Dusk has settled over the ridges south of Osseo and Amy Huo is standing over a charcoal grill, snapping a pair of tongs in her hand, seemingly oblivious to the falling drizzle and the failing light.
Over the glowing coals, six bratwurst are sizzling. Huo offers me a glass of hard apple cider. Her husband, Ming, is sipping a Spotted Cow. Amy is exhausted. She’s spent the day prepping her food truck, Locavore, for the season’s first farmer’s market. Indeed, spring has sprung, which is why I’ve ventured to Huo’s house in the middle of nowhere, somewhere north of Northfield. I want to hear from one of the area’s most talented chefs what exactly constitutes a great bratwurst.
Huo and I have some things in common: 1.) Neither of us grew up eating bratwurst. 2.) We are stubborn contrarians. 3.) We’re both passionate about food. “I don’t like things other people tell me to like,” Huo says. I agree; moreover, for me, bratwurst is a terrible name for a sausage. No one aspires to be a “brat.” And “wurst” sounds like “worst.” As a kid, I thought of bratwurst as “the worst sausage.” “Brat” is actually German for “finely ground,” and “wurst” for sausage.
Huo pulls the bratwurst off the grill and I follow her inside. A week prior, I’d asked her to prepare a bratwurst meal; to lovingly showcase bratwurst with a thought towards side dishes and condiments. Two heaping bowls of homemade coleslaw and potato salad await us; everything we eat is locally grown, including the bratwurst from Together Farms. One unexpected delight is the spinach (from Square Roots Farm in Foster) that Huo has blanched in a chicken and kimchi stock.
The spinach is an inventive alternative to sauerkraut. On the table are also two small dishes, one of homemade hot sauce, and one of ketchup.
I haven’t had ketchup on a sausage since 1999, when working at a hot dog restaurant called Dog-Eat-Dog in Madison, my boss used to berate me for “ruining” a hot dog or brat with ketchup. “What are doing?” he’d yell at me. “Are you four years old? Only mustard! Ketchup is for kids!”
But Huo obviously doesn’t care about culinary conventions, “I love ketchup,” she says, “I’m a weirdo.”
The brats are perfectly cooked. Perfectly. The meat is tender and juicy, the casing has a nice resistance without being charred. “I don’t poach them,” Huo says, “you lose a lot of the flavor in your juice.” When Huo says poaching, she’s referring to boiling the hell out of a brat in a pot of cheap beer.
She continues, “The farmers work hard on this stuff. I want to taste the meat. If the product itself is good, you don’t put a lot of stuff on it.”
Six years ago, Huo moved back to Wisconsin after leaving Delaware, and began working at Together Farms where the owner, Stephanie Schneider, occasionally traded meat for work, at which point Huo had a culinary revelation, “I’m dumb; brats are good.”
I couldn’t tell you when my eureka-moment was; but it might have been college in Madison, or those days working at Dog-Eat-Dog off the Capitol Square. Early spring days like the ones we are now enjoying, when nothing seems finer than standing beside a charcoal grill with a cold beer in one hand and a set of tongs in the other. After a winter like the one we’ve all endured, the grill is an altar, an oracle, a home fire; a way to reconnect with neighbors not much seen since December. Cooking becomes a social activity.
I liked everything about Huo’s very personal presentation of her ideal brat. The food was all exquisite; I could have eaten two pounds of her potato salad, but that seemed inappropriate and loutish. The spinach was a beautiful gesture. When we think brats, we don’t often think of the color green, short of relish, but her self-described “spinach slop” was reminiscent for me, of those Dog-Eat-Dog days, of drenching an Italian beef sandwich in au jus, how the whole works slides down into your stomach so much more easily if the bun and meat aren’t utterly dried out.
But for me, the perfect brat looks, sounds, smells and tastes like this:
Outdoor temperatures in the upper 50s to lower 60s. A Milwaukee Brewers game on the radio; Bob Uecker’s voice – eternal optimism, unexpected Midwestern sarcasm and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of baseball. The smell of charcoal in the air, yes, but also lilacs and damp spring soil. Birdsong. Easy access to cold beer. The brats come off the grill, onto a pillowy white bun (don’t push your heart-healthy whole-grain agenda on me). I like a brown mustard, a yellow mustard, slowly sautéed onions, and either a dollop of coleslaw or sauerkraut directly on top. A jar of pickles, potato salad (Marcus Samuelson’s Swedish potato salad, if you please) and perhaps even a green salad. A picnic table, my family and friends, a glorious sunset,and sunburn reddening my flesh. Winter is dead; welcome spring.
Next Saturday: B.J. Hollars contemplates a pre-midlife crisis.