Imagine your caprese salad made with mozzarella di bufala from Plain, Wisconsin, a little more than a 3 hour car-ride from Rochester.
Check out Cedar Grove Cheese: http://my.execpc.com/~cgcheese/ArtisanCheese.html
Water buffalo mozzarella (translation) is a classic Italian cheese that's superior to fresh cow's milk mozzarella in flavor but difficult to find domestically--and that's an understatement. The imported version, though available on a limited basis, is a letdown not only for its steep price but because the highly perishable product usually arrives on southern Minnesota retail shelves when it is already starting to turn. (This comes from personal experience--several times and from two different stores.)
GG plans to order Cedar Grove's water buffalo mozzarella and will get a report back to you. Tomatoes are flavorless now so she'll probably match it with some La Quercia proscuitto, the freshest EVOO she can find, and a little crusty bread, or....just canned peaches.
Cheese plates aren't for everyone.
There's the aspect of trial and error.
Some may think: "big presentation with cart at a snooty restaurant."
Others probably find the choices too confusing. ("What was the name of that again, um--Pont L'Eveque?)
And, for many given the choice of cheese as dessert, well...they're not about to sacrifice a sweet reward.
But, for skeptics and fromage lovers alike, Sontes, Rochester, is the restaurant in southern Minnesota in which to smile and say cheese.
Selections are cleverly organized on the menu. A diner may peruse for semi-hard styles like Wisconsin-made Lil Wil's Bandage Wrapped Cheddar and Upland Farms Pleasant Ridge Reserve beneath the title "Stoic." In the category "Clean" there's Bent River Alemar, from Mankato; "Stinky" reveals Star Thrower Farms Tomme Raw Milk, Hastings, and Garrotxa, Catalonia, Spain.
Sontes regards its blue cheese assortment as "Racy." The group includes Northern Lights Brown Swss Blue, Ramsey County, Minnesota; Shepherd's Way Farm Big Woods Blue, Nerstrand; and Jasper Hill Farm Bayley Hazen Blue, Greensboro, Vermont.
The abundance of lesser-known cheeses can be daunting, but the menu works like a cheat sheet. Pithy text is jammed with details and superlatives. Informed waitstaff guide on request.
No matter what cheese combo diners decide upon, it's hard to be bored. Delve into Midwest regional varieties. Or journey to Spain. Or explore terroir in artisanal domestic cheeses, adding for fun a creamy, washed-rind pick from Burgundy, France.
With its original assortment and enticing accompaniments--fresh baguette slices, olives and candied pecans--Sontes does cheese plates as well as any restaurant in New York or Chicago. Most noteworthy is the focus on Minnesota and Wisconsin cheeses; Sontes is arguably best at that.
But we still live in the land of 10,000 doggie bags. Those who favor dinnerware piled chin high with edibles may wince at portion sizes. The caveat of a tapas theme will not deter some from objecting to the scale. Pricing at Sontes can aggravate this situation.
But Great Taste suggests saying si to queso--preferably with wine. The best cheese plate for the money is the "flight" of three for $18. What price culinary nirvana?
Do you love fresh mozzarella cheese?
On April 1 Jim Gregori, owner of California-based Cantare Foods, will show how to make fresh mozzarella at Zzest Culinary Market & Wine Cafe, Rochester. Gregori is expected to start "pulling" cheese at 4 pm. Tasting is encouraged.
Gregori has reportedly made thousands of pounds of mozzarella. His fresh cheese will be available to take home with a good will offering benefiting The Boys & Girls Club of Rochester.
Macaroni and cheese. Toasted cheese sandwich. A cheeseburger. By the time mid February rolls around, it would be surprising if the vast majority of Minnesotans hadn't eaten and/or made at least one of these comfort foods this year.
This fare can range from mundane to unforgettably delicious, depending on recipes and quality and freshness of ingredients.
For a melting cheese, flavor-intense, coarse-textured Carr Valley Cardona is a game changer--able to transform the ordinary into sublime.
More on Wisconsin-made Cardona: http://www.carrvalleycheese.com/artisanal-and-american-originals-cheeses/goat-milk-cheeses/cardona.html
Rochester, when it comes to good food you're no longer in the rookie league. The October 23rd reopening of Zzest Culinary Market & Wine Cafe hit one out of the ballpark. It's a whole new culinary scene.
