Foraging for the First Time, Followed by a Forest Dinner

2016 was the year I decided to start foraging beyond my neighborhood. In the past our foraging was limited to plucking lilac from a neighbor’s tree to make the Mother’s Day cocktail. Like many things in life, I was curious but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I started by reading blogs and perusing a few books. After learning that hop shoots are edible, I began foraging two ingredients from my backyard – lilac and hops. Then, serendipity happened. There is a group of people that we get together with every few months for some serious cooking and the May’s proposed dinner menu featured morels. Foraged morels. Collectively, we cut a deal immediately. I would plan and cook a foraged menu after an outing or two during which others in the group would show me the basics of foraging.

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On a beautiful May Saturday in the southern part of Minnesota that was untouched by the last glacier, I learned to think like a mushroom – dying elms, wet soil, southern exposure due to the time in the season – and we had some luck. Apparently the right soil temperature is in the mid 50s for peak morel growth.

Then we hiked to another spot with perfect fiddleheads and nettles. Then watercress. The friend who taught me the basics also had a spot for ramps and asparagus that we did not have time to visit together but he brought some along for the forest dinner.

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An important part of foraging is letting nature to continue to do its thing, which requires leaving behind at least half of the fiddleheads and ramps that have grown. Trust me though, we picked every morel we found.

I have been duck hunting a few times and the part of the experience I like the most is being in quiet, beautiful places while looking for the perfect perch. This is often interrupted by loud booms, especially given my aim. So foraging is even better because the forest is inherently quiet.

How did the menu end up?

 

Salad

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We started with a watercress salad that was garnished with hop shoots from our garden and 12 year Hook’s cheddar. I tried pickling some of the hop shoots and really preferred them fresh. I prepared a buttermilk-based dressing with a balanced Italian olive oil and the watercress leaves that didn’t make the cut for the salad.

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Main Dish

IMG_2292.JPGFirst I thought about a pasta with a simple and buttery white wine sauce. Would this overpower the morels? A chef friend recommended soft scrambled duck eggs to provide a creamy but non-competitive base for all of our goodies. After consulting the group, we settled on a toned down pasta. I thought about a number of options and landed on a modification of one of my favorite dishes of 2015, mushroom risotto. But I didn’t want to overpower the morels as a part of the risotto. So, instead of a mushroom risotto I decided to do a ramp risotto as the base of the main dish. The bulbs went into the risotto during the cooking process (supplemented with shallots) and then the leaves were chopped and folded in just prior to serving along with the cheese a little butter and a few nettles.  

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I washed the morels and cleaned the fiddleheads of their papery coating. Next, I cooked both simply in Hope Creamery butter in my grandmother’s cast iron pan (one of my favorite possessions). No garlic, just salt and pepper. I was very careful to make sure that the fiddleheads were al dente for serving and that the morels were still a little firm. Then I briefly cooked the wild asparagus in the butter that had been used for the morels.

The fiddleheads,  morels and wild asparagus went on top of the ramp risotto. Given the theme of the dinner was eating from the forest, most of us complemented the meal with a piece of rare venison.

 

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Dessert

One of our guests brought homemade rhubarb ice cream, and sugar cookies from Patisserie 46, which was the perfect complement to the meal.

Pairings

We paired a 2012 Hartford Court Seascape Vineyard Pinot Noir with the main course. It was an incredible wine, and had enough body to be beautiful and thought provoking while not overpowering the tastes of the forest.

We also had a few sours from the upcoming Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery. These are something special and worth watching out for as they come on to the market. In the meantime, the talented brewers are collaborating with Fair State on a few beers.

 

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The World Barbecue Cooking Contest – Memphis In May

I had the opportunity to visit Memphis in May earlier this week and experience the World Barbecue Cooking Contest. Given how long barbecue takes to make, there was plenty of time to discuss barbecue approach and philosophy with members of the competition teams. While teams were generous with their knowledge one topic was taboo. The ingredients in a barbecue rub are top secret – don’t even think about asking for ratios. They were quick to share advice on commercially available rubs including Sweet MoneyVictory Lane, and Peppered Cow. One guy who had a few trophies from past years suggested adding Black Cherry KoolAid to the rub. Upon further reflection, and while this suggestion may be a lark, I recently had a phenomenal Dr. Pepper reduction from a very well respected Twin Cities Chef, so this isn’t as crazy as it first sounded.

I use a Big Green Egg regularly and am familiar with the basics of smoking. Many of the teams made their own smokers, and some of my favorites were all re-purposed vehicles, including:

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In case you are in the market for cooking for 50+ people the most common smoker that I saw was the Backwoods Smoker out of Dixie, LA. However, the most fanatical people build their own. I heard stories of vintage refrigerators, boiler equipment, and even old boats as re-purposed smokers.

If you are curious about how a re-purposed smoker van that no longer has an engine or a steering column gets put into position check out this video:

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Some of the best cooking tips that I will be sure to implement throughout the summer are below. Everyone I spoke with thought the magic smoker temperature was 225 degrees, even for some cuts I wasn’t expecting. Wrapping meat in foil or butcher paper is very common, and it ended up being more than just to control timing of serving. Warning – if you don’t use an instant read thermometer like a Thermapen to measure internal temperature a lot of this will be technical. Thanks to The Grand Masters of Cooking Disasters, Pork Illustrated, The Danish National Barbecue Team, Central BBQ and Clint Cantwell in particular for the tips.

