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Appetites: Amy Thielen brings a national audience to the 'Midwestern Table'

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Baked apples
Baked Haralson apples from cookbook author Amy Thielen's book "The New Midwestern Table."
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

It used to be that you had to head to the coasts for haute cuisine, but there's a movement to make Midwestern cuisine its own destination. 

At the heart of that trend is chef Amy Thielen, author of the cookbook "The New Midwestern Table" and host of the new Food Network show "Heartland Table," which she films in her Park Rapids, Minn., kitchen. 

She spoke with MPR's Tom Crann about her twist on Midwestern cuisine.

  TOM CRANN: So "Midwestern Food" — it's trendy now and almost a cliche in some ways. What's your definition?

    AMY THIELEN: I think that we've had great food here for a long, long time. I think that in some ways industrial food has given us a bit of a bad public image, but it's just really a short little blip of time. And people have been making great food here for a long time, and they are again. 

A lot of the modern chefs and contemporaries here in the Cities and in other great cities across the Midwest are reaching back to their grandparents' time a little bit and digging up all the great things they used to make.

  CRANN: You say in the book one of the things you learned working with Austrian chefs in New York City is that "haute cuisine" is based on peasant food. And there's a quote from one chef: "Potatoes and onions — that's good cooking."

  THIELEN: When I got to New York City, I arrived there without knowing all that much about contemporary food or fine dining or anything like that. And I was fortunate enough to land in a kitchen where there were a lot of Michelin three-star chefs and they had come from a rural tradition. And I feel like they kind of spotted me a little bit like, as somebody who knew basic flavors. And I did — I knew brown butter and I knew how to work with those things.

I was, at the time, really besotted and excited  by things like truffles and foie gras and things I had never seen before. But the one chef, he returned it to me and he said, "Don't worry about the truffle sauce, the truffle sauce has truffles in it." It's gonna taste good, basically no matter what you do with it. 

Plus you've got a bottle of Vermouth in there and whatever else. He said, "Pay attention to the potatoes and onions, good cooking is potatoes and onions."  

So, if you just paid attention to your onions, and you paid attention to your potatoes and your meat and everything else, you can make it something really beautiful. And so that simplicity and attention to detail is what I'm bringing to this book and that's something that I see in a lot of great cooks — that's what they do.  

CRANN: Are your recipes more peasant food or haute cuisine? 

  THIELEN: A little bit of both. I feel far away from my days as a fine-dining Manhattan line cook, and yet at the same time I do bring in some small tricks of the trade, things that I haven't lost. Maybe it's a little splash of vinegar at the end. A sprinkling of chopped nuts and parsley, something you normally wouldn't do in the home. But it's those little things that you do that really make it sing.

          CRANN: Tell me about some of your favorites in the book — maybe one that defines Midwestern cuisine and another that would surprise us.  

THIELEN: I would say the fried chicken is a really interesting recipe (see below). Fried chicken is made across the United States, but differently from region to region. There's something I've noticed in the upper Midwest that we tend to do, and that is to fry the chicken and then to bake it, and then take the pan drippings and make a gravy. This is a fried chicken with the gravy, and it becomes an integral part of the important trilogy of chicken, mashed potatoes and chicken. I added a little cracker meal to the chicken to maintain the crispiness of that, which I picked up at a dinner party at an Amish house.

  CRANN: Something surprising?

  THIELEN: I really like the baked rhubarb. It epitomizes what I like to do, which is to bring a fine dining trick into the home kitchen. Baked rhubarb is something that I've found to be a common dish in many church and community cookbooks. It's something that you'd make and serve over whipped cream, or ice cream, or custard. One day I still had some raspberry syrup, added sugar, and I could create what in the French kitchen is called "fruit confit," which means that the fruit bathes in its own liquid and keeps its shape. It becomes almost like a candy bright red baked fruit.

Baked apples
Baked Apples with Sour Cherries, Rosemary and Yogurt Whip from cookbook author Amy Thielen's book "The New Midwestern Table."
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

CRANN: Your career has taken you to New York City working with big name chefs, but this is your home. What are the challenges to having a food career here?

  THIELEN: You can have a fabulous food career here in Minneapolis or St. Paul.  Restaurants here are really, really world class. In Park Rapids I could open a restaurant, and I've thought of it. But I have a young son and cooking professionally is not something I wanted to do when he was really young. So that's why I moved into writing and thinking about food and writing this book.

  CRANN: And your Food Network show "Heartland Table" is done right in your house near Park Rapids and not in a TV studio on either coast. Did that take any convincing?

  THIELEN: It was something that I wanted to do because I wanted to stay close to my garden, and I also have an herb garden. And I also felt like I want to cover stories of neighbors and different people "of there." And my producers — they all right away wanted to do it in my house. Even though my house posed a few logistical challenges, like we wished we had had more room in the kitchen to light it and such. But in the end I feel it made it feel a little bit more real, so I think it's ok. Viewers have commented on how they love my messy drawers. I have messy drawers, it's true.  

