The road is wearing on me. I haven’t seen my home since August. In that time I’ve put nearly 8,000 miles on my truck and have done 11 major events from Oklahoma City to Richmond to Boston to Pittsburgh and Toronto, Canada. I’ve had a great time and have met scores of interesting people along the way. And make no mistake: I would not trade this life for anything. But I am tired. Exhausted, at a cellular level. My life has become a series of long, lonely drives, introductions to generous strangers who have let me into their homes and kitchens, book signings, wild food dinners, and yes, adventures in the forests and waters of this country.
For the most part these adventures have been rejuvenating. But things changed a week ago. It started after I drove the 800 miles from Cleveland to Stillwater, Minnesota, to my friend Chris’s house. I didn’t get there until 9-ish, and we had to get up at 4 a.m. to pick up Holly from the airport — first time I’d seen her since I left the house Aug. 27. A hug, a kiss and back in the car we went, up north, to the grouse woods.
I love grouse hunting. I love the excitement of that split-second flush, that basso thrum a grouse’s wings make as it rockets away through thickets of alders and ash and aspens. I love the terrain, the crazy-quilt of downed trees, sapling fields dense as fog, all punctuated by ancient oaks or white pines. It is a terrain that speaks to me, and I fully expected to feel the thrill course through me as we walked the trails. Last time I hunted these woods it was sleeting and snowing. This time we hunted in shirtsleeves.
Chris and Holly were champing at the bit to hunt, but, strangely, I found myself ambivalent. I tried to shake it, to live within the moment as I’d done for so many months, but I failed. I could not stop thinking about the remaining legs on my book tour: Toronto, Chicago, Red Lodge and Billings, Montana, then Boulder and Eugene, Oregon. Are all the logistics set? Will we get any media attention? Are the chefs set with their menus? Do I need to bring my own books? And, most importantly, will anyone show up?
“Relax,” Chris said. “There’s nothing you can do about it up here.” He was right, of course. But my mind was still in knots, and you cannot shoot a grouse or a woodcock in such a state of mind. So I took the shells out of my shotgun and let them go.
I am happy they did, as both Chris and Holly had a great time. I think Holly’s hooked on grouse hunting, which is good news because I love it, too — under normal circumstances. They brought back four ruffed grouse and five woodcock.
While they hunted, I took a walk in the woods. I needed to just… be. So I sat on a stump in a thick section of trees and let the forest wrap itself around me. There was indeed nothing I could do about the last legs on my book tour at that moment, but I mentally tallied the things I could do once we returned to civilization. It’s Chicago (10/20) and Boulder (11/1) I am most worried about — both restaurants are working hard to get good attendance for the wild food dinners, but I need help in both areas to make sure we have a good showing. So if you can make it, or know someone who can, I’d be grateful.
The more I thought, the more the forest told me things would be fine. I’ve been on the longest road trip of my life and the experience has been positive overall. And, finally, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Only a few more stressful weeks and I will be home. I hope my cats will remember me.
The forest also gave me something else. It gave me the inspiration for a dish to celebrate Holly’s first grouse, and to honor the efforts of Chef Scott Pampuch and his crew at the Corner Table in Minneapolis, who put together a book dinner last week that will remain as one of the highlights of the entire tour. The forest told me how to make this dish. Sitting on my stump, I saw the first cold-weather mushrooms popping.
These are polypores, but I also found a few young oyster mushrooms, too. Back in Minneapolis, Chef Pampuch had done a pheasant dish with hen of the woods mushrooms, and I wanted to push things further by pairing them with the grouse — which are, quite literally, hens of the woods. Sumac was growing along the trailsides, so I’d include that as a sort of natural lemon flavor for the mushrooms.
All around the boggy places in the woods were the remains of this year’s highbush cranberry crop. I love the tart, slightly skunky flavor of highbush cranberries, so they’d go into the dish, too. Finally, on the long drive back to Stillwater, I came upon the idea to encrust the grouse in finely ground wild rice. Everything on the plate would be from within a few miles of each other.
Back in the kitchen, I found myself returning to some semblance of normalcy. More and more these days, cooking is what gives me solace. Combining new flavors in new ways excites me. The process can still occupy my mind in a way that hunting did not last week. As I quietly chopped veggies, ground rice, tasted the cranberry sauce and made sure the grouse was cooked perfectly, I found that rejuvenation I’d been looking for, and, for a moment, I forgot about the stresses of the road. Finally.
Ruffed grouse northwoods
This is a deceptively simple dish that hinges on high-quality ingredients. I use highbush cranberry syrup from Minnestalgia, farmed wild rice for the crust, regular oyster mushrooms (which are easy to find in the supermarket) and the harder-to-find hen of the woods, aka maitake mushrooms. The sumac in the dish is from a Middle Eastern store; you can substitute a little lemon. As for other substitutions, while you could recreate it with chicken or pheasant instead of grouse, with other mushrooms and another berry syrup, but it would not be the same.
The timing of this dish is critical, so have everything set up beforehand, just like you would with a stir-fry. As for a side dish, simple mashed potatoes would be good, as would, well, a wild rice dish — I served this with a pilaf of wild rice and barley and root veggies.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- Breasts from 4 grouse, skinned and tenders removed
- 1 cup wild rice, ground fine in a coffee grinder or blender
- 1/4 cup butter, divided
- 1 pound oyster mushrooms
- 1/2 to 1 pound hen of the woods mushrooms or other fresh mushroom
- 1 teaspoon sumac, or a little lemon juice
- 1/2 cup highbush cranberry syrup
- 1 small dried hot chile
- 1/2 to 1/3 cup cider vinegar
- Salt the grouse breasts well and set aside at room temperature while you cook the mushrooms.
- Set a large saute pan over high heat for 1 minute, then add all the mushrooms. Shake the pan as you do this so they don’t all stick to the bottom. If some do, that’s OK. Keep searing and shaking the pan until the mushrooms give up their water. Let most of the water boil away before adding half the butter. Toss to combine and add some salt. Let the mushrooms sear without moving the pan for 1-2 minutes: You want them to get some browning. Stir the mushrooms and repeat until you get them as browned as you want — I like them to be about halfway browned, which takes about 5-8 minutes.
- Move the mushrooms into a bowl and toss with the sumac. Cover the bowl while you continue with the dish.
- Wipe out the saute pan. Dust the grouse in the ground wild rice and shake off any excess. Put the saute pan over medium-high heat and melt the rest of the butter. Let this heat for a minute or so, then add the grouse. Do not crowd the pan, and do this in batches if need be. Once you hear the grouse sizzle strongly, turn the heat down to medium and let them cook for 3-5 minutes (depending on how thick they are) without moving them. Flip gently and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
- While the grouse is cooking pour the syrup, vinegar, a pinch of salt and the chile into a small pot and boil it until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.
- When the grouse is done, let it rest on a paper towel for a couple minutes while you arrange the mushrooms on everyone’s plate. Slice the grouse thickly and put that on the mushrooms, then drizzle some sauce around it. Serve at once.