Books celebrate Midwestern food

It's not so simple to "pin down" Midwestern cuisine, says Amy Thielen in her wonderful new book, "The New Midwestern Table." She writes, "I think it's because our best food has always been a celebration of this large, dynamic plain-spoken place.

"The roots of our cooking remain behind closed doors, where the old ways of preparing food -- gardening, preserving, fishing, hunting, and otherwise plucking good things from the woods or the fields -- are not only still alive, but enjoying a transformative, active present tense."

The recipes, photos and writing in this book present a compelling, intriguing and delicious portrait of this vast region. Midwestern Minneapolis may be the home of buttoned-down Betty Crocker, but the region is also home to food that's "rustic, gutsy, and simple.

"Over the years," she writes, "so many dishes that originated in the Midwest have been flung into the world and reclaimed by everybody as just 'American.' " She's fine with this, writing, "...the same easy spirit of American cooking spills out beyond state boundaries."

Earlier this week, I was pleased to learn that both Ms. Thielen's book and her television show, "Heartland Table" on the Food Network, received James Beard Foundation award nominations. Results will be announced May 2 at the book awards ceremony at Gotham Hall in New York City. I'll be there cheering her on.

Some recipes from her book that I can't wait to try include Sour Cream Raisin Pie, Poker Buns (filled with cheese, ham and pickles and baked open-face) and Morning Buns, like a cinnamon roll, instead with maple sugar.

Ms. Thielen is not afraid to include old-fashioned dishes and those that take a bit of work. Check out her Home-Pickled Fish with Basil and Lemon, Old-Fashioned Pounded Cheese with Walnuts and Port Syrup, Pear and Honey Cake (baked in a Minnesota-made Nordic Ware Bundt pan) and Nebraskan Runzas, a bun filled with ground beef; I did make these buns, but from a different source. My recipe, from the Kansas Wheat Commission, calls them Bierrocks. (See recipe on page E-5)

Along with Ms. Thielen's book, I've been enjoying a very timely volume of essays: "Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food," edited by Peggy Wolff. Pick it up to read vignettes on topics such as Door County (Wisconsin) fish boils, always paired with cherry pie, and Chicago's iconic Italian beef sandwich.

Mary Kay Shanley's piece chronicles changes in a family farm and in society, mirrored in a series of Thanksgiving dinners. Fiction writer Bonnie Jo Campbell begins her essay on fudge with a mention of Sleeping Bear Dunes, a magical Michigan place, and ends with a comprehensive recipe for fudge.

One of my favorite pieces is by novelist Elizabeth Berg, called "In the Midwest, It's Meatloaf." I think that's why I decided to make Ms. Thielen's recipe for meatloaf; it felt seamless.

"Where has all the meatloaf gone?" questions editor Peggy Wolff in the story's introduction.

No need to worry about that, now you've got Ms. Thielen's fabulous rendition. Elizabeth Berg notes you can always use the recipe on the side of the Quaker Oats box. "There used to be a lot of support for serving meatloaf," she writes.

"The thing about meatloaf is how good it is cold, too. Better than turkey, oh yes. What you do is you put mayonnaise and mustard on. Don't mess with lettuce because anything crunchy interferes with the comfort food factor."

I, too, am a Midwesterner, though more city-oriented, from Detroit and later its suburbs. I remember the mild, sweet whitefish served at Joe Muer's, a beloved institution near Detroit's Eastern Market where you always went for a fancy meal if the grandparents were paying. I can almost taste the mess of fried smelts from Les Gruber's London Chop House, a downtown Detroit restaurant where I once worked.

My mother at one time made a great meatloaf, but now, she's given up beef and would never admit that the top of her loaf was lacquered with bacon, as is Ms. Thielen's. But the trick with Ms. Thielen's recipe, the thing that made my husband swear to love me forever (if I made it again), was that you rub the bacon with brown sugar.

I wish I'd thought of that. A true Midwesterner would have, and did.

Fancy Meat Loaf with Bacon and Mushrooms

This is simply wonderful. Don't make the mistake I did and forget to put the mushroom mixture in the meatloaf. I ended up spreading it on top of the loaf and putting the bacon over that. But maybe it was a great mistake, because you really tasted the mushrooms and sherry that way. Anyway you do it, it will be good.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons salted butter

1 large sweet onion, cut into small dice (2 cups)

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3½ ounces (one small container) shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and chopped

5 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons dry sherry or dry white wine

2 cups coarsely ground fresh bread crumbs (from about 4 slices country bread)

1/2 cup whole milk

1 pound ground beef chuck

1 pound ground pork

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 large eggs

1/2 cup shelled pistachios (I used walnuts)

10 slices bacon (I used 5 thick slices, and cut each in half)

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil, butter and onion; season with ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper and cook until onion is soft and light brown, about 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring often until mushrooms are lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add sherry or wine, simmer 1 minute. Pour mixture into bowl; let cool slightly.

In large bowl, moisten bread crumbs with milk and fluff with fork.

Add beef, pork, nutmeg, allspice, thyme, Worcestershire sauce, eggs, pistachios and mushroom mixture, plus 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Mix quickly but thoroughly with hands (don't over mix but do mix well).

Transfer to 13-by-9-inch baking dish, form into squared-off log, 6 inches wide, 12 inches long. Lay bacon slices, slightly overlapping over loaf. Rub bacon with brown sugar.

Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until browned and an instant-read thermometer registers 160 degrees. Rest for 5 minutes before cutting into thick slices and serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

-- Adapted from "The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes" by Amy Thielen (Clarkson Potter, 2013, $35)

Whipped Potatoes with Horseradish

These are delicious, soft and otherworldly. They will get cold after beating, so reheat in the microwave or on top of the stove, stirring and watching carefully. I don't have a ricer, so I pushed the potatoes through a wire mesh strainer. A ricer would work better.

Be sure to use russet potatoes, sometimes called Idaho potatoes. As the author writes: "Russets are the only kind of potato that can take this type of beating without becoming gluey."

2 pounds (3 to 4 very large russet potatoes), peeled and quartered

Fine sea salt

3/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup whole milk

3/4 cup grated fresh horseradish (I used jarred)

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, at room temperature, cut up (you can probably use a little less)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Put potatoes in large saucepan; add water to cover generously. Salt water, bring to a slow simmer over medium heat, and cook until potatoes are tender when poked with fork, 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir cream, milk, horseradish and sugar in small saucepan and bring to simmer. (The sugar brings out the flavor of the fresh horseradish.) Remove from heat, cover and let steep at least 10 minutes.

Drain potatoes and push through a ricer into a bowl. Reheat cream mixture if it's cooled. Begin whipping potatoes, either with stand mixer with whisk attachment (I used this) or handheld mixer, adding butter as you go. When butter has melted, gradually add ¾ of hot cream mixture, whipping until potatoes are soft and fluffy. Add ½ teaspoon salt and the pepper and any additional cream mixture as needed for potatoes achieve the texture of stiffly whipped cream. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- Adapted from "The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes" by Amy Thielen (Clarkson Potter, 2013, $35)

Miriam Rubin: and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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