Braise on the Go: truly field-to-fork cooking

The thrill of the hunt, at this time of year, refers to careful walks through forests, in search of rotting wood, dead elms in particular.

The winner’s trophy carries great bragging rights and value, weighing in at $3 – or more – per ounce. The hunter’s weapon of choice is a sharp pocketknife, accompanied by keen eyesight and persistent, patient stalking.

The search for morels will be over by Memorial Day in Wisconsin, if this year is like most others. I always wanted to learn how to hunt for the elusive fungi, yet never expected the coaching to coincide with a cooking class.

But that’s the way it goes with Dave Swanson of Milwaukee, whose Braise on the Go routinely takes the kitchen and classroom on the road. The chef seems more like a community builder than a player in the increasingly complex and competitive culinary world.

“Our goal is to reconnect people with their food,” he says.

This time, his 30 students met on the outskirts of West Bend, for two-hour lessons in foraging, then nibbles of morels, ramps (wild garlic) and sorrel (resembling spinach) that Dave had turned into a light lunch, served from a portable food prep area in a parking lot.

I’d tell you more about the location but, as the saying goes, then I’d have to kill you. Seriously, the morel hunters I know never share their hunting spots, not even with their best friend or the church minister. So this was another unusual aspect of Dave’s gathering.

In the crowd were first-time hunters and two-generation veteran teams, guided by fungi fanatics from as far away as Washington’s Puget Sound. I stuck close to Britt Bunyard of Germantown, publisher and editor of Fungi magazine (www.fungimag.com); he has a doctorate in plant pathology and master’s degree in botany.

So this was no lightweight support team, but I can’t say we sniffed out a yeoman’s harvest of morels. What we did was learn a lot about what grows in the wild.

Britt pointed out a patch of elms, oaks and grasses. “Good for chanterelles,” he explained; the yellow-orange fungi should pop up in mid July to mid August.

We inspected new, bulbous growth on a poplar tree. “Oyster mushrooms,” he noted. “A little early in the season, and small, but we’ll take them – so everybody else can see.”

The group would sniff and examine the fruit-scented mushroom later, as Dave chopped and cooked.

“We make everything,” the chef said, “even if we don’t make it here.” So ramps can simply be sautéed with morels, or dried to make a salt. We sample the sauteed version, atop crostini upon which a brandy-spiked pate of lamb livers is spread.

“He’s got some serious cooking skills,” Britt says, and I know of no one in the crowd who would disagree. The chef – a former chef de cuisine at Milwaukee’s Sanford restaurant – attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris after graduating from the Chicago area’s Kendall College culinary school.

I actually met Dave five years ago, during a chefs’ tour of family farms in southwest Wisconsin. He mentioned then that he planned to open a restaurant in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, and the name would be Braise, because that’s one of the first cooking techniques a culinary student learns.

Life doesn’t always go as planned, and the restaurant has yet to open, thanks to high rent and building costs. What Dave decided to pursue were other parts of his business plan, which champions the foods of Wisconsin in unconventional ways.

So it is not unusual for him to pack up and head to a farm, a botanical garden or – yes – a forest for a cooking class.

“The idea is to see where food comes from” and better understand “all the little edibles out there,” he explained, before the morel hunt began.

A Wisconsin Buy Fresh, Buy Local grant in 2008 helped Dave establish another branch of his business: restaurant supported agriculture (RSA), similar in spirit to the community supported ag (CSA) shares that individuals purchase, to support the work of family farms. RSAs and CSAs share the risk of farming, through at least partial pre-payment for a portion of the harvest.

Dave’s network involves 15 restaurants and at least 40 farms this season. Instead of having farmers make deliveries to several restaurants, there is one drop-off point, which makes the RSA concept different from initiatives that simply make it easier for farmers and chefs to meet.

“It’s a daunting task,” he says of the work, to match supply and demand, but worth the effort.

For more about Braise on the Go: www.braiseculinaryschool.com, 414-241-9577.

Upcoming events include a Braise RSA Dinner, July 20, Honeypie Café, Milwaukee, cost not set; 4 Chefs, 1 Pig and a Farmer (the chefs each prepare a different part of the animal), location to be announced, Aug. 14, $50; and Tour de Farms, a farm-to-farm bike ride and dinner, Sept. 12, $70.

Chef Dave Swanson also occasionally conducts cooking demos that result in a dinner of seasonal recipes with matching wines at Vino 100, Grafton.

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