Great Taste has just one little concern. Is this a dream?
Salts, peppercorns and spices; honey varieties; chutneys and preserves; mostardas; sauces (including mole); chocolates; ice creams; olives; many types of oils; vinegars; truffles; pastas; risotto rices; specialty crackers; and quality soup mixes are among the foodstuffs to be discovered in LeeAnn Zubay's Manhattan-esque food emporium. The store's new and much larger location, across the road from Apache Mall, also houses a cafe due to open later this month.
At the center of it all--literally and figuratively--are the cheese cases. Shoppers will find a large assortment that is not comprehensive (there are few, if any, cheeses found at the supermarket) but includes artisan domestic cheeses such as Prairie Fruits Farm's liquid center Ewe Bloom, made in Champaign, Illinois, and Coupole ash-ripened goat cheese in a miniature wood crate from Vermont Butter & Cheese Company. Humboldt Fog of California is featured, natch, as well as major 2009 award winners SarVecchio Parmesan and Crave Brothers Mascarpone, both from Wisconsin.
We haven't even started mentioning the imports.
If you aren't already en route to this little piece of foodie paradise, consider multi-grain and olive loaves and French baguettes shipped in from Tribeca Oven bakery on the East Coast. Or specialty supplies like cutting boards or copies of Culture, the cheese aficionado's glossy magazine.
Culinary Market, previously located in the heart of Rochester at First Avenue and Civic Center Drive, is now, at 1190 16th Street, a longer trip for some, but it has easier parking.
Info: (507) 424-0080; open Tuesday-Saturday 10 am to 8 pm.
LeeAnn Zubay, how can we thank you enough?
Does GT have to wake up now? Is this some kind of belated Halloween prank?
But it's true....In rah-rah Rochester, Minnesota.
In the land of Jesse Ventura and Al Franken, in the land of the SuperTarget and Sontes, anything can happen....And it has!
Just peeked online at LeeAnn Zubay's recent arrivals---She's got TRUFFLE TREMOR, brought to you by Cypress Grove, the California cheesemaker that created Humboldt Fog.
Great Taste has been obtaining Truffle Tremor in recent weeks from JUST FOOD CO-OP, Northfield. Truffle Tremor (we like to call it TT for short) presents earthy truffles immersed in layers of ultra-creamy goat cheese and encased in white rind. For people who love both trufffles and soft cheeses, this is a dream.
TT is recommended with dry white wine. Great Taste enjoys it with green grapes and Kalvi crisp flat crackers, among other foods. (We wonder how it would taste slightly melted over a medium rare filet....)
Zubay's shop is open at 308 First Avenue NW but not for long. It is moving to a much bigger location at the former Avocados World Bistro site. Keep up with her Zzest Culinary Market & Wine Cafe, Rochester, on Facebook:
Try a fried walleye sandwich at Rainbow Cafe & Catering, Pine Island. Best fried walleye we've ever tasted.....So good that we took the sandwich apart and savored the fish by itself. (We still ate the fragrant homemade bun and downed the tomato slices and lettuce.) 212 South Main Street, Pine Island, (507) 356-2929.
Can't get enough of salads at Pescara, Rochester. Best in town and competitive with uber salads most anywhere. Ideal meal: Fuji apple and Amablu cheese salad, BLT salad with lemon-basil vinaigrette, or roasted beet carpaccio with Laura Chenel goat cheese; lobster ravioli; and house-made chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream. 150 South Broadway (507) 280-6900/http://www.pescarafresh.com/
While we're on chocolate: Sontes, Rochester, works magic with edgy dessert chocolate combinations. Have a cappuccino too. (Question for Sontes: Would you open in the morning just for espresso drinks and coffee? Por favor?) 4 3rd Street SW (507) 292-1628/http://www.sontes.com/
Great Taste is ga-ga (okay, ba-ba) for Shepard's Way cheeses, made in Nerstrand. Shepard's Hope queso fresco, Hidden Falls, Big Woods Blue and Friesago are all distinctive and insanely flavorful. We like to think Shepard's Way will one day boost Southeast Minnesota's cheese status the way Cowgirl Creamery put klieg lights on cheesemaking in northern California. Available periodically at Culinary Market, Rochester (soon to be Zzest Culinary Market and Wine Cafe); also at Just Food Co-op, Northfield, The Cheese Cave, Faribault, and a number of locations in the Twin Cities. (Best to call ahead and ask if it's in stock.) http://www.shepherdswayfarms.com/
Delights and recent discoveries:
Savory Matiz Andaluz Torta De Aceite Olive Oil Crisp Bread, made in Spain, is a perfect accompaniment to summer salads. At Culinary Market, 308 First Avenue NW, Rochester (507) 280-3875/http://www.cccrmg.com/leeann/index.htm
The new Cheese Cave shop/wine bar, 318 North Central Avenue, in historic downtown Faribault offers a modest but excellent selection of regional and European gourmet products, including cave-aged local cheeses by Faribault Dairy, Carr Valley cheeses (Wisconsin), Crave Brothers mascarpone (Wisconsin), Fentiman's "botanically brewed" and fermented refreshments in old fashioned glass bottles, and canned San Marzano tomatoes from Italy (507) 334-3988.
