Alder Smoked Trout a la Beaver

The final day of trout season in central Vermont was bitterly cold.  Winooski River water droplets running off of the line quickly froze to the eyelets of my rod, forming little doughnuts of ice that had to be broken off every 10 minutes or so.  My gloves were still sitting on the mudroom bench at home, leaving the tender skin on my knuckles red and cracked.  It would have been a pretty miserable morning but the browns were biting.  It wasn’t long before I had three keeper trout ready for the smoker.

I have a tendency for overly romantic ideas when developing recipes and I had been itching to try my latest out.  When a beaver chews down a tree, it often leaves chips of wood behind at the base of the stump.  Each one of these chips represents one bite that the beaver took in its process of chewing down the tree.  A few weeks prior to catching45685310251_a7aed0e542_o these trout, I was examining a speckled alder stump along the riverbank.  I noticed that the “beaver chips” were nearly identical in size to apple wood or hickory chips you  could buy at the store.  It just so happens that alder wood is the type of wood that is traditionally used when smoking salmon and trout in Alaska.  Soft violin music began playing in my mind as I thought of the possibility of using alder wood chips provided by a beaver who swam in the same waters as the trout I was about to smoke.

A one quart Ziploc bag full of alder wood chips were easily collected from around the stump.  I could have grabbed more but a steady rain picked up and this was already more than enough for my  project.  I did grab a 12 inch section of log left behind by my beavery benefactor.  This log would be shaved down into an appropriate serving platter for final smoked product.  

The man cub helped measure out 4 cups of warm water, 3/8 cup of honey, 1/8 cup of Dissolving the brinebrown sugar, and a 1/4 cup of kosher salt.  We warmed the mixture on the stove while stirring just enough to dissolve all of the ingredients.  The mixture was then allowed to cool before pouring it into a one gallon Ziploc bag along with the three gutted brown trout. The trout were then left in the brine until the next evening, about 24 hours.

I haven’t built a smoker of my own yet, but have been able to rig up my Weber charcoal grill to do the job with decent success.  By starting up some lump charcoal and piling it onto a folded aluminium foil sheet placed on one side of the grill (under the grate), and then placing the trout on a similarly folded sheet of foil with the walls formed by the folds facing each other, we were able to get an indirect heat.  The alder wood chips from the beaver chew were placed on top of the coals.  Smoke from the chips wafted over the aluminum foil wall, to the top of the grill lid, and then floated down to caress the trout.  Every 30 minutes or so, I went out replenished the chips and adding a few more pieces of charcoal as needed.  I also flipped the trout halfway through (about an hour and a half in) to ensure an even smoke.  After spending 3 hours enveloped in a smoky embrace, the trout had been thoroughly impregnated with the swampy  sweet smoke of the alder chips. 

The end result was some of the best smoked trout that I have ever tasted.  I’ve smoked trout with maple before with decent results but there was something about the alder wood that hit all of the right notes.  It was light and sweet.  Just smoky enough to taste the wood while still allowing the flavor of the trout to stand out.  Perhaps it was just the nature of the alder wood smoke that struck such a perfect balance, though I would like to think it was the trace amounts of beaver saliva.

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Giant Puffball Mushroom “bread” Sandwiches w/Chicken, Mozzarella, & Tomato

I was taking the back roads to work after dropping the Man Cub off at daycare when I saw something large and white out of the corner of my eye.  Looking in the rear view mirror, I could make out a soccer ball sized mushroom growing on the the hillside, just 15 yards from the side of the road.  I hit the brakes (after checking for traffic behind me of course), put the car in reverse and pulled off on the side of the road.  Jumping out, leaving the car door ajar, I raced up the hill and plucked the giant marshmallow mass from the leaf litter and jogged back to the car.  Sitting in the passenger seat was my first giant puffball of the year.

43546317565_53827987f8_oDuring the lunch hour, I decided to saute up a sampling for co-workers.  Slicing into the mushroom reminded me of slicing a loaf of bread, which in turn triggered an idea.  Later that night I would have to fry up some thick slices of puffball to create a mushroom “bread” for sandwiches.

