Midwest gourmet - not the oxymoron you think

Midwestern cooking, in its history and in its present forms, goes a long way toward defining what American cooking is all about," writes cookbook author Judith Fertig in the introduction to her recent book, "Prairie Home Cooking" (Harvard Common Press, $16.95).

"Food here is simple and comforting." says Ms. Fertig, and offers up evidence in the form of 400 recipes that demonstrate the savory diversity and creativity of heartland cuisine, and lays to rest the notion that Midwestern cooking is little more than casseroles and Jell-O.

The recipes that make up this thorough treatise cover everything from breakfast to dessert, including appetizers, soups, salads, meat, chicken, fish, side dishes, and breads. Fertig has gathered recipes from a wide variety of sources - from home kitchens, church suppers, and state fairs, to out-of-print cookbooks and distinguished chefs.

Some of the recipes are based on homespun classics of the prairie table, like New Prague Meatloaf, Homesteaders' Bean Soup, Cornhusker Corn Casserole, and North Country Pot Roast. Fertig serves up new and inventive creations as well, such as Walleye Pike with Fennel and Herbs, Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Thyme and Garlic Cream Sauce, Herb-Crusted Loin of Veal, and Gingerbread Waffles with Pear Sauce.

Fertig draws heavily on the ethnic heritage of the region. The book abounds in recipes drawn from German, Scandinavian, Bohemian, French-Canadian, British, and Italian cooking traditions that have been transplanted to the Midwest by waves of immigrants over the decades.

Then there are dishes like Exoduster Stew, a one-pot meal that originated in the coastal South and was brought to the Midwest by freed slaves who homesteaded in Kansas and Missouri after the Civil War. Mexican Fish Stew came to the region with the Mexican immigrants who moved to the Midwest to work on the railroads and, later, to pick crops.

Indian Fry Bread and Black Hills Bison Roulades with Wojapi, a traditional Sioux fruit "pudding" usually made with chokecherries, reflect the influence of native Americans.

"We really are a melting pot," Fertig said in a recent interview. "One of the things that I finally decided was that the heart of American cooking is really Midwestern cooking."

A noted food writer and the author of several cookbooks, Fertig has been researching Midwestern cooking and collecting recipes since the mid-1980s.

She notes that Midwestern cooking is making a comeback. It's getting more attention in food magazines and being reinterpreted by well-known chefs in major cities.

"We're in an age when comfort means a lot now," she said, while remarking that Midwestern cuisine is often synonymous with comfort food. "Everybody's running all over the place, and we have very busy lives. A little comfort is very attractive to people."

Sprinkled in with the text of the book are scores of sidebars that cover a broad range of subjects. Many of these are brief, informative digressions on specific foods, like honey, sausages, curds, morel mushrooms, dandelions, pot roasts, wild rice, and heirloom tomatoes. Others cover other food-related topics, such as the Swedish table, a brief history of American beef cattle, harvesting wild foods, and the tradition of the after-church supper. Some sidebars, like ones on Lewis and Clark, Grant Wood and his famous painting "American Gothic, Emancipation Day," and a thumbnail history of St. Louis simply provide the reader interesting nuggets on this largely overlooked part of the country.

A native of Ohio now living in Kansas, Fertig studied at the Cordon Bleu in London and La Varenne in Paris in the 1980s. She also writes for a number of newspapers and magazines, works as a restaurant consultant, and teaches cooking classes and seminars.

In addition to an index and bibliography, "Prairie Home Cooking" includes two pages of resources to help track down some of the more hard-to-find ingredients. Such exotic items as goetta, buffalo, venison, waskuya, wild fruit syrups, aromatic woods for smoke-cooking, and heirloom fruits and vegetables are all available by mail order.

North Country Pot Roast with Parsnips and Carrots

2 teaspoons ground allspice

3 pounds beef chuck roast

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons canola or corn oil

1-1/2 cups beef stock or more if necessary

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons molasses or sorghum

1 teaspoon anchovy paste or 2 canned anchovies, mashed

2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin

3 large parsnips, peeled and sliced diagonally

3 large carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally

1 cup pitted prunes

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Press or rub the allspice into all sides of the roast, then dredge the meat in 1/2 cup of the flour. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and brown the meat on all sides. Transfer the meat to a covered roaster.

Add the stock, vinegar, molasses, and anchovy paste to the skillet, bring to a boil, and deglaze the pan. Pour the hot liquid over the roast and add the onions, parsnips, carrots, prunes, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Cover, and braise in the oven for 1-1/2 to 3 hours, or until meat is quite tender. Remove the meat and vegetables to a serving platter.

Make a gravy: In the roaster or a skillet, bring the cooking juices to a boil; add more beef stock, or water, if necessary. Shake together the remaining 1 tablespoon of flour with 1 cup of water in a lidded jar until all the lumps are gone.

Pour this mixture into the hot cooking juices and whisk constantly until the gravy has thickened. Remove from the heat and let cool just a little. Taste the gravy, adjust the seasonings, and serve in a bowl or gravy boat alongside the roast.

Serve with egg noodles, and, if you like, a crisp, steamed green vegetable such as broccoli, green beans, or Brussels sprouts.

Serves 6 to 8.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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