Monday, November 11, 2013

Savoring the Seasons Of The Northern Heartland

One of the great things about having a large cookbook collection is that you “re-discover” a book that you haven't looked at for a long time and realize that you really have a gem.  Savoring The Seasons Of The Northern Heartland is such a book. It’s written by Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson, two women who have made a name for themselves in the food and cooking world.  Lucia Watson owns and operates Lucia’s Restaurant in Minneapolis—a popular spot since 1985.  Beth Dooley is a transplanted Easterner to the Midwest and has a special interest and knowledge of the history of pioneer cooking.  As always, I am drawn to the wonderful and informative narrative on Northern Heartland traditions—especially the diverse group of immigrants that settled this area and the dishes that they brought and are still visible on our tables today.

The introduction opens with a quote from Papers of George Nelson, Minnesota Trapper, 1803:
The land is of beautiful lakes all communicating with each other by equally beautiful streams full of excellent fish and ducks of twenty Species, Swans & geese with abundance of rice for you & them.  The boarders well furnished with grapes, plums, thorn apples and butternut.  The Woods Swarming with Deers & Bears & beavers…Whenever this country becomes settled how delightfully will the inhabitants pass their time.

The geographic area of the Northern Heartland encompasses Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and eastern North Dakota.  Soups and stews abound to stem the piercing cold of this region and there is an ethnic version of all of them from Scandinavia, Germany, Eastern Europe, Scotland and Wales.  The Native Americans from the Ojibway and Sioux tribes taught many of these early settlers how to live off the land and to dry fish, harvest cranberries and cook wild rice.

The chapter headings tell the story of our Northern Heartland food traditions:

            Milling and Baking—Bread, Muffins and Griddle Cakes
            Henhouse and Dairy—Chicken, Eggs, and Cheese
            Barnyard and Smokehouse—Farmhouse Meats
            Seasonal Kettle—Hot and Cold Soups
            The Communal Pot—One-Dish Meals
            North Woods and Prairies—Large and Small Game
            Deep Lakes and Swift Streams—Freshwater Fish
            Backyard Gardens and Sacred Paddies—Vegetables and Wild Rice
            Preserves and Pickles—Sweet and Savory Embellishments
            Come For Coffee—Cakes, Cookies, and Bars
            Pride of the Heartland—Pies, Puddings and Sweets

Each chapter is complete with wonderful information about the subject i.e. “Milling and Baking” chapter gives the history of the milling industry in Minnesota, especially General Mills and Pillsbury.  In addition to the history lesson, several exceptional recipes for breads are included; Café Latte’s Dakota Bread is one of them.  The cafeteria and bakery of that name is tucked into one of St. Paul’s oldest neighborhoods near Summit Avenue where F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up.  

Café Latte’s Dakota Bread

Makes 2 large or 3 small round loaves

2 cups warm water (105 to 115 F)
2 scant Tbsp. active dry yeast
¼ cup honey
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup cracked wheat
1 Tbsp. salt
1 cup whole wheat flour
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds
1/3 cup hulled raw pumpkin seeds
1 Tbsp. poppy seeds
1 Tbsp. raw sesame seeds
1 egg, beaten
Vegetable spray

In large bowl, combine water, yeast, honey, oil, and cracked wheat and allow to proof about 5 to 10 minutes, or until the yeast is light and bubbly.  Add the salt, whole wheat and white flours and stir to combine.  Dump the dough out onto a well-floured surface and begin to knead, adding enough flour to make a nice soft dough.  Knead about 10 to 15 minutes, sprinkling with more flour as necessary, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.  You may want to use more flour depending on the dryness of the cracked wheat and the flours, as well as the general humidity.  Mix the seeds together and sprinkle them over the dough, reserving a few tablespoons to sprinkle over the loaves before baking.  Then knead the seeds into the dough.  Turn the dough into a greased bowl, cover with a dish towel, and set it in a warm place.  Allow the dough to rise until double in bulk, about 1 hour.  Punch the dough down.  Let it rest for 5 minutes.  Divide the dough and shape it into 2 large or 3 small round loaves, and place them on lightly greased baking sheets.  Let rise 25 to 30 minutes.  Brush the loaves with a beaten egg and sprinkle on any remaining seeds.  Bake the loaves in a preheated 375 deg. F oven for approximately 30 to 40 minutes, or until the loaves are nicely browned and sound hollow when tapped.  Remove the loaves from the oven and cool on wire racks.