Each slice was cut roughly one inch thick and dredged in eggs, then flour, then eggs again, and then one last time in the flour.  A quick fry on either side in a couple inches of vegetable oil followed by a quick seasoning of salt immediately after exiting the oil and the bread was ready.  To assemble our sandwiches, onto the bottom slice of mushroom bread I placed a couple slices of mozzarella followed by thinly sliced chicken breast that had be pan fried in butter with salt and pepper.  Then came a healthy slice of beefsteak tomato fresh from the garden, along with a couple more slices of mozzarella cheese help hold the sandwich together and a few leaves of basil.  The top slice of bread was placed on top and the sandwiches were placed in a 350 degree oven just long enough to get the mozzarella nice and gooey.

The final product could have been eaten by hand, but a knife and fork made it a little 30586142968_057479ca0f_oeasier.  The mushroom bread itself was a little reminiscent of Wonder Bread® in texture but with a more subtle mushroom flavor.  The bubbly crispy outside gave the sandwich a fun texture profile, pairing well with the soft mozzarella.  Definitely the most fun way to eat a giant puffball mushroom in my opinion.

Stinging Nettle Gnocchi w/Chicken of the Woods and Zucchini Cream Sauce

Things have been busy in the Forager Weekly household and blog posts have become infrequent.  I have a backlog of recipes to post and may put up some of the late spring/early summer recipes I have made over the past month or so as my schedule allows.  In the meantime, I am hoping to post a bit more regularly as we round out summer and head into the fall.  Here is a fun one to get us rolling again.

The other day while banding birds at the North Branch Nature Center, I brushed up against a patch of stinging nettle that was growing alongside one of our mist net lanes.  A moment of anticipation passed as I waited for the sting to set in.  I felt a rush of adrenaline as the pain ran through my forearm and little welts rose up where the hairs of the nettle had injected their formic acid.  This usually serves as a deterrent to herbivores, but for me it serves as an alert to a plant to be harvested later that afternoon.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-25,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-YStinging nettle leaves are easily harvested with the aid of gloves and/or scissors.  I like to live on the wild side and pick the leaves by pinching each leaf from the top sans glove.  The stinging hairs grow on the underside of the leaves and along the stem.  This method could lead to the occasional sting from brushing up against an adjacent stem or leaf, but it reminds you of what you are harvesting and brings you that much closer to your food.  It also gives the plant a little more of a fighting chance.  If you are against hunting deer on a fenced in game farm, I challenge you to extend that ethos to the plant realm and pick your nettles without protective gear.  It will be a much more invigorating experience.

Nettles are usually harvested while the leaves are young and tender.  During the summer months, the leaves are more well developed and tough, making them less than ideal for 43963342531_5a42d3986c_o.jpgwilting and eating as a cooked green.  This does not mean that their gastronomic value has been depleted.  You can take these more mature leaves, dehydrate them and run them through a coffee grinder to make a beautiful dark green powder to add a rich source of vitamins and minerals to baked goods and pasta dough.  This time around, I decided to add some of the nettle powder to a batch of gnocchi.

To make the gnocchi, peel and roughly cut 3 medium sized russet potatoes and boil in salted water until just fork tender.  Strain the potatoes and add a cup of powdered stinging nettle leaves, along with 1 and 3/4 cups of whole wheat flour and two large eggs.  Season with salt and pepper and proceed to mash the mixture into a dough using a potato masher.  Once all ingredients are well incorporated and the dough has formed, take a handful of dough and roll it out on a floured surface and form a long snake about 1 inch in diameter.  Cut the dough snake into bite sized portions.  From here you can decide whether or not to do the painstaking work of pressing ridges into your gnocchi with a fork.  If you plan on making this often (which after tasting this recipe, I do), you may want to invest in a ridged gnocchi board for rolling out the textured ridges on your gnocchi.  The plus side of having the ridges is that it gives more surface area for sauces to adhere to.

