Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jul 9, 2014
09:00 AMSmall Dishes
7 Foods Wisconsin Does Best
I’m a big fan of local food. Whenever I travel, I always sample the local specialties. Indigenous ingredients and cultural heritage are always major influences. Wisconsin’s early German and Scandinavian settlers greatly prejudiced what we still eat today. Things haven’t remained static by any means. Food fads have come and gone. Other cultures have left their mark, too. We have assimilated once new dishes like pizza and tacos into our repertoire. It’s difficult to predict what our favorite foods will be in 20 years. Yet, I will wager that the following seven will forever remain popular in the Badger State.
In German, bratwurst roughly translates to chopped meat sausage, though the verb braten means to pan fry. It’s a prevalent specialty found throughout that country. However, the bratwurst enjoyed in Wisconsin rarely resembles that found in Germany. This ubiquitous cookout staple has evolved into something special to this place. It’s not that you can’t find brats elsewhere, but inevitably when you do, they tend to be whiter in color and more homogenized in texture than those preferred here. That’s not to imply that there is orthodoxy in Wisconsin bratwurst making. Ingredients vary and to smoke or not is contentious. Flavors like jalapeño, cheddar, bacon, honey mustard and more continue to emerge. Some insist brats first must be simmered in beer with onions and butter, or even sauerkraut. Others prefer skipping this step and going straight to the grill—and Sconnies grill and never steam!
Having me try to pick who makes the best brat in Wisconsin is a bit like asking Jim Bob Duggar to pick his favorite child. The fact there are so many good ones speaks to its culinary grandeur. Definitely at the top of the list is Miesfeld’s Meat Market in Sheboygan. Sheboygan officially became the “Brat Capital of the World” in 1970, beating out Bucyrus, Ohio, for this coveted title. (Has anyone actually heard of a Bucyrus brat?) Sheboyganites never say “grill a brat” but rather “fry a brat”—on a grill. They also have a propensity for round, hard rolls instead of hot dog buns. There any toppings other than brown mustard and chopped onion are considered heresy. Miesfeld’s ships to anywhere in the U.S., but its brats are also found on the menu at The Old Fashioned.
Cheese is made just about everywhere and consumed worldwide. In a survey as to what food people would most like to receive as a gift, cheese topped the list, beating out candy. Wisconsin is the number one cheese-producing state in the country and it churns out over six hundred varieties to boot. Quantity aside, it also makes some of the best cheese produced anywhere.
Originally milder cheeses like Colby and baby Swiss secured its reputation. Some claim this is thanks to the grass in America’s Dairyland—the grass the cows eat. Supposedly it’s less acidic than that found in other states and results in cheese with a milder flavor. Regardless, mozzarella ranks as the most consumed variety in the U.S.
In recent years, many local cheesemakers have switched to crafting artisan cheeses. Some of these varieties mimic European types, but other others are completely original. Wisconsin is the only state with a Master Cheesemaker Program, modeled after a similar program in Europe. Currently, there are forty-four certified Master Cheesemakers in our state.
One of my favorite cheese producers is Carr Valley Cheese Company. For four generations the Cook family has strived for excellence in the industry. Today, Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook leads the company, earning his cheesemaking license at age sixteen. Using milk from cows, sheep and goats, Carr Valley crafts many truly exceptional and award-winning cheeses. The Cave-Aged Marisa, named for Sid’s daughter, is one of my favorites, but I’ve really never sampled anything from Carr Valley that I didn’t like. Best of all, it’s readily available at many markets around town.
These could have been included under the category “Cheese,” but you can find cheese almost anywhere, but not so cheese curds. They have now been discovered by gourmets on both coasts. People who visit here seek them out, ask their local purveyors back home to stock them, and sing their praises on food blogs. No doubt their sudden fame is due to poutine—French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy, a Quebec specialty now trending in the U.S.
To obtain quality cheese curds, one must live close to where cheese is made since they must be utterly (no pun intended) fresh. Fortunately for those of us living in Wisconsin this is not a problem. Cheese curds are a product of cheesemaking—most commonly, cheddar—produced when milk is curdled and the solid curd separated from the liquid whey. Normally the curds are then processed into blocks and aged to produce cheese. Here we enjoy them as is. They have a mild taste, a slightly rubbery texture, and when properly fresh, squeak when eaten.
Cheese curds are great in grilled sandwiches and also good in salads. The most common way to prepare them in Wisconsin, of course, is deep fried. A beer-batter is frequently used. There is no comparison between cheese curds freshly hand-battered and those frozen and packaged.
Not surprisingly, Madison can boast a food cart that specializes in fried cheese curds: Curd Girl. No, I am not related. The “Curd Girl” is actually plural and is Kayla Zeal and Jessica Wartenweiler, both from Monroe. Maple Leaf Cheese is the purveyor of the curds they use. Lightly beer-battered and fried until ethereally crispy, they’re served with one of three delectable homemade sauces, including an inspired strawberry-rhubarb dip.
Frozen custard is by no means unique to Wisconsin. It was invented in 1919 at Coney Island, the New York amusement park. Its appearance at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair amplified its allure, especially in the Midwest. Its popularity peaked in the 1950s. Many of the mom-and-pop custard stands couldn’t compete with the chain burger joints that soon would proliferate along the highways. Wisconsin never lost its taste for the creamy, frozen treat that goes directly from freezer to cone (or cup). A few renowned frozen custard makers around the country survive, like Ted Drewes in St. Louis and Hodgman’s in New Gloucester, Maine—still an honest-to-goodness roadside stand. That said, Milwaukee boasts the largest number of frozen custard shops per capita anywhere. The list includes the frozen custard icons, Kopp's, Leon's and Gilles. Madison has Michael’s and Culver’s—that began in 1984 as a single-outlet operation in Sauk City—is today the largest seller of frozen custard nationwide with 450 restaurants in nineteen states.
