Venison Tenderloin with Dried Cherry Gastrique

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A gift of beautiful venison tenderloins from a good friend inspired this dish along with a helping of beautiful dried cherries. I particularly love fruits in a savory sauce with tender meats. The rich, game flavors of venison here are offset by not just the cherries but the tang of vinegar and the sweetness of dark molasses.

Venison tenderloin, cut into steaks (4 to 6 ounces each)
Salt, Pepper, Spices to taste
4 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced fine
1 large carrot, diced fine
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup low-sodium beef broth
3 bay leaves
1 cup Door County or Michigan dried cherries
½ cup high quality malt vinegar (balsamic or apple cider may be substituted)
½ cup dark molasses

Sprinkle venison loin with liberal amounts of sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and dried spices of your choosing. My choice is to add Penzeys Spices Mural of Flavor, which is a hand-mixed blend of dried shallots, onion, garlic, thyme, rosemary, basil, coriander, lemon peel, citric acid, black pepper, chives, green peppercorns, dill weed, and orange peel. You can buy it here. Allow venison to sit out at room temperature while preparing the sauce.
In a large skillet over medium heat melt 2 Tbs. butter and then add onion, carrot, and garlic. Sauté until translucent and beginning to brown. Add beef broth and bay leaf. Allow to reduce to ½ cup. Strain mixture, pressing all liquid out of the vegetables. Return broth to pan over medium heat and add cherries, vinegar, and molasses. Allow sauce to reduce to honey-like consistency, then remove from heat and set aside.
In a cast iron skillet that can accommodate the steaks without crowding, melt remaining butter over medium-high heat. When foam subsides, add steaks to the pan and allow to sear to a deep brown, about 4 minutes on each side. Allow to rest for 4 minutes before serving. Ideally, serve venison rare as it becomes quite tough as it approaches well-done. Serve liberally sauced with warm cherry gastrique.
We enjoyed Hugue Dufour’s Maple-Glazed Carrots as a side dish. The addition of anchovy in the recipe may not be Great Lakes, but it balances these carrots in a wonderful way. We served this accompanied by a blend of wild rice, brown rice, red rice, and black barley, cooked in chicken broth and onions risotto-style, then finished with a generous handful of shredded Montamore from Sartori Cheese and the carrot tops blanched and then pureed. Overall, a very successful combination of textures, colors, and most importantly, flavors.

New Restaurants Added – Grand Rapids, MI

IMG_0143Let me tell you this – the Backwoods Bastard is definitely one of the finest brews I have ever had. Complex, lingering, hauntingly good.

It just may be the best brew in Grand Rapids, MI, and given that Grand Rapids has been named Beer City USA in a poll run by the guru of home brew Charlie Papazian, that is saying something.

As I’m sitting in Founder’s Brewing Company Taproom, enjoying this masterpiece of brewing craft, I’m thinking this Curmudgeon sandwich might have been the best sandwich in Grand Rapids, but I’d already had the best sandwich in Grand Rapids the night before at Brewery Vivant and it came with what might have been the best French fries in Grand Rapids, but I’d already had the best fries at Hop Cat earlier in the day. It was a flurry of really good food and really great beer.

None of this should be surprising considering Grand Rapids is home to one of the world’s best breweries according to and one of the best beer bars in the world according to Beer Advocate. Allow me to walk you through my amazing two days, a true Great Lakes Cuisine experience.


Upon checking into a downtown hotel, the front desk recommended Hop Cat for a quick lunch.  Beer Advocate and both recognize Hop Cat as one of the best brew pubs in the nation.  The menu is two pages with a dizzying array of local craft beers, national micro-brews, and international specialties. They also brew a number of house specialties and are affiliated with the Grand Rapids Brewing Company just down the block (home of the Beer and Sausage Fest each weekday from 4-6 PM) .


The Oaked-aged Hatter from New Holland Brewing was an excellent IPA mellowed out in bourbon barrels. My preference was Hop Cat’s own Bourbon Barrel Fornicator.

IMG_0122The name alone makes it one of my all time favorites, and the flavors of a maple dopple-bock style beer were heightened by the beautiful oaky/alcohol notes of bourbon. Sweet, deep, and full. And all this beer wonder was complimented beautifully by the Crack Fries with Hot Cheese Sauce. Yes, Crack Fries…perfectly crispy, thin cut fries with a healthy seasoning of herbs and cracked black pepper.


That evening, a friend and I journeyed out to Brewery Vivant, a micro-brew operation in a converted funeral home – not nearly as creepy as it sounds. In fact, the location feels like a chapel dedicated to the craft of brewing in the Trappist tradition.  Packed wall to wall with dedicated patrons, we eased up to the bar on the far side of the hall, in the glow of the stain-glassed window, and ordered a sampler of the four darkest beers.

Here is the brewery’s description of each:

Solitude – Abbey Style Ale – 6.5% ABV

“A deep mahogany colored beer that is made in the tradition of the famous brewing monks of the Abbeys of Belgium. It is malt forward with hints of caramel, pear & raisin.”

Over The Line – Smokey Ale – 7.15% ABV

“This dark ale is brewed with Heidelberg smoked malt, South American chocolate, and a kiss of ancho chiles.”

Plowhorse – Imperial Stout – 9.5% ABV

“The famous Belgian heavy plow horse descends from the medieval war horses that carried armored nights into battle. This seems like a fitting name for one of the biggest beers we make, as the recipe pushes the limits of our mash tun. Each batch is so packed with dark roasted grains that they literally spill out of the top of the tank on brew day.”

Love Shadow – Imperial Stout – 10% ABV  (as described by Mitten Brew)

“Vivant’s delicious version of an Imperial Stout aged in charred oak bourbon barrels. This brew’s aroma is dense with coffee and chocolate. The sip starts tart for a stout and moves into bitter coffee, then a third sweeter phase similar to chocolate and ginger.”

The wood-aged Love Shadow was delicious, complex, and mysterious. And a perfect accompaniment to the finest sandwich I have enjoyed in sometime – a house smoked pastrami sliced thin and topped with bacon kraut, Love Shadow mustard, on a dark rye bread. Absolute smokey, beefy heaven. The side of fries was drizzled with truffle oil and would have been the best I had, but for the Crack Fries I’d had earlier.

Executive Chef Christopher Weimer is creating some of the best dishes in the Midwest to compliment their wonderful assortment of brews. The cheese selection often features area cheeses like Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Blue Paradise from WI or offerings from EverGreen Lane in MI. Maybe you just want a bar snack, try the Crock O’ Pickles, an assortment of house pickled vegetables. The seasonal appetizers have included house prepared charcuterie, smoked whitefish cakes, and Solitude cheddar sauerkraut. Past specialties have included Duroc pork with spaetzel gruyere gratin, beer braised kale, with a maple rhubarb reduction; a Knackwurst platter with white bean and bacon hash, with beer braised red cabbage; and a duck confit with roasted barley cakes, a drizzle of Michigan cherry gastrique, topped with a duck skin cracklin’. This is creative, well-prepared food dovetailing beautifully with the house brews.

The next day I walked from the hotel over to Founder’s Brewery Taproom, which was also filled wall to window with patrons, overflowing outside onto a chilly, snow-laden patio with heaters blazing. It also featured their own stained glass homage to brewing.

IMG_0140 I squeezed into the sole unoccupied chair on the far end of the bar next to a gentleman who is clearly a regular.  I ask what he would suggest and without hesitation he offered the Dirty Bastard as his favorite.  Bar keep – one Dirty Bastard, please!

