Monday, December 1, 2008

It's Greek to Her: Beth Fatsis of Atlantis Taverna

Married into a Greek family, apparel designer Beth Fatsis now runs Atlantis Taverna

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
December 2008
Column: Around the Table

Related recipe: Kleftiko, Clay-Roasted Lamb

Beth Fatsis, co-owner of Atlantis Taverna in Sun Prairie and Plaka Taverna in downtown Madison, and former operator of the the Athenian Garden food cart on the UW-Madison Library Mall, never expected her life to turn out so Greek.

“My first Greek food was trying spanakopita – spinach pie – and baklava during the 70s at a small health food store in my hometown [Chatham, in upstate New York]. I had never seen filo dough before and was intrigued at how thin it was and how expertly it was layered,” she remembers.

In 1983, with her brand-new degree in apparel design, Beth headed for Dallas to break into the thriving clothing industry there. She made patterns for various dress manufacturers, created custom wedding gowns and dance costumes, and started a wholesale and retail maternity clothing business.

Then, in the mid-1990s, she met Telly Fatsis. He had come to Dallas straight out of college too, around the same time as Beth, to work in the restaurant business. But now, after a divorce, he was headed home to his native Madison, where he was soon to open Cleveland’s Diner downtown. After two years of long-distance dating (“I was in a building lease for the business and wasn't going to break the lease,” says Beth), she moved up here, they married, and the rest is Greek food history.

Today, Beth, 47, could vie for a spot on both Top Chef and Project Runway – the famed reality-TV competitions for cooks and fashion designers respectively – and rewrite My Big Fat Greek Wedding from the point of view of a non-Greek woman who joins a Hellenic clan. Of that flick, Beth says, “The focus on food is definitely not an exaggeration. A family dinner can easily be a party for 30 people – and there will still be leftovers.”

Vesna Vuynovich Kovach: How did you feel making the switch from fashion to food?

Beth Fatsis: I was ready to get out of apparel. It's not glamourous like the magazines lead you to believe. It's hard for the little guy to compete with the big corporations who have access to cheap labor. It became stressful – trying to guess what people would buy, investing money each season and hoping the customers liked your product, [dealing with] damaged merchandise and returns.

The restaurant business “looked so easy”– ha, ha – when Telly was doing the breakfast/lunch thing. I wanted to do something new.

VVK: In 2006 you opened Atlantis Taverna. This summer you reopened Cleveland’s Diner as Plaka Taverna. How did you and Telly transition from a diner and a food cart to this more fully realized Greek dining experience?

BF: The Cleveland’s space was available [in 1995]. However, it [had been] known as a breakfast/lunch diner for decades, and Telly chose to keep the same theme. He wasn’t ready to plunge into a full-service dinner restaurant with a bar. A Greek restaurant was a distant goal.

The food cart was a low-overhead means of expanding the business and getting into selling Greek food. I ran it for five years. I enjoyed the street vending and the people, but the physical work got more and more difficult as I got older. Lifting, hauling, packing, unpacking, hitching the trailer twice a day. The festivals were profitable, but they usually involved 16-hour days of work. A lot of people think that a food cart is a fun sideline business. But it is a business just like any other. You can't treat it like a bake sale. Telly and I wanted to open another restaurant and I couldn't do both the cart and the restaurant.

VVK: What makes Greek food special? What do you like about it?

It’s healthy, and the herbs blend nicely. It’s typically not hot and spicy. I also love garlic, which is abundant. It can go as simple as a tomato-feta-cucumber plate drizzled with olive oil, or as complicated as a moussaka (eggplant casserole) with all its processes.

The Greeks still don’t have the massive transportation system we have in this country, being as mountainous as they are. You will find that a Greek dish will differ according to the region in which it has evolved. Telly’s family is from the Peloponnese region in southern Greece, so most of the cooking at the restaurants reflects that.

There is a lot of overlap between Greek food and that of Turkey and portions of the Mideast and Eastern Europe. Populations migrate, empires rise and fall, and food traditions get adopted by different cultures. The recipes generally evolve around what products are readily available in the villages. Olive trees are plentiful, so olive oil is a staple. Spanakopita (spinach pie), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), moussaka, eggplant salad, kebobs, pita bread – these are some examples of foods found not only in Greece, but in neighboring regions as well.

VVK: How do you and Telly work it, running two Greek restaurants in neighboring cities?

BF: He runs Plaka; I run Atlantis. We don’t do well together working side by side. We discuss ideas – marketing, menu ideas. But in the end, we each make our own decisions. It’s a lot easier to manage the responsibilities when you only have one restaurant to focus on.

VVK: Is there a difference in what the two communities want?

BK: Definitely. We sell a lot of gyros and fries in Sun Prairie. We get more families with children, so we also offer burgers and pizza, with a Greek flair, at Atlantis. The Madison palate tends to be more adventuresome than Sun Prairie’s.

VVK: What’s the most popular dish on the menu?

BF: At Atlantis, it’s probably the Mama’s Homebaked Combo, a combination of the moussaka, the pastitsio, green beans, rice pilaf, and feta cheese. Our falafel and spinach pie combos are popular as well.

VVK: What's your favorite dish on the menu?

BF: The moussaka. You can taste the cinnamon and cloves in the meat sauce, as well as the fresh parsley. The béchamel (cream) sauce on top is really its own separate entity with a hint of nutmeg, yet when you take a forkful of the moussaka you get the whole combination at once. It’s hearty and filling, and has a pleasing blend of spices. I also love eggplant.

VVK: How would you compare and contrast the two spots?

BK: Atlantis has brighter colors and lots of foliage. More of what you’d think of when you say “Mediterranean.” In reality, though, the tavernas in Greece are pretty rustic. Plaka is smaller and more intimate than Atlantis. It has a more rustic feel, with the distressed tables and the darker colors.

In Greece, we collected menus from several of the restaurants we visited, knowing that we’d want to take elements of those menus and use them here. We also took notes on the décor of different tavernas. Telly’s aunt and uncle used to own a taverna in their village in Greece, a neighborhood place with an uncomplicated menu. The pork kebobs on our menu are named after Telly’s uncle, “Theo Pavlo” – “Uncle Paul.” 

VVK: The murals on Atlantis’s walls are beautiful. Can you tell more about them?

BF: I did all the artwork myself. The real-life villages really do look a lot like the mural: plain rectangular buildings without a lot of frills. The style of the artwork is playful, which is the mood Telly and I wanted to create in the dining room. Not too serious.

VVK: There’s an element in the mural depicting an episode from your cart vending days. Down at the Library Mall, you had a conflict with a street musician that got into the news. I understand that, after complaints by you and several others, he was issued a noise citation that was eventually overturned.

BF: A two-and-a-half hour dose of the piccolo daily is very unnerving, due to the high pitch. Other musicians who got there earlier in the day, were greeted with loud piccolo music played over their music. Employees in the buildings nearby were distracted by the shrill sound. Piccolo Man included in his repertoire the national anthems of Thailand, Greece, and Jamaica, because those food carts all complained.

If you look at the mural at Atlantis Taverna, you’ll see I painted a “tribute” to him in my mural. It’s not a compliment to his character. I used a very fine brush and painted a scene inside a church that most people don't even notice is there unless I point it out. It was my way of closing that dispute.

Each month in her column “Around the Table,” freelance writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach profiles women who are influential in Wisconsin foodways: cooks and bakers, farmers, teachers, authors, activists and more.


Clay-roasted lamb with roasted potatoes and tomatoes

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
December 2008
Column: Around the Table

Related article: It's Greek to her

How does Greek-American Christmas dinner look at the Fatsis home? “We have turkey just like most everyone else, but there will also be roast lamb next to it,” says Beth. Americans tend to think Greek food “is all lamb,” she says, but really it’s “only for special occasions like Christmas or Easter. Spanakopita will be on the table, too, and sometimes moussaka or pastitsio (beef-pasta-tomato casserole. There’s usually a bottle of ouzo (licorice-flavored liquor) available for shots. Homemade bread, feta cheese, and a Greek salad are all staples. There’s a whole buffet of desserts, Greek and American both.”

This slow-roasted lamb dish comes from the island of Cyprus, and its name, “kleftiko,” “comes from the word kleftes, or robbers,” explains Beth. “Legend has it that Greek mountain-dwelling freedom fighters had to steal their food in order to survive. To avoid detection, they slow-cooked in underground ovens covered in clay. We use a commercial clay roaster, aluminum foil and an oven. It’s especially tasty because it seals the moisture inside the meat while giving it a crispy outside.”

If you don’t have a clay oven, says Beth, “a regular covered roasting pan would work. However, a little water – about 1/4" – needs to be put in the bottom of the pan. Add water as necessary if it evaporates.”

Clay-roasted lamb with roasted potatoes and tomatoes

2 pounds lamb meat (filets, leg, loin chops, shoulder or rack), divided in four pieces
juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon dried marjoram, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried thyme, finely chopped
2 pounds small potatoes
1 scant cup olive oil
3 large tomatoes, sliced
3 bay leaves
freshly ground black pepper

Sprinkle the lamb with lemon juice. Mix marjoram, thyme, salt and pepper together and sprinkle over meat. Brush oil over four large pieces of aluminum foil. Lay a piece of lamb in the center of each and wrap. Place the four wrapped lamb pieces in a clay roaster, following manufacturer’s directions for pre-soaking the pot. Cover and bake at 300º F for three hours.

