It’s Just Emotion That’s Taking Me Over

One of the things I like about winter (apart from the fact that it’s over) is the limitations that it imposes on those of us who try to eat local food. I find that constraints spur creativity, whether in the studio or the kitchen. No matter how narrow the spectrum, it still contains infinity. And being forced to dig deep and pay attention to subtle differences can make a huge impact on the result.

This was all driven home to me by the arrival recently of the Noma cookbook. It’s ever so lovely, and beyond the austere virtuosity of his food and the physical beauty of the book what I admire most is his commitment to regional cooking.  There’s no citrus, spices, or much of anything else from anywhere else in the world, though chocolate shows up occasionally and all the usual hydrocolloids make regular appearances, so the über-local ethos falls short of full stridency. Having said that, though, it’s an accomplishment to do without spices from elsewhere; his food is deep local, wringing rich complexity from verbena, juniper, ash, wood, seaweed, and many foraged herbs. The technique is highly refined, and the presentation is lovely, featuring wonderful ceramics in stony hues (and some stones) as serving dishes.

My only annoyance with it is that the pictures are all together in the first part, and then all the recipes come after so one needs both hands to really read it (and two bookmarks). I don’t like to have to flip back and forth between the image and the recipe, especially when the book is heavy enough to make such tedium truly awkward. There’s also a strange lack of soup and liquids; texturally the dishes mostly consist of various whole, sliced, powdered, or gelled foods with one or more sauces. I’m not sure there’s a real bowl in the whole book. But I have no doubt that the food is as remarkable as it looks, and I admire his refined craft and diligent idiosyncrasy. We need more creative people who are as fearlessly and ably devoted to their own visions as chef Redzepi clearly is.

The book has given me a lens of sorts through which to examine some of my ideas for using more and more local analogues for imported products, and a challenge to do more work on that front. A current favorite is the monk’s raspberry vinegar in place of ume, and I have hopes that my maple-sumac vinegar will work well in place of some citrus. And there are some things I’m eager to plant to expand my options here on the home front. Conifers are next on my list to explore.

So my recent excitement about tree sap had plenty of unfocused energy left to refract and amplify, and I made a long list of things I would do with the maple (and now birch) sap that I have. This time next year I’m going to be well-prepared for a much larger harvest. As with most cookbooks, I will probably never make anything from Noma but I’ll read and re-read it until I absorb the things I want and then they’ll reappear in various mutated forms later on. It is possible to love cookbooks and not use them.

First up, though, the confluence of the Noma book, the maple sap, and the newly defrosted garden pointed me straight at this dinner. I resolved to make a meal with entirely local ingredients, excepting only the salt. Homemade miso bacon positively begged to be braised in maple sap, especially since I cured it in some local maple syrup and smoked it on maple wood (from the very tree that some of the sap came from). Pork and maple go together like weed and sex. And the birch syrup with its woodier, slightly tannic bitterness gave me a particular inspiration: parsnip ice cream. I leave all the parsnips in the ground through the winter so there’s something to eat in March before the greens pop up. They get super sweet as they convert starches to sugars for antifreeze, and they’re pure joy to dig and eat as soon as the ground softens enough to get a shovel in.

So I peeled and steamed some, then mashed them once soft, adding a cup of local cream and stick-blending and then straining the mixture. The cream came from the tops of two half-gallon jars of whole raw milk that we’re now getting weekly, which is yet another cause for my ebullient culinary optimism these days. I put the creamy goodness back on the stove to warm up, and whisked in the birch syrup. The amount you see in the picture was the result of a week of diligent harvesting of sap and daily reductions thereof. Maple sap reduces to syrup at 40:1; birch is 80:1. It takes a whole lot of sap to make even a little syrup. The result is a fascinating ingredient, though, and its restrained woody sweetness was an ideal complement to the parsnips’ similar profile. I used the hot mixture to temper some egg yolks, then whisked the whole lot over a double boiler until it thickened. An ice bath in the fridge brought it to a good chill in no time, and it went in the machine to churn.

