What Heartland Cooking Is All About

Sarah McColl
Editor in Chief
April 30, 2014

We took a broad look at the list of 2014 James Beard Nominees to see if there were larger trends afoot in the food world. Turns out there were. Here, we present What’s Happening In Food Right Now. First up: Midwestern food gets its moment in the sun.

Nebraskan Runzas. Photo credit: Jennifer May

Let’s just call it: The silliness of selfies and social media is at a saturation point. Is it any wonder there’s a wave of interest in the sensible, no-nonsense food of America’s heartland?

The country cooking of the Midwest—a region that spans the bullseye of the United States from Ohio to North Dakota, commonly called the breadbasket of America—is “rustic, gutsy, and simple,” says “The New Midwestern Table,” author Amy Thielen. (The book is nominated for a 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award in the “American Cooking” category; her Food Network show “Heartland Table,” is also nominated for an in-studio television program.)Traditionally, the Midwestern supper looks like a Normal Rockwell square meal: “meat, starch, two vegetables, and bread, followed by dessert.” 

And while that traditional food is heavily influenced by the Scandinavian and German immigrants who settled in the region in the 1860s, the cuisine continues to evolve as new populations from Mexico, Asia, East Africa, and Central America immigrate. “The Midwest of a 100 years ago is different than the Midwest now,” says Thielen. “[It’s] changing in more exciting ways,” That means not only an influx of ethnic restaurants but also easily finding Asian varieties of basil at the farmer’s market where once there was only dill. 

And when you live in Zone 3, you learn to take advantage of each fresh bounty.

The local food movement is really, really strong,” says chef Lenny Russo, nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Midwest for St. Paul’s Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market. Russo, a New Jersey native, moved to Minnesota in 1985. “If you can say this was raised by a farmer or this is a native plant, [people are] really anxious to support it.” He ticks off a list of foods in season one day in late April: morels, wild watercress, wild plum, crabapples, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, alfalfa, wild onions, ground cherries, native wild serviceberries, chokecherries and chokeberries, wood sorrel, wild carrots, wild mint, and wild rice. It’s like poetry to the ears of broccoli-weary supermarket shoppers. And the popularity of hunting and fishing means there’s also duck, rabbit, pheasant, and fresh lake fish on restaurant menus and in home kitchens. 

These local foods give shape to the region’s flavor, and what’s done with them gives shape to the culture at large. There’s a rich tradition of big, one-pot meals, like booyah, a stew of beef, chicken, and vegetables cooked outdoors in cast iron kettles to feed large crowds, or cream can dinners.  “A lot of the food is dips, meant for sharing, bars cut into squares, and divvyed up, casseroles cut into squares,” says Thielen. “[My mom can] easily throw down for 20. At my son’s birthday, we invited kids and adults. Thirty-five people? We can do that. Food is an excuse to get together and sit around and drink beer.” 

"People take care of each other [here]," Russo said. "We care about the community. You don’t live here for the weather!” 

According to Thielen, if there there could be a single definition for the food of this vast swath of the country, despite its pockets of varying regionalisms, it would be this: In all kinds of Midwestern cooking, generosity and thrift are abundant in equal measure. “To make a lot of food, for it to feel really, really generous and not cheap. The two ideas go hand in hand to me. What is Midwestern food? Those two notions coexisting.”

Nebraskan Runzas
Makes 8 large runzas; serves 8

¾ cup lukewarm water (approximately 110°F)
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 the salt and 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, and 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°F.

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.

Reprinted from The New Midwestern Table. Copyright © 2013 by Amy Thielen. Photographs © 2013 by Jennifer May. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC.