Leeky Chicken Legs cooked in Maple Sap

Everyone has had a day when you are just too tired to cook but you’ve already pulled the let’s-go-out-to-eat card one too many times that week.  So you take a deep breath, open the refrigerator door and stare blankly into the abyss, wondering what the heck you are going to make.  Tonight that was me.  I grabbed the first two things that I saw: chicken legs and a leek.  Put them together and you have “leeky chicken.”  Perfect.

I tossed two tablespoons of butter into the pan, seasoned my chicken with a liberal dose of salt and pepper, and browned them in the butter over medium heat, turning the legs every few minutes.  Once browned on all sides, I tossed in one whole sliced leek and covered the pan.  After a few minutes, I realized that the butter was going to burn if I kept going and that the chicken legs weren’t cooked through yet.

Another blank stare, this time at the stove.

39650985455_40581bdcac_oOn another burner, a pot of maple sap was boiling away as part of my yearly backyard sugaring project.  I looked at the pot for a few seconds and then looked back at the nearly burning pan of chicken and leeks.  Then back to the pot.  Without much thought, I grabbed a ladle and poured two ladle fulls of partially reduced maple sap into the sizzling pan of chicken, instantly deglazing the pan – releasing almost burnt, caramelly goodness into the liquid.  Throwing the lid back onto the pan, I allowed the legs to simmer away in the sap for another 15 minutes.

At this point, the legs were cooked completely through and had been infused with a tender earthy sweetness.  This is when my brain finally kicked back in.  After removing the legs from the pan, I added another splash of the sap and a thorough sprinkling of salt to balance out the sweetness.  Had I known that I would be turning this experiment into a blog post, I would have measured out the salt.  Things being as they are, I would guess that it was about another teaspoon of salt.  The fat that had rendered out of the chicken skins added a richness to the sweet and salty sauce while the leeks brought their onion pungency to the table.  A quick sauté of a bunch of asparagus and the meal was finished.   The chicken was a big hit with the Man Cub, who eats a ton during the day but can be a bit picky once dinner rolls along.

More details on sugaring to come.

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Wintergreen Jelly

Wintergreen LeavesWhat do you  do when you’ve run out of grape jelly but you still have to pack your son’s pb&j the next morning?  Take the wintergreen leaves that you had planned on making tea out of and turn it into jelly instead!  Wintergreen is a low lying, creeping perennial whose leaves stay green through the winter and may be harvested year round.  There are a few look-a-likes, such as partridge berry (Mitchella repens) or periwinkle (Vinca minor), but none of them have the distinctive wintergreen scent when you crush a leaf.

I say that the leaves of wintergreen may be harvested year round, but there may be some40228867052_2a1797c3af_o impediments during the winter months.  To collect enough leaves yesterday, I had to dig through almost two feet of snow, with two distinct layers of crusty ice.  Luckily I had the patch well scouted and it didn’t take more than a few minutes to discover exactly where the waxy green leaves were hiding.  It is a fairly large patch, so I was able to take about 50 leaves without any fear of over harvest.

To make a wintergreen tea, normally you would pack the leaves into a jar, cover with water, and allow it to sit in a warm place for 3 days so that it may begin to ferment.  This fermentation draws out a more potent wintergreen flavor, however, time was of the essence tonight.  I decided to speed things up a bit and possibly forgo maximum potency.  The leaves were dropped into 4 cups of water in a sauce pot, brought to a boil and then reduced to a slow simmer for 15 minutes while covered.  The kitchen, which had smelled strongly of pork fat (pork chops were on the menu for dinner), was filled with a cloud of minty wintergreen goodness.  I suspect that some of those essential oils were released and lost into the air during the simmering process.  After the 15 minutes of simmering, I removed the pot from the heat and allowed it to sit and steep for an additional 30 minutes before straining out the leaves.

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At this point, the tea had a very dark, reddish color and smelled strongly of wintergreen.  The flavor was not nearly as strong as the aroma but it had enough to leave the mouth 25403087277_48ff57c436_owith a nice clean feeling.  Good enough!  Time to turn the tea into jelly.  I added 2 cups of honey and 2 cups of turbinado sugar to the tea and dissolved over low heat.  When I added the pectin, something interesting happened to the color.  It changed from the darker rosé color to a golden honey yellow.  Once poured out into jars and allowed to set, the end product was quite a nice little jelly.  The honey provided a nice base layer for the mintyness of the wintergreen to rest on.  When I have a little more time to play with, i will have to try making a batch with the fermented tea.  It would also be fun to try out a batch of snow cream with some wintergreen syrup!

