The Definition of Cuisine

Our recent trip to Minneapolis included a wonderful dining experience at Heyday, led by Chef Jim Christiansen. The setting was intimate, with tables nestled in right next to the open kitchen, and the menu was inventive (the company was excellent as well, but you’ll have to supply your own on that front). We elected to begin with a set of three seafood dishes to share which included a revelatory presentation of Blue Mussels with frozen yogurt, pickled cucumber and dill. The balance of dill with the salt and sour of the dish inspired an almost immediate sense of the ocean. We then moved on to a number of meat dishes.

Our selections included (clockwise from left):

Grilled beef culotte, coal roasted carrots, turnips, and turnip leaf relish. Culotte is essentially a cut of sirloin, also called the sirloin cap, which in this case was cut with the grain, then grilled and served rare.

Guinea hen served with pressed beets, fresh wasabi and basil. The compressed beets were sweet with all the full richness of slow roasting, but far firmer in texture.

Roasted squab with a raviolo (singular form of ravioli) made from kohlrabi and filled with sour potato, parmesan, and thyme.

The flavors on these dishes were unique and incredibly well-balanced. The combination of flavors elevated each dish beyond a mere sum of the parts. Part of that sensibility comes from the time Chef Christiansen spent at Noma, in Denmark, which he credits for creating his awareness of wild foods but also of connecting to the local harvest.

Noma has been named the top restaurant in the world four times, so it’s a pretty good place to learn some lessons. But a recent video they published on their site is what really inspired this post. It’s ten minutes, but it is worth watching. They discuss a upcoming change to their restaurant location and format, but more importantly to us at Great Lakes Cuisine, they spend the first four minutes discussing the difficulty in defining cuisine.

They discuss their initial vision which included approaches such as using ingredients only from the Nordic “territory”, “distilling [the] landscape onto plates of food”, and using methods of preservation as inspiration. They discuss throughout the video the ideas of seasonality. At the same time, the recognize the somewhat arbitrary nature of defining a cuisine. Discussing issues like where to draw geographic boundaries, what “imported” foods to allow, and how far back one should go into history, they discuss the difficulties with defining what is “authentic”.

Here at Great Lakes Cuisine, we have wrestled with the same linguistic, historic, ethnic questions. Why are we comfortable with the sausages, beers, and rye breads from Chicago, but begin to wonder about the fit of deep-dish pizza within our definition? More broadly, why favor the Eastern European, Slavic, and Nordic culinary traditions in our approach over the Italian or Italian-American traditions? Why do we work so hard to avoid citrus in our approach (for fear of introducing a “foreign” flavor) while embracing vinegar made from the newest craft beers?

Some of this we have already addressed in our pages on Definition and Ethnic traditions. And some of these issues are exactly the point of what we are doing. We want to inspire the conversation, inspire the questions. These tangle considerations of history, geography, ethnicity, and seasonality are the very point of cuisine. Talking about Napa cuisine, or Tex-Mex, or any regional cuisine is not an objective process. It is inherently subjective. It is not about absolutes, but about inspiration.

Though the offerings of Heyday would have to be considered more global than local, we can say without reservation they were a source of inspiration. For that, we thank you.



You say Porchetta, I say Porketta…Let’s Have a Sandwich

Across the regional cuisines of the Americas are dishes which reflect both a point of origin and the place of creation. The unique hybrid of Japanese approaches with Peruvian ingredients as showcased by Nobu in New York is one of the more surprising combinations, and demonstrates this interplay of “point of origin” with “place of creation”.

Many hallmark dishes of Great Lakes Cuisine clearly express their “point of origin” in Germanic, Norwegian, or Polish traditions, yet they have been adapted not only to local ingredients, but also to local tastes, many times over several generations. Porchetta/Porketta is another great example of the process. Porchetta originates in Italy as a tradition of stuffing an entire pig with herbs and roasting until fall-apart tender. The current keeper of all that is good and sacred about Italian food in America, the prophet Mario Batali, recently shared his version of his Dad’s version in the December 2014 Food & Wine magazine. Iron Range Porketta is another “version”, handed down through generations of Italian immigrants coming to work in the Iron Range, which stretches across the northern sections of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Iron Range Porketta caught our interest when an America’s Test Kitchen article ran a few years ago detailing a trip to Hibbing, MN, in pursuit of the fabled regional roast. Mario’s version gave us the inspiration to try something new with something traditionally Great Lakes. Instead of the lean roast with added fat from a sausage stuffing in Mario’s version, we stuck with the pork butt approach used by Fraboni’s in Hibbing, MN. But the addition of the fennel bulb in Mario’s version made sense, rather than simply the fronds and fennel seed. We also used fresh garlic rather than powder. Finally, many versions suggest the addition of vegetables under the roast while it cooks. Mario suggests red onion, his father uses carrots, onions and fennel bulb, a comment on the Hibbing article contends carrots, onions and potatoes are the right addition. We elected to add another staple of the Iron Range, rutabaga, along with red onion and fennel bulb. We served this as a Sunday dinner one night, but the real fun was adapting this into our version of a Porketta Sandwich.  The end result is neither traditional Iron Range, nor traditional Italian. It is Great Lakes Cuisine.

