You say Celery, I say Celeriac

Celery and celeriac are not the same thing, despite what our attempt at a clever title might suggest. Actually distinct varieties in the same plant genus, Apium, developed from the same wild species. Celeriac is more widely appreciated in Europe than in the U.S., as a lovely replacement for potatoes, whether steamed, roasted, or mashed. Here we are using both celery and celeriac in a preparation of brook trout. See this post for a much longer appreciation of the trout itself. For this recipe, we’re playing with the flavor affinities and contrasts of celery.

We begin with a very bright, unconventional slaw including celery, rhubarb and fennel and then also offer a subtle highlight with grill-dried celery leaves as a garnish. The celeriac is peeled and boiled, then pureed with butter and heavy cream to provide a delicate hint of traditional roasted celery flavor beneath the grilled trout. Our trout here was plank-roasted over apple wood. Though a pan roasted approach would as well, the smoky, grilled preparation really allows the brightness of the slaw and the creaminess of the puree to play full, complementary roles.

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We chose to peel a single bulb of celeriac, and then dice it into 1 inch cubes. We boiled it in just enough water to cover in a large pot, with a pinch of salt and an additional bay leaf. Once soft enough to easily crush a cube, we drained and then added 1/2 cup of heavy cream and 4 tablespoons of butter, then mashed the celeriac until fine. Options here would include pureeing the mixture until smooth. Yukon Gold potatoes could be added when boiling to create a less pronounced celeriac flavor, though celeriac is already fairly mild, with just a overtone of celery. A 1/2 cup of grated white cheddar or a fresh goat cheese would also be great.

The celery, rhubarb, fennel slaw is a variation on this apple, fennel salad, with thinly sliced rhubarb standing in for the granny smith apple. Either approach is excellent, but we had rhubarb on hand and enjoyed the “three stalk slaw”, a reference to the look of each of the ingredients. We made this a few hours in advance to allow the fennel to soften slightly.

The rainbow trout is simply gutted and cleaned, then sprinkled with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. We had applewood planks cut from an ancient apple tree in the backyard which were ideal for this grilling application. A few leafy stalks of celery were set off heat on the grill and allowed to dry the leaves to use as a garnish.

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The rich, creamy flavors of the celeriac were a beautiful canvas for the smoky fish, with out three-stalk slaw providing a bright contrast, the different hits of celery flavor playing very different roles. Overall a very satisfying dish.

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Of Fire, Water and the Ego of the Chef

Watching the third episode of the inaugural season of Chef’s Table on Netflix I was in awe, in love, and then a bit uncomfortable. The series by David Gelb, who created the sublime documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, uses stunning cinematography and slowly unfolding stories to create a tension between personalizing the chefs and venerating them. Each story seems to beg the question: Does ego drive them to celebrity status or does constant adulation lead to inflated self-importance? Francis Mallman, the subject of a beautifully filmed third episode, embodies that question. But it starts with a fire.

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A fire on the edge of a lake in Patagonia. Trout is prepared over open flames just a few steps from where it was caught. Vegetables are thrown directly into fires as side dishes to tremendous chunks of searing meat. The carcass of an entire lamb, stretched across wooden poles, are stuck into the snow surrounding a massive bonfire to roast slowly all day. These flame-licked treasures are all brought like offerings to a massive table covered with an ivory tablecloth, in the middle of the woods and served with magnums of wine. Then Mallman reads poetry in one of the three or four languages in which he is apparently fluent.

One can not help but wonder how all of this gets done, how it is all financed, and slowly all is revealed. Mallman ran a restaurant at a young age, spent two years in Paris under a number of prestigious chefs, then came back to Argentina and ran a highly successful French restaurant before walking away from it all and “living off the land”. There is much made about the simplicity of his lifestyle and how he is returning to his Argentinian country roots, but then the army of assistants starts to slowly emerge; young chefs who have come to train under this cult of personality. But for all the pomp and circumstance which ultimately surrounds Mallman, the lingering impact for me was a re-kindling of a romance for cooking over open fire. In that, there is something pure, something true.

The cabin at the lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan provides the perfect setting to let my romance for cooking over fire grow into a full-blown love affair. Though the process may take a bit longer, the cooking may be more uneven, and there is a pretty high potential for ash in your dinner, this was something I wanted to do. And being the cook, it’s still a bit about me, isn’t it? At some primal level, creating a dinner is fundamentally an act of the ego. And it just don’t get more primal than fire.

