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
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
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