Monday, June 30, 2008

Better Butter

Butter is apparently the new black. I know of at least two Wisconsin dairy artisans who are in the development of making a farmstead and/or artisan butter, and another person just emailed me today saying he was starting up a butter company. Whoo-hoo!

Butter is big in my house. Let's just say I eat a lot of butter. So much, in fact, that my daughter has now banned me from buttering her toast. Yesterday, she spent more time scraping the butter off her toast than she did eating it, finally resorting to wringing it out like a wet sponge, all the while giving me a dirty look.

Well, I can't help it, I love butter -- especially when it's that perfect consistency - not too soft, not too hard, where it melts on hot pancakes in about 9.3 seconds. Ahhhhh, perfection. We eat enough butter that once a quarter stick is out, it doesn't go back in the fridge -- it sits on the counter in a covered butter dish.

There's even a new cookbook out that's all about butter, aptly named "The Great Big Butter Cookbook." Catchy title, eh? A friend gave me a copy and I ended up giving it to another friend a few weeks ago when she spied it on my counter. I like to look at cookbooks more than actually cook from them, anyway.

Currently, my favorite salted sweet cream butter is made by Grass Point Farms, an offshoot brand of Organic Farm Marketing, or OFM, in Thorp, Wis. I found it at Paoli Local Foods and was a) drawn in by the packaging -- 3/4 of every panel of the one-pound package (split into four quarters) is covered with a huge picture of a Holstein cow standing in pasture -- and b) intrigued by the fact that it was "Pasture grazed butter."

Turns out pastured grazed butter is pretty darn good. A rich, golden color, it delivers way more flavor than your average store-brand and melts very nicely. In fact, my entire family was really enjoying it until my husband turned over the package and coughed up a lung when he saw the $8.65 price tag.

"Who pays this much for a pound of butter?" he asked. Well, turns out, quite a few people. Ken Ruegsegger says at his store, the Grass Point Farms butter is a bigger seller than the Organic Valley brand, and Grass Point costs about 75 cents more.

Apparently I'm not alone in my butter fetish. Long live pasture-grazed butter!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cheese Curd Festival

Here's an event that could only ever happen in Wisconsin: The 7th Annual Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival.

Festivities at the world's largest cheese curd festival, happening Thurs - Sunday this week include (I swear I am not making this up):

Friday, June 27: attendees will have to choose one of these popular events, scheduled for the same time and vying for attention: the Truck Pull at 7 p.m. and the Ellsworth Star Search at 7 p.m. (limited number of entries accepted).

Saturday, June 28: Cheese Curd 10K Run at 8 a.m. (no amount of cheese curds is worth running 10K to me, but alas, I digress) and the ever popular Beach/Sand Wrestling Tournament at 10 a.m. with the Washer Board Tournament to follow at 11 a.m. Bikinis are optional (okay, I made that last part up).

Sunday, June 29: The Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival parade at 1 p.m., Bean Bag Tournament at 3 p.m. and Pie Contest and Auction at 5 p.m.

Also, don't miss the "Great Cheese Curd Medallion Hunt" -- clues will be posted each Thursday at 12 noon on the festival website, at area banks and in the local newspaper. How much more fun could you ask for?

One last vital piece of information: a unique 2008 numbered crock with the Cheese Curd Festival Logo can be purchased at select area business and at the Festival. They are numbered and only a limited supply will be available. To reserve your numbered crock, call the Ellsworth Chamber Office at 608-273-6442.

Gosh, I love my state. Happy cheese curding.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Paoli Local Foods

My family has been on a mission for the past few years to purchase and eat as much local food as possible. This quest has led us, among other things, to hit more farmer's markets, buy more groceries at the mom n' pop stores, and much to the chagrin of my non-vegetable-eating daughter, to join and work at a CSA -- my joints are still recovering from planting peppers on my hands and knees for four hours a couple of weeks ago at Two Onion Farm .

So it was with great joy that I got a success story email from Ken Ruegsegger this week. Ken and his wife, Sherrie, run
Paoli Local Foods, an out-of-the way local and natural foods store in tiny, unincorporated Paoli, which every summer gets inundated with bicyclists on their way to the Badger State Bicycle Trail.

