Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jun 27, 2010
12:49 PMSmall Dishes
I’m crazy about local food products. Obviously, their purchase benefits our local economy and reduces our carbon footprint. Organizations like the international Slow Food and Madison’s own REAP Food Group support and promote this concept. But, for me the bottom line is, locally produced food products more often than not taste better. That was not always the case. When I was growing up, I would groan when my mother bought ice cream from the local dairy—it just wasn’t as good as Borden’s. This was the era where Wonder Bread—improbably white and soft—supplanted the homelier loaves made at the corner bakery. For whatever reason, consumers became enthralled with food manufactured in factories far away; brought to them through the miracle of modern transportation. I suspect radio and television advertising had a lot to do with it. Still, I remember hearing as kid my parents and grandparents bemoaning how much better everything use to taste. Admittedly there is always nostalgia for the past, but in this instance, I think there is some validity to the argument that locally produced food, handcrafted in small quantities, that doesn’t travel days (if not weeks) to market is superior. If you need proof, here are but a few of the products I would miss if I ever moved away.
Sassy Cow Creamery. The milk goes directly from the farm into the bottle at this family-owned farmstead dairy. A testament to the quality of their products—both organic and conventional—is their widespread availability around the area. I especially like that neither milk or cream are ultra-pasteurized—a process that extends the shelf life by weeks but at the expense of taste. Not too long ago, they introduced a line of ice cream. My only complaint is that wherever I shop, the vanilla seems to fly off the shelf and is often out of stock.
Don’s Produce. What began as a roadside stand in Arena, thanks to a hydroponic greenhouse is today a purveyor of some of the best tomatoes around. Before Don’s, I could expect to wait until the end of August to enjoy a tomato that actually had any taste and a tomato season that was all too short.
Madison Sourdough and Batch Bakehouse. When Madison Sourdough came to town, what was sold as French bread was a sorry lot. Recently, the company moved to Willy Street, where along with Batch Bakehouse at the other end of the street, they turn out some of the best breads and pastries you can buy in Madison. After MS mastered the loaf, they decided to try their hand at French-style pastries. I remember my first encounter with their brioche at the Willy Street Co-op. I love brioche—a roly poly ball of rich and yeasty dough—and have never understood why they take a backseat to croissants in this country. Their fruit-filled Danish and morning buns are equally good.
Batch Bakehouse also crafts artisan bread from quality ingredients, but it’s almost impossible for me to pass up their pastries. It’s hard to choose between the big sticky buns topped with whole pecans and the vanilla swirl pastries—both taste every bit as good as they look. I’m not normally a big fan of muffins unless they’re homemade and hot from the oven, but their lemon blueberry muffins are an exception.
Potter’s Crackers. I’ll be honest. I’ve cooked almost everything—even made my own cheese (once)—but I’ve never made a cracker. If I do ever decide to concoct my own, I would want them to be just like these (so why bother). Normally I don’t give these little pieces of fluff much thought; after all, they’re but a vehicle to transport some fine cheese or tasty spread to mouth. Potter’s crackers, however, are made from the finest organic ingredients, have substance and crunch and come in a variety of unique and intriguing flavors.
Hook’s Cheese. I hate to single out a single cheesemaker—there are so many good ones in our area, but where else can you get 15-year-old cheddar? Not to mention, their blue cheeses (three different varieties). I use to seek out Maytag blue cheese, made in Iowa much ballyhooed by food writers, but now much prefer Hook’s.
Lodi Sausage Co. and Meat Market. There are many fine bacons produced in Wisconsin, probably the best known is Neuske’s. Recently at Metcalfe’s Market at Hilldale, I discovered an exceptional hickory-smoked bacon from Lodi: It’s extremely lean and shrinks very little when cooked. It’s also available unsliced—something your rarely find anymore—that can be cubed and used as a flavoring in many dishes including Red Ranch Beans (recipe follows).
Red Ranch Beans
1 pound dried pinto beans
1 pound slab bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 green pepper, seeds and ribs removed and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
½ cup dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons pure ancho chile powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
15-ounce can tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted), puréed with their liquid
1 teaspoon salt
Pick over the beans and rinse in a colander set under cold running water. Transfer the beans to a kettle with a lid.
Add enough cold water to cover the beans by 2 inches, cover the kettle with the lid, and soak overnight.
Drain the beans and return to the kettle with 6 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat and simmer slowly.
Put the bacon pieces, onion, green pepper and garlic in a large skillet. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring, until the bacon browns, about 10 minutes. Drain off the fat and add the bacon and sautéed vegetables to the beans. Add the Worcestershire, brown sugar, chile powder and cumin. Stir the beans until mixed, raise heat and bring to a boil. Again, reduce heat and simmer slowly. Cook the beans uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours or until tender.
Add the tomatoes and salt, stir, and continue to cook the beans for another 45 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
The beans can be made ahead of time and reheated slowly.