Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Aug 25, 2014
03:43 PMSmall Dishes
Picnic vs. Cookout
PHOTO BY DAN CURD
Pork rillettes taste excellent spread on toast. Pick some up at Underground Butcher for your next picnic.
Are they one and the same? Not by my definition. A picnic is a meal prepared or assembled in one place and enjoyed somewhere else; usually outdoors, preferably a bucolic setting. A cookout is mostly fixed on a backyard grill and consumed nearby. In recent years the cookout has supplanted the picnic in popularity; probably because of the current regard for grilled foods and all the amenities that staying close to home affords.
That’s not to say the picnic is dead by any means. Madison’s Concerts on the Square is proof to the contrary. But I sense more often than not, the picnic lunch is the result of necessity rather than preference. That’s too bad when you consider not only how much fun it can be, but how delectable as well.
I always liked the wicker picnic baskets of my childhood, compartmentalized and filled with ceramic plates, metal cutlery and tablecloths and napkins. Stumbling upon one today in this country is rare. Inevitably, the contents of most you will find are plastic to boot. In England the passion to dine on the ground runs rampant—perhaps because of the weather where each sunny day is reason enough to be outside. I’ve always fanaticized about going to Glyndebourne Festival, a series of opera performances held each July and August at a stately country home in East Sussex. Attendees attired in white linen and pastel silk picnic on the grounds, savoring their pâté, smoked pheasant and game pie while sipping champagne. It’s no surprise that in Great Britain the picnic hamper is still a joy to behold. However, the basket of my dreams at the likes of Harrods or Fortnum & Mason costs a pretty British penny: £360 to be exact—just under $600. I guess it should be some consolation that even if I had one it probably wouldn’t see much use.
My grandmother would often take me on picnics when I visited her. However, she didn’t think much of cookouts. She thought it absurd that anyone with a perfectly good gas or electric stove in the kitchen would want to cook over an open fire in the backyard. She also made the best fried chicken. Though I usually shun cold fried foods, cold fried chicken is my favorite picnic entrée.
When I was very young, I remember going on picnics with my parents, too. We lived in Indiana and most Saturdays in summer we would trek with friends out to Big Walnut Creek and our own private island that we called Stromboli. It was quite a production, since all the coolers, chairs and other accoutrements had to be lugged through shallow water to reach what was actually a sandbar in the middle of the creek. At some point we stopped going there, or for that matter, going on picnics at all. It was surely after we got our first charcoal grill (with warming rack and two bean pots) from Montgomery Ward.
Now, my routine in warm weather is to grill out most nights I’m at home. Still, I haven’t given up on picnics; they provide a welcome change of scenery and summertime fare. It’s no coincidence that the word “picnic” can also connote something easy and fun, but forget the bologna sandwiches and cliché bag of chips. In Madison, all it takes is a little imagination and virtually no effort to put together a memorable al fresco meal.
Fromagination. No one knows more about cheese or has more variety or quality. Fromagination also sells everything that goes with it—charcuterie, condiments, crackers—and then some. In addition to made-to-order sandwiches, boxed lunches and gourmet baskets, it offers cheese tastings on its patio on the Square. Its beer and wine selection naturally has an affinity for cheese.
Underground Butcher. The classic pique-nique begins here with pâté, cured and smoked meats, artisan cheese and baguette sandwiches. Almost everything is produced by them, including the amazing pickles and comestibles. I’m unashamedly addicted to the cheddar crackers and sandwich cookies. It also carries a small but interesting selection of beer and wine.
Square Wine Company. Somehow a bottle of wine can makes any picnic more festive. Summer is the time to enjoy a good rosé that always tastes better en plein air. Large liquor stores can be overwhelming, but at Square Wine Company the focus is strictly on wine. The selection from small growers is intriguing and the staff knowledgeable and eager to help.
Jenifer Street Market. One of its joys is that it’s small, but still packed full of items you won’t find at the supermarket. It always carries a lot of seasonal, local produce. The deli has an extensive selection of bulk cheese and meats sliced to order. There is a variety of crusty bread and rolls baked in store. For a picnic, a rotisserie chickens paired with one of its chilled white wines can’t be beat.
Stalzy’s Deli. Its menu mirrors that of a traditional New York-style delicatessen: piled-high roast beef, corned beef, pastrami and combination sandwiches. What is a bit unorthodox is nearly everything is made from scratch, including all the breads they use. Buy a prepared bag lunch, deli tray or sandwich platter, or your choice of fixings from the wide array of meats, cheeses, salads and breads.