Here is the brewery’s description:

Dirty Bastard – Scotch Style Ale – 8.5% ABV

“So good it’s almost wrong. Dark ruby in color and brewed with seven varieties of imported malts. Complex in finish, with hints of smoke and peat, paired with a malty richness and a right hook of hop power to give it the bad attitude that a beer named Dirty Bastard has to live up to. Ain’t for the wee lads.”

IMG_0139It is a lovely version of a scotch ale, incredibly drinkable with a fairly high alcohol content. As I sipped this beautiful brew, I enjoyed a Curmudgeon sandwich. Roasted turkey, red onion, Colby Jack cheese, baby spinach, Dirty Bastard sauerkraut, house-made horseradish sauce, all served on grilled Polish rye bread. And that is just one of 26 different sandwiches they offer. This one was exceptional, but the house-smoked pastrami from the night before retained the sandwich crown.

As I enjoyed my sandwich, I asked about the limited release – Backwoods Bastard.  The regular next to me slipped into almost reverential tones as he explained the limited availability and the dangerously drinkable 10.2% alcohol content.  I had by this time tried three different brews wood-aged to enhance the flavor. In the Hatter it subdued the IPA bitterness, the Fornicator fronted with bourbon brashness on the nose and in the first sip.  Love Shadow was lovely and the wood-aging more integral to the brew.  But here, now in this brew, oh my…

Here is the brewery description:

Backwoods Bastard – Scotch Style Ale – 10.2%

“Expect lovely, warm smells of single malt scotch, oaky bourbon barrels, smoke, sweet caramel and roasted malts, a bit of earthy spice, and a scintilla of dark fruit. It’s a kick-back sipper made to excite the palate.”

Ah, yes.  That is it – a scintilla of dark fruit. Like Michigan cherries macerated in a vanilla-bourbon syrup. So good, so smooth. Enticing you to have another, to explore further into this wonderful bounty of flavors and aromas. This, my friends, is good beer.

And this, my friends, is Great Lakes Cuisine. Grand Rapids has taken the tradition of beer and a sandwich and elevated it to another level of creativity and delicious exploration. We are adding each of these locations to our list of Restaurants and highly recommend each of them. I left Grand Rapids impressed, inspired, and already planning a return trip.


New Purveyors Added

We’re happy to announce that we have added three new sources to our Purveyors page, two processed meat sources and one for smoked fish.

In Port Washington, WI there is a small, white storefront tucked back off the main street, where you can find a variety of Great Lakes area fish that have been brined and smoked at Ewig Brothers Fish Company.  The company is descended from the fishing operations started by brothers Herman and August Ewig in 1882 in Milwaukee, WI. In 1894 they moved their business to Port Washington and operated a highly successful fishing venture until the late 1960’s, when a decline in the fishing industry forced the Ewig’s to sell their boats after four generations of Ewig’s had worked the lake as active fisherman. But they still source much of their fish in the Great Lakes region or a number of Canadian sources further north.  They offer smoked Canadian whitefish; the variety of fish that was the centerpiece of the once thriving Lake Michigan fishing industry.The smokehouses and retail market are across the street from the location of the original market.

Our two other additions are from Traverse City, MI, which claims the title of Cherry Capitol of the US and is home to National Cherry Festival, so it is no surprise that both vendors offer a combination of Michigan cherries with their signature products. My most recent adventure with Michigan cherries has been to soak them in a combination of sugar, vanilla, and George Stagg bourbon to create a unique addition to a Manhattan.  With a bit of diligent sourcing, I think I could create a “Michigan” – maybe Grand Traverse Distillery Rye as a base and then search out a fortified wine and some bitters from the area, with my cherries to finish it off.  Perhaps when I’m in Grand Rapids later this month I can do a bit of hunting and gathering, but I digress.