In order to provide adequate fuel for our affair, we made a stop at Waseda Farms Market on the way to pick-up a whole host of precious provisions including organic tri-tip steak, green beans, sweet potatoes, and duck eggs (more on those in a later post). We built the fire, sipped a few Michigan and Wisconsin beers, developed some lovely coals, then placed our set of well-seasoned cast iron pans on the grate to help to moderate heat. Potatoes and sweet potatoes were peeled and placed in foil with butter, salt, and fresh sage. The green beans went into a pan with diced bacon. The steak was lightly seasoned with garlic salt, pepper, and paprika and given a generous knob of butter as well. All very simple.

Initially, there was some concern the steak may be overdone and the potatoes might still be a bit hard, but thankfully the steak was beautifully smokey and medium rare upon being sliced and the potatoes were creamy and smooth. The sun setting on the lake and the warmth of the company undoubtedly added to the moment, but it was a truly lovely dinner. The fire did add a smokiness to the meal, but more powerfully, the fire added a very visceral connection to the process; watching the meal cook and then enjoying it outdoors, just a few feet away.After dinner, Michigan peaches were quartered, pitted and then placed on the fire with butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar. They were served over the morning’s remaining crumb cake.

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As we explore these ideas of Great Lakes Cuisine, we’ve returned to the fire many times – the fire-brewed booyah, the infamous pig roast, our campfire exploits and countless smoked dishes. The process is not essential to the preparation of Great Lakes Cuisine, but it undeniably adds to the romance.

The Chef’s Table series focuses more on the chef than on the process, which may make for better story-telling, but can also distance the viewer from the food being created. We are being sold on the idea that each dish is a work of art, each dinner is a performance. But rather than place ourselves in the passive role of audience, to paraphrase the great bard, perhaps we are the actors and all the world’s the stage. My romance for food is not spectacle, but visceral, it is participatory. For all the great food coming out of the chef-led restaurants of the Great Lakes area, one of the hallmarks is a certain humility, a lack of showmanship. This connection to the food, connection to the land, connection to traditions generates a reverence and respect which is not a force of ego and an act of artifice, but more authentic and an act of true craft. This I would suggest is truly an essential component of Great Lakes Cuisine.

Irish Food versus French Cuisine

Discussions of cuisine are fraught with historic, ethnic, and racial overtones which are impossible to avoid. Unavoidably, discussions of cuisine, such as this one, are a bit more academic than singing the praises of farm-churned butter, but they are important. We have touched on the larger discussion of defining a cuisine in reflecting on the video shared by founders of NOMA, widely recognized as instrumental in the promotion of  “Nordic cuisine”. They do an excellent job exploring the ill-defined bounds of culture and history when considering cuisine of any geography. But in the end, the victors write the history books…and the cookbooks. This means for the Western world a culture of cuisine dominated by traditional European imperial powers.

The more recent rise of technology in our increasingly interconnected society has lead to two countervailing trends. We have experienced an exponential rise in our access to information across geographies and across times, experiencing other cultures and food traditions in the process. Yet as we rely more and more on technology to communicate and share experiences, we have come to prize authenticity. We seek authentic experiences rather than overly constructed and controlled experiences, authentic voices over hyper-produced, corporate media stories. And then there is the search for authentic food.

This search for authenticity in food involves a number of loosely related but poorly defined terms such as “ethnic”, “cultural” and the very word “authentic” while seeking to avoid approaches which are mass produced or reek of cultural appropriation. A recent interview with Krishnendu Ray, a food studies scholar at New York University, appeared in the Washington Post which suggested the American dining public may only “pretend” to like ethnic cuisine, while demonstrating an unwillingness to pay prices in line with more Western European food traditions. In the interview, price becomes a proxy for genuine appreciation and is then extended to suggest a level of ethnocentrism across the American population.

Equating price to appreciation seems a fair approach, but suggesting it also indicates a marginalizing of non-Western cultures may not be as clear. A very informal bit of research on Google helps to illustrate the point. Searching for a set of leading culinary traditions with either the term “cuisine” or “food” associated with it, we then compute the ratio of “cuisine” to “food” and then multiply by a factor of the number of mentions to derive a “Prestige Rank”. Recognizing that Google filters results based on location and past search history, we have to assume similar searches may yield slightly different results, but we feel comfortable suggesting these results help to illustrate a different view than that suggested in the interview with Ray.

