Serving Wisconsin for the Holidays
It’s borderline cliché to talk about the stress and anxiety that the holiday season can impart upon an otherwise calm soul. For me, I’ve come to find that inner peace during the holidays is far easier to achieve when I focus on friends, family and food – the promise of getting together with good people to laugh, to love, and to consume excessive amounts of food and booze.
With this in mind, let’s make sure all of our holiday gatherings have incredible food and drink! And since we’d also like our holiday season to reflect the bounty of ingredients and talented craftsmanship that surround us in our little corner of this big planet, let’s make the extra effort to feature local culinary delights, too. Here’s a handful of items that would fit both of those criteria and would do you proud if you feature them during your holiday gatherings.
Cranberries are practically the poster-child for a Wisconsin winter’s culinary identity. In a land where the only things that grow for nearly half the year are energy bills and starch tolerance, cranberries hold a special place. Harvested in the fall, they keep for almost two months in their fresh form. But they’re also one of the only fruits that can be frozen and not suffer for it. Loaded with antioxidants, cranberries offer a welcome break from the heavy meats and starches of winter with their bright tartness. To replace the boring cranberries from a can, try cooking with them this holiday season. You can make your own gelled version with some sugar, water and a blender/food processor. Or you can roast them and add them to a wide variety of dishes for some tart complexity. Just remember to balance them out with a little sweetness.
Castle Rock Eggnog
Eggnog is one of the more divisive drinks in the world. You either love it or it does nothing at all for you. I would recommend that members of both camps give Castle Rock Organic Dairy’s version of eggnog a shot. Made with milk from a dairy herd that lives just south of Eau Claire and eggs from some equally local chickens (both certified organic, of course), this “nog” is rich, thick, and creamy with just the right amount of spice to let the natural flavors of the high-quality milk shine through. You could certainly add your liquor of choice to this stuff, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s that good!
Quince and Apple
A producer of hand-crafted goodies out of Madison, Q&A makes a number of small-batch preserves and syrups, all of which deserve a place at your holiday party. For starters, their preserves are almost a requirement for any cheese and/or charcuterie platter. But somewhat recently, Q&A began producing a line of not-so-simple syrups to be utilized in the crafting of amazing mixed drinks. With flavors both locally familiar and exotic – like Rhubarb Hops or Lime and Cucumber – it’d be downright impossible to make a boring cocktail with these gems. Do what you can to procure some Q&A for the holidays.
St. Isidore’s Cloth-Bound Cheddar
The Chippewa Valley has a brand new artisan cheesemaker! If you’re an avid Volume One reader, then you are probably familiar with Inga Witscher, the infectiously charming host of the new locally-produced television show, Around The Farm Table. But what you might not know is that some of the wonderful milk produced by the Jersey cows she and her husband, Joe, are always tending goes into the production of one of the newest and most incredible cheeses made in Wisconsin. It’s made by Rick Witscher, Inga’s father, a long-time artisan dairy producer from the East Coast who recently became certified as a Wisconsin cheesemaker and set out to create St. Isidore, a bandage-wrapped cheddar of immediate distinction. To make St. Isidore, Rick uses a true craftsman’s touch. To begin, it is only made in the summer months, when the cows are feeding exclusively on the wonderful grasses and wildflowers of their rolling hillside home, just south of Osseo. The milk is handled in buckets so that its delicate fats (a trademark of the Jersey breed) do not get broken apart in processing. Once produced, the cheese is wrapped in – get this – cheesecloth that’s been coated in butter! (You can go ahead and die at this point.) The cheese is then cave-aged for about a year. In the end, it produces an amazingly unique cheddar, at once nutty and tangy, but with an obvious freshness that is a direct reflection of the hillside that the cows graze in all summer long.
White Winter Winery
White Winter Winery of Ironwood produces an array of delicious meads. A fermented combination of honey and water (and an endless variation of fruits, spices, or herbs), mead is likely the most ancient of all alcoholic beverages. At White Winter, they offer an impressive variety, many of which are flavored with native Wisconsin fruits – wild-harvested in some cases! This boozy sweetness is the perfect answer for whatever difficult questions the holiday season might throw your way.
About the Chef: Chef Nathan Berg was the owner of Native Bay (Chippewa Falls), has worked at Harvest (Madison), and was the chef at The Creamery and Canoe Bay. Before that, he was the Chef Intern at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy. He served as the Chef Ambassador for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (promoting Wisconsin artisanal cheeses). Berg has also apprenticed with brewer David Anderson (Dave’s BrewFarm).