Thursday, June 28, 2012

Outdoor Music

Last night was the first of Concerts on the Square, a six-week free concert series on the lawn of the Capitol.  Every Wednesday in the middle of ungodly hot weather season, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra decides to put on black suits and test their wooden instruments' humidity-defying abilities.  The rest of Madison decides that, for one day, they'll move their Happy Hour celebrations to the grass in front of the Capitol.  The police are strangely cool with the whole situation.  This is a pretty fantastic event.  It’s outdoors, features free live music, and involves a bit of drinking.  

Sunshine, music, wine
Yeah, you normally wouldn’t peg the symphony-going crowd as a bunch of drinkers, but Concerts on the Square is a good drinking party.  Every group of four has at least six bottles of wine.  And why not?  It's not often you can bask under the midsummer sun and drink the evening away to Tchaikovsky and Copeland.  We enjoy it while we can and revel in every second of it.  The aftermath is a field of wine bottles strewn about with haggard soccer moms lurching after their husbands like zombies back to their car.  Like I said, a fantastic event.

The aftermath

But Concerts on the Square is just one of many outdoor concert opportunities in Wisconsin.  Of course there is the heart and soul of summertime Madison, the Union Terrace.  Since 1928, the Terrace has been the best place to soak up summertime culture.  Grab a pitcher of beer and a brat, find a table on the lake, and enjoy the music.  It's Madison summer Mecca.  If you know anybody who went to UW Madison, they'll have plenty of stories about needing to go study for finals, but the siren call of cheap microbrew and brats being too tempting to resist.  Have I sold you yet?  Check out the webcam to see what’s going on right now.

Soul of Madison summer

But Madison does not have a monopoly on outdoor music.  Milwaukee has a little get-together we like to call Summerfest.  It all started with a dream: in 1968 Henry W. Maier, the mayor of Milwaukee, wanted to start a festival that would rival Oktoberfest in Munich.  It may not rival the iconic German festival in beer consumed, but Summerfest has become the world’s largest music festival and brought amazing music acts to Milwaukee.  For just $16 a day, you can hear over 700 bands in this 11-day festival.  That’s over 60 bands a day, for only 25¢ a band! The grounds for Summerfest also host ethnic festivals all summer as well.  Polish Fest, German Fest, Festa Italia, and Irish Fest draw in thousands every year and feature the best in music, food, and culture from their respective countries.

And this happens all over Wisconsin - not just in the bigger cities.  From Superior to Beloit, almost any town of size offers plenty of free outdoor tunes.  We love music, we love drinking while listening to music, and we love getting outdoors in the summer.  Wisconsin may not be the most famous summer party spot, but we know how to have a great time.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Supper Clubs

You may think of traditional Wisconsin cuisine as brats and cheese.  Indeed, they have their place in our history and on our table, but of all the edible traditions in Wisconsin, one of my favorites is the old town supper club.

Supper clubs used to be found all over the Midwest, but they are associated with no state stronger than Wisconsin.  In fact, their charms are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in Wisconsin.  The Old Fashioned is one of the most popular bars in Madison and harkens back to the old traditions and rec-room d├ęcor of Dairy State supper clubs.  Capital Brewery has even named a lager after the dining institutions.  So what makes them special?  Why are they so beloved in Wisconsin; why did they survive here?

Supper clubs are more than dining.  They are more like an pub in rural western Ireland—the public living room.  They are not clubs in the membership sense, but a central place one can spend an entire evening dining, having cocktails, and maybe catching some entertainment.  Among patrons, you’ll see businessmen hosting clients and feeding them the charms and camaraderie of the bar.  A family will be celebrating a grandparent’s birthday in the dining room.   Games of Euchre played in the lounge with watchful eyes on the lookout for table talk between partners.  Supper clubs are the center of the community and have played a central role in preserving Wisconsin’s famous hospitality and small-town cohesiveness.

Some people argue what makes a restaurant a supper club and not just a ‘fine dining establishment’ or ho-hum steakhouse.  In my opinion, it comes down to a few key factors.  On the menu Prime Rib is key, relish trays come before every meal, and Friday will revolve around the fish fry.  Desert is Grasshopper ice cream, and the bar must be large and well stocked.  Of course, the Old Fashioned (brandy, of course) is ubiquitous. Patrons are all familiar faces to their server (whom they will often request by name), and meat raffles and Euchre are common.

In this grand dining tradition, I will be reviewing supper clubs across the state.  I am pleased to announce my first review is Benedetti’s in my hometown of Beloit.

