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.