The goofy title of today's dispatch comes courtesy of the fact that, well, I'm not at all sure how to start describing the adventures that led up to a particularly splendid local and seasonal supper of a pork shoulder cutlet prepared à la "sauna sous vide," then grilled with a rhubarb-maple glaze, perched atop a salad of stinging nettles and watercress in a rhubarb-ramp ranch dressing, with whole wheat couscous tossed with local hickory nuts and Bide-A-Wee dried apples. Oh, and blackened ramps on the side.
The trail leads through a rhubarb renaissance, a marvelous market, a grand gourmet graze, some fun fruitful foraging, and...probably some other alliterative antics that slip my mind at the moment. I think this particular meal has inspired me to point of giddiness because it perfectly represents what I might somewhat pompously describe as the Trout Caviar Ethos: taking the best of local, seasonal ingredients from a variety of sources and preparing them in fresh and creative ways that combine far-flung influences and homegrown ingenuity, the culmination of which is a truly expressive plate of food, artful even if it is not art, and satisfying in every way food can be. And you lick your plate. We might as well start with the rhubarb.
This is, it appears, the rhubarb moment. The homely red avatar of tartness that adorns the corners of many country gardens is having its diva turn. Kim Ode's fascinating and appetizing new book, Rhubarb Renaissance (from MHS Press, a force to be reckoned with in culinary literature!) is the prime example, but not the only one. I don't know whether Kim is setting the tone or riding the wave, but rhubarb seems to be everywhere these days, and she is surely one of its most enthusiastic advocates. The current fascination with this old-fashioned staple seems to me in keeping with the way that other throw-back ingredients and methods have been rediscovered in recent years--the sudden sexiness of brussels sprouts, kale, and beets, the enthusiasm for fermenting, smoking, canning, and other DIY food preservation techniques. We're re-examining a lot of things we've come to take for granted, and finding beauty in humble northern products. It's all good, very good indeed.
Me, I am good and ready to jump on the rhubarb bandwagon, as we have inherited a robust mound of the stuff at our new Wisconsin home. Also, I have deep, fond memories of rhubarb from childhood:
We had a big rhubarb plant in the back corner of the garden, and on hot summer days we would sit in the shade on the stoop by the back door, bare feet on the cool concrete, and eat those crimson stalks raw, dipping them into a bowl of sugar. I can taste that sweet-tart-astringent explosion of flavors even now. Perhaps a sense of gourmandise was born there.
On a recent dinner in Madison, Wisconsin, I had a pork chop served over a bed of vegetables liberally anointed with a rhubarb-ramp ranch dressing. It was phenomenal. I knew I had to try to recreate it.
The restaurant was Graze, sibling restaurant of the legendary L'Etoile. Mary and the dogs and I were in Madison for a book signing at The Kitchen Gallery cooking store (well, I was there to sign books; Mary was dog sitting, and the dogs, they were being dogs; and they were very, very good dogs the whole trip). We arrived Friday afternoon, checked in to our canine-friendly room at the Econo-Lodge out on the dismal strip, and went in to explore the town. I had been to Madison exactly once previously, on a college-scouting visit 35 years ago. Ahem. That is just a little painful to write, but there you go. I won't wait 35 years to go back.
The city is beautiful, largely constructed on the isthmus (love that word: just try not to sound like Daffy Duck when you say it) between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and a canal connects them. On a cool but sunny April evening, the whole place seemed idyllic, urban and sophisticated, but mellow. We were instantly charmed--until we had to go back to the Econo-Lodge, but let's just say that the contrast made the good parts that much sweeter....
