Midwestern cooking, in its history and in its present forms, goes a long way toward defining what American cooking is all about," writes cookbook author Judith Fertig in the introduction to her recent book, "Prairie Home Cooking" (Harvard Common Press, $16.95).
"Food here is simple and comforting." says Ms. Fertig, and offers up evidence in the form of 400 recipes that demonstrate the savory diversity and creativity of heartland cuisine, and lays to rest the notion that Midwestern cooking is little more than casseroles and Jell-O.
The recipes that make up this thorough treatise cover everything from breakfast to dessert, including appetizers, soups, salads, meat, chicken, fish, side dishes, and breads. Fertig has gathered recipes from a wide variety of sources - from home kitchens, church suppers, and state fairs, to out-of-print cookbooks and distinguished chefs.
Some of the recipes are based on homespun classics of the prairie table, like New Prague Meatloaf, Homesteaders' Bean Soup, Cornhusker Corn Casserole, and North Country Pot Roast. Fertig serves up new and inventive creations as well, such as Walleye Pike with Fennel and Herbs, Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Thyme and Garlic Cream Sauce, Herb-Crusted Loin of Veal, and Gingerbread Waffles with Pear Sauce.
Fertig draws heavily on the ethnic heritage of the region. The book abounds in recipes drawn from German, Scandinavian, Bohemian, French-Canadian, British, and Italian cooking traditions that have been transplanted to the Midwest by waves of immigrants over the decades.
Then there are dishes like Exoduster Stew, a one-pot meal that originated in the coastal South and was brought to the Midwest by freed slaves who homesteaded in Kansas and Missouri after the Civil War. Mexican Fish Stew came to the region with the Mexican immigrants who moved to the Midwest to work on the railroads and, later, to pick crops.
Indian Fry Bread and Black Hills Bison Roulades with Wojapi, a traditional Sioux fruit "pudding" usually made with chokecherries, reflect the influence of native Americans.
"We really are a melting pot," Fertig said in a recent interview. "One of the things that I finally decided was that the heart of American cooking is really Midwestern cooking."
A noted food writer and the author of several cookbooks, Fertig has been researching Midwestern cooking and collecting recipes since the mid-1980s.
She notes that Midwestern cooking is making a comeback. It's getting more attention in food magazines and being reinterpreted by well-known chefs in major cities.
"We're in an age when comfort means a lot now," she said, while remarking that Midwestern cuisine is often synonymous with comfort food. "Everybody's running all over the place, and we have very busy lives. A little comfort is very attractive to people."
Sprinkled in with the text of the book are scores of sidebars that cover a broad range of subjects. Many of these are brief, informative digressions on specific foods, like honey, sausages, curds, morel mushrooms, …