I bought my first quarter side of beef from Ken four years ago -- being the farm girl that I am, I was raised on pasture-born, corn-finished Hereford/Angus beef. I thought my days of eating steak as an adult were over forever until I met Ken through the
Something Special from Wisconsin program.

Ken's meat is spectacular -- he specializes in grass-fed beef and now sells his farm-raised meats at several farmer's markets and at his store in Paoli. He also carries several grass-fed, raw milk, and organic cheeses from south central Wisconsin, including: Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative grass-fed cheeses, Cedar Grove organic cheeses, Brunkow varieties, Hook's Cheese, Mt. Sterling goat cheeses and mixed-milk cheeses from Bass Lake.

TIP FOR THE LOCALS: Paoli Local Foods also carries never-refrigerated Cedar Grove FRESH CURDS on Tuesdays and Fridays -- get there before 2 p.m. or you run the chance of being too late (I know this from experience -- those bicyclists apparently eat their fair share of cheese curds while passing through).

Running a mom n' pop local food store and living your life as a sustainable, family-owned farmer can be challenging. I know Ken & Sherrie have had their fair share of challenges over the years, but today Ken reports: "Thirteen years ago, we purchased six baby calves. Today, we have 175 head of grass-fed beef. All 100 percent of these are bred & born on the farm. Without the use of hormones, antibiotics, or chemicals, we ended 2007 with a 100 percent conception rate." (For those of you not in the cow breeding business, this is almost unheard of in a herd this size).

Ken and Sherrie today are marketing 99 percent of their beef directly to the consumer (I'm guessing they eat the remaining 1 percent). The only middle man is the processor.

In addition to their beef, the Ruegseggers currently have:
  • 175 egg-laying chickens and 200 more to start laying in August

  • 28 lambs on pasture

  • 27 pigs on pasture

  • 340 meat chickens and 60 turkeys started

They are currently butchering about 120 chickens every two weeks (that equals 10 a day six days a week) -- holy chicklets, that's a lot o' work.

Ken continues: "We have just passed the one year point in our new store. We were too busy to celebrate, but we did acknowledge it amongst some of our customers that day. Thank you for supporting sustainable family farms."

No, thank you, Ken and all the farmers like you who have chosen to live your lives in a way (i.e. not get rich) to provide sustainable, quality, good-tasting food to the rest of us. Hurrah!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Potter's Crackers

I've been a huge fan of Potter's Crackers since owner Peter Potter and his mother, Nancy, launched their company from their own cracker kitchen in Madison, Wis., over a year ago.

I learned yesterday the Potters are now sourcing all of the milk for their crackers from
Sassy Cow Creamery near Sun Prairie. This local foods story just keeps getting better.

The Potters make about 100 varieties of elegant, thin, whole-wheat crackers crafted from all organic ingredients they source locally. The fresh crackers are mixed, rolled and baked fresh every day and delivered to a variety of stores in Wisconsin. As of yet, the company doesn't have any plans to go national, as they are focusing on the local ingredient/local sourcing movement.

The start-up story of the company is quite interesting. In the Summer 2008 issue of UW-Madison's alumni magazine, Grow, owner Peter Potter says he started the company between his junior and senior year of college because he was earning a degree in food science and couldn't face another summer spent in a lab.

"Basically, I saw a marketing opportunity. There was nobody in Wisconsin producing crackers, and we are the cheese state and so I though we needed a good cracker to go with that," Potter says.

Makes sense to me.

So how did the opportunity present itself? Potter was eating at
Lombardino's on University Ave., in Madison one night and was enjoying their awesome cheese plate. He says the plate was "gorgeous -- they had all these great cheeses from Italy, and some from Wisconsin, but they were serving them with horrible crackers. There were these overly processed ones from California."

Potter says he wondered -- why are they doing this? And then he realized it was because they didn't have any other crackers, such as local or high-quality varieties. So he translated that into a business idea and voila -- Potter's Crackers was born.

My all-time favorite Potters Crackers variety is Toasted Sesame -- you combine this cracker with Marieke's Gouda or Edelweiss Butterkase, and believe me, it's pure magic.

