Friday, July 24, 2009


Madison Magazine has a revamped website and my blog Small Dishes can now be found there - the new address is:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Food in Time

I was just watching NBC Nightly News and Brian Williams asked the question, "Where were you when Apollo 11 landed on the moon?" I do remember, and of course, it involves food. I was just finishing up dinner with friends in a Greek restaurant in London. They had hooked up a black and white TV in the dining room and everyone was intently watching, especially the owner. This was a neighborhood place we habited frequently. When the landing craft touched down on the surface of the moon a big cheer went up and shortly thereafter the owner brought everyone ice cream adorned with little paper American flags, and as always, mint-flavored Turkish Delight. The owner refused to let us pay for dinner! The moon walk that came later I didn't see live because of the time difference. But I remember the headlines of the London papers the next day, "One Small Step ..." Anytime the subject of the moon landing comes up or I see Turkish Delight, I always think about this restaurant and that evening.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Bite of History

Not many restaurants function successfully as culinary museums, serving historically accurate menus and recipes. As much as we tend to romanticize the past, today I would find much of what people once ate bland and boring. But, as we all know, food is only part of the experience of dining out. There is that indefinable element called ambiance that some restaurants seem to inexplicably have while others don’t. It never hurts if a place has a past, legends and lore, whether fact or fiction. An eatery with a history also speaks to the quality of their food—you can only get by for so long with smoke and mirrors.

I hear frequently that people are staying closer to home because of the economy. Whether this is true or not, I think we tend to overlook what is our own backyard, dismiss it as commonplace. So I’ve picked a handful of destinations that will not only feed you well, but also have a tale to tell.


Stout’s Island Lodge. In1903, lumber baron Frank D. Stout built a family summer home on his private island in Red Cedar Lake. The rustic lodge and cabins were constructed from local logs. Unfortunately, the log bark became invested with bugs. This necessitated the rebuilding of the structures using cedar logs from Idaho in 1915. Over the years, new outbuilding were added, and on the mainland, the Big Farm and Tagalong Golf Course—modeled after Scotland’s famous St. Andrews. Today the intimate resort houses guests in two lodges and several cabins. The dining room with its view of the lake features a seasonal menu built around local specialties, using local ingredients. The dining room is open to the public for lunch and dinner but reservations are required.


Fox and Hounds. As a kid, I remember thumbing through the pages of Holiday, the then prestigious travel magazine whose recommendations were coveted. The restaurant in Wisconsin to always make their list was the Fox and Hounds. It began as a one-room cabin in 1845. It was restored by Ray Wolf 90 years later to use as his headquarters for the many fox hunts he orchestrated. After a bar was installed on the lower level, he decided to open it up to the public as a restaurant in 1934. Rooms were added and it became an ever more popular dining spot, culminating with Life magazine designating it as one of America’s 40 Best Roadside Inns. In 1963, Roy died and shortly thereafter the restaurant was purchased by Karl Ratzsch’s, Milwaukee’s renowned German restaurant. Today, the Fox and Hounds is owned by Thomas Masters, his brother, Will Masters, and Jim Constantineau whose relationship with the property began when they first worked there 30 years ago, parking patron’s cars. The menu is what you would expect of this Wisconsin dowager. Little seems to change here, least of all its refined, clubby atmosphere.


The American Club. In 1918, Walter J. Kohler erected a large Tudor-style dormitory to house immigrant workers who came to work at the Kohler Company. Son of an immigrant himself, he hoped that by naming it The American Club, combined with an emphasis on high standards and patriotism, it would inspire the new arrivals to love their new country. Almost seventy years later, renovated, restored and expanded, the landmark became arguably the state’s premier resort, including a spa and two championship golf courses. Legend has it that the American Club is haunted. Some claim to have seen the ghost of a woman in room 209, site of a suicide many years ago. Others have watched the ghost of a man exiting room 315, once the scene of a murder. The complex features several dining rooms and cafes, the most acclaimed being the formal Immigrant Restaurant and Winery.

Lake Delton

Ishnala. Originally a rustic summer home perched high above Mirror Lake, following World War II Madison’s Hoffman Brothers (Hoffman House) purchased the property and shaped it into a supper club. It’s always been strictly a rite of summer since it has no heating system. Its quirky décor of log walls, stuffed animal heads and fake teepees and totems contribute to its dated charm. Its name in Ho Chung translates to “by itself alone” but it’s always crowded during the season, especially on weekends, and they don’t take reservations for parties of less than eight. Trust me, the scenery and a tall drink from the Tiki Bar will soothe the wait.

The Del-Bar. It’s hard to believe that this place was once a humble log cabin, a little roadhouse halfway between Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo, whose claim to fame was fried steaks. With no restaurant experience and little money, Jimmy and Alice Wimmer bought the place in 1943. The Del-Bar was remodeled and enlarged several times, gradually replacing its rustic look with architect James Dresser’s Frank-Lloyd-Wright-inspired prairie style. However, the original dining room—now called the Garden Room—is still there. The Wimmer family continues to run the iconic supper club today. If you simply want a martini and steak, properly prepared, the Del-Bar seldom disappoints.


Smoky’s Club. It seems steakhouses have once again become trendy, but there’s nothing retro here about the big slabs of meat served un-sauced and sizzling. The biggest change at the restaurant in over 50 years was the recent cigarette ban, taking the smoke out of Smoky’s Club. Leonard “Smoky” Schmock and his wife Janet started the place in 1953. Year by year, as the steakhouse prospered, more and more memorabilia was hung from the walls and ceiling, everything from stuffed muskies and bears to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s story that goes with each piece of accumulated stuff—just ask. Don’t ask for crème brûlée for dessert, but instead, one of their specialty ice cream drinks like a grasshopper or brandy Alexander.

Manitowish Waters

Little Bohemia Lodge. Like many flatlanders, some of the country’s most notorious gangsters—Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger—would head to the North Woods each summer. The Bohemia Lodge became instantly famous in 1931 after the F.B.I. botched a raid there while trying to apprehend John Dillinger and his gang, all of whom escaped. The owner left the bullet holes in the windows and walls so that the people who then flocked there wouldn’t be disappointed. Later, after becoming a popular supper club, Clark Gable and other celebrities often would water and dine here. The recent release of the movie Public Enemy has put the lodge back in the crosshairs since it was the location for several scenes. Next month, the owners will start Dillinger tours of the property. However, since the 1920s most have come for the hearty food, breakfast, lunch or dinner. Now you can sit in the same chair where Johnny Depp recently sat, trying to choose between Eggs Dillinger, Sweet Lady in Red Salad or Baby Face Steak Sandwich.


Karl Ratzch’s. Most of Milwaukee’s signature German heritage has slipped away. Not so at Karl Ratzch’s, sought out for its old-word cooking since it opened as Hermann’s Café back in 1904. Today, it indubitably is one of the country’s best German restaurants. As you might expect, the setting is all dark wood paneling and hewn beams, tall ceramic steins and starched white linen. The menu bulges with hefty classics like sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel and a roast duck as good as you will find anywhere in the state. The service bespeaks another era and is no small part of the dining experience here. It’s hard to imagine a Milwaukee with Karl Ratzch’s.

Watt’s Tea Room. Growing-up, I remember going with my mother to the tea room at Block’s Department Store, on shopping trips to Indianapolis. I looked forward to the Choo Choo Special (one of the few times I would order off the children’s menu). I don’t remember what it was but it was served in a ceramic locomotive. (They also put little paper umbrellas in the pink lemonade.) Watt’s is one of the few tea rooms to survive, most done in by the demise of department stores and fascination with fastfood. Located on the second floor of George Watt & Son, a family-run business for 139 years and one the country’s leading retail purveyors of china, the tea room is an ever popular ladies-lunch spot. The olive-nut sandwiches on freshly baked bread and sunshine cake are local legends. Little changes here, least of all the decorum or recipes.


