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A weekend road trip took me back to Washington Island, off the tip of Wisconsin's Door County, for a whirlwind update on goings-on at the Washington Hotel and related concerns. Saturday night I had a delicately smoky whitefish pizza and some lip-smacking rosemary-fried olives at the hotel, but I passed on that night's prix fixe special because I'd had most of the same dishes for lunch in a sunnier (if buggier) environment--a field of young winter wheat.
The hotel had kicked off its summer calendar of culinary events that day with a four-course demo and meal by chef David Swanson, of Milwaukee's Braise on the Go traveling cooking school, which stages on-site cooking classes on farms and other nontraditional venues (an orchard, a brewery) as a way of shortening the loop between consumer and farmer and putting people in touch with the sources of their food. If you're worried about food miles, he says, eating apple pie three feet from the tree that bore it can really put your mind at ease.
Swanson's a Kendall College grad who's dropped Escoffier science at Le Titi de Paris, Carlos', and the now-shuttered Le Francais, where under Roland Liccioni he rose from line cook to sous chef. Most recently he spent six years as chef de cusine at Milwaukee's Sanford. During that time the restaurant won a James Beard "best of the midwest" award. He's also the head of Slow Food's southeastern Wisconsin convivium. His master plan is to be chef and owner of Braise, the restaurant, but meanwhile Braise on the Go is a way of "taking the drama out of fine dining"--you don't have to go to a fancy restaurant to have a great meal; you can eat just as well dive-bombed by butterflies in the middle of the back 40.
So I ate in the wheat field. First up: grilled asparagus from Blue Valley Gardens in Mount Horeb ("the best asparagus in the world") with prosciutto and truffle honey. Brush the 'gus with grape seed or olive oil and grill; lay four or five spears over a few slices of prosciutto, drizzle with truffle-infused honey, and top with thinly shaved Parmesan and black pepper. Sweet honey, salty meat, and that elusively sulfuric asparagus burn make an unpredictable combination of clean, pure flavors. (Click the images link below for pictures of this and more.) Caplan paired the appetizer with an Alsatian blend of muscat and riesling that's high enough in acid to stand up to the veg sommeliers across the land refer to as the "wine killer."
The spring panzanella that followed was the hit of the day, and also supersimple. Dress slightly toasted chunks of day-old bread in a lemon and garlic vinaigrette, then toss with fresh spring peas, diced cucumber, handfuls of torn mizuna, and a chiffonade of mint. Top with a healthy dash of creamy mint dressing and season with salt and pepper.
Third course: spring saute with grilled lamb. Grill lamb chops, marinated overnight in a balsamic reduction liberally spiked with marjoram, thyme, and rosemary, to taste. Meanwhile, render some diced pancetta in a saucepan, then add diced potatoes and cook until golden. Add morels and ramps foraged on the island and some garlic and--when all is tender--pour in some veal stock to give the stuff body. Serve lamb over veggies.
Dessert was vodka-braised strawberries with black pepper served over tangy creme fraiche infused with orange zest and topped with granola, an addictive blend that left me wondering just why we can't all just eat bowls of creme fraiche every day. When Swanson and Caplan revamped the menu for that night's dinner at the hotel, the strawberries were served over a sweet pavlova, the creme fraiche relegated to a top note. It was more sophisticated, and less deadly, but the plain old big bowl of cream still gets my vote.
The wheat field is one of many on Washington Island donated by landowners to a wheat-growing initiative spearheaded by the hotel and organized by brother farmers Tom and Ken Koyen. The grain is stone ground at the hotel, used in all its baked goods, and sold retail as flour. Surplus is shipped to Capital Brewery outside Madison, where it's used in the brewery's popular Island Wheat Ale. Madison's also the home base for Death's Door Spririts, which last week launched a gin made from island wheat and flavored with juniper and other island-grown botanicals with festivities both on the island and down in Madison. To my knowlege I've got Chicago's first and only bottles of the stuff sitting in my kitchen right now--but I haven't tried it yet, so the tasting notes on that will have to come later.