The Ethnic Epicure

Just outside of Eagle, Wisconsin, is the world’s largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life – Old World Wisconsin. Over 50 buildings were identified across the state, disassembled, and re-assembled in one campus. And one part of the fund-raising effort to get this all started back in 1976 was a cookbook – The Ethnic Epicure : A Treasury of Old World Wisconsin Recipes. The recipes were collected and tested by the Wauwatosa Junior Woman’s Club, then compiled and edited by Mary Joanne VanCronkite, and published in 1973. You can still find a used copy on various online sources such as Amazon.

Ethnic Epicure


The cookbook includes recipes from fourteen ethnic traditions identified as being important to the “formative” stage of the state of Wisconsin including Belgian, Swiss, German, Danish, Norwegian, Welsh, and Cornish. These immigrant groups are fairly similar to those that settled across much of the Great Lakes region. It’s a great source of inspiration with unique recipes and short pieces on life in rural Wisconsin.


Ethnic Epicure1


The Devil’s Playthings

Idle hands are the devil’s playthings and a bit of idle time led to to this take on Deviled Eggs. The History Channel tells me Deviled Eggs may be as ancient as 1st century Roman culture, where they marinated small song birds and stuffed them into eggs. In this case, my good friend Tom gave me the idea to throw a couple of hard-boiled eggs on while I was smoking a pork tenderloin. His previous experiment with smoking eggs lead me to peel them before smoking to allow more smoke to penetrate the eggs and as they were peeled, we smoked them at a very low heat. Here’s the visual history of an experiment:

Tom sends me this picture and a text: "In the middle of  making an 18 hour pastrami and decided to throw a couple hard boiled eggs on for three hours."
Tom: “In the middle of making an 18 hour pastrami and decided to throw a couple hard boiled eggs on for three hours.”

I’m inspired. “Nice! Smoked Gribiche?”

Gribiche is blended hard-boiled egg yolks with oil, then capers, herbs, and whites.
Gribiche is blended hard-boiled egg yolks with oil, then capers, herbs, and whites.
Traditional on fish, this works on vegetables or chicken , as shown here
Traditional on fish, this works on vegetables or chicken , as shown here

So, I throw on a few eggs to smoke the next week-end.

The peeled eggs allow for the smoke to penetrate more fully in less time.
The peeled eggs allow for the smoke to penetrate more fully in less time.

Now, I’ve had a chance to let ideas marinate.

Let’s go with Double Deviled Eggs.

Yolks mashed with roasted garlic, smoked paprika, mayo, and hot sauce. Pickled sweet peppers on top.
Yolks mashed with roasted garlic, smoked paprika, mayo, and hot sauce. Pickled sweet peppers on top.

As a one bite appetizer, the first flavor is the roasted garlic, mayonnaise and sweet pepper, then you become aware of the hot sauce, and the lingering flavor as you finish is the smoke. Fire, to heat, to smoke. A very satisfying little experiment. See what idle hands can do?

Oh, and as a post script, take a look at the 18 hour smoke ring on the pastrami Tom had working. Gorgeous.


On Culture, Caraway…again

The flavor combinations we detailed in our post On Culture, Caraway, and a Computer were intriguing – partly because of the genesis of the recipe and partly because of the use of under-appreciated caraway. The texture of the pudding we prepared, given the bacon and pepper flavors, seemed odd, but the taste was interesting. So we reprised the flavors, but moved away from the dessert approach to an entree. We prepared a pair of pork tenderloins with a spice rub of salt, smoked paprika, cumin, powdered clove, powdered caraway, and powdered dried mushroom. We smoked them over applewood chips, while enjoying a Lakefront ESB Organic Ale.

Pork tenderloin smoked3


We served this with green beans grilled with red onions and a buttermilk gravy made with bacon and black pepper. The buttermilk gravy was really a nice, tangy complement to the smoky tenderloin. The caraway powder was perceptible on the pork, without being overpowering, and seemed to be accentuated by the smoking process. The mushroom powder was not individually detectable, but there was an earthy tone to the pork, which may be attributable to the mushroom addition. So same flavors, re-purposed.  A very enjoyable Great Lakes Cuisine dish.

Pork tenderloin smoked1



A Moment From 100 Years Ago

A smiling, white-haired gentleman greets me and I give him the name of our party. “Oh, you’re having lunch with my good friends today. Welcome.” The dining room has plenty of dark wood, lit by stained glass and low lights. Nearly every bit of wall space has either a German artifact or a framed photo of a celebrity, some long forgotten, who enjoyed the authentic German cuisine at Karl Ratzsch’s some time over the last 111 years.