Traverse City is developing a bit of reputation as a “modern gastro-paradise”, so claims none other than Mario Batali in Bon Apetit, who likes to summer there with his family to get away from the bustle of his ever-growing culinary empire.  He actually posted a bit of write-up about Michigan in general, and Traverse City in particular. And when Mario talks, the culinary universe listens.  A nice article about Traverse City appeared in the Summer/Fall 2013 edition of Touring and Tasting magazine, where they mention dishes such as slow-cooked and pulled duck, smoked rabbit salad, whitefish roast in grape leaves and Northern walleye pike in roasted tomato cream sauce. Unfortunately, they fail to mention the restaurants or chefs that feature these dishes…more hunting and gathering for me, I guess.

The first Traverse City vendor we are adding to our Purveyor page is Deering’s Market, home of many varieties of jerky including venison, elk, and buffalo along with the more traditional beef.  Of course they offer both a beef and turkey version infused with the Michigan cherry flavor. The second vendor, Pleva’s Meats, doesn’t simply use the cherry juice, but actually adds ground ground cherries to their meat products including their signature burger and fresh sausage.  We have featured the Door County Cherry Landjaeger in these pages before, and the tart, yet rich, flavors of cherry are a natural pairing with meats. Worth noting, Pleva’s also offers a number of specialty sausages such as Blood Sausage and Head Cheese along with Pierogis filled with cabbage, or potato with cheese or mushroom – classic ethnic offerings. A combination of local ingredients, ethnic specialties, and a bit of innovation, tastes like a bit of Great Lakes Cuisine cooking up in Mario’s backyard.

Of Festivals and Fun

We will not often highlight current events, as the ambition of this website is to promote a larger understanding of an emergent culinary movement, not simply what is currently popular.  Yet a number of events occurring the next few weeks are great opportunities to get out and experience the ethno-culinary inspiration that underpins Great Lakes Cuisine. The passion of those who organize these type of events and the experience of the thousands that attend, help build the common experience, the common touchstone, for culinary expectations and innovations.

September 18th – 20th at Daley Plaza in Chicago – The Wurst Festival

The City of Chicago is sponsoring a festival dedicated to the appreciation of the humble sausage.  The European-influenced sausage making tradition in Chicago is not only incredibly strong, it is also deeply tied to the identity of the city itself. Of course, I cannot connect Chicago and the the sausage making tradition without recalling this classic scene from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, but I was struck upon watching the movie again recently with my children that the restaurant they so cleverly lie their way into is French.  How I long for the day when a French child has to lie to get into a classic Great Lakes Cuisine restaurant in Paris.  Hey, a man can dream.  *Hat tip to our new contributor, Jason Halm, who brought this festival to my attention.

Every weekend in September at Bavarian Soccer Park – Oktoberfest

The Oktoberfest put on by the Bavarian Soccer Club in Milwaukee is about as authentic as it gets outside of Germany.  A classic beer-hall setting with 8 different imported German beers (and a classic version from Lakefront Brewing in Milwaukee), the full polka band experience and guests in lederhosen dancing. For me, this type of experience is all about understanding the traditions and then using those traditions as a launching point for innovation.  Of course, there is little in the world more inspirational than a spit of roasting pigs.  I’ve worked side-by-side with Gunther, the club’s pit boss, in stoking the fires with hardwood charcoal, testing the pigs for succulent completion, and hauling the roasted product into the onsite butchering room, before it goes out to waiting patrons.  A pig’s head is often available for sale later in the evening for those that are familiar with such wonders.  A wonderful experience, not to be missed.



September 22nd-28th – Milwaukee Cocktail Week

A new event in Milwaukee, centered around meals offered at local restaurants featuring pairings with cocktails.  A number of the restaurants have presented great pairings, including one which features my personal vice – bourbon, but the one most relevant to our concept is the intriguing dinner to be put on by one of my favorite local restaurants – Honeypie. Two aspects of this dinner resonate with our concept of Great Lakes Cuisine.  First, Honeypie has been doing an amazing job of playing with local offerings, while making all the components for the dishes in-house.  So the buns for their stunning hamburgers are made in-house, and glisten with the egg wash finish.  The flavors for each dish are clear and full, and innovation is at the service of taste.  What makes this a must attend event is a second component of Great Lakes Cuisine, pairing the dishes with cocktails featuring AeppelTreow Winery offerings.  AeppelTreow features apple and pear wines and brandies grown, picked, and fermented onsite at their farm in Burlington, WI. They are constantly innovating new offerings, while at the same time featuring the use of Heirloom varietals that they grow. Local ingredients, local craft, culinary traditions, and innovative ideas – the essence of Great Lakes Cuisine.

