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.

Red Cabbage – Rotkohl-Style

My grandmother on my mother’s side was German, and my great grandmother was really German, Bavarian royalty somewhere in the lineage. I think that may explain why we served the sweet and sour red cabbage dish known as Rotkohl with our Thanksgiving turkey. I have taken up the tradition and modified it a bit over time.


The Winter Farmers Market in Milwaukee provided an opportunity to pick-up a couple key ingredients. The red cabbage and onions came from Pinehold Farms and the bacon and a beautiful smoked pork shank were products of Lotfotl Farms (the name stands for Live off the Fat of the Land).

Smoked pork shank

Here is our current version:

Red Cabbage – Rotkohl Style

1 smoked pork shank (See alternative below)
½ cup bacon lard (from ½ lb of bacon, reserved for other use)
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 tsp salt
2 cups bacon “broth”
2 cups water
½ cup dry Rosé wine

2 cloves garlic
12 black peppercorns
1 tsp. coriander seed
4 cloves
2 bay leaves

1 head red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1 large apple, cored and grated
2 tbs. cider vinegar (or craft beer vinegar)
2 tsp. brown sugar

2 tbs. corn starch
1/4 cup cider vinegar (or craft beer vinegar)
1/4 cup brown sugar, or to taste

We are using bacon lard and bacon “broth” generated by using our oven roasted bacon technique detailed here. Our bacon was used for BLTs the night before.

[Alternative approach: If you cannot or choose not to obtain a smoked pork shank, a half pound of bacon can be diced, and rendered in the pan at the time the shank is added in the recipe below. Omit lard and add 2 cups chicken broth for bacon “broth”.]

Carefully removed the rind of the smoked pork shank in the largest pieces possible, and discard pieces smaller than 2 inches in size. Carve meat off the shank and dice. In a large stock pot over medium high heat, place the bacon lard, shank bone, skin pieces, shank meat. Allow to brown for 2 minutes, but do not burn. Add onions and sprinkle with salt. Reduce heat to medium and caramelize and soften onions, about 10 minutes. Add a dash of water if they begin to burn before softening. When caramelized, add bacon “broth”, water, and wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer for 1 hour.

While pot comes to a boil, prepare spice packet by placing next 5 ingredients into a pouch made from cheese cloth and tied closed (or use my preferred method, unbleached tea bags). Place spice packet into broth just for the last 30 minutes of simmering and then remove. Remove the bone and large skin pieces and cut off any loose meat from the bone and return diced meat to the pot. Taste broth for flavor, and add salt if needed. It should be as salty as a homemade chicken broth.

Return pot to a low boil and add grated apple, cabbage, vinegar and sugar. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes, until softened but retaining some crispness. You will have to determine the level of texture you prefer, but this should not be overly soft at this stage. Remove from heat and place into a large, non-reactive container for storage overnight.

The next day, drain cabbage, retaining 1 cup of liquid. Mix corn starch with liquid.Bring vinegar and sugar to a low boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Add liquid to vinegar mixture and bring to a boil to thicken. Add cabbage and heat through. Adjust flavors with vinegar, sugar, or salt as needed. The resultant dish should have a meaty, smoky flavor with a sweet/sour finish. Serve with rich beef dishes, alongside game meats, or as my family does, alongside the Thanksgiving turkey.


Mac Attack

My son made this request for his birthday meal – “I want Great Lakes Cuisine worthy Mac & Cheese”. Here you go –


Mac Attack

6 thick slices bacon
½ cup maple syrup
1 tbl. barbeque seasoning (such as Penzey’s BBQ 3001)

1 lb. cavatappi pasta (corkscrew tubes) or elbow macaroni
¼ cup butter
1 medium onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
½ lb. smoked ham, diced
6 smoked wieners, ¼ inch slices

1 lb. aged white cheddar, grated
7 eggs, beaten
1 ¾ cup milk
6 oz. blue cheese, crumbled

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Pour maple syrup into a small bowl and drag bacon slices through syrup and place on baking sheet. Bake for 8 minutes, flip and season with barbeque seasoning. Bake an additional 8 minutes or until crisp. Watch carefully in the final few minutes to avoid burning. Set aside to cool.

Cook pasta according to directions.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, place 1 tablespoon of butter, onion, carrot, ham and wieners until vegetables are softened. Remove from heat, and stir in the remaining butter, milk, eggs, and cheeses. Stir in the pasta.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Fill 13×9 pan with pasta mixture. Bake for 25 minutes or until the egg mixture sets. While the pasta bakes, cut the bacon into crumbles. Serve with crumbled bacon.

We enjoyed this with a side of home made apple sauce, with apples picked at a local orchard. Our apple sauce included 2 each of Pippin, McIntosh, and Cortlands, peeled and cored then cooked in a medium sauce pan over medium each with 1 cup water, ½ cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon ground cloves. Cooked for 10-15 minutes until it reaches your desired consistency.


This was a fun twist on the classic combination of cheddar and apple. We’re big fan’s of Nueske’s meats, which we’ve covered before, so it is no surprise that all the meats in the dish were Nueske’s. The white cheddar we used was 6 year aged and the blue cheese was from Black River. Very rich, smoky flavors. Really enjoyed this with a Staghorn Oktoberfest from New Glarus Brewing. Yes, that was birthday worthy.

In Praise of Smørrebrød

Nordic cuisine has ascended in recent years to join the culinary pantheon of fine dining, a welcome broadening of the traditional European references for modern American experimentation. Such a re-emergence of Nordic influences generates an interesting confluence in the Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where immigrants settled a few generations ago.  They brought with them a great number of culinary traditions, including the open faced sandwich – smørrebrød. In the simplest form, this is a specific style of rye bread, spread with butter, and topped with meats and accompaniments, eaten with a fork and knife. These sandwiches were a traditional lunch offering, and the butter was intended to keep the bread from getting soggy under the toppings. The name literally means “butter bread” in Danish.

If you want a more in-depth description of the current Danish traditions, the blog – danishsandwich.com goes into the more formal service traditions as well as the line-up of sandwiches that have become somewhat standardized in Denmark. We would rather refer you to a passionate expert, than try to do justice to the tradition in this short piece. And while we’re referring to experts, we’d also recommend the blog and cookbook from Brett Laidlaw, Trout Caviar, which is where we started our more in-depth reading on these Danish open-faced sandwiches.  He views them as a canvas for expression of his love of local ingredients and local traditions. Throughout both his cookbook and his blog, he captures much of what we consider Great Lakes Cuisine.

The particular local love we wanted to express on our version of smørrebrød was for smoked meats. We have explored the smoked meat topic before, but we made a recent pilgrimage to Wittenberg, WI to the temple of all that is smokey, meaty goodness – Nueske’s.


After you walk in through the wooden doors, you are greeted by exquisite aromas of smoked meats and visions of endless meat cases of sausages, bacon, and pork chops. There are free samples of buttermilk and Sprecher Root Beer.  You can buy a hot dog for $1.50. This is like smoked meat nirvana.  And if you sneak in to the back room off to the left of the main room, there are two low, refrigerated open coolers of odd and ends, the bacon ends and the sausage casing mishaps. This is where we found Thick-cut Bacon and Smoked Liver Pate.  Our impulse purchase was a small package of smoked chicken. We also found Rubschlager’s Rye and 10 year aged cheddar and blackberry jam and more than just a little bit of campfire happiness.  The result of the happiness was this:

Food Pictures 004

We took great liberties with the traditional preparations, but stuck to the rye bread, butter starting point. It may not be apparent in the pictures, but we actually quartered the slice of bread, so each open-faced sandwich actually became a two-bite appetizer. Herring is traditionally the first served and we honored that with our offering here.

Food Pictures 005

The pickled herring is prepared by Bay View Packing Company in Milwaukee, WI. They use imported Atlantic herring, which is not related to the lake herring of Lake Superior (Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl from Minnesota Monthly details the differences here with great piece of culinary history). We topped each piece with a dill cream, pickled onions and pickled green peppercorns (in place of the more traditional capers). A fresh sprig of dill would have been a nice addition.

Food Pictures 008

Our smoked chicken was diced fine and prepared as a chicken salad with plumped currants, celery, and candied, spiced walnuts. We used a malt vinegar mayonnaise which took on the smoky flavors of the chicken when the flavors were allowed to meld overnight. Topped with a slice of pear and additional candied, spiced walnuts, this was a sweet and tangy, smokey and rich bite.

Food Pictures 002

Our final sandwich was Three Little Pigs – a smoked pork liver mousse on roast pork loin blanketing a piece of smoked, thick-cut bacon. The inspiration for the mousse was actually two different sources.  We had a version of Fedt (Danish for “fat”) based on the recipe at danishsandwich.com which came out wonderfully using the Nueske’s bacon drippings, apples, and onion caramelized together, then pureed. Discovery of a recipe from Amy Thielen’s cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, for braunschweiger mousse was another inspiration. She uses mascarpone cheese whipped into braunschweiger to add richness and and a velvety texture. So of course we whipped our fedt into our smoked liver pate.  This, my friends, was goodness. The topping is finely diced, house-pickled red onions and watermelon radish. And our happiness was complete.

Find your happiness, express it through food. Traditional and new. Simple and complete. This is Great Lakes Cuisine.

For the Love of All That is Smoky

I am a smoke junkie. I’ll take beef brisket, pork roast, chicken, ducks, pheasant…all smoked please. Smoked salt and smoked paprika are favorites in the spice cabinet. Smoked sugar was a fun experiment.  So a duck fat washed bourbon cocktail enjoyed at Hinterland in Milwaukee, WI gave me inspiration to try a bacon fat washed bourbon. The preferred preparation for the bacon is a broiler pan with 2 cups water in the bottom in a 475 degree oven. And the preferred bacon is Nueske’s.


The dripping are clear, suspended in water.


Transferred for storage in the refrigerator.


Separating water from fat, we are left with ivory lard and water with just a hint of smoke. We can add 1 tablespoon of lard, melted, to 1 cup of bourbon. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

Bacon Wash1

Into the freezer for 1 hour, poke two holes in the lard and strain out the bourbon.

Bacon Wash2

We have now transformed Nueske’s bacon into 5 ingredients – perfectly cooked bacon, ivory smoky-flavored lard, bacon water, bacon-washed bourbon, and bourbon/bacon lard. The alcohol in the bourbon is likely pulling some of the volatile taste components out of the lard. Does it require alcohol and at what level? Perhaps a German-style Bock Bier with lard added then into the fridge, not as a drink, but as the base for a beer-cheese sauce. The bacon water adds a nice complexity to beef broth. The bourbon-spiked lard becomes the starting point for an onion/fennel jam. So many places for bacon. For the love all that is smoky.