Pickled Asparagus with Juniper and Fennel from Savory Sweet

Mette Nielsen

This post is sponsored by the University of Minnesota Press.

“Let’s dispense with the usual old notions of preserving,” Beth Dooley suggests, leading us into Mette Nielsen’s kitchen, where Old-World Danish traditions meld with the freshest ideas and latest techniques. Their approach in the cookbook Savory Sweet: simple preserves from a northern kitchen combines the bright, bold flavors of Nordic cuisines with an emphasis on the local, the practical, and the freshest ingredients to turn each season’s produce into a bounty of condiments.

University of Minnesota Press

From Savory Sweet
Makes 2 1½-pint (24-ounce) jars

Unlike most recipes for pickled asparagus, this one does not call for blanching the stalks before brining, so they retain their snap and fresh flavors. Note that the color will change from vibrant green to olive. The juniper adds a nuanced peppery-piney note, while a little fennel seed gives a licorice scent.

Seek out tall 24-ounce jars to hold the stalks upright; otherwise, standard wide-mouth pint jars will work. You can eat the leftover trimmed stalks at your next meal.

Wait at least a week before enjoying this pickle to allow the flavors to marry. The jars will keep several months in the refrigerator.

1 to 1¼ pounds asparagus
4 large garlic cloves, quartered lengthwise
2 teaspoons juniper berries
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1¾ cups water
1¾ cups cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt

1. Wash and trim the asparagus to fit in your jars, allowing for a half inch of headspace.

2. Wash the jars, lids, and bands in very hot soapy water, rinse them well, and place them upside down on a clean towel to drain.

3. Divide the asparagus between the jars. (We like putting the tips up.) Distribute the garlic, juniper berries, fennel seeds, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and crushed red pepper flakes between the jars.

4. Combine the water, vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan, and bring it to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour the hot brine over the asparagus.

5. Cover each jar with a square of wax paper slightly larger than the jar opening, fold in the corners with a clean spoon, and push down lightly so some of the brine comes up over the wax paper. Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, add the lids and bands, and finger tighten the bands.

6. Label the jars. Cool completely and tighten the bands before storing in the refrigerator.

Quick Ideas
These tall, delicious spears make an edible stir stick for classic cocktails like Bloody Marys and Gibsons. The pickle’s light juniper flavor pairs nicely with both vodka and gin. This pickle is also delicious layered into a grilled cheese or ham and cheese sandwich. Substitute pickled asparagus for the green beans in a nicoise salad, and whisk a little of the pickle brine into the vinaigrette.

Heavy Table Hot Five: May 5-11


Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email editor@heavytable.com.

shepherd-song-banner-ad-horiz-3The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.


James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

1-new - one - hot fiveChamoy Croquette from Travail’s Spotlight Dinner
Last week was our first visit to a Travail Spotlight dinner, but after the insanely entertaining and remarkably consistent cooking and on-point service, it certainly won’t be our last. There were plenty of highlights at this Mexican-inspired feast by Chef Benjamin Feltmann (everything from bold chicken mole to a house-made choco taco dessert to a fried grasshopper), but the most remarkable of all might have been a fried sphere containing brined fruit known as chamoy. Like the relishes of Savory Sweet (see item 4), chamoy presents a full arsenal of flavor: sweet, tart, salty, and spicy in equal measures. This croquette was 100 pounds of gusto in a 2-ounce package.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

2-new - two - hot fiveANZAC Cookie from Baker’s Field
The coconut oat cookie known as the ANZAC biscuit commemorates Australia and New Zealand’s participation in the First World War. It’s also delicious — subtle, nutty, mellow, and excellent with coffee or tea. We tried our first one at the Baker’s Field pop-up sale at the Food Building last weekend.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]

Paige Didora / Heavy Table
Paige Didora / Heavy Table

3-new - three hot fiveRamp Frittata at L’etoile du Nord
Ramp season is upon us, and the frittata at L’étoile du Nord in Bayport features them beautifully. The dish is made to order, rather than being reheated by the slice, and uses apples, parsnips, and gruyère cheese as well as ramps. Strong coffee and two sunny patios make the trip worth it.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Paige Didora]

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

4-new four hot fiveOnion Pomegranate Marmalade from Savory Sweet
The preserves featured in Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen have a few things in common: They’re not too sugary, they’re balanced, and they pack a flavor wallop. The Onion Pomegranate Marmalade is a terrific example. It brings together a deep, satisfying earthiness with the brightness of cider vinegar, ginger, red pepper, and pomegranate. We tried it while interviewing authors Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen for a long story that ran yesterday.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #2 | Submitted by James Norton]

