Madison’s food scene enjoys well-deserved acclaim, but what makes it such a thriving foodie community may not be as apparent as the restaurants themselves. Aside from access to quality local ingredients, the diverse backgrounds of chefs and growers drive the Madison food scene and make the city a top culinary destination. Three dishes from local restaurants exemplify the interconnectedness within our food community and the ways in which both chefs and farmers diversify our palates with unique flavors.
El Sabor de Puebla joined the Willy Street restaurant lineup in 2015 and business has been steady ever since. Chef and owner Reina Gonzalez hails from Puebla, Mexico, and has been a part of the Madison food scene for years, selling her tamales at various locations around the city. At her restaurant, Gonzalez offers regional specials, such as the mole poblano, as well as other dishes that reflect a broader Mexican palate. Sourcing locally is a priority for Gonzalez, and her close connection to a farmer makes that easy; her brother Juan Gonzales Torres is the farmer behind Los Abuelos Farley Farm and grows organic produce for the restaurant. He grows many of the ingredients needed for traditional Mexican cooking at this farm, including huitlacoche, a fungus more commonly known as corn smut. Gonzalez uses the smut in one of her favorite seasonal dishes, quesadilla de huitlacoche. By sourcing the nutritive fungus from her brother, Gonzalez ensures the best flavor and even freezes some for winter use. The huitlacoche is mixed with other vegetables grown by Gonzales Torres, including jalapeños, corn, onions and epazote. Homemade corn tortillas are stuffed with the vegetable mixture and grated cheese and served warm.
It takes a village to make a salad—the grilled beet salad at Graze, for example. With quality ingredients sourced from area farmers and cheese makers, it shines in its simplicity. Ingredients vary based on availability, but you’ll likely find the beets tossed with pistachios, berry gastrique, spring onions, Roth Käse blue cheese and mixed greens in the late fall version of the dish. So why is this salad special? You are supporting not only myriad local producers, but particularly the eight farmers who tend more than ten acres of land at the Farley Center. The Farley Center supports minority and immigrant farmers by offering tools, training, education and marketing assistance. The farmers are Hmong, Thai, Mexican, Colombian and Euro American women and men who together formed the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative to help support their individual farming businesses. They offer a CSA, and in partnership with Scott Williams of Garden to Be, they sell produce locally to restaurants and stores, including Graze. Now you can feel even better about eating your veggies.
Lao Laan-Xang’s squash curry is almost iconic. Not only is it the best seller at Lao Laan Xang’s two restaurants and food cart, but it’s a dish that reflects the heritage of the Inthachith family. The family hails from Laos, and Bounyang Inthachith learned to cook many Thai dishes at a Buddhist temple in Laungprabang, Laos, where she grew up. Inthachith, whose children now operate and co-own the restaurants, brought the squash curry recipe with her when she emigrated with her family from Laos in the 1980s. This flavorful stew is slow simmered, combining Thai eggplant, winter squash and zucchini in coconut milk and spices. It feeds the soul and builds a heartwarming connection to the local Hmong farmers who grow the squash and other produce for the Inthachiths. Since immigrating to Wisconsin after the Vietnam War, Hmong farmers have provided invaluable support for our community of talented chefs. “It’s a win-win,” says Sone Inthachith, owner at the Lao Laan-Xang Atwood location and manager of the food cart. “The farmers bring what they have left after market, we get a good price, and they don’t waste their produce.”
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