Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bucky Badger Cheese Curds

This weekend was homecoming at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and while our beloved Badgers lost the big football game in overtime, we fans enjoyed home team color red and white cheese curds, thanks to Wisconsin cheesemaker Cesar Luis of Cesar's Cheese.

Here's Cesar mixing and adding his super secret red recipe to turn the milk blood red -- rumor has it a few visitors to the cheese making viewing window at Sassy Cow Creamery were a bit horrified to see red in the cheese vat, until they found out they were to be turned into red and white cheese curds for Bucky's big game.

Mmmmm .... red milk. Probably a good thing this didn't happen on Halloween. I can imagine the rumors now.

Cheddaring the red curd.

Milling the red curd.

And voila, red cheese curds, mixed with regular, white cheese curds!

The ingenuity of Wisconsin cheesemakers never ceases to amaze me. Go Badgers!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Marieke Gouda Goes to Hollywood

Photo courtesy
Word is that a Wisconsin cheese will make its Hollywood debut in an episode of CSI:NY this Friday.

Back in August, I was at Larry's Market in Brown Deer picking up about 60 pounds of cheese for a wine and cheese tasting event, when co-owners Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson told me about a call they'd gotten earlier in the day.

Someone from the Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City, California called them looking for nettle gouda, as supposedly there was a plot line in an upcoming episode of CSI:NY about nettles. Larry's Market was out of Marieke Burning Nettle Gouda, but called around to area shops in an attempt to locate a few wheels for the producer.

The search came up empty-handed, so Steve called owner and cheesemaker Marieke Penterman at Holland's Family Cheese directly. After explaining the situation, Marieke gave him the scoop: she had exactly 4 wheels left of Burning Nettle Gouda, but they were earmarked for a customer.

So Marieke did what any good Wisconsin cheesemaker would do in this situation: she called the customer, explained the situation, and the customer said: by all means, send the cheese to Hollywood.

The episode is set to air tomorrow on CBS. Check for your local air time here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Downtown Madison Deep-Fried Cheese Curd Challenge

Just like Friday fish fries, Jell-O salads, and beer brats, deep-fried cheese curds are uniquely Wisconsin. Once relegated to county fairs, bars, and bowling alleys, the deep-fried delicacy today claims top billing on many an upscale menu. In downtown Madison, dozens of restaurants offer deep-fried cheese curds as an appetizer or side, and some are even transforming the once lowly fair-food into a top-shelf item.

So which downtown Madison restaurants do deep-fried cheese curds the best? To find out, I visited four different restaurants in a two-hour timespan for the ultimate taste test. But first, I had to pick up my photographer to capture the cheesy journey on film, which proved to be the first hurdle in what was to be a tougher writing assignment than first anticipated.

On a Thursday at 1:00 p.m., upon getting into my car, my photographer promptly informed me he had only two hours for the assignment. Unlike me, he has a real job, and two hours was the longest fake dentist appointment he could make without raising the suspicion of his boss. Incredulous, I asked him, “You mean we have to a) drive downtown, b) find a place to park, c) visit four restaurants and order cheese curds at each, d) eat aforementioned cheese curds, and then e) photograph each, all in two hours?” He stared back at me, unresponsive. I sighed. “Well then,” I said, “Challenge accepted.” And we roared off in my cheek geek mobile to hit four restaurants in 120 minutes.

First stop: Tipsy Cow on King Street. Neither of us had been there, and because we had to wait for our order of cheese curds to cook, we asked the bartender to throw in a couple of burgers, too. Fifteen minutes later, the burgers and cheese curds arrived at our table.

Five minutes later, my burger was gone, and my photographer was still trying to get the perfect shot of the $7.99 curds, which had arrived in a plastic basket lined with black and white checkered paper. I assured him that by now, he must have a good shot, and proceeded to taste my first deep-fried cheese curd of the day.

Hand-battered with New Glarus Spotted Cow beer, the white cheddar cheese curds at Tipsy Cow are very good. Light and fluffy, not greasy and not filling—at least at first—they dare you to eat them all, one luscious curd at a time. Stupidly, we did eat almost the entire basket before asking for the check. Strike one.

Second stop: Graze on Pinckney Street (pictured far top, right). We bellied up to the bar, ordered a basket of $8 cheese curds, and chatted with the bartender while he made me an iced latte. Ten minutes later, a very nice silver metal basket filled to the brim with enormous deep-fried cheese curds appeared, along with a bread and butter plate, and fork and knife for each of us. I wrinkled my brow. Typically, cheese curds are finger food. At Graze, however, cheese curds are considered the first course, and are big enough to require utensils. Sourced fresh daily from Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus and dipped into an in-house vodka batter, these cheese curds are the masters of their domain. Did we eat the entire basket? Of course. Strike two.

