Today we're appreciating the Midwest with Amy Thielen, cookbook author and host of Food Network's Heartland Table. The former professional chef moved back to her native Minnesota after 10 years in New York City with her husband and son, and now enjoys gardening, cooking at home and contributing to publications as diverse as the Saveur and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A group of articles she wrote for the latter won a James Beard Award in 2012 (no biggie). Amy's cookbook is called The New Midwestern Table and offers 200 updated classic recipes. She'll be teaching a workshop on small batch preserves at the Good Food Festival on March 15 in Chicago.
Keep reading to get to know Amy and to find out how to win tickets to the Good Food Festival's Localicious party on Friday, March 14!
What is your all-time favorite book?
When French Women Cook, by Madeleine Kamman. Each chapter tells the story of a different relative or family friend who taught her to cook; the writing is so vivid and strong and the recipes are historic French gems that somehow feel incredibly fresh. And with over 250 recipes, it’s both a memoir and a full-fledged cookbook at the same time.
What meal do you love to cook?
Maybe it’s this long winter, but I’m really jonesing to cook on my outside tripod grill, which is wood-fired. Not only do I love cooking over wood, but I love to stand around the grill, sip some wine, prod the food, look out at the creek, and talk to my husband. Our first spring meal will probably be a good chicken, which I’ll lay out flat (or “frog,” as they say), marinate with lemon, olive oil, and a spice paste and grill slowly, letting it hang out in the smoke for awhile until the juice runs and the skin crisps. As that cooks, I’ll grill some vegetables on the side — asparagus and broccoli shoots — and in the house I’ll simmer some new potatoes in salted water until tender, and finish them simply, with cut chives and butter.
What is your favorite food scene from a book?
There are so many, but I adore the chapter Spaghetti Bolognese from Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast, where he and his family try that newly-popular foreign dish, spaghetti, for the first time. It ends with everyone passing the can of grated parmesan around the table, which young Nigel says “tastes like sick.” (And it’s true: that processed parm sometimes tastes a little off.) It brings back memories of the first time we had spaghetti in our house; we had the same shaker can of dusty parm, and my mother taught us all how to make little nests of noodles on our forks.
Coffee or tea?
Definitely coffee. Black in the morning, milky in the afternoon. Milky with maple syrup if I need a treat in the late afternoon.
What is the last book you abandoned?
There are a couple I keep at my bedside and dip into now and then. I love William Woys Weaver’s 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From, chronicling the world’s most amazing, rare, and sometimes nearly extinct, vegetable varieties. I dream about planting old heirloom vegetables all winter long, so it’s a good thing to read before bed.
Author you'd most like to meet for dinner, and your order?
I just finished Little Failure, so I think I’d like to go out with Gary Shteyngart for drinks, and then a good greasy burger.
Where do you go to find new recipes? New reads?
I troll through old American cookbooks, mostly church and community cookbooks from the Midwest — and then I sit at my computer and brainstorm and try to push the ideas in the directions I want them to go. When a dish sounds really delicious to me, then I get in the kitchen and give it a try, without really measuring. If it’s worth something, I make it again, with detailed measurements, and then if I still like it, I start testing it.
I’m old-fashioned. I like to find new books in a bookstore. Used, new, big-box, independent, it doesn’t matter, I frequent them all. Some books are good for a quick browse, others I want to take home, and it helps to feel them — their heft, typeface, scale, etc. — before committing. I am seriously running out of bookcases. The last two that my husband, Aaron, built are already full. I can’t stop buying books, so I really don’t know what we’re going to do.
Tell us about your cookbook — the inspiration for it, your mission and your favorite aspects.
My book began as a speck of a thought about 15 years ago, when I was living out here in a rustic cabin, cooking like a pioneer . . . stuck with me all the way through my tour of duty as a New York City line cook . . . and persisted when Aaron and I moved back to our house in northern Minnesota with our son, five years ago. I knew that I wanted to collect some of the greatest hits of Midwestern cooking and corral them into a book — but I also didn’t want this book to pretend to be definitive, which is why it’s more of a personal artifact, the story of my family and my husband’s family and my neighbors’ families in this region, and what they ate and continue to eat. It’s important to me that readers of my book feel the range of the past, the present, and the future of Midwestern cooking, because as new people from different regions put down roots here, the food landscape is changing in exciting ways.
My favorite part of the book lives in a tiny sidebar called Pan Smut next to the recipe for Chicken Paprikash. When I was young, my grandma referred to the beautifully burnished stuck-on crud left in the pan after browning meat as the “pan schmutz.” She would tell me to be sure to scrape up the pan schmutz, because it was essential for gravy. I heard “pan smut,” and repeated it back to myself before I knew the meaning of the word. And now, of course, it really makes me laugh. That brown shellacked stuff on the bottom, it really is the smut of the pan — really valuable, delicious smut.
What are your favorite cookbooks, and why?
I have so many favorites!
I love Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise and Cookwise, because the truth is embedded in the titles: these books are very wise. When I’m trying to figure out how much baking soda to add to a new cake recipe, I look to Shirley. She’s got a formula for that.
I adore Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, and think that both of them are genius weeknight cooks (and incredible writers)...For contemporary books, I think that the Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers is one of the best chef-written cookbooks ever, because she invites the reader into every crevice of her daily practice yet still makes cooking feel grand and romantic, all the while also handing over cooking tips and tricks galore.
I still have a thing for The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts by David McMillan, Frederic Morin, and Meredith Erickson, from the eponymous Montreal restaurant. Has there ever been a book that felt more like sitting at an extravagant table with the authors, eating, drinking, and laughing into the late hours? And then going to their house for a ridiculous brunch the next day? I do not think so.
Connect with local chefs and foodies at the Localicious party hosted by the Good Food Festival on Friday, March 14 in Chicago! To enter to win a pair of tickets ($190 value), take a look at this list of participating Chicago restaurants and leave us a comment saying whose food you'd most like to taste at the party.
There's still time to also enter for a chance to win free passes to the Saturday festival (where you can meet Amy!) and passes to that day's workshops. To enter, visit this post and leave a comment.
Entries are welcome until Wednesday, March 12 at 11:59 p.m. Central. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by email. See the full Saturday schedule here. Hope to see you there!
Special thanks to the Good Food Festival for sponsoring this giveaway.