31 January 2011

Anglers & Antlers: Charlie's Smoked Whitefish and Joel's Roasted Elk Highlight a Celebration of Local Food at In Fine Spirits

The first Locavore Dinner of 2011 was a sort of homecoming for me. A couple of years ago, In Fine Spirits hosted a Unibroue beer and specialty foods pairing event that I presented shortly after the bar opened in April 2008. The private room on the second floor is a comfortable space for a communal meal, even on a brisk winter night like the one we experienced on last Monday (January 22nd). Nearly 20 committed and curious locavores joined us for a 5-course feast of local foods, plus a bonus course of stories and photos of elk presented by Joel Espe, the proud owner of Hawks Hill Elk Ranch.

This Locavore Dinner was special for another reason: the presence of products and people from Door County, Wisconsin, the birthplace of my maternal grandfather and the annual vacation destination for my family. While planning this event, I learned that In Fine Spirits' general manager and a recently-hired server hail from Sister Bay, a village of about 900 people on the Green Bay side of the peninsula. So, I promptly suggested we feature two of Door County's most well-known ingredients in our dinner menu: smoked whitefish from Charlie's Smokehouse and dried Montmorency cherries from County Ovens (Forestville, WI).

Since 1932, the Voight family has smoked fish in the tiny village of Gills Rock, located at the northern tip of the peninsula. Founder Roy Voight (1898–1974) was succeeded by his son Charlie and grandson Chris, who are the last remaining commercial fish smokers in Door County. The Voights cut, brine, wash and smoke Lake Michigan whitefish and chubs (when available), Canadian lake trout and Pacific salmon. Each year, Charlie and Chris smoke approximately 30,000 pounds of commercially-caught fish and 5,000 pounds of recreationally-caught fish. They use only Door County maple wood to smoke the fish in an artisan process that requires about 8 hours per batch. Charlie was kind enough to include an aromatic cinder of the maple wood in our shipment of whitefish, which were smoked just three days prior to our event.

During our dinner, I was so engaged in chats with our guests, Joel and Hans Sundquist (husband of chef Marianne) that I completely forgot to take photos of our food. Fortunately, Marianne provided me with a detailed description of how she expertly crafted the locally-sourced ingredients into five flavorful courses that represented nearly 15 different family farms or food artisans.

Amuse | beet tartare: truffle gelee, goat cheese mousse, citrus vinaigrette, chive, fennel pollen

Chef made the gelee with gelatin, vegetable stock and truffle oil. The beets were roasted, peeled, diced then tossed in a small amount of orange juice, lemon juice, honey, extra virgin olive oil, chive and shallot. Given the distinctive flavors of these ingredients, it requires finesse to avoid overwhelming the flavor of the roasted beets and instead enhance their delicate, earthiness. Chef made the goat cheese mousse by melting goat cheese over a double boiler, whisking-in heavy cream and then charging it in a whipped cream canister. She set the beets—topped with goat cheese mousse—in a martini glass, finished with a light dusting of fennel pollen.

One | Werp farm mixed green salad: fingerling potatoes, fennel, apple, Door County smoked whitefish

Suffice it to say chef Sundquist is a fervent fan of Werp Farms' greens and micro greens. This deceptively salad showcased Werp Farms' mixed greens and the smoked whitefish from Charlie's Smokehouse. Chef combined greens, shaved shallot, fennel and apple, fresh parsley leaves, thyme and fingerling potatoes, which were lightly tossed in a maple-balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was completed with a generous amount of hand-flaked smoked whitefish.

Two | Winter root vegetable soup: Spence Farm cornmeal crepe, za'atar brown butter, micro mache

Chef made the soup from a mixture of celeriac and purple top turnips, simmered with vegetable stock until tender, blended until smooth and then finished with a splash of Kilgus heavy cream. She made the crepes with Spence Farm White Iroquois Cornmeal and just before serving, brushed them with a light application of za'atar spice brown butter. Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend made in-house at In Fine Spirits for their marcona almonds. It is a mixture of sesame seeds, sumac and the "lemon herbs" which included thyme, marjoram and oregano.

Three | Crispy ricotta gnocchi, Hawks Hill elk ragout, parmesan, chive

Chef enjoys making elk ragout during the winter months because it takes all day, offering tantalizing aromas to the kitchen staff. It is a gentle, slow process of browning the elk meat, rendering bacon and then using the rendered fat to cook Saigon cinnamon bark, which stays in the pot for the remainder of the cooking time. Chef then added diced onion, carrot and fennel and cooked them until they were lightly caramelized. She then added minced garlic for a few minutes, followed by a bottle of Two Brothers Northwind Imperial Stout, beef stock and crushed tomatoes. Finally, she transferred the ragout to the oven for a slow braising over 5–6 hours at low temperature (250 'F). The long, slow cooking process tenderizes the elk meat to the point that it falls apart in the ragout.

Four | Grassfields Creamery Fait Gras cheese with Country Ovens cherry mostarda

Fait Gras cheese is a triple-cream cheddar that is made in Coopersville, Michigan (near Holland). It is semi-soft, with a mild grassy and slightly herbaceous flavor because the milk is from pastured cows. Chef made the mostarda from a simple preparation of dried Montmorency cherries from Door County, red wine, sugar and Dijon & whole grain mustards.

Five | Apple and Door County cherry crumble: balsamic sour cream, shortbread, Laack Brothers' 7-year cheddar

Following our final course, I offered a few well-deserved acknowledgements to In Fine Spirits' owner Shane Kissack (who joined us for the meal) and his staff members Anders, Anne and Zach, who offered outstanding service throughout the evening. The entire group responded with enthusiastic applause for chef Sundquist and Joel Espe, who made this Locavore Dinner as memorable as it was delicious.

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