Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Everything is Better with Lard-SlowPig Madison 2011

“I've cured 13 vegetarians with the power of pork,” said Greg Nadasdy, the bartender from Roots restaurant in Milwaukee, as he stood among the four other mixologists vying for the SlowPig “craft punch” win. Joining them were four chefs, Tory Miller of Graze, Francesco Mangano of Osteria Papavero, Justin Aprahamian of Sanford in Milwaukee, and Paul Zerkel of Roots in Milwaukee, also hoping for the grand prize—a hand-crafted, pig-shaped skillet.

Vegetarians were probably not drawn to the carnivorous event, which was held at Madison Club and organized by Executive Chef Dan Fox. But if they had been, I'm certain the amazing selection of pig-based dishes would have “cured” all of them. Each chef came up with 5-7 dishes from a locally-raised heritage pig. From Sanford's Corn Dogs with Foie Gras Mustard, to Root's Lard Gingersnaps (I got stuck way too long upstairs enjoying samplings from Sanford and Osteria Papavero--and a huge pile of caviar--that I completely, and sadly, missed Root's spread of food.) the samplings went far beyond the pork chops or hot dogs that most of us typically enjoy.

The names of some of the dishes, such as “head cheese” and “tongue confit”, might sound less than appealing even to meat eaters. However, I liked the bold name Tory Miller bestowed upon one of his appetizers-- “face tacos”. The deliciously simple crunch of a fresh tortilla chip, topped with perfectly seasoned shredded meat (from the face of the pig, obviously), garnished simply with radish and pickled onion made it one of the stand-out dishes of the night.

I also enjoyed the Sopressana Toacana w/ Balsamic Braised Cipollini (Osteria), and the Crispy Pork Belly with Kimchee and Lettuce (L'Etoile). My favorite dish of the event was Sanford's superb dessert—Laquered Bacon Roast Apple and Fig with Cider Cream and Cranberry Broth. The broth had an imperceptible note of clove, with savory overtones. After a few minutes of playing food detective with those around me, I realized that I could simply ask the chef! Fresh cranberry juice, white wine, bay leaf and mace, he said, along with a pinch of clove and some sugar.

This event brought together farmers, chefs, foodies and food producers in a way that felt, for lack of a better word, awesome. Micah Nicholes, who raises heritage pigs near Blue Mounds and supplied the chefs with their pig of choice, was dressed up and accompanied by his radiant and pregnant wife, Patty. Micah looked equally at ease in the crowd as the Madison Club members.

Representatives from Black Earth Meats, Willow Creek Farm and Underground Food Collective, among others offered samples of their meat selection—and unexpectedly connected me to my own food traditions. I haven't eaten Braunshweiger since I was a kid, when my dad spread it on bread with mayo. And seeing the dry-cured sausages from Bulzano Meats brought back memories of the homemade Tyrolean sausage that my mother's family used to make in Pennsylvania.

Isn't that what slow food is all about: Connecting us to our roots and communities by honoring food traditions and the people in our communities who that make that possible? Though only two skillets were handed out, there were many, many winners at SlowPig Madison 2011.

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