Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
May 30, 2010
01:02 PMSmall Dishes
Rights of Summer
It is fitting that summer begin and ends with a holiday. In Wisconsin, it’s the season where the weather is as close to perfect as it ever gets. It’s a time to take a trip “Up North” to the lake or just go on vacation from the humdrum. The unofficial kick off is Memorial Day, and appropriately in Madison, the occasion for the World’s Largest Bratfest. Though, I think the argument can be made that summer in Wisconsin is really the World’s Largest Bratfest. Without question, for many it’s the food of choice at backyard cookouts, street fairs and celebratory get-togethers.
I think about summer and the Farmer’s Market, Concerts on the Square, State Fair, Taste of Madison—they all come to mind—and food! For me the season brings barbecue—not hamburgers, but pork slowly smoked over hickory; ripe tomatoes from the garden and panzanella; potato salad made a zillion different ways (I like all of them!); and of course, Aunt Bertie Louise’s lemon icebox pie.
This year things got off to an auspicious start: Thursday night I went to the Memorial Union Terrace for a colleague’s going away party. If I only had five minutes to try and explain to someone what summer in Madison is like, I would take them to the Union Terrace. It’s enchanting: sitting on the flagstone patio in one of its iconic candy-colored chairs under the olds oaks with azure Lake Mendota as a backdrop. In the current issue of Madison Magazine,I write about some of the best spots in our city to eat and drink outside. I felt somewhat amiss not including the Terrace, but concluded it’s in a category by itself.
Friday I made a serendipitous road trip to Oshkosh and Lake Winnebago. Previously my only encounter with the lake was on a map—and as the state’s largest lake within its boundaries it would be hard to miss. The two highlights of this journey exemplify why all those folks in Illinois rush up here every weekend.
Located on Lake Winnebago between Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, Wendt’s is the quintessential roadhouse. Not a fancy place, locals and weekenders fill its vinyl covered tables inside and out. The menu is an ode to the fish fry and lake perch is at the top of the list, available nightly in four portions ranging from 5 to 30 ounces. The fish is sweet, lightly battered and perfectly fried. Other choices include battered and deep-fried pike, cod, smelt, and even lobster. This night’s special —as a concession to vegetarians or healthy dining I guess—was an assortment of fried vegetables. The menu includes burgers and sandwiches and other nightly specials like prime rib, BBQ ribs and chicken (which, of course, can be paired with perch).
Just a few miles up the road, Ardy & Ed’s appears like a mirage—a real drive in! Located at corner of Main Street and 24th Avenue in Oshkosh, incredulously Ardy & Ed’s has been here since 1948—and the car hops still scurry around on roller skates! For me, summer nostalgia is synonymous with a burger basket at the root beer stand on a sultry night. What makes this humble diner special is what it is not: neither a plastic Disneyesque recreation nor a dispassionate museum relic. Very rarely can you actually taste the past, but you can at Ardy & Ed’s.
I have to say, summer has gotten off to a good start—I didn’t even have to move my car for the Madison Marathon this year. Then again, it is the season of optimism; a period of fruition; a time for adventure. And best of all, it’s just beginning.
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 tbsp. butter
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Half a baguette or other good bread, cut into ½-cubes
3 to 4 pounds any and all kinds and colors of the best vine-ripened tomatoes available
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 handful fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat ¼ cup of the oil and butter together in a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat. When butter has melted, remove skillet from heat and add garlic and bread cubes and mix well. Place skillet in oven and bake until bread cubes are golden and crisp, 10 to15 minutes. Remove skillet from oven and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, prepare the tomatoes: If using cherry tomatoes, remove stems and slice in half. For larger tomatoes, core and slice into medium cubes. Put tomatoes in a large bowl, add vinegar and remaining ¼-cup oil; season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix well.
Shortly before serving, toss bread and basil with the tomatoes. Adjust seasonings. Spoon panzanella into each of four shallow soup bowls and garnish with sprigs of basil, if you like.
Bertie Louise’s Lemon Icebox Pie
Lemon icebox pie is popular throughout the South and is a precursor to key lime pie. Both usually contain sweetened condensed milk as a major component. Made possible by the advent of the home icebox, this then novelty is today a classic.
Preheat oven 325 degrees.
1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Combine all the ingredients well and press into the bottom and sides of a 10-inch metal pie pan. (You can substitute a 9-inch pie pan, but there will be leftover filling which you can bake in custard cups along with the pie. Do not use a glass pie plate.) Set aside.
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
Zest of two lemons
1¼ cup strained fresh lemon juice
8 large egg yolks
Using a whisk, combine the sweetened condensed milk with the lemon zest and juice in a bowl and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks until lemon colored and thick. Gradually whisk in the condensed milk-lemon mixture. When smooth, carefully pour the filling into the prepared crumb crust.
Bake the pie in the center of the preheated 325-degree oven for 25 minutes, or until just set (the center will just wiggle slightly). Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for 2 hours. Cover the pie with plastic wrap; then a piece of foil. Freeze the pie overnight.
Twenty minutes before serving, transfer the pie to the refrigerator. To serve, top the pie with whipped cream and cut into wedges.
Whipped Cream Topping:
2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the cream, powdered sugar and vanilla extract in the chilled bowl of an electric mixer. Beat at slow speed until combined; then gradually increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until the cream forms soft peaks. (If you wish to decorate the pie using a pastry bag, you will need to further beat the cream until it forms firm peaks.)
Makes 1 10-inch pie.