Recipes from Amy Thielen

Baked Apples with Sour Cherries, Rosemary, and Yogurt Whip

For baked apples, you want to use a tart variety that can take the heat, such as a Cortland or a Northern Spy. But even my favorite Haralsons, which tend to blow out in the pan, are uncommonly delicious when cooked with vanilla, sour cherries, and rosemary, dropped with a soft thud into a bowl, and garnished with Yogurt Whip.

I rarely cook with vanilla beans because they're so expensive and hard to find here, but I crave them the most when making rustic baked or sautéed fruit desserts--anything with a golden juice into which the fine black grains of vanilla can flow. Using just half a bean adds serious fragrance, especially when entwined with a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary, an herb that keeps excellent company with apples.

Baked apples
6 large tart baking apples
1/2 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons salted butter, at cool room temperature
3 tablespoons (packed) light brown sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup dried sour cherries
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, preferably from Meyer lemons

Yogurt whip
1 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 cup whole-milk yogurt

Note: Be sure to rinse off the spent vanilla pod after cooking; let it dry it on a towel and then add it to a jar of white sugar. When the jar has accumulated a few pods, you'll have a nice vanilla-scented sugar, great for dusting doughnuts or just making a sugar toast treat.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Slice the top 1/2 inch from all of the apples and discard. With a large melon baller or a thin spoon, scoop out the cores, making sure to leave 1/2 inch at the bottom.

Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, scrape out the pulp, and mash it into the butter on a cutting board. In a small bowl, combine the vanilla butter (or vanilla extract and butter), brown sugar, maple syrup, and cherries.

Arrange the apples in a 9 x 13-inch baking dish and divide the brown sugar mixture among the cavities. Surround the apples with the rosemary, lemon juice, and 1/3 cup water.

Bake the apples in the oven for 30 minutes. Then tip the apples over to disgorge their fillings into the pan, tilt the pan, and spoon the juice and cherries back over the apples to glaze them. Bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, repeating the process of glazing them once more, until the apples are tender and the pan juices have thickened. If at any point the pan juices evaporate, add a few tablespoons of water.

For the yogurt whip, combine the heavy cream and granulated sugar in a mixing bowl. Whip the cream just until stiff and crinkled. Stir in the yogurt and whip again until soft peaks form. (Oddly enough, this yogurt-enhanced whipped cream stays more billowy, and for longer, than regular whipped cream.) Serve the baked apples in individual bowls, topped with the yogurt whip.

Rhubarb Baked in Wild Raspberry Syrup

Midwestern recipes for baked rhubarb are as old as the hills. But when you bake the rows of ruby spears in a shallow bath of wild raspberry syrup, the dish feels fresh and new. The rhubarb glows a wild pink, tastes like warm fruit of the forest, and is always heavenly laid next to a cool custard or spooned over ice cream or yogurt. I dodge rhubarb's habit of quickly elapsing from raw to overcooked by boosting the small amount of raspberry syrup with some extra sugar; the higher sugar density of the syrup helps the rhubarb to keep its shape, but the fruit still tastes quite tart.

1-1/2 pounds (7 to 8 large) stalks rhubarb
1/2 cup wild raspberry syrup, homemade or store-bought
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Note: In place of the homemade wild raspberry syrup, any fruit syrup, either purchased or homemade, can be used for this recipe.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Trim and discard the ends of the rhubarb, and rinse the stalks. Cut the stalks into ¾-inch-thick slices on a deep diagonal, keeping them neatly stacked together. Transfer the sliced rhubarb to a 9 t 13-inch baking pan, making rows of cut rhubarb you have filled the pan.

Warm the raspberry syrup in a microwave oven until hot. Add the sugar to the warm syrup and stir to dissolve. If using the vanilla bean, slice it lengthwise, scrape out the pulp, and throw the pulp into the syrup and the pods in with the rhubarb. If using vanilla extract, add it to the syrup. Pour the raspberry syrup evenly over the rhubarb, and bake, uncovered, until the rhubarb is soft but not mushy, 15 to 18 minutes.

Midway through baking, remove the pan from the oven, and gently tilt the pan and spoon the syrup over the rhubarb to glaze it.

Allow the baked rhubarb to cool, glazing it once more with the syrup as it cools. Refrigerate the rhubarb in the pan. (To transfer it to another container and keep its shape, just tip and slide.) The rhubarb will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, and gets firmer and brighter as it sits.

Midwestern Fried Chicken and Gravy

Compared to Southern fried chicken, Midwestern-style fried chicken offers different joys. Both are a treat, of course, but when I recall the pan-fried chicken of my Midwestern youth, I remember the gravy being the star.

The recipe begins the way you might expect. You soak the chicken briefly in buttermilk and fry it until crisp in a shallow pool of fat (lard if you want to get authentic). But here's where it veers off: Then you bake the chicken until the meat begins to sag on the bone, giving you time to whip up a creamy liquid-gold gravy made from the sticky brown pan deposits. There's a natural progression here, but the baking of the chicken can sometimes wreak havoc on the crust: how do you keep the skin really, truly crisp?