Heaven City. The stately mansion on the shores of the Fox River has a sordid past. Once a bordello, stories of gangsters and ghosts abound. It’s not uncommon for guests to say they heard voices, laughter and footsteps with no one in sight … or saw knobs turn and doors open by themselves. It’s a fun and funky place and very romantic as well. For many years, the restaurant has enjoyed a reputation as one of the area’s finest. The menu is eclectic and a combination of American and Continental favorites, prepared with quality ingredients. For a real taste of nostalgia, enjoy one of their special dishes on Thursday prepared and flambéed tableside.


Red Circle Inn. It can claim bragging rights as the state’s oldest restaurant. In 1847, Francis Schraudenbach, a Bavarian immigrant, established it as a stage coach inn along the plank road that connected Milwaukee and Watertown. Originally named the Nashotah Inn, with its many fine fireplaces, its reputation grew as a snug and cozy stopover. In 1889, the place took on new life, purchased by the dapper Fred Pabst, owner of Milwaukee’s Pabst Brewing Company. He changed the name to the Red Circle Inn, a reference to an important part of the Pabst logo. In 1917 the inn was destroyed by fire but rebuilt in 1921. The inn passed from Pabst to the Pulaski family and then to Aad Groenevelt, founder of Provimi veal. For the past 16 years Norm and Martha Eckstaedt have owned and managed the Red Circle Inn. The menu reminds me of the finer, big city restaurants my father would take me to in the 60s: escargots, onion soup au gratin, beef Wellington, roast duckling Montmorency, veal scaloppini … as well as the usual choice of steaks and chops but served with béarnaise or au poivre sauce.

Washington Island

The Washington Hotel. Over 100 years ago Captain Ben Johnson built the hotel to accommodate other ship captains who plied the Great Lakes. The rambling wood structure was restored in 2003, and beside the much praised dining room, is home to a culinary school and bakery. The operation is committed to sustainable agriculture and serving the best seasonal, locally grown food. The hotel fathered Death Door Sprits, vodka and gin made from wheat grown on Washington Island—named for the infamous strait of water separating the island from Door County peninsula. For a taste right here in Madison, visit the Washington Hotel Coffee Room, which features baked goods flown in from the hotel daily.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Real Deal is Almost Here

Twice a year, Madison Magazine hosts Restaurant Week, a chance to go to some of the city’s best restaurants and sample some of their best food ... Five days, three set three-course menus for $25. Many also offer special wine pairings at discounted prices. If you’ve ever been, you’ve probably already made your reservations. If you haven’t, don’t be disappointed--it won't be back until January--call today! Many of the participating restaurants are fully booked by the time Restaurant Week begins, July 26. Most restaurants post their menus on their websites.

Restaurant Week, July 26 – 31, Restaurants:

Blue Marlin
Blue Spoon Café
Bluphies Restaurant and Vodkatorium
Borcach Irish Pub
Café Continental
Capitol Chophouse
Captain Bill’s
The Continental Fitchburg
The Dardanelles Restaurant
Dayton Street Grille
Eldorado Grill
Flemings Prime Steakhouse
Frida Mexican Grill
Inka Heritage
Johnny Delmonico’s
Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse
La Brioche True Foods
Le Chardonnay
Liliana’s Restaurant
Mariner’s Inn
Ocean Grill
Osteria Papavero
Quivey’s Grove
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse
Samba Brazilian Grill
Zander’s Capitol Grill

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Burger Bliss

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board has a great new website, Cheese & Burger Society, with 30 recipes for Wisconsin-themed cheeseburgers. You can also become a fan on Facebook.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rib Bit

I wish I could say I’ve eaten and cooked ribs for as long as I can remember but it wouldn’t be true. I did grow up with hickory pit barbecue but for the most part it was pork, mutton or ocaissionally beef sandwiches. Barbecued pork ribs, though universally popular now, seem to have evolved west of the Mississippi rather than in the South.

My first encounter with this American culinary icon was in someone’s backyard. It was more bones than meat (and meat that was dry and stringy at best), drowned in ketchupy sauce and charred black over charcoal. I’m afraid I wasn’t anxious to try them again for sometime. The occasion would be at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis. Their baby back ribs were grilled over charcoal but perfectly cooked and seasoned with a dry rub rather than sauced. I progressed to spareribs, slowly smoked, sampling them at legendary BBQ havens like Arthur Bryant’s and Gate’s in Kansas City and Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas.

As with most things I develop a taste for, I decided that I can make it myself. After much bone sucking, some research and a hell of a lot of experimentation, I’ve come up with what are for me the perfect spareribs—until I come up with something better.

It didn’t take me long to figure out I much preferred barbecued—slow smoking over a hardwood fire—as opposed to grilled—quickly broiled over high heat—ribs. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the space or resources to build a genuine pit in my backyard. Fortunately, about the same time I became a serious fan of Q, the home smoker came along. I’ve owned three to date and all have been the bullet-shaped type with a charcoal fire source and water pan. Chucks of water-soaked hardwood are place directly on the fire to produce smoke. The food placed on racks in the upper portion of the smoker cooks at a temperature range of 200-250 degrees. Today, you can buy several different types of smokers that range in price from about $100 to $3,500. Locally, The Bruce Company, Menards and Home Depot all sell smokers. An accessory I would consider is rib racks which allow you to maximize space in the smoker. Smokers come with basic instructions but I wouldn’t rely too much on the recipes included. A good reference book is Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue which will tell you everything you need to know about smoking or grilling just about anything, plus hundreds of interesting recipes and tips. But, I’ll be honest. It takes a lot of trial and error to get it right.

You can use any hardwood for smoking; hickory and mesquite are the most readily available. Many professional barbecue chefs swear by oak because of its exceptionally slow burn. Fruitwoods like apple and cherry are also popular but don’t impart fruit flavor to the barbecue.

All ribs are not created equal. Spareribs come from the belly of the pig, and are usually between 11 and 13 inches long. St. Louis-style spareribs are trimmed and have the brisket bone removed, forming a nice rectangular shape. Kansas City-style ribs are trimmed even further, down to a square. Baby back ribs come from the loin and are leaner and meatier than spareribs. “Country-style ribs” are not ribs at all but a blade cut from the end of the loin, a sort of fatty pork chop.

Both spareribs and baby back ribs have their attributes but I gravitate toward the later. Like most red meat prior to smoking, ribs benefit from a rub. This blend of spices, sugar and salt is actually sprinkled over the surface of the meat but not rubbed in per se. After shaking off the excess the rib racks are sealed in 2-gallon plastic bags and refrigerated overnight. This actually functions as a kind of cure, similar to the original process for making ham. I personally think a rub works much better on ribs than a marinade.

The ribs should be cooked over smoke at 225 degrees for about 4 hours—smoking too long will result in an unpleasant tasting, creosote layer on the meat. Then each rack should be wrapped and sealed first in plastic wrap and then in heavy duty foil. The wrapped racks are returned to the smoker—200 degrees is ideal—for another 2 hours. No the plastic wrap won’t melt! When you serve the ribs, the meat will be fall-off-the-bone tender.

