Chelsea and I visited Mado last night to see what kind of local and seasonal goodies they had to offer. There was one dish (among others) that stood out and, to me, was symbolic of the seasonal and local movement that is building momentum and becoming more obvious in the places we eat and shop.
photo: in praise of sardines: creative commons license
The dish was a simple plate of cured smelts. This may not sound earth shattering or even mouthwatering to those who have grown up in the Midwest scarfing up the deep-fried version of these freshwater bait fish. But what’s important to those who are interested in taking full advantage of their local terroir is showing everyone with an open mind how versatile their local produce can be.
Eating relatively raw fish is not a new phenomenon. European immigrants brought pickling techniques to the Midwest and have used them to preserve locally caught fish. African-American fish houses in Chicago are well known for curing and smoking freshwater fish. Mado’s approach to preparing and serving local smelt is a Mediterranean one that speaks to the restaurant’s overall style of cooking. In certain parts of Italy, near the coast, fresh seafood is often simply prepared by salting it, dousing it in citrus, and serving it cold. This is called crudo–a sort of Mediterranean ceviche. The fish can be completely cured with salt and citrus, or just lightly salted and dressed with citrus and olive oil, and are meant to be consumed raw.
What interests me about a preparation like this is the idea that cooking can be a universal language. Instead of using words, we pair our local vocabulary of ingredients with our familiarity with another culture to speak that other culture’s language, which is then represented on the plate. Another example of this is exemplified by the folks at La Quercia, in Iowa, who are eloquently transforming their Midwestern pigs into world-class prosciutto–meat crudo, if you will. Mike Gebert, of the Sky Full of Bacon documentary series, has a great way of capturing this philosophy on video with his “Prosciutto di Iowa” piece. The fact that both the smelts and the pork are transformed by the simple addition of salt and time serves to remind us that we do have pristine ingredients in our region, and how through very little adulteration, a little skill, and a little (relatively speaking) time we can showcase them in such a luxurious way.
Even if everything on the smelt plate is not “local local,” like lemon, sea salt, and olive oil, they can be sourced from the same country and are, arguably, not entirely necessary to articulate the idea of a Mediterranean crudo. The dish also was to have included cattail shoots, which would have bolstered the local slant even more, most likely lending a favorable crunch to the dish. But the identity to me was clear: Midwestern crudo, global in spirit, local incarnate.