Cheese Tasting – Fall 2016

The Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, WI, is a treasure trove of culinary delights. Madison may just be the perfect place for a farmers’ market – centrally located for local farmers, a populous which appreciates locally harvested, organic foods, and a setting on the Capitol Square. For those of you who have not had the pleasure to visit Madison, the Wisconsin state capitol building is a classically beautiful, white granite clad structure, topped by the largest granite dome in the world, located in the center of an isthmus created by two pristine lakes, surrounded by lawns, walkways, and sculptures. The greater area around Madison includes the Driftless region, an area untouched by glacial flows, which boasts many farms and more than a dozen artisan cheesemakers. The setting helps explain why the Dane County Farmers’ Market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country. The farmers, bakers, cheese-makers are likely to be the one behind the table, handing you your new favorite culinary discovery.

Photo credit: Wisconsin.Gov

A recent trip produced more than the usual number of treats, but the highlight was a few offerings from Bleu Mont Dairy. Willi Lehner has received many national accolades for his bandaged cheddar, made from locally produced milk, wrapped and smeared with lard, then aged on cedar shelves in a cave he built into the hillside. This is old-school cheese making folks. And he can also yodel like a boss.

Willi Lehner Yodels at American Cheese Society from Colleen | GlassBottle on Vimeo.

We selected the sheep milk Tomme and Alpine Renegade. The Tomme is an Alpine style, but with sheep milk in this variety rather than the more traditional cow milk. According to Steve Jenkins’ Cheese Primer, the term is an ancient word which meant “chunk” or “round”. Basically, the washed rind makes the Tomme look like a small boulder as it ages. Alpine Renegade won top honors in the American originals open-category at the 2013 American Cheese Society awards and is classic alpine-style, washed rind, cow’s milk cheese. Take a look at the beautiful color and texture of this offering –


Our cheese plate also included a hearty Five Grain Sourdough bread from Madison Sourdough, slices of apple, and a quick apple chutney. The apple, a golden russet variety from the market called Ashmead Kernel, has a texture which veers toward Asian Pear and a tartness which mellows out to a honey sweetness. The apple chutney was prepared with onions caramelized with thyme, unsweetened cranberries from Honestly Cranberry, several varieties of apple and a dash of cinnamon and cloves.



The Tomme starts with a toasted bread aroma and blends into the grassy/herbaceous/dry straw nuances of sheep milk but a more caramelized finish than many sheep milk cheeses we’ve enjoyed. The texture of the Alpine Renegade is smooth with small holes rather than grainy and the flavor strikes me as starting with cooked milk solids (you know those bits of cheddar that ooze out of the grilled cheese and get crunchy in the pan? Like those smell) and then melts into a wonderfully funky and long lasting finish. This Renegade is no wilting flower, providing a lovely counter-point to the tart sweetness of the apple and the sour punch of the cranberry in the chutney. Some cheeses might get overpowered by the pronounced flavors of the chutney and fade into background notes – this cheese demands equal billing.

The lovely bandaged cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy is often available for shipment from Fromagination in Madison and will also sing beautifully with this combination of flavors. But if you can find the time some fall Saturday morning, the drive to Madison to find Bleu Mont Dairy on the square is well worth the trip. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a chance to hear Willi yodel.

More Hoppel Poppel Variations

Frequent readers here know that we have an unhealthy obsession with this creation known as Hoppel Poppel (read more on our earlier post here). Quick synopsis of the required ingredients:

Basic Hoppel Poppel – Diced, par-boiled potatoes cooked until browned and crisping, sauteed with diced onion, and diced “salami” (see comment below), topped with egg, scrambled and then optionally topped with melted cheese.

Variations – Any root vegetables diced. Any member of the allium family. Any leftover meat, diced. Any egg, any style. Cheeses, many beautiful cheeses.

In some ways, the variations may be closer to the original than the Basic given above. The Basic is based on the dish as it appeared on a number of diner menus in the Great Lakes region over the last 50 years. Particularly in Milwaukee, the recipe always included “salami”, which is understandable in the home of Klements and Usingers. But what is called “salami” on these menus is really much closer in style and moisture content to beef summer sausage, rather than the much harder Italian-style true salami. The alleged origins of hoppel poppel was as a simple a way for the Germans settling in the Great Lakes region to use leftovers. The boiled potatoes from the previous evenings dinner were diced and fried in butter with onion and a bit of leftover meat.Mix in a few eggs and you have yourself a hearty and economical breakfast.

