Monday, July 18, 2011


Some people waste too much time pondering the cultural differences between the east and west coasts of our country, while ignoring the vast richness of what lays between them.  I know of no greater way of bridging this unnecessary gap than through food, and an outstanding example can be found within the beautiful pages of HEARTLAND: The Cookbook (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC; $35.00; ISBN:  978-1-4494-0057).  Judith Fertig, a food lifestyle writer and cookbook author, explores food of the 12 states that make up the great American Middle West in a savory new way. Ably abetted by the eloquent location photography of Jonathan Chester, and the alluring food photography of Ben Pieper, HEARTLAND showcases the endless bounty of foods, animals and eye-catching vistas of these regions, making it the book I think should be thought of as one of the finest cookbooks published in 2011.

The twelve states of the Midwest include Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska.  While the farm-to-table movement may be a current culinary enchantment for those on either coast,  it's a way of life for the nation's central farms, ranches, dairies, and other food providers and has been since pioneer days.  The food produced here is fully rooted in the farmhouse kitchen, but the Midwest has kept pace with trends with an impressive thirty-three Slow Food chapters, artisan food purveyors who produce such quality products as prosciutto, guanciale, and pancetta, microwbreweries making small-batch vodka and gin, chocolates of the highest quality, "tastier heritage breeds of turkey, chicken and pork, foraged foods (the darlings of high end restaurant chefs), such as elderflowers, elderberries, native persimmons, mulberries, wild greens, black walnuts and hickory nuts.  The diverse ethnic melting pot of the Midwesterner is comprised of Amish, Swedish, Czech, Scandinavian, and other communities.  As Ms. Fertig writes, "this book is about ingredient-centered food and is a testament to the fact that if you grow, raise or buy quality foods, you don't have to do a lot to them to make them taste great."  

Rosy Rhubarb Syrup

HEARTLAND does a superb job of offering recipes that are steeped in tradition, but feel thoroughly updated and based on the modern, time-saving cooking methods of today.  So Crisp Refrigerator Dill Pickles can be made in manageable amounts, and stored in your refrigerator for up to one year--the addition of grape leaves ensures a crisper pickle.  Spoon-Able Strawberry Preserves make four cups from a mere one and a half pounds of strawberries, and can be refrigerated for up to 3 months.  I recently found gorgeous rhubarb in my local farmer's market at a bargain price, and dragged home two pounds--just enough to make Rosy Rhubarb Syrup, which can be used for pancakes, or French toast.  It will also sweeten fresh fruit, but I rather liked the idea of it for lemonade and used some of it (I froze the rest) for a delicious adult cocktail called a Farm Girl Cosmo.  It's a delicious syrup, but it's color is gorgeous.

Farm Girl Cosmos

The breakfast/brunch section of HEARTLAND features Farmhouse Breakfast Sausage, an altogether different experience from the dull and lifeless sausages sold in your local supermarket.  Winterberry Breakfast Pudding is "like rice pudding, but better for you," because of easy-to find whole-grain wheat berries.  Mixed with honey, vanilla extract, lemon zest, and blueberries, this can be assembled in a slow-cooker overnight and be ready for breakfast in the morning.  Sweet Potato Waffles with Whipped Orange Butter could make any Sunday morning special.  And there's a stunning Persimmon Bread Pudding with Warm Cider Caramel, that looks like a cake and in fact, is baked in a spring form pan. Brunch or wintry dinner dessert?  How about both?

A section on No-Knead Clove Honey Dough is a smart take on this contemporary favorite technique for making bread and can be a pantry staple for breads, coffee cakes, or rolls to serve 24 to 32.  But no matter what chapter you find yourself, HEARTLAND is filled with amazing gotta-try recipes such as Grilled Pear Salad with Blue Cheese and Honey.  This tangy, sweet starter is a perfect marriage of local pears and Midwestern blue cheese with cider vinegar, oil and Dijon mustard for a dressing and a final addition of toasted, chopped hickory nuts or pecans.  Minnesota Wild Rice Soup, Caramelized Cabbage Rolls, Butternut Squash, Morel, and Sage Brown Butter Lasagne managed to stand out in a collection full of intriguing choices.  For beef lovers there is a Morel-Grilled Rib-Eye (that gets an additional flavor boost from a rubbing paste of sugar, salt, garlic, red pepper flakes, black pepper and morel powder--from ground dried morels) or Heartland Daube with White Cheddar Polenta.  Roast Heritage Turkey with Pancetta-Roasted Brussels Sprouts could be the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving table this season.

HEARTLAND ends with dessert and I'd love a slice of Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie--such a remarkably easy and deceptively rich dessert using heavy cream, half-and-half, sugar, butter and nutmeg.   The Ohio Lemon Tart is an update of the old-fashioned lemon-meringue pie.  A Summer Berry Cobbler with Lemon Verbena Whipped Cream takes full advantage of summer's blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries or pitted sour cherries.

Don't be shy about dragging this beautiful book to the kitchen counter.  Yes the photographs of the food, farms, markets, livestock, produce are enticing and thoroughly evocative, but the simple fact is that these recipes are well within most home cook's abilities. A spatter or two won't hurt anything. This is food that is as sophisticated and modern as anything you'll find on either coast.  Reading through it made me want to jump in a car to take off for an immersion visit to those farms, and heartland kitchens.

Rosy Rhubarb Syrup 

Makes about 3 cups

Rhubarb, also known by the old-fashioned term pie plant, was an established garden plant in the Heartland by the mid-nineteenth century. One of the favorite heirloom varieties is Queen Victoria, which is the only variety you can grow reliably from seed. The only problem with perennial rhubarb is that sometimes you have too much of a good thing and it ends up being more woody than tender. That’s when you make this recipe. Rhubarb syrup is a pretty pink color, tart yet sweet, and is delicious over pancakes, French toast, or fresh fruit, or in lemonade or a Farm Girl Cosmo. You can also make Rosy Margaritas with 1 cup Rosy Rhubarb Syrup, ½ cup tequila, the juice of 1 lime, and all the ice you want.

4 cups chopped fresh or thawed
frozen rhubarb
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
Juice of 2 lemons

1. Place the rhubarb and 1 cup water in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook the rhubarb until tender and pulpy, about 10 minutes.

2. Strain out the rhubarb pulp, reserving the juice. Measure the juice and add enough water to equal 2 cups. Return the liquid to the saucepan over medium-high heat and stir in the sugar. Bring to a boil and cook until the sugar dissolves, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, and let cool. Strain again, then pour into clean glass jars with lids or bottles. Refrigerate for up to 1 month. 

—From Heartland: The Cookbook by Judith Fertig/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Grilled Pear Salad with Blue Cheese and Honey

Serves 8

On the south side of my Kansas home, I have created an edible landscape with twin pear trees, tangled raspberry canes, fragrant roses and lavender, lemon balm, and whatever vegetables I can squeeze in. The Kieffer pears I grow are not good to eat fresh, but they are delicious poached or grilled; any ripe but somewhat firm pear will be fine in this recipe. Sweet pears cozy up to a Midwestern blue cheese like old flames at a high school reunion, made all the sweeter with a drizzle of local honey.
4 ripe but somewhat firm Bartlett or Bosc pears, cut lengthwise 
Melted unsalted butter, for brushing
1 cup crumbled creamy blue cheese, such as Maytag, Salemville blue, or 
Roth Kase gorgonzola (about 8 ounces)
¼ cup canola or olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
4 cups baby greens
Fine kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 
Clover or wildflower honey, for drizzling
Toasted, chopped hickory nuts or pecans, for garnish

Suggested pear varieties: 
Golden Spice, Flemish Beauty, or Luscious

1. Prepare an indirect fire in your grill, hot on one side and no fire on the other.

2. Use a melon baller to core and scoop out a small cavity in each pear half. Brush both sides of each pear half with melted butter.