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

5-new -five Lift Bridge Cowlaboration #6 (Orange Pale Ale) at Red Cow
Barely carbonated, and with a gentle undercurrent of mandarin orange, Lift Bridge’s Cowlaboration #6 beer (created with and served at Red Cow) is easy drinking in warm weather and pairs up nicely with wings or pulled pork. Although it’s pitched as an orange pale ale, the citrus and acid are quite retiring, and the smooth creaminess of the beer suggests an orange creamsicle without being pushy about it.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]

Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen on ‘Savory Sweet’

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Is there anything sexier than preserves?

The correct answer, of course, is “no.” Preserves capture the bounty of the north’s brief but glorious growing season in a format that stores indefinitely, plays well with other foods, and creates flavors brasher than just about anything else on the plate.

That so many preserves are over-sweet, muted in flavor, and / or deadly dull isn’t a fault of the format — it’s an outgrowth of techniques that fail to capitalize on their potential. Food writer Beth Dooley and photographer Mette Nielsen’s lively new book Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95) has the potential to seriously level up the preserves game in the Upper Midwest. It’s quietly revolutionary.

University of Minnesota Press
University of Minnesota Press

The book turns on a few clever ideas that play out in its pages. First, most books focused on preserves hearken back to the farm and call for the production of giant quantities, which presupposes large quantities of produce, huge pots, and lots of climate-controlled storage space. Second, many traditional preserves cookbooks create shelf-stable (as opposed to freezer) preserves, which require extensive processing that dulls flavor and mushes up texture. Finally, old-school preserves tend to be simple combinations of sugar with fruit, or salt with herbs and vegetables. The recipes of Savory Sweet are small-batch freezer preserves that combine subtle and novel ingredients, everything from Hot and Sweet Carrot Relish to Pickled Fennel with Lemongrass to Earl Grey Crab Apple Jelly.

We interviewed the authors at Nielsen’s studio / test kitchen in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, and they put out a spread of coulis, chutneys, relishes, and syrups that made the book’s thesis tangible. The flavors popped like wildfire — tart, sweet, and acidic notes intense but in balance.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: How does the message of Savory Sweet tie into the conversation about local food in the Upper Midwest?

METTE NIELSEN: I feel that preserving is the next step if you’re going to talk about a local food economy. We need to do it on a much larger scale than even this book. We need local preserving companies and local canning companies. This is a step, and we hope it inspires somebody. We have a very short growing season, but we grow an abundance. In my little yard, I had a spot that was maybe 10 feet by 4 feet and I got 300 pounds of tomatoes out of that.

BETH DOOLEY: It’s crazy what you can actually grow. Everything [in the book] is done in really small batches. Most other preserving books are based on the notion you have access to really huge amounts. And everything is done in a 10-inch skillet.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

NIELSEN: There’s a great new book out of California, but it’s based on this enormous copper pan that’s $500. And then you get 40 jars of jam. Why not make this amount and you get four? The scale of it makes more sense. And a lot of other books are based on the notion that you have a cool, dark place to store things. Even in my house, my basement is way too warm. Things start to fade. You store that same thing in the freezer, and it looks bright and crisp and like something you want to eat.

DOOLEY: You’re cooking the fruit or vegetables for a shorter period of time, so they’ll look more colorful and taste brighter. A lot of the work that Mette did was to say, “we don’t need that much sugar!” That’s why these things taste good.

HEAVY TABLE: They’re very sharp and bright – everything’s really bold.

Giftable: The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook

birchwood-cafe-cookbook-coverThis post is sponsored by the University of Minnesota Press. As the holidays approach, our Giftable series features a range of food- and drink-related items.

What’s it about? Sample the Birchwood Cafe’s recipes — adapted for home cooks — and fill your own table with some of the irresistible fare that has made the cafe one of the region’s best-loved restaurants. The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook shows you what it takes to make a sustainable kitchen and a joyful table, to prepare “good real food” that really does more than a little good.

Who’s it a good gift for? Lovers of the Birchwood Cafe as well as home cooks looking to expand their recipe collection with fresh and innovative dishes.

Where’s it available? Buy online or call 1.800.621.2736.

A First Look at Milk Street Magazine

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

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.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

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.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

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.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

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.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

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.