Once your gnocchi are formed, place them into boiling water and allow them to boil just until they begin to float.  After retrieving your gnocchi from the boiling water, you should notice that they have plumped up a bit.  Next, you’ll want to transfer your plump gnocchi into a pan and fry in a bit of butter to brown them up, adding a bit of crispiness to each bite.  Now it is your choice as to what you’d like to top it with.  I whipped up some sauteed chicken of the woods mushroom and thinly sliced zucchini and make a quick cream sauce.

The sauce is easy to make, just saute your chicken of the woods and zucchini slices in a28960118677_57491ac8e2_o bit of butter and olive oil until both are wilty.  Add a bit of pressed garlic right at the end to avoid burning the garlic.  Next, put in an additional 1 tablespoon of butter and allow to melt down before adding enough heavy cream to thoroughly coat all the ingredients but not cover.  Turn the heat down to low and allow the cream to reduce by half while stirring to avoid burning.  Season with salt and pepper.  The zucchini in the sauce added a lightness to the cream and slight crunch while the mushroom gave you something a little more robust to chew on.  Cooked correctly, the texture of chicken of the woods mushroom should be comparable to perfectly cooked chicken breast while maintaining a mild mushroom flavor.

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Fiddlehead Salad w/Maple Candied Walnuts and Blue Cheese

I realize that the season for fiddleheads has come and gone but I’ve been sitting on this recipe for a few weeks and am just now getting around to posting it.  Here is a piece that I wrote for the North Branch Nature Center’s spring newsletter, followed by a recipe for fiddlehead salad:

The sights and sounds of spring are settling in here along the banks of the North Branch River. Flashes of yellow, orange, red, and the occasional blue brighten up an otherwise brown palate as recently-returned warblers bounce among the willow branches in search of six-legged sustenance. It is easy to lose yourself in the crooning of male songbirds in the branches above, but to do so would risk missing out on the seasonal saga unfurling at your feet – that of the Ostrich Fern.

Buried under snow and ice, Ostrich Fern mounds have remained dormant throughout the winter, waiting for the first warm rays of spring sun to awaken. January thaws tend to flood our section of the North Branch, leaving the fern mounds encased in solid blocks of ice. Undeterred, the hardy fiddleheads push forth from their wintery seclusion, stretch out their arms and welcome spring with rekindled vitality. True Vermonters, they have endured winter’s worst and have come out on the other side.

Look for the fiddleheads of the Ostrich Fern throughout early to mid-May. They can be found under the willow and butternut trees that line the riverbanks. Fiddleheads can be identified in part by the brown papery husks that are soon shed as they begin to unfurl into large fronds resembling the tail feathers of their flightless avian namesake. A deep 27329466885_d92dcef72b_o.jpggroove, similar to a stalk of celery, runs along the inside of each stem. Other ferns growing alongside the ostrich fern may have cylindrical stems, or fiddleheads with white fuzz in place of the brown husk. Foragers should beware of these look-alikes, as they are known to be carcinogenic. To avoid overharvest, best practice is to follow the rule of ten: for every 10 fiddleheads, harvest only one. Once properly identified, there is no better way to greet spring than with a plate full of freshly sautéed fiddleheads.

 

Recipe:

Fiddlehead & Blue Cheese Salad

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cleaned fiddleheads
  • ¾ cup crumbled blue cheese
  • 1 cup shelled walnuts
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • violets as garnish

Steam fiddleheads for 10-12 minutes and then transfer directly into an ice water bath to stop cooking and hold color. Once chilled, strain the fiddleheads and pat dry. Place 20180525_174450.jpgwalnuts in a small saucepan, pour maple syrup over top and begin to heat.  Allow maple syrup to simmer, keeping a careful eye on it and stirring to ensure that it does not burn. Once the maple syrup has reduced to almost nothing, remove the pan from the heat and dump the walnuts out onto a sheet of parchment paper to cool.  Once cooled, chop the walnuts which should now have a maple glaze.  In a large bowl, toss the fiddleheads with the blue cheese and chopped candied walnuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add violet flowers to garnish. Serve cold as a side on your favorite picnic blanket.

