Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Dec 30, 2012
02:24 PMSmall Dishes
Twelve Likes of 2012
Lists appear perennially of notable events of the past year and predictions and promises for the new one soon to come. In the past, I’ve joined the milieu to vent my pet peeves, venerate my favorite new restaurants, and eulogize those that had closed. Here is my list of things that made eating or drinking more memorable in 2012. Some newly discovered, others rediscovered, but all worthy of recognition.
1. Aperol. I’ve always liked Italian aperitifs, the bitter the better. Two longtime favorites are Campari and Punt e Mes. Aperol, a less alcoholic and less bitter cousin of Campari, is made from a secret formula that includes bitter oranges, gentian root, rhubarb, and cinchona. Like Campari it has an enticing stained-glass color, but more tangerine than cerise. A simply great Italian libation is the spritz: three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol and a splash of soda served over ice. Another is a twist on my all-time favorite cocktail, the Negroni, substituting Aperol for Campari, vodka for gin and bianco (sweet white) vermouth for rosso (sweet red) vermouth.
2. Cherry jam. I hate to admit it but it wasn’t until last year that I made my first trek to Door County. It’s difficult to go there without being immersed in the cuisine of cherries. Whether in pies, coffee cakes, vinegar or sauces, they’re omnipresent. Being the typical tourist, I brought home lots of jars of cherry jam to give away. One Sunday morning … sometime along February … I found the cupboards bare except for my cherry jam. I made some biscuits and since then it’s been my topper of choice for toast and English muffins as well. Some of the best I’ve ever had is made locally by Grandma Sticky’s (Patricia Hobbins-Kemps).
3. Roasted green vegetables. I’ve made and eaten roasted potatoes and root vegetables forever, but discovering roasted Brussels sprouts, green beans, asparagus and broccoli was a revelation. Not only are they easy to prepare and good for you, but most important of all, delicious!
4. Bourbon. This past spring, getting in touch with my Kentucky roots, I happened to end up in Bardstown, Bourbon Capital of the World. Kentucky and bourbon are synonymous and rightly so since it’s where this uniquely American whisky originated and where most—and the best I think—is still made. Sometime in my adulthood, I became a martini drinker, favoring gin and vodka over dark spirits. I’ve always used bourbon in cooking, appreciating its rich and complex flavor and its nuances of molasses, caramel, spices, and smoke. But now I’m a fan of small batch bourbon, even sipped straight up. I enjoy trying new varieties and have grown fond of many made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (Willett Distillery), including Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and Kentucky Vintage. Maker’s Mark is a classic and hard to beat, but its recently introduced Maker’s 46 proves something good can always be improved.
5. Gelato. When I first encountered gelato in Italy I obviously recognized it as ice cream, yet it somehow seemed … different. I now know that it contains virtually no air, less butterfat, and more sugar than its American counterpart. No doubt being lower in fat has propelled its popularity in this country, but I appreciate its softer side and less frigid state, making it smoother on the palate and added flavors more intense. A recommended and readily available brand is Talenti that comes in a distinctive plastic pint container with a screw top. Flavors run from traditional to fanciful—sea salt caramel is fabulous! At several, supermarkets around town I’ve noticed a new trend, gelato imported from Italy—including Hy-Vee’s own house brand.
6. Sweet potatoes. As a child, next to squash they were my least favorite food. The only time they appeared on my plate was at Thanksgiving and the only way there were prepared was in saccharine-sweet syrup they did little to disguise their mushy blandness. I changed my tune when I had them French fried—it’s hard not to like anything fried. I realized this year that I now probably eat more of them than regular potatoes. Baked, roasted, and fried; in salads, soups and even desserts, I love sweet potatoes.
7. Willy Street. I’ve lived on or just off Williamson Street for (dare I say it?) 34 years. It has always been interesting to say the least, but never so esteemed. The list of food purveyors that I frequent has never been longer: Sardine, Bandung, Madison Sourdough, Umani, Jolly Bob’s, Willy Street Co-op, Ha Long Bay, Batch Bakehouse. Three more were add this past year: A Pig in a Fur Coat, Chez Nanou at Bon Appétit and The Underground Butcher. I have to admit, I did not foresee its future when I moved here in 1978, but am confident the best is yet to come.
8. Bacardi 8. Despite its venerable history, Barcardi as a brand usually brings to mind spring break, paper umbrellas, and Coke (the beverage). Not exactly a top shelf image. Thanks to author Tom Corcoran and his protagonist, Alex Rutledge, whose preferred tipple is Barcardi 8 and my curiosity, my opinion of the 150-year-old company has changed for the better. Bacardi 8 is its premium brand and a departure from the light blends for which its best known. Eight years old, it has a tawny caramel color and slightly oaky aroma. The taste is comparable to a fine whisky and beyond my expectations. It’s perfect for making a Hemmingway Daiquiri: Put two ounces of rum in an ice-filled cocktail shaker along with the juice of a fresh lime and half a grapefruit. Add a dash of both maraschino liqueur and simple syrup; shake and pour into a chilled cocktail glass.
9. Southern Candy Company pralines. Why I go back to New Orleans time and time again, is because there’s always something new to discover, often food related. Such was the case during my visit this year which began with a brilliantly unorthodox walking tour of the Garden District conducted by Racontours and the amazing Re Tree. I quickly accessed that Tree’s knowledge and opinion was to be respected and asked him where to buy the best pralines in New Orleans. His response was unhesitatingly, “Southern Candy Company.” I have many fond memories from my first trip to New Orleans and one is the big, homemade pralines wrapped in waxed paper that were then sold at stands set up on the sidewalk, or as the local say, “banquettes.” These are the best pralines I’ve ever had. In all fairness, the ones now sold at the tourist traps on Decatur Street in the French Quarter are much better than you might expect. However, none could hold a candle to those I remember. That is, until going to Southern Candy Company. They’re the real deal and as close to homemade or satiating memory as I’m likely to find.
10. Baking parchment. I’ve long used it to line cake pans and cookie sheets—it saves so much cleaning time and keeps cookware in mint condition. The only problem was that it could be hard to find and costly, but no more. It’s now sold at markets large and small. I rarely fry bacon any more, and despite Alton Brown’s suggestion to cook it in a waffle iron, I bake it in a 400-degree oven on a pan lined with baking parchment. The results is perfectly crisp and flat rashers with no leftover greasy frying pan—and if you want to save the grease, just pick up the paper and easily transfer it into a container! Rarely a month goes by that I don’t figure out some new use for the stuff.
11. Harrisa. Like many, I have a taste for hot and spicy food. If you haven’t discovered it already, harissa comes from Tunisia and is a puree of piri piri peppers, spices, and garlic. It not only packs heat but flavor. Arab immigrants introduced it to France and it soon became popular in the rest of Europe. It’s the best condiment to emerge since Sriracha and just as versatile.
12. Pie. It certainly isn’t new, but it deserves to be on any list of my “likes.” Despite the many times I’ve written about it, the zillions of times I’ve made it, and the even more times I’ve eaten it, I never get tired of pie! Perfectly round, flaky without being eccentric, and full of surprises, it rarely fails to satisfy. As far as I’m concerned, pie is the culinary champion of all time and not a fickle fad that I’ll grow tired of in 2013 or ever.
Happy New Year!