I like my ribs dry with sauce served on the side. If you prefer them wet, they’ll be much more successful if you sauce them at the end. After 4 hours of smoke, wrap and return the racks to the smoker for 1 more hour. Remove the foil and plastic wrap, cut the racks in half and brush the surface of the meat with barbecue sauce. Glaze the half racks over a hot charcoal fire, turning frequently and brushing with sauce, for 10 minutes or so.

If you want to cut corners, my advice is go out for ribs instead. Here are my Best of Madison places to enjoy barbecued ribs.

Eldorado Grill. The restaurant added barbecue to the menu a while back and the dry-rubbed and smoked baby back ribs are exemplary, served with their homemade molasses-based sauce.

Smoky Jon’s #1 BBQ. This is the closest Madison has to a genuine BBQ joint and lays claim to Wisconsin’s largest wood-burning rotisserie pit. For more than 27 years Smoky Jon has piled up awards for his ribs, seasonings and sauce, earning him the title as “Madison's All-Time BBQ King.”

Fat Jack’s Barbecue. Madison’s longest running venue for smoky meat treats, they feature both tender spareribs and baby back ribs served with their own unique spicy sauce. All-you-can-eat sparerib special on Wednesday night.

Papa Bear’s Barbecue. St. Louis style ribs and rib tips along with traditional sides to carry-out.

Famous Dave’s BBQ. It’s a chain to be sure and (one that began in Minneapolis no less) but consistently earns praise and awards for its hickory-smoked spareribs that are finished with their Rich & Sassy® BBQ sauce over an open flame.

Arthur Bryant’s Rib Rub
1 cup salt
2/3 cup paprika
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground celery seed
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder

Mix all the ingredients. Generously sprinkle both sides of the ribs with the rub and massage it in. Let ribs sit at least 12 hours, refrigerated, before cooking. This recipe flavors 12 slabs of ribs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rest of the Story

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What's Cookin' on Father's Day


June 21, 2009

Father's Day & The First Day of Summer

Pan Fried Vidalia Onion Dip
with Black Pepper Potato Chips


Hickory-Smoked Beef Brisket
with Grapefruit Chipotle Barbecue Sauce

Texas-style Potato Salad

Blue Cheese Cole Slaw

Jalapeño Corn Bread

Peach Blueberry Pie
with Vanilla Ice Cream

Peach Blueberry Pie

Pastry for a double crust 9-inch pie

3 to 3 ½ pounds ripe peaches
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup blueberries
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup light-brown sugar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons instant tapicoa
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons heavy (whipping) cream

Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry and chill for 1 hours.

Using a paring knife, cut an "X" in the bottom of each peach. Drop the peaches into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Remove to a bowl. When they are cool enough to handle, slip off the skins. Cut the peaches into ¾-inch slices and place in a large bowl. Toss with the lemon juice to prevent discoloring.

Add the blueberries, vanilla, brown sugar, ½ cup granulated sugar, tapioca and the flour; toss well.

Lightly brush the bottom crust all over with the egg white; spoon in the filling and dot with the butter.

Cut the top crust into strips ¾-inch wide and make a lattice cover over the filling. Trim the overhang to 1 inch. Moisten the edges of the crusts where they meet with a little water, then press them together lightly and turn them under. Crimp the edges decoratively. Chill for 1 hour.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Brush the lattice crust and the rim with the cream. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar.

Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until it is golden and the juices are bubbling, about 30 to 40 minutes. If the top is getting too brown, tent the pie with foil after about 30 minutes. Let the pie cool on a wire rack before serving.

Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I only eat them in the summer. It’s a simple and classic sandwich but demands the best ingredients to be successful: vine-ripened tomatoes—preferably home grown; crispy, smoked bacon; and crunchy head lettuce leaves stacked between freshly toasted bread with plenty of quality mayo.

I only eat them in the summer because of the tomatoes. For me, tomatoes are the fruition of the season. To be sure, those hard, green things sold in winter have improved in recent years. But the perfect bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich is naught but shear fantasy without a flawless tomato—red and ripe, firm but juicy and properly acidic.

It’s not that I don’t care about the other ingredients. Thickly sliced, applewood-smoked bacon is my favorite but other varieties will suffice so long as probably cooked—tomatoes are soft, so the bacon shouldn’t be. I prefer head lettuce to field greens—it holds up better on the sandwich. Toasted home-style bread—white or whole wheat—is preferable to the squishy, mass produced stuff. I also don’t like French bread that’s so hard it breaks your jaw. The mayonnaise doesn’t have to be homemade but real (no brand endorsement implied). You can, however, easily obtain all of these ingredients all year long.

I grew up eating bacon and lettuce tomato sandwiches. My mother made them, of course, but I didn’t like the Miracle Whip she used instead of mayonnaise. Since she didn’t much care for meat, she made a much more successful vegetarian version, substituting peanut butter for the bacon. It sounds like a weird combination, but I still occasionally put one together just for nostalgia sake and have to admit I always enjoy it. The sandwich was standard fare at luncheonettes which every drug stores and dime store had. I can still remembers sitting at the serpentine counter, chubby legs dangling in the great void between stool and floor, slurping a Green River phosphate and nibbling on a BLT. It was a time when a sandwich was more likely made on toast rather than a bun … and a wrap was only an article of clothing.

The bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich today is most often something consumed at home, but there are several restaurants here that take the art form seriously. Here is my list of Best of Madison BLTs:

Classic BLT: The Old Fashioned. You won’t find it on the regular menu but only as a daily special when Heirloom tomatoes are in season. The best tomatoes ever matched with fine, hickory-smoked bacon from Bavaria Sausage on toasted country bread.

Foodie’s BLT: Marigold Kitchen. Scrap the lettuce and substitute arugula plus some whipped cream and pepper jelly on their signature rosemary bread.

Fishy BLT: Bluephies. So they call it a crab sandwich but it’s really a BLT with crab, guacamole and chipotle aioli. Yum!

Vegetarian BLT: Monty’s Blue Plate. Marinated and grilled tempeh strips with lettuce, tomato and cumin-chipotle mayo served on toasted jalapeño-cheddar cheese bread. Where’s the meat? Who cares?

Best Club Sandwich: Nick’s. One of Madison’s oldest diners piles up a traditional club, a double-decker BLT with the addition of sliced home-style roasted turkey.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Gin and IT

That’s what they call it in England—gin and Indian tonic. It may be an utterly British drink but it came of age in this country. As a student abroad, I remember looking forward to a trip to the pub for my first authentic gin and tonic. I was handed a smallish wine glass with a squirt of gin and a miniature bottle of Schweppes and told to help myself to ice and lemon laid out on the bar. I wasn’t told not to take more than a cube or two but gleaned that from the glare I got.

My interest in this drink was piqued as a youngster, making frequent trips with my family to Gabe’s Restaurant in Owensboro, Kentucky. The place is most remembered for its revolving, bigger-than-life statue of its owner, Gabe, and his mantra “Hi neighbor, it’s a wonderful world!” Back in the 1950s, Gabe’s had a beautifully lithographed menu. Down its side danced tempting illustrations of colorful cocktails, including a gin and tonic in a tall, sweaty glass garnished with an improbably green lime slice. This wouldn’t be the last time a picture lead to my downfall, but one of the few instances where I wasn’t disappointed.

Coming of age and finally being able to imbibe this libation that I’d lusted after for so long, I was surprised that I actually liked it. My mother had already prejudiced me against gin (or had at least tried). In her opinion, it was not something that nice people drank. My own experience was that the only bad gin was cheap gin.