3. Place the pears on the direct-heat side of the grill, cut side down,
for 2 minutes, or until the fruit has blistered. Transfer to the indirect side and place skin side down. Mound tablespoon-size portions of cheese in the cavity of each pear. Cover and grill until the pears have blistered and the cheese has melted, about 8 minutes.

4. Whisk the oil, vinegar, and mustard together in a bowl large enough for the greens. Lightly toss the greens with the dressing and season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the dressed greens among salad plates. Place a grilled pear on top of each mound of greens, drizzle with honey, and sprinkle with chopped nuts.

—From Heartland: The Cookbook by Judith Fertig/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Monday, July 11, 2011


I have always happily cooked for myself.  Partnerless for twenty years now, I've become a very creative cook for one at home.  With my dog Beau, and my cat Bit, keeping me company, I am often confronting my refrigerator with the question, "what am I having for dinner tonight?" There are 31 million of us according to Joe Yonan, the highly personable and creative food and travel editor of The Washington Post.  He provides plenty of solo dining inspirations in SERVE YOURSELF: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One (Ten Speed Press; $22.00; ISBN: 978-1-58008513-7). Here is a cookbook that is loaded with creative, doable, fun, and flavorful food that we crave today.

Handsome, charismatic, and adored by many in the food world, Joe Yonan (with the help of his deputy Bonnie Benwick) oversees one of the most imaginative food sections of a major daily newspaper in the country.  It was Ms. Benwick who urged her single boss to write the "Cooking For One," column, which has become a popular feature in the newspaper.

Like all smart cooks, Joe Yonan likes to keep his refrigerator and pantry shelves fully stocked.  "As a single cook, why do I have so much food," he writes early on in SERVE YOURSELF?  "I'm a zealot about the fact that if you're fully stocked, making something quick a the end of a long workday is that much easier." He is so right. Most people who when faced with cooking for themselves, don't face it at all.  They resort to expensive and not-always-healthy take-out options, or go out to restaurants, sitting solo miserably by themselves (astonishing to me, as I love to eat alone), or stare at the empty spaces in their fridges and cupboards. Instead of another night in front of the TV with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, it's time to get real about all the good eating possibilities that could be right in front of you.

SERVE YOURSELF is divided into interesting chapters.  Basic Recipes, Condiments and Pickles covers salad dressings, salsas and jams.  Yonan's recipe for Blueberry Lemon Jam takes advantage of the current blueberry market and is a surprisingly easy recipe.  Too ambitious?  Cilantro Vinaigrette is a snap to make and last three weeks in your refrigerators and can be used in "all manner of salads, plus avocados, tomatoes, green beans, even cold rice." And Citrus-Pickled Onions are a great condiment for sandwiches, burgers, dogs, salads, or brightening up a taco and a million other dishes.  There is a really good egg chapter here with a swooningly-good Shrimp and Potato Chip Tortilla worthy of your attention. A chapter on Sweet Potatoes, Beans, and Other Veggies showcases Yonan's Texas upbringing.  Peasant's Bowl, is a soulfully addictive vegetarian of cheese, brown rice, black beans, tomatoes, scallions, shallots, garlic, ground cumin, chill and oregano, all zipped up with a few dashes of hot pepper sauce.  After eating this, you'll never touch a bowl of cereal for dinner again.  And an Ex-Texas Salad is a riff on a dish his mother made for the family. It's got romaine lettuce, black beans, a scallion, crumbled feta cheese, tomatoes, a crispy bits of corn tortilla, all dressed in his Cilantro Vinaigrette. 