Another favorite is one of their newer varieties: Baked Potato Chive. You combine this thin, tasty cracker with an aged cheddar, and it's just like eating a loaded baked potato at the State Fair. Ah, heaven.

You also can't go wrong with the Six Seed or Caraway Rye. For dessert, try the Apple Grahams. Or even better, just try them all. There's no way to go wrong.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Culinary Oscar

In more exciting news for Wisconsin, a Milwaukee chef won the equivalent of a culinary Oscar last weekend. Adam Siegel, executive chef at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, won the James Beard Foundation's award for best chef in the Midwest.

For those of you not in the know, the James Beard Foundation Awards are the highest honors for food and beverage professionals working in America. The awards are presented each spring at the Lincoln Center. Nominees and winners are fĂȘted at a weekend of gala events in New York City -- which many consider the social and gastronomic highlight of the year.

My goal is to someday be important enough to be invited to an event hosted by celebrity chef Bobby Flay and Sex in the City star Kim Cattrall.

Who is important enough to be invited? Why, Willi Lehner, of course. Wisconsin's artisan cheesemaker extraordinaire was a special guest of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. He showcased his Raw Milk Cloth Bandaged Cheddar, along with other Wisconsin cheeses brought by the WMMB: Marieke's Raw Milk Gouda, Saxon Creamery Big Ed's, Hook's 10-Year cheddar and Seymour Dairy Ader Kase.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve -- quite possibly the most famous cheese to ever come out of Wisconsin -- was showcased in a special dish prepared by Chef Tory Miller of L'Etoile restaurant, who is also serving as one of 29 Wisconsin Cheese Chef Ambassadors from around the country.

Also taking home honors was Terry Theise, of Terry Theise Estate Selections in Silver Spring, Maryland, who took home the outstanding wine and spirits professional award. Theise is the husband of Odessa Piper, the founding chef-owner of L'Etoile. Odessa won a Beard award in 2001 for her work at the Madison restaurant, which she sold to Tory and his sister, Traci Miller, back in 2005.

All in all, a very good weekend for Wisconsin, indeed.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Man Cheese

Looking for a gift for dad for Father's Day? How about some manly cheese?

I discovered Beechwood Cheese this past week, located about halfway between Green Bay and Milwaukee. Since the last time I checked in with this little factory, they've changed their focus from quality commodity cheeses to a whole slew of flavored jacks and cheddars.

I brought home four varieties for some friends to try. The first one: Chuckwagon Cheddar. Made from "all natural mild cheddar and monterey jack with BBQ flavor and spices," my friends took a couple of bites and said, "This is a man's cheese."

So we tracked down our husbands -- who in a very manly manner were hanging out in the backyard -- gave them samples, and, sure enough, they pronounced it to be pretty good. Parting comments as we dodged the mosquitoes to return indoors included: "Bring out some beer!" and "This could use some more BBQ."

Next was Uncle Charlie's Chicken Soup Cheese. One would wonder: if you like chicken soup, wouldn't you just eat chicken soup and not chicken soup flavored cheese? However, the folks at Beechwood assure me this is their biggest seller. Lots of people buy it to cook with and it does carry a lot of flavor. It's also a good melting cheese.

Next up: Country Kitchen Chive & Bacon. After looking at the label and noticing it contained bacon, we decided: this is definitely another man's cheese. Another trip out to the backyard, and another round of choruses from the men appreciating the cheese. Parting comment from my husband: "Needs more bacon." Keep in mind this is the same man who has never met a bacon dish he didn't like and who even eats Mo's Bacon Bar chocolate.

Last but not least was the Beechwood Bistro Cheddar, billed as "natural cheddar cheese with black pepper, shallot and spices." This was probably the best liked by those of us indoors, and with the men already consuming the chuckwagon cheddar and bacon cheese outside, we decided to keep this one to ourselves.

Happy Father's Day to all cheese-eating men everywhere.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome Saxon Creamery

Sunday marked the grand opening of Saxon Homestead Creamery in Cleveland, Wis., where a mere 24 years after their first business plan, the Klessig and Heimerl families realized their dream of making artisan cheese from the milk of their own cows.

Attending the grand opening ceremony was a bit like a family reunion, as about 125 friends, family members, state officials and industry reps gathered to help the dairy farmers turned cheesemakers celebrate.

