I am often asked to name my favorite food. Since I find it nearly impossible to name just one, my answer is usually “anything ethnic.” Learning about and enjoying food that I would not usually find in my hometown thrills me to no end. I adore sampling new flavors, and delving in to the origins of dishes that are new to me. Usually, ethnic food means cuisine from another country or another culture. But sometimes, cuisine can me “domestically ethnic” – that is, from another region of my own country, one that I would not usually have the opportunity to sample. Since I am a Jersey girl, Southern food and good old Texas barbecue are great examples of “domestically ethnic” cuisine for me.
Amy Thielen’s new book, The New Midwestern Table, has introduced me to another “domestically ethnic” cuisine. As if her Midwestern recipes weren’t enough, her narrative introduction to her cookbook is written like the beginning of a novel I could see myself wrapped up in on a cold night next to a roaring fire. And once she has set the scene of the rural Midwest that she adores, her recipes take you on a journey through that region – one delicious step at a time.
About a week or so ago, on a day when we first felt the autumn chill in the air, I made a big pot of Amy’s Wild Rice and Smoked Chicken Soup. This is most definitely not the chicken soup I grew up eating, with clear broth, white rice (or egg noodles) and a few vegetables thrown in for flavor. Amy’s soup starts the same way, by cooking diced celery and onion in a little butter, but then she adds depth of flavor by adding cremini mushrooms, leeks and a bit of sherry. Then the soup takes its next left turn – instead of the usual white rice or egg noodles, Amy’s recipe calls for the addition of wild rice. Not “long grain and wild rice,” but true wild rice – the dark, nutty grain that is, unlike its white counterpart, full of texture and adds a unique bite to this soup.
After enjoying a big bowl of this uniquely Midwestern version of one of my childhood favorites, I am not sure I will ever go back to the version I grew up with. I paired this new favorite with Amy’s Fire-and-Iceberg Salad, a crisp combination of iceberg lettuce, radicchio and celery heart, topped with crumbled blue cheese and a homemade French dressing enhanced with both sweet and smoked paprika. Together, these made a soul-satisfying lunch on a cool autumn day!
You don’t always have to search overseas or across borders to find new ethnic cuisine to sample. Sometimes you need only look across your own country, in an area you have never visited before. Amy Thielen’s The New Midwestern Table introduced me to Midwestern cuisine with open arms and a big, warm hug – and I have a feeling I will experience that warm welcome with each new recipe I try from her book.