Home for the Holidays
Minnesota native foods tie a holiday menu to the land.
Text and recipes by Susan Kaneko Binkley
Photography by Bill Lindner
Illustrations by Timothy T. Trost
This season, I've been thinking about going off the deep end: preparing a holiday meal with wild Minnesota foods or their cultivated counterparts. These days we are privileged to enjoy an endless diversity of national and regional cuisines-Thai this, Mediterranean that, Caribbean, Japanese, Afghan, Ethiopian, even Californian. But how much do you know about what grows and what tastes good at home, right here in Minnesota? (And please don't roll your eyes and think cattail stew.) Just from the fat of summer and autumn, I've gathered enough wild ingredients to make a modest culinary extravaganza with rustic, aromatic, distinctively north woods flavors for the recipes that follow.
A lot of work? Yes, but I'm talking about the world's best food, nutritionally and aesthetically-food that comes from local land and waters. The most authoritative chefs and restaurant guides in the world favor local cuisine. Why? Because local foods are often fresher and, therefore, more colorful and tasty than imports, which may come from halfway around the world. They also choose local because such distinctive foods feed both body and soul-from procurement, to preparation, to palate.
With an abundance of freshwater fish, game animals, berries, nuts, mushrooms, and wild rice, Minnesota rates above average in quantity and quality of wild edibles. These foods are makings for hearty meals-a little on the rough side, perhaps, but nothing a little butter or sweet couldn't tame.
Before grocery stores, before modern food technologies and agriculture, wild foods provided just enough for humans to eke out an existence in the north woods. By staying on the move and becoming ever more competent in their knowledge of gathering wild food from the land, people derived adequate nourishment from captured game and harvested wild plants. But when weather or cycles of game betrayed them, they starved. I have often wondered after a day of getting skunked afield or on the water how I would have fared as a bona fide hunter-gatherer.
The simple beauty of wild foods captivates my eyes and mind and makes me hungry for the chase. Once I've glimpsed a plant bejeweled with scarlet berries, I've been known to jump into sticker-bushes, bogs, and other precarious places I usually try to avoid. I've picked oblivious to time and discomfort, determined to find every last little gem. Berries are that beautiful.
Fish, glittering in iridescent metallics against a backdrop of autumn reds and gold, can work the same spell. I've known some people who forget to eat, who endure the elements, ignore flies, even defy a spouse-in-waiting, all for the sake of just one more tug, one more meeting with a feisty, fat fish. There are many similar stories of the spellbound. They involve deer stands in the snow, duck blinds in wind, the hard work of poling through a stand of wild rice, or kneeling in a berry patch-all in pursuit of pleasurable sustenance.
Now, what are you going to do with all those ducks and berries? Time to roll up your sleeves and get to work on your wild holiday feast.
A bit of advice: Don't spring wild foods-or any unusual meal, for that matter-on tradition-bound holiday guests unless you've given them fair notice. In my experience, tradition trumps almost any treat you can cook up. Better to make a separate holiday party with select, appreciative guests.
Wild Feast for Six
Pan-smoked Duck or Trout on Jerusalem Artichoke-Potato Cakes
Chicken-of-the-Woods Wild Rice
Grilled Venison Chops in Juniper Marinade
Sweet and Sour Wild Berry Relish
Roasted Winter Root Vegetables
Maple Hazelnut Galette
If you have the opportunity to harvest ingredients in the wild, do so with care and restraint. A little goes a long way when you celebrate to feed the spirit. You can easily substitute cultivated varieties commercially available, preferably from local producers.
Pan-Smoked Duck or Trout
Smoking, one of the most primitive food preservation methods, is a surefire way to tame the wild, assertive flavors of oilier meats. Here's an easy way to rig an indoor stove-top smoker. Surprisingly little smoke escapes into the house, but be prepared to hear your smoke alarm protest.
One whole trout with skin, fresh or thawed, or two skinless duck breast halves. (Reserve duck skin to make craquelins-little strips of skin fried crisp like bacon. Try them on a salad. Reserve rendered duck fat to fry Jerusalem artichoke-potato cakes.)
2 T. coarse (noniodized) salt
2 T. brown sugar
For the pan smoker:
an old, dispensable large pot or deep-sided pan with a fitted lid
Rack to fit inside pot
Heat-proof props to raise rack an inch or so, such as empty tuna can or wads of aluminum foil
Five 4-inch pieces of grapevine without leaves or fruitwood twigs
Combine salt and sugar and rub into flesh of duck or trout. Marinate for 1 hour at room temperature. Pat dry with paper towel and rub with oil.
Place wood in pan and add props, place greased rack on props, and arrange duck or trout to allow smoke to circulate around each piece. Cover with lid, weighting if necessary for tight fit. Place smoker on stove over high heat; reduce to medium when smoking begins. Smoke duck for 17 minutes, trout for 20. Remove from heat and cool. Keeps one week in refrigerator.
Jerusalem Artichoke-Potato Cakes
Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are potatolike tubers of a wild native sunflower. Because this invasive plant is listed as a secondary noxious weed in Minnesota, the only danger in overharvesting may be to the air quality in your home. High in inulin, a gas-producing compound found in other wild roots, such as burdock, and beans, Jerusalem artichokes are best consumed in moderate quantities. Cultivated sunchokes can be found in some grocery stores and farmers markets, but you can substitute an equal amount of potato if necessary.
1 large baking potato, well-scrubbed, grated
8 medium -artichokes, well-scrubbed, grated
1 small onion, grated
2 T. fresh dill leaves
1 T. coarse salt
2 eggs or 4 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. reserved duck fat or sunflower oil for frying
Garnishes: tart berry or cherry jam, sliced scallion, dilled sour cream, red radish matchsticks
Special equipment: clean flour-sack dish towel.
Combine first five ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Let stand 10 minutes. Then squeeze liquid from grated vegetables; wring in towel over sink until very dry.
Measure grated vegetables. For every 1/2 cup of vegetables, add 2 T. egg or egg white and 2 T. flour. Mix well. Heat duck fat or oil in a skillet over medium-high heat to 375 F. Drop generous tablespoons of vegetable mix into oil and fry until one side is golden, about 5 minutes. Flip and fry 10 more minutes until completely browned. Reserve fried cakes on paper towel.
Cut smoked duck breast in half lengthwise and slice diagonally into 1/4-inch bite-size slices. For smoked trout, peel skin, remove head and bones, and divide into bite-size pieces. Arrange duck or trout on cakes and add tangy topping-jam garnished with scallion slices for duck or a dollop of dilled sour cream garnished with red radish matchsticks. Serve immediately. Makes approximately 1-1/2 dozen.
Chicken-of-the-Woods Wild Rice
The wild rice harvest is well-managed in our state, so please seek out authentic wild rice for this meal-the flavor and texture is superior to cultivated varieties. (See Resources below. See also "Wild About Ricing," July-August 2004 Conservation Volunteer.)
Chicken-of-the-woods*, also known as sulfur-shelf, is a fall-fruiting, wood-decaying fungus common to Minnesota deciduous and pine forests. Growing on both live and dead wood, this species is a lethal tree pathogen that infects trees with brown rot. However, it is edible.
As with any new food--especially a wild mushroom--wisely introduce only a small portion to your diet. Most important of all, always eat chicken-of-the-woods well-cooked, never raw. Although there is no replacement for the chickenlike texture and bright color of this wild mushroom, you may substitute another mushroom, fresh or dried and reconstituted.
2 shallots, finely minced
1/4 c. butter
2 c. chicken-of-the-woods -mushrooms, cleaned and diced
1 c. hand-harvested wild rice, raw
4 c. chicken stock
salt and pepper
1/4 c. flat parsley, finely minced
In a 5-quart pan, briefly saute shallots in 2 T. butter over medium-high heat until translucent. Add mushrooms and saute for 10 minutes. In a 4-quart saucepan, melt remaining butter, add wild rice, and saute for 5 minutes. Combine with mushroom mixture and chicken stock. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Uncover, fluff rice, add parsley, and if necessary continue heating on low to evaporate any remaining liquid.
*Information here is not complete for safe identification. Never collect wild mushrooms without expert knowledge.
Grilled Venison Chops in Juniper Marinade
Pound for pound, venison has less fat than skinless chicken and all the charms of red meat. The bone, besides making a convenient carnivore's handle, helps to keep this lean cut moist and flavorful. To obtain venison chops, order from a specialty venison purveyor (see Resources) or use your own. (See "The Sweet Taste of Success," Nov.-Dec. 1999 Conservation Volunteer, for more on the art of cooking venison.)
The bittersweet, backwoods flavor of juniper berries pairs well with game. Ground-juniper, a coniferous shrub with low, spreading habit, grows in sandy or stony sites. The berries-actually specialized female cones-are ripe when blue. Plan to marinate the meat overnight.
12 venison chops, 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick, frenched (removing flesh to expose end of bone), silver skin removed
2 T. sunflower oil for frying
1/4 c. gin (juniper is a flavoring in gin)
3 T. maple syrup
3 juniper berries, crushed*
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
2 T. coarse salt
1 T. fresh thyme, finely minced, or 1 t. dried thyme
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. ground pepper
2 T. sunflower oil
Warning: Juniper should be used sparingly, and not at all by pregnant women.
The night before, combine marinade ingredients in a 1-gallon freezer-strength plastic bag. Add chops and refrigerate.
One hour before cooking, remove bag from refrigerator to bring chops to room temperature. Drain marinade into a small saucepan, simmer for 10 minutes, and set aside for relish, below.
Preheat oven to 500 F. Pat chops dry. Heat oil in large cast-iron skillet or other heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. Add chops when oil is very hot but not smoking. Fry 2 minutes on each side. Fry chops in batches, if necessary, and transfer to large roasting pan. Roast 3 minutes in oven until medium-rare, remove, cover loosely with foil, and let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Sweet and Sour Wild Berry Relish
Two varieties of wild cranberry grow in Minnesota. Vaccinium oxycoccus, or small cranberry, has fruits that are smaller, rounder, and more flavorful than those of our other variety, V. macrocarpon, the species cultivated for its familiar egg-shaped berry.
Thoreau wrote, "Better for me, says my genius, to go cranberrying this afternoon for the Vaccinium oxycoccus in Gowing's Swamp, to get but a pocketful and learn its peculiar flavor--aye, and the flavor of Gowing's Swamp and of life in New England . . . for it will not be only the quality of an insignificant berry that you will have tasted, but the flavor of your life to that extent, and it will be such a sauce as no wealth can buy."
Serve as an accompaniment to venison chops and as garnish to duck or trout and Jerusalem artichoke-potato cakes.
2 shallots, finely minced
2 T. butter
1 c. fresh or frozen cranberries
8 oz. cranberry sauce or chokecherry jam
1/2 c. brown or maple sugar
1/8 t. cinnamon
reserved precooked marinade (optional)
Heat butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and saute until translucent. Add all remaining ingredients. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until liquid is reduced and relish has a thick, jamlike consistency. Serve warm with chops.
Maple Hazelnut Galettes
Mice, blue jays, bears, and weevils give people stiff hazelnut-gathering competition. One way to outsmart them: harvest hazelnut clusters while husks are still green and closed but the nut is almost ripe, about late August, then let ripen indoors.
Minnesota has two wild varieties: beaked and American hazelnuts. Smaller than their cultivated counterparts of European stock, wild hazelnuts have a particularly hard shell, but with a little shelling practice, you can avoid pulverizing the nutmeat. If you gather hazelnuts that have ripened outdoors as I have, most will be empty-consumed by weevil larvae. The good nuts will be hidden in the caches of mice and jays. For me, cracking 200 nuts yielded a scant half cup of nutmeats.
Hazelnuts should be allowed to cure to bring out their full flavor. To cure, store unshelled nuts in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place for three months.
1 c. granulated maple sugar
1 c. pure maple syrup
1 c. dry, unseasoned white bread crumbs
1/2 c. chopped hazelnuts, roasted and skinned
1/2 c. half-and-half cream
4 large egg yolks
1/4 t. salt
1 T. wine vinegar
Pastry and topping:
pastry for 4 pie crusts (your favorite homemade or store-bought) for individual galettes or pastry for 2 pie crusts for single, large galette
1/2 c. hazelnuts, roasted, skinned, halved
1 egg white, loosely beaten with 1 T. water
whipping cream or vanilla ice cream
2 T. Frangelico, hazelnut liqueur (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine filling ingredients in 4-quart heavy baking pan and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. (Keeps one week refrigerated.)
Preheat oven to 400 F. On floured surface, roll pastry, 1/8-inch thick, into 12-inch circles or 9- by 13-inch rectangle. For individual galettes, cut into six 5-inch rounds. Place pastry on buttered cookie sheet. Spoon filling onto pastry and spread, leaving margin. Fold, pleat, and press edge around filling. Decorate with nut halves. Lightly brush entire surface with egg wash, sprinkle with maple sugar. Bake 30 minutes.
Serve warm or room temperature with ice cream or whipped cream flavored with Frangelico.
Roasted Winter Root Vegetables
Roasting caramelizes natural vegetable sugars for a crisper, sweeter result. This recipe includes a parboiling step that softens vegetable surfaces, permitting them to be roughened for better crisping and browning. Waiting to salt vegetables until the end produces a crisper result, too. This recipe can be made ahead if necessary and reheated in a 375F oven for 15 minutes before serving.
2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 3/4-inch dice
3 large parsnips, peeled, cut into 3/4-inch dice
2 medium rutabagas, peeled, cut into 3/4-inch dice
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 3/4-inch dice
6 small shallots, divided into individual cloves, peeled
1/3 c. melted duck fat or olive oil or combination
1 T. thyme, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 t. freshly ground pepper
Preheat a large non-stick roasting pan in oven to 400 F. In a large pot, bring 8 cups of unsalted water to boil. When water is boiling, add vegetables and parboil for 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly in a colander and let stand for 5 minutes to dry.
Meanwhile, carefully add fat to hot roasting pan and return to oven for 5 minutes. Shake vegetables in colander to roughen surfaces. When oil in roasting pan is heated, add vegetables and seasonings, quickly and carefully tossing in hot fat. Return immediately to oven and roast for 40 minutes, turning once after 20 minutes. Salt to taste and serve.
Susan Kaneko Binkley, art director for the Conservation Volunteer, dedicates this story to the memory of food author Julia Child.