The food scene in Madison is dynamic. We got our first literal taste of that at Graze, which looks upon the capitol from a grand and soaring space. Picture = 1,000 words:
The Graze menu celebrates local products and producers without whacking you over the head with their righteousness, or boring you to tears with an endless recitation of sources. I started with beef marrow bones cut the long way, served with a fabulous sort of beef jam made from oxtails and short ribs, just barely lightened by a few slices of pickled shallots, and Mary ordered crawfish beignets with a lovely remoulade sauce, tart and creamy. She then went for bibimbap with pork, and for me, that pork chop. The bed of vegetables beneath the beautifully grilled chop was described as asparagus panzanella; there were a few token croutons here and there, so the analogy to the classic tomato and bread salad is a stretch--but the croutons were nothing special, so I didn't lament their scarcity. What impressed me, and mightily, was the way all the flavors on the plate came together into something comforting but surprising, robust but nuanced. And I love to eat grilled meat on top of salad. The pork chop had a sweet and sour glaze, and at the corners where the char was deepest and the glaze the thickest, it reminded me in the most remarkable and unexpected way of the sweet and sour spareribs my mother used to make, probably my favorite of her signature dishes. I suspected that rhubarb figured in the glaze, though the menu didn't say so. That piquant flavor of spring was also detectable in the "ranch" dressing, balanced by the ramp flavor that played through the creamy base. One of the best restaurant meals I've had in a long time.
The Dane County Farmers' Market is one of the biggest and best in the country. The vendors set up on the broad sidewalks of the capitol square, and the market stretches all the way around that grand structure, spills down side streets, as well. We were there for opening day of the outdoor market, and thanks to the extraordinarily warm March weather, there was abundant produce: asparagus, rhubarb, lettuce, chard, mustard, radishes, sorrel; overwintered spinach, leeks, and parsnips; cellared celery root, beets, potatoes, squash; foraged morels, ramps, and nettles. I checked my wallet before we started our circuit, and found $80--more than enough, I thought. And when I reached in there to pay for our last purchase...purt near empty. We went away with a rabbit, morels (I'm not ashamed to say that I'll sometimes pay for it...), lovely fingerling potatoes, a couple celery roots, asparagus, dried shell beans, and hickory nuts.
Hickory nuts! I thought I had tasted hickory nuts in the past. Having tasted the ones we purchased at the Madison market, I conclude that I had not. These were a revelation, amazingly good, as buttery as pecans, but lighter, more subtle, with a finely textured crunch. I'm a convert to the church of the hickory nut. The vendors with hickory nuts also had butternuts (I tasted those for the first time this winter; they are also great), and black walnuts (we have a tree in the yard of the new house; black walnuts have always intimidated me, but I'll have to get over that). The hickory nuts were pricey, around $20 a pound, but the flavor is so rich, a few bites really makes an impact.
And oh, oh, oh! Pre-market we passed by Graze again. They were selling coffee and pastries in the restaurant's courtyard. When you had made your purchase you could go inside to eat, or stroll the market with breakfast in hand. On this chilly morning we went inside with coffee and a chocolate croissant and a "ham & swiss market bun." The croissant was dandy, and the ham and swiss bun was out of this world, like a croque monsieur wrapped in croissant dough. Maybe the best savory pastry I've ever eaten. That place has it going on. I don't think I've ever done anything remotely approaching a restaurant review here, and I don't plan to make a habit of it, but I found Graze, the market, the whole Madison vibe to be inspiring. Worth going on about, for a bit.
It was a slam-bang trip, into town Friday evening, on the way back home mid-afternoon Saturday (after lunch at Merchant, another very good farm-to-table restaurant just off the market/capitol square). Less than 24 hours in Mad City, lots of great eating, market browsing, dog walks, a book signing--and to top it off, I got to meet Sara of "Put Your Shovel Where Your Mouth Is" (I think of her as Ol' Shovelmouth, but don't tell her I said that; it has absolutely nothing to do with her appearance, I assure you) and her husband, Donn, a delightful couple; and the vibrant Erika Janik, who produces the WPR essay series Wisconsin Life, to which I have contributed a couple of pieces, and who writes a highly literate, always interesting blog.
We were pretty beat by the time we arrived back at the farm, so dinner was a simple repast, omelets with the wonderfully fresh eggs we get from our neighbor Tina, steamed asparagus, and sautéed morels. Nothing stupendously gourmet about it, but this is one of my favorite ways to enjoy those distinctive spring flavors.
Phew. Next time, details of the meal that our Madison adventure inspired.