinary and cultural creativity in the kitchen, I think we should have a few more ideas cooked up by now.
I begin my corn season with corn chowder. If you haven’t made corn chowder with fresh sweet corn, give it a try.


6 ears fresh sweet corn
4-8 tbsp butter
1/2 lb salt pork
2-3 potatoes
1 big onion
a few cloves garlic
1 cup stock or water
1 tomato, seeded
3-4 tbsp tarragon
2 - 3 cups (or so) milk/half & half

I start with a few tablespoons of butter in a nice big saucier. I cut up about a half pound of salt pork into tiny pieces, about ¼” squares and add to it a big onion, also diced finely. A few cloves of garlic? Sure. Add a few more tablespoons of butter about now. Cook until salt pork is browned and onions are soft.

Potatoes are a great addition, and you can add them raw or parboil them first. Use a couple, peel them, and cut them into small pieces. If you add them raw, cook them until they’re almost done before you add the corn. A little liquid is good now. If I have any stock in the icebox I use it, adding a cup or so and letting it cook down a bit. If I don’t have any stock handy, water works well, too.
If you want a little color, a seeded tomato, cut into pieces, works well. So does a diced carrot or a few stems of swiss chard, added like diced celery.
After shucking a half dozen or so ears of corn, I remove the kernels by holding the cob in one hand and using a sharp knife to cut the kernels from the cob into a big colander in the sink. It’s wide and deep enough to catch the stray, flying kernels. Add the kernels to the golden onions and fragrant salt pork. I love tarragon with corn chowder, so I add it now, and a little sweet paprika, too.
Once the corn is cooked, in just a few minutes, I add a combination of milk and half & half, stirring and keeping the heat low so it doesn’t boil. A few cups total will suffice. I like my a bit thin, so I probably add more milk than half & half. Keep it from boiling, and when everything is all mixed together and the liquid is white with swirls of yellowy butter, it’s ready to eat.
Here’s a perfect time to drink a California chardonnay. Chardonnay that’s been oaked and grown in the warm California sun isn’t my daily libation, but with corn chowder it’s a great match.
What other corn dishes belong on every table in August?

05 August 2008

Caramel custard for my brother-in-law

My brother-in-law Kinh drove down from Toronto when we were at our cottage, and as I had only limited ingredients in the kitchen I decided to make caramel custard for dessert. It takes about fifteen minutes to make and needs only the most basic kitchen staples. Caramel custard was a childhood favorite, and it's a dessert I still love to make. I've got two basic styles - family-style and individual ramekins - and there's one difference that changes the taste significantly. With caramel custard, the family-style dessert I grew up with, the caramelized sugar is added to scalded milk, making the whole custard a rich brown color, and flavoring it throughout with that yummy burnt sugar taste. When I make crème caramel, I pour the burnt sugar into the bottom of each ramekin which, when flipped over onto a dessert plate, is a lovely and elegant dessert. The ingredients are identical and we use the two names to differentiate them. Kinh loved the dessert (and the Vouvray that we had with grilled chicken) and I told him I'd send him the recipe.
Kinh, here's how I make it:

3/4 cup sugar
3 cups milk
3-4 eggs
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F and put water in kettle to boil. Butter a 1 or 2 quart casserole or other bowl. (When I made it at the cottage we had no bowls so I made it in a 9x9 pyrex pan.)

Caramel custard:
1. In mixing bowl that can eventually accommodate the milk, mix eggs, and add salt and 1/4 cup sugar.
2. Scald 3 cups milk in a sauce pan. Boy oh boy. I grew up with milk and eggs but when I make this with fresh eggs and milk from grass-fed cows the difference is enormous! I use either whole milk or 2%. Let the milk just begin to come to a boil; it'll probably get a little skin on it as it heats up. I use a whisk to keep it smooth. So, scald the milk as you caramelize the sugar. Then, turn off the burner and keep it there until the sugar is burnt.
3. Caramelize 1/2 cup sugar in heavy frying pan. If you haven't done this before, use a dry, cast iron fry pan. Put the heat on medium high and add sugar. I use an oven mitt as the pan gets hot, and slowly stir the sugar with a spoon. As it heats up it clumps a bit, then melts. I stir it because I don't want the sugar in one spot to burn while another clump is still granulated. Although this is sometimes called burnt sugar, we're just browning it. We bring it close to the edge but if it burns it's nasty. As it gets hot and everything starts to melt, remember that anytime it seems like you think it'll burn, you can always remove the pan from the heat. But have confidence! It goes from white to tan to brown in a very short time, so pay attention at the end.
4. When the sugar is a nice rich brown (it's probably beginning to smoke a bit) begin to whisk the milk pretty vigorously and pour the now-liquid sugar in a thin stream into the milk. Sometimes it froths up like Prospero's sea in the Tempest, but remember, no one's going to get hurt and love prevails. The sugar is hot! Stir/whisk until the sea is becalmed.
5. Now, start whisking the egg mixture with enthusiasm. What we're going to do is add the scalded milk/burnt sugar into the eggs, but we don't want the eggs to curdle with the sudden temperature difference! So, whisk the eggs and slowly pour a thin stream of hot milk into the egg mixture. Keep doing it, bit by bit. If all goes well, you can start pouring the milk in a heavier stream after you've got a cup or two into the egg mixture.
6. Add 1 tsp. vanilla.
7. Pour the now-consolidated mixture into the buttered bowl. Put the bowl into a larger 9x13 pan that has a paper towel or two on the bottom. Put it in the oven and pour boiling water into the 9x13 pan, letting it come an inch or two up the side of the custard. The water bath keeps the temperature constant and low and prevents the eggs from getting rubbery. Close the oven and bake 45-50 minutes or until a plain butter knife come out clean. Remove from water bath.

Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. Serve cold.

Crème Caramel
Butter 6-8 ramekins and when sugar is caramelized pour a swirl of hot melted sugar into each of the ramekins (instead of into the milk.) Follow caramel custard recipe, and pour consolidated egg/milk mixture into each ramekin. Put into paper towel-lined 9x13 pan. Bake 30-40 minutes or until knife comes out clean. Cool and then chill. To serve, run a knife around the edge of individual ramekin. Put small dessert plate on top of ramekin and turn over quickly. Sometimes you have to give a little shake to the ramekin so the custard comes out of the ramekin and settles onto the plate.

I usually use a bit less than the 3/4 cup sugar the recipe calls for, and sometimes add an extra egg. I keep the flavoring simple and occasionally don't even add vanilla.

We eat this dessert
when we need love or comfort
to be shared with all
-custard haiku