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.".
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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.