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.