Look at that slaw!
Benedetti’s is one of three two supper clubs in Beloit.  It opened in 1946 as the Yost Park Tavern, but after it burned in 1946, it reopened in 1953 as ‘Club 51’, so-named because it was on Highway 51.  This name is still painted on the mirror in the wonderfully dim-lit lounge bar.

Like any good supper club, the relish tray was brought out before any order was put in.  You gotta love a good helping of coleslaw.  It’s the illusion of a healthy salad with the nutritional value of Chinese newspapers.  But damn is this stuff good.  Paired with my Old Fashioned, this brought me back to old-time Wisconsin of Hank Aaron baseball and bowling alleys.

Walking into any old supper club in Wisconsin is like slipping into a well-worn shoes.  It should be comfortable and put you at ease.  The food is classic, fatty, and delicious.  I was fortunate enough to be there on a Friday, so I tried out the fish fry.  Good portions--not too big.  The breading was light and crispy and the homemade tartar sauce tasted great.  Fries were merely an accessory meant to supplement the fish, the star of this show.  Among the din of the restaurant, old familiar faces were laughing and chatting; catching up on the week.  The bar was busy with people celebrating the upcoming freedom of a summer weekend in Beloit, and everybody jumped into the in-house ice cream for dessert.

Fish is a miracle food.
It may not be the most complicated or innovative food, but the enjoyment of this meal cannot be described.  It’s an old standby, and it can be found all over this state.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Milk Cocktails

The craft-cocktail phenomena can be found in any major metropolitan; New York, LA, and Chicago are rife with modern speakeasies. Madison may not be one of the more famous cocktails destinations, but bars such as Nostrano and Merchant have introduced prohibition-era recipes and in-house concoctions to the Wisconsin bar patron.

This has made me more curious about where the mixed drink fits in Wisconsin. I joke that after beer and milk, the brandy old fashioned is Wisconsin’s third official drink. Korbel, a brand that is synonymous with the brandy in Wisconsin, distributes roughly one-third of their production to Wisconsin.1 But beyond the beer and brandy, I think Wisconsin has some room for creativity when it comes to cocktails. Readers, let me introduce to you the Milk Punch.
Good for the bones and the liver!

Yes, milk might not be the first thing to spring to mind when I say ‘gin’, but milk punches have been around since the colonial era.2 And what better state to experiment with the use of milk in cocktails than the Dairy State itself?

Most milk punch recipes I found followed the same formula: 1 cup milk, 2 ounces liquor, and a sprinkling of nutmeg.3 However, I feel like there is room for improvement. Here’s a few recipes I came up with at my home bar (and remember, kids: whole milk only!):

Mendota Sunrise
1 cup milk
2 oz. gin
1 egg white
1 celery stalk

Shake the gin, milk, and egg vigorously until emulsified and frothy. Pour into a highball glass and garnish with celery stalk, cinnamon, and cucumber slice on the rim.

Pinckney Street Special
1 cup milk
1 oz. brandy
2 oz. coffee cream liqueur
1 tbs. vanilla extract
Powdered sugar

Shake milk, brandy, and coffee cream. Pour into glass and add vanilla. Garnish with powdered sugar.

Rum Hibiscus Milk Punch - adapted from Drink Magazine
(This one takes some preparation)

1 bottle (750ml) white rum
Rind from a 1 whole orange
Rind from a 2 whole lemons
1 TBL dried hibiscus leaves
2 cups simple syrup (made by shaking 2 cups water and two cups sugar)
1 cup fresh lime juice
2 cups milk
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground cloves

Have on hand a 1-gallon container and 2 pitchers (1 should be glass).

In a large glass or ceramic bowl, combine the rum and orange and lemon rinds. Cover tightly and set aside to infuse for 48 hours. Add hibiscus and infuse for 2 hours more. Strain the rum mixture through a fine-meshed sieve into a 1-gallon container. Add the simple syrup and stir well. Stir in the lime juice. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk to 180 degrees. Pour the hot milk into the rum mixture. Add the cinnamon and clove. Stir and set aside for 30 minutes or until the mixture curdles. Set a fine-meshed strainer over a pitcher (glass isn't necessary right now). Pour the milk mixture through the strainer. When the flow of liquid has slowed to a drip, place strainer into a glass pitcher and slowly pour contents of first pitcher into the strainer. (Do not remove curd after first straining; it forms a natural filter.) Rate of flow from strainer should be slow and steady, and resulting liquid should be clear. Store punch in a corked bottle or covered container and refrigerate for up to 8 weeks. Serve cold in small, stemmed glasses, such as sherry glasses.