To recap: parsnips, cream, egg yolks (one white), and birch syrup. Suck on that, Häagen-Dasz. All this time a hunk of the miso bacon (cured with local miso, local syrup, and salt) was simmering ever so gently in a quart of maple sap I saved from the syrup-making. After a few hours, I removed the meat and set the liquid on a hotter fire to reduce. As it thickened, I added some cider vinegar to balance the sweetness. An earlier batch of birch syrup (consisting of the previous week’s gathering) had burnt just a bit since I took my eye off of it at a crucial time, but though just a tetch bitter in flavor I saved it, knowing I’d have a use for it at some point. It was the perfect addition to the pork-maple caramel, adding the much-underrated bitter taste to the complex and decadent sweet-umami-salt-sour reduction.

Since I had a bowl of egg whites–a common problem around here, what with all the mayonnaise and ice cream and custards and pasta–I figured I’d use them for something, too. The Noma book features several interesting meringue applications, so I thought a savory-herbal thing might work well. I beat them to stiff peaks with a pinch of salt and finely minced herbs from the pots in the dining room: chives, sage, and rosemary. I piped little dollops out onto a silpat and baked them until they browned on top.

To add some more dark and earthy notes, I cooked freshly-dug burdock in water and (local) soy sauce with some dried black trumpet mushrooms that I foraged last summer. Once soft, I blended it all together with the cream I didn’t use in the ice cream. Then I browned the hunks of belly all over, using their rendered fat to caramelize baby parsnips (from a late planting that didn’t get going in time) and just-pulled wild garlic which grows all over the place, and blessedly precedes the ramps by a full month.

Each (homemade) plate got a spoon of burdock-mushroom purée, a hunk of browned belly, a drool of caramel, a scoop of ice cream, some meringues, the parsnip/garlic mix, and a scattering of the garlic tops which look like dark chives. Every single thing on this plate came from within 15 miles of this house except the salt. The soy sauce is made a little farther away, in Middletown, and uses organic New York State wheat and soybeans. The balance between different flavors and textures worked nicely, and each component had something specific and important to add to the plate. This was a mighty enjoyable plate of food, combining subtle sophistication with blatant hedonism. Which I look for in a meal. The meringues in particular were a big hit, and will see further deployments in a variety of forms.

Noma calls itself “Time and place in Nordic cuisine” and I think this plate succeeded handsomely in making good use of those things which our particular here and now has to offer. In another week or two the ratio of greenery on the plate would increase dramatically, but today that wasn’t really an option (though the salad bed has now fully sprouted under its protective hoop). Moving forward, I’m going to try to do this sort of thing more often; it’s fun and rewarding and good practice for that time in the future when it won’t be optional any more.

Also, parsnip-birch ice cream is GOOD. It will be a March tradition forever more in this family. I’m making the rest into milkshakes tomorrow with the new milk.

21 comments to It’s Just Emotion That’s Taking Me Over

  • That is one of the most amazing plates I’ve seen in a very long time. Bravo!

  • Mo

    If I could dive through my computer and eat all of that, I would have. Don’t think I didn’t try, just in case.

    It all looks and sounds amazing. I love the focus on super local food, it’s something in the coming year I really hope to improve on.

  • Wow, another great plate in so many ways. I have been wondering about this birch syrup.. how to describe how it tastes and differs from maple?? Parsnip ice cream is very brave but then in the early days of frozen cheese, they made parmesan ice cream along with more recognizable forms we use today. Everything old is new again.

    About the evergreen.. spruce buds are coming out and delicious and I am now mad for fir essence that is spectacular in drinks (gin) and added to game dishes.

    BTW, you and I are on the same wavelength on absinthe… using it next week and boy is it good with orange and saffron… revelatory. Now where do I get local soy???

  • Peter

    Vicki: Thanks. It tasted good too.

    Mo: What matters is that we eat local for pleasure, not to take one for the team.

    Deana: I sent you a link to the soy and absinthe. This time last year I grilled kumquats stuffed with absinthe and mango chutney to eat with quail. So very good. I’m thinking of a variant to use with the squab. But maybe a spruce cure would also work.

  • Mo

    Oh I know! I like to eat local and seasonal because I feel it’s healthier and I love supporting the smaller local farms. All my produce, chickens and eggs are local, I just want to work on my dairy and other meat being more local. We’ve been looking for deep freezers so we can can do a beef/lamb share. Trust me, I find great pleasure in eating this way. :)

  • Tina

    “Pork and maple go together like weed and sex.”

    That is beautiful!

  • Really want that ice cream. Please send me some. Thanks in advance.

  • Peter

    Mo: We got our chest freezer for about $220 and it holds a lot. There’s half a lamb in there now along with a ton of other stuff.

