In Praise of Rhubarb

Rhubarb means summer. Summer in the 12 year-old, off-of-school, complete freedom sense. Summer in the sleep-in, wake-to-warm-sunshine, go-play-in-the-field sort of way. When I was 12, we lived on forty acres of prairie grasses and wild flowers, bordered on two sides by a slow flowing river, which would sparkle like gold in the setting sun. We also had a garden with a gooseberry plant, an apple tree, and a pear tree. As summer closed, we could harvest all types of fruit and vegetables, but only one plant provided an unlimited snack in early summer – rhubarb. Mom gave us complete freedom to snap off as many stalks as we wanted to dip in sugar and enjoy long before anyone thought of sour patch kids.


A recent article about freezing fresh food in the New York Times included a reference by Chef Tory Miller of L’Etoile and Graze in Madison to freezing rhubarb to use year round as “Wisconsin’s lemon”. That reference inspired a flurry of rhubarb creations, not the least of which was my daughter’s rhubarb crumble.

Rhubarb Crumble

Another creation captured a bit of that childhood essence of summer – a rhubarb radler. Radlers are a German creation which combines a lighter beer with a fruit soda for a lower alcohol, refreshing summer drink. Typically the fruit soda is lemon, though more recently grapefruit has become popular. Why not rhubarb? We simmered diced rhubarb in water and sugar, strained the solids out and then added sparkling water. That house-made “soda” was then combined in equal parts with Hinterland White Cap IPA. If you can’t get Hinterland in your area, Blue Moon’s White IPA would work or you could select another flavorful craft IPA that is not too heavy on the bitter flavors and not overly malty. The hop bitterness in the Hinterland White Cap is beautifully bold and the rhubarb soda accentuates the floral notes. The resulting drink reminds me of a fresh ruby red grapefruit. I recommend enjoying it this way:

Rhubarb Radler

The rhubarb radler got the creative juices going. These flavors combined really beautifully, so how might we create a dish with the same profile? We marinated boneless, thick-cut pork chops in 1 can of Hinterland White Cap with 5 cloves of smashed garlic, 1/2 cup of sea salt, and 2 tablespoons of chopped oregano flowers. Fresh oregano can be substituted, but the flowers are a bit less powerful in flavor and seem to bring a somewhat floral character. The chops marinated overnight and then were grilled. We topped them with a rhubarb compote made of 1 cup of diced rhubarb and 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup more beer slow simmered on the stove. When the rhubarb softened just a bit we removed the solids, reduced the liquid down to a very thick sauce and then added back the solids for a quick compote. The dish is topped with more oregano flowers and of course enjoyed with another Hinterland White Cap.

Rhubarb compote1

The compote was sweet but the IPA added the needed complexity to hold a bit of interest. My daughters claimed they could taste the beer in the pork chop, but only after I told them it was marinated in beer. The beer flavor is subtle, but different enough to make it a bit intriguing. Overall, a very nice blend of flavors. We enjoyed these with skillet browned baby potatoes and tarragon butter green beans. It tasted like summer.

Lake Superior Whitefish with Mutiny IPA

We have a nice stock of Capitol Brewery’s Mutiny IPA and wanted to pair it with Lake Superior Whitefish fillets. A simple fish fry is a perfect combination and a great touchstone of Great Lakes Cuisine but we were looking for something a bit…well, a bit different. Instead of the traditional coleslaw, we went with a thinly sliced Savoy cabbage, sauteed over high heat with butter.

In the Milwaukee area, a potato pancake is traditional. We considered a rice cake, which we’ve done in the past out of leftover risotto. Wanted something lighter – How about a cheddar crisp? The garlic chives are in full-bloom in the garden and that would be the perfect accent.

Chives in Spring
Chives in Spring

In a large pan over high heat, we placed crumbled 6 year old white cheddar, cooked until it began to brown noticeably on the edges then added chive flowers. The cheddar yields an oil in the process not unlike clarified butter which we saved. The cheddar crisp was allowed to cool and had a pleasant bitterness from the aged cheddar and a bit of pepper from the chive flower. the fish was cooked in large pan over medium high heat in butter, skin side down until finished.

Whitefish with Savoy cabbage
Whitefish with Savoy cabbage

The cheddar crisp mimics the look and texture of a perfect fish fry coating, but the flavors pop and provide a perfect foil for the rich fish. The cabbage brings a nice vegetal quality to the dish and provides a base of flavors for the Mutiny IPA to play against. We added additional chive flowers and the clarified cheddar oil around the plate. Capitol Brewery’s Mutiny IPA has a nice malt/hop balance which makes it a perfect beer on a beautiful summer evening.

From Friday Fish Fry to whitefish with chive/cheddar crisp – inspiration and combinations are what Great Lakes Cuisine is all about. Enjoy.

