Minnesota-born Amy Thielen, host of the Food Network’s “Heartland Table,” hit what many aspiring chefs consider the culinary big time: She cooked professionally in New York under all-star chefs David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Shea Gallante. But, instead of remaining in that capital of haute cuisine, Thielen moved back to her remote Minnesota cabin and continued her career from there. We asked Thielen, the author of a new cookbook, “The New Midwestern Table,” about the midwestern cooking secrets that the coasts are missing out on. Get your drippings can ready.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good bespoke burger as much as the next person–and by “bespoke,” I mean a thick puck of fancy beef, grilled to medium-rare and capped with bold toppings–but since moving back to the Midwest, I’ve rekindled a fondness for the thinner griddle burgers I grew up eating. A properly griddled burger more than makes up for its lack of juicy pinkness with the extra flavor it picks up via dirty contact with the hot steel griddle. The seared, crispy edges encase tender middles infused by the exuded juices and fat. Scooped straight from the griddle or cast-iron pan to a waiting soft bun, the cheese melts into the juice and the meat juices run into the bread, making for a burger that–unlike a thick char burger that’s divided into three distinct layers of meat and bun–instead forms an unmistakably American unit of burger perfection.
Speaking of juices…. You know that sawed-off coffee can full of bacon fat and sausage and steak drippings kept under the sink? It’s a clue that this kitchen belongs either to the type of bachelor who knows how to make an irresistible stew or a grandma whose fried potatoes beckon you across states. I’m sensing a widespread regional return to the drippings can. Keep it in the fridge if you like (I do) but make sure to keep it going by adding all your most flavorful leftover fats to it (even browned butter can go in). I think of this traditional Midwestern master fat as a luscious, and sophisticated, natural flavor-builder, one that can be used to gold-plate just about anything, including fried chicken, eggs, cabbage and, of course, potatoes.
Vegetables cooked in milk
Small farms that keep a few cows around for cream and butter have always been pressed to figure out what to do with the excess milk. (Here we have the conundrum that spawned custard pies and rice pudding.) The Midwestern habit of cooking vegetables in milk takes care of this. Freshly-yanked, naturally sweet garden produce turns sweeter yet when paired with the lactose in the milk; and generally, the natural starch from the vegetables lightly binds the sauce into a weightless cream. Milk-cooked vegetables allow the natural flavors to shine through, but they’re also good for your figure: in fact, my great-aunt Irene swears that milk-cooked vegetables are what made all of the seven Hesch sisters such healthy girls. (Ahem, they filled out a sweater in all the right places, if you know what I mean.)
Every fall, my neighbor Katie Kueber throws a party to celebrate the fall horseradish–and to divvy up the work of grinding it to preserve for winter. We sit around the table peeling roots, laughing, drinking wine and watching the pile of clean white roots rise in the center of the table while the piles of dirty scrapings accumulate at our elbows. People take turns grinding the roots in a food processor outside–the fumes that bloom inside are as sinus-clearing as wasabi–adding sugar, salt and vinegar to make a rough-and-tumble puree that will keep all winter long. After filling ourselves on the magnificent buffet of appetizers–the shrimp cocktail sauce jazzed up with plenty of super-fresh grated root–we glide out into the night, our personal stash clutched in jars to our chest. Think of it as essential voltage for the long winter.
Sweet corn surplus
Across the Midwest, endless fields of corn stretch out as far as the eye can see… and thank god someone’s also growing patches of sweet corn for fresh summer eating. From July through August, you can buy sweet corn from local kids sitting in lawn chairs next to their work trucks, a mountain of green corn overflowing both the tailgate and the bang board. They load your dozen-sack with the generosity that comes naturally to teenagers, adding two, three, sometimes four ears of corn to the standing 12. Truly fresh corn comes with an aura of humidity still floating around it and a strong, earthy field-fragrance. The kernels should be small, rounded and shiny and should burst at the bite; when they develop the slight flattop, like adult teeth, they’re overripe. Generations of Midwestern women have cut perfectly ripe corn off the cob, blanched it, submerged it in brine and frozen it in plastic bags for winter. The women in my family follow great-aunt Helen’s recipe, which forgoes the blanching and freezes it raw in the brine. Come winter, it tastes as close to fresh August corn as you can get.
Amy Thielen grew up a few miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota and graduated from Macalester College. She spent seven years cooking professionally in New York under David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Shea Gallante. Since returning to Minnesota in 2008, she has written for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Men’s Journal and Saveur, and won a James Beard Journalism Award in 2011. She lives in the country near Park Rapids, Minnesota, with her husband and their son.