Meanwhile, peel and wash the potatoes. Make a few cuts in each. Place in a separate roasting pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour olive oil over them and dot with butter. Place sliced tomato on top of potatoes. Add a little salt and pepper and the bay leaves. About an hour before lamb is ready, put potatoes in oven and roast until golden brown. Serve lamb and potatoes together on a platter.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Earthly Delights: Josie Pradella's TerraSource Chocolates

Josie Pradella’s TerraSource Chocolates promote local self-reliance and are good for the planet, too
A shorter version of this article appeared in Brava Magazine
November 2008
Column: Around the Table

Related recipe: Raspberry Truffles

Josie Pradella, all grown up and with a serious career as an air management specialist at the DNR, meditated.

She wanted to follow her bliss, but how? Which way lay bliss? And then she remembered.

Mud pies.

“I had an image of a childhood phase I went through that was absolute rapture for me,” she recalls. “Making mud pies and foraging very locally for colorful leaves, flowers and other found objects.”

In that meditative clarity, Josie perceived the magical element that engaged that part of her soul that reveled in the dark, the gooey, earthen-rich and natural: chocolate.

“I’ve always loved baking chocolate desserts, especially for friends and dinner parties,” Josie says. For years, she had hosted “truffle-making parties for friends around the solstice holiday.” From mud pies studded with leaves and flowers to chocolates filled with fruit purees and tea infusions: what could be a more fitting evolution?

And thus was born TerraSource Chocolate Gourmet Chocolates, LLC, specializing in handcrafted chocolates using local fruits and flowers. The business is a comprehensive expression of Josie's values and her point of view: All the ingredients are either local, fairly traded and/or organic: the product line is completely free of animal products; the locally produced boxes are made from plantable paper embedded with wildflower seeds.

TerraSource started up in October 2007, and already the chocolates are available at A Room of One’s Own Bookstore, Bunky’s Café, Carl’s Cakes, The Dardanelles, Fair Indigo and Sentry at Hilldale, Jenifer Street Market and Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse, or via the Web at In the temperate months – but not in the high heat of summer – Josie vends at the Westside Community Farmers Market outside the DOT as well.

VVK: What are your chocolates like?

JP: Except for the Pecan Praline, all the chocolates have a blended center that combines the major fruit puree or tea infusion with chocolate, so they’re all kind of dense and creamy. Teas to date: Jasmine Green Tea, Masala Chai Tea, and Scarlet Tea.

VVK: No plain chocolate, or bar chocolate?

JP: No, as other local chocolatiers already do solid chocolates and bars.

VVK: You use local products like rhubarb, blueberries and red, black and golden raspberries. What are some others, and how did you find them?

JP: I’ve made most connections through the local farmers markets and food conferences. One of my best finds was Carandale Farms in Fitchburg. They grow unusual fruit crops for Wisconsin’s climate, such as aronia and seaberry. These are two super-nutritious fruits. Aronia looks like a cross between a large blueberry and small concord grape – very dark with a more grainy texture. It has three times the anti-oxidant value of blueberries. Seaberry has a mild citrus flavor and is very bitter by itself. It has a gorgeous golden color and seven times the vitamin C content of lemons.

In quite a few of my chocolates I use liqueurs and spirits, such as Lemoncella and rum made by Yahara Bay Distillers.

VVK: Are you able to buy local products in sufficient volume?

JP: As small as I am at this time, yes.

VVK: How much of what you use is organic?

JP: This question quickly gets complicated. The off-the-shelf products I buy, such as sugar, vanilla and teas, are certified organic, which means that they’ve gone through a formal registration process and are validated by a qualified third party. Often local growers use organic practices but can’t afford to become certified organic. I love working with these growers because their ethics are in the right place and they have wonderful products.

VVK: Tell me about the chocolate itself.

JP: I source the chocolate from two different producers. One is certified fair trade; the other is fairly traded, which means they adhere to fair trade principles but have not gone through the expense of a certification process. The cocoa comes from Columbia (single origin), Costa Rica, Peru, the Dominican Republic. I blend to get around 70% dark chocolate for my shells, going for some complexity on the palate without being too bitter.

VVK: What's your most popular chocolate?

JP: Probably the aronia because it’s so different. People like to have a unique experience and it’s fun to be able to do that with food.

VVK: And your personal favorite?

JP: Pecan praline. Heavenly with the dark chocolate around that nutty center. Great texture! It started out as a caramel, but with the vegan ingredients it became more granular and delectable.

VVK: How come you made your entire line vegan?

JP: Butter and cream are big in most gourmet ganache fillings. I wanted to offer something delectable to those who have food sensitivities so they can thoroughly enjoy a quality product like everyone else. At this point my intention is to offer only vegan products because it [helps] so many of the animal-free, lower-impact on the planet issues that people are concerned about.

By sourcing locally, we also have less impact on the majority world who often starve as they grow cash crops for large companies to export. They can’t eat that stuff and don’t have much land to subsist on. Choosing vegan ingredients lowers much of that impact.

VVK: How about bee products?

JP: Nope. I use maple syrup instead.

VVK: Your business is so green! Tell me about that.

JP: I am determined to exemplify what’s possible as a green business: to build local relationships, add value to locally grown products, procure eco-friendly packaging and print, bank locally and use other local professional services such as Web hosting and graphic design, and give back to the local community. My next goal is to offset the carbon emissions from my production, delivery and shipping practices.

VVK: I understand you’ve been active for years with organizations that promote environmental responsibility and local commerce and food systems.

JP: I co-founded Wisconsin Partners for SustainAbility (formerly the Wisconsin Sustainable Futures Network) back in 1999. Four years ago I helped cofound the Dane County Buy Local Initiative, now known as Dane Buy Local. I’ve been exploring local self reliance pretty fully the last several years.

VVK: Do you have a marketing or business background?

JP: I wish! I do the best I can with what makes sense to me; then hope the overall message can be refined and condensed for greatest effect. I took several courses at UW-Madison’s business school and have a rough business plan.

VVK: What's your favorite thing about what you do?

JP: Having the opportunity to converse with people about the eco aspects, then having them just physically enjoy indulging in the product. It becomes a full mind-body experience. The Westside market has been wonderful. People really want to learn about the products they’re buying. Grab ’n’ go is not part of their philosophy.

VVK: How about your least favorite?

JP: Part of the chocolate-making process involves vigorous shaking and tapping of the molds to coax out air bubbles. It’s noisy and disruptive to an otherwise peaceful process.

VVK: How did you learn your craft?

JP: Being invited by David Bacco to view his chocolate-making production when he was at CoCoLiQuot, for which I am eternally grateful. Getting a degree from the Ecole Chocolat. Experimenting with recipes and using friends and co-workers as guinea pigs.

VVK: There are some other chocolatiers in town. What sort of community is it?

JP: My experience, with the exception of David Bacco, has been that other local chocolatiers pretty much keep to themselves. When I approached several to do some research and try to learn about the local market and avoiding pitfalls as a new business owner, I didn’t get very far. That’s unfortunate, because I think we all do better when we help one another. I know I feel honored when someone thinks I know enough about a topic to ask me questions about it, and I want to share the knowledge. This experience is also an important factor in my commitment to make TerraSource as transparent as possible. So I list the partners I’m involved with on the Web site and have a short profile on each of them, along with a link to their Web site if they have one.

VVK: What are some chocolate challenges?

JP: Tempering is a very exact science to get that nice shiny, glossy exterior. One degree off and the chocolate comes out looking dull or streaky. It’s pretty unforgiving.

Another great challenge – some business don’t want to carry product with a relatively short shelf life. Because they have no preservatives or other added ingredients, they only last about two weeks. It’s the filling I’m concerned about keeping as fresh as possible. Right now I’m developing a system to track the dates that chocolates get delivered and to whom, and to stay on top of keeping the stock fresh at the various merchants.

VVK: How big is your operation?

JP: I’m making around 400 pieces a week. No employees. I do it all!

VVK: Where do you make the chocolates?

JP: Carl Loeffel, the owner of Carl’s Cakes, is a dear friend and wanted to support my vision of creating this business. He truly has made this effort possible. I’m lucky to have access to Carl’s Cakes kitchen when they’re not doing their bakery production, nights and weekends. Overall, I have the place to myself Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

VVK: Regulations prohibit you from using your home kitchen?

JP: That’s correct. I’m certified as a food handler working out of Carl’s Cakes’ kitchen.

VVK: So what’s next for Terrasource?

JP: I’ve gotten a request for a mint chocolate from a market-goer and will be experimenting with that as the next potential flavor. I’m working on more tea infusion flavors. If Carandale or some other grower has more superfood fruits, I’d love to get those into my chocolates as well. A future vision is to work more with edible flowers, such as rose geranium, and get even more creative with green packaging.

VVK: What do you like most about chocolate?

JP: It’s bliss on earth.

