We’ve written here (and elsewhere) about the way the Upper Midwest is finding its voice as a food region, and a big part of that is the story of the North. That means getting wild: canoeing, camping, hiking, and heading out to the cabin to cool off and reconnect with the woods and the water.
“A lot of these [drinks] are designed to be pre-diluted so you don’t have to bring a shaker with you,” says Tattersall’s head bartender, Bennett Johnson. “The idea is that you can pour it into a flask and then just pour it right over ice and serve it — you don’t even have to stir it. I like the idea of having minimal-to-no tools, like if you’re at the cabin. And there’s nothing in there that’ll go bad.”
Johnson gave us a potable tour of most of the book’s cocktails, and they ranged from good to absolutely killer.
The INDEFINITE OLD FASHIONED lacked some of the boozy and/or sugary punch of its classic supper club cousin, instead presenting an affable, mild incarnation of the cocktail, framed out by the fruit of Tattersall Sour Cherry and Orange Crema, diluted with ¾ ounce of water, and balanced with brown spirits (bourbon, rye, or brandy all work just fine). “You could put this in a flask and throw it in a tackle box, and it’ll never go bad,” says Johnson.
It’s hard to overstate how simple or how primal the LIMEADE GIMLET is. It’s based on frozen limeade concentrate, which gives the drink a wickedly sweet edge that swallows up much of the presence of the Tattersall gin. In the hot sun, on a boat, this would be potentially too drinkable, which is either a plus or a minus depending upon your lifestyle.
We thought the GRAPEFRUIT CREMA BOILERMAKER, a combination of a can of IPA and ¾ ounce of Tattersall’s Grapefruit Crema liqueur, was a real stunner. Made with an IPA that’s balanced but “nicely hoppy” (we tried a drink made with an IPA from Castle Danger), the Boilermaker is sessionable and approachable, with the Grapefruit Crema both echoing and mellowing out the sharper edges of the beer.
The Heavy Table is a magazine dedicated to covering the food and drink of the Upper Midwest, and we hew to that mandate, sometimes to the point of pain. But the launch of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Magazine (and other assorted internet properties) is worth bending rules for.
You would not be reading the Heavy Table were it not for Christopher Kimball and his excellent Cook’s Illustrated magazine and recipe book. In my early 20s, while working as a Middle East news editor in Boston, I found myself increasingly drawn toward cooking as an escape from the day-to-day of cynical diplomatic maneuvering and suicide bombings. It was cooking my way through Cook’s Illustrated — not every recipe, and certainly not in any kind of order — that taught me how to cook. The recipes were logical, exacting, and clear. When they demanded a lot of you, they also explained the dividends you’d reap, meaning that you could always run a time-to-flavor cost-benefit before starting to cook.
More than anything else, though, Cook’s Illustrated recipes grounded you in techniques. If you didn’t know how to saute, or properly slice an onion, or brown meat for a stew, or execute any number of the fundamental-to-the-point-of-being-invisible operations that it takes to make a good meal, you’d learn them just by walking through the recipes. In short, before Cook’s Illustrated, I knew just about nothing. After, I could put out 10 or 20 foundational dishes that were enough to start building a lifestyle (and eventually a career) around.
You may not think that understanding how to cook is a requirement when it comes to reviewing food and interviewing chefs and purveyors. And it isn’t, in fact. But it’s so dramatically helpful that it’s highly suggested to anyone who wants to write anything more than a few Yelp reviews. For example, until you’ve spent two days making croissants from scratch, you can’t quite grasp how or why the croissants of the world vary — from the oily, Francophobic garbage sold at gas stations to transcendent puffs of pure, buttery joy.
You get that there are better and worse croissants, in theory, but the practice of working the dough and baking them off gets you into the mind of the baker who does it right (or the baker who cuts some understandable corners … or some not so understandable). It’s making croissants from scratch that makes me feel comfortable writing that the delicate, flaky, fragile, chewy, lovely croissant I ate at Meritage on Sunday (above) was one of the best I’ve had anywhere, and probably charts on my all-time top-10 list.
Back to Milk Street. Now that America’s Test Kitchen has become a megabrand and cast Christopher Kimball (acrimoniously) to the side, he’s mounting a comeback. Milk Street in many ways feels like the graduate school version of Cook’s Illustrated — logically deconstructed and thoughtfully presented recipes, yes, but revolving around finer points that might lose most novice home cooks. Some examples: the fine art of properly whipping egg whites for baked goods; why the Maillard reaction isn’t needed to make a respectable stew, AKA don’t bother searing those meats before you start; reviving the lost art of covering orange slices in a simple caramel for a memorable dessert.
It’s esoteric unless you’ve been cooking for a while, at which point it all becomes pretty damned fascinating. Every recipe turns on a single clear, thoughtfully expressed point. For example, “The New Creamy Pasta Sauce” asserts that cream-based pasta sauces generally fail by being finicky to make and / or decomposing into grainy messes. I’ve been there. Perhaps you’ve been there too. The recipe uses goat cheese beaten with olive oil, salt, and red pepper to create a sauce that doesn’t break and covers all of your pasta beautifully.
I tried the recipe, and it was simple and straightforward, and it worked. It felt like an incomplete thought (the addition of some chorizo and / or peas, for example, might really help bring the dish together and complement the heat from the red pepper flakes), but that’s OK. The main point was to get you to a place where you can make your own creamy sauce in a jiff and then roll from there. As an experienced home cook, I learned something. And that makes me happy.
Better still was the magazine’s recipe for a taginelike lamb and chickpea stew — minus the searing of the meat. The recipe uses a spice blend (and a cilantro and lemon juice finishing step) to build flavor, saving you the effort of rotating a bunch of browning cubes of meat. I was skeptical, having made hundreds of stews by rotating bunches of browning cubes of meat. But lo and behold, the sear-free stew was a blockbuster: deep flavored, mellow, approachable, sustaining, and — of course — even better the next day. All with no searing! Hallelujah.
Were I to make it again, I’d cut the liquid by a third, cook the carrots for another 10 minutes, and up the amount of meat by a few ounces. Those are minor quibbles. The base recipe is pretty much golden.
If a food magazine can bat .500 — one keeper recipe per two issues — it’s doing OK. Milk Street is batting 2,000 (if that’s possible? probably not) after its first issue, which is highly encouraging, particularly since there are still another three or four recipes I intend to try. (Next up: pinchos morunos — Spanish spice-crusted pork tenderloin bites.)
All of this writing is to make two central points:
1. If you’re ever writing a recipe to share with others, the laser-focused, “what does this do better?” approach of Milk Street really can’t be beat.
2. Milk Street is in every way a worthy successor of Cook’s Illustrated. The first year is $20 for 6 issues. I can’t think of a better way to spend $20 vis-a-vis improving your experience in the kitchen, unless you currently don’t own a skillet.
Chefs cook differently from the way you and I do. Not just better — though there’s that. Differently.
Chefs tend to have sous chefs and dishwashers, for starters, but that’s not really a big difference if you have a teenager or two around. What’s really different is that in a professional kitchen, dishes are prepped in steps that can stretch over several days. Vegetables are washed and chopped in the morning. Sauces, broths, and purees of this and that are made ahead of time and stashed away in the walk-in. By the time an order comes in and the cooking starts, much of the cooking has already been done.
When you and I decide it’s time to get dinner started, however, we’re usually starting from zero with a pile of ingredients. If we decide we need court bouillon, it’s probably not in the fridge already. And we can’t scoop three-quarters of a cup of mirepoix out of the prep bin. Instead, we need to dice about half a carrot, half a celery stalk, and a quarter of an onion. And then try not to forget about the remainders in the fridge.
All of which is to say that I usually approach chefs’ cookbooks a bit warily. A good one will add to your arsenal of techniques — for example using a court bouillon (a quick vegetable broth) to boost flavor in simple dishes. But not everything we love about restaurant dishes translates well to the home kitchen — from the layers of prep steps to the larger scale to the number of ingredients.
And all of that is to say that the new cookbook by Lenny Russo, while it does fail a few chefy translation tests, will challenge and delight and inspire you — and might even change the way you look at Midwestern flavors.
Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest is Russo’s first book, and it has been a long time in coming. Russo has been cooking in the Twin Cities since 1985, and at his own Heartland in St. Paul since 2002, and he has never been content to stay in the kitchen. He is a tireless writer, speaker, and advocate for the food of his adopted home. (Disclosure: Russo wrote a lovely introduction to my Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbookand contributed several recipes, but I don’t know him personally.)
In Russo’s 30 years in the Twin Cities, he has made his name, and later Heartland, synonymous with local, seasonal cooking. (And he did so back before we all started to reflexively add “blah blah blah” to the end of that phrase.) Heartland includes about a hundred recipes, all of the sort you wouldn’t be surprised to find on Russo’s menu: heavy on the game and the fruits and vegetables that thrive in Minnesota.
He calls them “Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest.” But what really holds this collection of recipes together is love. There is so much love in this book.
Love is what brought Russo to the Midwest. And there is love, of course, in his long, personal introduction and in the essays about farmers and ingredients he intersperses among the recipes. There’s even love in the choice of illustrations, which are paintings and collages by beloved native son George Morrison.
But especially, there is love in the food. Love for the pork and the trout and the hazelnuts and the morels and the bison and the shell peas and the ramps and the tomatoes and the corn. Love for the way flavors naturally fit together. Love and respect for seasons and sustainability and abundance and scarcity.
In a recent essay in The New York Times, chef Jacques Pépin talked about how meals are fleeting, “You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories.” For him, for all of us, ingredients and dishes are forever associated with people and times in our life, and tastes and smells — even the seasons — have the power to evoke those food memories. “These memories are essential for the cook, the food critic, and the writer,” Pépin says. “They enrich your day-to-day life and your relationships with your family and friends.”
This quote came to mind reading Beth Dooley’s latest book, In Winter’s Kitchen($25, Milkweed Editions, 2015), in which she uses food memories, friendship, and family as a way into conversations about our food system. Fans of the local author will be surprised to learn this is not a cookbook — though there are some recipes — but a kind of hybridized memoir.
The book opens as Dooley is moving from Princeton, N.J., to the Twin Cities with her new husband. She is already a bit of a foodie, and she leaves with her mother’s copy of Joy of Cooking — and her father’s permission to host the next Thanksgiving. Preparing for the holiday will give her new adventure focus, she thinks. But her first encounters with the food scene here are not inspiring. In fact they read like a Midwestern cliché: “… the Red Owl grocery stocked disappointing soft apples and wimpy carrots, aisles of frozen dinners and shelves of packaged mac and cheese. We had landed in ‘the nation’s breadbasket’ only to find it filled with tasteless white bread.”
Happily, it was not long before Dooley discovered the Minneapolis Farmers Market and began the thirty-five year relationship with the local food movement that has resulted in a six cookbooks. In Winter’s Kitchen is about the friends who support and influence her as she makes that journey — and all of the family and life that happens along the way.
It’s also about the food. Dooley has organized her stories around the twelve raw ingredients of her family’s traditional Thanksgiving meal (corn, turkey, milk, and the like). Thus each chapter focuses on a single ingredient and weaves food memories together with profiles of producers, food history, and related issues — from gluten intolerance and the difficulties of selling raw milk to the farm bill and GMO seeds.
The result is a book that feels alternately like a poignant trip down food memory lane and an inspiring field trip to the farms and factories of the people who are trying to change our food system. And yet it works. Dooley’s tasty food memories and stories of real people bring home all the reasons why we should care about things like crop diversity — but they’re also just plain interesting.
One of the most engaging chapters of the book is “Chestnuts.” The last stand of true American chestnut trees is in Wisconsin. It’s descended from an orchard planted by a settler in the 1800s, but it’s dying of a blight. Dooley writes about how the American Chestnut Foundation developed an Americanoid chestnut that produces nuts of the same creamy texture and delicate sweetness as those of the old American chestnut. It’s also something of an ecological wonder, protecting soil from drought, flooding, and erosion, replacing important soil nutrients, and providing harvestable wood — not to mention dropping 6,000 nuts a season. All things this reader did not know.