Grape jam from Great River Vineyard, Lake City (http://www.greatrivervineyard.com), available at Hope's Harvest Natural Foods and Deli, 130 S. Washington Street, Lake City. (651) 345-3690/www.hopesharvest.com
It's hard to keep chocolates from melting in July. But no matter. GT loves dark chocolate pecan turtles at Costas Chocolates--"since 1919"--112 North Cedar Avenue, Owatonna (507) 451-9050. Just remember not to leave them in the car.
Ah hem. Our favorite bacon isn't from Minnesota--or Wisconsin. So it has to be pretty amazing to be reaching out beyond towns like Austin and Milwaukee. But we didn't stray too far....Our bacon of choice is Beeler's, of Le Mars, Iowa, available at Just Food Co-op, 516 Water Street South, Northfield (507) 650-0106.
Last week's trip to Marin County, California, made us feisty for fresh olive oil, good avocados, young arugula and ocean seafood. We savored hot and cold sliced fennel and scolded ourselves for never thinking to top salads at home with pistachios.
We didn't get to Chez Panisse across the bay or the French Laundry up in Yountville. We left our hearts in Marin locavore land. (Maybe we went loco-loca; we didn't even cross the Golden Gate bridge.)
Regional highlights included vegetarian couscous lunch at rustic, handsome Insalata's in San Anselmo and California-grown olive oil pressed on site at Frantoio Ristorante in Mill Valley. There were Cowgirl Creamery cheese moments.
But the K.O. experience between San Francisco and the Wine Country was cocina criolla at Sol Food in San Rafael. I ordered take-out from the tiny Puerto Rican eatery so I could satisfy my curiosity and then move on.....What a fool, what a fool. A visit to Sol Food's nearby bigger space happened soon after. With more time, third and fourth visits would have followed.
Plantains--platanos--are napkin weights at Sol Food. When cooked, they anchor a meal like russet potatoes do in the Midwest or polenta in parts of Italy. I learned that vegan mofongo--fried green plantains mashed with olive oil and garlic--was my fave, but I also loved pancake-shaped tostones, and sweet, delicate maduros. (Are you still with me? This can be a lot of exotic terminology if you haven't had exposure to it.....Novice that I am, I came home and researched on Google for...it must have been...hours.)
A special using platanos was pastelon de carne--sweet plantain and beef "lasagna" with jack cheese and roasted red peppers. But on my maiden expedition I had three types of plantain sides (described above) with pollo--chicken thighs that had been deboned and skinned, then marinated in oregano and garlic and baked. Delicioso. There was house-made pique, a bright orange hot sauce that took the pollo up another notch.
For dessert I skipped classic flan in order to try tembleque--coconut pudding with mango sauce--and did not regret it.
Aside from its culinary appeal, Sol Food features piped-in authentic music and hip, tropic-inspired decor, both of which dazzle and delight.
Sol Food, 732 Fourth Street and 901 Lincoln Avenue, San Rafael, California
Closer to home
What, you don't want to travel thousands of miles to try authentic Puerto Rican dishes? Puerta Azul in St. Paul closed a while back so it looks like Chicago is the next stop, with about a half-dozen spots to choose from. Let me know if you find anything closer that's worth passing on to readers.