It is in this tradition that we have the most fun. Leftovers create some of the most memorable dishes. Bits left from a labor-intensive dinner preparation re-appear in the morning as effortless additions. One of my favorite all-time dishes was made by my good friend Tom after an epic roasting session with a whole leg of lamb went into the wee hours of the morning. The whole leg of lamb dinner was a labor. The lamb hash the next morning was all bonus; beautiful, effortless. We present two variations on Hoppel Poppel here – one  in the spirit of leftovers and and another which is a bit more fanciful.

Sweet Potato Hoppel Poppel with Duck Egg


We began with leftover potatoes and sweet potatoes which had been cooked over the campfire the previous evening, fried in butter with onions, and topped with a slow-fried duck egg and goat’s milk jack cheese from Caprine Supreme.

“Royal” Hoppel Poppel

The purple potatoes we used in this preparation were a local farmers market find and inspired a pairing with a Lavender Jack, also from Caprine Supreme.



So go forth and experiment. Please feel free to share your creations with us here or on Twitter at @greatlakesfood.

Autobahn Mi

Inspiration can come from anywhere, including a recent trip to the Vietnamese sandwich shop near by to have a fairly lackluster Special Banh Mi. Banh Mi simply translates as “bread”, but has come to mean the sandwich served on a specific type of crispy, French-inspired, demi-baguette. The classic is known as the “special” and comes with liver pâté, cold cuts of Vietnamese pork sausage and barbecued pork, daikon and carrot pickles, and house made mayo. A pretty rockin’ combo, but the one I got…not so good.

But it got the creative juices flowing. Liver pâté, pork sausage, barbecued pork – perhaps a world away geographically, but culinarily not that far from traditional German. Why not smoked liverwurst in place of pâté? How about slow roasted bratwurst as the pork sausage and a six-hour, applewood-smoked pork shoulder? Quick-pickled radishes and carrots and a seasoned mayo finish it off. The roll is a Mexican bolillo-style available from a local bakery – thin, light crust with a airy interior.

Autobahn mi

The roll was buttered and then tossed on the grill to get the shattering crispiness characteristic of great Banh Mi. The smoked liver sausage adds a deep meaty richness to the layers of porcine delight. The brat was a house-made variety from a local grocer, roasted over hardwood grill at about 400 degrees, off to the side slightly from the main coals in order to slow-cook it without splitting and losing all those incredible pork fat juices. The pulled pork was a pork shoulder seasoned with salt, garlic, oregano, and paprika then slow smoked with apple wood at 275 degrees for over six hours. Not quite roast suckling pig, but it’ll do in a pinch.

So all the ingredients were firmly in the tradition of German-American cuisine from the Great Lakes region. How they came together was an entirely modern inspiration, born of our ever-broadening exposure to cuisines and traditions from around the world.Even a not-so-good sandwich can send us off in new and exciting directions. A little bit like racing through the German country-side where “Limits no longer apply”.

This little piggie…

So Kyle says, “We should cook a pig.”
What are you thinking – like a pork shoulder?
“No, a whole pig.”
How would we get one?
“Don’t know yet.”
How would we cook it? Even a small pig wouldn’t fit on the gas grill.
“We make a roaster.”
And that is how it started.

This all happened over a recent spring break vacation down in Florida, with three of our families visiting my parents there. Dad was on board, so all that remained was figuring out how to do it. I’ve actually had some experience roasting whole pigs. The local soccer club has a long German heritage and puts on a wonderfully authentic Oktoberfest each fall as the major fund raising activity. I’ve volunteered several autumns nights to help the older generation of Milwaukee Germans to roast brats, whole chickens, and whole pigs which accompany the imported German beers. They have a permanent set-up including shallow pits for the hardwood charcoal and metal brackets to hold the large wooden shafts that are used to rotate the pigs. The charcoal can be shifted and the pigs can be move up or down to control heat.

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

So I had an idea how to skewer and tie the pig, but we didn’t have an Oktoberfest roasting shed. I’ve seen the pig done traditional spanferkel-style as well by the folks at Bunzel’s Old Fashioned Meat Market in Milwaukee. Going on four generations, they have roasted pigs in the traditional German style with all the appropriate fixings. They have these beautiful mobile roasting units which look like large iron barrels rigged with a rotisserie unit to keep the pig rotating. Heavenly food. But we didn’t have one of those either.

