With his passion for trout fishing, grouse hunting, gardening and campfire cooking at his off-the-grid Wisconsin cabin, it's no wonder that St. Paul novelist Brett Laidlaw has given the world "Trout Caviar" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $27.95), a beautifully written and recipe-laden paean to the Northern larder. In a recent conversation, Laidlaw discussed the meaning of foraging, the beauty of bacon and his disdain for the word "locavore."
Q What's the origin of the Trout Caviar name?
A Trout caviar is literally salted fish eggs, an amazing local product that very few people know about. After fly fishing for many, many years, and opening up a lot of female trout in the fall and finding these gorgeous egg sacs and their golden, orangey roe -- and after too many years of throwing it in the trash -- it occurred to me to investigate whether I could do something with it. I knew that salty fish eggs are delicacies all over the world, but what I didn't know is that native trout roe and salt is exquisitely delicious. I was happy to make that discovery but regretful over all the bounty that I'd thrown out over the years.
Q I was relieved and amused to learn that you despise the word "locavore." Why?
A I've hated it from the start. I hate "blogger," too, although I suppose people would say that I'm a locavore blogger; there's the irony. It's the trendiness that I most object to. To put a label like locavore on a topic this important makes it seem faddish. And in terms of etymology, locavore makes no sense. A carnivore is a meat eater. An herbivore, they're plant eaters. But what's a loca?
Q What does the word "forage" mean to you?
A It used to mean, literally, looking around in woods for things like berries and mushrooms and wild greens. It's also about applying that forager's mentality to obtaining the best ingredients from other places. "Sourcing" is the chef's word for it. I'm always on the lookout for interesting local products, and I'll go to extreme lengths to procure excellent ingredients for my table. I'll make a six-hour detour to Cornucopia [Wis.] to get fresh fish. I'll get caught in a snowstorm on the way back, and it will still feel like it's worth it.
It's not hard to get into foraging even here in the city. Just last year I found chanterelles and Hen of the Woods mushrooms about 30 feet off the bike path on Mississippi River Boulevard. The river bottoms are covered in nettles; it's one of the most nutritious greens in the world. If you have a back yard, chances are you'll find lamb's quarters, purslane, dandelions and other edible plants. But there are also recipes in the book that don't use wild ingredients but instead rely upon the best vegetables, meats and cheeses that you can get at any good farmers market or co-op.
Q Are you maple syrup's No. 1 fan?
A I love it. It's truly one of the most underappreciated Northern food products. Everyone thinks of maple syrup and pancakes, and I do that, but it has many more uses. I use it for glazes and salad dressings and, of course, desserts. I could see the next craze being about maple syrup. It could be the next bacon.
Q What is it with you and bacon?
A Me and everybody else, you mean? I just took a chunk of home-smoked bacon out of the freezer to take to the cabin this weekend. Once you discover the stupidly simple ease of making it, I don't know why you wouldn't want to have it on hand. Besides, it's such a flavor bomb, it brings a smokiness and a savor to everything it touches. All you need is a grill. I don't call it smoking. I call it, "Cooking pork belly slowly in a grill with smoke," because that's what it is.
Q You are also big into fermentation and pickling. Your book makes it seem so easy. Is it?
A It intimidated me before I realized that it's just letting nature take its course. It's a feature of the book that I'm really proud of, bringing these seemingly daunting and old-fashioned techniques to a wider audience. I'm hardly the first person to do this, but I wanted to show how to make them accessible to everyone.
Q You write that the world would be a better place if everyone had a garden. Why?
A I think that being on your hands and knees, in the dirt, is grounding, literally and figuratively. It doesn't matter if you have a green thumb or if you kill everything.
Q What's behind your theory that 90 percent of cooking is really about good shopping?
A I don't consider myself a genius cook, and I'm not a chef. My cooking is inspired by ingredients. That's the heart of the book, celebrating these local ingredients, whether they're from woods, streams, the garden or a farmers market, and then making the most of them. If you start with a great ingredient, and spend enough time in the kitchen, then it's hard to end up with a bad dish.For recipes from "Trout Caviar," go to startribune.com/taste.