Amy Thielen takes the food we remember from our childhood dinner table and turns it into something else.
The chef and cookbook author has fiddled with the lowly Jell-O salad, making it with fresh berries and currants. She's pushed meatloaf beyond ketchup, mixing ground beef with bacon, pistachios and shiitake mushrooms. And in her just released book, “The New Midwestern Table,” she even takes on something Nebraskans love: the Runza.
She crafts the dough by hand and fills the sandwiches with the traditional beef mixture spiked with spinach instead of cabbage. It might be less familiar, but it's just as delicious.
Midwestern cuisine is, Thielen thinks, of-the-moment. Other authors do, too. “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food,” from the University of Nebraska Press, also hits shelves this spring.
Chefs are experimenting with pimento cheese, split pea soup and green bean casserole and serving the heritage dishes at restaurants in Omaha and Lincoln. Practical, solid Midwestern food is finally in the limelight.
“There is a lot of power in the familiar, and that is what people are tuning into,” Thielen said. “Food is not just about fashion, it goes deeper than that.”
Colin Duggan, chef and co-owner of Kitchen Table in downtown Omaha, said he never thought of the restaurant's menu as “Midwestern” but the designation fits.
The pimento cheese appetizer he serves is close to the one he ate as a child. The meatloaf is further away from what he remembers, but that childhood memory is where he started. Customers feel that familiarity, he said.
“It's meatloaf reminiscent of what they had growing up, but at the same time it's not the meatloaf they remember,” he said. “It's not blah. It's now something decadent and rich and fulfilling.”
Lincoln Chef Kevin Shinn based a good part of the menu at his new Railyard restaurant, Jack and June, on recipes he found in vintage small town church cookbooks. A section of the menu called “Recipes from the Old Cookbook” features dishes such as provolone, cheddar and gruyere macaroni and cheese, hickory smoked meatloaf, and chicken and dumplings.
At Midtown restaurant J. Coco, Chef Jennifer Coco has served a creamy Brussels sprouts dish based on memories of green bean casserole. The French Bulldog's Bryce Coulton continues to experiment with house made sausages and salamis created using meat from Nebraska.
And in her book, Thielen writes about eating a half roast pig's head prepared by Chef Paul Kulik at the Boiler Room.
“I can't think of a better restaurant in which to indulge in such a bacchanalian feast,” she writes.
Thielen worked as a line cook in New York City for seven years before she, her husband and their child moved back to her home state of Minnesota. They now live in a cabin near the small town of Two Inlets.
After she moved home, she discovered remarkable chefs in Minneapolis, Madison, Wis., and Milwaukee.
“I started to see that a lot of young chefs were really making food that was on par with what I had seen in New York,” Thielen said. “There is a collective taste memory among those young chefs, and they were starting to mine it. Now they have created a cuisine we can talk about.”
Peggy Wolff, who edited “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie,” said the Midwest is full of the same food movements as the coasts.
Thielen said she thinks the Midwest is simply unmined territory.
“People are searching for new things to say about food, and I think that's part of it. They think, 'Wait a minute, we haven't talked much about what is going on in Iowa in the last 25 years,' ” she said.
She said the recipes she's most proud of are ones that delve into truly Midwestern traditions, like those focused on wild rice and rhubarb. She also said she loved sharing the deviled egg recipe, reminiscent of Midwestern steakhouse fare, and the regional favorites, like the Runza and Chislic, a lamb appetizer from South Dakota.
Duggan said he's going to continue to mine the depths of Midwestern food with things like open faced hot sandwiches with mashed potatoes, short ribs and chicken and a pot-pie gravy.
“I think people are happy to see these things come back,” he said. “Its hard to call Midwestern food elevated. But we're using fresh ingredients. We're keeping it simple and doing it right. Its food that fits the Midwestern mentality.”
Makes 8 large Runzas
• ¾ cup lukewarm water (approximately 110 degrees)
• 2½ teaspoons (1.25-ounce packet) active dry yeast
• Pinch plus 3 tablespoons sugar
• 4 large eggs: 3 for the dough, 1 for the egg wash
• 3¾ cups bread flour, plus more for the counter
• 12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) salted butter, softened, plus more for the bowl
• 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
• 1 pound medium-lean ground beef
• Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 tablespoons salted butter
• 1 large Vidalia onion, diced
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme, or 1½ teaspoons dried
• 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary, or 1½ teaspoons dried
• 1 tablespoon canola oil, plus more for the baking sheet
• 8 ounces baby spinach
For the dough, combine the water, yeast and pinch of sugar in a large mixing bowl and let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Add 3 of the eggs and whisk to combine. Add half of the bread flour and beat with a wooden spoon until good and thready, about 3 minutes. Add the butter, remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, remaining flour, and salt. Mix well. The dough will be a little sticky. Leave to rest and hydrate for 15 minutes.
Knead the dough to develop the gluten, until it feels tight and smooth, about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly buttered bowl, cover and let rise for 1 hour at room temperature, then chill for 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator, until cold to the touch, or as long as overnight.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into 8 even portions. Roll each one into a ball and leave on the counter, covered loosely, to warm up.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it's hot, add the beef. Season with ¾ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper and cook, chopping to separate the beef, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the beef to a bowl. Drain and discard all but a film of the fat from the skillet. Add the butter to the skillet and when it has melted, add the onion. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until light golden brown, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme and rosemary and cook for 3 minutes. Scrape the mixture into the bowl containing the beef.
Without cleaning the skillet, add the tablespoon of oil to it. Over high heat, sauté the spinach until wilted, about 1 minute, and cook until the excess liquid has evaporated. Chop the spinach, add it to the beef mixture, and set aside to cool. Flatten a dough ball on a heavily floured surface and roll it to form a 3×5-inch rectangle. Then make wrapping flaps from the four corners of the rectangle by rolling each corner out thinly, so that you have a thick rectangle with four thinner triangular wings at the corners. Spoon ½ cup of the filling onto the rectangle and wrap the flaps over it, pinching to close.
Flip the bundle over in your hands, gently forming the Runza into a fat football shape. Set the Runza seam-side down on an oiled baking sheet.
Repeat with the remaining dough balls and filling.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Let the Runzas rise, uncovered, about an inch, about 45 minutes. Mix together the remaining egg and 2 tablespoons water to make an egg wash and brush it thinly over the tops of the Runzas. Bake the Runzas until dark golden brown, 25 minutes. Serve hot.