The Northern Michigan JournalNM LIVINGNEXT
The Bioregional Kitchen
Northern Kingdom
by Steven Schwarz

Snow was falling--large, white flakes that meant cold, cold weather on the way...

Bio-regionalism is both theory and practice, and can be way of life for some of us here in Northern Michigan. The gathering and drying of spring and fall mushrooms; walking the hills with gun and dog, rod and reel, knowing where to find game and sustenance; tending the summer garden and perennial beds; hauling, cutting, and stacking the eight cords of assorted hardwoods for winter heat - this is the real work of living, the "doing of things" that John Haines speaks of in The Stars, the Snow, and the Fire.

Winter in Michigan is a time of great adventure in an incredible, surprisingly accessible landscape. The endless opportunities for skiing and snowshoeing are reason enough to stick around and get snow-crazy. Hardy souls who revel in a good blizzard and deep snows know that staying warm and healthy in the Michigan woods takes a lot of energy. Respectful and wise use of natural, sustainable resources allows us to use them to their fullest potential in the bioregional kitchen.

Last month a friend of mine returned from a job out West as a sea-kayaking instructor. Jon had been eating pasta and rice for three months straight, dried fruits and nuts and only the occasional high-energy bar. To say the least, he was due for some REAL food. I decided to prepare him a special Michigan meal of game, wild mushrooms, local wine, homegrown herbs, greens, garlic, and potatoes.

From my freezer, I removed two grey-phase ruffed grouse, commonly called JJ Skivvee Clothing--comfort is what it's all about"pats" by bird hunters. Grouse has always been table fare fit for kings, the greatest of game birds. Grouse come in two color morphs, grey and red-phase, the latter being far more common in the northland. I put these very close to the woodstove to thaw and took two bottles of Bernie Rink's Pinot Noir from the wine cabinet. After removing the corks, I set them on the table to air. This helps to mellow the recently bottled vintages that are common in our local wines. It's also handy in case the chef falls weary of his toil and needs a little liquid inspiration.

In the oven, preheated to 500 degrees, I set two giant bulbs of garlic in olive oil to roast for half an hour until golden brown and soft. I then peeled and boiled six Bardenhagen potatoes in salt water as the aroma of the roasting garlic infused my small kitchen. When the spuds were tender, I mashed them with the garlic, a stick of butter, salt, pepper, and some scalded whole milk (from the Bardenhagen farm as well). I paused for a moment to have some wine and a spoonful of taters. One of the many duties of the gourmand is to make sure that the wine goes with each and every aspect of the meal.

In the stoneware pan that I use for baking the grouse had thawed. Dried French thyme, cracked pepper, garlic-infused olive oil of my own design, a three year-old balsamico made from decent leftover red wine, a whole sweet onion and some stock from a previous grouse fest joined the birds in the stoneware. Before slow-roasting, the pair are broiled for five minutes, developing a nice brown crust from the carmelized sugars of the birds, garlic, and oil.The searing of the top allows juices to flow in from the bottom yet not bubble out from the top, keeping the birds fork-tender and moist during their cooking time of two hours at 250 degrees.

From the freezer in the basement I had gotten three Landjaeger sausages made by a local master of charcueterier. After a little contemplation, I resolved to poach the venison sausage in Schwarz Pilsener--homebrewing is a vital component of the bio-regional kitchen. For the sauce, Great Lakes Dijon mixed with raspberry-blossom honey from my co-worker Jean Schaub's hives, fresh-grated horseradish, and minced home canned pickle. This would be served on a crostini of bread from Leland's Stone House Bakery covered with the Leelanau Cheese Company's raclette.

With two antique apples from a bushel I'd happened upon in an overgrown orchard while hunting with friends in late October, I set about preparing a timeless dessert. The French spy's were only partially cored so the brown sugar and butter I filled them with to bake at 350 degrees wouldn't leak.
Inland Passage of Leland It's now five o'clock, almost dark on this shortened winter day. All has gone well with the preparations.

To accompany the grouse friccassee, I've soaked thirty morel mushrooms in warm water and a bit of the roasting-pan juices. The rest of the jus is brought to a boil, then reduced for a traditional Chasseur or hunter's sauce with the morels, some red wine, and carmelized onion added. Last but not least, I toss a salad of baby indoor spinach greens, an organic vine-ripened tomato of gigantic proportions, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, cracked pepper, and my very own tarragon vinegar.

I set the table while waiting for Jon to get here from his cabin on the north end of the lake. He arrives, carrying so gently in the crook of his arm a bottle of '49 Le Grade, a claret from Graves, west of Bordeaux. The meal takes on a special, almost ritualistic significance. Men have been sharing fine food and wine for centuries and our self-procured foodstuffs have turned into a meal fit for nobility, yet so simple and available. Virtually everything I use tonight for this feast I've grown, hunted, bartered, or simply picked from the woods. We have pooled our resources and produced a wonderful spread that is rarely seen in this day of boxed and plastic-wrapped foods.

After our meal, we finish up with strong black coffee laced with Canadian whiskey, and our dessert of baked apples and homemade ice cream. Jon and I discuss the merits and hardships of subsistence living and conclude that it is the only way. Sure, I live with running water, electric lights, and other niceties of the industrial age, but there is something extremely gratifying about hunting and gathering; in truth, it brings you much closer to the land.

Jon and I end the evening with a long walk along the lakeshore and a couple of pipes. We look north under a canopy of stars and realize there's nowhere else we'd rather be than right here. The conversation is right, our bellies are full, and we've spent our time, a resource that we all have, well.
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