Willy Street Co-op. Between its second location in Middleton and the newly remodeled flagship store on Williamson Street, the co-op has never offered more assortments, including in its deli and bakery. Both stores have a serious selection of domestic and imported cheese, plus an olive bar. All of the foods prepared in house use quality, natural ingredients and there’s always a range of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items. The eastside co-op doesn’t sell wine or beer, but Star Liquor—a couple doors away—has a stellar medley of both.
Banzo. Obviously people enjoy eating outside all over the world. If a simple ham and cheese sandwich doesn’t suit your fancy, consider a fabulous stuffed pita. The Banzo box includes either a white or whole wheat pita with your choice of filling and sides and condiments. They are so popular that the original food cart has expanded into two, and now an honest-to-goodness restaurant as well. The chopped vegetable salad, babaganush or hummus platter, and couscous tabouli would be great additions to any summertime repast.
La Concha. It’s both a bakery and deli with a Latin accent. The menu includes many big and imaginative tortas. The house specialty, cemitas, are made with chicken, beef or pork that are lightly breaded and fried, then topped with Oaxaxa cheese and dressed with mayo, tomatoes, avocados, peppers and more. It bit messy, but so good! Just as satisfying is the plethora of authentic Mexican cakes and pastries.
Chimmies. Farther south of the border (but still in Fitchburg) is another exotic and excellent sandwich option. The Chimmie is Argentina’s answer to the sub sandwich. The traditional Chimmie-Chimmie includes beef, lettuce, tomato, banana peppers, ham, egg and mayonnaise on freshly baked bread. All varieties include chimichurri—a green vinaigrette made with olive oil, parsley, oregano and garlic. Beef, chicken or humita (corn) empanadas make another fine item to pack for a picnic.
RECIPE: Pizza Rustica
In Italy, “pizza” refers to any pie or torte. There, pizza rustica is a baked pastry filled with cheese, meat and other ingredients, and sold by the slice at takeaway shops and bakeries. It’s easy to make at home and a real picnic treat.
3 tbsp olive oil
8 ounces hot Italian sausage, casings removed
1 tsp minced garlic
2 12-ounce bunches (about 12 cups) fresh spinach, stems removed and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp finely minced shallots
6 ounces brown mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
4 large egg yolks, beaten to combine
15-ounce container whole milk ricotta
12 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/3 cup + 2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
1 large red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, coarsely chopped
Pastry Dough (recipe follows)
1 large egg + 1/4 teaspoon salt, beaten to combine
Position the rack in the lowest position in the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large heavy (not aluminum) frying pan set over medium heat. Add the sausages and sauté until brown, using a wooden spatula to break them up into small pieces. Add the garlic and continue to cook until fragrant. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and set aside to cool.
Heat 1 tbsp of oil in the same frying pan over medium heat. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until the spinach wilts and the juices evaporate. Transfer the spinach to a bowl and cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp of oil in the same frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the minced shallots and sauté until they start to soften. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until brown. Set aside and cool to room temperature.
Wrap the spinach in a clean towel and squeeze to drain as much liquid as possible. Discard the liquid.
In a large bowl beat the egg yolks until just combined. Stir in the ricotta, mozzarella, and 1/3 cup parmesan. Add the sausage, spinach, mushrooms, roasted red pepper and prosciutto. Stir to combine.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger piece of dough into a 17-inch circle. Line a 9-inch springform pan with the dough. Trim the dough so the overhang equals 1 inch. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the dough-lined pan. Roll out the remaining piece of dough into a 12-inch circle. Place the dough on top of the filling. Seal by pinching the two edges of the dough together, then crimp as you would a pie crust. Brush the beaten egg and salt mixture over the entire top of the pizza rustica and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tbsp of parmesan. Bake on the bottom rack in the preheated 375-degree oven for 1 hour or golden brown.
Remove to a rack and let stand 15 minutes. Release the pan sides and transfer the pizza to a platter and cool to room temperature. Cut into wedges right before serving.
RECIPE: Pastry Dough
1 large egg
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup oil
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
Combine the egg, wine and oil in a measuring cup and chill for 20 minutes.
Combine the butter, flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Turn the machine on and off until the mixture resembles coarse meal. With the machine running, add the liquid through the feed tube until the mixture just starts to forms a ball. Dump the dough out on to a work surface and use your hands to gather it into a ball. Divide the ball into 2 pieces, with 1 piece twice as large as the 2nd piece. Flatten the 2 dough pieces into disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Serves 6 to 8.