Gin and tonic came about as an attempt to make bitter quinine—which the British in colonial India took copiously to avoid malaria—more palatable. What could be better than to disguise it with good English gin? Eventually, carbonated water and sugar were added and the beverage bottled. Today’s tonic water only contains a small amount of quinine, added to properly produce the distinctive bitter flavor enjoyed the world over. Ineffective as a malaria prophylactic, bottled tonic water is sometime recommended as a treatment for nocturnal cramps.
Back in the l960s when black lights were all the rage, I recall ordering a gin and tonic in a bar with psychedelic décor and being shocked that my G and T was fluorescent! This was not the result of some drug-induced hallucination: The quinine in tonic water causes it to fluoresce under ultra violet light.

Gin and tonic is traditionally a tall drink, properly made in a Collins glass with lots of ice. In recent years—especially around here—order a gin and tonic and it’s most likely to show up in an on-the-rocks glass. What’s so wrong with that is the resulting gin to tonic ratio. I prefer a gin and tonic made with an old-style gin such as Tanqueray or Plymouth rather than Bombay Sapphire or Citadelle which are better suited for a martini. For me a fresh lime wedge—and not too stingy—is an essential garnish. In the UK they would much more likely use lemon which works in a pinch.

Regardless of how you like your gin and tonic, it will always taste better enjoyed out of doors. Here is my list of Best of Madison places to sip a gin and tonic this summer.

The Continental Fitchburg. The atmosphere on the patio here is always that of a big backyard party—but without paper plates and plastic cups.

Genna’s Cocktail Lounge. It always has a buzz on and is the place to meet after work for the 4:30-6:30 happy hour.

The Edgewater Pier. This place has been shouting “This is Madison!” forever, and though the actual pier is not as long as it once was the vista is bigger than ever.

Fresco. “Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes … I’m on top of the world looking down on creation.”—The Carpenters.

Harvest. On the Square but as close as you’ll get here to a café on the Rue de la Paix.

Bettylou Cruises. A view of the water is serene, but a view from the water is uniquely refreshing.

The Great Dane Pub, Downtown. It may be a brewery but the big dog’s courtyard is a first-class venue for a cocktail.

Ishnala. WISCONSIN SUMMER, filmed on location in IMAX starring Mirror Lake and a cast of thousands.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

MORE Pimm's

You can also enjoy a Pimm's Cup at these Madison establishments:

Genna's Cocktail Lounge
The Bayou
Shamrock Bar
Opus Lounge
Greenbush Bar
The Old Fashioned
Local Tavern
Madison Club


Saturday, May 16, 2009

It’s Pimm’s Time

Something the British Isles and Wisconsin have in common is that the arrival of summer can be more a state of mind than the actual weather outside. In England the season officially begins with the first utterance of “Make mine a Pimm’s.” For many in the UK, Pimm’s is the drink of choice at summer events such as Wimbledon (15,000 served each day during the tournament), the Henley Regatta and Glyndebourne. For me, that first idyllic day when I conclude that warm weather is really here to stay (or at least am so flushed with spring fever that I can overlook that it really might snow again) has to be toasted with Pimm’s.

Whenever the subject of Pimm’s comes up inevitably someone asks “What is it?” Even many Pimm’s fans have no idea. Like Chartreuse, Galliano and other proprietary brands its exact formula is a well-guarded secret. Most often, “Pimm’s” specifically refers to Pimm’s No. 1, a gin-based beverage with a 25% alcohol content and flavored with citrus, bitters and quinine.

Its inventor, James Pimm, ran an oyster house in London in the 1840s and started selling his libation there as a tonic. By 1851 he had come up with two more varieties. In addition to the original—now dubbed Pimm’s No. 1, he added Scotch whiskey-based Pimm’s No. 2 and brandy-based Pimm’s No. 3. With the commercial bottling, of Pimm’s, its popularity spread across the British Empire. Like gin and tonic—no doubt because of its quinine content—it was especially fashionable in warm climates such as India. In the 1960s two more varieties were added to the line—rye whiskey-based Pimm’s No. 5 and vodka-based Pimm’s No. 6. Today, only the original and most popular No. 1 and vodka-based No. 6 remain in production. Recently, however, a new Winter Pimm’s based on the old brandy-based No. 3 was introduced.
The best known use for Pimm’s is in a Pimm’s Cup which in England is always made with Pimm’s No. 1, lemonade and most often garnished with an orange slice, cucumber and mint. The lemonade referred to here is not the American kind made from juiced fresh lemons, sugar and water. In England and most of Europe, “lemonade” refers to a sparkling lemon-flavored soda similar to 7up but without the lime flavoring. Whites is the big brand in the UK and I’ve never found it here but you can purchase sparkling lemonade imported from France which is virtually identical— Lorina is a popular brand and available a Jenifer Street Market and other places around town. Otherwise, you can substitute 7up. A British barman will often add a measure of gin to beef up the drink’s modest alcohol content.

Rarely are the ingredients for a Pimm’s Cup actually measured out. The ratio of Pimm’s No. 1 to mixer is a matter of personal taste. The finished drink ought to resemble the color of iced tea, weak or strong.

There is some contention about the proper garnish of a Pimm’s Cup. Cucumber—either a slice or spear—is a must, however. Supposedly, the drink was originally garnished with borage, a green herb that has a cucumber-like flavor. In addition to the standard orange and mint, some espouse the more fruit the better, adding strawberries, lemons, limes and apples to the mix.

In this country, Pimm’s Cups are often concocted using ginger ale but the English would call this drink a Pimm’s Ginger (and garnished with lemon and mint). The Pimm’s Cup is a specialty of the Napoleon House, an old and historic bar in New Orleans. Their version is made with Pimm’s No. 1, American-style lemonade, 7up and garnished with a cucumber slice. In Madison, stop by the Capitol Chophouse to enjoy a Pimm’s Cup in the bar or on the terrace.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

No Roquefort Is Leaving Me Blue

George W.’s parting shot as President was to impose a 300% tariff on Roquefort cheese. This action was in retaliation to the European Union banning the import of hormone-fed beef. The E.U. has much stricter food regulations than the U.S. and is a stickler when it comes to additives, preservatives or genetic modification. Personally, I think their erring on the side of caution is a good thing and would like to see more of it here.

The end result of this tariff—which also affects the price of Irish oatmeal, French truffles and Italian sparkling water—means bye-bye Roquefort! Suppliers that still have it in stock are demanding as much as $70 a pound for the stinky stuff.

For me, Roquefort once was the only game in town. The thought of substituting blue cheese was about as appealing as buying store-brand ketchup instead of Heinz or Double Cola instead of Coke. How things have changed. I can’t even remember the last time I ate Roquefort cheese. Quite honestly, for me the threat of high-priced Pellegrino is of much greater concern. There are just too many excellent domestic blue cheeses to choose from today.

In fact, Roquefort is nothing more than a kind of blue cheese. Like many other varieties—Gorgonzola, Stilton, Maytag, etc.—Roquefort is named after where it was made. What all blue cheese has is common is Penicillium culture which produce the characteristic blue veins or spots, crumbly texture and distinctive salty flavor. Blue cheese can be made from cow’s milk, sheep’s milk or goat’s milk.

There are many fine American cheesemakers in Oregon, California, Iowa and— of course— Wisconsin now producing artisan (handmade) cheeses. Wisconsin produces the most blue-veined cheese and it seems to grow in popularity every year. You can find fine blues at Fromagination, Whole Foods, Willy Street Coop, farmers’ markets and other shops that feature artisan cheese.

It’s an odd year (literally) so there will be no Cheese Days in Monroe (next in 2010), but the 21st Annual Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival goes on as usual in Little Chute, June 5 - 7.

