19 August 2009

Northern cooking

For the past six years we’ve rented a cabin on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, just a few miles outside of Ely. The evenings are usually cool and my wife likes to oven roast vegetables to warm up the tiny kitchen and eating area. We brought with us a big bag of garden tomatoes, beets, swiss chard, and lots of herbs. We stopped at the St. Paul farmers market and loaded the car even further with more fresh vegetables.

We start fishing off the small dock as soon as we arrive, and on Monday I made chowder using fresh corn, potatoes, and all the fish we caught on the first two days. I started by making a rich fish stock, the perfect use for all the pan fish that aren’t big enough to filet. Then, in a heavy-bottomed pot I sautéed a few onions, a tomato, a few sprigs of thyme, bay leaf, and a few slices of cut-up bacon (we’ve been eating so much home-cured pancetta this year that I found the bacon too smoky for the chowder.) I started ladling fish stock into the pot, and after a quart or more of stock had boiled down to a few cups I added a several cubed potatoes and let them cook at a gentle simmer. Then I turned the burner off and fished a little more. Before dinner I shucked four or five ears of corn and cut the kernels off the cobs. The corn made the liquid almost disappear, but I poured in a cup of half & half and colored it with a small mound of chopped tarragon. A few stirs later the chowder was ready for the table.

Monday's dinner began with a plate of brussels sprouts sautéed in a little butter and bacon fat. With nothing else except a heavy shake of salt and pepper, the little cabbages – browned on the sides, with a few bits of bacon debris lodged in the outer leaves and still a brilliant, glistening green – looked and tasted beautiful.

My wife’s been slow roasting beets, eggplant, and tomato slices in the oven and reducing to rich caramelized bites the vine-ripened produce of our garden and this season, distilling the abundance of August at 250°F.

Last night's dinner started with big hunks of smallmouth bass filets caught by my son, sautéed in butter after a quick dredging in pepper-rich flour. One plate in the middle of the table for the five of us, forks attacking the tender, flaky flesh. A light Selbach Riesling sparkled in the rays of sunlight pouring through the ragged clouds, and the table danced with its refracted light.

Plates of vegetables came next – the beets dressed in a little rice wine vinegar and paired with a few sweet and tart cherry tomatoes, drained of their water, holding only flavor. More tomatoes, each with a leaf of basil on top, a salute to unadorned food. And hefty slices of eggplant shrunk to not-yet-jerky-like consistency, still meaty enough mash with molars, still carrying traces of bacon grease and olive oil.

And in the evening, when the Milky Way pours out across the sky, we sweat and think and talk quietly in a hot sauna on the edge of a cold deep lake.


  1. Chowder is one of my favorite food. This one is very special. Glad we were not in vacation at the same time therefore mine are prolongued by reading about yours! have a beautiful time.

  2. Nicole again!
    can you please send me your direct email? I think I located some piment d'espelette seeds.