Pork played a very important part in the lives of the Heartland immigrants.  The rich farmland supported livestock of all types but the frugal Germans, Swedes and Norwegians especially loved hogs.  “They took up little space and were cheap to feed with leftovers, scraps, and garbage.  The meat—fresh, smoked, salted, and in sausages—provided meals of great variety, plus lard for baking and frying, and tallow for candles.  Nothing was wasted in the immigrant kitchen, where people prided themselves on using ‘everything but the squeal.’” 
Pork Tenderloin with Dried Cherries

½ cup dried cherries
¾ cup Madeira or Port
1 whole pork tenderloin (1 ¼-1 ½ pounds)
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. crushed juniper berries
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Salt and Pepper
½ stick (4 Tbsp.) butter
¾ cup white wine
1 cup homemade Chicken Stock
¾ cup heavy cream

In small saucepan, combine the dried cherries with the Madeira and bring to just under a boil; then remove from heat and let cherries steep until they are plump.  Cut the pork into thin slices (about ½ inch thick) and lightly pound between parchment paper or plastic wrap until not quite flat.  Sprinkle the slices with thyme and juniper and allow to rest for about 10 minutes.  Season the flour with salt and pepper.  Dip each slice of pork into the flour, shaking off the excess.  Melt the butter in a large skillet and sauté the pork (about 30 seconds per side) until it is browned and cooked through.  Remove the slices from the pan, set them on a warm plate, and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.  Pour out excess butter and immediately return the skillet to high heat.  Deglaze the pan by pouring the white wine into it and scraping with a fork or spatula to loosen any of the browned bits of meat.  Continue cooking over medium-high heat and reduce the wine to a syrupy consistency.  (It should be thick enough to just coat the back of a spoon.)  Then add the Madeira and cherries and the chicken stock, and reduce again.  Add he cream and continue cooking and stirring until the sauce thickens.

The soup kettle is probably the true melting pot of cooking.  Every ethnic group has full-bodied and distinctive soups even as they are similar.  Soups have been credited with healing powers: we all know the power of chicken soup for colds or almost any ailment.  The Indians made a thin wild rice soup for the stomach; the Germans thought cream soup could cure anything.  Scandinavians brought fruit soups to new mothers to give them strength while nursing.

Pumpkin Soup

3-4 pounds pumpkin
½ stick butter
2-4 Tbsp brown sugar,
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
Salt and pepper
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 apple peeled, cored, and finely diced
1 cup apple cider
1-2 cups milk
Freshly ground nutmeg to taste
Chopped toasted chopped pecans for garnish or toasted pumpkin seeds

Cut the unpeeled pumpkin into large chunks and place on a baking sheet.  Dot with butter and sprinkle lightly with brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, salt and pepper, then cover with aluminum foil.  Bake in a 350 deg. Oven for about 1 to 1 ½ hours, or until tender.  After you remove it from the oven, keep it covered with the aluminum foil so that the pumpkin will steam and become very soft.  Scoop out he flesh of the pumpkin—you should have about 6 cups—and put it into a large pot.  Add the onion, diced apple, apple cider and enough milk just to cover.  Bring the mixture to a low simmer and cook about 30 minutes.  Put the soup into a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade and blend, in batches, adding milk to bring it to the consistency you like.  Season with nutmeg and more salt and pepper to taste.  Serve garnished with pecans or pumpkin seeds.

The book is rich with anecdotes of pioneer immigrant descendents and their remembrances:  bringing in the sheaves at harvest time in Dane County Wisconsin in 1875; boiling potatoes for potato bread; Iowa cinnamon rolls half the size of your head; St. Lucia Day (December 13) celebrations starring sweet bread; and making lefse.

I can add my own recollection of gathering black walnuts with my father at the old Methodist camp at Frontenac.  We had to take off the thick yellow/green outer covering and then attempt to shell them.  The shells were so thick that a hammer was the only way to open them.  Once open, the nutmeats were stubborn and had to be picked out with a nutpick (unlike the easy English walnut nutmeats that literally fall out of their shells.)  The black, oily substance that gives the black walnut its distinctive odor and taste also stained everything near it—most especially your hands. Sadly, I think just because of this experience, although black walnuts are considered a delicacy by most people, I can’t stand them.

For anyone who descended from immigrants to the Northern Heartland, this book is bound to be fascinating.  It’s full of old photographs, reminiscences and, of course, wonderful recipes.  

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