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)
A tasting of beers from Stillwater’s long-dead but recently revived Joseph Wolf Brewing Company. A taste of moose bresaola and a reflection on the camaraderie of hunting. Goat activists in Minneapolis hope the incoming city council will vote their way. And Eater shares some local aquavit cocktails and a snipey little back-and-forth on the $7 cans of Coors at the Freehouse.
Readers: Win The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food
The Tap loves restaurant tips from readers, so we’re awarding a copy of The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food to the best tipster of November and December. The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor James Norton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bogart’s Doughnut Company (opening March 2014)
910 W 36th St, Minneapolis
We make no apologies for our longstanding affection for Anne Rucker’s Bogart Loves doughnuts — these sophisticated, brioche-based flavor bombs are a perfect compromise between haute cuisine and primal, accessible, beautifully fried comfort food.
Bogart Loves started out three years ago as a bakery stand at the Kingfield Farmers Market, but is now poised to become a full-time “old school doughnut shop” bricks-and-mortar venture helmed by Rucker out of the small, former Amelia’s Flower & Garden Shoppe space in South Minneapolis.
“I had it in my mind that I wanted a very small space, which is hard to find,” says Rucker of her one-year search for a location. “The space I have leased, there’s no seating — there’s just a counter. I really want to start small, because I’m kind of petrified that I’m opening up my own spot.”
The menu follows the theme of the cozy space: “We’re just doing doughnuts and coffee, which to me sounds awesome,” she says.
The spot will offer Rucker’s five most popular doughnuts: nutella-filled, brown butter-glazed, French-style buttercream-filled, lavender cake doughnuts, and chocolate cake doughnuts.
Rucker says she plans to have the place kosher-certified, and will offer a house blend of coffee roasted by Roundtable Coffee Works in St. Paul.
“The idea behind the coffee was old-school diner coffee, but on a higher level,” she says. “It’s a dark roast and nutty, chocolatey — just like a really good basic dark roast coffee. I’m trying to have this high-end / low-end coffee thing going on.”
Buildout begins in January and Rucker hopes to have doors open by late March, 2014.
The Culinary Arts Program at Saint Paul College has openings for Spring Semester starting January 13. We are an exemplary culinary program accredited by the American Culinary Federation and feature afternoon, evening, and online courses. Our alumni include some of the best chefs in the Twin Cities and abroad as well as current Top Chef Contestant Sara Johannes. Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/SPCulinary, or for more information and tours, contact email@example.com. [This post sponsored by Saint Paul College]
The life of a cookbook writer has got to be pretty sweet, right? Sunlit kitchen. Daily uniform of sweats and a flour-spattered apron. Something baking in the oven; something bubbling away on the stove. Laptop open, genius flowing freely from your fingers. Publicist on the phone with plans for a book tour, a few interviews, a new book, heck, maybe even a TV show.
Well, no. And yes. Some of it.
Along with his coauthor, Zoe Francois, Jeff Hertzberg has published four successful cookbooks (and, if all went well, they sent off the manuscript for their fifth today). In the six years since their first book came out, they’ve sold nearly 600,000 copies total and attracted a healthy following — about 300,000 visitors a month — to their blog, Bread In 5.
Their newest book, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking, is a fattened-up revision of their first, with new recipes, new photos, more in-depth explanations and — hallelujah — weights in addition to volume measures. All four books are based on the same principle: Mix up batches of wet bread dough and store them in the fridge for up to two weeks, letting time and water do the hard work of developing gluten, skipping the kneading entirely.
We talked with Jeff about life in that proverbial sunlit kitchen, doing your own PR, and what it’s like to cook and write with a coauthor.
Jeff hasn’t left his day job — or, rather, his other contract gig as a medical director for a company that makes healthcare software — but he says the books have absolutely changed his life and he would do it all over again in a second.
Tell us how this whole thing got started.
It was flaky good luck. My wife had been on Lynne Rossetto Kasper and suggested I do the same. This was in 2000, and I had been baking since I was a medical resident in ’88. So it had been 12 years — you could open my refrigerator and it was all bread dough. It was this eccentric family project.