Karl ratzsch2

My friends arrive with excited greetings and hugs. They sit down and share their history with me. Their first date was at that table there, 45 years ago. The smiling gentleman who greeted me? He’s been a waiter here for 35 years. The owners, who took over from the Ratzsch family in 2003, have been working behind the bar and in the kitchen just as long. The conversation turns to dogs and gardens and confrontations with a raccoon in the yard. We decide to order.

The soup of the day is cream of mushroom. The every day soup is consommé with liver dumplings. It’s amazing; earthy, rich, unique. The spinach salad following has a hot bacon dressing that actually tastes “fresh”. That doesn’t sound right, but there isn’t the fatty mouth feel you can get with a hot bacon dressing yet all of the flavor. This is classic food, prepared in a way to remind you why it became classic. Then there is the sauerbraten. Oh dear heavens.

Karl Ratzsch

I’m a fan of sauerbraten. We’ve shared our recipe here. This version is fall-apart tender with an authentic gingersnap gravy, the meaty richness balanced by the tang of vinegar, cooked down together for hours. The accompanying red cabbage has the perfect texture and flavor. We’ve also shared our red cabbage recipe. Here is my advice, go eat at Karl Ratzsch’s if you can. Only try to make your own if you can’t get there. This is wonderful, wonderful food. I’m enjoying it with a Köstritzer Schwarzbier.

We continue to talk and enjoy the meal. A few other parties come in, a few parties leave. I feel like I’m eating in my great grandma’s living room, in the very best way. I feel like family. As we leave I take a moment to adjust to the afternoon sun. I look up to the clock on City Hall. It seems we were there for over two hours. It was a moment, a moment completely out of time, a moment from 100 years ago. This is history. This is inspiration.

On Culture, Caraway, and a Computer

One of the featured examples of innovation in Frans Johansson book The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation is the work of Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit. Johansson explains the idea of Associative Barriers, the associations our brains naturally make between certain ideas. Some of these ideas are culturally bound. When we hear Italian Cuisine, our minds naturally call up associations with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, and a whole host of associated flavors. These associations can hold us back from making new connections, as certain flavors just don’t seem to “go together”. Johansson suggests part of Samuelsson’s genius is low associative barriers, due to a multicultural upbringing and his travel around the world.

The recent press around the recipes generated by IBM’s Watson computer highlights another way to break down our associative barriers – work with a computer that has none. The chemical flavor compounds of thousands of foods were entered into the computer and then “pleasant” flavor combinations were programmed in as well. So many of the flavors we combine have more to do with how we think culturally than actually considering the flavors without context. In fact, different cultures approach flavor combinations quite differently (Check out this Flavor Map from Scientific American to explore this idea further). The computer approach starts with the input of a couple flavors and will generate a set of ingredients that would complement those flavors. The results can be sorted to choose more “surprising” combinations and one of those is the Belgian Bacon Pudding.

Bacon Pudding

We need to start by acknowledging this recipe can not be Great Lakes Cuisine, right? The entire point of the Watson experiment is to eliminate cultural references, or at least compose a dish that does not consider cultural references. Yet this recipe includes a few flavors which we see frequently in our Great Lakes Cuisine experimentation. It involves bacon fat washed buttermilk, and we’ve detailed the bacon fat washing process in our love of all that is smoky. Additionally, the recipe features the use of caraway, a staple of German cuisine which has faded in use in North America in recent years (interesting analysis of that trend here). I’ve always enjoyed caraway, but I’ve got a real soft spot for rye bread as well. I have cultural associations with caraway.

In brief, this is a buttermilk and egg pudding infused with bacon and mushroom powder. The fruit topping is a spiced compote of golden raisins, figs, orange juice, cumin, and caraway powder. The whole dish is topped with brown butter toasted almonds and graham cracker. Overall, it is a slight modification of the original recipe but true to the flavor combinations. The flavors may seem strange, but the immediate reaction upon taking the first bite is “Hey. this isn’t bad.” In fact, it’s pretty good. Imagine french toast made over a campfire in the same pan you just finished making the bacon in. It’s something like that. But the real key in our tasting – the accompaniment. We enjoyed a Fuel Cafe Stout from Lakefront Brewing which added a wonderful coffee flavor contrast to the bacon and eggs flavors of the dish. Together, we’d argue this dish rises to our standards for Great Lakes Cuisine.