Many of the people in these stories have become Dooley’s friends, and she portrays them with respect and evident delight. The Americanoid chestnuts are growing on the Minnesota farm of Philip Rutter, a founder of the American Chestnut foundation and a biologist and ecologist, who helped developed them. Dooley captures his voice beautifully, such as when he talks about a tractor he designed to harvest the chestnuts: “We had a few false starts trying to get the level of the pickers right. The brakes needed adjusting, and we nearly lost it on a steep hillside, ran like crazy, shouting after it. Course it wouldn’t listen.”
In Winter’s Kitchen may lead readers to new food experiences, such as the gonzo Cranberry Festival in Warrens, Wis., a black Spanish heritage turkey from Brandon Severson, a block of butter from Hope Creamery, or one of Love Tree’s stinky cheeses. And at the back of the book, there are Thanksgiving recipes using each of the book’s twelve foods.
In the end though, it seems as if Dooley is hoping the book will inspire reflection and action of a different kind. This is after all a book about Thanksgiving. She ends the book on a note of gratitude for her friends and family — and all of the meals, joy, and troubles they’ve shared — and appreciation for the region “that gives its food so reluctantly.” She writes: “My Thanksgiving table helps me understand what a vibrant, viable, and delicious local food system looks like in a climate where the land freezes hard for six months a year, a land where industrial farms and global food companies are front and center. … Yet here in this place, by connecting with small farmers and growers, through our own foraging and gardening, we’re rediscovering the beauty and pleasure in nature’s bounty that may inform different and more positive decisions as we cook meals, vote for our leaders, and engage with each other.”
Reviewing a new cookbook is fun. It’s one of my favorite ways to experience food, to get to know writers, to rethink what’s possible in my kitchen and on my table.
But here’s what a week of cookbook reviewing usually looks like at my house: odd dinners served at odd times because nobody’s in the mood for steak pizzaiola with strawberry mochi (or whatever), and it doesn’t fit the season or the weather, but it’s the book’s signature recipe, so eat up, kids. Then there are the grocery lists that take me to three stores and fill up the pantry with little odds and ends of spices and flours and sweeteners that will never really go bad, so I’ll never really have a good excuse to just throw them away already. And, of course, the leftovers that stretch into next week and eventually end up feeding the compost juggernaut.
And the dirty dishes. Mountains of dishes. Well, I can’t blame the cookbooks for that.
Usually, at the end of the week, I’ve learned something, we’ve eaten some good food, and everybody’s happy that we get to go back to our usual rotation. (Nobody has ever complained about taco Tuesdays and Friday night pizza.) But The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Nov. 1, 2015) … ? It just slid into our lives, as if there was already a space on the shelf just waiting to be filled. I picked out a week’s worth of recipes, matching the hard days with the easy recipes, and vice versa, exactly as I usually do. Then I looked at the ingredient lists and said, “Huh. All we really need is a lot of heavy cream.” And who can complain about that?
Because I had — mostly — picked out recipes from the “Autumn” and “Dusk” chapters (it’s arranged chronologically), nearly everything we needed was in our CSA box (and therefore also plentiful at farmers markets and inexpensive in grocery stores around now), in our freezer, or in our pantry. And I had no problem slotting the recipes into our lives. These were all foods that we wanted to eat together, as a family, after a busy day. They were nourishing, but not heavy; thoughtful but not fancy; comforting, but not childish.
And that is exactly why The Birchwood Cafe — the restaurant, not the book — has survived, thrived, grown, and earned a spot in the pantheon of Minneapolis dining over the past 20 years. This is food we all want to eat. It is, in the words of co-founder Tracy Singleton (above), “good real food.” That’s the motto she has emblazoned on the restaurant itself and on the minds of her staff and regulars.
Good real food is at the heart of the restaurant’s founding story, which began when as a server at Lucia’s, young Tracy discovered real food after a lifetime of “SnackWell’s and Diet Mountain Dew,” as she describes it. That led her to want to share real food with more people — in a little cafe across town. Later, a clamoring from the neighborhood for yet more expanded that little cafe from a coffee shop and bakery into a full-fledged restaurant, and then into its Kickstarter-funded expansion in 2014.