So Kyle starts talking to folks locally, starts calling around. He finds a place with a whole suckling pig ready to go in Tallahassee. That will work. Now we have to figure out how to cook this thing. A 55 gallon drum should be big enough. So that started a scavenger hunt. After a number of fruitless stops, we found a barrel and some grills that had been old oven racks. Now it was up to Kyle to engineer this thing.

He had it done in less than an hour. Hinged top, handle to open it, air holes, holes through the side to allow the spit to rotate. I’m telling you, less than an hour. Then we had to burn the barrel out at high heat to prepare it for the next day’s smoking.

Pork Roast Whole1

See that big iron pulley on the side? Our wheel for manually rotating the pig. While he built the roaster, I put together a brine for the suckling pig. I used my standard brine approach, but the quantities are a bit fluid. Hey, I was on vacation and the beers were flowing.

Basically it was a giant pot of water (about 2 gallons) brought to a boil, salted until it was about twice the saltiness of ocean water. I added a bottle of apple cider vinegar, two bottles of beer, a hand full of bay leaves, two heaping tablespoons of crushed garlic, three sliced onions, a whole mess of dried herbs, and then liquid cane sugar in place of the more traditional honey. Liquid cane sugar is used in the south like maple sugar, thick and caramel like molasses, but less bitter. When the whole mix came to a boil, I killed the heat and then added an equal volume of ice to dilute the brine. Poured the whole mix over the pig, weighed it down, and then let it sit for 24 hours.

The next morning we fired up the grill about 9 AM to get the coals just about perfect an hour later. Then pig on the spit and onto the grill. We used hardwood charcoal supplemented with soaked oak to get a bit of extra smoke and washed the pig every half hour with the brine.

Pork Roast Whole2

Ain’t she a beauty? We are only about an hour in at this point. The temperature gauge visible in the upper left corner was our one major expenditure in building the roaster. Think it was like four bucks. We tried to keep our temp in the 250 degree range, but found the small space was a little tricky to hold at a constant temp. It kept wanting to climb on us. Turns out the lower racks might not have been necessary. It also turns out that drinking all day may not make you the most diligent cook. After six plus hours it came out a bit darker than I expected, but the meat was just done.

Pork Roast Whole3

We served our spanferkel with whipped, spiced sweet potatoes, a corn cheddar pudding, sauerkraut baked for an hour topped with smoked bacon, and more beer! Though we were definitely in the German tradition with our meal, our beer of choice for this feast was Tatra, a pale lager brewed by Zywiec Brewery from Poland.

Pork Roast Whole

Our pig was meltingly tender, moist, and just a hint of smoke. This wasn’t the fall-apart tenderness of a long roast over higher heat, but the more unctuous tenderness of a suckling pig, where the higher gelatin content creates a lovely creamy texture. To play up our Southern locale, my sister made three great barbecue sauces each in different southern styles, but I elected to go au naturel.

About three hours into our roasting adventure, I stopped for a moment, turned to my three grilling partners. We were playing a game of Bags, drinking beer, looking out at the ocean, with a 30 pound pig on a home-made roaster. “Gentlemen, there is simply no other place I rather be right now. This is good as it gets.”

Of course, Kyle knew that all along.

Fish Fry Friday Nights

The Friday night Fish Fry is a tradition throughout the Great Lakes region, varying slightly with ethnic touches city by city, and even neighborhood by neighborhood. In the Milwaukee area, our favorite old school fish fry can be enjoyed at Jack Pandl’s Whitefish Bay Inn, a place that is worth visiting for the history alone. Order the perch and enjoy the potato pancakes with applesauce. Another Milwaukee favorite is the Fish Fry they serve at the Lakefront Brewery Beer Hall, which includes a traditional dinner, a live polka band, and family style seating (not to mention Lakefront’s fantastic beer offerings!). There are many great options throughout Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and nearly every Great Lakes city.

