Happy New Year from the Heartland

I spent Rosh Hashanah visiting good friends, Juliet and Phil, who lured me with the promise of an 18-pound kosher turkey and a smoker in which to cook it.

I arrived Friday evening and immediately began assessing the vegetables that had collected in the crisper. There were pattypan squash, corn and bell peppers in abundance. There were fresh herbs in the garden. I wanted a menu that spoke to traditional Rosh Hashanah foods (apples and honey) but also reflected the place (Madison, Wisconsin) and the season (that glorious moment in between summer and fall).

That night Phil stayed home with their son Doobie, who is almost two. Juliet and I strolled over to Lombardino’s for some Brandy Old Fashioneds (when in Rome) and classic Italian American food prepared well using local ingredients.

Saturday morning we headed to the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which is one of the best I’ve had the chance to visit. The stalls are arranged in a square around the state capitol. The Madisonians rotate counterclockwise in an orderly fashion—and are polite enough to not say anything when a New Yorker who’s forgotten something fails to do so. The quality and variety of the produce is pretty astonishing. And oh, the cheese curds!

We bought onions, edamame and poblano peppers to round out a succotash. We snacked on oatmeal rhubarb bars and beef jerky. We bought onions, shallots, leeks and apple cider. I had a vision of a bitter green salad with roasted squash and hazelnuts that would speak to the changing season. There were no delicata squash among the array on display at the squash stand, but the overall-clad man behind the table dug through buckets to procure three lovely specimens. The woman with the exotic greens had sold through her dandelion, but had some chicory that tasted right.

Afterwards, we hit an African drumming class at the Madison Children’s Museum. Doobie got down on the bongos while I tried out the reading nests. Juliet and Doobie headed home with our farmers’ market haul in the undercarriage of the stroller and I headed to the University of Wisconsin campus to collect a friend, Elliot, who was arriving on a bus from Chicago. We indulged in a Madison tradition, beer and bratwurst on the Memorial Union Terrace, which looks out over Lake Mendota before making our way back along the Lakeshore Path, admiring the sailboats bobbing in the water. One of the many charming things about Juliet and Phil’s home is that you know you’re almost there when you spot the octopus.

Later that afternoon, the five of us swung by the grocery store for a few last-minute ingredients. Doobie helped himself to some organic raspberries as we wandered aisles that were a bit overwhelming to an urbanite like myself. Case in point: there was an entire aisle devoted to frozen pizza.

That night a babysitter allowed the four of us to go out for decidedly not frozen pizza at Greenbush Bar. Located in the basement of an old Italian social hall, it is just as charming as it sounds.

Sunday morning was devoted to toasting hazelnuts, roasting squash (with olive oil, salt and pepper) and getting the turkey started in the smoker. We didn’t have one of those handy fire-starting chimneys, so Juliet and I conjured our inner girl scout and eventually achieved a nice smolder. We layered chunks of soaked apple wood on top of the lump charcoal, filled the drip pan with apple cider and set the bird (which I had rubbed inside and out with salt, pepper, allspice, sage and bay leaves the night before) to smoking. I was guessing that this would take anywhere from six to ten hours. I left Juliet, who had challah to make and a child to put down for a nap, with instructions for stoking the coals and refilling the drip pan.

Madison has a bunch of old rail lines that were converted into bike paths, allowing for minimal interaction with cars. Elliot and I followed one of these commuter paths down to the capitol where we had a lovely brunch at Graze, a locally focused gastropub in a light, airy space that’s definitely worth a visit. Four hours later, the smell of smoked turkey wafted down the block as we approached the house. It looked and smelled amazing. I added whatever wood chunks were left and drizzled a little grapeseed oil on top to ensure crisp, brown skin.

The rest of the menu came together pretty quickly.

While the turkey rested, I ladled most of the fat from the pan drippings off and poured the smoky, meaty apple cider that was left into a saucepan. I added some diced onions and salt and left it to simmer while I worked on the other dishes. Before serving, I hit this with an immersion blender, allowing the onions to provide the gravy with some body rather than risk gumming it up with a roux (and because I was already using every burner on the stove).

For the succotash, I browned some kosher Andouille sausage (yes, that exists—and it’s surprisingly good) in a little olive oil in cast iron skillet. I added onions, poblano pepper and red bell pepper. In time, I added the pattypan squash, some shelled edamame and fresh corn cut from the cob. Salt, pepper and basil went in just before serving.

Juliet carved the turkey, which we spread onto cookie sheets with some of the pan drippings and kept warm in a low oven until guests arrived.

I made a wild rice pilaf by sautéing leeks in olive oil, adding crushed red pepper and thyme. I toasted the wild rice in this mixture for a few minutes until each grain was coated and then added turkey stock. After 45 minutes or so of simmering, I pulled the rice off of the heat and added dried cranberries and crushed toasted hazelnuts.

I made a honey lemon dressing for the chicory, toasted hazelnut and roasted delicata squash salad by combining lemon juice, honey, shallots, olive oil, pepper and a little mayonnaise using an immersion blender. (Had this not been a kosher meal, I might have gone with buttermilk instead of mayonnaise.)

Guests began arriving at 6:15. By 6:30, we were an even dozen. Once the sun had set, Phil led us in blessings over the wine, over Juliet’s beautiful raisin-dotted challah, and over the apples and honey. Then we began eating. Things get a little blurry after that. There’s a mysterious alchemy to wine, a bounteous meal and interesting people. At these moments, I feel as though time has stopped and the only thing that exists is our table. It is a moment of pure joy.

Here’s to a sweet 5773!

1 thought on “Happy New Year from the Heartland

  1. Pingback: Planes, Trains, Bourbon & Brisket | the drunken fig

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