Raspberry Truffles

Recipe from Earthly Delights: Josie Pradella's TerraSource Chocolates
In Brava Magazine
Column: Around the Table
December 2008

Look no further than these simple truffles, with their “dense, yet creamy” texture and “outstanding flavor” for your homemade holiday gift project this year. Josie says, “They make great holiday gifts. Packing and shipping are no problem as long as they’re not being sent to places where it gets hotter than 75 degrees. For those places, I recommend including a freezer pack in the mailer to maintain freshness and consistency.”

Want variety? Host a truffle-rolling party, as Josie did for years before going pro. “People would prepare different flavors of ganache [filling] in advance. We’d eat and drink, and then roll truffles and assemble various assortments from among those brought in. Everyone got to take home one or more boxes of hand-made truffles to hoard or share for the holiday.”

Raspberry Truffles

2 cups fresh (or frozen and thawed) berries
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon any berry liqueur
8 oz. semisweet (or darker) chocolate (for filling)
8 oz. high quality chocolate, 67% or higher cacao content (for dipping)

Press fruit through a sieve to remove seeds. Blend resulting puree and sugar. Heat to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. Add liqueur. Very gently melt filling chocolate. Stir fruit mixture into melted chocolate until emulsified (completely mixed and appearing homogenous).

Chill in refrigerator two hours, then scoop and roll into 1" balls. Very gently melt dipping chocolate. Dip truffles in melted chocolate and let set on tray. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Eating in Madison A to Z

Blogger reviewers Nichole Fromm and JonMichael Rasmus are crunching through the alphabet
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
Column: Around the Table
October 2008

Related recipe: Grandma's Pickled Beets

So a mathematician and a librarian walk into a restaurant, and one says to the other.... No, wait, they’re not at the restaurant. They’re trying to figure out where to go out to eat and they can’t decide. OK. So the mathematician says, “Let’s eat in every single restaurant in town in alphabetical order.” The librarian goes, “I’ll mind the alphabet, but you track the statistics.”

Oh, right, and it’s the twenty-first century. So they blog it.

The punch line is Eating in Madison A to Z (, the “dining diary” through which married couple JonMichael “JM” Rasmus and Nichole Fromm –paraphrased above – have been chronicling their meals out since their first entry, A8 China, in May 2004.

As of this writing, they’re early in the Ms (Main Depot, Maharani, Maharaja, Madtowne Fried Chicken....). But even through they’re still years away from Zuzu’s, their site, which accepts no advertising, is becoming one of the top resources for restaurant info locally – in a town with one of the most restaurants per capita in the U.S..

Fresh, personable and articulate, with just the right sprinkling of humor, the A to Z entries are fun to read, and the discussions that follow in the comments are likewise engaging. Like potato chips, it’s hard to stop at just one review. You can browse alphabetically, or by the letter grades Nichole and JM have assigned (A–F, and Honor Roll) – or even by Coke vs. Pepsi service. And, as Nichole explains, “Many times restaurants don't have a good online presence so our posts are frequently at the top of the Google search results. We get about 300 visitors per day with half coming from such searches.”

VVK: How do your professions inform your approach to the Madison A to Z project?

NF: Librarianship is more and more about navigating and inhabiting the online world, so being a librarian has been useful for me getting the techie side of things going. It also helps my writing in that it comes naturally to me to be as comprehensive as I can, source my info properly, admit lacunae in my knowledge and fill gaps when necessary.

JM is great at maintaining our lists, compiling fun statistics about grades and costs, and figuring tips. He works at the Wisconsin Lottery, where he calculates odds statements and analyzes sales data.

VVK: Do you ever eat out of order, and then just adjust the posting date so that the blog stays tidy?

NF: Oh no! We never, ever eat out of order for the blog.

VVK: How often do you eat out?

NF: About six to eight times per month for the project. We rarely eat "off list."

VVK: Do you spend more money eating out now than you used to?

NF: We go to some high-end places we wouldn't have been able to justify before. But for every white tablecloth dinner there are dozens of coffee shops, which brings the average cost per plate to $10 or so. Very doable when you take into account that this is our primary spendy recreation – replacing movies, bars, Franklin Mint chess sets, etc.

VVK: How would you describe your philosophies of food?

I live to eat, and JM eats to live. I seek out new things whenever possible. JM is much more utilitarian. The food-as-fuel approach. These were sticking points at the start of our marriage but now they're counterpoints.

VVK: I notice you give out more As, fewer Bs, and more Cs than JM.

NF: Interesting! I wasn't even aware of my weird U-shaped grade curve. JM hypothesizes that maybe that since I feel more strongly about food, I'm more likely to give high marks to that which I enjoy and low marks to that which I don't, whereas he's more a middle of the road, bell-curve kind of guy.

VVK: Who does what for the blog?

NF: We tag-team. We both take the photos. I usually write the first draft, then JM punches it up with the funny, and I copyedit. I curate our Flickr photo stream and the Google map of where we've been, and do most of the site maintenance. JM watches our statistics and minds the comments.

VVK: Which reviews get the most attention?

NF: The negative reviews, unfortunately. But it's true that they're more fun to write and more fun to read. We try to avoid cheap shots but sometimes can't resist.

VVK: What kinds of comments do you like and dislike?

NF: I love hearing about other peoples' positive experiences. Since we only go to a place once, we can't really be balanced. So it's great if another diner can point out a house specialty, or maybe clarify something we wrote. It's all part of what we hope is becoming a community, a place for people to talk about food.

Spam and troll-droppings are our least favorite comments. Trolls are commenters who set out to be rude and ruin the online conversation. Off-topic, off-color insults are rare but they happen sometimes.

VVK: How has your approach to reviewing evolved over the four years you've been at this project?

I like to think we've gotten better at describing the food such that readers get a vicarious experience. Reading some of our earlier stuff where we basically say, “It was good,” makes me cringe.

VVK: Which reviews are you most proud of?

I like the ones where we go beyond merely talking about the food, as with Bean Sprouts. [The review included commentary on the ethics and implications of sneaking vegetables into children’s meals.] Whenever we can get a laugh, that also makes us happy.

VVK: Have your standards and expectations changed?

NF: Our standards (such as they are) have crept up, perhaps, but we try to evaluate a place on its own terms, according to what it's trying to do. That's why a little diner like Cottage Cafe can win our hearts as easily as a special-occasion place like Harvest.

VVK: Some restaurants you've reviewed have closed since you reviewed them on Madison A to Z.

We think we might have a curse - some of our very favorite places have closed. R.I.P. Allie B’s, Bull’s BBQ, China Palace, Cleveland's, Francois’, Fyfe’s, Gaston’s, Jada’s and Luckenbooth.

Some locations are just deadly. Good luck to the new taqueria coming in where Donut Delight, Mediterranean Delight and Bamboo Hut have all come and gone.

VVK: What's been your most unusual eat-out experience so far?

NF: ChinMi in Verona stands out as the most surreal: a truck stop family restaurant plus sushi, where you have to walk through a convenience store to get to the dining room.

VVK: So far, what's your favorite restaurant in Madison?

NF: At Bradbury’s I love how focused the menu is. They just do crepes and espresso drinks and they do them very, very well. Ma-Cha has a quiet, meditative atmosphere where you can really slow down and enjoy time alone or with friends. And Kennedy Manor feels like a secret time warp. Upscale yet hospitable, there are regulars around but new folks are treated well, and the food is classic but not stodgy. The whole place has an aura from the 1920s and the food really rewards the trip.

VVK: What about when new spots open in earlier letters of the alphabet?

NF: If we did not go back [between letters] for the make-up letters, we would reach the end of the project and still have a ton of restaurants to visit, which would be a pretty big letdown. Plus, people want to hear the scoop on new restaurants.

VVK: Any alphabetizing challenges?

NF: When we started this project the first place on the [Isthmus online restaurant database] was 24 Carrot Café. JM pointed out that would make calling [our site] "A to Z" inaccurate. "Zero to Z," while alliterative, is not quite as catchy. We debated, and ended up alphabetizing numbers as if they were written out, though this is contrary to library filing rules.

Another point of contention is initial articles like El, La and Le. I wish I'd thrown my librarian weight around and insisted that we refile the ones with initial articles (and put L'Etoile in the E's, for example). But the restaurants we eat at would not match the dining guide we use and that seems a little capricious when you've already committed yourself to eating in alphabetical order. Six or seven straight Mexican places when we got to "La" was a little much, though.

Grandma's Pickled Beets

Related article: Blogger reviewers Nichole Fromm and JonMichael Rasmus are crunching through the alphabet
In Brava Magazine
Column: Around the Table
October 2008

Says Nichole: “Beets seem to be popping up on more and more restaurant menus, which is great for anyone who loves the earthy, sweet gems. My mom gave me this quintessentially "Sconnie" [Wisconsonite] recipe. When her mother in Milwaukee put on a Sunday lunch spread, the beets would be on the relish tray alongside the ever-present ham, Kaiser rolls and potato salad. These refrigerator-pickled beets are also a great accompaniment to liverwurst and onion sandwiches. You can get fancier with this recipe by roasting the beets with rosemary or using tarragon or other spice-infused vinegar.”