    Tina: I’m all about the beauty.

    Eugenia: Thank you for your comment.

    Janis: We might have accidentally finished it. Next year?

  • So what I’m getting from this post is that you like to cook. Would that be a fair assessment? It sure feels that way, but I don’t know.

  • El

    In grad school, I was the victim of One-Word Studios (wherein the whole project used that word and teed off) for 2 semesters and it didn’t make me nearly as happy as cooking with the restrained ingredients from a Michigan winter. So I hear you. And I also figured birch was tannic, as you said; but then again, my AK college friend swears by birch and even aspen syrup. He also grows cabbage as big as a washing machine tub, and raises dogs for the Iditarod. That, sir, is native vigor, and not something one necessarily should emulate.

    I’d wondered about the Noma book. Frankly I think your observation of bowl-less food is kind of off-putting (from a bowl-prone buyer’s perspective) but one wonders just how much we’re missing, eating-wise, right in our back yards. So I am sure it’s still a wonderful resource. And if it’s in my hands it’s closer than Denmark.

  • Peter

    Bob: Mostly I just like the BeeGees.

    El: I think you would like it, if only because (apart from being beautiful) it will give you inspirational permission to find out exactly how much you’re missing. I bet you have five kinds of trees on your property that would yield good food if you let them.

  • Personality is important. Anyone with a great personality is OK in my book :-) . This is my first visit to your blog and, as is my habit, I spent some time browsing through your earlier posts. I’m so glad I did that. I really enjoyed my visit here and I’ll be back often. Have a great weekend. Blessings…Mary

  • I must admit, I always get jealous when I visit here. Dag, that looks good. The meringues are just brilliant, but then, so is everything else!

  • Just read your above blog about Birch Syrup – Parsnip ice cream. I am intriqued! We are birch syrup producers located in the N. Cariboo Region of BC, Canada. Where abouts are you? We’ll be sugaring off next month (April) & plan to tap 300 trees.

  • Peter

    Mary: I’m glad you did too. Welcome.

    Julia: They were so ridiculously easy and good and I hate meringues.

    Heloise: The Hudson Valley in New York. That’s exciting; do you ship, or just sell locally?

  • [...] Charcutepaloozer made a miso bacon, which intrigued me, and I vaguely remembered seeing miso black cod on the menu at a Japanese [...]

  • [...] Since moving up here, I’ve been studying syrup a bit. Growing up, we always had superb syrup from Vermont, and since my Grandfather prided himself on his griddle cakes it featured prominently in formative family breakfast rituals. But there’s something special about homemade. I’ve talked to a couple of experts–and I will have more to say about it–but for now I think the key to truly sublime syrup is to take it off the heat at a lower brix (sugar level) than the commercial outfits do. When it isn’t cooked down to a thick, sticky syrup, other flavors maintain a prominence, specifically vanilla. This is not to say that it should be runny liquid, just that it bears tasting throughout the reduction process so you can stop it when it’s where you want it. I pulled out half a gallon of half-reduced sap last year and fermented it into a subtle and magical vinegar that I use often now that it’s mature. Less-caramelized syrup is also better for baking, since it imparts a less flavor-specific sweetness that is thus more versatile. Pure sap also makes a mighty braising liquid for pork. [...]

  • Mo

    Hey, I know this is an old post, but what temp did you bake your meringues at? And for how long? My husband is doing a ketogenic diet and I’m trying to find some fun things to do to liven up our meals. I think a savory meringue would be super fun for tonight’s dinner, but everything I know about meringues is that they require sugar? Did you add the salt at the very end of whipping or when? Fold in the herbs at the end?

    • Peter

      I don’t really remember. I think I added a pinch of cornstarch to help them hold their shape, and I would guess 350-375 for baking temp. Herbs and salt at the end for sure.

  • Mo

    Thanks! I didn’t have any fresh herbs (no herb garden at our new house yet) but I did some spices and a bit of shredded cheese, no cornstarch, folded in at the very end. Cooked at 350 for about 10-12 mins and they came out perfectly! I breaded the yolks with almond flour and fried them in coconut oil. Went very well with my husbands bacon and blue cheese burger instead of a bun, all topped with sauteed peppers and onions. I bought a bunch of herbs from the farmer’s mkt tonight to try again, only with herbs!

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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