             
  Ethnicity Cuisine Mentions Food Mentions Cuisine vs. Food Food vs. Cuisine Prestige Rank
1 French 3930000 434000 9.06 0.11 35.6
2 Indian 7970000 13900000 0.57 1.74 4.6
3 Italian 6690000 15700000 0.43 2.35 2.9
4 Thai 5390000 10700000 0.50 1.99 2.7
5 Japanese 4820000 10600000 0.45 2.20 2.2
6 Chinese 4710000 22700000 0.21 4.82 1.0
7 Spanish 530000 454000 1.17 0.86 0.6
8 Vietnamese 516000 446000 1.16 0.86 0.6
9 Turkish 500000 464000 1.08 0.93 0.5
10 Moroccan 408000 401000 1.02 0.98 0.4
11 African 432000 467000 0.93 1.08 0.4
12 Mid. Eastern 434000 475000 0.91 1.09 0.4
13 German 420000 445000 0.94 1.06 0.4
14 Caribbean 418000 454000 0.92 1.09 0.4
15 Peruvian 437000 512000 0.85 1.17 0.4
16 Russian 392000 437000 0.90 1.11 0.4
17 Greek 515000 756000 0.68 1.47 0.4
18 Cuban 392000 512000 0.77 1.31 0.3
19 Indonesian 469000 746000 0.63 1.59 0.3
20 Korea 439000 675000 0.65 1.54 0.3
21 Brazilian 348000 437000 0.80 1.26 0.3
22 Nordic 202000 182000 1.11 0.90 0.2
23 Pakistani 236000 768000 0.31 3.25 0.1
24 American 549000 5330000 0.10 9.71 0.1
25 English 160000 520000 0.31 3.25 0.0
26 Egyptian 120000 362000 0.33 3.02 0.0
27 Swedish 84800 403000 0.21 4.75 0.0
28 Mexican 458000 17900000 0.03 39.08 0.0
29 Polish 25500 513000 0.05 20.12 0.0
30 Irish 22600 3040000 0.01 134.51 0.0

These results are sorted by Prestige Rank, from high to low, and yield some interesting insights. French is by far the highest ranking in this view, which given that the word “cuisine” is of French derivation, is not much of surprise. Spanish and Vietnamese have the next highest ratio, but appear much less frequently. The appearance of Italian and Japanese may not be a surprise, but the high ranking of Indian, Thai, and Chinese suggest a level of appreciation of these cuisines that may be underestimated when simply equating price to appreciation.

The lowest ranking traditions helps to illustrate a counter-point to a view that American food choices demonstrate pervasive ethnocentrism. Irish and Polish food traditions exist in America, and perhaps nowhere more wide spread than in the Great Lakes region of the U.S.  Those traditions rarely are spoken of in terms of “cuisine”. Irish food is more widely associated with bar food and the Polish traditions of pierogis, paczkis, and sausage hardly command premium prices. Even English food traditions rank poorly. These are some of the most well-established ethnic groups in the U.S. and yet those food traditions are not appreciated nor do they command high prices.

This suggests the simple approach of using price as a proxy for appreciation is fraught with many more layers of historic and ethnic viewpoints. Perhaps we view this issue of “cuisine” from a different vantage, as we are promoting the idea of cuisine for an area not traditionally appreciated in those terms. Greater education and promotion of any tradition can help broaden public understanding and appreciation of the nuances and value of each unique approach. This view may not square as neatly with the simplistic claim that Americans are ethnocentric and merely “pretend” to like other foods, but perhaps mutual appreciation could be a better starting point for the discussion.

Autobahn Mi

Inspiration can come from anywhere, including a recent trip to the Vietnamese sandwich shop near by to have a fairly lackluster Special Banh Mi. Banh Mi simply translates as “bread”, but has come to mean the sandwich served on a specific type of crispy, French-inspired, demi-baguette. The classic is known as the “special” and comes with liver pâté, cold cuts of Vietnamese pork sausage and barbecued pork, daikon and carrot pickles, and house made mayo. A pretty rockin’ combo, but the one I got…not so good.

But it got the creative juices flowing. Liver pâté, pork sausage, barbecued pork – perhaps a world away geographically, but culinarily not that far from traditional German. Why not smoked liverwurst in place of pâté? How about slow roasted bratwurst as the pork sausage and a six-hour, applewood-smoked pork shoulder? Quick-pickled radishes and carrots and a seasoned mayo finish it off. The roll is a Mexican bolillo-style available from a local bakery – thin, light crust with a airy interior.

Autobahn mi

The roll was buttered and then tossed on the grill to get the shattering crispiness characteristic of great Banh Mi. The smoked liver sausage adds a deep meaty richness to the layers of porcine delight. The brat was a house-made variety from a local grocer, roasted over hardwood grill at about 400 degrees, off to the side slightly from the main coals in order to slow-cook it without splitting and losing all those incredible pork fat juices. The pulled pork was a pork shoulder seasoned with salt, garlic, oregano, and paprika then slow smoked with apple wood at 275 degrees for over six hours. Not quite roast suckling pig, but it’ll do in a pinch.

So all the ingredients were firmly in the tradition of German-American cuisine from the Great Lakes region. How they came together was an entirely modern inspiration, born of our ever-broadening exposure to cuisines and traditions from around the world.Even a not-so-good sandwich can send us off in new and exciting directions. A little bit like racing through the German country-side where “Limits no longer apply”.