Third stop: The Old Fashioned, also on Pinckney Street. By this time, it was after 2:00 p.m., and the bar was fairly empty, so we found two stools under a lamp (the photographer was becoming a pro at shooting curds by this time). We ordered two tap root beers and a $6.95 basket of cheese curds. Five minutes later, the curds arrived, along with General Manager Jennifer De Bolt, who had caught wind that a cheese curd writer and photographer were in town.

Offered with a choice of five sauces, including roasted garlic, smoked Spanish paprika, a tiger sauce with horseradish and mayo, a tiger sauce with blue cheese, and the reliable standby of buttermilk ranch, the curds at The Old Fashioned are second to none. Smaller and greasier than the curds at Graze, they are tasty and addictive. Similar to the Tipsy Cow, The Old Fashioned sources their curd from Vern’s Cheese, a distributor in Chilton, Wisconsin. De Bolt said curds are delivered fresh three days a week, and are dipped in buttermilk before being rolled into a secret seasoned flour concoction. The result: pure bliss.

“The key to a good deep fried cheese curd is starting with a fresh curd,” De Bolt told us. “I can tell the difference between a one-day-old curd and three-day-old curd.” By this time, so could we. The curds at Graze had been super fresh—still milky and squeaky, while the curds at the Tipsy Cow had been less stringy and denser. We happily ate nearly the entire bowl of Old Fashioned cheese curds before realizing our mistake. You guessed it, strike three.

Last stop: the Great Dane Pub on East Doty Street. Hoisting ourselves up to the bar, we reluctantly ordered yet another basket of cheese curds. A few minutes later, the $8 curds arrived, along with Executive Chef Matt Moyer, who seemed disappointed to tell us they had stopped making deep-fried curds in-house years ago. Instead, they purchase frozen curd from a manufacturer in Stevens Point, which uses Point Beer in the beer batter. The result is a super-smooth deep-fried cheese curd, perfectly acceptable, but which pales in comparison to fresh, hand-battered curds.

“We do use fresh curds from Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point for our poutine,” Moyer said, “and despite the fact our curds are not made in-house, they are still our number one selling item on the menu at all five restaurants.” We could see why. If ever there was a food made to eat with a pint of beer, it is a deep-fried cheese curd.

With our bellies full of hot oil and cheese, we stumbled back to the car. It was a little past 3:00 p.m., and I asked my photographer if he would get in trouble for being late to work. He shook his head. “There is no possible way I’m going back to work,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “I’m fairly sure the dentist found a problem. In fact, I’m pretty sure I needed a root canal. I’m going home to lie down.” Turns out Madison’s deep-fried cheese curds had beat us both. But we didn’t mind. Challenge accomplished.

Note: this article is published in the current issue of Madison Originals Magazine. Check out this awesome publication and the cover photo by clicking here

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fromagination Celebrates 5 Years with 80 Pounds of Pleasant Ridge Reserve

What started out as the little-store-that-could and morphed into one of the nation's premiere cut-to-order cheese shops will celebrate its fifth anniversary in style this week with an 80-pound wheel of Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Owner Ken Monteleone, who first opened Fromagination in October 2007, will mark his 5-year anniversary this Friday at 3 p.m. by cutting one of only two 80-pound wheels of award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve ever made by Uplands Cheesemaker Andy Hatch in Dodgeville. The 12-month-aged cheese will be offered to the public for tasting and sale.

"It seemed like a pretty good occasion to break out the big wheel," Andy told me this week. "Ken has done a lot for artisan cheesemakers. We're just happy to be part of his big day."

I first met Ken six years ago, when Fromagination was nothing more than a concept he carried around in a black portfolio. I remember meeting him at Barrique's on West Washington Ave., talking about store concepts and what cheeses he would carry. When he opened in October 2007, Fromagination carried nothing but Wisconsin artisan cheeses for the first 30 days. It was the first time a cheese shop of that calibre had done such a thing, and it put Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers on the map.

Since then, Ken and his staff have focused on forging close relationships with Wisconsin cheesemakers, and as a result, the little shop on the Capital Square is often one of the first retailers many artisans contact when a new cheese is developed and ready for tasting. Monteleone sources as many local products as possible, with nearly 60 percent of the shop’s 400 products coming from an area stretching from Minneapolis to Madison to Chicago.

That dedication has been recognized by the industry. Lauded for its dedication to serving cheesemakers and small artisans, its attention to customer service, and its commitment to the environment, Fromagination was named an Outstanding Retailer in 2011 by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, and is a perennial winner in local Best of Madison contests for favorite specialty food store.

Be sure and stop by 12 S. Carroll Street in Madison on Friday at 3 p.m., say congrats to Ken, and take home a piece of big-wheel Pleasant Ridge Reserve. See you then!