Back in the mid-nineties, a food culture that cared about “real food” and connections with farmers was “just starting to bubble up,” as Singleton remembers. At the time, she defined “good real food” as food that was made from scratch by people you know, and grown by farmers you or the cook trusts.
“The idea of eating in the Middle East, it’s like a sport, really,” says Chef Sameh Wadi. He’s out of his element cooking in my cramped South Minneapolis kitchen — not at Saffron or World Street Kitchen, or the WSK truck — but you’d never know it. He’s talking a mile a minute, and chopping, slicing, searing, and straining as he goes.
“We wake up — and the first thing my mom would say was ‘What do you guys want for breakfast?’” Here he paints an appealing picture: “Breakfast was a table filled with little mezzes, different cheeses, olives, pickles, hummus, sometimes chicken livers. … There’s got to be 10 items on the table, at least. …”
The context resonates right now, as our kitchen fills up with bright, deeply spiced food, and the chef flips through his newly released cookbook, The New Mediterranean Table. Food is everywhere: on the counters, on the stovetop, on the plates, in the air, and soon — in our mouths.
Wadi continues his story: “And then: ‘What do you guys want for lunch?’ And lunch was the biggest meal of the day. And then: ‘What do you guys want for dinner?’ Around 3 o’clock, people are done working. They don’t want to have a heavy meal right when they get home, so they start out with something lighter. But dinner was the late-night one, at 8 o’clock or so — basically all mezzes, is how we ate. At lunch there was always one or two big stews that go with rice.”
He pauses for effect: “And throughout the day there was snacking.”
The interweaving of eating and family life is at the core of The New Mediterranean Table, which is overstuffed with recipes that represent and reflect the flavors and textures of their region. The range of recipes is admirably broad, from short, simple dishes that any observant cook could pull off to potentially life-changing challenges, including formidable spice blends (the ras el hanout has 21 components, including saffron threads and something called orris root) and a glorious-looking chicken bastela that I intend to attempt sometime between now and the day I die, although the complexity of the dish will no doubt result in one or two postponements.
The New Mediterranean Table is a book as elegant as any dish that has emerged from the kitchen at Saffron. It’s clean, crisp, and clear, the recipes easy to read and swimming in white space, the photos bold and colorful without feeling forced or styled. Best of all is Wadi’s voice, which rings out from the pages as he introduces each dish — it’s warm, informative, and conversational without being wordy or feeling forced.
The book’s sections run from small plates through to dessert, drinks, and an unusual section entitled “The Larder.”
Behind all this mental drama was the peculiar (I thought) ratio of fat to flour and the absolutely insane directive to roll a dough made with one cup flour into a double crust (Let’s italicize that: a double crust.) for an 11-inch pie.
I have baked a lot of pies in my life, but I haven’t baked from a lot of different pie crust recipes. I started with the ratios on my mother’s Tupperware rolling mat — you know, the one with the circle templates printed right on it. The double crust recipe (for a 9-inch pie) called for an easy-to-remember 2 cups of flour, ⅔ cup of shortening, and as few icy tablespoons of water as you could use to bring the dough together.
In adulthood, I checked this ratio against my handy Joy of Cooking (2 cups flour, ⅓ cup butter, ⅓ cup shortening, 5 tablespoons water) and never looked back. Well, sure, I switched to all butter — because who keeps shortening around anymore? — and I flirted with adding vodka to the water, but I figured the ratio was the ratio, and what really mattered was icy cold equipment and a light touch.
So, here’s the Norske Nook, cherished pie purveyor of Western Wisconsin, telling me blithely to use my fingertips to blend ½ cup butter-flavored Crisco with 1 cup of flour, then add ¼ cup water and “mix until smooth.” What? I put the resulting goopy mess in the fridge and did some research.
Sure enough, Cook’s Illustrated’s The Cook’s Bible calls a fat-to-flour ratio of 1:2 (much higher than the 1:3 I was used to) “the secret to a flaky crust.” But their recipe uses far more butter than shortening and only 2-3 tablespoons cold water per cup of flour.
