Ring bologna and trained chef rarely appear in the same sentence, much less at the same table.
Unless you're Amy Thielen, who hosts "Heartland Table" on the Food Network. The fried meat earns a beauty shot in one episode, sizzling seductively in a cast-iron frying pan. (Where is smell-o-vision when you need it?)
This isn't the flabby stuff of childhood sandwiches, slapped onto white bread, but firm, tender rings of sausage burnished in fat. The key to cooking the delicacy, says Thielen's Aunt Renee, who also appears on-screen to demonstrate, is to peel the skin off first, then slice the meat on the diagonal and fry it in a little butter or olive oil — better yet, both — until the surface crisps. Makes me hungry just to think about this favorite from the past. (See the video at http://tinyurl.com/q7uv6w8.)
Midwestern food doesn't get much better than that, says the homegrown girl from the north country who has cooked in the kitchens of New York City notable chefs. Then again, Thielen Meats of Pierz — run by her cousins — awaits a few hours down the road from her rural kitchen.
The TV show debuted last fall at the same time her first cookbook, "The New Midwestern Table," hit bookstores. Together they have shone a spotlight on the regional fare we take for granted: the hot dish, wild rice, walleye and sweets (of course, there are plenty of sweets!), bumped up a few flavor notches as chefs are prone to do, in a way that makes them snapshots of our time and plate.
"These are the kind of recipes that get knit into the very DNA of a place," Thielen says on-screen.
When the show got the green light for more episodes, Thielen and family braced themselves for early winter filming at their home in Two Inlets, Minn., as a production crew of 20 headed Up North.
Episodes were shot in Thielen's own kitchen, much the way Julia Child welcomed viewers into her home in Cambridge, Mass. Her son's bedroom served as a video village for the crew, who watched footage as it was produced. "They would tell me I needed to say something over if I stumbled. They were keeping track of the story line and what they wanted to use, watching for consistency," said Thielen.
In her husband's art studio, in a building adjacent to the house, the crew created a temporary kitchen: three refrigerators, two stoves and stainless steel tables where the backup food was prepared. Early episodes of the show had been shot in the summer when the culinary team worked out of a food truck. "I'm still looking for some of my everyday kitchen tools," she said. "It's like they take my house, shake it and put it back together."
Reaction to the Midwestern food has been positive. "I was glad to see the traditions collected and celebrated," said Thielen. "I wanted to make really good renditions of what I grew up with. It turns out that a lot of people want to do that."
For the occasional reference, she turned to church cookbooks where sweets and appetizers dominate. "That's because those are the foods you share, that you bring to a party. It says a lot about what you serve to others in a community," she said.
Like any curious cook, Thielen is a restless one. Each year, with the turn of the calendar, she buckles into new culinary experiences.
"I try to push myself to learn something new. I like to bring new ingredients to my own repertoire. Right now I'm working with rice noodles.
"I might teach myself a new curry or push the boundaries of what I already know. Or I will get into some old cookbooks and choose something that's dusty but needs a revival. I also like to dig into the huge library I have. You know, books that you bought but never really tested out," said Thielen.
Good advice. And relief to this cook. Even chefs get carried away at the bookstore.
"Heartland Table" with Amy Thielen airs now at 7 a.m. Sundays.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste