Friday, May 1, 2009

Growing Strong

Claire Strader, farmer-about-town, brings organic agriculture into the heart of the city

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
This unpublished article was scheduled to appear in the May 2009 issue of Brava Magazine, which suspended publication for several months in 2009 when it changed ownership.

Related recipe: Spinach Salad

Urban vegetable gardens are tucked away in backyards everywhere. But an entire certified organic working farm right in town? That’s a lush surprise.

Welcome to Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens, a 31-acre site on Madison’s Northside. The five-acre farm produces “well over a hundred varieties of fifty different vegetables,” says farm manager Claire Strader. The farm is just one program among many in this unique organization. “There’s no other development in the entire country that combines farming with community gardening, with prairie and woodland nature restoration, with kids’ gardening, and all the educational programming that’s part of each of those areas, with housing,” Claire says.

It was 2001 when Claire rolled up her sleeves, worked with volunteers to clear the land, and planted “some squash, potatoes and tomatoes.” Today the farm generates about $100,000 annually through sales of sprouts and herbs at local groceries, a farm stand that operates Thursdays May through October 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. on the 500 block of Troy Drive, and CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) shares, whereby members receive a weekly box of bounty throughout the harvest season. All 120 shares for 2009 have been sold out since early spring.

Claire gained national attention earlier this year when a farming couple in Illinois launched a competition for nominees for the position of “White House Farmer,” in the hopes that the administration would respond to urgings from the sustainable agriculture movement to till up at least a bit of the 18 acres of manicured lawn surrounding the presidential manse. Out of more than 56,000 votes cast for 111 candidates, nearly one in five went to Claire. She won handily.

VVK: What does your victory mean to you?

CS: It was very exciting while it was happening. I think it’s not so much about me as about this community. In south central Wisconsin, we’re tuned into, we care about the local agriculture movement. When this idea was put in front of people, they got in touch with their friends around the country, around the world, and said, vote for this person – she grows food here. Will Allen [of Growing Power Inc.], who came in fourth place, he’s from Milwaukee.

VVK: What happens now?

CS: The group is still working on a packet to send the administration. The Obamas have put a garden in, but I haven’t heard anything about a farm or a farmer.

VVK: How did you get into farming?

CS: I started out studying biology and genetics, then switched to philosophy and women’s studies. I wanted to think more carefully about how I exist in the world – building shelter, making clothes, growing food. I thought the best way to learn would be to go work for an organic farmer. I worked for a farm run by man and his wife the summer I graduated from Wellesley. He was great. I loved working for him.

VVK: What brought you to Wisconsin?

CS: I sought out a farm run by women. I wanted to learn everything – to run the Rototiller, to fix things – regardless of my gender. I found Luna Circle, which was then in Gays Mills, and was there four years. We built a straw bale house, dug a well, lived off the grid. Later I went to UC-Santa Cruz for an apprenticeship in ecological horticulture and learned new things, beekeeping, orcharding. I decided that I wanted to work for a nonprofit, to do farming and education. I sent applications all over the country, and wound up becoming Troy Garden’s first employee.

VVK: It seems unusual, traditionally, for a woman to be a farmer.

CS: One of the things we learn in women’s studies is that agriculture across the world, historically, has been the domain of women when it’s on a small scale. For their own use, or for small-scale selling. I feel like women are a natural fit in this world of small-scale agricultural production, with organics and sustainable agriculture. Men not excluded – there are plenty of men here and across the world involved in it.

VVK: I noticed that women were the top three vote-getters – 40% of all votes cast – in the competition for White House Farmer nominees.

CS: For me, that does fit in. Also, none of us are traditional family farmers who own a farm. We’re all associated with education and broader mission statements. For me that makes sense as well.

VVK: How is the farm, and your job as a farmer, influenced by being part of Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens?

CS: I’m not just the farmer, I’m also project coordinator. In the winter my job changes and becomes more internal to our organization -- writing grants, raising money. It’s hard for family farmers to devote a lot of time to education. Fewer farmers are offering internship programs; more are just hiring employees. Because of the nonprofit, we have the opportunity to do that. I really like training future farmers.

VVK: How is the current economic climate affecting the organization?

CS: Our programs are very strong, like the Kids’ Garden, things people see. It’s much harder for us to raise money for the salaries, the administration. This is true generally for nonprofits, but these days that piece of our organization is being much harder hit.

VVK: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

CS: Worrying constantly about the financial stability of the organization as a whole. We rely on individual contributions. It’s a lot lot of work to get the word out and solicit contributions, especially right now, for obvious reasons. I work really hard, and it’s tough to worry about financial things on top of all that.

VVK: Do you live nearby?