The real mystery was how that tiny, goopy blob in my fridge was going to roll into two (two!) 11-inch crusts. But, I figured, “in for a dime in for a dollar.” So I rolled. And I rolled. And I cursed. And I rolled. And by the time I was finished rolling, that pie crust was translucent, but, by golly, it filled an 11-inch pie tin. After blind baking, I pulled the empty crust out of the oven and — hallelujah — no shrinkage, no puffing, even browning. I could no longer read the print on the bottom of the pie tin through it. It looked good.
Then I accidentally brushed my thumb up against the edge and it just shattered: That thin crust was brittle and fragile after all.
Let’s say it’s a long rainy day. Or an even longer snowy day. (Yes, that’s coming soon.) If you’ve got kids to entertain, you probably make a batch or two of chocolate chip cookies. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a delicious, time-honored boredom buster.
But think about it: You’ve got a whole kitchen full of chemicals — chemicals that not only make our food delicious but also expand and pop and fizz and change colors. And all that popping, fizzing and changing colors — well, that’s science.
That’s what Liz Heinecke wants you to think the next time you and your kids are staring at a free hour or so: “Hey, sweetie, let’s do some science.”
“My whole goal is to make it easy for parents and kids to do science at home,” she says, “so they’re not afraid to do it. They’ll dig in. They’ll get their hands dirty. And they’ll ask questions. ‘What if I do this?’ That’s what science should be, especially when you’re young.”
Heinecke is a molecular biologist and an Edina mom of three. She has been blogging at KitchenPantryScientist.com since 2009 and has created the KidScience iPhone app. This month, she published 52 of her kid-friendly, kitchen-centered experiments in Kitchen Science Lab For Kids (Quarry Books).
Heavy Tablers James Norton and Becca Dilley, author and photographer for the new University of Minnesota Press book Lake Superior Flavors, are taking their show to the North Shore this weekend.
At 12:30pm on Friday, July 18 at the Duluth Coffee Company, you can join the authors for a book signing and discussion, and enjoy some of the best coffee to be had around the shores of the greatest of the Great Lakes.
And at 9am on Saturday, July 19, join the authors for some doughnuts and a book sale and signing at World’s Best Donuts in Grand Marais. They’ll also be buying a doughnut and a small coffee for everyone who purchases a book, so you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.
The rising tide of the local food movement has renewed interest in the farmers market, an ancient institution that at one point seemed doomed by the industrial-powered glory of the modern supermarket. Between 2002 and 2013 in Minnesota, we’ve seen the number of markets explode from 45 to more than 150. They’re scattered throughout the state, in the urban centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in suburban parking lots, and in the town squares of places as geographically diverse as Crookston, Lanesboro, and Ely.
“There are farmers markets absolutely everywhere,” says Tricia Cornell, author of the newly released Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook: A Guide to Selecting and Preparing the Best Local Produce with Seasonal Recipes from Local Chefs and Farmers (Voyageur Press, 2014). “It’s become a more normalized way to shop. And if I had my druthers, people would treat their farmers market more like they treat their grocery store. And right now, a lot of people treat it like their Saturday morning entertainment — which is cool, but it’s less sustainable for the farmers.”
Cornell is a regular contributor to the Heavy Table and the author of Eat More Vegetables: Making the Most of Your Seasonal Produce (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012). She brings an expert’s eye to the seasonally driven tornado of produce available at farmers markets from spring through late autumn.
“I think a lot of people go to the farmers market wander around and see what looks good, as opposed to the grocery store, where you may say, ‘I’m going to the familiar green beans,'” says Cornell. “When you go to the farmers market, you’re open to more things. And there’s a seasonality to the food, so the farmers market makes you pay attention to something other than the changing color of the leaves when it comes to seasonality.
The book works as a collection of recipes springboarding off of Minnesota’s seasonal bounty, but it goes deeper than that, framing the conversation about food that all of us, knowingly or not, initiate when we shop at farmers markets for our dinner. “In each section I include a list of things to ask your farmer about. You can’t necessarily assume that everything’s organic, for example,” says Cornell. “But you can go up and have a conversation: ‘You organic? Why not?’ And you might find out that they believe in organic principles but they can’t afford certification. And you can find out how people raise their chickens, and where their sheep live, and where their trout come from, things like that.”