Dandelion Wine: Liquid Sunshine

Dandelions are the perfect spring plant.  As soon as the ground thaws, you can dig up the roots, chop and roast them to use as a caramelly coffee like tea that will cleanse a whole winter’s worth of toxins from your body.  The greens make one of the best bitter additions to salads or spring stir fries.   Then there are the flowers.  A ripe dandelion blossom smells like the sweetest of honey.  They pop up as celebratory reflections of the sun in blossom form – which bloom, close, and give way to the giggling of children as their puffballs are blown into the air, landing somewhere downwind to start the whole process again.

Fried up in fritters, or tossed in raw to brighten a salad are both good ways to eat dandelion blossoms but I prefer to imbibe mine in liquid form.  If you’ve never made Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-25,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Ywine before, this is a simple place to start.  First, go out and collect about a half gallon of dandelion blossoms.  It’s best to do this in mid-morning once they have fully opened for the day, though don’t kick yourself if you can’t pick any until 3 in the afternoon.  For the most quintessential dandelion honey-like flavor, look for blossoms that have fully opened with all of their stamens (male flower part which contains the pollen) exposed.

Next, you will want to cut off the calyx of each blossom.  The calyx is the green underside of the blossom.  This part is particularly bitter and can leave an off taste in your wine.  I 20180526_220710have found that the best way to do this is to use a pair of sharp scissors and give your blossoms a haircut while pinching the calyx.  The petals and stamens fall into a bowl and the calyx gets tossed into the compost.  Once you have your bowl of fluffy yellow petals, pour over twice the volume of boiling water.  For half a gallon of petals, you would use one gallon of water.  To this, add the juice and zest of two lemons and the same for one orange.  Stir, cover, and allow to steep on the counter overnight.  Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve, pouring the liquid portion into a pot.  Bring the liquid to a simmer and stir in 4 cups of sugar for every gallon.  Once the sugar has dissolved, turn off the burner and allow the liquid to cool to near room temperature.

Cooling is important because the next step is adding the yeast.  If it is too hot then it could kill the yeast.  I like to use champagne yeast for an extra bubbly effervescence.  Champagne yeast also gives it a slightly higher alcohol content if you’re into that.  You could really use just about any yeast you want though.  The first batch I ever made I used regular baking yeast and it turned out fine enough.  Whatever yeast you use, stir it in well and then pour your concoction into a sterile jug of some sort and cap it with an airlock.  If you are making a large batch, you could use a carboy.  I tend to make smaller batches and use growlers.  This year, I’ve also used half gallon mason jars with special fermenting lids that have an airlock attached.  As your wine ferments, the yeast will convert the sugars to alcohol and burp out gasses.  With just a lid and no airlock, your glass will likely explode due to the built up pressure of yeast burps.  If you go without a lid, then bacteria could enter your wine and turn it to the dark side.  There is a ton of information out there on wine making and fermentation.  For the sake of brevity, I will stop here and allow you to do further research if you are interested.  West coast forager extraordinaire, Pascal Baudar has a new book out titled The Wildcrafted Brewer: Creating Unique Drinks and Boozy Concoctions from Nature’s Ingredients, which is in my opinion the best place to start for foragers interested in brewing.

I allow my dandelion wine to ferment for at least two weeks before I rack it.  All you do with racking is siphon off all of the liquid into a new container for further fermentation, leaving the dead yeast and settled solids in the bottom of the old container.  I may repeat the process in another two weeks if necessary.  After about 5-6 weeks, you should see a pronounced decrease in the rate of gas escaping through your airlock.  This is a signal that your yeast has reached its stopping point and can no longer convert sugar into alcohol.  It is now time to bottle.  Siphon off your liquid one last time into sterile wine bottles or some other sort of container.  For an easy travel size while still maintaining a drinkable amount, I gravitate towards growlers.