Join Beatrice Ojakangas in celebrating the launch of her new book, Homemade

ojakangas-homemade-coverThis story is sponsored by the University of Minnesota Press.

Author Beatrice Ojakangas launches her new book, Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food, next week.

Please join us for the launch of Beatrice’s book on Wednesday, October 12 at 5:30 p.m. at the American Swedish Institute. Find more information here.

“Beatrice Ojakangas has long been my personal cookbook hero. Her life story, told with candor and dry wit, describes what could be nine lives in the world of food and cooking — all of them riveting. From her mother’s cardamom-scented rural kitchen, to the editorial offices of the famed Sunset magazine, to her rightful place cooking alongside Julia Child, to her Minnesota kitchen where she authored twenty-nine (now thirty!) cookbooks, this book proves that Beatrice Ojakangas is not only one of this country’s most important food writers, but a national treasure. As I read, I laughed, got very hungry, picked my rhubarb, wept with fondness, and then I did what she’d want me to do: I pulled myself together, tied on an apron, and preheated my oven.” — Amy Thielen, author of The New Midwestern Table

Salt Cake: Excerpted from Homemade

I was about five years old and I had already discovered that it was far more pleasurable to satisfy the wishes of my parents than to rebel. Maybe it was because my mother had lost her own mother at the age of five and grew up under the scolding hand of her stepmother that I wanted to please her. She must have told me stories about how she was physically and mentally abused, though I don’t recall too much because the stories were so gradually revealed. The upshot, though, was that I carried the vision of the wicked stepmother in my mind. My mom would tell me more about her early childhood in bits and pieces much later.

She always referred to “Stepmother” when she talked about the woman who had replaced her mother after her untimely death. “Stepmother never let us into the kitchen,” she would say, “so I want my kids to know how to cook.”

When she said I needed to learn how to bake a cake, I agreed. I was five years old. She took out the big tan crockery mixing bowl with blue stripes around the outside, the wooden spoon, and the essential ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, salt, baking powder, flour, vanilla, and milk.

The wood stove had been fired up so that the gauge on the front of the oven read 350°F. It was January and although it was freezing outside, the kitchen was cozy and the stove was always hot and ready for baking. We were not yet powered for electricity.

I attentively watched and made mental notes of what the batter looked like. She scooped an egg-sized sphere of butter and slapped it into the bowl. “About a half cup is right,” she said. Then she poked the butter with the tip of the wooden spoon, making indentations that looked like so many commas in a row. This was to soften the butter, she said.

“Taste it,” she said. “If it tastes flat, add a pinch of salt.” We did, and mixed a little salt in. Then we scraped the batter into the buttered pan and stuck it into the oven to bake, until a straw plucked from the corn broom and placed into the center of the cake came out clean and dry.

It was a couple of weeks later and my mother was in labor, not an uncommon occurrence (there eventually were ten of us). I decided to bake a cake for “Mummy.”

I took out the bowl and spoon and tried to remember all the ingredients. I hadn’t started school yet and hadn’t learned to write, so I had to remember the recipe. I mixed the batter as I had been instructed, and last of all I tasted it. It was flat so I added a pinch of salt. Still flat. I added another pinch of salt. Still flat. Finally I was tossing handfuls of salt into the batter and it didn’t seem to be helping at all. The
batter looked good. I poured it into the pan and put it into the oven. Pondering what could have been wrong when the cake was half-baked, I recalled that I had forgotten the sugar. This was a lesson that has served me well the rest of my life. Always taste to see what’s missing!

The cake turned out golden and beautiful. It looked delicious! I proudly served my mother a square of the freshly baked cake while she was lying in bed after having given birth. She didn’t say anything about it being salty. She only said that it looked beautiful.


½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-by-13-inch cake pan.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with the sugar. Add the eggs and beat until fluffy. Stir the flour, baking powder, and salt and add to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk. Stir in the vanilla. Beat until light and fluffy. Spread evenly into the cake pan.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the center springs back when touched or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and dry. The cake is perfect simply cut into squares, but sometimes we sprinkled cinnamon sugar over the top.

— Modified from the chapter Salt Cake in Homemade

Nordic: Photographs by Magnus Nilsson, chef at Faviken and author of The Nordic Cookbook

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

At Fäviken, Magnus Nilsson’s restaurant 400 miles north of Stockholm, the prix fixe tasting menu involves (among many other exquisitely, obsessively local things) lichen, raw cow’s heart, vegetables cooked over “autumn leaves,” foraged scallops smoked over juniper branches, pig’s blood, and cow’s colostrum.

His first book, also called Fäviken, is not, then, really a cookbook. It’s another way to experience a restaurant that only a dozen people a night can enjoy, and only at great expense and through great good fortune. (You want reservations? Good luck.) It’s an invitation to think differently about food and flavors and where those things come from, divorced entirely from the modern need to put dinner on the table every night, and yet knotted tightly to the way people in the north of Sweden and Norway once survived.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Naturally, then, when I picked up Nilsson’s second book, The Nordic Cookbook ($50, Phaidon), the dish I immediately decided to make was Flygande Jakob — Flying Jacob. It became something of an obsession: roast chicken, a packet of dried Italian dressing mix, whipped heavy cream, Heinz chili sauce (apparently, the brand is important), peanuts, bacon, and — this delights me no end — bananas.

Flygande Jakob. It’s ridiculous. It’s crazy processed — an absolute salt bomb, by the way. It’s childishly exotic. It comes from an entirely different planet than does smoked reindeer lichen. And it proves that Swedes, all this new Nordic artistry notwithstanding, are just like us. (Milk-cheeked children eating nothing but berries and salmon and rye crackers after hiking the fjords — pshaw.)

Of course they are. I knew that. You knew that. But how wonderful it is to see it proven in a casserole that would be right at home next to a Jell-O salad.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

When I asked some friends in Sweden and Finland to confirm that such a thing as Flygande Jakob existed, one replied, “Sadly, yes.” And the other, a Finn, presented it as evidence of Swedes’ “adorable weirdness.” (It had crossed my mind that this recipe was somehow akin to Van Halen’s touring rider requiring that all brown M&Ms be removed from the green room: a way of testing out who had actually read the book.)

Nilsson himself describes Flygande Jakob with gentle, nostalgic love in the recipe header:

“This dish is one that every Swede who grew up after 1980 has a relationship with, and most of those growing up before too for that matter. … The combination of chicken, cream, Heinz chili sauce, salted peanuts and one of Sweden’s most cherished fruits, the banana, is truly spectacular and one of the strongest lasting cultural expressions of the early 1980s, at least in my opinion. … Serve flygande Jakob with white rice, shredded iceberg lettuce and cucumber (no vinegar, please), then lean back, close your eyes, and pretend you are me eating in 1989 and enjoy yourself.”

Heartland by Lenny Russo

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

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.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

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 Cookbook and 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.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

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.

Three Tastes With Sameh Wadi and The New Mediterranean Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.” 

Recipes from Brenda Langton’s Book, The Spoonriver Cookbook

Brenda Langton Spoonriver Cookbook
Photo by Mette Nielsen

“I adore Brenda Langton for her commitment, her principled unwavering vision, her social agenda, and most of all her scrumptious food.” — Andrew Zimmern

“Langton embraces the way real people live, eat, and cook. Though it is called The Spoonriver Cookbook, it’s really an ode to the bounty of our local food scene.” — Mpls.St. Paul Magazine

For nearly 40 years, Brenda Langton has been one of the most recognizable guiding lights of Twin Cities organic dining. The Spoonriver Cookbook serves as a tribute to her acclaimed Spoonriver Restaurant and the Mill City Farmers Market and presents the vision and philosophy of the remarkable chef behind Spoonriver’s delicious creations. Below are three recipes from The Spoonriver Cookbook:

Melon Mint Soup (page 27)

Photo by Mette Nielsen


There is nothing like the taste sensation of a really good cantaloupe or honeydew. When melon is at its peak, everyone at the market is searching for the perfect melon. As we all know, it’s a real bummer to come home with a bland one. Choose a melon that has an aroma and is slightly soft at the bottom. This soup blends that wonderful melon flavor with a hint of mint, a great combination. This is a good first course for a summer brunch. // Serves 4 to 6

1 large (about 3 pounds) cantaloupe
½ cup apple juice
1½ tablespoons lime juice
1½ tablespoons chopped fresh mint
½ cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon honey, if needed
Pinch of salt


Cut the melon into chunks, reserving the juices. Put the melon and its juice in a blender along with the apple juice and lime juice, and blend until smooth. Add the mint for just a few seconds at the end. Pour the soup into a bowl and whisk in the yogurt. Taste the soup and correct the seasonings. You may want to add more mint or perhaps a little honey.

Soba Noodles with Vegetables (page 137)

Spoonriver Cookbook Soba Noodles
Photo by Mette Nielsen

Soba noodles are a traditional Japanese buckwheat noodle. They have an earthy flavor and a soft texture and are high in protein. We like soba noodles that are 60 percent buckwheat and 40 percent wheat. Toasted sesame oil and a high-quality soy sauce are essential for finishing this dish. // Serves 4

1 (8.8-ounce) package soba noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 pound firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 to 2 carrots, sliced
1 cup cauliflower florets or chopped cabbage
1 to 2 cups broccoli florets (or another green vegetable)
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1½ tablespoons maple syrup or mirin (optional, but delicious)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Toasted sesame seed oil


Soba noodles cook quickly, so make sure to prepare all the vegetables before you start cooking. If you start cooking the noodles and the vegetables at the same time, they will be ready to serve at the same time.

Cook the noodles in boiling water as directed on package.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan or wok over high heat. Add the onion, tofu, and 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce and cook, covered, for 2 minutes.

Stir in the carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, ginger, maple syrup, and red pepper flakes (if using), and about ¾ cup water. Continue cooking, covered, for about 5 minutes or just until the vegetables are done but not soft. You want the broccoli to be bright green and firm. Do not overcook.

Add the last tablespoon of soy sauce to the pan or at the table.

Serve the vegetables and tofu over the soba noodles and drizzle with toasted sesame oil.

Almond Cake with Whipped Cream and Berries (page 221)

Spoonriver Cookbook Almond Cake
Photo by Mette Nielsen

This is a very delicious and versatile cake. We serve it layered with a variety of different fillings: berries and whipped cream, raspberry preserves, chocolate ganache, or orange marmalade lightened with whipped cream, to name just a few. This cake is also a delightful base for strawberry shortcake. // Serves 10 to 12

½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated, plus 1 additional egg white
½ cup plain yogurt
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups ground almonds
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans or one 9 x 13-inch pan.

Cream the butter. Add the sugar and beat until creamy. Add the egg yolks, yogurt, and almond extract. Beat until well blended.

Whisk together the flour, ground almonds, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl. Stir the dry ingredients into the butter mixture.

Whip the egg whites until they are stiff. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes. The cake is done when a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cakes made in a single large pan will take longer to bake. If you are making a layer cake, cool the cake in the pans for about 10 minutes; then invert and remove the pans. Cool the cake completely before frosting it.

For more information on The Spoonriver Cookbook and for a list of Brenda’s upcoming events around the Twin Cities, click here.

Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers

Eating Local Cookbook
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Subscribing to a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm share can be both exciting and overwhelming. There’s something thrilling about the anticipation that builds all week, leading up to delivery day when you lift the lid of your box to discover what combination of fresh-off-the-farm produce your farmer has brought: Perhaps gnarled heirloom tomatoes in Crayola-vivid yellows, oranges, and reds; or crisp carrots tied in bunches and with feathery tops still attached; or juicy cantaloupe with its gentle, sweet perfume. But it can be a challenge to find new ways to use up all of that produce, especially vegetables you’ve never seen before (like celeriac, or Harukai japanese turnips) or vegetables you’ve seen before and dislike (kale or black radish, for example). The newly released cookbook Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers, by Sur La Table with Janet Fletcher [304 pages, jacketed hardcover, Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, $35.00] strives to help you “make the most of the fresh ingredients from your CSA box or farmers’ market and celebrate the goods grown in your community.”

Not merely a cookbook, Eating Local also profiles 10 CSA farms that “are a representative cross section of the movement,” including Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm in Harris, MN, which both cultivates produce and raises livestock, and Morning Song Farm in southern California, which claims to be the nation’s only rare-fruit CSA. Collectively, the 10 profiles sketch out for us the life of a CSA farmer, from starting the farm, to selecting crops, to packing the boxes each week. Of Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm, the authors write, “Empty cardboard boxes stand ready in the shade of the hoop house, waiting to be filled according to [farmer] Robin’s posted diagram: heavy stuff on the bottom, shapes juxtaposed artfully, a riot of color on top. She wants shareholders to open the box and be stirred by the beauty.” Each profile contains snippets of insight, from kitchen tips such as “Take pesto beyond basil. Substitute spinach, kale, or garlic scape for some or all of the basil” to a listing of the farmers’ favorite crops, to a sentence or two discussing the farm’s philosophy.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm contributed three recipes: Pickled Yellow Wax Beans with Fresh Dill; Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm’s Slaw; and Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm Ketchup.