When I was invited to a dinner party at an Amish house twenty miles down the road, I found the answer.

The chicken skin looked a lot like my mother's chicken — the color and texture of the rough side of cowhide. The crust crackled at the fork — a little more loudly than my mother's, or mine. Around the table, everyone was engaged in a sort of triangular communion with their fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and puddle of magnificent gravy. "Deborah," I asked our hostess, "how do you keep it so crisp?" Her reply: "Cracker meal. I use half cracker meal, half flour." I glossed a piece of milk bread with her marigold-yellow butter and her glassy strawberry jam, and finished the meal in the heavy, warm glow of kerosene lamplight and good conversation.

Later, as we pulled onto the blacktop, I whipped out my cell phone and called my mom with the news.

Serves 4 to 5

1 4- to 4-1/2-pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces (instructions follow recipe)
1 cup buttermilk
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
7 cloves garlic, smashed
1-1/2 cups plus 5 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 cup finely ground buttery crackers, such as Ritz or Club (about 1 sleeve)
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
About 2 cups lard or canola oil, for frying
1 small bunch fresh sage
2-1/2  cups chicken stock, low-sodium store-bought or homemade
Mashed potatoes, for serving

Put the chicken pieces in a large bowl, and add the buttermilk, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, the thyme, and 4 of the garlic cloves. Marinate for at least 1 hour at room temperature or, refrigerated, overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350°F, and set a baking sheet fitted with a rack on the middle shelf. Meanwhile, prepare the chicken coating: Combine the 1-1/2 cups flour, the ground crackers, 1-3/4 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and the paprika in a large bowl. One at a time, take the chicken pieces from the buttermilk and dunk them in the flour dredge, pressing hard to make the coating adhere to every spot. Set aside on a plate.

In a large, high-sided cast-iron pan, add lard or oil to a depth of 1 inch. Heat over medium-high heat until a droplet of water sprinkled on the surface sizzles loudly.

Give the chicken pieces a fresh roll in the flour mixture if they've absorbed it, and add as many pieces of the dark meat (thighs, wings, and drumsticks) as will fit comfortably in the pan. Fry, turning as needed, until all sides turn dark golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the cooked chicken to the baking sheet in the oven. 

Continue frying the rest, saving the white breast meat until last, and being careful not to burn the residue forming at the bottom of the pan; that's your gravy base. When it is browned, add the chicken to the baking sheet. (Ideally the dark meat should bake in the oven for about 20 minutes and the light meat for about 10 minutes, until cooked through.)

Pour the fat in the pan into an empty saucepan (a safe place to let it cool down), and discard all but 2 tablespoons of the brown sludge at the bottom of the pan. (If any of it looks burnt, discard that as well.) Let the pan cool down for a minute. Then add the remaining 3 garlic cloves and the sage, and fry for 1 minute. Add the remaining 5 teaspoons flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture is smooth and light brown, about 2 minutes. Add the stock and whisk until smooth. Cook the gravy over low heat until it thickens softly, about 5 minutes.

Season the gravy with salt and pepper to taste, remove the garlic and sage, and pour it into a spouted pitcher to pass behind the hot chicken and the mashed potatoes.

Cutting a Chicken into Ten Pieces

Set the chicken on a cutting board, legs pointing toward you. Make an incision between a leg and the breast and open the leg to separate it from the body. Flip the chicken over, press down on the back, and find the thigh socket on the back of the chicken; cut around the joint. Try to rope in the nugget of meat in the small of the chicken's back (the "oyster"), just above the thigh joint. Slice downward toward the chicken's rear to free the leg. Repeat with the other side so that you have two chicken legs. Make a diagonal cut through the joint between the thigh and the drumstick on each leg, to make four pieces of dark meat.

Pull out the wings and cut generously around one wing joint, freeing the wing and including a bit of the breast meat with it; repeat with the other wing. Cut off both wing tips at the joint, and save them for stock. 

Put the chicken into a shoulder stand on your board. Cut downward, through the ribs, separating the front from the back of the chicken, and bend the back until it is doubled over. Free the entire back from the breast. (Save the back and ribs for stock.) Lay the breast skin-side down. Trace a line down the center of the cartilage and press down on it to cut through the breast, separating it in half. Whack each breast half in half again, to make four pieces of white meat--or ten chicken pieces total.

Quick Homemade Stock

You can make stock from the backs, ribs, necks, and scraps left over from portioning a chicken--and a homemade stock makes the best gravy. Season the chicken parts with salt and pepper, and add to an oiled saucepan over medium heat. Brown the meat lightly on both sides. Pour off any excess oil, cover the meat with cold water, and season with a little salt. Add some onion tops or garlic skins, half of a carrot, celery tops, parsley stems--whatever herb or vegetable trimmings you have on hand. Simmer the stock for 30 to 40 minutes, and then strain it through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding the solids.

Makes about 3-1/2 cups.