A new food cart in Madison is cooking with underloved produce to fill an underserved niche in the street-vending scene: breakfast.
Laurel Burleson, 31, opened The Ugly Apple Cafe in early November. Her goal is to serve a “tasty breakfast using local farmers' overstock produce to minimize waste.”
Burleson seeks out produce farmers can’t sell elsewhere: monster zucchinis, dented apples, runty potatoes.
It turns out the misfits of the harvest look and taste the same as the beauty queens when they’re shredded into frittatas, pancakes and fritters. And the market for produce is so fickle that “some of it is really not that ugly at all,” Burleson said.
This fall she got her hands on a huge batch of honeynut squash, an experimental variety that's like a sweet little butternut squash. The squashes had split open in the rain.
“But you flip it around and it looks perfectly fine,” Burleson said. “The rest of the meat is perfect.”
The serendipity of overstock produce is a creative challenge. Faced with an influx of potent mustard greens, she decided to grind them into a pesto that “ended up being super good.”
“I like it that way, to force myself to look at some vegetables in a new way,” she said.
The Ugly Apple Cafe is generally out six mornings a week. During the workweek, Burleson parks her cart on the Square or at University Research Park. On Saturdays, she sets up at Flambe Gourmet, her prep kitchen off Sherman Avenue.
Zucchini ruled the Ugly Apple menu on recent visits. Burleson tucked zucchini into the sandwich special, “Green Eggs and Ham and Swiss” ($6.50), and scrambled it with cage-free eggs, caramelized onion and parmesan for a dense frittata ($4.50).
Other savory breakfast choices included potato pancakes ($3), fragrant with sautéed onions and served with a cup of chunky applesauce for an extra $1 (but, alas, no sour cream).
For $1.25, Burleson will add ham, bacon or sausage to her egg and cheddar biscuit sandwich ($5). She bakes her biscuits with a quarter whole-wheat flour to give them “a little oomph.”
Steel-cut oatmeal ($4.50) was thick and sticky like all good oatmeal should be. Brown sugar and dried fruit on the side make it “choose your own adventure oatmeal,” Burleson said. Go easy on the sugar to let the oatmeal’s mild nutty flavor come through.
Mini apple fritters that come in a “peck” (6 for $2.50) or “bushel” (10 for $3.50) are the stars of Burleson’s menu. She folds chopped-up apples into the dough, deep-fries balls of it, dusts them with sugar and serves them hot — a treat for a chilly winter morning.
A native of Des Plaines, Ill., Burleson worked in kitchens in Chicago for about five years after college. In 2013, she and her husband “were done with the city congestion and hubbub” and moved to Madison. Since then, she's worked at Nostrano, Bishops Bay Country Club and Green Owl Cafe.
She’s no stranger to food waste.
“I worked at a major convention hotel in Chicago,” Burleson said. “You’d see so much going to waste for lack of trying. A lot of things went in the trash, and it made me sad.”
In a giant hospitality operation like that, reducing food waste “could’ve been a full-time job.”
But it was a 2015 segment about food waste on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that really opened Burleson’s eyes to the pervasiveness of the problem. Oliver showed how producers, sellers and consumers alike send tons of food to landfills.
According the show, up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. never gets eaten. Even at farmer’s markets, the beacon of sustainability, overstock and less-photogenic produce go to waste.
The “Last Week Tonight” report planted the idea for Ugly Apple. Burleson started talking to farmers and was met with “a mix between skepticism and openness.”
“Once I explained what I was shooting for, they seemed open to it,” she said. “It seemed like not a lot of people asked for the extras, for the overstock, the uglies.”
What’s decidedly not ugly is the Ugly Apple cart itself. Caged Crow Fabrication in northern Wisconsin custom designed it to look like a wooden apple crate. The door handle is repurposed from an antique apple peeler.
Burleson anticipates that finding recipes for local produce will get more challenging deeper in winter. What stores well isn’t always breakfast-friendly — kohlrabi, anyone?
“I have some turnips right now that I’m trying to play with. I’m hoping that as I become more of a staple, people will hopefully trust me,” she said.