If Not Grape Salad: What?
In short: We’ve gotta play to our strengths, people. What are those strengths? This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.
Subtle, profound, descended from a number of different traditions (Norwegian, Ojibwe, Scottish, and so forth.) Smoked fish is a powerful way to preserve and enhance the bounty of the land, and it tastes delicious even on a crappy supermarket bagel.
Foraged plants, berries, and garden herbs
Too many of our green things come out of plastic clamshells, even over the warmer months of the year. There’s a great bounty of wild and garden-raised fruit, vegetables, and greenery that we can and should embrace.
Venison, elk, boar—wild game is rich, it’s bold, it’s justified and ancient.
Beer and spirits
The inexorable advance of global warming means that we may well be living in wine country come 2100 or 2150. Until then, we are not living in wine country, and while blessed by the pioneers who chip away at the Upper Midwestern local wine plan, the real action is in beer and spirits. I’ll put Minnesota beer against beer from anywhere in the world, and that’s becoming increasingly true of our spirits, too (although it may be a generation or three before our bourbon or whisky can stand up to Kentucky or Scotland.)
Pickled fruit and vegetables
Like smoking fish, pickling produce is a way to extend the life of the food and enhance its flavor. It’s a craft, it’s an art, it’s something that restaurants like Heartland and Corner Table have rightfully latched onto as a way to intelligently wave the local food flag while making food that’s just plain delicious.
Rhubarb in summer, cranberries in winter
A little tartness goes a long way and we’re doubly blessed: rhubarb is everywhere when it’s warm and our neighbors to the east are the world’s largest producer of cranberries… and cranberries freeze like a dream. Never should you be without recourse when it comes to making dessert joyously complex, or sweetly offsetting a rich meat course.
Heritage and free-range Minnesota turkeys and chickens
If you dig a bit, you can find local poultry that’ll blow up your tastebuds. The more we can grow our own, the fewer factory raised chicken prisoners we’ll have to consume.
Wisconsin cheese regularly medals at international competitions, and while the majority of the best is hard stuff like cheddar, Gouda, and parmesan-style cheese, there are a number of new companies making delicious and exciting soft cheeses and mixed milk cheeses. Minnesota’s nascent industry is picking up as well with the resurgence of Shepherd’s Way Farms, the popularity of Faribault and Alemar cheeses, and new startups like Redhead Creamery.
Playing to this non-exhaustive list of strengths shouldn’t mean that Minnesota fare has to be a Euro-centric thing. Asian and Middle Eastern recipes can be adapted to what’s locally and seasonally brilliant, and American Indian recipes can and should be studied, taught, and enjoyed. The African American tradition of barbecue—chronically underappreciated in general around these parts—could and should be studied with a great deal more seriousness, as it is a way to make unpretentious food that absolutely dazzles with flavor and subtlety.
A Menu the World Would Envy
The following menu is offered up as one way of looking at “Minnesota food.” It was created with little study beyond a basic familiarity with the terrain and foodstuffs of the Upper Midwest. As appetizing as it might look, a trained local chef could improve upon it easily, as might an imaginative home cook.
Lake Superior herring roe atop quark cheese atop a rye crisp.
Paired with: A scant cordial of Far North Solveig gin
Half a spit-roasted bratwurst made from Minnesota pork served with a hunk of rustic bread and a large pickled garden-grown pepperoncini
Paired with: Schell’s Pilsner
Foraged mushroom ragout tossed with sour cream and pepper served over fresh spaetzle.
Paired with: Lift Bridge Chestnut Hill Brown Ale
Planked whitefish served with popped wild rice and a smoked cranberry chutney.
Paired with: HammerHeart Dublin Raid Peat Smoked Irish Red Ale
Venison loin with mushroom duxelle and winter pickles (for recipe see “Slay To Gourmet,” page 50).
Paired with: Summit Oatmeal Stout
Sweet-tart cherry-berry pie made from local cherries, rhubarb, and wild foraged berries, served with Sweet Science “The Old Fashioned” ice cream
Bent River from Alemar
Espresso Bellavitano from Sartori
Big Woods Blue from Shepherd’s Way Farms
Alchemy series coffee by Peace Coffee
Black Harbor currant mead from White Winter Winery
Gamle Ode Aquavit
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