The Christian tradition of not eating meat on Friday’s in lent lead to a regional obsession with delicately crispy white fish and french fried potatoes on any Friday of the year, though unfortunately cod is substituted far too often for freshwater fish. When the batter is made with a light, highly carbonated beer, the oil is clean and hot, and local, freshwater fish fillets are used, it is the perfect way to start the week-end. The right amount of carbonation in the beer creates a batter resembling a Japanese tempura. Find a place with a house-made tartar sauce or, even better, a house-made malt vinegar to really accent the fish. We’ll share a house-made chive mayonnaise in this post that could work as well.

Despite our love for the occasional Friday night Fish Fry, fried food in general is not our preference and so we’ve adapted a number of very traditional Great Lakes fish into our version. After all, that is what Great Lakes Cuisine is all about – innovatively finding ways to adapt traditional, ethnic dishes.

The key to this dish is the Smoked Chubs from Ewig’s in Port Washington but an alternative is the smoked whitefish which they will ship. The chubs are native to the Great Lakes and are actually known as a bloater or coregonus hoyi (though there is much confusion between freshwater and ocean varieties). The small, silver skinned fish is oily like sardine, but far less “fishiness” in aroma or flavor. They look a bit liked smoked sardine but are technically in the salmon family. Port Washington was once home to a thriving commercial fishing operation, but now Ewig’s is the lone testament to the once teeming whitefish catch. In honor of the town’s history, we offer this dish.

Port Washington Fish Fry2

We harvested the smoked flesh to top the very delicately flavored freshwater whitefish and served it with sauteed greens and small hash browned potatoes, prepared similar to rosti.

Port Washington Stuffed Whitefish with Baby Rosti (Hash browned potatoes)

1 lb. freshwater whitefish filet
4 smoked chubs
2 egg yolks
1 Tbs. finely diced onion
1 Tbs. finely diced chives
1 Tbs. stone ground mustard
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. salt

1/2 cup sour cream

3 large Yukon gold potatoes
1 Tbs. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 Tbs. melted butter
1 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 cup baby kale
2 cup baby spinach
or preferred greens
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbs. vegetable oil

Place the egg yolks, onion, chives, and mustard in blender and process until smooth. With the blender running, add oil in a slow drizzle. The result will be 1 cup of chive mayonnaise that will intensify as it sits. Remove the flesh from the smoked chubs, being careful to remove skin and bones.

Port Washington Fish Fry1

Fold 1/2 cup of chive mixture into the smoked fish flesh and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Combine remaining 1/2 cup of chive mixture with sour cream and refrigerate.

Shred the potatoes on the largest holes of the grater, then mix with salt and pepper and allow to stand 30 minutes. Heat oven to 375. Working in handfuls, squeeze as much water out of the potatoes as you can, as this will lead to crispier potatoes. Combine butter and oil and brush sheet pan with half the mixture. Working in small handfuls, form the potatoes into 2 inch disks, about 1/2 inch thick, and place on the sheet pan then top with remaining oil mixture. Bake until browned on the underside (about 30 minutes), turn and finish until browned. Finish fish and greens while potatoes bake.

Remove smoked chub mix from refrigerator. Slice fish into 2 inch pieces. Lightly salt and then drizzle with a small amount of vegetable oil. Rinse greens and finely dice two peeled cloves of garlic. In a large cast iron pan or non-stick saute pan, heat on stove top at medium high heat, with 1 Tbs. vegetable oil and garlic. When garlic is fragrant, add greens, sprinkle with sea salt, and cover pan. Greens will wilt as you finish the fish

In another large cast iron pan or non-stick saute pan, heat on stove top at medium high heat, with 1 Tbs. vegetable oil. When sizzling hot, place fish in the pan, skin side up for 1 minute, then carefully flip over. They will have a tendency to stick slightly. Remove pan from heat and top each piece with a heaping spoonful of smoked chub mix. Remove potatoes from oven. Place fish in oven on a middle rack with the broiler on high. Remove when golden brown, about 5 minutes.

To serve, place the wilted greens in a small pile, top with piece of fish. Mini-rosti are served with the sour cream mixture.

Port Washington Fish Fry

The texture of freshwater whitefish is naturally soft and mildly flavored. The smoky-chive mixture adds just the right amount of flavor and the crispy potatoes hint at the traditional fish fry flavors and textures. Another variation would be to serve a larger piece of fish on a larger potato crisp. Either way, be certain to have plenty of ice cold beer on hand to wash down each flavorful, crispy bite.