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R is for Rhubarb Jam
Rhubarb is as Minnesotan as Garrison Keillor, whose obsession with the red–stemmed vegetable led the radio host to name a new cabaret show after it. A few years ago, Terry Potucek also caught rhubarb fever, growing 500 of the plants on his farm in Warren, with the idea of launching a frozen rhubarb business. When he couldn’t get the numbers for his venture to add up, he did the next best thing: he asked his wife, Cookie, to whip up a few jam recipes to keep the rhubarb from going to waste. They were so good that the rest is lip–smacking history. These days, you can buy four rhubarb–based flavors of Aunt Cookie’s jam—sweet, light, and free of food coloring and preservatives. Our testers liked the strawberry version best, though straight–up rhubarb came in a close second. » Available from Aunt Cookie’s, 218–745–5589; Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria, 320–846–5443; and the state–park camp stores at Gooseberry Falls, 218–834–3855, and Itasca, 218–266–2100.
S is for Shortbread
The Girl Scouts must have quivered in their sashes when they tasted baker Amy Goetz’s six versions of Bramblewood Cottage shortbread cookies. The dense, rich, Scottish cookies come in an array of flavors, from classic (sweet and simple, containing only flour, butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla) and lemon (just a hint of citrus) to such adventurous combinations as lavender ginger (featuring a subtle floral scent and a tiny zing of ginger). Thin Mints, you’ve met your match. » Available at Kowalski’s; Surdyk’s in Minneapolis, 612–379–3232; Cooks of Crocus Hill, www.cooksofcrocushill.com; and the Bibelot Shops, www.bibelotshops.com.
T is for Trout Farm
Technically, Star Prairie is in Wisconsin, but we’d really like to claim it as our own. Located just a half hour’s drive northeast of Stillwater, Star Prairie’s cold spring has been used to create a fish farm habitat since 1856. The farm’s current owners, Mac and Marcy Graham, begin with about 180,000 eggs a year. They feed the fingerlings for 18 to 20 months, then transfer them through a series of ponds until they reach market size. The trout’s flavor is delicate, its flesh as firm and fresh as if you’d caught it yourself—which, by the way, you can. Star Prairie allows anglers to pay by the pound and cook up their catch onsite at its idyllic picnic grounds. » Star Prairie Trout Farm is located in Star Prairie, Wisconsin, 715-248-3633. Its fish are sold fresh (and in some locations smoked) at Coastal Seafoods, www.coastalseafoods.com; and most co–ops.
U is for University of Minnesota
The U of M’s Department of Horticultural Science—the group that brought us the Honeycrisp apple—is introducing its Marquette wine grape this spring, and cold–climate vintners are stomping in anticipation. The U’s grape breeding program has released just four varieties in the past 20 years, and the new Marquette, which descends from Pinot Noir and Vitis riparia (a native Minnesota grape), has been 17 years in the making. U viticulturist Peter Hemstad describes the grape’s wine as “complex” and “full-bodied,” with more tannin, black currant, and spice than wines made from the popular University–bred Frontenac grape. Though local nurseries have been quick to propagate cuttings, demand is outstripping supply, “like the X–box” video console, Hemstad says. Don’t polish up the tastevin yet: it’ll be at least four years before the Marquette’s first crop makes its way into wine. » Look for Marquette–made wines from Minnesota vintners sometime after 2010.
V is for Vodka
Vodka is supposed to be flavorless; according to the official U.S. government definition, the liquor is “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Tell that to the producers of Shakers, which have hints of vanilla, cocoa, and citrus and have been hailed as the first ultra–premium vodkas made in America, on par with Grey Goose and other high–end spirits. Created by the San Francisco–based team behind Pete’s Wicked Ale, Shakers vodka is made in the west–central Minnesota town of Benson from wheat harvested nearby. Varieties include a classic wheat vodka, rye vodka, and Shakers Rose, which smells and tastes like a rose, despite being concocted from other natural flavors. » Available at Surdyk’s in Minneapolis, 612–379–3232, and other fine liquor retailers.
W is for Wild Rice
Wild rice is actually an aquatic grass—genetically more similar to corn than rice. “Wild” is often a misnomer, too, as 95 percent of wild rice sold in the United States is actually domesticated rice that’s grown in paddies. Northern Minnesota lakes are some of the few places you can find true wild rice, where it’s still hand harvested by the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people. The White Earth Land Recovery Project, spearheaded by activist Winona LaDuke, sells the toasty–tasting ebony–colored grain through its Native Harvest label. LaDuke and other White Earth Band members are concerned that genetically modified crops could contaminate indigenous rice paddies and have been lobbying the Minnesota legislature to protect the native plant. » Order Native Harvest wild rice by phone at 888-274-8318 or online at www.nativeharvest.com, or find it at co–ops and specialty stores throughout Minnesota.
X is for eXtracts
For most of its 130–some years in business, Winona–based Watkins was known for its door–to–door sales (it was once the largest direct seller in the world). The “Watkins Men,” as the reps were known, were even featured in the cable television movie Door to Door, starring William H. Macy. The company’s extracts (yes, okay, eXtracts is a bit of a stretch on this culinary cruise through the alphabet) are now available in 21 varieties, ranging from good old vanilla to more exotic flavors (mango, anyone?). Though Watkins peddles hundreds of products these days (spices, laundry detergent, liniments, salves…) via catalog and in Wal–Mart stores, its extracts are a mainstay. In fact, the company claims to have sold more than 13 million gallons of the vanilla flavor alone, enough to fill 17 Olympic–size pools. » To order, call 800–928–5467 or go to www.watkinsonline.com.
Y is for Yogurt
Old Home Foods, a classic family–owned Minnesota company, has long been the region’s market leader in cottage cheese, sour cream, party dip, and, yes, large–size yogurt. Unfortunately, its plant on University Avenue in St. Paul wasn’t keeping pace with technological change, sustaining huge losses due to manufacturing waste and inefficiency. Last year, employees banded together in a heroic attempt to re–engineer the plant, but, citing cost–cutting measures, management decided to scale back the facility’s production this past winter and plans to close the plant entirely this spring. Old Home will outsource production to other plants in Minnesota and throughout the upper Midwest; in St. Paul, the familiar sour milk smell will fade into an olfactory memory. We raise our spoons to lament the loss. » Available at grocery and convenience stores statewide.
Z is for Zucchini Blossoms
Minnesota gardens seem to sprout zucchini squashes like weeds, judging from the surplus your neighbor hauls over to your house every summer, whether you asked for the bland veggie or not. This year, tell him to focus on the bright orange blooms that precede the harvest and come in two varieties, male and female. The mild–flavored blossoms can be cooked and eaten any number of ways: sautéed, stuffed with cheese and baked, or batter–coated and deep–fried, like something you might find at the state fair. No green–thumbed neighbor? Head to a farmers’ market, and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding them—the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market alone boasts more than 20 vendors who sell them. » Call 612–333–1718 or go to www.mplsfarmersmarket.com for more information.