The Cookbook Addict: Heartland

May 9, 2011 at 10:22 am


Tethered to my desk but restless and prickly with an incipient case of Spring Fever, I found delicious respite with an armchair tour of the Midwest in Heartland, the newest addition to my cookbook library. Author Judith Fertig explores the soul of the Midwest family farm in a grand adventure that takes us from the forested hills and broad river valleys of her Ohio birthplace, through the Great Lakes, and then westward to the Kansas prairie she now calls home.

“My, how farm dinners have changed!” she exclaims. “When I first moved to the Kansas City area, a farm dinner meant a ho-hum meal of fried chicken, fake mashed potatoes, and gravy that came out of a jar or a can. And nary a fresh vegetable,” she says. Now, she notes, farm-to-table-dining has evolved. “That’s because the family farm is changing, specializing. Although many Midwestern farms still harvest the traditional wheat, corn, and soybean crops, still others produce not only organic fruits and vegetables, but also artisan cheeses, heritage pork and poultry, boutique varieties of beef, fuller-flavored milk from grass-fed cows, and fruits—like Harlayne apricots or plump sour cherries—which you just can’t find anywhere else. Surprisingly, the term terroir, which we associate with wine, also applies to what grows best—and tastes best—right here.”

Judith is just the sort of companion you want on a road trip—enthusiastic, funny, curious, and above all, hungry! She has country girl’s instinct for a good story and quirky lore (Who knew you could judge a hen’s egg-laying potential by the color of her feet?) but it’s clear that she has an urbanite’s sophisticated palate. Her appreciation and appetite for the region’s bounty shaped the book’s 150 recipes, from Blue Plate Specials like “Heartland Daube with White Cheddar Polenta” to “Brewpub Cheese and Charcuterie on a Plank” inspired by a hearty working-man’s snack that sustained waves of Chicago’s immigrants at the corner tavern.

Judith has a special fondness for our city. “My daughter lived in Chicago for a while,” she recalls, “and when I came to visit, we always explored a different neighborhood. I loved to walk around the Polish area near the Red Apple on Milwaukee and see the big bags of poppy seeds and the butter lambs for sale in the bakeries.”

“One of my earliest inspirations was Stephen Langlois’ late, great Prairie, a restaurant that served farm-inspired, regional food with a contemporary twist. And Susan Goss at West Town Tavern gave me a wonderful recipe for concord grape streusel pie that I included in my earlier book, All-American Desserts. I still love the flavors she gets from contemporary comfort foods.”

As antidote to my Spring Fever, Judith graciously offered this rosy balm.


photo via Aaron Leimkuhler of Spaces Magazine

Farm Girl Cosmo

Makes 4 cocktails

Rosy Rhubarb Syrup:
4 cups chopped rhubarb, fresh or frozen and thawed
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
The juice of 2 lemons

Farm Girl Cosmo
3/4 cup vodka
1 cup Rosy Rhubarb Syrup
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon orange extract

1. For the syrup, place the rhubarb and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook the rhubarb until tender and pulpy, about 10 minutes.

2. Strain off the rhubarb pulp, reserving the juice. Measure the juice and add enough water to equal 2 cups. Return the liquid to the saucepan over medium-high heat and stir in the sugar. Bring to a boil so the sugar dissolves, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, and let cool. Strain again, then pour into clean glass jars or bottles. (Refrigerate, covered, for up to 1 month.)

3. To make the Cosmos, combine the vodka, rhubarb syrup, lime juice, and orange extract in a pitcher. Add ice and stir well. Strain and pour into 4 vintage jelly glasses and garnish with a swizzle stick of rainbow chard.