Here if my Best of Madison list of Wisconsin Blue Cheese:

Montforte Gorgonzola, Wisconsin Farmers Union. This organization of dairy farmers decided to open its own cheese factory in Montfort and their gorgonzola won top honors at the 2006 American Cheese Society completion.

Buttermilk Blue, Roth Käse. Roth Käse makes many excellent European-style cheeses including two blue types. The Buttermilk Blue is made from raw milk and perfect for blue cheese dressing or dip. They also make Bleu Affinée which is aged longer (6 months instead of 2) and much denser in texture.
Ba Ba Blue, Carr Valley Cheese. Located in LaValle, Carr Valley is one of my favorite cheesemakers. They continually come up with some of the most imaginative and successful new cheeses around. Ba Ba Blue—obviously made from sheep’s milk—is a Roquefort-style, award-winning blue cheese. Carr Valley also makes Billy Blue—obviously made from goats milk—porcelain white in color, it’s milder and crumblier than Ba Ba Blue.

Hook’s Blue, Hook's Cheese. Tony and Juile Hook have built their reputation on the very best cheddar and blue cheese to be found anywhere. Varieties of blue include Hook’s Blue (original), Blue Paradise, Tilston Point and Gorgonzola. The original is a Danish-style blue aged for over a year and just hard to beat, either in cooking or standing alone.

Dunbarton Blue, Roelli Cheese. Several kinds of blue cheese are available from the factory and store in Shullsburg but their newest and best is an innovative Stilton-style blue cheddar. With fruit it’s the ideal dessert cheese.

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup mayonnaise
¾ cup buttermilk or Greek-style plain yogurt
2 teaspoons snipped fresh chives
½ teaspoon finely minced garlic (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Dash of cayenne
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
4 ounces blue cheese, coarsely crumbled by hand
In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients except the blue cheese with a whisk. When smooth, stir in the blue cheese. Store covered in the refrigerator.

The dressing's flavor will greatly improve if made several hours ahead of time or the night before. (It will keep for several days, cover, in the refrigerator.)

Makes about 2 cups.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Unless you’re from the Flatlands or beyond, you know I’m talking about brats as in bratwurst and not some troublesome children. Without a doubt, brats are Wisconsin’s unofficial state sandwich. I admit I’m somewhat perplexed that our State Legislature has not bequeathed it this special status since we do have an official state grain (corn), official state beverage (milk) and even an official state soil (Antigo silt loam). Regardless, for me the official brat season has begun. That is, as soon as it’s warm enough to grill outside. I realize that brands me as a transplanted Sconnie since true Wisconsinites grill out all year long, come sub-zero temps or blizzards.

I have many friends who used to live here and when I go to visit they always want me to bring brats (no easy task). True, you can buy bratwurst in other places but is always somehow a little wrong. I remember buying Farmer John brand brats in L.A. that were made out of chicken, looked like white wienies and were tasteless. I’ve eaten “authentic” bratwurst in Germany—
Boiled!—and found it as appealing as blood sausage.

When my family moved to Madison not surprisingly someone one lunchtime asked my dad out for a brat. His reply was that he never drank before 5. However, it didn’t take long for any of us to embrace this unique bit of Wisconsin culinary heritage.

You’ll find three basic varieties of bratwurst in Wisconsin and each has its fans and detractors. The traditional German-style sausage is very white and contains veal. More common is the Sheboygan-style brat that is more reddish in color and contains a combination of beef and pork. Finally, there is smoked bratwurst, full-cooked, that tastes and looks a lot like Polish sausage.

A trend in food marketing today, whether ice cream, potato chips or bratwurst, seems to be lots of flavors— the more exotic the better. Hence brats with cheese, garlic, jalapeño peppers and Italian and Cajun spices all seemingly have found fans.

Whatever type of bratwurst you like, in Wisconsin at some point it has to be grilled. For many, pre-steaming (never boiling)—in beer or a mixture of beer, onions, peppercorns, sometime sauerkraut and maybe even butter—is a must. Often after grilling, the brats are returned to this savory marinade. Others prefer that their brats go directly from package to grill, especially if they are the smoked variety.

The proper topping of a brat is a source of contention. Those in Sheboygan, the self-proclaimed brat capital of the world, obviously think they know more about this specialty than anyone else and demand “da works:” ketchup, mustard, pickle relish and chopped onion but no sauerkraut. Elsewhere, ketchup on a brat is considered an abomination, sauerkraut desirable and horseradish a must.

Everyone agrees that you never serve a brat on a hot dog roll, but rather a brat bun—a larger, chewier roll you’ll be hard pressed to find south of Beloit. At one time the roll had to be buttered but not so much nowadays.
Brats are preferably eaten out-of-doors, whether at a backyard cookout or sporting event tailgate. They are washed down with beer (a/k/a bratwash) or soda but never white wine. In days past German or American-style potato salad was a popular side dish but today has been supplanted by potato chips or French fries (at a restaurant).

Madison is home to the World’s Largest Brat Fest held each year on Memorial Day weekend. It began in 1983 in the parking lot of Sentry Hilldale and originally was held twice a year (on Labor Day weekend as well). It grew bigger every year. In 2005 this fundraiser for local charities moved to Willow Island at the Alliant Energy Center. Last year, 191,712 brats were consumed, setting a new world record.

Sheboygan holds its annual Brat Days July 30 through August 1. A highlight since 1953 is the brat eating contest on the final day. Last year’s champion, Mike Fitzgerald of Menasha, downed 22½ sausages.

Here’s my best of the wurst, Best of Madison brats.

Best Restaurant Brat. The Old Fashioned features a double bratwurst from Sheboygan's award-winning Miesfeld Market, grilled over a wood fire and served on a buttered roll from Sheboygan’s Highway bakery with raw onions, pickles and brown mustard. This is the brat of your dreams.

Best Brat Icon. State Street Brats has been around longer than I have and was an inevitable stop as a grade schooler after a bowling outing or movie matinee. Back then it was called the Brathaus and ironically was housed in a minimalist, 1950s, cinder block building that was later given a makeover worthy of Disney. The place is an assembly line to be sure, but in 73 years they’ve learned to do a few things right. Most importantly, the brats are grilled over an open flame.

Best Bar Brat. The brat at the Stadium Sports Bar probably come closest to the one you make at home. It’s a big, plump sausage from Klemant’s—1/3rd of a pound—nicely charred on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Best Bratwurst to Grill at Home. Many local butcher shops make their own bratwurst on premises and nearly all are superior to what you’ll buy prepackaged. I’ll give the nod, though, to Ken’s Meats and Deli in Monona that makes a first class Sheboygan-style brat.

Best Supermarket Brats. Based in the brat epicenter of Sheboygan, Johnsonville is the largest manufacturer of brats in the world. They make over a dozen different varieties that are sold fresh and frozen at most area supermarkets. In spite of all that, they make a consistently good product.

Wisconsin Potato Salad

5 pounds boiled new potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Dill pickle vinegar (juice from the jar)
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ cup mayonnaise
¾ cup sour cream
½ cup yellow mustard
1 cup finely chopped dill pickles
¼ cup chopped green onion tops
¼ cup sliced radishes
3 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

In a large mixing bowl, toss diced warm potatoes with a tablespoon or so dill pickle vinegar. Gently fold in the chopped egg. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In another mixing bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sour cream and mustard. Add to the potato mixture along with the dill pickles, chopped green onions, radishes and fresh dill. Gently fold together to combine.

Cover with plastic wrap and chill thoroughly (can be made a day ahead of time). Serve chilled.