Go forth and festival.  Have fun and be inspired.


Underground Food Collective

Just off the main street headed towards the impressive capitol building in Madison, WI is a small store tucked back on a fairly quiet street.  The tiny store front is the retail location for the Underground Food Collective that also operates Forequarter in Madison. The inventory is an eclectic mix of artisan products, both fresh and preserved, with a focus on the products available within the Great Lakes Region.

The undisputed star of store is the meats. Upon entering the store, immediately right of the cashier is a butcher case with a set of house-cured sausages and the back of the space is dominated by another beautiful case of fresh cuts.  A tiny temple to the art of preparing meat.  The opposite walls are selections of artisan products from jams, to pickled vegetables, to cheeses, to spiced nuts. If you are sensing the ultimate charcuterie plate coming together here, you have the right idea. There are non-local artisan offerings such as olives, oils, and wines as well to round out the offering.

The cured sausages were the particular treasure I was seeking on this trip and I went home with their Sausaucion Sec, Kabaonosy, and Spruce Goat (tasting notes follow). There were probably another ten cured offerings such as pancetta and bresola that I will have to experience on another trip. An alpine-style sheep’s milk cheese from Bleau Mont Dairy and dried olives were chosen as accompaniments. Finding The Brinery’s offering of Jupiter’s Orbit Kraut was an unexpected addition for the smoked pork chops intended for dinner. The Driftless goat’s milk cheese was destined for a dessert offering later in the evening atop a crumble with plums and ground cherries.

Though pleasantly surprised by the unique, local offerings, I might have been able to anticipate such offerings simply based on the review of Forequarter by Lindsay Christians at 77 Square, which brought this group of chefs to my attention.  A review of their past offerings lists representative Great Lakes dishes such as modern takes on Pork Schnitzel or Smorgasbord. Even the dish pictured in Christians review is another representative sample of Great Lakes Cuisine, with housemade pork sausage served with sauerkraut and baby potatoes; classic traditional German fare updated with a modern, upscale take.


We are pleased to add Forequarter to our Restaurants section while Underground Meats has already been added to our sources section. below are the tasting notes from the house-made sausages.  A longer discussion of the smoked pork chop and sauerkraut meal created from the other items is forthcoming.

Tasting Notes:

Sausiccion Sec – literally meaning simply “dried sausage”, this offering is an excellent example of the tradition. Very firm, with nice fat marbling through-out, the flavor is akin to a high-quality, very fresh salami with a fairly rough grind.

Kabanosy – A traditional, all-pork sausage in the Polish tradition. This a smoked sausage, rather than cured, and retains all the fresh pork flavors.  A very simple, well-executed offering which was a nice addition to the plate sliced ¼ inch thick on the bias. Just as easily could be a sausage that you’d simply bite into as a Bloody Mary accompaniment.

Spruce Goat – This is the seasonal offering version of the Goat sausage typically on offer in store and online for Underground Meats. In addition to the stronger meaty/gamey flavors of the goat (I’d say meaty, others would say gamey), the curing process adds the traditional cured overtones.  Some tasting the sausage felt it had too powerful a flavor, verging of the ammonia-like aromatics that you can get in well-aged cheeses. The texture was dense and the dried fats reminded me of an imported prosciutto.

These offerings and more are available on-line, but the retail location is definitely worth the visit.

Note: We are pleased that Forequarter was also recognized by Bon Appetit as one of the 50 Best New Restaurants for 2013.