CS: I’m about a mile from the farm. I have a garden at home.

VVK: What! You farm all day, and then you garden when you get home?

CS: My partner, Sarah, pushed for it. We really like having food outside our back door. We have about 12 fruit trees and 40 asparagus plants. I’m experimenting with strawberries and raspberries. We’re ripping out the front yard for more dry beans. We’re committed to not buying any vegetables. Sarah is a woodworker and our next project is to build a solar food dehydrator for leeks, tomatoes, broccoli, all kinds of things.

VVK: What’s your favorite crop to grow?

CS: Carrots. They’re delicious, they store well, you can get lots of different colors, you can eat them raw or cooked. And they’re not easy to grow. They’re difficult to germinate, and it’s not easy to give them what they need to get that shape. I like that I keep learning.

VVK: How about the toughest crop?

CS: Corn is really hard for me. I have a lot of luck with popcorn, but sweet corn...! There are insect pests that are very difficult to deal with. I keep trying.

VVK: What projects are you working on now at the farm?

CS: We’re raising money for a passive solar greenhouse. We’re partnering with the UW for their first hands-on organic agriculture class ever at our land-grant university; students will work at the farm. We have lots of applications for our intern positions, including people who want to come back for another year, people from Michigan and Illinois, and even an applicant from France.

It’s a small farm in the scope of things. I’m honored and proud that there are so many people who hear about it and want to be involved.

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.

Spinach Salad

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
This unpublished article was scheduled to appear in the May 2009 issue of Brava Magazine, which suspended publication for several months in 2009 when it changed ownership.

Related article: Growing Strong: Claire Strader, farmer-about-town, brings organic agriculture into the heart of the city

Field-fresh spinach is intense with spring flavor and abundant right now at a farmers’ market near you. If you’re only familiar with the frozen and canned stuff, or even with the bags of wan, imported leaves found on the produce aisle, you must experience this local treasure.

“Do not discard the stems!” Claire says. “Taste them. They are the sweetest part of the plant. Be sure to include them.”

Spinach Salad

6 to 8 ounces local spinach
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, sliced into thin half-moons
2 to 4 ounces feta cheese
many kalamata olives, pitted

Wash spinach. Rip into bite-sized pieces.

Saute onions in the olive oil until translucent. Pour the onions and the small pool of hot olive oil over the fresh spinach. Top with crumbled feta cheese and kalamata olives. Toss lightly so the spinach wilts just slightly. Serves one for a meal or more as a side dish.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sweet Love

Based in the strength and wisdom of kith and kin, up-and-coming pastry chef Sally Jarrett whips up witty treats and comfort sweets at Restaurant Magnus

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
in Brava Magazine
April 2009

Related recipe: Sally's Mom's New York Cheesecake

“You can put a steak in a 500 degree oven and it will be done twice as fast, but a cake will not bake faster,” says Sally Jarrett, pastry chef at downtown’s esteemed Restaurant Magnus.

That’s the simple answer to something that’s always perplexed me: why is it that, on cooking competitions like TV’s Top Chef, contestants get most flustered about dessert?

But Sally likes a challenge. As a culinary arts student at MATC, she found herself responsible for the dessert in a team cooking competition at the annual Wisconsin Restaurant Expo. “We won first place. [It] made me realize that desserts were going to be a significant part of my life from then on.”

Now, at just 22, Sally is responsible for making the dizzying array of sophisticated sweet treats always available at Magnus, including an extensive dessert menu that evolves with the seasons, plus a steady, sparkling cascade of specials.

VVK: What are some of your favorite creations?

SJ: Empanadas are a savory dish; I twisted it around and made caramel-apple empanadas with candied pecans and a spicy cider syrup. Chef Leo [Leonardo Guevara] helped me out a lot with finding a puff-pastry dough that would work with the way I envisioned it the dish. Some were too dry and hard to roll out, or hard to shape around the apples. It was challenging, but worth it.

There are so many things you can do with simple ideas, too. Like a cheesecake. Right now we have lemon blueberry, peanut butter with chocolate crust and pineapple rum. All different variations on my mother’s recipe.

VVK: Is she sort of your unofficial off-site collaborator?

SJ: We call each other all the time and share recipes. We’re always trying new things and bouncing ideas off each other. We’re best friends, especially now that I work at Magnus. She helps me with so many little details, I don’t even know.

The first time somebody ordered a personal wedding cake, I’d never made and iced a layer cake before! Mom talked me through it. I had the phone on my shoulder, and she told me how to run the spatula in hot water to make the icing smooth, how to to put the layers together with dowels.

VVK: Did she influence your career choice?