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Snow Cream: Highbush Cranberry w/Maple Syrup and Pine Needle w/Honey

The only thing better than waking up and discovering that school has been canceled is having school canceled preemptively the night before.  Part of the joy of a snow day is the unexpected freedom to do whatever you want, untethered by the constructs of school or work; but when you get a chance to plan the night before, a snow day can be truly epic.  For the Man Cub, yesterday was pretty epic.

After breakfast we took a family hike up to the forest at the end of our street.  The snow hadn’t started falling yet, but there was enough  residual powder from the day before to 40106602512_a9d2292107_omake the going difficult for 2 year old legs.  My hike up the hill quickly turned from a leisurely stroll into a workout upon gaining a 32 pound barnacle.  The barnacle detached once we reached the abandoned apple orchard at the top of the hill and began chasing after the dog.  I took the moment to trim a few branches off of a Scotch Pine for tea.  The adjacent property had once served as a 9 hole golf course, so Pinus sylvestris is prolific.  I had hoped to also harvest some spruce needles, but the Man Cub took a spill in the deeper snow and had reached his limit for this outing.  A quick hop in the sled and we were back home.

The snow started coming down by the bucketful by the time we stepped back inside.  As soon as I closed the door, the Man Cub shouted, “Time to make the snow cream!”  I had made the promise the night before and he was not about to let me ruin his snow day by forgetting.  So off to the kitchen we went.  I had never heard of snow cream until this winter when I stumbled across a recipe while researching homemade ice cream.  It basically is exactly what it sounds like: snow mixed with some sort of milk or cream to create an ice cream like substance.

Most recipes that I’ve seen call for vanilla but we weren’t in a vanilla kind of mood.  Two flavors were on the menu on this  snow day.  The first was highbush cranberry sweetened with maple syrup.  The second flavor was pine needle sweetened with honey.  Each flavor came in the form of a simple syrup, which was then mixed with the snow and milk.  Half a cup of highbush cranberries were simmered in just enough water to cover until they burst and released their juices.  Seeds and skins were strained out and a half cup of maple syrup was dissolved into the juice then left to cool.  I made a cup of pine needle tea by simmering one cup of needles in a cup of water for 10 minutes and then steeping covered in pot for another 10 minutes.  After straining the needles out, a half cup of honey stirred in to make a light syrup.  Like the highbush cranberry syrup, this was left to cool.

39441193594_66c3248d2d_oWhile we were making our syrups, the snow was busy accumulating more than an inch per hour.  By the time our syrups were cooled down to room temperature, there was about eight inches of snow on the porch.  Using the largest wooded bowl we own, pushed open the front door and scooped up 8 cups of snow.  To the snow we added our highbush cranberry syrup and two cups of whole milk.  We stirred with a wooden spoon until the snow had all been incorporated into the liquid ingredients.  Surprisingly, the milk and syrup did not melt the snow.  Instead, the snow seemed to absorb the extra moisture and took on a somewhat creamy consistency.  When trying this at home, you may need to play around with the amount of milk and or syrup you add depending on the makeup of your snow.  I would imagine that wetter snows (good snowman snow) would require much less milk than a drier powdery snow, which is what we had.  We wasted no time in eating this batch of snow cream.  The milk gave it a very nice texture, similar to a sorbet.  The musky tartness of the highbush cranberry came through but was slightly overshadowed by the maple syrup.  If I do this flavor again, I would try doubling the amount of berries used in making the syrup to try to draw out more of the tartness.  Still, it was a very satisfying batch of snow cream.  There were certainly no complaints from the Man Cub until we had run out.

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The second batch had to wait until after dinner.  Again, we started with 8 cups of powdery snow and then stirred in a cup of the pine needle tea and honey syrup.  Instead of whole milk, this time we used two cups of homemade sweetened condensed milk.  For some reason, the condensed milk was not absorbed quite as well by the snow, so we added an additional two cups of snow to achieve the desired texture.  The result was something much closer to actual ice cream than our first batch.  The condensed milk gave it an incredible richness which was balanced out by the light flavors of the pine needle tea.  I asked the Man Cub what it tasted like and he said, “It taste like, um… SNOW CREAM!”  As good as this second batch was, I paid for it the rest of the night chasing after a hyperactive two year old who ended up staying up two and a half hours past his bedtime.  Next time I might skip the additional sugar of the condensed milk if we are eating our snow cream before bedtime.