Serves 8.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Doo-Dah Day!

Derby Day is about more than just a horse race. It’s a celebration of a State, its cultural and especially its food. I’m not discounting the Kentucky Derby as a major sporting event that attracts worldwide attention. But for many a lot of the whoopla that has grown up around it is more captivating than the race itself (which after all, only lasts a couple of minutes).

It is unique among sport for its festivity and tradition. I suppose the Super Bowl comes closest but it’s just so much beer and guacamole by comparison. It’s Janet Jackson vs. The Queen. Cheap silly hats vs. expensive silly hats. Indoors in February vs. outdoors in May.

In most places, Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer. In Kentucky, this transition takes place on Derby Day, the first Saturday in May. It is the green light to wear white or seersucker; put on patent leather or spectator shoes. It is the safe date to plant a garden without further fear of frost.

As a child and already aspiring cook, I remember looking forward to the Sunday Courier-Journal the weekend before the Derby. In that issue complete with color rotogravure, Food Editor Cissy Gregg would wow me with what the perfect Derby Day hostess would be making that year.

Mere mention of the Kentucky Derby to most people brings to mind mint juleps. On the day of the race they flow like water at Churchill Downs—almost 120,000 mint juleps are imbibed each year. To be sure some locals serve them on this occasion as well—with a wink and a nod. Any other day of the year and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone in the Bluegrass State sipping one of these syrupy libations. Bourbon is revered in Kentucky but most often drunk neat or with a bit of branch. The popularity of mint juleps goes back to the days when river boats steamed the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Then a favorite morning eyeopener among Southern planters, today it’s more prevalent in New Orleans than Louisville. Personally I’d rather have a mojito any day.

A better use of bourbon is in bourbon balls: cream-filled chocolates flavored with whisky and pecans. First concocted in 1936 by Ruth Booe of Frankfort, today the confection is omnipresent especially at Derby time. You can order bourbon balls made from the original recipe from Rebecca Ruth Candy. (I love their candy but they have one of the worse logos I’ve ever seen.) There is another type of bourbon ball often made at home. The easy, no-cook recipe includes crushed vanilla wafers, chopped pecans, cocoa and powdered sugar.

Before the Colonel and his chicken, Kentucky’s culinary claim to fame was country hams. Similar to hams produced in Virginia and other parts of the region, they are dry-cured, aged and more akin to prosciutto than that wet pink stuff they sell at the supermarket. Unlike prosciutto, country ham is cooked: soaked, baked or boiled and glazed. Most often it is served at room temperature; sliced paper thin. In Kentucky country ham is bound to show up at most festive get-togethers from Thanksgiving until Derby Day.

Celebrating the Derby has inspired a few original culinary creations, too. Probably the first was Benedictine spread or dip, named for Louisville catering company owner Miss Jennie C. Benedict. At the turn of the last century, tea parties were more popular than buffets and Miss Benedict’s dainty little green sandwiches were all the rage. Still popular today, it more often appears as a dip (thinned with sour cream) than as a sandwich filling.

Grits are something only a true Southerner can love (or an Italian who calls them polenta). Cheese grits on the other hand, whether cooked on top the stove or baked in a casserole, are a whole lot more appealing. I can’t claim that cheese grits were first served in conjunction with the Derby but they have become a prerequisite for many Derby Day breakfasts and brunches. I first heard Phyllis George, a former Miss America and then wife of Kentucky Governor John Young Brown, tout their charm in the late 1970s. This is one of the few incidences where I can unequivocally endorse the opinion of a beauty pageant contestant.

Best known if not loved is a chocolate chip and walnut dessert called Derby-Pie®. Created in 1954 by the Kern family, “Derby Pie” became so popular that Kern’s Kitchen, the bakery that makes the pie, trademarked it in 1968. Since then they’ve sued the likes of PBS, Bon Appétit and Nestlé for the unauthorized use of the name. The result is you’ll find a whole lot of pies at Louisville restaurants that seem to be so much the same thing with a lot of different names—Run for the Roses Pie, Churchill Downs Pie, Triple Crown Pie, etc.—but if you want a Derby-Pie® you’ll have to order one from Kern’s.

Over the years, my Kentucky heritage has been the brunt of a few jokes—more than a few coming from me. Regardless, on May 2 at 4 p.m. you won’t need Twitter to know what I’m doing. As on each first Saturday in May in most of the years I can remember I’ll be in front of the TV. I’ll watch the crowd stand, the horses parade out of the paddock and hear the band play one of the few songs I know all the words to. For that moment, whatever the weather, the sun will shine bright.

Benedictine Dip

1 large cucumber, peeled
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons grated onion
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
Dash green food coloring (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Grate cucumber and drain in a fine mesh sieve. Combine cucumber, cream cheese, onion, salt, sour cream, mayonnaise and food coloring (if used) in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl and stir in chopped dill. Taste for seasoning. Serve with crudités or potato chips.

Makes about 1½ cups.

First Saturday in May Pie

1 9-inch fully baked pie shell, cooled

1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6 ounces chocolate chips
1 cup coarsely chopped or broken walnuts
2 tablespoons bourbon

Whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, melted butter, flour and
eggs, using a whisk. When the mixture is smooth, stir in the chocolate chips, walnuts and bourbon

Pour the filling into the baked pie shell and bake for 30 to 35 minutes in the preheated 350-degree oven.

Cool completely on a rack and serve at room temperature with whipped cream.

Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Strawberry Pie Duet

I have a lot of cookbooks and some are relatively old. Once, looking for strawberry pie recipes I realized all the recipes prior to the 1960s call for a filling of strawberries and sugar baked in a pastry crust. In other words, there weren’t any recipes for fresh strawberry pie or strawberry rhubarb pie. Your rarely encounter the old version of strawberry pie any more and for good reason. It’s as about as appealing as a pop tart.

Strawberries are my favorite fruit and both fresh strawberry pie and strawberry rhubarb pie best pies. One of the thinks I don’t like about living in Wisconsin is strawberry season which doesn’t come until summer. At worse the berries can be watery or hard knots, depending upon the weather. In all fairness, I will say last summer was an exception and the berries were near perfect. Unfortunately, most of the strawberries I consume any more are from California—out of necessity rather than choice. Growing up in Kentucky strawberries arrived in April. They were smaller and sweeter than the ones from California and red all the way through. Sometime I almost convince myself that this is just another case of nostalgia tainting my memory. That is until I head south and savor a locally grown spring strawberry. I has no equal.

In fairness, California strawberries seem to have improved in flavor and I will hope that this year’s Wisconsin crop is a good one. Regardless, I will keep on making strawberry pies.

Thinking back, most of the first strawberry pies I enjoyed—which were glazed fresh berries in a baked short pastry crust topped with whipped cream—were at small restaurants and coffee shops, not at home. It was a treat that I always looked forward to when dining out. I remember being on family trips and taking detours just to have strawberry pie at the Cadillac Motel Restaurant. Seemingly Big Boy had a lot to do with popularizing fresh strawberry pie. As most of us know, Big Boy began in California and was all about hamburgers but fresh strawberry pie became their signature dessert. The original restaurant, Bob’s Big Boy franchised the name regionally. Growing up in Kentucky they were known as Frisch’s Big Boy; when I moved to Wisconsin, they became Marc’s Big Boy. Some like Shoney’s Big Boy went on to became large chains.

I never remember my grandmother, who was a good cook, making strawberry pie but ironically the recipe I most often use today is basically the one she clipped from the Nashville newspaper. I’ve included it at the end (the original recipe included strawberry-flavored Jell-O instead of unflavored gelatin). I’ve also successfully made strawberry pie glazes using only cornstarch as a thickener. Unfortunately nowadays fresh strawberry pie is too often fabricated with a ready made product that is artificially flavored and colored to the max. (I’ve seen strawberry pies that I swear were radioactive.) The other travesty is to top the pie with Cool Whip. That’s too bad since it’s an easy pie to make without the neon colored glop or fake whipped cream.

I don’t remember enjoying strawberry rhubarb pie before I moved to Wisconsin. Rhubarb pie has been around seemingly forever. Whoever finally figured out the obvious to add strawberries for sweetness was a culinary genius. I can think of very few flavors that compliment other like strawberry and rhubarb. I’ve tried various ratios of fruit and different types of thickeners over the years and have included my favorite recipe. My best advice is ‘don’t use frozen fruit!’ It’s a juicy enough pie as is without exasperating the situation.

I’m pretty persnickety about pies, especially pie pastry and tend to me hypercritical of restaurant pies. However, the Norske Nook in Osseo make some very fine pies, including fresh strawberry and strawberry rhubarb—both worth the trip alone.

Fresh Strawberry Pie

1 baked 9-inch pie shell, made with short pie pastry

¼ cup water
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
2 quarts picked-over strawberries, hulled
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt

Whipped cream

Put the water in a glass measuring cup or small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin. Let soften 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, take 3 cups of the smaller and/or less attractive strawberries and purée in the food processor or blender with the sugar and cornstarch. Pour the strawberry mixture into a saucepan, add the lemon juice and salt, and set over low heat. Stirring constantly, cook the mixture until it comes to a boil. Continue to cook and stir until the purée is thick and transparent. Stir in the softened gelatin and immediately remove from the heat. Let cool.

Slice the remaining strawberries in half and add to the cooled purée. Gently fold together and pour into the baked and cooled pie shell. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the top.

Chill the pie for at least 2 hours and serve chilled with whipped cream.

Best if made the same day it is served.

Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Deep-dish Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Enough pie pastry for 3 9-inch crusts

4 tablespoons instant tapioca
1½ tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 cups rhubarb, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
3 cups hulled strawberries, sliced
1½ cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter cut in small bits
1 lightly beaten egg

Process the tapioca, flour and salt in a small food processor or spice grinder until fine. Combine with the rhubarb, strawberries and sugar. Let stand 15 minutes.

Spread filling in a 10-inch thoroughly chilled 10-inch pie shell, top with the butter and then cover with a lattice crust. Chill for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Brush the pie with the lattice (not the edge) with the beaten egg. Bake in the center of the preheated 400-degree oven for 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake 40 minutes longer.

Serve the same day as made.

Makes 1 10-inch pie.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Morel Dilemma

It’s a little early to be writing about morels, but their anticipation is no small part of their pleasure. And, it’s perhaps disingenuous to imply there is any dilemma other than will I or won’t I pay the high price they command (and I already know that I will). I could of course, go out and hunt for them myself just like I could go to France to find truffles for free. Unlikely.

I discovered this delicacy when my family moved to central Indiana. Our neighbors invited us to go with them mushroom hunting. Obviously my parents at first reacted with horror, envisioning a slow and painful death for all us and questioned the sanity of our newly made friends. After much reassurance and some ridicule we were initiated into this annual ritual.

The popular way to prepare morels in Indiana like in much of the Midwest is dip them in an egg wash, roll them in crushed crackers and pan fry until golden brown. Prepared this way they are usually eaten as an appetizer or a main dish. For breakfast, light beaten eggs are sometime added, and scrambled with the mushrooms.

Morels are very popular in France and used both in their fresh and dried state. They classically appear in sauces and soups made with cream and egg dishes. The English prize all wild mushrooms and none more than the morel, the first mushroom of the season.

Springtime in Wisconsin and warm days in May send shroomers scurrying. Just as with deer hunting in the fall, the season for morel gathering is short but nonetheless anticipated by devotes. If you have ever foraged for them or savored their grandeur, then perhaps you will appreciate why they cost so much.

Morels and wild mushrooms in general are much more popular in Europe where they are collected, commercially sold and universally consumed. As we all know by now, eating just any old fungus that pops up out of the ground can be dangerous if not deadly. Hence, many people are afraid to consume any wild mushroom. The morel has a distinctive appearance that makes it easy to identify and tastes so good that many of us are willing to throw caution to the wind.

There are three American morel species: Morchella semilibera or the half-free morel, Morchella elata or the black morel and Morchella esculenta the yellow or white morel. The black and yellow morels are the most popular and their names are misleading since they can range in color from light gray to dark gray; from light tan to dark brown. The shape of the cap can also vary from tall and slender to short and squat but should always be honeycombed and pitted.

If want to try your hand at mushroom hunting and are a novice, go with an experienced hunter who can show you what a good morel looks like. Be forewarned: Shroomers like to keep their prime harvesting grounds closely guarded secrets. Morels can grow singularly or in patches. A particular spot can be bountiful for many years and then mysteriously grow fallow. Most mushroom hunters have theories about where you will and won’t find morels and are more than eager to share their S.W.A.T.S. (Scientific Wild Ass Theories).

In fact, morels are found in a variety of habitats in almost every state in the country. Most often, they grow in moist, sandy-soil especially around dying or dead elm trees and in old fruit orchards. They usually appear in May after the first spring flowers—the flowering of trillium is supposedly a harbinger of the morel. The total growing season lasts two to three weeks, though occasionally when weather conditions are perfect, morels reappear in the fall.

Whether you decide to forage for yourself or fork out big bucks, here are some suggestions to help you enjoy your stash. If you’ve never eaten morels or wild mushrooms before, eat a small amount and wait 24 hours before eating more. Some people are allergic to all mushrooms, even cultivated mushrooms. Never eat morels raw as they are hard to digest and don’t taste good. Store unwashed morels in a paper bag in the refrigerator. For longer keeping, mushroom can be frozen but need to be cooked first. They can also be dried—most successfully using an electric dehydrator. Dried morels need to be reconstituted in liquid for about 10 minutes, drained and pressed dry before using.

Obviously, morels needed to be cleaned before cooking but there are two schools of thoughts on the best way to do this. Begin my brushing off any loose surface dirt clinging to the stems. Slit the mushroom in half from top to bottom (it is hollow inside). For some, thoroughly rinsing under cold running water is sufficient. Others prefer to soak the mushrooms in a salt water bath—the salt kills any insects that might reside in the surface cavities. Don’t use too much salt since it will affect the delicate flavor of the mushrooms. Once they are washed, they need to be drained on paper toweling before cooking.
For me the coming of spring always meant asparagus, strawberries and morels. Thanks to modern horticulture and transportation asparagus and strawberries are now available year round. Attempts to commercially cultivate morels so far haven’t been very successful. That definitely makes them and spring a little more special.

Here are my Best of Madison where to find morels (S.W.A.T.S. not included).

Several restaurants regularly feature dishes with morel mushrooms and they include Harvest, L’Etoile and La Chardonay.

Fresh morels are available at the Dane County Farmers’ Market (which begins April 18) and many local farmers’ markets, as well as Whole Foods, Willy Street Co-op and Jenifer Street Market in season. Dried morels are sold at many larger groceries and specialty markets.

Muscoda holds its Annual Morel Festival this year on May 16 - 17.

The Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda makes Great Midwest Wild Morel & Leek Jack which is sold at several stores locally or may be ordered online from the factory.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Angry Cookie Maker

Seemingly I posted a cookie picture that is the property of Marcia Flanigan ... I apologize and was not aware that it was her property. It has been removed. She contacted me on Facebook. Here is her message:

"You used my image of my cookie on your blog, you did not have my permission, remove immediately, I plan to pursue every option to have some recognition you are using images which do not belong to you. The image belongs exclusively to and you had to have gone to my site to remove. I am not familiar with Madison magazine but will be contacting them this morning." Marcia Flanigan.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Advocate for the Avocado

What makes you think you’re so holy?
You’re gonna be guacamole before too long.
--Weird Al Yankovic

Native to Central and South America, there are more than 500 varieties of avocados that grow in subtropical areas around the world. Their size varies from that of a small pear to a large coconut. The skin can be smooth or rough, and range in color when ripe from yellowish green to purplish black. The color of the flesh varies from buttery yellow to neon green. Like bananas, avocados are climacteric fruit, which means they matures on the tree but ripen after they are picked.

They got their name from the Spanish explorers who couldn't pronounce the Aztec word “ahuacatl” (which meant “testicle” due to the fruit’s shape). The Spanish renamed them “aguacate”, from which the word guacamole was derived.

The most common variety available in the U.S. is the Hass avocado and it’s the only species that is grown year-round. It has a pebbley, dark green skin that blackens as it matures. All Hass avocados descend from a single tree planted by California mail carrier Rudolph Hass in 1935. The patented tree survived until 2002.

I much prefer Hass avocado not just for their flavor and color but because you can easily tell when they’re ripe. Too often I’ve purchased smooth-skin varieties that felt ripe but when cut open were discolored and rotten.
My first encounter with the then exotic fruit was in the 1950s. My grandmother would bring them back from Florida and always referred to them as “avocado pears.” Seemingly, there was only one form of preparation: sliced on top of a lettuce leaf and doused with Kraft Catalina dressing. I didn’t like them and never gave them a second thought until after I graduated from college.

I was living in Chicago and there were many wonderful Mexican restaurants in our neighborhood, a cuisine was just learning to appreciate. It was inevitable that guacamole would end up on my plate and low and behold it did, I tasted it and it was good. I soon learned to like avocados in other ways.

In California, they like to add a little mayo to guacamole and it makes a great topping for burgers. Once in a North African restaurant I had something that that looked a lot like guacamole but was flavored with ground almonds and rose water. The most unusual preparation I’ve encountered (and like) is guacamole ice cream—it has a sublime texture and beautiful color. (Here is Alton Brown’s recipe if you want to give it a try.) I love avocados in Cobb and seafood salads. I generally don’t like them cooked though I once had a soufflé in Paris flavored with avocado and Chartreuse that was delicious.

After all is said and done, guacamole—the dip—remains the most popular use for avocados. Supposedly, over 53 million pounds of guacamole are eaten every Super Bowl Sunday, enough to cover the playing football field 20 feet deep. Personally, I like my guacamole more chopped than pureed and I’ve included a favorite recipe at the end. I don’t ever like guacamole or anything else made from avocados that aren’t ripe. Finally, one of the great kitchen myths of all time is that putting the avocado pit in the guacamole will prevent it from turning dark. Store guacamole packed (no air pockets) in a covered, air tight container just large enough to hold its contents. Second best is to lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly over the surface of the guacamole. Either way, keep refrigerated until serving.

Here is my list of Best of Madison avocados:

Best Place to Buy Ripe Avocados. It seems like when you need a ripe avocado you can never find one. I’ve had my best luck at the Willy Street Co-op and Jenifer Street Market.

Best Restaurant Guacamole. I probably like the guac at La Mestiza best because it tastes most like mine.

Best Store-Bought Guacamole. At one time, the stuff you bought was insipid but a lot of guacamole packed in plastic pouches nowadays, though not as good as homemade, isn’t half bad. I think Trader Joe's Avocado’s Number brand is the best. It also comes in a variety flavored with salsa verde.

Best Use of Avocado on a Sandwich. Marigold Kitchen makes a different and unusually tasty fish sandwich with grilled tilapia, lettuce, tomato, red onion and avocado; finished off with a little queso fresco and a drizzle of chipotle lime dressing.

Best Guac Burger. The Cabana Room at Samba Brazilian Steak House makes a traditional guacamole burger that is also topped with cheddar and salsa. Their Cabana burger comes topped with avocado slices.

Best Salad with Avocados. This beautiful and complex salad at Sardine composed of arugula, red grapefruit and avocado comes with a citrus vinaigrette and garnish of spiced pumpkin seeds.
Best Avocado Appetizer (Not Guacamole). Not that common in this neck of the woods, Causa Limena is one of Peru’s best known dishes and available at Inka Heritage. Mashed potatoes flavored with hot yellow spicy yellow peppers and lime juice are layered with avocado and your choice of shredded chicken or shrimp and served with salsa golf (mayonnaise and ketchup).

Best Exotic Use of Avocado. The mango duck roll at Restaurant Muramoto was on the menu the first time I ate there back when it had just opened on King Street. It’s still featured at their new location and for good reason. Shinji’s sushi creation is a roll of duck, mango and avocado served with a soy sauce reduction.


Half a small onion, peeled
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 fully ripe Haas avocado, cut in half and seeded
Wedge of fresh lime
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh salsa (optional)

Using a food processor. Cut the onion half in 2 pieces and place in the work bowl. Coarsely chop the onion by turning the food processor on and off. With the motor running, drop the garlic through the feed tube and process until chopped. Turn off the food processor. Without scraping down the sides of the bowl, add the flesh from the avocado. (Be sure to scrape close to the skin, including the dark green outside of the fruit to give the guacamole a nice color). Add the juice from the lime, salt and the salsa, if used.

Finely chop the guacamole by turning the food processor on and off. Don't over process; the guacamole should not be homogenized. Scrape the guacamole into a serving bowl and serve immediately.

Using a blender or making by hand. Roughly purée the avocado in the blender or mash with a fork. Scrape out into a serving dish. Finely chop by hand the onion, garlic, tomato and pepper. Stir the chopped vegetables into the avocado along with the lime juice, salt and salsa.

Makes about 1½ cups.

Variation: Guacamole for Hamburgers and Sandwiches. Substitute 1 tablespoon mayonnaise for the salsa and process until completely smooth

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Spring Into Lombardino's

Lombardino's starts their new spring menu tonight! I can't wait to go and give it a test drive. They also have a couple of special wine tastings this month:

Thursday, April 9th, During Regular Service Falesco Wine Tasting

Samantha Malsch of Winebow import company will be with us during service for a wine sampling of three delicious wines. We will be featuring the Bianco, Sangiovese & Merlot from the Umbrian producer, Falesco. Falesco was founded in 1979 by brothers Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella, two of Italy's most acclaimed winemakers. Falesco's philosophy is to strike a balance between the uniqueness and tradition of native varietals and the versatility of ‘international' grapes. The result is a complete portfolio of wines that consumers and critics alike have recognized as both extreme values and “Best of Class” offerings.

Thursday, April 23rd, During Regular Service Caldora Wine Tasting

Michael Pare of Capitol Husting will be with us during service for a wine sampling of three delicious wines. We will be featuring the Trebbiano, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo & their single vineyard selection "Yume" from the Abruzzo producer, Caldora. Caldora is one of the largest cooperative wineries in the Abruzzo. With an updated winery facility coupled to an avant-garde vineyard management system, the essence of Caldora is captured in every bottle: maximum fruit expression in a top quality, reasonably priced wine that everyone can enjoy.

Call 608 238-1922 for reservations.