Grandma's Pickled Beets

1 bay leaf
5 whole cloves
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 bunch farmer's market beets (5-6 large or 9-10 small)

Cut off the beet greens, leaving some of the stem. Wash beets, then wrap in a foil pouch or place in a covered baking dish. Roast at 400F for 30 to 40 minutes, until fork-tender. Let cool. Peel. Slice into bite-sized rounds. (Alternately, use drained, canned sliced beets and skip the roasting step.)

Place the bay leaf and cloves in a 1-quart glass jar with a lid, and put the beets on top of them. Bring vinegar and sugar to a boil in saucepan, turn off heat, and stir just until sugar is dissolved. Pour vinegar and sugar into the jar and let cool a bit before putting on the lid. They are ready to serve once fully chilled, though the flavor will improve over time.

Keep refrigerated. These will last several weeks. Serve on their own, in salads, or as part of a classic relish tray with gherkins, olives, and crudites.

Monday, September 1, 2008

“Do carrots grow on trees?”

Raising awareness and bridging the gaps between farm and table: REAP’s executive director Miriam Grunes

Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
September 2008

Related recipe: Kale Crisps

Farmers, chefs, grocers, producers of artisan foods, artists, activists and moreon Saturday, Sept. 20, the Food for Thought Festival will unite these diverse groups during its 10th annual celebration of local, sustainable food. Highlights include cooking demonstrations and possibly live competitions, talks including a keynote speech by urban agriculturist Michael Ableman, local bands and children’s activities. The site is, aptly enough, right next to the farmers market on the Capitol Square, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

“It’s a really great festival,” says Miriam Grunes, executive director of REAP, the local nonprofit group behind the event. “It’s so fun for me to watch hunger prevention sitting alongside environmental activists sitting alongside foodies who just love culinary delights sitting next to culinary historians. It’s an amazing networking opportunity.”

Since the mid-1990s, REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group; has fought to bring awareness to the environmental, economic, and social issues surrounding food production and preparation, arguing that local is best on all these fronts. Today, with “green” and “locavore” (a person who eats only locally grown food) emerging as buzzwords of the decade, REAP is riding a rising wave of awareness.

Begun by a handful of volunteers, REAP now employs a staff of four and manages myriad projects including publications, educational programs and foodie events. Earlier this year REAP graduated from its patchwork of home offices to move into a professional space on Wilson Street downtown.

In her early years with REAP, Miriam squeezed in 25 volunteer hours a week alongside her full-time job at the Biodiversity Project (a national nonprofit located in Madison) and her responsibilities as a mother of two small children. “I really had three jobs,” she explains. Landing REAP’s first paid, full-time position in 2004 allowed her to cut that down to two.

VVK: How did you become so passionate about sustainable food?

MG: I’ve always loved being a gardener. Having my hands in the dirt. I stopped eating meat way back in college, having read Diet for a Small Planet. It seemed, there’s something wrong with the way we raise meat. There’s no reason I need this in my life. The hippie aspect, brown rice and stir friesI always just lived my life that way, not thinking that was going to become my life’s work.

That moment came when I had kids. I started thinking about the “corporatization” of food, the fact that kids can recognize over 200 corporate logos but can’t identify vegetables. My interest in food and sustainability and health drew me into volunteering with REAP.

VVK: What’s the climate for the work REAP is doing?

MG: Right now there’s a perfect storm of awareness from the food contamination scares and soaring prices. Food prices are scaring people, and they should. Food’s been too cheap. Farmers haven’t been paid what they should be. All this is forcing people to ask questions about their food. Where does your food come from?

Suddenly we’re not having to explain the whys. Now we answer the hows. How do we pay the farmers a living wage? How do we feed everybody? How do we make sure everyone has access to fresh, local food?

VVK: What’s the greatest challenge to REAP’s goals?

MG: We’ve devolved so far so fast. As recently as 50 years ago there was still infrastructure that supported eating locally. That’s just completely gone.

VVK: REAP’s newest program, Buy Fresh Buy Local Southern Wisconsin, pairs eateries with local food growers. How is going?

MG: It’s showcasing chefs’ and farmers’ relationships in a way that tells the story, helps restaurants do more, feel good about doing more, make a profit. We never have to explain to restaurants about why should they buy local, what the point is. They just want to know, “How do I do it?” We have now have over 23 restaurants involved, and we’re adding more all the time. Some say, “I’m really going to concentrate on increasing my local dairy use, because I already have good relationships with produce farmers.” Others say, “I’m going to start with a side dish vegetable.” It’s a lot of opportunity to make incredible impact.

VVK: Then there’s the Farm Fresh Atlas, a directory of local farmers, dairies, honey producers, orchards and farmers’ markets. It’s so beautifully done and has such a wealth of information.

MG: People really use it. Farmers are grateful for the marketing tool. The transition we’ve seen in the last few years just wonderful. I remember standing at farmers market, just begging people to take it. Now people virtually attack us! We’ve released the seventh annual edition, and we’re having such a blast with it.

VVK: What it’s like working with children through REAP’s farm-to-school program, Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch?

MG: They’re a little grossed out by the notion that food doesn’t come packaged. There are kids that don’t know that a carrot is a root. They thought it might grow on a tree. You tell them it grows under the dirt, and they’re a little bit“Eeew!” But when they can get their hands into the dirt and pull it out, the response is immediate. You have to convince them to wash it first!

You’ve got to get kids back out and experiencing life in all its forms, learning the idea of life in the soil. Through field trips to farms, wildlife restoration. Pulling that all back together is really powerful. Will all these kids grow up to be healthy consumers as adults? We don’t know. But we know that without it, they don’t have a chance.

VVK: How do you share your ideals with your own children?

MG: We have traditions of always going strawberry picking in the spring, always going to an apple orchard in the fall. There’s seasonality. Food isn’t just something that comes packaged from an anonymous source. I just try to keep as much balance as possible and hope something will stick. My daughters are now 15 and 11. I just hope they grow to be passionate and kind and responsible and good adults.

VVK: What kind of food do you cook and eat?

MG: I cook pretty simply. I belong to a CSA [subscription farm]. My box comes on a Thursday and I have to be inspired by it. The produce tells you what needs to be done to it. I have a great big garden in my backyard and four chickens that lay eggs for us. We have an abundance of eggs from the chickens. That’s great for vegetable frittatas.

VVK: You live in the city. How do your neighbors respond to the chickens?

MG: I do have one hen that’s a little squawky. But now the neighbor across the yard has got some chickens, too!

Each month in her column “Around the Table,” freelance writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach profiles women who are influential in Wisconsin foodways: cooks and bakers, farmers, teachers, authors, activists and more. “The eternal quest for flavor and form is woven deep into who and what we are. That’s why I love to write about people who love food,” she says.

Vesna’s work on food and other topics has appeared in publications including Wisconsin Trails, Isthmus, Madison Magazine, Corporate Report Wisconsin, and Dane County Kids. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Erickson Publishing, and was the original editor of Brava Magazine (then known as Anew).

Kale Crisps

Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
September 2008

Related article: “Do carrots grow on trees?” Raising awareness and bridging the gaps between farm and table: REAP’s executive director Miriam Grunes

The grand prize winner of last year’s Food for Thought Festival was this sustainable snack with crunch, submitted by Jessica Weiss of Oregon, Wis. “My kids can’t get enough of these!” says Miriam. “I add a little cider vinegar when tossing the kale with olive oil. Gives a nice sparkle to the flavor.”

Kale Crisps

1 bunch kale, washed and dried in a cotton towel
2 tablespoons olive oil
cayenne pepper (optional)

Cut stems from the kale stalks and set aside for stir fries or other uses. Tear leaves into 2- to 3-inch pieces and place in a large bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil. Toss kale with your hands until all is lightly covered with oil. Spread kale out on one or two large baking sheets. Don’t pile up; keep in one layer. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne (if desired) to taste. Bake until crispy, 10 to 20 minutes.

Check frequently as they can go from crisp to burnt quickly. Hissing and popping sounds while baking are normal. Transfer crisps to a bowl and enjoy.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Big flavor from Sow Little

Terry Cohn and Michael Johns harvest “raspberries when you least expect them”

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
in Brava Magazine
August 2008

Related recipe: Raspberry Jam

Raspberries. They’re not just for summer anymore.

When Terry Cohn and her husband, Michael Johns, learned about the experiments out east at Cornell University, where researchers were growing winter raspberries in greenhouses walled with layers of clear, plastic draping, they knew they’d found the niche crop they were looking for.

After all, says Terry, “We love raspberries.”

In 2001, the couple’s home business -- buying and selling used scientific equipment -- was suffering due to overseas outsourcing of manufacturing. To find a new source of income, they looked to their land: the 5-acre former farm within the city of Madison that they’d bought in 1991, meaning to build a warehouse.

“We wanted to use our land as one of the last farms within the city of Madison. We talked about trees and perennials,” says Terry. Then they learned about extended-season raspberries being grown at Cornell. “They were reported to be outstanding and able to command a good price.“ They realized, with excitement, they already had the foundation for an off-season raspberry farm in their own backyard.

“We had a family garden via survival of the fittest,” Terry says. “We would plant hundreds of plants and vegetables, heavily mulch them because we had no time to weed, and [get] a wonderful harvest.” Included in the mix was “a raspberry patch from plants that we rescued from the property across the road that were to be plowed under for development.”