Heartbeat of the Woods: Grouse w/Drunken Highbush Cranberry Sauce

Last week I wrote about the deep silence of a forest in winter.  How sometimes, if you are careful, you can slip into that silence.  Every now and then though, you get a little too close and something erupts from the forest floor with an explosion of sound.  The sound strikes right at your heart, letting you know that you don’t really belong there.  That something is a ruffed grouse.

It  is no longer grouse season here in Vermont.  Even if it were, my  grouse hunting skills  are non existent.  I’ve gone after grouse a few times but all that I’ve been able to hit in those outings are a few poor little beech saplings.  An old grouse hunter told me once about the rule of three.  For every three grouse that you flush, you will see one.   For every three grouse that you see, you will get a shot off at one.  For every three that you shoot at, you will hit one and that is only if you are well practiced.  However, every now and then food delivers itself.  A coworker gifted me with a grouse that his family found lying dead near one of the windows of their home.  Apparently it had flushed from the nearby bushes and took a wrong turn into the window.  Not wanting it to go to waste, he brought it to me.  I am so grateful that he did.

Having never eaten grouse before, I decided to keep things fairly simple.  A simple roast with a  highbush cranberry sauce that I tried for the first time last Thanksgiving would suffice.  Upon plucking and dressing the bird, I discovered that its crop was completely engorged with slightly fermented crab apples.  High on a shelf in my kitchen sat an unopened jug of homemade hard cider.  This would have to find its way into the sauce.

To roast the grouse, I followed instructions from wild food guru Hank Shaw.  He suggests roasting at 450 for 15 minutes and then dropping the temperature to 350 for the last 20 minutes, basting with melted butter throughout the process.  The only thing I changed was that I added a healthy dose of pepper in the buttering process.  The result was a perfectly cooked bird.  Thank you Mr. Shaw!

While the bird was in the oven, I worked on the sauce.  I sliced up a Braeburn apple, tossed it in a pan with a little butter and sauteed until the slices started to soften a touch.  Then I deglazed the pan with 1 cup of my homemade hard cider and tossed in 1 cup of 39312852964_31fb0c5c4d_ofrozen highbush cranberries that I harvested back in the fall.  Out of curiosity, I visited the bush that I harvested them from yesterday and to my surprise, there were still a few that looked like they were in good shape.  I am sure they are slightly fermented at this point, but we had an incredibly cold December, perhaps they froze quickly enough  to preserve some of their culinary  integrity.  Further experimentation will be necessary but  for now I will use up the berries in my freezer.

I let the cranberries cook down until they had burst, releasing their juices into the cider.  This mixture was then run through a sieve to remove the skins, large flat seeds of the berries, and apple chunks.  Returning it to the sauce pot, I stirred the liquid slowly over low heat as I poured in 3 tablespoons of maple syrup to balance out the musky tartness of the berries.  The end result was a slightly runny sauce with a big hit of pungent  sweet flavor.

After allowing the grouse to rest for ten minutes, I sliced the breast meat at an angle and plated it atop a bed of brown rice and shitake  mushrooms.  Legs and thighs are too small to make sense carving, so they were served bone-in.  Cranberry sauce was spooned over top of the breast.  The sauce could have had a touch more body, although its thinness allowed it to be easily absorbed into the breast meat.

This was by  far and away the best bird that has ever entered my mouth.  Like the highbush cranberries, the meat of the bird was slightly musky and had a gaminess about it.  Upon describing it as gamey to my wife, she immediately recoiled at the description, stating that gamey insinuates poor flavor.  I rebutted that most of the meat that the general society is accustomed to tasting actually has little to no flavor and that gamey has come to be used in reference to any meat that has an abundance of flavor.  Our palates are in need of a tune up after decades of eating bland meats.  I propose that everyone eats a plate of grouse at least twice a year to remind our taste buds of what food is supposed to taste like.  There is a refreshing unharnessed wildness in the flavor that startles the nerve endings on my tongue, similar to how the cacophonous eruption of a flushing grouse jolts my body to attention.  To taste a grouse is to taste the wild.  Go befriend a hunter, take up the sport yourself, or make use of wayward window strikes.  You will be glad you did.

