By far my favorite book for reproducing the flavors of Wisconsin's terroir is Brett Laidlaw's beautifully written Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager (Minnesota Historical Society Press). In it he forages, fishes and finds paradise while living in a little cabin in Dunn County. I stayed up late reading this edible homage to Wisconsin rivers and fields from cover to cover.
Included are deliciously pastoral recipes for potted trout, stuffed kale leaves, and a ramp and fiddlehead tart. Laidlaw's grilled ratatouille needs only the substitution of sunflower or pumpkin oil for olive oil and the omission of black pepper to make it all local.
Brett Laidlaw's Grilled Ratatouille
- 2 medium eggplants (about 2 pounds), cut into 3/4-inch slices
- 1 onion, quartered through root end to hold pieces together
- 2 zucchini, quartered lengthwise
- 1 leek, halved lengthwise
- olive oil
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large bell pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 4 ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- handful fresh basil leaves
Brush the eggplant, onion, zucchini and leek with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Prepare a fire of natural wood charcoal, and grill the vegetables until lightly charred and tender. Grill the bell pepper until the skin is black and blistered. Place it in a covered bowl or paper bag for a few minutes and then scrape off the skin, remove the seeds, and cut the pepper into strips.
Roughly chop all the grilled vegetables. In a large saucepan or sauté pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil. Add the garlic and swirl until it just barely starts to color. Add the grilled vegetables, tomatoes, a couple good pinches of salt, and a grind of black pepper. Mix well; remove from heat. Tear the basil leaves and drop them in. Serve.
Chicago-based Michelin-starred chef Paul Virant is famous for his pickling. In his new cookbook The Preservation Kitchen (Ten Speed Press), he provides a valuable resource for prolonging the shelf life of local produce. As his food demonstrates, canning is also a great way to add flavor, zing and depth to dishes. Along with Sandor Katz's The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green), Virant's book shows that traditional home preservation methods are undergoing a full-blown revival. In this recipe Virant quick-pickles (as opposed to canning) leeks to preserve their texture. He then uses these leeks in recipes such as his Thanksgiving stuffing.
Paul Virant's Quick-Pickled Leeks
- 4 leeks
- 1-1/2 cups champagne vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 3 bay leaves
- juice and grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1. Slice off the root ends of the leaks, keeping as much of the white end intact as possible. Trim away the dark green tips. Make an incision lengthwise halfway through the leek. Pry the leek open and run under water, fanning it open to remove any residual dirt. Slice the leeks crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces.
2. In a pot bring the vinegar, water, thyme, bay leaves, lemon juice and zest and salt to a boil. Add the leeks, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Refrigerate until needed. (This can be made more than a week ahead.)
I found Helen Wilke's magnificent Depression-era (and in some cases pioneer-era) recipe book My Favorite Recipes from the Wild while biking the Elroy-Sparta trail in western Wisconsin. It's brimming with forage-friendly recipes like Cattail Pollen Muffins, May Apple Marmalade, Day Lily Chicken and Milkweed Bud Casserole.
It's still in print and can be ordered by sending $13 to her daughter, Sharon Wilke, at 26489 Osborn Ave., Kendall, WI 54638.
This recipe for watercress butter is simple, adding verdant and spicy flash when you need it.
Helen Wilke's Watercress Butter
Cream together 1/4 pound soft butter, 4 tablespoons chopped watercress leaves, 1/4 teaspoon. salt, pinch of white pepper. Mold, and chill. When set, unmold and serve with black bread and dry white wine. Serves 2.