Porketta Sandwich

1 4 lb pork butt roast
1 bulb fennel, cored and sliced thin, 2 Tbs. fronds chopped
6 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 Tbs. fennel seed
2 Tbs. coarse salt
½ Tbs. cracked black pepper

1 medium rutabaga, peeled, cut into 2 in. pieces
2 medium red onions, peeled and quartered

For red onion/fennel “ketchup”
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 ancho chile, rehydrated
Salt and sugar to taste

For rutabaga herb “butter”
1 Tbs. dried Italian herbs
Salt to taste

Hard rolls, such as a ciabatta

Pickled sweet peppers (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pork butt will contain a bone in approximately the center of the roast. Place the roast on a cutting board with the fat side up, cut from one side to the bone, and cut around the bone to remove without cutting all the way through the roast. The result will be a boneless, butterflied roast. Evenly spread half the fennel bulb, all the garlic, fennel fronds, fennel seed, and 1 tbs.salt and pepper across the opened roast. The result should look something like this:


Then carefully fold the roast back to the original shape and tie the roast in several places with butcher twine to hold together for roasting. Place red onion, rutabaga, and fennel bulb in a large roasting pan. Set the roast on top, and sprinkle with remaining 1 tbs. salt. Roast for 4 hours, tented with foil for the first three hours, until the pork reaches 150 degrees or is fall-apart tender. This is a fatty roast, it is hard to over-cook it, so if in doubt, go longer.

At this point, the roast can be placed on a platter, tented and allowed to rest while the vegetables are pulled from the pan. If having this as a dinner, the vegetables ran be served alongside a sliced roast and enjoyed. We enjoyed it. But…we had leftovers and that is when the fun really begins.

The fat left in the pan after removing the vegetables was saved and refrigerated. The next day we had this:

Porketta Fat

The top layer is pork fat with just a hint of fennel bulb flavor. The bottom is the gelatinous, concentrated essence of pork. We wanted to do a version of the Hibbing Porketta Sanwich, but with a Mario-flair. Mario suggested slices of his lean pork roast with a bit of home-made hot sauce, and that served as a jumping off point.

The rutabaga was golden, soft, with a texture similar to a beet, but with flavors hinting toward cooked cabbage or turnip. We pureed the rutabaga with just the top layer of pork fat until smooth, then added salt and dried herbs to taste and created an herb “butter” to smear on our toasted hard roll.

The fennel and red onion were also pureed, this time with the bottom layer of pork essence, cider vinegar, and salt, to creating a bit of sauce for our sandwich. The result needed depth, so a re-hydrated ancho chile added just the right color and depth, and just a pinch of sugar, to create a very nice “ketchup”.

The pork roast was shredded by hand, removing any difficult sinews and excessive fat, then reheated. We added home-pickled sweet peppers instead of the hot sauce Mario had in mind. The result:

Porketta Sandwich

The pork was rich with overtones of fennel, which echoes the flavors of great pork sausage, but with the texture of pulled pork. The “ketchup” added a contrasting zing, added by the pickled sweet peppers. The herb “butter” brought all the flavors together, with a texture not unlike hummus, but a flavor closer to well-roasted cauliflower.

The result of this little flavor experiment wanders far from our Italian point of origin, but it certainly explores our sense of place. No self-respecting bar in Hibbing is likely to serve a rutabaga puree on a Porketta sandwich, but we’re playing around with culinary ideas that share the same geography. Much of regional cuisine does this and Great Lakes Cuisine is no different. And definitely worth the effort.

New Restaurant Added – Heartland, Minneapolis, MN

The recently published list of 38 “essential” restaurants selected by Bill Addison at Eater featured Heartland, located near the Farmers’ Market in St. Paul, MN. Chef Lenny Russo has been recognized with a nomination for Best Chef in the Midwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. Addison captures the experience this way:

“Around 90 percent of the food at Heartland and its adjacent market comes from within a 300-mile radius. The substantial bar menu includes four burgers (beef, pork, veal, and bison) and fun, smart riffs on snacks like smoked kielbasa corn dogs or cheese curds with apricot ketchup. In the main room, entrees dole out bear hugs of direct, honest flavors: The “Midwestern Cassoulet” defrosts with its mix of lusty meats and silken white beans delivered from nearby Encore Farms. Russo’s devotion to culinary Minnesota is evident in every forkful.”

Other items of note on recent menus include:

  • Pork bratwurst with Summit Ale mustard, house fermented sauerkraut, with cucumber pickles
  • Midwestern artisan cheese sampler served with chutney and wildflower honey
  • House crafted charcuterie sampler served with pickled vegetables and apple mustard

We are happy to add Chef Lenny Russo and Heartland to our Restaurant page.

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.

New Restaurant Added – The Sample Room

We’re happy to add another Minneapolis, MN entry to our Restaurants list – The Sample Room with chef Geoff Hausmann at the helm (hat tip to contributor Tom Kuckhahn). Chef Hausmann partners with a number of local farms and operates a scratch kitchen. There are also ties to the local brewing tradition, including the convenience of being located a half mile from the old home of Grain Belt Brewery, which is now brewed by August Schell in New Ulm, MN.

The charcuterie selection alone is reason to go, featuring a number of iconic options such as liverwurst and headcheese, supplemented with house-made beer mustard and pickles. For the heartier appetite, a bison/beef/pork meatloaf with smoked ketchup could always be paired with the hand-cut fries.  Just looking for a snack with a selection of craft brews? How about bacon fat popcorn?  Seriously, how did I not think of this? Of course it is brought to another level given that they make their bacon in-house as well.  Overall, The Sample Room is a welcome addition to our list of restaurants continuing the Great Lakes Cuisine tradition.

Sample Room