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Nose-to-Fin Eating: Northern Pike Dumplings with Chaga Fish Broth and Perch Roe Cakes

A dozen or more pop up ice shanties are scattered across the frozen South Bay of Lake Memphremagog.  Fishermen are huddled in with their mini heaters and high tech Vexilar sonar fish finders, unscathed by the harsh winds and nearly white-out conditions thrashing against their protective polyester walls.  Three college kids playing hooky drill 5 holes with their power auger within sight of the parking lot, set up their tip ups and trudge back to comfort of their pickup truck to watch for flags.  About 50 yards beyond their tip ups, there is a man sitting on a bucket in the middle of the lake with his goose down hood up and back turned against the pelting snow and ice.  His hand crank auger lays near him, inside his bright orange kiddie sled.Northern Pike and Yellow Perch on South Bay of Lake Memphremagog  His arms, tired from drilling through 14 inches of hard ice, rest upon his knees.  His toes are numb because he failed to switch the load of laundry containing his wool socks from the washer to the dryer the night before.  If they could see his face beneath his hood, they would see a smile on his face because next to those cold feet is a pile of yellow perch slowly disappearing beneath the falling snow.

Last Monday was the warmest it had been for weeks.  Twenty-three degrees with a wind chill in low teens felt like a heat wave compared to the polar vortex cyclone bomb of icy death that weathercasters had the gleeful joy of presenting to us during the first week of 2018.  I knew that the ice would be nice and thick and being cooped up for awhile, I had an itch that needed scratching.  Using my first vacation day of the new year, I dusted off Fallfishmy ice fishing rod and headed North to sit on a bucket in the middle of a frozen lake.  It was totally worth it.  Within just a couple hours, I caught around 25 fish, including my personal best Fallfish at 17 inches.  That one was pardoned back into  the icy depths but 11 Yellow Perch and one Northern Pike were not so lucky.

I didn’t make it back home until after dinner so the perch were quickly gutted and frozen whole.  I took the time to fillet and bone out the pike, knowing that I was going to cook it up the next day.  Pike are a notoriously boney fish, leading to undeserved malignment in the kitchen.  Yes 24791325517_e3888d61d2_othey are slimy, but that is nothing a good rinse under the faucet and some paper towels can’t fix.  With just an extra two minutes of time and some skillful work with a fillet knife, all of the floating y-bones can be removed, leaving you with wonderfully firm white fleshed fillets that have a myriad of options for preparation.  There are plenty of videos out there on the internet that can show you exactly how to remove the bones, so I won’t attempt to  describe something here that is easier understood through visual demonstration.

I will tell you that when keeping fish after ice fishing excursions, please please please take the time to gut your fish.  Inside each gravid female lies an all too often overlooked culinary treasure…roe.  Plump egg sacs full of thousands of tiny eggs.  Depending on the species of fish, they range in flavor from strongly fishy to very mild and creamy.  I’ve 38951372234_1f57378c7c_oonly had roe from pike, perch and pumpkinseed, all of which have been pleasantly mild with a slight eggy flavor.  I tried roe for the first time last fall when I was surprised find egg sacs in a few pumpkinseeds that I had gutted.  A simple saute in butter was all I did then, but when I discovered that nine of the eleven perch I brought home were gravid as well as the pike, I took the opportunity to highlight what “nose-to-fin” eating can look like.  Using the roe from both the pike and the perch, I made some Asian inspired fish roe cakes.  Then I cooked up some pike dumplings which were then  floated in a fish  stock made from the head, bones, and fins of the pike.  Every part of the fish, aside from the guts and skin (which made some nutrient dense addition to the compost pile), was used.

Let’s start with the roe cakes.  First I took a knife and sliced open each of the ovaries and carefully scraped the eggs into a bowl.  I ended up with about 1 1/2 cups of fish roe.  1 cup of grated, soaked, and squeezed dry yukon gold potato and 1/2 cup of grated yellow onion was added to the mixture.  I also added 1/4 cup of diced scallion, 1 chicken egg, 1 1/2 teaspoons of parsley, 3/4 teaspoon of cayenne powder, and the juice of 1/2 a lemon.  Then I slowly added 1/3 cup of breadcrumbs while stirring.  This produced a mixture that was just thick enough to form into patties approximately 4 inches in  diameter and half an inch thick.  In a frying pan, I heated up 1/4 inch of peanut oil.  Any oil or fat that has a high burning temperature could have been used.  I just happened to have peanut oil on hand.