SJ: She was a stay-at-home mom, always cooking and baking, making jams and jellies. She got the kids involved – peeling vegetables, helping with cookies. Mom always had a huge garden. I remember peeling a lot of apples at the end of every summer. Later she got a job at a bakery and I waitressed there and did a little bit of prep cooking. My mother taught me to work really hard, be responsible, take action, but I didn’t think food would be my career.

I went to the UW-Madison for a year, then transferred to MATC, where I found the culinary arts program. It was so different from anything at the UW, and I’ve always been a hands-on learner. I discovered that I had a huge passion for food that I didn’t know about.

VVK: Who else has influenced you?

SJ: My boyfriend, Darren, whom I met in the culinary program and work with at Magnus. We bounce ideas off each other, and he’s a huge help in keeping me grounded. I think that having my significant other at work -- such a stressful environment -- makes it much easier to relate to each other. We know what each other goes through. I think that makes it easier to be more sympathetic and understanding towards challenges that we face.

VVK: What lessons have you learned in your work?

SJ: Simple is better. This Valentine’s weekend, when we were really, really busy, I made a cute little arty dessert, very intricate and complicated. It looked like sushi. I made a chocolate dough and rolled it out. I filled it with jasmine rice pudding and tropical fruit dyed purple with hibiscus. I served it with kiwi sauce, like the green wasabi that’s served with sushi. It didn’t sell. The other special that weekend was a warm chocolate cake with peanut butter ice cream. We sold a lot of that!

VVK: What’s your favorite thing about your job?

SJ: Chef Leo has given me so much freedom to experiment. He’ll order any product I need for the specials I want to do. And he’ll let me fail. My first night, I made a batch of sponge cakes. I didn’t know you have to take them right out of the pan, or they keep cooking. They shrank to half their size! He just said, “You see, you should ask more questions. Well, can you do it again?” I said, “Yes, Chef!” and made another batch that night.

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.

Sally’s Mom’s New York Cheesecake

Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
April 2009

Related article: Sweet Love: Based in the strength and wisdom of kith and kin, up-and-coming pastry chef Sally Jarrett whips up witty treats and comfort sweets at Restaurant Magnus

Sally’s mom, Sarah Jarrett tweaked this recipe for years, not knowing it would someday end up on the tables at one of Madison’s finest dining spots. “It’s something everyone can do at their own home, and a good base for flavorings,” says Sally. She recommends the sweet potato variation --“It was a good seller” -- for “a wonderful, earthy flavor.”

Sally’s Mom’s New York Cheesecake

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
pinch salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Butter bottom and sides of a springform pan. Line bottom with parchment paper. Mix together dry ingredients. Add melted butter and mix until incorporated. Press into bottom of pan.

2 pounds cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 eggs, plus 1 yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1/4 tsp salt

Mix cream cheese smooth with stand or handheld mixer. Stir together cornstarch and sugar. Pour into cream cheese mixture. Mix until well incorporated. Add eggs one at a time, mixing each in well. Add vanilla, salt and sour cream. Mix just until incorporated. Pour over crust. Bake on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 F until a toothpick comes out clean, about 1 hour. To prevent cracking on top, try not to overbeat or overbake, and loosen the edges as soon as you remove it from the oven. “Definitely don't eat it until it's been refrigerated for at least six hours, preferably overnight,” says Sally.

Lemon: Add zest and juice from three whole lemons along with sugar and cornstarch.
Sweet Potato: Reduce cream cheese to 1 1/2 pounds. Substitute half the white sugar for brown sugar. Add 3 cups cooked, pureed sweet potato.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ale Asylum’s Hathaway Dilba

This microbrewery partner gets the beer out the door

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
March 2009

Related recipe: South of the Porter Chocolate Cake

In the spring of 2006, a sign reading “Ale Asylum” sprouted in the front yard of one of the low-slung buildings scattered amidst the airfields and shipping depots along the broad corridor of Stoughton Road leading north of town towards the interstate. A brand-new microbrewery and table-service deli was open for business.

The four friends planting their life savings in the endeavor knew they were entering a field as crowded as their surroundings were sparse – craft brewing businesses are legion in this part of the Midwest. Now, scarcely three years later, Ale Asylum has become a formidable presence on the local microbrew scene: omnipresent at summer festivals, available in bottles at close to 125 stores and on tap at more than 80 bars and restaurants, all the while serving up booming business at the cozy tap room and eatery onsite.

Hathaway Dilba, originally a fashion designer (her line of custom coats, Volante, was featured in this magazine’s premiere issue in 2002) and later a fitness instructor, is one of the Ale Asylum’s four partners, along with brewmaster Dean Coffey, Glenn Schultz and Hathaway’s husband, Otto, a graphic artist.

“I had total faith in our product. I had faith in every part of my body,” says Hathaway (friends call her Hath), “but still it surprised me how fast we took off.”

VVK: What’s the secret to your success?

HD: A lot of it is Dean. He won many awards at Angelic, and he had a following. Glenn plays a significant role. He’s part of our sales force, he’s our face at festivals, he’s brought in other investors and he’s an amazing handyman.

Our name is a huge factor. People say, “Did you just say … ‘asylum’?” And alphabetically, our beers will appear at the top of lists at bars.

VVK: All your names and branding elements are powerful and catchy – Big Slick Stout, Ambergeddon – with strong logos. Who does that?

HD: Otto is is my hero because he can run the business operations and come up with our branding and creative work as well. He was assistant brand manager at Planet Propaganda. One could say that he has the perfect combo of right and left brain.

Everything we do, names and labels, have to get approved by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. We had trouble with our slogan, “Fermented in sanity.” We had to point out that it said, “sanity,” not “insanity.” We wanted to name a porter “Disporterly Conduct,”and use handcuffs in the logo. They said no. But our Ambergeddon logo has guns, and that got passed. A lot of our artwork is controversial.

VVK: What do you do?

HD: Event planning, marketing, cooking and working for events. I love working on the bottling line. The camaraderie of it. It’s kind of like diapering your baby; you want to do it yourself. And you have to move pretty fast! I like putting the bottles in the boxes and seeing them put on the truck. It’s the end result of so many people’s work. I don’t ever want to take it for granted.

I’m not involved in the chemistry, which is very complicated. The bottling line is the way I can be involved. I love it. Being the only woman back there, it’s fun. I’ll cook at home and bring in lunch for the crew, or muffins. They call me “Mama Bear.”

VVK: How come no full-service restaurant?

HD: All the years my husband worked in the restaurant industry, he learned what a pain in the butt a hot kitchen is. He said, “You know what? Let’s just have a pizza oven and a deli.” Saves a lot of money in insurance, too. We figured keeping our restaurant simple was a really smart move, so we could focus on getting the beer out the door.

VVK: Have you won any awards?

HD: We’ve won a variety of best-of-show awards at area beer festivals. We won a bronze for Madison Magazine’s Best of Madison brewpub in 2007 and 2008, even though we’re technically not a brewpub. We’re a microbrewery.

VVK: What’s the difference?

HD: Even though Ale Asylum has a bar/deli as part of our business structure, the majority of our sales occur offsite, from beer distributed to area bars and liquor stores in the form of kegs and cases.

VVK: How much beer do you guys make?

HD: About 375 barrels a month. We go through about 40 of those in the tap room. One barrel equals 2 kegs [125 pint glasses each] of beer. We produce around 65,000 bottles per month. We have about 10 people on staff.

VVK: What’s your most popular beer?

HD: Hopalicious, an American pale ale. It’s bold in hop flavor without being bitter, which makes it a great beer for experienced drinkers and novices alike. Across the Midwest there’s been a dramatic increase in demand for hoppy beers.

VVK: What’s your personal favorite?

HD: I love our Sticky McDoogle Scotch Ale. It’s just fun. It’s got a little kick to it. it’s smooth, and for me it’s got a little curtain of caramel in it. Very popular with women. We supplied the beer for the Arthritis Foundation, a nonprofit gig. There were mostly women there, and the Scotch ale went so fast I had to order more from the brewery.

I love the Hatha-Weizen. I love the citrus note – it’s not in your face; it’s not too tart. It goes with everything. My favorite thing is to drink it on the beer patio the first warm night.

VVK: That’s named after you – a play on “hefeweizen,” or wheat beer, right?

HD: I feel very honored because my husband named a beer after me. I’m both touched and excited because that is my all time favorite beer that Dean makes. I'd be lying if I didn't say that it’s my favorite name.

VVK: Do you ever miss the fashion business?

HD: Fashion always played a special part of my life, and I have deep respect for the industry. I still follow it. But I don’t miss working in the business. It wasn’t the correct template for me. I’m glad I did it, though, because I never would’ve known.

VVK: Tell me about your involvements outside the Ale Asylum.

HD: I do philanthropy on the side, which I really enjoy. I’m involved in a group called Womenade of Madison that holds events supporting different organizations that are not so well known. At the Children’s Theater of Madison, I chair the education committee and am the board secretary. I was just invited to join the executive committee of A Fund for Women, and my first gut reaction was, oh my gosh, what a fantastic honor.

I go crazy unless I have projects and a lot of stuff to do. I start to have an identity crisis.

VVK: Have you always been a craft beer fan?

HD: I’m a novice, kind of a beginner beer geek. I’m not on the brewers’ guild like Dean and Glenn. When people are discussing beer while they’re drinking it, I like hearing it. My favorite thing is sitting in our bar and watching someone sip our beer and watching a smile come over their face. I like that moment.

I love listening to Dean talk about beers. When he has a beer out, it’s such a special moment. He’s so passionate about what he does – I get excited when he’s excited. If he’s talking to a beer-geek friend, he’ll talk in complexities. To me, he’ll tone it down. He’s really good that way.

VVK: What’s the atmosphere at your place?

HD: A biker once told us, “I love the décor – it’s like a martini bar, but with balls!” I call it industrial chic. It’s a diverse customer base. One night I saw a motorcycle dude sitting next to a business dude next to somebody who could have been a punk rocker, with tattoos up and down their arm. Older married couples will pop in for a night cap. We have a lot of Air Force guys coming in off duty. They love flying over the place – their landing strip is very close to us. They’ll do wing tips and stuff like that for us when they fly over.

We don’t have TVs. We’re very proud of that. We get killed on Packer Sundays and Badger Saturdays. But we don’t want people just staring at a TV. We want there to be discussion, conversations, like the bars of yesterday.

VVK: Might you expand into more locations?

HD: Right now, no. It would really take away from our focus.

VVK: So what’s next for Ale Asylum?

HD: We’re thinking about putting up our own grain silo this summer. That will look cool to the pilots when they fly overhead!

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.

South of the Porter Chocolate Cake

Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
March 2009

Related article: Ale Asylum’s Hathaway Dilba: This microbrewery partner gets the beer out the door

“What I like best about this cake is the actual process of making it. It’s easy and relaxing,“ Hath says. “Porter adds a velvety richness that pairs well with the chocolate and spices.”

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup Contorter Porter, heated just to a slow boil
1/3 cup powdered sugar

Grease and flour a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan. Heat porter over medium high heat, removing from heat as soon as it comes to a slow boil. “The trick is to do it slowly and to keep an eye on it. Otherwise you'll have big mess on your hands when it boils over,” warns Hath.

Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and ground cayenne in a large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. Beat at medium speed for two minutes. Stir in porter. Batter may be thin. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 35–40 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely by placing pan on a wire rack. Once cooled, shake powdered sugar over top.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Education of Anne

How a school principal from Sheboygan learned to cook Sicilian – and run a restaurant

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
February 2009
Column: Around the Table

Related recipe: Rigatoni Mare Monti

“We are not just following a recipe. We are articulating a family heritage,” says Anne Nause, who does nearly all the from-scratch Sicilian cooking at her restaurant, Sole Sapori, on Mount Horeb’s Main Street, where “the core recipes come from family traditions.” She explains, “Food traditions [within] any culture are similar,” but “they take on the flavor personality of the people who create them. That’s what sets us apart.”

Anne cares so strongly about continuing the culinary legacy of this family that she left her lifelong career in education – with a Master’s in education, she had long been a school principal and was working at a central office level, pursuing certification as a director of curriculum when she bought the restaurant in 2003 – to devote her professional life to this cause.

But what makes this all the more unusual is that, in the case of this particular German-Norwegian native of Sheboygan, the family in question is not her own.

VVK: How did you first get involved with the restaurant?

AN: My youngest daughter, Maddy, was waitressing for the Vitales [Sam and Celina Vitale, who founded Sole e Sapori, its previous name, in the 1980s]. She was a gymnast and needed a sub for her shift. She couldn’t find anyone to work for her, so she asked me if I could do it. Since I had never waitressed I was a bit apprehensive. I went with her one night and she showed me around before my big debut. All went well and I was surprised to have people actually give me cash! What a riot – all you have to do is give them food and you get cash. I was hooked. I subbed for her all through her gymnastics season and even picked up my own shift when another waitress quit.

VVK: To go from pinch-hitting and part-timing to switching careers – that’s quite a leap. How did it happen?

AN: I decided to become a restaurateur because I could see the potential in the restaurant and did not want it to close. It was that simple. Albeit capricious.

Celina frequently asked me if I would like to buy the restaurant, but I was passionate about staying in education. It wasn’t until many months later, after Celina and I became quite close, that I heard her speaking to her family in Sicily. Although I didn’t speak a lick of Italian, I knew she was planning to move back. I asked her [about it]. “Ya, ya,” she said, “I go.” I said, “What about the restaurant?” She replied, “I close.”

When you live in a small town it’s heartbreaking to see things close. [Back home] there had been a restaurant we used to frequent. When it changed hands the new owners changed the restaurant and it subsequently closed. I just didn’t want to see that happen in Mount Horeb.

VVK: What was your training like?

AN: I asked Celina how long it would take me to learn everything. She said, “Two weeks. First week I cook, you watch. Second week you cook, I watch” Brushing her hands, she declared, “Done.” Sam and Celina are brilliant. They set up the recipes in a way that made it possible for one person to cook for the entire restaurant without skipping a beat. I would attribute the distinctive flavors of the core Sole recipes to a set of consistent ingredients. To say much more would be letting out the big secret of what is behind the sauces.

In my first week, I watched and took notes. It was literally hands on. That’s the measurement system we used: hands, spoons, “glugs,” some, a little. I was just relieved to find out [Celina and I] had the same size hands!

VVK: How is the Vitale way different from the cooking you knew before? How has your relationship with food transformed?

AN: In my life growing up, I was introduced to lavish-ingredient, multi-course cooking that would take a whole day to prepare. My mom and grandmother were incredible cooks and dinner was a major event while I was growing up. I used to think great food had to take forever to make, and if it didn’t come from James Beard or Julia Child it just wouldn’t be good enough.

I’ve always loved to cook, to eat and to interact with food in general. The Vitales introduced me to a whole new way of thinking. Now, I have a hard time following a recipe without translating it into something new. I can look at an ingredient, picture, or recipe and integrate it into something uniquely my own. Cooking is freeing and expressive.

VVK: Have you added your own touches to the menu?

AN: Some modifications and additions. Some were experiments that were so delicious we had to keep them on the menu. So far we have been very fortunate – our regulars are thrilled with the maintenance of the original recipes and excited about the addition of the new.

We make our own garlic crisp crackers for our homemade dips, all inventions of mine. A weekend special I make which people are clamoring to have added to the menu is a chicken sun-dried tomato and roasted garlic lasagna with béchamel sauce. Also just put together a clam and mussel dish – we call it Crostaceo alla Pomodoro – that’s fresh mussels and clams with chopped tomatoes in a spicy garlic wine sauce. It’s beautiful, with the clams and mussels in their shells. Today I’m experimenting with a panettone layer cake with almond paste and a light cherry flavoring in the cream layer. I just like to play around with food.

VVK: You’ve done a lot with the interior, too.

AN: I definitely wanted the rooms to stay rustic – no straight walls, lots of texture, rich colors for the front room. The back room is more of an indoor “garden room” – lots of windows, lots of plants. The second remodel added space that was formerly vacant, unheated, storage area. We made a small, private dining room with leather-like finish on the walls – dark and intimate, deep merlot with a dark brown frottage finish, with large, dark, wooden tables. We added a lounge with a fireplace and small bar. For the larger banquet room I wanted an Old New York speakeasy feel, cream, espresso, black and white.

VVK: How do you like being a business person?

AN: I think my enthusiasm and love of the place really does translate to the overall experience. How other people feel about the place – as long as I’m not losing money – is far more important to me than making piles of money and feeling like I’m taking a short cut. Five years ago Sole was predominantly a pizza and spaghetti carry-out business. Now most of our business is dine-in. It’s a place where couples go, where friends like to meet. I’ve even had a few proposals and one small wedding.

When the business was small, it was a piece of cake. It’s time to find someone who can take on some of the load. As it is, there is not a single moment in my awake time – unless you count showering – that I’m not working. Accounting, bills, remodeling, cook planning, party planning, ordering inventory, putting inventory away. I do 100% of the prep work: bread, meat sauce, marinara, tiramisu, specialty desserts, appetizers, pizza dough, and pizza sauce. Currently, I also do all the cooking. Name it, I do it. I’m looking for help, so if you know of anyone, call me.

VVK: What are the biggest difference between your old career and your new one? What do you miss?

AN: I was passionate about education, versus being excited about the restaurant. I miss the feeling that what I’m doing on a daily basis is needed and important to the world. I am glad to leave behind the feeling that I can never do enough to change the world for some children.

As a principal, you’re middle management and it can be frustrating. At the restaurant, it is mine. My ideas, my work, my success or failure. I like being able to have an idea and see it to fruition, or modify it as I see fit.

VVK What do you love most about what you do?

AN: When people go out of their way to tell us how delicious the food is. How surprised they are when they walk down the long hall and are transported to another place, another time and it’s both beautiful and delicious. I love to know that people really appreciate the handcrafted goodness that makes Sole unique.

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.

Rigatoni Mare Monti

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
in Brava Magazine
February 2009

Related article: The Education of Anne: How a school principal from Sheboygan learned to cook Sicilian – and run a restaurant

Here’s a single restaurant serving of one of the most popular dishes at Sole Sapori. “Shrimp, mushrooms, garlic and fresh tomatoes sauteed in olive oil and served with rigatoni on a bed of fresh spinach.” The shrimp is a quintessentially Sicilian ingredient, and the marinara is a Vitale hallmark. “This is a pure Vitale,” she says. But you’ll have to sub in your own favorite red sauce – Sole Sapori’s marinara is a family secret!

Rigatoni Mare Monti

Mare Monti Sauce:
1–2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon capers
1 clove garlic, crushed and chopped
2 mushrooms, sliced
1 fresh Roma tomato, sliced
pinch fresh oregano
3/4 cup marinara or pasta sauce
5 large, raw shrimp

For the plate:
several fresh spinach leaves
rigatoni pasta, freshly cooked
Pecorino Romano (grating cheese)
lemon pepper

Heat a small sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add oil, capers and garlic. Sauté for a minute or two to meld the flavors. Increase heat to medium and add mushrooms, tomato and oregano. Cover and cook about 5–8 minutes, or until tomatoes and mushrooms are soft enough to chop with a flat-edge wooden spatula. Add marinara and stir.

Meanwhile, line your plate with a bed of fresh baby spinach. Place a serving of pasta atop spinach.

Just before you’re ready to serve, add shrimp and cook through until shrimp are pink and done, taking care not to overcook them. Top the pasta with the sauce. Finish with some freshly grated Pecorino Romano and a dusting of lemon pepper. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Jam on -- and on

It’s always summertime inside Lee Davenport’s little glass jars

Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
January 2009

Related recipe: Tabula Rasa Panna Cotta

“You can put it on a shelf and open it in winter and it will transport you back to summer with one bite.”

That’s why Lee Davenport makes jam. And jelly. And preserves, conserves, fruit sauces and all those other ways of compressing summer sweetness into a glittering jar of spoonable delight.

“You can take some really delicious fruit and make it taste even better,” says the 36-year-old proprietor of Pamplemousse Preserves, of her passion for preserving. “I personally can’t think of many things in life as rewarding as turning a pile of raw ingredients into a row of jewel-toned preserves. But maybe that’s just me.”

There’s also the appeal of “keeping a dying art alive,” says Lee, who is a New York State native with a B.A. in psychology from SUNY-Plattsburgh. “I like a lot of vintage and old-fashioned things. I like making things by hand.”

Around the Table caught up with Lee Davenport once before, in early 2005, when she was running a food cart downtown that featured a creative, from-scratch menu. “It was tons of work and I didn’t really have much of a life the summers that I did it,” Lee says of her decision to move on to Pamplemousse. “Most people who run food carts either have restaurants or it’s a family affair.” Earlier culinary credits include baking at L’Etoile and Sunroom Cafe.

Today Lee jams with local and/or organic ingredients -- she even grows her own black currants, rhubarb and tomatoes -- using recipes that call for little or no commercial pectin and far less sugar than ordinary preserves. She sells at farmers’ markets, through her new Web site (, and at the gourmet shelves of L’Etoile’s Cafe Soleil, Fork and Spoon, Fromagination and Washington Hotel Coffee Room. Her treats are on the menu at Bradbury’s downtown.

This winter she and two fellow market vendors launched a new venture, CSP&B (Community-Supported Preserves and Bakery, accessible through Lee’s website). It’s modeled after community-supported agriculture (CSA), whereby market farms sell shares of their produce, then supply boxes of veg throughout the growing season.

“This is like a value-added CSA,” Lee explains. “Our tag line is ‘keeping your pantry stocked with hand-crafted staples throughout the seasons.’” Twice a month CSP&B shareholders receive a unique assortment of bread, butter cake and pastry from Mary White’s Honey Bee Bakery; kraut, kimchee or other fermented vegetables from Andy Hanson’s Kindly Kraut; and Lee’s preserves. “Opening a CSP&B box is like Christmas because of that element of surprise. You don’t quite know what’s going to be in the box, but you’re pretty sure you’re going to love it,” says Lee.

VVK: How did the idea for CSP&B come about?

LD: The summer I was a cook at Harmony Valley Farm, I read an article about a woman in Minnesota who had taken the CSA concept to the next level by making salad dressings and other prepared foods from things she grew. That summer I went a little crazy preserving the harvest and I thought a CSA for preserves might be a way to make some money doing something that I loved. I asked Andy and Mary to join me because we all needed a way to keep making money through winter when the outdoor markets stop. We all source as many local ingredients as we can, and we can help people eat local year-round.

VVK: How has customer response been?

LD: People have been wowed by the boxes so far. If things go well, we plan to add other Wisconsin products such as yogurt, honey and kombucha.

VVK: What makes Andy’s krauts and pickles special?

LD: A lot of people say they don’t like kraut, but they haven’t had kraut like Andy’s, which is a natural, wild ferment. It is a live food, and so good for you. It’s fresh and crunchy. I actually eat ferments as a stand-in for salads in the winter.

VVK: How about Mary’s Honey Bee Bakery?

LD: The baked goods are made the same day they’re delivered. I think Mary is one of the most talented bakers in Madison. She uses freshly ground flour from Cress Springs, organic ingredients and whole grains. Her breads are always tasty but I love her tartlets the best.

VVK: Where do you make the products that go into the box?

LD: Andy and I still share a [commercial] kitchen and Mary is currently working out of Sophia’s Bakery. We’re all licensed.

VVK: What have some of the box combos been so far?

LD: Mary has done a whole wheat bread, cornmeal bread and wild rice bread. Chocolate hazelnut tartlets and apricot bars. Plum cake and apple cranberry cake. Andy had several kinds of kraut and a radish kimchee. I’ve sent tomato jam, black currant preserves, blackberry preserves, raspberry preserves and Summer Fruit Medley. I recently made some pumpkin apple butter and I have lots of cranberries to work with. [When I] run out of local fruit I’ll probably make marmalades and Coffee Caramel using Just Coffee.

VVK: Who’s buying, so far?

LD: We each have a little bit of a fan base so most of the early adapters are already familiar with our products and want to keep getting them in the winter months. Before the CSP&B there was really no way to get all these treats year-round.

VVK: You tell a wonderful story on your blog ( about a milestone incident that got you preserving fruit.

LD: I used to live right downtown on Wilson St. I went out for a jog and found [a fallen] limb full of plums. I took them to Mifflin Coop to have them weighed. I don’t even remember what I made from them, but most likely plum butter. I still have other apple and plum trees that I glean from around town. I have always been a frugal person and I hate waste. This sometimes gets me into trouble because I can’t say no to free fruit and sometimes end up wasting it because I don’t have time to deal with it all. If I didn’t have to work for a living I would start a gleaning organization to work with farmers to get more unwanted produce to food banks.

VVK: How much jam do you make?

LD: During the busy summer months, I make several hundred jars a week. I spent a lot of time this summer acquiring fruit.

VVK: What kinds do you make, and which are most popular?

LD: Every season I add more of my own creations like the Elderflower Wine Jelly, and Coffee Caramel. I just like to play around with flavors. [Most popular is w]hatever I happen to be passing out samples of. To try them is to buy them! The tomato jam was the big hit of this summer. I don’t think I had a single person who didn’t like it.

VVK: What are your favorites?

LD: Pear Chocolate, and Apricots with Pinot Grigio. I had never really liked apricots before I made this. I think that unless you get a perfectly ripe apricot right off the tree, they are improved by cooking. This tastes how you would imagine the best apricots should taste.

VVK: What advice would you give someone who wants to give home canning a try, but who might be afraid that it’s too dangerous or complicated?

LD: By the Ball Blue Book and get cracking. If you know how to read a recipe, you can learn how to can. I don’t know where this fear comes from. There are so many more things we do on a daily basis that are so much more risky!

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.

Tabula Rasa Panna Cotta with Pamplemousse Preserves

Related article:
Jam on -- and on: It's always summertime in Lee Davenport's little glass jars
In Brava Magazine
January 2009

Here’s a panna cotta recipe Lee likes to hand out at the farmer’s market because, she says, “it’s simple and elegant and it’s a great blank slate to serve with my preserves.” At the market “I had it paired with rhubarb passionfruit preserves. It would also be great with any of the berry preserves -- Summer Fruit Medley, Trio of Berries, raspberry.”

Lee’s version of the classic Italian treat (literally “cooked cream”) is “a little lighter and tangier” with the addition of yogurt.

Tabula Rasa Panna Cotta with Pamplemousse Preserves

2 tablespoons water
1 1/4 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
2 cups whipping (or heavy) cream
1 1/4 cups yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sugar

Sprinkle gelatin over water in a small bowl and let stand for 10 minutes or until softened. In a small saucepan, combine sugar with one cup of the cream and bring to a simmer while stirring. Remove from heat. Add softened gelatin. Stir until dissolved.

In a separate container (preferably one with a pouring spout, like a one-quart Pyrex measuring cup), whisk smooth the yogurt, vanilla and the remaining cream. Pour in the hot mixture and whisk smooth. Divide among six ramekins, tea cups, or small bowls, pouring 1/2 cup into each. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Serve panna cotta right in the ramekins or invert onto plates. To invert, set ramekins into a pan of hot tap water for 30 seconds, making sure water doesn’t get into them. Run a knife around the inside edges and turn onto dessert plates. Remove the ramekins. Top with preserves.