During the most frigid days of a Minnesota winter, when the mercury plummets precipitously in November's arctic chill until March, when the lion and the lamb battle it out for symbolic weather supremacy, any thoughts of eating fresh local food are encased in a block of ice. It's not easy picturing just-picked green vegetables and colorful sun-ripened fruit when the landscape is a monochrome of snowy ground and naked trees. However, a new cookbook aims to help thaw this view and show that eating well and locally in Minnesota is a pleasure for all seasons.
A few weeks ago, I received a complimentary copy of The Minnesota Table: Recipes for Savoring Local Food Throughout the Year, filled with essays and artwork from writer/artist Shelley Holl, and recipes by chef and cooking instructor B.J. Carpenter. Part travel memoir and part recipe compilation of their journeys in search of the North Star State's year-round offerings, the book's maroon and gold cover is adorned with a lovely watercolor by Holl of an autumnal lakeside barn, while inside, it is arranged by months rather than chapters, neatly underscoring the theme of seasonality.
Much of the spotlight shines on specific growers and producers, giving readers a personal glimpse at the dedicated work of these men and women, with special attention given to local farmers' markets and CSAs (community-supported agriculture) like Common Ground Garden, run by Benedictine nuns in St. Joesph, MN and one of the state's first such programs. But Holl and Carpenter also demonstrate that procuring the freshest fare often has an even more hands-on, DIY element: essays recount their experiences picking asparagus directly from the field at a U-pick farm and with foraging in the wild for morel mushrooms.
However, if you're more inclined to enjoy them in the here and now, then each month offers several recipes developed by Carpenter featuring peak seasonal ingredients. These dishes do not break any new culinary ground and run along the lines of such classic fare as Minted Crown Roast of Lamb, Green Beans with Toasted Hazelnuts and a pretty Strawberry-Rhubarb Sunburst Pie. But here and there are tantalizing examples of regional specialties, like Wild Rice Dried Cranberry Salad and Lake Superior Smoked Whitefish.
If there is one empty spot on The Minnesota Table, it is that these recipes do not fully reflect the vibrant ethnic and cultural diversity provided by the state's most recent immigrant communities. Mention is made of the strong core of Italian heritage in the Iron Range and, of course, the generations of Scandinavians throughout the Land of 10,000 Lakes. But the sole piece about Asian farming families and a recipe for Vietnamese long beans simply can not encompass the impact of recent newcomers from Latin America, Africa and Asia who have introduced new flavors to the Minnesota menu. Although Holl discusses the greater availability of once-exotic produce and livestock (like Tibetan yaks!) as growers respond to demand, it would have been equally interesting to see how regional foods such as wild rice and rhubarb might be incorporated into the traditional dishes of distant cultures, blending the local with the global.
In her introduction, Holl acknowledges that this book is not the definitive word on local and seasonal eating:
"It is not intended to provide a compendium of ingredients, recipes or food sources, but rather to inspire you to search for the best and freshest ingredients for your table by giving you an intimate, and sometimes artistic, look at the searches we made for our own."Indeed, although it is called The Minnesota Table and the people, places and many of the foods described within are particular to the region, the book's themes serve as an example of the many ways that eating locally can be achieved, regardless of season or geography. Look to the local farmers' market, CSA or your own garden for the freshest produce; go hunt for mushrooms, fish for lake trout, or pick summer strawberries; or purchase a jar of honey from a nearby apiary or a bottle of wine from a local vineyard. No matter the season, feel free to set your own table.
The Minnesota Table: Recipes for Savoring Local Food throughout the Year by Shelley N.C. Holl with recipes by B.J. Carpenter is available in bookstores, online booksellers and from www.voyageurpress.com.
Raspberry-Blueberry Cream Cheese Shortcake
(Reprinted with permission from The Minnesota Table by Shelley N.C. Holl with recipes by B.J. Carpenter)
In the spirit of seasonality and an insatiable love of dessert, I had no trouble choosing a recipe to make from The Minnesota Table: this red, white and blue treat that perfectly captures the best of July. Vivid fresh berries and the sparkle of sugar crystals enliven the pillow of whipped or sour cream inside and on top of a shortcake with a poundcake-like texture, thanks to the magic of cream cheese.
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
3 tsps baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
A pinch of granulated sugar
1 (3 oz) package of cream cheese (original, not light), chilled and cut into small pieces
4 Tbsps unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup 2% or whole milk
2 Tbsps unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup turbinado sugar, available in co-ops, natural food stores, and most mainstream grocers
1 pint each fresh raspberries and blueberries
1 cup whipped or sour cream*
1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, and pinch of sugar together. Add chilled cream cheese and butter, cutting in with a pastry blender or two knives until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
2. Pour beaten egg into a measuring cup and add enough milk to make 3/4 cup; quickly and carefully stir into the flour mixture. Swiftly knead the dough in the bowl just long enough for the dough to hold together, about 20 seconds. Remember: DO NOT OVERMIX; that's why they call it "shortcake".
3. Pat half the dough into a greased, round 8-inch cake pan. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with 1/4 cup turbinado sugar. Pat the remaining dough on top of first layer and sprinkle with another 1/4 cup of turbinado sugar.
4. Bake in center of the preheated oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
5. Rinse the berries, add the remaining 1/4 cup turbinado sugar, and let stand.**
6. When the shortcake is done, remove it from the oven to a cooling rack. When cool, split the layers apart***, spread 1/2 cup whipped or sour cream on the bottom layer, and top with half of the berry mixture. Cover the berries with the top layer of shortcake, pressing down gently. Top with remaining 1/2 cup whipped or sour cream and the remaining sugared berries.
7. Cut into wedges, and serve in low dessert, salad or soup bowls.
* I opted to use crème fraîche, which I had to whip when it didn't set as well as desired.
** In spite of my sweet tooth, I left the berries unsweetened.
*** The shortcake came out with a beautiful golden top from brushing melted butter and sprinkling turbinado sugar before baking. However, I worried that splitting the layers would result in unattractive breakage. Instead, I used a biscuit cutter to make individual servings.