This little piggie…

So Kyle says, “We should cook a pig.”
What are you thinking – like a pork shoulder?
“No, a whole pig.”
How would we get one?
“Don’t know yet.”
How would we cook it? Even a small pig wouldn’t fit on the gas grill.
“We make a roaster.”
And that is how it started.

This all happened over a recent spring break vacation down in Florida, with three of our families visiting my parents there. Dad was on board, so all that remained was figuring out how to do it. I’ve actually had some experience roasting whole pigs. The local soccer club has a long German heritage and puts on a wonderfully authentic Oktoberfest each fall as the major fund raising activity. I’ve volunteered several autumns nights to help the older generation of Milwaukee Germans to roast brats, whole chickens, and whole pigs which accompany the imported German beers. They have a permanent set-up including shallow pits for the hardwood charcoal and metal brackets to hold the large wooden shafts that are used to rotate the pigs. The charcoal can be shifted and the pigs can be move up or down to control heat.

Photo Credit: http://www.oktoberfest-milwaukee.com/
Photo Credit: http://www.oktoberfest-milwaukee.com/

So I had an idea how to skewer and tie the pig, but we didn’t have an Oktoberfest roasting shed. I’ve seen the pig done traditional spanferkel-style as well by the folks at Bunzel’s Old Fashioned Meat Market in Milwaukee. Going on four generations, they have roasted pigs in the traditional German style with all the appropriate fixings. They have these beautiful mobile roasting units which look like large iron barrels rigged with a rotisserie unit to keep the pig rotating. Heavenly food. But we didn’t have one of those either.

So Kyle starts talking to folks locally, starts calling around. He finds a place with a whole suckling pig ready to go in Tallahassee. That will work. Now we have to figure out how to cook this thing. A 55 gallon drum should be big enough. So that started a scavenger hunt. After a number of fruitless stops, we found a barrel and some grills that had been old oven racks. Now it was up to Kyle to engineer this thing.

He had it done in less than an hour. Hinged top, handle to open it, air holes, holes through the side to allow the spit to rotate. I’m telling you, less than an hour. Then we had to burn the barrel out at high heat to prepare it for the next day’s smoking.

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See that big iron pulley on the side? Our wheel for manually rotating the pig. While he built the roaster, I put together a brine for the suckling pig. I used my standard brine approach, but the quantities are a bit fluid. Hey, I was on vacation and the beers were flowing.

Basically it was a giant pot of water (about 2 gallons) brought to a boil, salted until it was about twice the saltiness of ocean water. I added a bottle of apple cider vinegar, two bottles of beer, a hand full of bay leaves, two heaping tablespoons of crushed garlic, three sliced onions, a whole mess of dried herbs, and then liquid cane sugar in place of the more traditional honey. Liquid cane sugar is used in the south like maple sugar, thick and caramel like molasses, but less bitter. When the whole mix came to a boil, I killed the heat and then added an equal volume of ice to dilute the brine. Poured the whole mix over the pig, weighed it down, and then let it sit for 24 hours.

The next morning we fired up the grill about 9 AM to get the coals just about perfect an hour later. Then pig on the spit and onto the grill. We used hardwood charcoal supplemented with soaked oak to get a bit of extra smoke and washed the pig every half hour with the brine.

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Ain’t she a beauty? We are only about an hour in at this point. The temperature gauge visible in the upper left corner was our one major expenditure in building the roaster. Think it was like four bucks. We tried to keep our temp in the 250 degree range, but found the small space was a little tricky to hold at a constant temp. It kept wanting to climb on us. Turns out the lower racks might not have been necessary. It also turns out that drinking all day may not make you the most diligent cook. After six plus hours it came out a bit darker than I expected, but the meat was just done.

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We served our spanferkel with whipped, spiced sweet potatoes, a corn cheddar pudding, sauerkraut baked for an hour topped with smoked bacon, and more beer! Though we were definitely in the German tradition with our meal, our beer of choice for this feast was Tatra, a pale lager brewed by Zywiec Brewery from Poland.

Pork Roast Whole

Our pig was meltingly tender, moist, and just a hint of smoke. This wasn’t the fall-apart tenderness of a long roast over higher heat, but the more unctuous tenderness of a suckling pig, where the higher gelatin content creates a lovely creamy texture. To play up our Southern locale, my sister made three great barbecue sauces each in different southern styles, but I elected to go au naturel.

About three hours into our roasting adventure, I stopped for a moment, turned to my three grilling partners. We were playing a game of Bags, drinking beer, looking out at the ocean, with a 30 pound pig on a home-made roaster. “Gentlemen, there is simply no other place I rather be right now. This is good as it gets.”

Of course, Kyle knew that all along.