They saw the potential for a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly, operation with good demand. “We wanted to produce the highest quality raspberries without using herbicides and pesticides and make them available to local chefs and individuals at the time of year when raspberries were shipped to the Midwest from California, Chile and Mexico.”

Terry dusted off her scientific training -- she majored in in biology and botany in college before becoming “the first physician’s assistant in Madison,” as she say, and later earning another degree in computer programming -- and she and Michael devoted themselves to learning about off-season raspberry farming. And Sow Little Farm was born.

“We first put up a plastic cover that was supported by electrical conduit, the ends covered by tennis balls, over our raspberry patch in November 2002 and heated it with a kerosene heater to keep the plants alive,” she remembers. “One of us would turn it on around midnight and the other one would get up at four in the morning because the fuel only lasted for four hours. Our daughter Leah thought our lives were like getting up with a newborn.” The hard work paid off: “The raspberries were protected, sweet.”

Now all they needed was customers. “We wowed Odessa Piper. She was our first chef customer,” says Terry. A titan in the world of local-produce fine dining, Odessa then owned L’Etoile restaurant on Madison’s Capitol Square. “I did a blind call. I explained how we had extended the season of the raspberries. She was excited and tasted them.” After that, she says, “we would bring small amounts, one to two half-pint containers every week or twice a week, whatever we were able to harvest from our small patch. I would bring a little basket carefully wrapped with a towel. Tory [Miller, then L’Etoile’s chef de cuisine and now its owner] would taste them and I would wait for his reaction. His face would light up and that made my day.”

That first chef connection led to many more. “Odessa encouraged us to expand and have other chefs taste our berries,” says Terry. Today, Sow Little Farm grows seven varieties of raspberries, which they’ve harvested as early as May and as late as December. Some they sell to individuals via e-mail (, but most are destined for the fine restaurants in Madison, Chicago and more where chefs clamor for the plump, juicy berries ripened on the cane.

“There’s never enough for the demand,” says Terry.

VVK: What’s the usual season for raspberries?

TC: Most home gardeners tend to grow summer-bearing varieties that ripen late June, early July. Large growers tend to grow fall raspberries that begin ripening mid-August and end with the first frost.

VVK: What's the secret to off-season harvests?

TC: We grow summer and fall varieties, experimenting with staggering their ripening by pruning and [controlling] temperature in the high tunnels. Once the canes are leafing out and starting to form flower buds, we don’t let them get below 34 degrees. The houses get very warm even in the winter, so we have to open windows to keep the plants below 45 degrees while they are dormant.

VVK: What’s a high tunnel? Is it a sort of greenhouse?

TC: It’s a structure of bent metal tubing connected to steel posts driven into the ground, and a wooden baseboard. It’s covered with two layers of plastic with a space between inflated by a small blower. Ours have recycled windows and doors on the end walls for air circulation. We have six high tunnels totaling about 7,000 square feet. Our favorites have a gothic, pitched roof, as opposed to a Quonset shape, and has sides that roll up the entire length.

Putting the huge sheets of plastic on the high tunnels can only be done when there’s no wind. We’ve had great help from groups of friends and family when we got to that stage. Each time that the task was completed, we would look at each other beaming, feeling like we’d just completed a barn raising.

VVK: How did you learn to do all this?

TC: Through our own experiments, attending workshops in Canada and Penn State, and consulting Professor Marvin Pritts at Cornell University. Getting help from our local extension agents. Bob Tomesh from the UW Extension helped orchestrate a visit of farmers from the country of Georgia to our farm. We also had visitors from Tasmania who were researching high-tunnel raspberries as part of a Winston Churchill grant.

VVK: What are some of the restaurants that use your berries?

TC: L’Etoile, Harvest, Wisconsin Cheesecakery, Bishop’s Bay Country Club, The Madison Club, Sardine, Cocoliquot, Lombardino’s, Oconomowoc Lake Club, Gilbert’s Restaurant in Lake Geneva, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Hot Chocolate and North Pond, both in Chicago, and others in Madison and between Milwaukee and Chicago.

VVK: How are they to work with?

TC: The chefs that I work with are wonderful. They are flexible with [our] availability. They understand that what we do is labor intensive and the product is superior to getting raspberries from California for half the cost.

VVK: What do you love about raspberries?

TC: Raspberries are sensuous and delicious. We love it when we say raspberries and we notice people’s eyes get dreamy and their mouths form a smile.

VVK: What’s your favorite way to enjoy raspberries?

TC: Eating them fresh and noticing how long the flavor lasts in our mouth.

Raspberry Jam

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
in Brava Magazine
August 2008

Related article: Big flavor from Sow Little: Terry Cohn and Michael Johns harvest “raspberries when you least expect them”

“This recipe evolved because we didn’t like how sweet most raspberry jams are. We like seeds in our jam and don't like it when it is thick like Jell-O,” says Terry. “Most recipes call for either more sugar than fruit or equal amounts. With less sugar, one experiences the true flavor of raspberries.” Terry tinkered till she achieved “the perfect tart-sweet combination” that’s perfect in PBJs, mixed into yogurt, or spread between layers of Linzertorte or chocolate cake.

Raspberry Jam

8 full cups crushed raspberries
5 cups sugar
1 box Sure-Jell pectin
1 teaspoon butter

Mix Sure-Jell with raspberries. Bring to a boil. Add sugar. Turn down heat and continue to cook on a low boil for 10 minutes.

To test for doneness, put a spoonful on a plate and refrigerate for about 10 seconds or until cooled. If the liquid on the spoon pours right off, continue to cook. Keep testing every three minutes until the liquid on the spoon just clings to the spoon and is slightly thickened. (The jam will thicken more after cooling.)

Turn off heat. Skim off foam.

Put jam into clean jars, leaving about 1/2 inch space to the rim. Clean the jar rim and seal with new canning lids that have been simmered in water. Tighten rings on the jars.

Boil in a water bath for 10 minutes. Remove jars to cool on newspaper. You’ll hear the lids pop when the seal forms.

Let cool 24 hours, then remove the rings from the jars.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It’s fun to make a splendid cake

Award-winning decorator Suzanne Daly teaches you how

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
in Brava Magazine
July 2008

Related recipe: Homemade Fondant

“I’m here to take take the fear out of fondant,” announces Suzanne Daly.

She’s addressing her students at one of the Wilton Method cake decorating classes she teaches at the Vanilla Bean, the baking supply shop on Odana Road on Madison’s West side. It’s the first night of the four-session course in fondant, and there’s a thrill of excitement in the room – perhaps a bit of intimidation, too. During a round of introductions, students explain why they’re here:

“I’ve dabbled in fondant, but I’ve never covered the cake.”

“I make wedding cakes for friends, and they all want fondant.”

“My husband is coming back from Iraq, and I want to make him a special cake. It’s got to be fondant.”

So what is fondant? Essentially, it's a a doughy sugar paste that you roll out like pie crust, then drape and shape right over your cake. The main ingredients are forms of sugar: confectioners’, glucose and glycerin. “It’s like Silly Putty, or play dough,” Suzanne explains. You can also roll out decorations, forming ribbons or using cookie cutters and other gadgets to punch out shapes, and apply them to the fondant-covered cake.

The smooth, sophisticated look of a fondant-coated cake is unmistakable, and it looks difficult to achieve. But Suzanne is reassuring, and – as she leads a hands-on demo, kneading coloring into a lump of fondant, rolling it out, embossing it with vine designs, draping it over a cake and affixing flowers and leaves – she’s convincing, too.

“It’s just a really neat medium to work with,” she says as she shapes and cuts the soft, doughy material. “It’s very forgiving. If you make a mistake, you don’t have to throw it away. You can work with it over and over. Just ball it up and re-roll it.” Suzanne says students have told her they’re worried that fondant is delicate and will rip easily, but the substance is robust and cooperative to the touch. “If it gets dry, you just add a little shortening. If it’s too sticky, you add a little cornstarch and powdered sugar mixture. You can store it in the refrigerator for a month, double wrapped. ”

Suzanne, who has won best in show at numerous county fairs in Wisconsin and Illinois, has been decorating cakes for 30 years and teaching for twelve. She belongs to professional organizations including ICES (International Cake Exploration Societe) and Dairyland Decorators. She keeps up with the latest trends and techniques through studying trade magazines. These days, she says, fondant is what just about everyone wants on a cake these days, even if they don’t know it.

VVK: At your bakery, Suzanne’s Sweet Artistry, what’s the big trend in wedding cake these days?

SD: Approximately 75% of the wedding cakes that I make are covered in fondant. My brides pull out every bridal magazine, and all the cakes they show me are fondant. They’re surprised when they try it – they aren’t sure if they like it. It’s the texture that’s unusual, like eating a soft Tootsie Roll. People aren’t used to chewing their cake. But they typically go with it.

VVK: It is unusual. More like eating candy than cake.

SD: I tell people if you don’t like to eat the fondant, that’s OK. You can just peel it off! I put a layer of buttercream frosting underneath. You can actually keep a cake that has fondant on it much longer than one that just has the buttercream. Once you’ve got the fondant on the cake, that cake will last three to four days. The buttercream keeps the fondant soft, and the fondant protects the cake from from drying out.

VVK: Which is easier to work with, fondant, or regular buttercream frosting?

SD: With buttercream, it’s more technique: practicing your consistency, practicing your pressure. Squeezing the frosting out of the bag. Holding your bag in the correct position to make sure it turns out exactly the way you want it to.

With fondant, you cut it out and put it on. It’s a different skill. You can do a lot more, make a lot of different things. Truly, fondant is something that anyone can do. Young kids can do it. Older people can do it. And the possibilities are endless.

Those of us who are cake artists, we will walk into a store, and we’ll see something that’s meant to be used for something else, and we’ll figure out how to use it in fondant. You know all those little paper punches? I use those for fondant. You punch out the little designs and put them on your cake.

VVK: You showed a photo of a delicate carnation in the class, with the paper-thin petals – it’s just out of this world.

SD: Very simple.

VVK: But it looks hard!

SD: That’s the illusion of it. You can make something that’s just exquisite.

VVK: How did you get into cake decorating?

SD: At an early age I realized just how happy I could make people with my cake creations. Growing up in a family of seven gave many opportunities to make cakes and desserts. After 18 years in banking, I realized it was time to retire from that career and take my “serious hobby” to the next level. I am very blessed to have found my passion and have the ability to make a living doing it.

VVK: What do you enjoy most about it?

SD: I enjoy the creative outlet that it provides to me. Taking someone’s idea and interpreting that idea into cake form is very satisfying. Also, for me it’s a stress reliever. There’s nothing better at the end of the day than to bake cakes and decorate.

I’m always looking for new ideas and techniques to learn. Then the fun is incorporating what I have learned into an edible work of art!

VVK: What’s your most popular course?

SD: The basic Course I class. It covers everything from frosting the cake to making borders and different flowers, including roses – most of the basics needed to simply decorate a cake. I teach Wilson Method classes. The advantage is that Wilton Industries provides lesson plans, equipment and tools to purchase to make all of the techniques needed to decorate a cake.

VVK: What are some of the reasons students sign up for cake decorating classes?

SD: Many want to make cakes for children’s birthdays. Some want to make a business of it, but once they realize that you have to have a separate state-inspected kitchen, it deters some of them from that idea. But they can still learn how to make great cakes for their friends and family.

VVK: What would you tell someone who’s worried their homemade cake won't look as nice as a professionally made cake?

SD: One thing that your children will always remember is that you made their birthday cakes for them. To a child, the cake is great, no matter if the frosting was smooth or the decorations weren’t perfect.

VVK: What was one of your favorite cakes?

SD: My three-year-old nephew, Zach, wanted a combine cake. He’s obsessed with tractors and farm implements. Instead of making a cake in the shape of a combine, I decided to make an interactive cake. It was decorated as a corn field with the look of some of the corn already having been picked and some still standing. The corn was made by first piping the green stalks with a round tip and then topping each stalk with yellow frosting piped with what’s known as the “grass tip.“ I then placed a purchased kid’s combine with movable wheels on the cake, lined up with the unpicked rows of corn. When he saw the cake, he knew exactly what to do. He took the combine and pushed it through the corn rows! No one minded that their piece of cake may have been missing some frosting. That is the beauty of cake decorating. It’s just frosting!

VVK: How about one of your most challenging cakes?

SD: The president of Swiss Colony had a niece that was getting married, and I was commissioned to make a wedding cake. She wanted a white fondant cake that had white fondant bows coming all the way down the front of it. Sounds fairly simple, except for the size. The bottom tier was three feet in diameter, but then you have to take into account the sides, so we’re talking rolling out almost a four-foot piece of fondant. Well, I didn’t have anything big enough to roll it out on. I told the gentlemen who were helping me that we needed to go find something. We went out into the bakery, and what we ended up finding was a conveyor belt – pliable, yet thick enough that it would support the weight of all that fondant. So we took this big piece of conveyor belt and rolled the fondant out onto it. It took five of us to lift that piece of fondant up and over onto that cake. There was probably almost 150 pounds of fondant on that cake!

VVK: When I see some elaborate cakes, like on the show “Ace of Cakes,” they’re not even appetizing anymore – I start to wonder if they’re even food, and if not, what are they?

SD: I guess that's why I consider myself more of a decorating purist. I do want to have as much on the cakes to be eaten as I can. That show certainly shows how you can take decorating to an extreme. I see that type of decorating as [for] an artist who uses cake as a medium. I consider myself a baker who uses different techniques to enhance the look of my creation.

To me, the basic, fundamental objective is to have a cake that tastes great – and looks as good as it tastes.

Homemade Fondant

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
in Brava Magazine
July 2008

Related article: It’s fun to make a splendid cake: Award-winning decorator Suzanne Daly teaches you how

If you like scrapbooking or playing with modeling clay, you’ll love this fresh approach to decorating cakes or cupcakes. Glucose and glycerin – as well as ready-mixed fondant – can be purchased at a baking supply shop like the Vanilla Bean, or a craft store.

Homemade Fondant

1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup glucose
1 tablespoon glycerin
2 tablespoons shortening
2 pounds sifted, powdered sugar
few drops flavoring – almond and vanilla are good choices
few drops food color

Combine gelatin and water and let stand until thick. Heat gently over double boiler until dissolved. Stir in glucose and glycerin. Next, stir in shortening.

Remove from heat just before it’s completely melted. Stir in flavoring. You can add coloring at this point if you want it all the same color, or knead in coloring as desired later.

Let cool. Place half the sugar in a bowl and make a well. Add the glycerin mixture. Gradually stir in, and then knead in remaining sugar. Knead until smooth and pliable. If too dry, add shortening; if too sticky, add powdered sugar.

“Fondant can be rolled out with a rolling pin, and many different shapes can be cut out of the fondant using cookie cutters,” says Suzanne. To prevent sticking, dust rolling/cutting surface with a mixture of cornstarch and powdered sugar. “You can also purchase edible food markers at the Vanilla Bean and kids can write or draw on the fondant to make it uniquely their own!” Let your imagination run wild with ribbons, bows and pleated drapings.

Note that any fondant you don’t place flat against a buttercream-frosted cake surface will become porcelain-tough overnight.

For more photos and instructions, visit Brava's special online feature this month, Cake Decor Made Easy.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fish fries, food and folk

Janet Gilmore reads food as folklore

Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
April 2008


In the spirit of the alternative storylines of folk tale, Janet provides a parallel telling of three ways to stuff and bake a big fish. One comes from her fieldwork among the commercial fishing families of Green Bay -- from a woman there named Eileen Behrend -- and one comes from the recipe on p. 230 of the 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking. The third is Janet’s own method, which is, turn, influenced by her childhood. “When I was growing up, a family friend regularly went charter fishing off the Oregon Coast,” Janet remembers. “He sometimes offered us a nice, big, whole salmon -- a cause for celebration.”

However you choose to follow the narrative below, start with Janet's recommendation of “a fresh, whole, big-bodied fish like Lake Michigan whitefish, Lake Superior lake trout or a wild-caught salmon from the Pacific Northwest,” and don’t stop till you get to the happy ending: a splendid main dish that’s brown and crispy outside, and delicately flaky within.

Baked and stuffed whole fish

One whole 3- to 5-pound fish, cleaned (Janet keeps the head and tail on; Eileen doesn’t)
A few strips of bacon (Eileen only)
1 1/2 cups bread stuffing cubes (Janet uses sourdough or rye crumbs)
At least 2 tablespoons chopped onion (Janet uses more; Eileen uses “a lot”)
1/2 cup chopped celery (Joy, and Eileen)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (only if it’s on hand, says Eileen)
1 or 2 eggs, beaten (Joy, and Janet)
Salt, black pepper and sage to taste (Eileen)
1/8 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (Joy, and Janet)

Combine stuffing ingredients. “Stuff the fish loosely and mass any extra along the opening to the cavity,” Janet says. Eileen sews the sides together with a coarse needle and thread. Place fish on a generous length of heavy-duty foil laid over a shallow baking pan. If head and tail is on (they can extend past the pan’s corners), loosely wrap foil around them. If you’re using bacon, lay it over the body of the fish.

Bake at 400° F for 1 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on fish size, until, as Eileen described, “nice and brown and crispy on the outside” and “white opaque all the way through.” Joy says 350°, but “I suspect [400°] will more effectively dry out the fish,” says Janet. “I look for a flaky, dry texture.“ Transfer to serving plater, foil and all.


What is folklore? If you just thought of embroidered vests, flowing skirts and circle dances, or tales of talking trees and fairy princesses, forget it.

Folklore is everything that you and your folk know and do and make that nobody else quite gets.

Janet Gilmore, who teaches courses at the UW-Madison that explore food as folklore, explains: “It’s traditional artistic expression in small groups. Every group you can think of – a school group, work group, church group. A family. In every one of those environments there’s esoteric information, insider knowledge, that you learn in order to navigate. You usually learn this informally – across generations or from peers – and you use it in artistic expression of who you are.” And how we deal with food, she says, both in daily life and on special occasions, “is definitely folk knowledge.”

