Saturday, July 1, 2006

Home Cooking On the Trail

Cuda Café’s Beth Mueller
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In ANEW Magazine, July 2006
Column: Around the Table

After 16 years at home raising five children, 43-year-old Watertown native Beth Mueller took on out-of-the-house work in a big way. Last October she plunged into the job of “manager and chief cook and bottle washer” (her words) at Cuda Café, an earthy haven for home cooking and live acoustic music off Deerfield’s Main Street and just a few feet from the scenic, easy-pedaling bike route that is the Glacial Drumlin State Trail.

Mueller’s husband, Randy, along with two partners, were finishing up a year-and-a-half renovation of a tobacco warehouse once used for storing local crops to load onto passing trains. Re-christened it “The T’Baccey Barn,” it’s home to tenants including e-Cove Market, featuring antiques and works by local artists, and a recording studio.

Mueller was drawn to the historic structure with its exposed woodwork and old farmland charm. “When Randy was working on the building and I would come in to say ‘Hi,’ the building even then had a great feel to it,” she recalls. “It’s not something I can actually put into words. It just felt comfortable. Then, when they came up with the café idea, I volunteered to take on the managing of it. I thought it was a great idea!”

VVK: Tell me about your culinary point of view.
BM: I choose fresh ingredients over pre-packaged items and try as much as possible to make things ourselves. We try to promote Wisconsin with our milk, meats, cheeses and homemade wieners from Kraemer’s Dairy and Glenn’s Meat Market in Watertown, Wisconsin microbrewery beers and wines, Ancora Coffee, Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, and Wisconsin musicians.

My hope is that I’ve created a place where, when people walk in, they feel welcome and are able to relax for a little while. I’ve created a menu of healthy foods in satisfying serving sizes. Ninety percent of the food we serve we’ve made ourselves. So we know what’s in it and that it’s as fresh and wholesome as we can make it.

VVK: What are some of your favorite dishes?
BM: The Cuda Cheese Steak is very popular: Sourdough bread with mayo, sautéed onion, mozzarella cheese and top-round roast beef, all grilled. Heather DeHart, my food angel, created our grilled Turkey Cilantro Wrap, with a cilantro-mayo spread that we make, muenster cheese, oven-baked turkey breast, and sautéed onions, red peppers, and green peppers. Then there’s Garden Meets Grill, focaccia bread with provolone cheese. We sauté zucchini, mushrooms, red peppers and onions in olive oil. Then we put on our orange soy sauce spread and grill the whole thing!

VVK: What’s your background in cuisine?
BM: I first fell in love with dough watching Chef Brockett on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I also had a wonderful grandma who was very patient with me and taught me how to make sweet rolls, and a babysitter who made homemade bread and gave me dough to play with and make my own little loaves. I waitressed for about 15 years off and on in my life. I was the lunch director at my children’s elementary school for four years and fed 100 kids every lunch day. That was really fun!

VVK: What’s your favorite type of cooking?
BM: My favorite thing is baking! I make all of my cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raising, peanut butter, ginger crinkles, Cuda Chip – oatmeal, chocolate chip, and sweet ground chocolate. The muffins, coffee cake, apple pie, fudge brownies, dessert bars, biscotti. I get my breads from a supplier in Madison, Elegant Foods, that I really love – marble rye, sourdough, eight-grain – which are organic, and grill so nicely. I also get my croissants, cinnamon rolls, pastries, and Door County Cherry Pie, and Key Lime Pie from them.

VVK: What does “Cuda Café” mean?
BM: It’s short for “barracuda.” We have a barracuda mounted over the downstairs bar. He (or she) is biting our first dollar of profit! The fish was actually caught by [another partner] Dalton Schreiber’s mom. Go, Mom! Bob Griggas [the third partner] also owns a red Barracuda car.

I find it humorous that we’re named after a fish but don’t feature a fish fry on our menu. And that the building was originally a tobacco warehouse for loading tobacco on the railroad but we’re a nonsmoking establishment.

VVK: How do music and food interact at Cuda?

BM: On Friday and Saturday evenings you get all of your senses stimulated: taste and smell, sight and hearing. Add to that the company of others and the atmosphere of the building itself. It makes for a great experience. We maintain a wide variety of music. Original singer-songwriters, blues, jazz, bluegrass, rock, alternative country.

Old Dogs New Tricks is a band with roots in the Deerfield area. The dance floor is packed when they play. The Twang Dragons’ alternative country rock gets the dance floor humming, too. The Gomers have a songbook of over 2000 songs and you can be the singing star with them. Loads of fun. We’ve had [jazz guitarists] Kirk Tatnall and Jack Grassal, who are amazing musicians.

VVK: What do you like most about running the café?
BM: Making an apple pie from scratch, serving a warm piece to a customer and seeing how much they enjoy it. Moments like that. Success to me is a café full of contented customers, not the profit margin at the end of the day. This probably sounds idealistic and I know it drives my husband and the other two owners crazy – but that’s me!


“Oooo!” says Mueller, “I’m going to give you the recipe for my tomato soup. We had a HUGE garden this past summer and the whole thing was tomatoes. I made gallons and gallons.”
File under “happy accidents” this simple, scrumptious use for summer’s bounty. “One time I made a rather huge batch of spaghetti sauce for canning,” Mueller explains. “You have to let the mixture boil down, and it was getting late at night and I was getting impatient. So I started skimming off the top. Well, we tasted it, and it was so good I decided to can it.”

Beth’s Fresh Tomato Soup
3 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup water
Half bunch celery(about 6 ribs) trimmed and chopped
6 pounds fresh tomatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon granulated garlic or 1 heaping tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon dried basil or 1/4 cup fresh chopped basil

Place onions and water in a large, heavy pot over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook 10 minutes. Add all other ingredients. Stir, raise heat to medium. Cook, covered until the tomatoes are tender (about 1 hour) . Add 1–2 tablespoons sugar to smooth out the flavor. Cook another five minutes. Cool and strain. Discard solids.

Yield: 1 gallon. Cream of tomato fans can add milk at the table, as Mueller’s son Steven does. Extra tip: Freeze in quart-size bags. “I lay them out on a cookie tray and put them in the freezer. Then when they’re frozen, I stack them up.”

Cuda Cafe, 12 S. Industrial Park Road, Deerfield. Phone: (608) 764-2736. Check for music listings.