Keeping Heavy Table running isn’t quite enough to keep James Norton and Becca Dilley busy (even though you’d really think it should be). When the couple had finished up The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, an oral history of the state of the cheese industry in that state, they started looking around for a new project, one they could approach in a similar way.
Norton’s the writer and Dilley’s the photographer, but they do their research and their traveling together. Over the course of a half dozen trips (including two completely around the lake), they visited more than 75 restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and brewhouses — just about any sort of place where you can get a bite or a sip. They talked to chefs, bakers, brewers, foragers, goat-farmers, cultural interpreters, and jam-making monks. And then they took all of that raw material and put together a loving portrait of the foodways of the Lake Superior region.
HEAVY TABLE: Can you talk a little bit about how the book came to be?
BECCA DILLEY: Years before, I had read an article in National Geographic Traveler about the Shipwreck Coast around Lake Superior. It seemed like a place that still had a lot of ragged edges to it, even though a lot of it is so heavily touristed.
JAMES NORTON: Lake Superior feels like a legitimate region, like a separate place. It’s not just Wisconsin. It’s not just Minnesota. It’s not just Canada. It’s its own world. And one of the defining features of a world is its cuisine, the way people eat, the folkways.
I race from my car, darting through the prickly embrace of a four-degrees-below-zero morning and into the toasty confines of Birchbark Books. Minnesota Book Award-winning author and poet Heid Erdrich is already there with a steaming pot of manoomin porridge.
“This is not even the best version,” she claims, humbly. “It didn’t even have time to set up.” It’s nutty, creamy, and dense. The wild rice is cooked until it’s bursting but still toothsome, with wild blueberries (frozen, from Costco), Craisins, pecans, and a distinct sweetness from shaved maple sugar. My hands begin to unthaw around the bowl as the porridge warms me from the inside out. I look out at the frost speckling my car windows and consider inhaling the entire pot (recipe below).
The dish is artfully simple and relies on just a couple key ingredients. Recipes like this one abound in her new book, Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest ($19.95, MHS Press). As with all good food writing, the food itself is not really the story. Erdrich’s is a functional cookbook, but its strength is a patchwork of stories, recollections, and traditions from people sharing their personal connections to indigenous ingredients.
“The conversation around local food in the upper Midwest is so big, and it doesn’t address the fact that these foods were stewarded, produced, developed, and protected by indigenous people,” says Erdrich. “Because there’s so much food inequity, it seemed like it was time to talk about where these foods come from, who’s taking care of them, and what they mean to people here.”
The book is a celebration of ingredients, beginning with a comprehensive exploration of hand-harvested wild rice, or what the Anishinaabe people would call manoomin.
“Real manoomin is a wild grass that takes a long time to grow,” Erdrich tells us. “It grew widely, everywhere in the United States. Now it’s pretty much only in the upper Midwest. It’s genetically diverse in each body of water. It cooks quickly. It’s not that hard black stuff – that cultivated rice that somehow manages to be called wild rice though there’s nothing wild about it. The tastes range from astringent and grassy to smoky and nutty.” Real manoomin is also expensive – if you can find it for better than $9/lb. (at realwildrice.com), leave a comment below.
Erdrich is a poet after all, and the vignettes between the recipes feel almost lyrical. So while very much a cookbook, Original Local doesn’t feel formulaic. The stories are wide ranging, from her family and tribal members to chefs and scientists. They’re a good mix of breezy and heartfelt, funny and wistful, and act as quick aperitifs to whet the appetite before you choose a dish to try out.
You can join her tonight for a reading at Double Hungry: Sustainable Poems, at 7:30pm at Black Dog Coffee in Lowertown St. Paul. She will be hosting poets G. E. Patterson, James Autio, and Kristin Naca, and the cafe will offer some specials taken straight from the book.
THE HEAVY TABLE: For a native of the Upper Midwest before contact with Europeans, what would a normal day of eating look like?