Originally from the state of Oregon, Janet earned a master’s and a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. There she met her husband, Wisconsin native and fellow folklorist Jim Leary. For decades, the pair travelled through the Upper Midwest on contracts with organizations like the Michigan State Museum, Manitowoc’s Maritime Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, gathering information about customs and culture, working with museum collections and exhibits and presenting their findings at folklife festivals and academic conferences.

Today both are faculty members at the UW-Madison, where Jim, now the director of the Folklore Program there, helped create the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Janet, who’s published a string of papers in peer-reviewed journals based on her fieldwork among commercial fishing families of Wisconsin and Michigan, is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and folklore. She’s also been featured on radio and in print as an expert on the history and social meaning of Wisconsin’s Friday night fish fry traditions.

VVK: How is food a form of folklore?

JG: Food is expressed through a bounty of expression, through stories, words, sayings, songs. There are the religious rituals that use food symbolically, whether it’s Holy Communion or the Passover, where you deal with a series of symbolic foods as you reenact the story of Exodus in your home. The bitter herb for slavery, the ground nut mixture for the mortar of the pyramids -- these things transport you to a different time and place.

Then there are the material traditions involving food. Food is something that we need. But how do we make decisions about what’s going to be acceptable as a foodstuff? How do we extract it from nature? How is it presented on a table? What’s the fast and feast cycle?

VVK: Isn’t that pretty much uniform across the country?

JG: If you interview people you’ll find out pretty quickly they don’t all follow the same routine. For instance, there’s a perception that everyone celebrates Thanksgiving about the same way. In my Festivals and Celebrations class last semester, we talked about three or four main ways just of dealing with the turkey. Some families have the big table-side carving ritual. Who carves the bird says something about the family hierarchy. Some will focus on how the turkey is cooked – they’ll try all sorts of techniques for making it more juicy and flavorful, brining, deep-frying. Immigrant families will get a turkey, as part of becoming American, but they might not know quite what to do with it, and it can end up a little strange. It’ll be over on the side, a symbol, and the real feast will be their own ethnic celebration foods. Then there are families where they have a turkey because they feel they have to, but it’s not featured. They might cook it the night before, to free up the oven. They might even slice it up and serve it on a platter.

VVK: What! They won’t have a whole bird on the table? I find that disturbing, somehow.

JG: Yes, and that’s what happens in my class. Students are so emotionally involved with their family food traditions, that it becomes difficult to separate out their feelings and approach this subject objectively. That’s what attracts people to food – it’s emotional. Students look at their family and their food experiences, and they start to see all the expressions of loving relationships. But also, food has this fundamental purpose. So I say to them, OK, if all you’re doing is expressing love, can you take the food out of the equation and still express the love? And that really bugs them.

But that’s what I like about studying food. When you start talking about food in an academic way, it doesn’t distance you from the food. It just engages you more. What feeds me is that my students are interested in all this, too.

VVK: I’ve heard you say that we’re unaware of a lot of our folk food knowledge. Like when someone gives us a handwritten recipe card with basically just a list of ingredients, a temperature and a time. My friend shared with me her mother’s carrot cake recipe, and it occurred to me that people from a different culture might have a hard time ending up with carrot cake from just that card.

JG: Exactly. Most cookbooks leave a lot out, but you don’t notice that. You bring your own knowledge to it, your esoteric knowledge of what the food is supposed to become. People think a recipe is all you need, but it really isn’t. The more experience you have, the more you can figure out. When a cookbook tries to fully explain everything, there’s so much writing. Yet it never has quite enough information.

VVK: Do you ever get tired of giving talks about Wisconsin fish fries?

JG: Never. I love it. Except that people expect me to be able to tell them what’s the best fish fry in Wisconsin. I tell them, it’s your favorite fish fry. Because it’s not really about the fish. It’s about seeing the people you know, socializing while you stand in line. Your tavern, your church, your VFW hall. Find one where you feel comfortable, and keep going. It will become yours. I know people who go to a different fish fry each week, looking for the ultimate. They’re missing it.

VVK: What draws you to working with the commercial fishing families of Wisconsin and the U.P.?

JG: The joy they have in that life, like nowhere else. Pacific coast fishing families would tell me, “My kids hate fish,” or “Fish is the last thing I want to eat after a day on the boat,” or that they won’t eat fish for days before an event, so they don’t smell. Here, everyone eats fish, everyone cooks, everyone fishes. They figure out how to cook fish out on the boat, using the heat of the engine. They go ice fishing. Children know when the streams will run with different types of fish. It’s a reason for a party, to have a fish boil, or to get the smokehouse going and smoke a hundred pounds of fish, share it with everyone, and wind up with just ten pounds for themselves. They can it, they pickle it. They’ll set out a jar when company comes. It’s wonderful. Families stay in that region, even though times are hard, economically, because they love the life. It’s an inland maritime culture.

My goal is to write some books about these fish foodways, as much for the people I’ve interviewed as anything. It’s their lives. And so many European immigrant traditions that haven’t been researched, and the fish foodways of the indigenous peoples. I’m probably not going to be able to do all of this in my lifetime. I hope I can inspire my students.

VVK: What’s the state of folklore today?

JG: It’s accepted as an academic subject more and more. Folklore is about looking at artistic expressions that aren’t endorsed by the official culture. At what’s expressed by people who aren’t powerful. Everybody participates in folk culture. As long as there’s a group, there’s folklore, because it’s how people interact and how they express themselves.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Sugar River Dairy: Active local culture

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, March 2008
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Fruit Salad

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, our state has something of a reputation when it comes to milk. We’ve got nearly 1 in 4 of all the nation’s 65,000 dairy farms, over a hundred cheese-making plants, and plenty of artisan producers.

But a few years back, Ron and Chris Paris noticed a giant hole in the market for small-scale, specialty dairy: practically nobody local makes yogurt commercially. They decided to fill that void with great product of their own, and Sugar River Dairy -- one of only three artisan yogurt makers in the state -- was born. Today, Chris and Ron’s all-natural yogurts, cultured naturally and made without thickeners, colorings, or any of the other additives found in mainstream brands, can be found on the shelves of food markets all over the area, as well as at their booth at the Westside Community Market.

VVK: Do you two have a background in dairy?

Chris Paris: Ron grew up on a farm on the edge of Madison across from Lake Farm Park in Oregon. He got a degree in dairy science from the UW-Madison and held various jobs in the ag industry. My family transplanted to Madison when I was three, but my parents have rural roots in Kansas and Missouri. I’m actually a teacher -- degree from UW-Madison in dance education and early childhood development. In 2004 I went 24/7 with Ron and Sugar River Dairy.

VVK: What was involved in starting up your dairy?

CP: Lots of startup costs and issues. We planned the building and built it 10 steps from my back door. It took two years of planning to find the right equipment and setup. Small processing equipment came from Israel. Everything we could find was meant for big production. The biggest challenge was trying to get a machine to dispense one ounce of fruit on the bottom of a six-ounce cup. Lots of trial and error on that.

VVK: How much yogurt do you produce?

CP: One and a half tons per week, or 3,000 pounds. That’s about 1,700 six-ounce cups and 1,400 24-ounce cups of yogurt. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to most yogurt manufacturers. But we’re often able to make our yogurt one day and deliver it the next. Probably the freshest yogurt available!

VVK: Where does your milk come from?

CP: We use non-homogenized milk from two local, single-source, small farms that don’t use rBST and sub-therapeutic antibiotics. We believe that keeping it simple and clean keeps it healthy. We process it quickly and get it to the market.

VVK: How about your culture?

CP: Our culture comes from a local company. There are huge companies around the world that manufacture cultures. They are very sophisticated and very technical. Some won’t sell to small manufacturers like us. There are small companies who will deal with our minimal needs. We’re lucky to have just such a company in Madison.

VVK: Different yogurt brands can taste very different. How did you come upon the blend of culture that you use?

CP: Different blends have different tastes because of the pH’s they work best in. Ours has a mild, pseudo-American preference. It allows the flavor of the fruit to come through and has worked very well for us. Most European and Middle Eastern countries seem to prefer a more tart, acidic taste. Americans are used to mild and sweet flavors. That’s beginning to change now that we have access to a lot more variety.

VVK: I’ve made yogurt at home by adding a little yogurt to milk and keeping it warm, but it never comes out as solid as I’d like. And I can’t keep it going for the next batch. What’s your secret?

CP: We use freeze-dried culture in the same amount every batch for consistency. Real yogurt doesn’t need additives, but it does require help to absorb all the liquid in the milk, like raising the temperature and holding the milk to denature the proteins. We also incubate in the cup so we can retain the original texture without adding stabilizers. The added, unnecessary stuff doesn’t make real yogurt better -- though it makes it travel long distances well

VVK: What’s the most popular flavor? Do you have more in the works?

CP: Raspberry in six-ounce cups. I’d love to do exotic fruits like locally produced aronia [chokeberry] or black current, but the difficulty lies in the processing. Most fruit processors are in California. We’re looking for a Wisconsin or midwestern processor to work with.

VVK: What happens to the cream after you remove it from the milk to make your yogurt lowfat? I understand you’ll be using it in your own line of sour cream soon.

CP: It gets made into butter, but not by us. Sour cream is getting closer. It’s a different culture, and it takes more time and a different temperature. In larger quantities it can be tricky. We really wanted to have it out by now. Seems like everything takes longer to organize when most of our time is spent in production or delivery.

VVK: Is there any chance you’ll be coming out with a whole-milk yogurt anytime?

CP: Whole milk yogurt is on the way. We just need cups printed -- that’s another story, and two months of waiting. Research is clear about the differences between good versus bad fats, but people mostly focus on the word “fat.” They tend to equate fat with calories, and nutrition is a lesser issue. There’s also research indicating that non-homogenized milk may be healthier.

VVK: What else is next for Sugar River Dairy?

CP: A new delivery truck!

Fruit Salad

Recipe from Active local culture: Chris and Ron Paris update Dairy State tradition with their natural, artisan yogurts

Fruit salad

Fresh fruits
Vanilla yogurt
Optional: raisins, almonds, and/or sunflower seeds

Choose a combination of two, three or four fruits. “Very simple.“ says Chris. “Go local or regional if possible. The only frozen I use are those I freeze myself -- strawberries!” Cut in chunks about the size of ice cubes, or use a melon ballers. Arrange atop vanilla yogurt in individual serving dishes.

Fruit combo suggestions:

Apples, pear and cherry
Watermelon, cantaloupe and muskmelon
Thimbleberry (they’re like raspberries, but bigger and softer), grape and blueberry
Mango, guava and strawberry
Pineapple, banana and clementines or tangerines

Friday, February 1, 2008

Let them eat bread

For celiac sufferers, Holly Beach provides gluten-free alternatives

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, February 2008
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Gluten-free Valentine’s Day Sugar Cookies

White or wheat? For perhaps as many as 1 in 133 Americans, the answer had better be “gluten-free.” And not just for toast, but for every sort of bread, pizza, muffin, pastry, cookie and pasta. Not to mention beer, imitation crabmeat, soy sauce, vitamins, medicine, envelope glue -- absolutely anything made with wheat, barley or rye.

That’s the estimate given by the National Institutes of Health of those of us who may have the genetic autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease. When a celiac sufferer ingests gluten, a protein in those common grains, the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine, rendering that vital organ incapable of absorbing nutrients. No matter how much the person eats, they become malnourished. Results can include bloating and gas, fatigue, anemia, osteoporosis, seizures, mouth ulcers, infertility, emaciation or obesity -- and that’s just the short list.

In this country, where awareness among the medical profession is, mercifully, growing, celiac patients have gone years before being correctly diagnosed. An article in USA Today tells of a girl who didn’t grow an inch between the ages of eight and 16 -- when she was finally diagnosed with celiac disease and told to stop eating gluten.

The good news is that the small intestine can usually heal over the course of a few months, and the body can once again receive desperately needed nutrients. The bad news is that there’s no known treatment for celiac disease. Patients must abstain from wheat, barley and rye products for life. The amount of gluten present in just 1/48 slice of bread -- scarcely a crumb -- has been found to trigger an attack.

Lucky for Madisonians with celiac -- and also for those with gluten intolerance and wheat allergies, which are separate medical conditions -- there’s Holly Beach and her Silly Yak Bakery, located right next door to her (whole-wheat) Bread Barn on Mineral Point Road.

Since the early 1990s, Holly owned and operated a bakery in Rochester, Minn., which is, coincidentally, the home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic, a leader in medical research and treatment. In 2000, around the time celiac awareness was beginning to pick up, a patient from out of town dropped by the The Bread Baker asking if they might, perchance, carry GF (gluten-free) bread. Then another, and another. “I had never heard of the disease before customers started coming in and asking for GF product,” Holly explains.

For a baker with a B.S. in health education (UW-La Crosse, 1983), this was a call to action. But there were technical difficulties in creating wheat-free bakery goods. “My first attempts were miserable bricks and I backed off for a bit,” Holly remembers. “ But people were still asking for GF product. I could only say ‘I’m sorry’ for so long.” She rolled up her sleeves again, and didn’t stop until she had perfected some great gluten-free loaves. Then she found how hard it was to bulk-order the special ingredients she needed.

“I remember sitting in my office and crying after another failed attempt to locate ingredients and thinking about all the celiacs that had to deal with finding safe food every day,” she says. “Everyone had the right to walk into my bakery and enjoy bread!” She persisted, and soon, Holly had a gluten-free mail order business up and running “through referrals from the Mayo Clinic.”

Then, in 2004, a serendipitous business deal with the owner of Madison’s Bread Barn led to Holly’s buying that bakery and moving, with her husband, Miguel, to Wisconsin. “It was time for a change in our lives after each living 20 plus years in Rochester,“ she explains. “It all clicked. Within four months we had sold my Rochester bakery and townhouse and purchased the Bread Barn and a townhouse in Verona -- all during the holiday season.”

And then there was this: “I knew that by just being in a larger city I would be able to bake for more people with celiac disease.”

Vesna Vuynovich Kovach: How did you come up with your bakery’s name?

Holly Beach: “Silly Yak” is a play on words for celiac. Having celiac disease can be overwhelming, especially for children and parents. I wanted to lift the cloud, so to speak, and put some fun into celiac.

VVK: What led you to baking to begin with?

HB: My Grandmother Nelson was a very gifted cake baker and decorator. I spent many hours watching her create her beautiful cakes. My passion at that time was eating the delicious “cake crumb toppings” that came from leveling off the tops of her cakes. [After college] I moved to Rochester and opened a bicycle store. After 12 years I switched gears -- ha! -- to running a whole-grain bread bakery.

VVK: What’s most challenging about gluten-free baking?

HB: Gluten is the stretchy protein in wheat which allows the bread to expand like a balloon. Unfortunately, this is the culprit for people with celiac disease. We use xanthan gum [a specially fermented corn syrup] along with eggs to replace it. Over the years I’ve been able to develop bread that has a delicious, yeasty smell and taste, with loft and a soft crumb. Muffins and cookies are not so difficult, although they have their naughty moments.

Working with GF ingredients can still be unpredictable and we often scratch our heads in the kitchen wondering, “Now, why did that happen?” when we didn’t change the recipe at all!

We have been getting more requests for GF products that are also casein free, egg free, and yeast free. All of this takes so much time to develop.

VVK: What are some other ingredients?

HB: I try to use many high-protein and high-fiber grains such as amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, Montina [milled Indian rice grass, which is native to Montana] and buckwheat. Lack of fiber is a big concern for most people with celiac disease. I find that the community here in Madison is much more receptive to these grains. However, the Classic Rice bread is still our best selling bread. I’m very proud of our breads and the rave reviews that they get.

VVK: I’ve read that cross-contamination is a serious issue for celiac patients -- hamburgers can’t be cooked on the same grill as buns, fries can’t be fried in the same oil as breaded foods, and so forth. Since you’re running a whole-wheat bakery as well as the Silly Yak, how do you manage?

HB: When I first started baking GF, I set up strict handling procedures. All ingredients are in separate containers and kept in a separate area of the store. Separate utensils and pans are used, and washed and sanitized before each use. All surface areas are sanitized and covered. Each month I randomly test GF products for gluten contamination. By randomly testing products, I’m able to check our safe-handling techniques. We have not had a failed batch to date.

VVK: How does your Silly Yak business compare with your whole-grain operation next door?

HB: Forty percent of our total gross is from GF sales. In 2005 GF sales were only 10% of our total sales, so you can see that GF is growing substantially.

VVK: Who are your customers, and how do they find you?

HB: Our GF customer base is mostly local with about 30% being mail order – and that percentage is growing monthly. We get customers traveling through the area, and regular out-of-towners as far away as Chicago and Dubuque who stop in on a monthly basis. Our customers find us through Internet searches, word of mouth, and referrals from the Mayo Clinic.

To my knowledge, my oldest customer is 98 and hails from New York. My youngest is three years old and loves our snickerdoodle cookies.

VVK: Do your customers tell you of their health journey -- their struggles with celiac?

HB: Some customers come in with heavy shoulders, overwhelmed with the diet changes that they must make. Some are angry. I try to instill in my staff an understanding ear. Our job is to make life just a little bit easier for them.

Some of the most heartwarming moments for me are when customers come into the store and the tears start streaming down their faces. They can’t believe the selection! Some customers haven’t had pizza for over 20 years. And then to be able to offer them gluten-free beer [Lake Front Brewery’s New Grist and Budweiser’s Red Bridge]! Oh my gosh, they think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Also very moving for me was sending GF packages to soldiers in Iraq for Thanksgiving.

VVK: What are your personal favorites?

HB: The banana muffin! We make it with sorghum flour, and it just hits the spot without being too sweet. My staff loves our GF pizzas and we have been known to make large pizzas on a GF bake day for our own ravenous consumption. I also enjoy grilled cheese sandwiches with the tomato-feta bread and Reubens made with our Bavarian bread.

VVK: Any other great connections you’ve made in Madison?

HB: Very special to me is my collaboration with Bunky’s Café on Atwood Ave. in Madison. [Co-owner] Teresa Pullara-Ouabel has been very supportive of the celiac community and prepares wonderful pizzas and main-course Italian dinners that are gluten free. She is super high energy and helps keep me going mentally when I’m starting to bog down.