Directing attention to foods that benefit both the planet and the plate is the lifelong mission of Beth Dooley, cookbook author and Taste contributor.
Her latest title, "The Perennial Kitchen: Simple Recipes for a Healthy Future" (University of Minnesota Press, $27.95), grew out Dooley's fascination with the Forever Green Initiative, a program guided by the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that works to create an agricultural system that "mimics natural systems in order to produce ample food and reduce or eliminate the negative impacts of the food and agriculture system," writes Dooley.
But "The Perennial Kitchen" is no dry academic tome. Dooley illuminates the stories of pioneering food producers and then channels their output — whether it's pasture-raised pork, locally cultivated hazelnuts or the just-developed grain Kernza — into delicious, easy-to-follow recipes that belong in every Minnesota cook's repertoire.
In a recent conversation over a delicious spring lunch in her south Minneapolis backyard, Dooley discussed rural economies, Ireland Creek Annie beans and the joys of maple syrup.
Q: You've been writing about local foods for 40 years. Why is this such an important subject?
A: Because it was a way for me to feel like home. I grew up in New Jersey. My grandmother was a fabulous cook, and I have these memories of going to farm stands with her.
When we moved here, I remember going to the farmers market and having that same experience that I had with my grandmother, and talking to farmers the way she would. The food from the farmers market was so good, and being there made me feel like I belonged.
It's curiosity around flavor that drives my work: "Why do these local carrots taste so good?" "What makes Kernza grown in northern Minnesota different from that grown in the western part of the state?" "What to do with it?" Then I start poking around to determine those factors and then I try and figure out what to do with that food.
Q: Why should consumers care about and support regenerative agriculture and other practices that are so far away from the supermarket?
A: Climate change, for starters. This work can make a dramatic difference in capturing and returning carbon to the soil. It's about retaining topsoil and keeping it out of the Mississippi. It's about harboring wildlife and sheltering pollinators.
A big thing for me is repopulating our rural communities and giving them some economic stability so that maybe then they'll have high-speed internet, so their children don't have to drive to McDonald's in order to do their homework.
We're not paying attention to rural poverty. With so many people unemployed, there's a huge untapped labor force that could be tapped into growing food responsibly. This is as much a political issue as it is an environmental issue, and it's an issue around the health of our bodies and the health of our land.
Q: Kernza comes up a lot in the book. How do you like to use it in your kitchen?
A: The kernel is really nice. If you soak it overnight, like overnight oats, and then cook it the next morning as a hot cereal, it has this wonderful graham-like flavor to it.
I've used the flour to feed my sourdough. You get the sourdough started with a white or whole wheat flour, but you feed it with Kernza, the way you might feed a sourdough with rye. The results are fabulous. For sourdough bread, you do 40% Kernza and 60% wheat flour, and you get a really nice loaf.
I've used it in soda bread — half Kernza flour, half wheat flour — and it was so good, it tasted like the bread that I used to eat in Ireland. Kernza isn't widely available yet, but you can find the flour and the grains at Lakewinds Food Co-op.
Q: You write about a dozen or so different beans. Do you have any favorites?
A: I get seduced by their names: Hidatsa Indian Shield, Ireland Creek Annie, Tiger's Eye, Jacob's Cattle. The thing is, they're basically interchangeable. In terms of flavors and textures, they're all somewhat similar. You can pretty much do what you want to do to them from one bean to the next. I buy them for their names, and for what they look like.
Q: Why should we be reaching for Midwest-made hazelnut oil?
A: Because it tastes really good; you can taste the nuts in the oil. Because it's virgin-pressed, it's almost higher in antioxidants and Omega-3s than virgin olive oil. It has a higher smoke point than olive oil, so it's cook-friendly; it's not going to burn if you do a high-heat sauté.
And also because we need more of these crops on the land. Their root system is as big as the system above the ground, if not bigger, so they hold the soil. They attract wildlife and filter water. And they're beautiful.
Q: What are the reasons why we should be buying grass-fed beef? For decades, all we've heard about are the attributes of cornfed beef.
A: Because grass-fed beef is delicious, and because we have so many good butchers in town — Lowry Hill Meats, Clancey's, St. Paul Meat Co., the co-ops — who are doing such a beautiful job with these cuts.
If you want to get into health, grass-fed beef is way higher in Omega-3s than even farm-raised fish. It's also really good for the land. We need more cows on the land, because that means we can have more grass on the land, which means that we have more plants sucking down carbon. But in the end, you just get really good meat, and you don't need tons of it because it tastes so good and it's so satisfying.
Q: A favorite part of the book is where you talk about soup as an "expression of creativity and thrift." What do you mean?
A: I have to credit that idea to Estelle Woods Wilcox, author of "Buckeye Cookery," one of the first cookbooks. She said, "A good soup maker must be a good taster."