Beer Dinner Breakdowns – Overview

In the coming months we will feature a number of Beer Dinner Breakdowns in which we will take a deeper look at craft beer dinners hosted throughout the Great Lakes region, specifically exploring how certain dishes offer complementary or contrasting flavors with their beer pairing. These beer dinners are based on publicly promoted information on websites and related social media outlets. In some cases, we’ll be working from actually attendance at the tasting, but in other cases it will be based on menu descriptions, beer overviews, and social media pictures and commentary. In each case we’ll give a quick analysis of why these pairings work and how to duplicate some of the flavor combinations at home.

Former Schlitz Offices

Our effort here has two broad purposes. First, consistent with our overall efforts here at Great Lakes Cuisine, we are seeking to explore and promote the flavors of the Great Lakes region. Second, we are hoping to offer a way for folks at home or who may not be locally based an opportunity to explore similar flavor combinations. We are not suggesting a quick paragraph of explanation will allow anyone to re-create a chef’s creation. We are intentionally simplifying to amplify flavor combinations and maximize the number of experiences. When we have been given a complimentary seat at the table, we will fully disclose that fact. Otherwise, this is just about exploring ideas, connections, and the emerging flavors of Great Lakes Cuisine. We welcome company on our journey.

In Praise of Beer

I love beer. I love the caramel toasty notes of a rich American amber. I love the coffee and chocolates of a well-crafted stout. I love the citrusy floral notes of pale ale. I love the varieties, the possibilities, the potential. I love that you can smoke the malts and make a beer that tastes just like a perfectly cooked slab of bacon. I love pairing beers so well the flavors swell and swoon.

You know what else I’ve decided I love? Beer people. Maybe it’s just here in the Great Lakes region, but beer people have always impressed me as welcoming, warm, open. Theirs is not a passion of exclusivity or a fanaticism steeped in expense. This is not a passion based on the scarcity of a harvest or the limited number of barrels. Beer people want you to love beer. And they are perfectly willing to make as much of it as you would like to drink. This is a passion based on abundance. Let me set the scene.

I am sitting at a tasting event next to the folks from Potosi Brewing Company. Across the table are some members of the Milwaukee Beer Society. About 40 people have gathered at The Rumpus Room’s private space, invited by the founders of The Crafter Space. The Crafter Space aims to be craft beer incubator, providing scale-up efforts to home brewers and related brewing industries looking to take the next step. Our event this evening is specifically focused on tasting India Pale Ales, with two certified cicerones who are both Master Cicerone candidates this year, Jason Pratt and Brian Reed from Tenth and Blake. There are nine Master Cicerones in the world. Nine.

Jason and Brian are casual, engaging, occasionally beer geeky (we’ll get to the discussion around melanoidins in minute). Tenth and Blake is the “crafty” beer division of MillerCoors. They now own Leinenkugel’s and Blue Moon, and import a lot of interesting European specialty beers. But the tasting tonight will start with one of their beers and then go on to taste three beers from different brewers. They just want us to learn these beers, and to learn to love beer. But the event doesn’t start for a few minutes, so I have a moment to venture over to the main bar of The Rumpus Room.

Yes, Sugar Maple and Burnhearts are die-hard beer bars, which raise the standard for Milwaukee, but The Rumpus Room is growing on me. The selection of bottled beers is impressively wide and the tap selections have a little something for everyone. The décor is a polished take on early 1900s bars. I’m ordering a Robert the Bruce from 3 Floyds Brewing Company, a malty, toasty Scottish Ale, because I want to steer clear of any overly hoppy flavors that I’m anticipating in the IPAs. I always taste a bit of cooked fruit in Scotch ales that somehow reminds me of pie.

As I return to the private room and sit down to enjoy my beer, we talk about beer and what people do for a living and what stuff people love. I enjoy beer people. I finish my first selection as John Graham from The Crafter Space goes through introductions. And we’re right into the tasting.

The first beer is a White IPA from Blue Moon Brewing and the nose on the initial pour is all citrus, beautifully orangey citrus. But the flavor is more crisp, floral flavors. Our cicerones explain that nearly 90% of flavor comes from aroma, and there are two ways we actually detect aroma. Ortho nasal is the aroma we get when we inhale through the nose. Retro nasal is the aromas we detect when food or drink is in our mouth. Right before you take a drink, what’s the last thing you do? You inhale slightly. The air mixes with the drink or the food and flows up into the nasal passages, which pick up different aroma compounds. So the beer can be all citrus on the nose, but not taste like oranges on the tongue. The flavors are predominantly coming from a blend of four different hops, with different mixes added before and during fermentation. This is an easy beer to drink, not overly complex or demanding.

Our next beer returns me to 3 Floyds with a bottle of Zombie Dust. John explains that it was actually bottled today. So, yeah, it’s fresh. The guy from Potosi is telling me how much he enjoys this beer, so we cup our hands over our glass, give it swirl and inhale deeply. More herbaceous, floral notes. We sip. “Oh, this is different,” he remarks, “I remember this as being crisper.” Our cicerones explain the beer is as floral as it will ever taste, as those flavors dissipate over time. These are the alpha acids from the hops. As a beer ages, the beta acids from the hops will oxidize and add additional bitterness. So a chilled, slightly older Zombie Dust is going to present as a bit more bitter, more “crisp”. This beer is a bouquet of flavors.

The conversation on our next beer goes into another bit of chemical alchemy. We are tasting Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. I have to be honest, I’ve enjoyed Two Hearted many times and never thought of it as an India Pale Ale. The Centennial hops in this beer are balanced with a strong malt flavor which leads to a discussion of melanoidin flavors. “Ah, what are melanoidins?” comes the question from the crowd. Oh yeah, a chance for beer geekery from our cicerones. So you know how sugar, a touch of moisture and heat creates caramels? If you add amino acids to that cocktail, you get melanoidins. This is the same process that creates foundational flavors when the Maillard reaction occurs with proteins. It is this malty flavor of toasted bread which counter-balances the hop aroma. The discussion then turns to year over year variations in the Centennial hop, which is part of the reason brewers blend different hops to create consistent flavors. I prefer the variations.

The final beer comes to the table in a carafe, on draft in the main room, Double Crooked Tree from Dark Horse Brewing. This beer is as literal a take on Double IPA as there can be. The folks at Dark Horse have simply doubled every ingredient in the recipe but the water. A Double IPA is not quite that technical in definition. It typically means a higher alcohol level balanced with a bit more bitterness. But Dark Horse felt like it should be literal. I love this beer. For me, this is a heavenly balance of all the floral, herbaceous character of the hops with the deep, rich caramels of the malts. Complex without being over-powering.

Beer offers so many different possibilities to combine flavors, styles, and techniques. A tasting like this offers so many chances for learning, conversation, and appreciation. A tasting event like this is a wonderful experience of the emerging trends of Great Lakes Cuisine.

Mini-Micro Brews, or the Return of Tavern Beer

The craft beer revolution keeps getting smaller…and stronger. As the demand for great craft brews continues to grow, mini-micro breweries are popping up all over the Great Lakes region. And as with so many innovations, nothing in this process is that new at all. Massive, global breweries have been a fixture in so many of our lives, with SAB/Molson/Miller/Coors and Anheuser-Busch/InBev taking us ever closer to brewing hegemony. Yet nearly every brewing tradition in every culture around the world, started in the inns and taverns of settlement communities.

The Great Lakes region is a testimony to the tavern tradition. Immigrants flooded into the area, re-established Old World traditions, adapted to the new setting, and relaxed at the neighborhood tavern with a new version of their old brew. So the rise of small beer producers which offer their creations only at the source are hardly new, rather the are a return to a wonderfully long tradition. We documented a number of great micro-brewers in Grand Rapids, MI recently, and we’ve never been shy about our love for Hinterland Brewery’s offerings from Green Bay, WI. But the folks at Buckle Down Brewery in Lyons, IL are an even smaller version, a tavern-sized brewery, like those popping up all over the area. Often the beer is available for enjoyment at a bar located at the brewery and the only way to enjoy it anywhere else is by growler or keg. No bottling or canning operation, no corporate staff, no outside distribution. Just a brewer, a few committed souls, and the beer. Oh, and the beer!

Beer - Buckle Down Rye3

On the day we stopped by, the garage door was open to the sitting room, tables filled with loyal patrons at 3 in the afternoon. Vintage lights, wooden bar, and a blackboard with offerings created a very easy, casual vibe.  We enjoyed a KnowItAll Belgian Witbier and Reprehensible Imperial Red Rye.

Beer - Buckle Down Rye

The Witbier had the light, refreshing wheat aspect, but a touch of banana, maybe with just a little caramel, comes through in the end.  The Reprehensible Rye (shown above) was deep and complex, beautiful balance between the sweet roast of the grain and clean bitterness of the hops. It went down so smoothly.

Beer - Buckle Down Rye2

The folks at Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul, MN make a Frost Line Rye which is similar in style and flavor, though the offering from Buckle Down may have been a bit more robust.  Then again, part of that may have been the appeal of drinking the Reprehensible Rye right from the hand of the brewer.

Continuing the revolution, Justin Aprahamian, owner and chef of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI has collaborated with the folks at Hinterland Brewing to make a number of highly creative offerings. A recent piece by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailed how Aprahamian wants to bring “his chef’s perspective to brewing, using seasonal — and perhaps unusual — ingredients. The next beer for summer will be a cucumber pilsner.”

Yes, the craft brew revolution goes on and Great Lakes Cuisine is the better for it.