What sets custard apart from ice cream isn’t necessarily the ingredients—so-called French-style ice cream begins with the same egg, cream and milk base (as opposed to Philadelphia-style that excludes eggs). After making, ice cream is stored and hardened in subzero freezers, but frozen custard is dispensed soft, directly from the machine in which it was made. Served at a warmer temperature, there is less numbing of the palate, giving it that distinctive smooth taste.
I don’t often buy mass produced coffee cakes. At best they tend to be disappointing. Kringle on the other hand—even the stuff they sell at the supermarket—never fails to have a certain appeal. Thanks to Danish immigrants who settled in Racine and had a penchant for opening bakeries, today the place boasts a load of fine kringle makers. Kringle actually refers to its original pretzel-knot shape, though today in this country they are most often formed into a simple oval. (The shape was changed to allow for more filling). What makes them different from other breakfast treats made from yeast dough is the rich, flaky, layered pastry—not unlike a croissant. There are a slew of bakeries in Racine today all claiming to have the “original” or “best kringle” in town. Neither the biggest nor most boastful, but surely one of the best kringle bakers is Bendtsen's. Since 1934, this family-run business has specialized in kringle that today comes in a dozen different flavors. Pecan is the bestseller, but I’m partial to the almond.
Unlike elsewhere in the world where it’s considered at best a grain for milling, or at worst a fodder for livestock, corn might as well be our national vegetable. It’s no accident that it’s favored by school cafeterias nationwide. Corn’s history in this country goes way back, with Native Americans introducing the concept of eating sweet or green (not fully matured) corn to the colonists. It didn’t really become a vegetable in our diet until the nineteenth century and the first corn consumed was all white. What we eat today is the result of hybridization and the never-ending quest for ever-sweeter ears. The esteem for what is now dubbed “supersweet” corn is not only sweetness, but a longer shelf life, increasing availability throughout the year.
Growing up in Kentucky, I thought corn on the cob was something only savored briefly in mid-summer. Moving to Wisconsin where the season lingers longer, it took on a whole new significance. The state ranks third in the production of sweet corn, but has no equal when it comes to eating it. Anyone who doubts this claim hasn’t been to the annual Sweet Corn Festival in Sun Prairie. From the overflowing dump trucks filled with ears steaming in their husks, to the salt shaker trees, it is truly extraordinary. When local sweet corn isn’t available, I recommend Alsum’s available frozen at Metcalfe’s.
One of the things I dislike most about living in Wisconsin is the lack of seafood—at least seafood that hasn’t traveled too far on a truck or airplane. A consolation is lake fish and the fish fry. Lake and river fish were an abundant food source for Native Americans and early European immigrants, but didn’t really go mainstream until the twentieth century. Many in our state only ate fish on Friday and during Lent because it was an obligation of their Catholic faith. During Prohibition, the Friday night fish fry emerged as way for alcohol-free taverns to attract customers. During the Great Depression that followed, it was a way to keep customers spending money. The most common choice of fish was perch since it was plentiful and cheap. Even after the eat-no-meat-on-Friday restriction for Catholics was lifted, the fish fry continued to thrive, by then a much anticipated weekly ritual.
In the 1970s, due to restrictions imposed on commercial fishing in the Great Lakes along with soaring prices, cod started replacing perch and pike on restaurant menus. In recent years, sourced from Canada, lake perch and walleye pike have made a big comeback at the fish fry. For me, a choice between fresh lake fish and frozen Atlantic cod is an easy one.
Other people can argue over whether the exemplary fish fry must include rye bread and potato pancakes or not. As far as I’m concerned, the prerequisites are that the venue be more tavern than fancy restaurant—preferably situated on a lake, and it must offer perch or walleye. It doesn’t get any better than at Wendt’s where lake perch is the specialty of the house every night, served in three portion sizes ranging from generous to ridiculously large. Located on Lake Winnebago between Fond du Lac and Oshkosh it is well worth the drive (just mind the speed trap in Rosendale!).
RECIPE: Wisconsin Corn Chowder
This soup can also be served cold, but if you do so, don’t add the fried bacon at the end, but rather crumble a bit over each bowl right before serving.
4 ounces diced thickly-sliced smoked bacon
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup diced Red Bliss potatoes with skin on
3 cups chicken stock
1/2 tsp salt or to taste
A pinch of cayenne or to taste
2 cups fresh sweet corn kernels
2 cups heavy cream
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp snipped chives
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, sauté the diced bacon until crispy and brown. Remove the bacon from the pan, drain on paper toweling, and set aside.
To the bacon drippings in the saucepan, add the garlic, onions and celery. Sauté for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the potatoes, chicken stock, salt and cayenne. Bring to a boil and simmer covered for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, process about 1½ cups of the corn in a food processor by turning it on and off a few times. Then add the processed corn and remaining whole corn kernels to the simmering potato-onion mixture. Simmer uncovered for an additional 5 minutes. Add the heavy cream and bring to a boil. Simmer for 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice, chives, thyme and reserved fried bacon. Adjust the seasoning to taste and serve.