Recipes — 150 of them — are divided among three major sections, vegetables; fruits; and poultry, meat, and eggs; and then organized alphabetically for easy reference by primary ingredient within each section, from artichokes to turnips; apples to pomegranates; and beef to pork. Many of the recipes, such as Grilled Goat Cheese Sandwich with Asian Pears and Prosciutto or Grilled Cauliflower Steaks with Tahini Sauce, require the use of a grill, so, if you do not enjoy grilling, this might not be the book for you. Because two of the three sections are produce-focused, many of the recipes are vegetarian; however, even in the vegetables section, some of the recipes call for anchovies, a bit of bacon, or slices of sausage. Storage and gardening tips appear at the back of the book.

Sprinkled throughout the book are creative suggestions for using parts of the vegetables one might normally discard: Use “bok choy ribs as a celery substitute, or as low-calorie dippers in place of chips for guacamole”; or tender, young radish greens to make pesto; or carrot tops to make soup or sparingly in juicing and in salads. One recipe, Warm Chard Ribs with Yogurt, Toasted Walnuts, and Dill, centers entirely around the chard rib, which more commonly ends up in compost heaps.

Seasonal and Local Cookbooks: How They Stack Up

Every other Monday throughout the summer and fall while locally raised produce is spectacular and abundant, the Heavy Table will be exploring vegetarian cuisine, both in the kitchen and at local eateries. Read other stories in this series.

I love cookbooks. Well, books of all kinds, really. I love the cool, smooth feel of paper and the smell of fresh ink. I especially love dusty old family cookbooks, with their brittle and stained pages and penciled-in markings. But, mostly, I love the potential every new book holds to change my world or, at least, my perspective, and to transport me to somewhere new and exotic for a brief visit. I read cookbooks like novels. At my house you’ll find them on my nightstand, tucked under my bed, pushed under the sofa, and piled in a stack on the floor in front of my bookshelf, waiting to be reshelved.

So, when I saw seasonal and local cookbooks sprouting in bookstores everywhere this past spring, I couldn’t wait to explore them all once our local growing season kicked into gear. Between six recipe testers and tasters, we tested 28 recipes from six books, never fewer than three recipes from any one book. I personally tested no fewer than two recipes from each book, and usually four or five. I hadn’t bought this much butter and Parmesan cheese in years. I also read all 1,715 pages of text. While many of the books have a vegetable focus, none has a strictly vegetarian focus. Nevertheless, we focused our efforts on testing vegetarian recipes from the books. I had intended to declare one book the winner above all others, but found, in the end, that the best book is the one that suits your particular tastes and needs. Therefore, I’ve summarized the key qualities of each book, listed in alphabetical order below, so you can decide which one suits you.

summer cookbooks stacked
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Cooking from the Garden: Best Recipes from Kitchen Gardener, edited by Ruth Lively [300 pages, hardcover, The Taunton Press, $29.95]

Cooking from the Garden is a compilation of 200 recipes from now-defunct Kitchen Gardener magazine that includes recipes from renowned chefs and authors such as Deborah Madison, James Beard Foundation Award winning author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone; Chicago-based chef and cookbook author Rick Bayless; and Minneapolis-based chef Lucia Watson and food writer Beth Dooley.

Two of the five recipes we tried, Lynn Alley‘s Strawberry Smoothie and Nan Wishner’s Crustless Vegetable Quiche turned out to be real favorites. The strawberry smoothie, though basic, has turned into a morning staple in the household that tested it, using peaches now instead of strawberries. The quiche made use of a good amount of garden vegetables, including kale, red onion, carrot, and potatoes, and got an appealing kick from Chinese five-spice powder which, especially when ground from scratch, is the star of the dish.

Cooking from the Garden White Bean Salad
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

We also tried Beth Dooley’s and Lucia Watson’s White Bean Salad with Rosemary-Balsamic Vinaigrette (see recipe below) and thought it was pretty good, a B or a B+, though I wanted to add a splash of acid, apple cider vinegar, or lemon, perhaps. We didn’t use the optional homemade croutons, so perhaps that would have provided the missing element had we tried it. Unfortunately, the recipe was missing some clarification in the ingredient listing, which called for  “4 cups cooked — or white beans,” which we decided meant 4 cups of cooked white beans. No directions were provided for cooking the beans, so we used our own method.