Pork Shoulder

This was the one that surprised me the most. I usually cook to 195 or 200 degrees to be able to pull it, but removing from heat at 178 degrees allows for the fat to render just enough to then seep into a pan while the shoulder is resting. The result is a succulent shoulder that is basting in delicious juices. I was invited to try it and the guy who gave me this tip was most proud of the fact that he had cooked $1.99/lb pork shoulder to this result. It was the best damn shoulder I have ever tasted. Another interesting tip was to smoke with beech wood for flavor and apple wood for color.  

Ribs

While I have heard of the 3-2-1 method I have been very happy with my ribs on the Green Egg and didn’t mess with what was working well. I also have the luxury of cooking 2-3 racks at a time, so I can pull them off when they hit 193 to 195 degrees with a great result. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and when I was invited to try the results my perspective on wrapping ribs in foil during the cooking process and adding liquid such as apple juice to create steam shifted considerably. Previously, I believed steam would destroy the bark I had worked so hard for on my ribs. If I can reproduce the results that I tasted there will be nice bark, even moister meat, and cleaner separation from the bone.

Brisket

Trimming is everything. The best brisket has all fat that won’t render removed and is trimmed to at least 1 inch in height. The part that will be chopped versus sliced should be separated at 183 degrees so the flat won’t dry out. Everyone wraps their brisket – some in butcher paper and some in foil for at least 2 hours prior to serving after it comes off the smoker. The best brisket joints in the country wrap to distribute moisture and use butcher paper for its breathability and lower level of steam to maintain the beautiful bark they worked so hard for, and this is the approach I plan to take the next time I smoke a brisket. The closest I came to getting through the BBQ rub barrier was the advice to start the seasoning process with smoked sea salt and pepper and then applying the Brisket rub as a second step. Of course, Brisket rub should have much less brown sugar (or turbinado) than pork.

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Chicken

In the past I had smoked at 350 to 400 degrees with the theory that the skin would be crispiest with this temperature. I was advised to stick to the magic 225 degree level, and increase the marinade time to 2 hours for a low acidity marinade and 1 hour for a higher acidity marinade.  

Steak

Clint Cantwell, who is Kingsford Charcoal’s Director of Smoke and Fire and Editor of Grillocracy.com was making some great cowboy ribeyes with a coffee rub using only indirect heat at about 400 degrees. The steaks were about an inch and a half thick. I had typically used a reverse sear (indirect heat first with very high heat for a nice crust) but these were some succulent steaks without the reverse sear.

Pork Belly

The Danish National Barbecue team was in attendance. While they were competing in the traditional US categories I really wanted to learn about traditional Danish Barbecue. After some pleasantries, we talked about Stegt flæsk which is essentially pork fat in parsley sauce. Pork Belly is cut to 1/3 of an inch, salted on both sides, and smoked until crisp at the magic 225 level (about 45 minutes) and finished with parsley and potatoes. I am particularly excited about this experiment. IMG_2346.JPG

Some tips if you are considering attending the event:

  1. Technically, the competition teams can’t share their food unless you are an invited guest and the food vendors that are open to the public are primarily the carnival rotation that put out high quantity and moderate quality food. To get around this, sign up for the Kingsford Tour of Champions which allows you to judge a number of booths, sample entries, and hear from the teams first hand. If you get this opportunity just remember that competition barbecue is like the Pepsi Challenge – one taste is amazing but a whole meal could be overwhelming. And adjust accordingly for your backyard smoking.
  2. If you are a true enthusiast, spend time just after the gates open to meet people, share stories and learn. This may result in invitations to return when the food is out. Just don’t expect it, and be prepared to share what you have tried, where you have succeeded, and what didn’t go well for you. You will get advice on how to do better.
  3. If you are completely hardcore, find a way to join a competition team.

Some unsolicited advice for the event organizers: have the category winners talk about their creations during the award ceremonies. There is some amazing cooking going on that needs to be shared.

Finally, the competition isn’t only about the food. There are some seriously well thought out and executed themes and props to create the atmosphere where even someone from the North will have a great time. Here are some of my favorite images:

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Mother’s Day Cocktail

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May is lilac season in Minnesota, and this is a very easy (and delicious) introduction to foraging. My sister and brother-in-law were in town a few years ago and we invented this cocktail. Given the season, it is the perfect cocktail to celebrate Mother’s Day.

Start by making lilac simple syrup. Simply heat 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar, and a few bunches of lilac over low heat until warm. Strain out the lilac and refrigerate.

3/4 oz lilac simple syrup

2 oz gin

1 oz Lillet Blanc or Lillet Rose

4-5 drops of bitterbliss raspberry lavender bitters (or a similar bitters, such as rhubarb)

Mix all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir 20+ times to ensure proper blending. strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with lilac leaves. Enjoy with someone you love.