"This kind of stuff just doesn't happen outside Wisconsin," was how Saxon Creamery partner Dan Strongin summed up the day, after he asked everyone in the room who was related to either the Klessigs or Heimerls to identify themselves. About one-quarter of those in attendance raised their hands.

"This is one of those feel-good American stories where a dairy family makes good on their dream," Strongin said.

And made good they did.

Creamery manager and co-owner Gerald Heimerl, along with brothers-in-law Karl and Robert Klessig, who manage the family’s nearby grass-based Saxon Homestead Dairy Farm, began production of unique, handcrafted, small-batch cheeses last August. Today, the cheese aging rooms at Saxon Homestead Creamery are full, and Heimerl says plans are underway for another building project that will add needed inventory space. The creamery itself is a former beer warehouse that sat empty but was transformed into a state-of-the-art creamery designed by Saxon partner/cheesemaker Neville McNaughton.

On Sunday, Neville and Dan led a tasting of two of Saxon’s carefully-aged cheeses: Green Fields, an earthy elegant table cheese featuring a washed rind wrapped in special breathable paper, and Big Eds, named for late family patriarch Ed Klessig, that Dan described as "the kind of cheese that hugs you back."

The creamery’s milk is produced at Saxon Homestead Dairy Farm, where the Klessigs hosted 2,500 people at the Manitowoc County Dairy Breakfast that same morning. The Klessigs and Heimerls converted their conventional dairy to a rotational grazing operation in 1989. That experience became the family’s “a-ha moment” as they turned their herd of Holstein cows out of the barn onto pasture for the first time and said they witnessed "pure pleasure" on the faces of their cows.

Those in attendance praised the Saxon family for reinvesting in their family dairy operation and for adding to the state’s dairy economy.

In fact, Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen gave up his Sunday afternoon to attend the ceremony, saying: “This is the fifth dairy plant opening I’ve been to so far this year. I’d say we have more to celebrate in America’s Dairyland than we have for decades, and it’s because of entrepreneurs like the Klessigs and Heimerls. Their story will be heard around the country."

Friday, June 06, 2008

Cheese Geek

Top 10 Signs you might be a Cheese Geek (hey - it's Friday afternoon and my mind is wandering):

10. Someone asks you the difference in the "make process" between colby and cheddar and you a) know what they mean by "make process" and b) actually know the answer (Colby is similar to cheddar, but does not undergo the cheddaring process - it is softer and moister because it's produced through a washed-curd process). Thrilling, isn't it?

9. You're on a first name basis with the individual who owns the trademark "Squeaky Cheese". (That would be Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese and he's still giving me a hard time for my Christmas poem about him and Sid Cook).

8. You Google yourself and the first (and only) thing that appears are articles you've written about cheese, cheesemakers and events revolving around cheese.

7. When you host a dinner party, the first question your guests ask is "So what kind of cheese are we having tonight and tell us the stories about the cheesemakers."

6. You spend your $1,500 "economic stimulus payment" on a new refrigerator specifically because it has a special temperature-maintained cheese drawer and then regale its features to your friends with what turns out, so much enthusiasm, that they later heavily mock you over margaritas.

5. You volunteer to work Saturday mornings at a local artisan cheese shop because it's a) great fun to talk about cheese with complete strangers and b) you get the honors of being the first person to taste the new wheel of bandaged cheddar that Willi Lehner just brought in. Could life get any better?

4. Your husband introduces you to his co-workers as the "Cheese Underground Lady" and they look at you and start talking very loudly and slowly, taking care to enunciate their words. You smile and nod.

3. Farmers from Peru, the Ukraine and India all write you emails on the same day, asking if you can send them a manual on how to start a dairy. While you can't, you do refer them to the Center for Dairy Profitability, where by now, Arlin Branstrom is probably pushing delete whenever he sees your name in his Inbox.

2. Every year during the month of June, random people somehow track down your cell phone number at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings and ask for directions to the (insert various county name here) dairy breakfast, and you actually get out of bed and Google it for them. This could be why you nap so much.

1. And the number one sign you might be a Cheese Geek: you write a blog posting about the top 10 reasons you might be a cheese geek and no one reads it.

Happy Friday!