Like many Wisconsinites, I enjoy the novelty of winter's opening weeksbreaking out the woolens, digging up the mittens, roasting the many ginormous squash I've lugged home on foot from the year's final, windswept farmers' markets. But when my enthusiasm for squash (and snow, and sleet) begins to wane, what do I do? Climb in the car, grumpily and guiltily, to get my hands on some California broccoli and Florida tomatoes at the grocery store.
My feeble non-solution to this locavore's dilemma would never occur to Tory Miller, chef and co-proprietor of L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin. Painstakingly faithful to local ingredients, he hand-picks most of his produce from April through November at Madison's cartoonishly abundant farmers' markets, then stores much of it, using everything from an old-fashioned root cellar to a modern-day blast freezer that perfectly preserves berries and tomatoessomething my pioneer grandmothers would have worshipped. Still, I am somewhat relieved, misery loving company, to hear Miller describe his own frustrations with Wisconsin's limited repertoire of winter vegetables. "It gets rough right after Valentine's Day," he says, shaking his head. "At that point, you're like, how much can you do with a dozen ingredients and still have a fine-dining restaurant? You're just praying for the first sign of something green that isn't more hoop-house spinach.".
Still, rather than retreating to the walk-in fridge to pelt each other with potatoes, L'Etoile's kitchen crew has a saner distraction to break up winter's monotony, courtesy of Miller and his sister and co-proprietor, Traci: a late-February staff party. This "thou shall not defeat us" fist shake to the season of bitterly short, dark days and typically low culinary creativity begins with a brisk round of the heroically low-tech sport known as broomball. Then comes a casual yet luxurious all-white meal that highlights an abundance of Midwestern ingredientsopen-face sandwiches with caper cream cheese and smoked trout from Westfield, Wisconsin, ricotta blintzes with Wisconsin lingonberry syrup, endives braised in orange juice and gin that's distilled right in Madison.
The party took place last year at the home of the Millers' business partner, Dianne Christensen, on Lake Mendota, one of two lakes that straddle Madison's long isthmus. The entire L'Etoile gang and their kids took to the ice to play broomball, clomping and skidding around in snow boots, whump-sweeping the ball up and down a makeshift rink. Broom hockey (sometimes known as "broom hockey") is traditionally played in Wisconsin by weekend warriors brave enough to grab a broom and waddle out onto a frozen lake wearing dorky snorkel parkas and snow pants. "You don't need a lot of equipment, and all ages can play togethernot like real hockey, where everyone's smashing into each other," says Christensen. Mugs of hot chocolate and White Magicmade with white chocolate, espresso and steamed milkcountered the bone-rattling cold.
Later, when everyone came inside to eat, the Millers and Christensen huddled together to talk shop. They were finalizing their plans to move L'Etoile up the street from its cramped location on the second floor of a Victorian building to a lofty new space with an enormous wall of windows looking directly out onto Capital Square. They were also working out the details for a gastropub, Graze, that they wanted to open next door to the new L'Etoile space. Their goal was to elevate standard bar food with inventive recipes and regional ingredients. (Both places debuted last summer and have become Madison fixtures; even longtime L'Etoile customers sentimentally attached to the slightly fuddy-duddy former dining room have become converts.)
Joining L'Etoile staffers and their families at the party were two guests: celebrated cheesemakers Mike and Carol Gingrich. Co-owners of the Uplands Cheese Company in nearby Dodgeville, the Gingriches turn milk from their grass-fed cows into a magnificent Alpine-style cheese named Pleasant Ridge Reserve that has thrice won top honors from the American Cheese Society. (L'Etoile was one of the first places ever to purchase Pleasant Ridge Reserve; today it's one of the few American cheeses that star French chef Daniel Boulud serves at New York City's Daniel and Bar Boulud.) As a sideline, Mike recently began selling Berkshire pork to L'Etoile; according to Tory's specifications, he finishes the pigs on local apples, acorns and whey from his dairy. The goal was to create meat in which the flavor of Wisconsin's terroir comes through. And according to Tory, Mike nailed it. "It's a really tender, delicious pig," says Tory, adding that it has a "sweeter, creamier" flavor than pork from other farms.
That pork was the centerpiece of the L'Etoile party: Tory brined the loin with an array of spices, including fennel seeds, coriander and cloves, before roasting it, then served it alongside a tangy salad of sliced fennel and grapefruit (recipes at right). "Tory goes the extra mile to deal directly with farmers, and it works very well for both parties," Mike says. For everyone else at the gathering, tasting the flavors of Wisconsin in so many unexpected ways was also inspiring, and a wonderful way to remember the greatness that is our state's fertile growing season, now (really!) just a stone's throw ahead on the calendar.
Louisa Kamps is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker and Elle.
Broomball Winter White Wines
2009 Sartori di Verona Ferdi ($14)
This winery in Italy's northern Veneto region dries indigenous Garganega grapes for more than a month before pressing, giving this pear-scented white a terrific smoothness.
2009 Zaca Mesa Viognier ($20)
Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez Valley has the ideal climate for Rhône grape varieties like Viognier. Zaca Mesa's is substantial, but it has a lively acidity that helps it pair well with food.
2007 Domaine Marcel Deiss Bergheim Pinot Blanc ($22)
Best known for its terroir-driven grand cru white blends, this iconic Alsatian producer also makes a handful of affordable variety-specific bottlings, like this rich, tangerine-scented Pinot Blanc.