We northern Midwesterners tend to be humble cooks. Too often we don’t view our everyday fare as anything special. As a born and bred Midwestern gal, I sometimes fall in line with my peers and lust over hip California cuisine, Big Apple restaurant trends or Food Network designer chefs. The greens may seem greener over the border, which unfortunately results in us under-appreciating how good we have it in the land of cheese, wild rice and rhubarb.
But I’m forever reformed and now proudly flaunt my Midwest roots after bonding with The Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook: Local Food, Local Restaurants, Local Recipes. A new release from Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based non-profit organization that champions the positive stories of rural revitalization, this photography rich book is a love song for local food. Through narrating the stories of 31 of Minnesota’s chefs and restaurants, the Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook offers 100 recipes that celebrate locally grown, organic and sustainable cookery.
The passion these chefs – and the farmers they work with – sings throughout the pages of this book. I want to hang out with these people, share some Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler over a lingering pot of coffee. We’re part of the same tribe, share the same love for fresh food and go nuts over the first greens of spring. There’s no celebrity aura of cheekiness in these pages, just smiling faces next to fresh food prepared with real ingredients by people who love what they do.
“The chefs and growers featured in the Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook support local agriculture because its the right thing to do for both flavor and future generations, ” explains Jan Joannides, founder and executive director of Renewing the Countryside and one of the visionaries behind this book. “They’re not jumping on some hip, green marketing bandwagon. These are the principles and values by which they have always led their lives and businesses. We hope these stories, along with the delicious recipes, help inspire others to follow these Minnesota culinary leaders.”
The leaders portrayed in the Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook may span the state geographically, yet they share common values that can serve as mantras in our own kitchens and approach to food:
• Don’t be fanatical — explore your options.
No one is suggesting you give up your morning coffee or daily chocolate fix and go hardcore local. But as lauded in the book’s introduction, do “protest a little when someone tries to sell you an apple from New Zealand in October. French and California wines are great, but try one of the new Minnesota wines . . . this isn’t about being fanatical but rather about using common sense – the sense that tells you when something tastes good and is good for you and your community.”
• Embrace authentic specials
In our 24/7 world where we can eat just about anything anytime, too often we give up flavor and taste for bland, average food. In reality, the food chain runs on its own schedule, not ours. When foods are in season and available, relish and savor the experience. The owners of the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, Minnesota, dedicate the restaurant to sustainable operations, while showcasing local fish, produce and even microbrews. Fresh whitefish only comes from members of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, the only commercial fishermen who can fish for whitefish in Lake Superior. “If you ever see fresh whitefish on the specials board, order it right away because it won’t be there very long,” owner George Wilkes advises.
• Share the local love
Passionate about food, these chefs want customers to cook with local ingredients in their own homes. If a customer likes a certain menu item, the restaurants can help direct them to finding their own local products. This happens all the time at Chez Jude, a restaurant also in Grand Marais. “Last week I made a pumpkin and apple soup that used maple syrup,” writes chef Judi Barsness in the book. “I was able to tell people where to find the sugar pumpkins, Haralson apples and Caribou Cream maple syrup.”
In celebration of spring fruits, here’s a tasty treat that’s a menu favorite at the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, showcasing the flavors of local strawberries, rhubarb, cornmeal and butter:
Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler
3 pints strawberries, quartered
2 1/4 lb. rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 big pinch nutmeg
Toss fruit into cornstarch, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pout into 9×13-inch greased pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes, or until fruit is bubbly around the edges and juices are thickened and clear. Prepare topping while fruit is baking.
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup yellow ground cornmeal
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup heavy cream
Combine dry ingredients. Add butter and cut in until the mixture has the consistency of coarse sand. Gradually add cream until dough pulls together. Break off pieces and spread evenly over fruit. Return to oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown.
Serves 8 – 10