Many of the recipes in SERVE YOURSELF can be used with other recipes.  So in the meat chapter, a Texas Bowl O' Red can be enjoyed by itself, or incorporated in Chili Cheese Enchiladas, a zesty exercise in flavorful simplicity.  The zip in Spicy Glazed Mini-Meatloaf comes from Yonan's Blackened Salsa, which can also be spooned over grilled pork chops or steak, in addition to tasting great with tortilla chips to get the appetite for dinner started.  Two standout chicken dishes are must-trys: Roast Chicken Leg with Gremolata and Sunchokes and Wine-Braised Chicken Thighs with Olives, Prunes and Almonds, put dark meat (my preference) in the center of the plate for a change. Sticking close to his Texas roots, Yonan presents an entire chapter devoted to tacos, from Austin-Style Breakfast Tacos and Tacos with Mushroom and Chile-Caramelized Onions to Korean Short Rib Tacos. Yonan also presents worthy chapters on pizza, sandwiches, rice, grains and pasta, and finally dessert (I liked his version of his mom's No-Bake Chocolate Oat Cookies and the Cappuccino Tapioca Pudding with Cardamom Brulee is a much simpler to make than its rather formal title suggests).

The recipe I'm reprinting here is Personal Paella with Squid and Scallions, which I think rightfully belongs on the cover of SERVE YOURSELF.  I love squid and rice and this recipe is utter simplicity--not too many ingredients to overwhelm the flavor of the squid and it is just the sort of thing I want to make on a Friday night after a long work week.  Break out a bottle of Albarino (my favorite Spanish white wine), or a crisp rose and start cooking.  Invite a friend over to share. Or not--hours later those leftovers taste mighty good right from the refrigerator.

Scattered throughout this charming book are thoughtful essays, some new and some previously published.  There is one on dining alone when traveling.  Yonan draws us into the world of the iconic, Texas dish, chicken fried steak (taught to him by his stepfather) and makes you want to eat it right now.  He tackles his conviction of farm-to-table experience by killing a chicken for his dinner (better him than me).  And in a remarkably frank closing essay, Yonan explores his own past cooking for two.

I liked Yonan's sage advice on storing and using extra ingredients (often a deal-breaker for solo cooks). And there are lots of advice and tips sections highlighted in yellow for easy reference. A few years ago cookbook writer, Deborah Madison, wrote a charmingly funny book called What We Eat When We Eat Alone and revealed some of the appalling things we consume when we think nobody is looking. While providing plenty of options for delicious eating, Joe Yonan says "you don't have to resort to takeout just because you live alone. You can keep the right (delicious) foods in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, learn how to shop with an eye for ingredients that support a single cook's lifestyle; and cook without worry about satisfying anyone's hankerings but your own.  After all, if you don't feed yourself well, who will?

Indeed!  Set the table.  Pour a glass of wine. Fire up the stove and begin your own nightly ritual.  SERVE YOURSELF.

Personal Paella with Squid and Scallions

1 cup seafood stock or clam juice
Small pinch of crumbled saffron
1/4 teaspoon pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
4 to 5 ounces cleaned squid, bodies cut into
1/4-inch rings and tentacles halved lengthwise
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup Arborio, Bomba, or other short-grain rice
4 large cherry tomatoes, quartered

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Combine the seafood stock, saffron, and pimenton in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer; reduce the heat to very low and cover.

Lightly season the squid with salt and pepper. In an 8-inch cast-iron or other heavy skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the squid and cook, stirring frequently, just until the squid lose any translucence and exude their juices, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer the squid to a plate and decrease the heat to medium. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil, then the red pepper flakes, scallions, and garlic and sauté until the scallion starts to soften, another 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the rice and cook until the grains are well coated with the pan mixture, 1 minute.

Pour in the hot broth and bring to a gentle boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low. Taste the liquid and add salt to taste, then let it continue to gently bubble, swirling the pan occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the rice has swelled and absorbed much of the liquid; it should still be slightly soupy.

Stir in the squid and tomatoes. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the rice is al dente, or mostly tender but with a little resistance in the center.

Remove the pan from the oven, cover with a lid or aluminum foil, and let it sit for about 5 minutes, until the rice is tender. Uncover and return it to the
stovetop over medium-high heat and cook for about 2 more minutes, to brown the bottom of the rice.

Spoon it out onto a plate, and eat, Don’t worry if it sticks. Just scrape it up and know that this is what the Spanish call soccarat, the crispy pieces that are considered a sign of a great paella.