You could age your dandelion wine for up to or over a year.  I would tell you how it Dandelion Winetastes at that ripe old age but none of my wine has made it past its first summer.  It tastes too good to let sit on the shelf.  My wife has best described it as liquid sunshine.  I would have to agree.  It is a fairly sweet wine, though not nearly as sweet as other recipes on the internet, some of which call for twice as much sugar.  It has been through trial and error over the last 6 years that I have arrived to this recipe.  It isn’t perfect, but it is darn good.  The citrus notes from the orange and lemons come through but do not overpower the honey flavor of the dandelion.  There is a definite alcohol nip at the end, just enough to make you think twice before downing an entire batch in one sitting.  Still, it is a dangerously tasty wine.  I may try tinkering with different types of yeast in years to come, perhaps trying a batch with some of the naturally occurring yeast from the flowers themselves.

I had the Man Cub harvesting blossoms with me this spring and I told him that he could have some of the wine when he was older.  About an hour later, he told me, “My body is bigger, and I am stronger, and I am old enough to drink the dandelion wine now.”  Maybe by the time he is old enough, the recipe will be perfected.

Wild Yard Green Salad w/Smoked Trout

I don’t always eat salads, but when I do, I eat greens from my yard.  Yard salads can be some of the most beautiful and spring is a great time of year to put one together.  Violets 38455910704_c8984f70b4_oand dandelions are in full bloom right now and my yard is chock full of them.  I leave my yard un-mown through late spring (I’m sure much to the chagrin of some of my neighbors), allowing for a healthy carpet of violet and gold.  Violet blossoms can be made into a syrup or used as a garnish.  Dandelion greens are in my opinion, the best spring greens around, best served wilted in butter or bacon fat if you have it.  Dandelion wine is pretty darn good too (stay tuned for a recipe that tastes like liquid sunshine).  There are many ways to eat these two species but the easiest is to throw them into a salad.

When picking greens in a yard, there are a few things to consider.  One is proximity to the road.  Our house sits on the corner of two streets, one being moderately traveled.  Heavy metals left behind from passing cars can linger on plants near the roadside.  Another concern of being near the road is dog urine.  In our neighborhood there are many canine companions relieving themselves up and down the streets (our dog included).  You may want to think twice before picking that beautiful dandelion growing three feet from the roadside and putting it into a salad.  Between Rover and your neighbor’s Buick, there may be some unwanted seasoning.  I like to forage a minimum of ten feet from busy roads, further if it is a heavily trafficked street in town.  The street on our south lawn is a dead end and sees very few vehicles throughout the day.  Our lawn is also uphill from the road, so runoff would not be an issue.  Still, I harvest a minimum of 5 or 6 feet (the length of a typical dog leash) away from the side of the street.

Violets are easy to identify and are ubiquitous, at least in our lawn.  The leaves are heart28114293608_ea1aaffc9b_o.jpg shaped, curling slightly inward at the top of the heart, with small teeth all along the margins.  The Man Cub has thoroughly enjoyed learning how to identify and eat violets.  He picks one, dutifully holds it out so I can see and says, “Daddy can I eat it?”  After the go ahead from me, he pops it in his mouth and says, “I like the violets.”  Every time.

Dandelion is equally easy to identify.  The leaves are basal and more often than not, 41866758861_bc08d107f6_o.jpgdeeply toothed.  If you cut a leaf and look at the cut end, you should see a milky substance oozing out.  Folks who are allergic to latex should avoid consuming dandelions as this milky substance is in fact a form of latex.  This sap also is what gives the dandelion its bitter qualities.  To avoid leaves that are too bitter, be sure to harvest before the plant blooms.  I don’t mind a little bitterness in my salads so long as it’s balanced out with other flavors.

For our salad, the Man Cub and I had a rough ratio of 50% violet greens, 30% dandelion greens, 15% bishop’s weed for a nice carrot/parsley flavor, and 15% garden sorrel, which added a nice lemony sourness to balance the bitter dandelions.  A few handfuls of violet blossoms added a nice splash of color and a smattering of smoked trout rounded out our vibrant spring salad.

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