Carefully placing each patty into the oil, making sure that there was enough room so that they didn’t touch, I fried them about 2 minutes before flipping.  This was just enough to reach a deep golden brown.  Upon removing them from the oil and placed them on a plate lined with paper towels and immediately seasoned with a pinch of salt.  I wasn’t sure they had cooked all the way through, so after carefully blotting off any extra oil with a paper towel, I transferred them in a glass baking dish and baked in a 375 degree oven for an additional 10 minutes.  The finished product was plated with a slice of lemon for squeezing.  Like I stated before, this roe was not fishy.  There was a bit of an eggy flavor but what stood out was the creamy texture which was matched perfectly  with the crispy potato bits on the exterior.  I tried the first few bites without any accoutrements, then added a bit of Sriracha.  This was a match made in heaven.  The added spice from the Sriracha melded perfectly with the slight egginess of the roe.  The only thing that I will change when I do this again (this recipe may become a staple in the Benton household) will be to use garlic chive in place of scallion for a little more pungency.  Once the snow melts and spring comes along, the addition of wild leeks will make for the perfect springtime snack.

Fish Roe Cakes

On to the rest of the pike.  First, the Man Cub and I tackled the fish stock.  We cut up 1 whole onion, skin and all, the equivalent of 1 large carrot (we only had baby carrots), 2 stalks of celery, and ran 1 clove of garlic through the garlic press.  He dumped the veggies into the pot and then assured me, “it not going to bite you,” in reference to the pike head lying on the cutting board.  I told him he was right and asked if he’d like to touch  it.  He did a gentle one finger touch and then we placed it in the pot with the veggies.  We then poured in 1 cup of dry white wine and just 24791313507_ab83012655_oenough water to cover everything.  After adding 1 Tablespoon of salt and a healthy pinch of black pepper, we took a one inch cube of chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) and plopped it in with all of the other ingredients.  Chaga is an incredibly  medicinal mushroom that grows only on birch trees.  It has an exterior that looks like burnt wood.  While this exterior has many medicinal properties, I find it unpalatably bitter.  The inner portion is orangish in color, has a corky texture and gives off a very mild vanilla flavor.  This is the part that I included in the stock.  Next week’s entry will go more in depth with this wild mushroom.

We brought the liquid to a boil and then reduced it to a simmer, covered, and let it cook for 1 hour.  The fish had given off its flavor in 30 minutes but the chaga needed longer to steep in order to extract more of the antioxidant properties.  After an hour, we strained it all through a fine mesh sieve and returned the liquid to the pot.

After the Man Cub reluctantly went off to bed with Mama, I started in on the dumplings.  I had recently seen an episode of The Mind of a Chef on Netflix where Chef Andre Soltner makes pike dumplings in a lobster cream sauce.  I wasn’t going to buy a lobster (though  I do have a friend who frequently dives for them… maybe I’ll try this part of the recipe once the waters warm up enough for diving) so I just followed the recipe for the dumplings and replaced the sauce with my chaga fish broth.  You can find the Chef Soltner’s recipe here: Chef Andre Soltner’s Pike Dumplings Recipe

I did my best, but alas, I am not a classically trained French chef.  That and my food processor broke down midway through blending the panade with the pike.  I transitioned the mixture into a deep bowl and proceeded with a handheld electric mixer.  Upon scooping the spoon into the dumpling dough, I realized that my dumplings were going to be far more flat than Chef Soltner’s.  Still,  I ventured onward and lowered each dumpling or “quenelle” into the slightly simmering water for poaching.  The end result was a dumpling that was much more light and airy than the dense American dumplings that I grew up with.  The texture was light and fluffy but not quite as seen on T.V.  The flavor was rich with some of the pike shining through.  The flesh of the pike had a sort of a sweetness to it, though not sweet like perch.  It was more of a savory sweet that was hard to describe.  On its own, something was lacking.  Then when I placed them in the stock, some culinary magic took place.  The stock had a certain pungency from the garlic that cut right through the richness of the buttery dumplings.  The high in the sky airy quality was brought back down by the earthy fishy flavors from the chaga and pike in the stock.  Overall, it was an enjoyable bowl of food and I quickly gobbled down 6 dumplings.  There will be some fine tuning that I’ll make to both the stock and the dumplings, but it was a solid first attempt at a challenging dish.

Northern Pike
From the Ice
Pike Dumplings with Chaga Fish Broth
To the Bowl