Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Aug 22, 2010
01:50 PMSmall Dishes
This is not a dissertation about my family tree, though I think it would be a reasonable assumption that I had distant ancestors who were cheese makers. Curds are produced when milk is curdled with rennet, the first step in cheese making. After being separated from the liquid portion— whey—curds are then used to make cheese. How they are handled and salted determines the type and shape of cheese they ultimately become.
Cottage cheese is nothing more than curds and whey. However, any other form of fresh cheese curd is rarely found outside of regions where cheese is actually manufactured. Hence the popularity of this delicacy in the upper Midwest where deep frying is the most popular way to enjoy it.
Cheese curds have to be the only food whose squeakiness is considered an attribute—a sign of their freshness. The best place to buy them is at a cheese factory or outlet store or at a farmer’s market. Most are of the cheddar cheese type, but sometime Monterey Jack and mozzarella as well. You can find them in a grocery store, but they can be several weeks old, dry, salty and inedible.
In Wisconsin, almost any tavern, bowling alley or supper club is sure to have fried cheese curds on its menu. Originally, ketchup was the condiment of choice for this treat, but in recent years it’s been supplanted by ranch dressing. Increasingly, fresh cheese curds appear in their natural state at upscale restaurants specializing in locally produced food (I’ve included a recipe for a salad that combines cheese curds with heirloom tomatoes).
Beside the Wisconsin State Fair, a must destination for fried cheese curd junkies is Green County Cheese Days coming up in Monroe, September 17 – 19. (This is significant because the event is only held every other year!) The golden nuggets prepared there by the local Optimist Club are legendary. Since Wisconsin still produces more cheese than any other state, it can proudly claim the title of cheese curd capital of the nation.
Best of Madison Cheese Curds
Graze. A fit-for-a-foodie rendition made with Sassy Cow cheese curds that are vodka battered, deep fried and served with homemade ranch dressing. $7
The Old Fashioned. The classic fried Wisconsin cheese curd: It’s beer battered and comes with a choice of smoked paprika, roasted garlic, buttermilk ranch or tiger blue cheese dipping sauces. $6.95
The Cooper's Tavern. A French Canadian specialty, poutine is a pile of fries topped with melted cheese curds and slathered in brown gravy $6.95
Blue Moon. This little bar serves up extra big helpings of beer-battered cheese curds. $6
Dotty Dumplings Dowry. The fried cheese curds at DDD are breaded instead of battered. Optional sauce options include ranch, marinara, honey mustard—or the most popular--English garlic. $5.50 (Sauces 75 cents each)
Nitty Gritty. What makes these cheese curds special is their side of the house specialty, Gritty sauce. $5.35
Cheese Curd and Tomato Salad
3 cups arugula, well rinsed
2 pints cherry heirloom tomatoes, assorted varieties (or substitute sliced heirloom tomatoes)
1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced and separated into rings
8 ounces of very fresh yellow cheese curds
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (such as basil, chives, parsley, and chervil)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Divide the arugula between four salad plates. Arrange the tomatoes and onion rings on top and sprinkle with the cheese curds.
In a small jar combine the vinaigrette ingredients and shake to combine. Drizzle a little over each salad; add salt and pepper to taste and serve.