First of all, soup makes good use of everything you have left in the refrigerator. As a cook, that's really satisfying, because I hate throwing food away. There's also the creative part of it. You look at something that you're kind of sick of and you think, "What can I do with you today, how can I reuse you?"
Q: The book features several cracker recipes. Why crackers?
A: Because they're a great intro to baking. I don't know why more people aren't making crackers, because they're so easy. They're easier than cookies. They're also a great way to taste the grain, and a way to get people to think of using whole grains that they're not familiar with.
Q: Has turning to honey, maple syrup and other natural sweeteners changed your approach to baking?
A: Yes, and mostly because they're a little harder to work with, frankly. They're a little trickier. They have a distinct flavor, so you end up using less, so they don't overpower. Also, they're not as sweet. As a result, I think my palate has changed. I'm no longer looking for that hit of sugar. Maple syrup also adds a savory note, which I think gives more balance. You end up with a more interesting baked good.
Q: This is your 12th book, which is an extraordinary canon. Is there a 13th on the horizon?
A: "The Steger Homestead Kitchen: Simple Recipes for an Abundant Life" (University of Minnesota Press) is coming out in October. That was so much fun. Will is one of the most amazing people that I've ever met, and I wanted to write a book with him because I love his stories. It's his stories, and the recipes are from Will's niece [Rita Mae Steger]. And I'm working on a book with Appetite for Change. It's a way to tell their story: How do you use food as a tool to bring a community back together?
I love these kinds of collaborations, because I learn so much. It's a window into different areas that I would never be able to explore otherwise. I feel really lucky. But that's the thing with cooking: You get into the kitchen with someone, and stories just start happening.
Meet the author
What: Beth Dooley will discuss "The Perennial Kitchen" during a free online event.
When: May 17 at 6 p.m.
Who: Dooley will be in conversation with Prabin Bajain of the University of Minnesota, Sandy Boss Febbo of Bang Brewing, Kieran Folliard of the Food Building, Tré Hardy of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, Luke Peterson of A-Frame Farm and Tracy Singleton of the Birchwood Cafe.
Register: Go to z.umn.edu/dooley517.
Asparagus and Radish Salad in Bacon Vinaigrette
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: "Radishes and asparagus dance into the market the same time of year," writes Beth Dooley in "The Perennial Kitchen." "Pretty and peppery, radishes add color and zip to the lush, tender spears. The bacon adds salt and just enough heft to make this a hearty appetizer or main dish salad."
• 4 slices thick-cut bacon
• 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
• 1 shallot, finely minced
• 1 tbsp. coarse Dijon mustard
• 2 tbsp. hazelnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
• 1 lb. asparagus, woody ends snapped or cut off
• 1/2 c. sliced red radishes
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large frying pan, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Crumble and set aside. Reserve the rendered fat in the pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, shallot and mustard. Carefully pour the bacon fat through a fine mesh sieve into the vinegar mixture, whisking until smooth and emulsified. Taste the vinaigrette; if it's too strong, add a little more oil to taste.
Fill a large skillet halfway with water, set over high heat and bring to a rolling boil. Set the asparagus in the skillet so the tips rest on the side of the pan and the spears are immersed. Cook the asparagus until a sharp paring knife can pierce the fattest part of the spear without resistance, about 5 to 9 minutes, depending on the size of the stalks. Drain the asparagus in a colander and refresh with cold running water. Set the asparagus on a clean dish towel or paper towel and pat dry.
Arrange the asparagus and radishes on a serving plate and pour the dressing over it. Scatter the crumbled bacon over the top. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Market Soup With Asian Spices
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: "Sweet, sour and hot, this soup reflects the flavors of Hmong and Vietnamese families who introduced us to bright, bold flavors — fiery peppers, tangled long beans, fragrant lemongrass," writes Beth Dooley in "The Perennial Kitchen."
• 2 tbsp. hazelnut or sunflower oil
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 1 carrot, cut into matchstick-size pieces
• 1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
• 1 tbsp. peeled, coarsely chopped (or grated) fresh ginger, or 1 tsp. ground ginger
• 1 tbsp. freshly grated turmeric, or 1 tsp. ground turmeric
• 1 stalk lemongrass or 1 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 1 small hot chile pepper or a generous pinch red pepper flakes, to taste
• 1 c. coconut milk
• 1 c. shredded cooked chicken meat
• 3 c. chicken stock
• Generous dash soy sauce, or to taste
• Generous dash rice wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lime juice, or to taste
• 1/4 c. freshly chopped cilantro, for garnish
In a heavy saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and cook the onions and carrot pieces until just tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. In a blender (or a food processor fitted with a metal blade), purée the garlic, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass (or lemon juice), chile pepper (or red pepper flakes) and coconut milk. Pour the coconut milk mixture into the saucepan with the sautéed vegetables, add the chicken and the chicken stock and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes. Season to taste with the soy sauce and vinegar (or lime juice), and serve garnished with chopped cilantro.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib