Appetites: 'Kitchens of the Great Midwest' draws inspiration from local favorites

'Kitchens of the Great Midwest'
'Kitchens of the Great Midwest' by J. Ryan Stradal
Courtesy of Pamela Dorman Books

When you think of Midwestern cuisine, what dishes come to mind? Walleye filets? Peanut butter bars?

For the protagonist of J. Ryan Stradal's "Kitchens of the Great Midwest," these are just a few of the recipes that fill her Minnesota childhood. Stradal's novel follows Eva Thorvald as she grows up to become one of the country's most sought-after chefs. She whips up wild recipes with exotic flavors, but finds herself craving the taste of home.

Stradal, who is a Minnesota native himself, joined MPR News' Tom Crann to talk about the book and its ties to Midwest culinary traditions.

The roots of the book

Stradal grew up in Hastings, Minn., and he peppers his novel with references to lutefisk and lefse. Though he lives in Los Angeles now, Midwest food culture still fascinates him.

"The food scene intrigues me," Stradal said. "It's evolved, like it has in most of the country, so much over the last 20 years."

Part of his inspiration for the novel came from his love of finding new and unique foods — a passion that began in his youth. As a teen, he sampled different cuisines around the Twin Cities as a way to explore the world.

"Since I couldn't afford a plane ticket, I could afford an Ethiopian restaurant or a Thai restaurant," Stradal said.

The prodigal chef returns

Thorvald, the chef at the center of Stradal's novel, leaves Minnesota behind as her culinary career takes off.

"As a chef, I think she's constantly asking questions," Stradal said. "She leads with her curiosity and is always seeking to expand her notion of her comfort zone."

As far away as food adventures take her, she finds flavors and tastes that still anchor her to home.

"I feel that her evolution as a chef never once came at the expense of her background in the Midwest — she only added to it," Stradal said.

Recipes from "Kitchens of the Great Midwest"

Stradal's novel may make you hungry — but he's supplied the recipes to sate your cravings. Several recipes are embedded throughout the book.

Recipe: French Onion Soup

Serves 8

• ¼ cup unsalted butter

• 5 medium onions, thinly sliced

• 1 bay leaf

• ½ teaspoon dried thyme

• 2 tablespoons dry sherry

• 3½ cups beef stock

• 1½ teaspoons kosher salt

• ½ teaspoon black pepper

• 8 slices of French bread, toasted

• 1½ cups Gruyere cheese

Heat the butter in a soup pot over medium heat until it is melted. Add the onions, bay leaf and thyme. After 15 minutes, or as soon as the onions begin to brown, reduce the heat to medium low and cover, stirring frequently, until the onions assume a deep brown hue, about 30 to 40 minutes. Take care to not overcook the onions; patience is essential for perfect caramelization. Stir in sherry.

Increase the heat to high, stirring vigorously, until all the sherry has cooked off. Stir in the beef stock, bring to a boil, and then simmer for 20 minutes while partially covered. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaf before serving. Place eight ovenproof bowls on baking sheets. Fill each bowl with soup, top the bowl with one thin slice of toasted French bread, and gently cover each with 3 tablespoons of cheese.

Bake in an oven at 450 degrees until the cheese is melted and becoming just a bit brown. Use Gruyere from Switzerland, or you'll be wasting your time.

Recipe: Pat Prager's bars

• 2½ cups crushed graham cracker crumbs

• 1 cup melted Grade A butter

• 1 cup peanut butter

• 2½ cups powdered sugar

• 1 cup milk chocolate chips with 1 teaspoon Grade A butter

Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, peanut butter and sugar. Pat into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Melt the chips and butter and spread them on top of the bars. Set in the refrigerator until firm. Cut into bars.

If you go: J. Ryan Stradal reads from "Kitchens of the Great Midwest"

• Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

• When: Sunday, Aug. 2 at 4 p.m.

• More: The event is co-sponsored by the Copper Hen Cakery & Kitchen.

Recipes reprinted from "Kitchens of the Great Midwest" by J. Ryan Stradal courtesy of Penguin Random House LLC.

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