HEID ERDRICH: It’s going to be micro-local. Someone up on the edge of Lake Superior would eat mostly turkey and a grain kind of like quinoa. They’d grind it into cakes, from the plant that’s called lamb’s quarters. In another place, you might have wild rice and smoked fish. Everyone ate berries, as a seasoning and as food. In North Dakota, you’d have beans and corn for a lot of the year, sunflowers and sunflower oil. Some places, people ate nothing but corn and venison. In parts of Michigan there were even caribou.
HT: Do you have a personal food memory that really stands out in your mind?
HE: There are a lot of them. You privilege one when you pick it. I suppose watching my mom sieve cranberries. The color of those cranberries was just so vivid, literally, in my mind. Also picking wild plums. It just seems like they’re glowing, because they’re really yellow inside, and just a little pink under the skin. And the skin is frosty, so they’re an odd pink-yellow color, just beautiful. I just remember eating way too many of them and getting a stomachache.
HT: The recipes in the book seem more, let’s say, reverent of indigenous traditions rather than being 100% authentic.
HE: Indigenous people are plagued by the notion of the “authentic.” I mean, what is really authentic in any culture? It’s always shifting its dynamic. I love cookbooks that are more historical, but I cook those recipes and find them lacking. There are things that just appeal to our contemporary tastes. I wanted to shift it a little, and feature an ingredient but not be a slave to only indigenous things. To me, that just felt natural.
HT: It seems like you learned a fair amount about your own family’s own food traditions with this research.
HE: One of my favorite things was talking to my dad about why he harvested wild rice one year and only that one year. And he told me of, 45 years ago, harvesting this wild rice, and then my mom comes out of the basement with a jar of it! It’s still perfectly usable but looks nothing like any wild rice I’d ever seen. It’s a very particular plant, I just got so interested in that. I found research from old trade journalists saying that the area I grew up in is said to be the origin of wild rice. And I had this 45-year-old rice that could be part of the original stock.
HT: Name a rarely used indigenous ingredient that you think people should eat more often.
HE: Sumac! It’s a great seasoning or you can make drinks from it – Indian Kool-Aid, they call it. We used it on all sorts of things. I love it on popcorn. I say in the book to make a seasoning from sumac and maple sugar, put it in a shaker, and use it on everything. You can get maple sugar at the co-ops.
Maple sugar was the secret ingredient in the porridge, which Erdrich used in lieu of maple syrup. “Whenever I make something and people say they really like it, but can’t explain why, usually, it’s the maple sugar,” she beams.
Manoomin Porridge In Coconut Milk
Serves 6 | Commodity foods, though relics of a system that kept American Indian people dependent on the federal government, are still fondly recalled by many whose memories of their grandmas making cheese sandwiches off a huge rectangular block are a comfort that has lasted. I loved canned milk that we used on cereal — hot bowls of farina (also a commodity item) — and that we mixed with water to make drinking milk from time to time. Our usual fare was nonfat dry milk, or blue water, as we thought of it, so canned milk was creamy-dreamy to us.
While this recipe is more wholesome and satisfying than any of the hot mush cereals we ate as kids, it reminds me of school days and the kindness of my elders making me a steaming bowl upon which I poured canned milk. I’ve replaced the cow’s milk with coconut milk to make a nondairy treat that even my kids will eat.
2 cups cooked manoomin 1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk, shaken, or evaporated milk, ½ cup reserved ½ teaspoon ground allspice or cinnamon ⅛ teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped into milk ¼ cup maple syrup ¼ cup chopped dried blueberries and cranberries ¼ cup hazelnuts, butternuts, walnuts, or pecans, toasted
In a medium saucepan, combine cooked manoomin, coconut or evaporated milk, allspice or cinnamon, salt, and vanilla. Over medium-high heat, simmer until rice begins to puff open and porridge begins to thicken; remove from heat. Stir in maple syrup and berries. Serve into bowls and top with nuts and reserved milk. Porridge will thicken when cooled and is excellent reheated with additional fresh or frozen fruit. It can be served as a dessert.
(Recipe courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press)