Since 2003, the Minnesota Farmers Union has been connecting farmers and chefs in a popular, recipe-driven program called Minnesota Cooks, which culminates in a fun and fascinating annual event at the Minnesota State Fair. The program is also responsible for the ultimate fair freebie, the gotta-have Minnesota Cooks calendar.
Armed with nearly 20 years of recipes that celebrate Minnesota-grown ingredients, longtime Minnesota Cooks writer Claudine Arndt and photographer Katie Cannon have produced "The Farmer and the Chef" (Globe Pequot, $27.95), a lively, informative and user-friendly cookbook that illuminates the lives of the state's farmers and food makers, then continues to chronicle their stories through nearly 100 well-tested recipes created by chefs from Amboy to Grand Marais and Moorhead to Rochester.
In a recent phone conversation, Arndt discussed the ins-and-outs of the annual Minnesota Cooks event, the process behind the book's creation and this year's State Fair.
Q: How do you go about creating the Minnesota Cooks showcase each year?
A: It's really hard; it's like putting together a puzzle. Sometimes we want to highlight a specific farmer, and we ask if they sell to a restaurant, bakery, brewery or distillery. Sometimes it's the reverse, and we hear about a restaurant working with 20 farmers, and then it becomes the difficult choice of selecting who we're going to highlight alongside the restaurant.
Fortunately, we've really got it going on here in Minnesota. It's such an amazing place, and in terms of farming and dining those communities are so entrepreneurial and innovative and forward-thinking.
Q: Are there other factors?
A: We also take ingredients into consideration. For example, in a single year we don't want to feature three farms offering pork. We also like to follow trends, and shine a spotlight on crops emerging around the state. This year, it's Kernza and edible hemp.
Sometimes people have an idea that agriculture is a certain way, and part of the fun that we have with the program is showing just how diverse agriculture can be, whether it's growing a new crop, or raising greens in a hydroponic system, or urban farms vs. rural farms.
Q: You've amassed an impressive recipe archive. How did you select the ones that ended up in the book?
A: It was an intense and challenging process and it turned out to be more complicated than we'd anticipated. We've had more than 200 recipes submitted throughout the years.
We had to eliminate duplicates. For some reason, we had a lot of pot roast recipes.
We were certain that we had to include chefs who have played an important role in the local food scene: Lucia Watson [the former Lucia's Restaurant], Mike Phillips [Red Table Meat Co.], Lenny Russo [the former Heartland]. And we also like to feature restaurants from all over the state, not just in the metro area, and include people who have contributed so much to Minnesota's food scene, but might not have the name recognition of an Alex Roberts [Restaurant Alma]. It's the same with farmers; there were certain ones that we had to include.
Q: Not many cookbooks devote so many pages to essays on the lives of farmers. What was the impetus behind that side of the book?
A: We talked with Gary Wertish [Minnesota Farmers Union president] and decided that if we were going to do a cookbook, we wanted a way to bring the farmer forward, something more than saying, "This restaurant was partnered with this farmer." We wanted to illustrate what farmers' lives are like. Yes, there are some sunny days with blue skies, but we also wanted to show the challenges and hardships involved in bringing food from farms to people's plates.
Q: You and Katie have been working together for 10 years. How do you like to describe your collaboration?
A: It's such a joy to work with Katie, and I feel so lucky that I can hitch my work to hers. She has an incredibly discerning eye for what's going to evoke a feeling, and she's able to capture that in her photography. You recognize her work when you see it.
Q: Another aspect of the book that I appreciate is the way some recipes will remind readers of much-loved Twin Cities restaurants that are no longer with us: JP American Bistro, Bayport Cookery, the Strip Club Meat & Fish, Corner Table, the Bachelor Farmer. Was that intentional?
A: It makes my heart sing that you had that reaction. That's what we'd hoped for. It's a kind of historical walk down memory lane, it brings up some of the joyful memories that people experienced at those establishments.
Q: This year's State Fair lineup is a good one, with Erin Lucas of Flour & Flower in St. Joseph, Adam Ruhland of Wild State Cider in Duluth, Angela Dawson of Forty Acre Co-op in Sandstone, and so many more. How are you feeling about the fair?
A: I'm looking forward to it. To be honest, I feel out of practice after missing last year. It's going to be a really wonderful day to bring our community together and celebrate our food system here in Minnesota.
Minnesota Cooks at the State Fair
The 19th annual event takes place Aug. 29 in Dan Patch Park. Hourly cooking demonstrations and discussions start at 10 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. with a performance of a portion of Sod House Theater's new local-foods-focused play, "Arla Mae's Booyah Wagon." Find out more at minnesotacooks.org.
Pick up a free copy of the Minnesota Cooks calendar at the event. Calendars are also available during the run of the fair at the Minnesota Farmers Union stand at Dan Patch Avenue and Cosgrove Street.
Handmade Spaetzle With Sweet Corn, Bacon and Fresh Sage
Note: From Alex Roberts, chef/owner of Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis, in "The Farmer and the Chef."
• 2 c. flour
• 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, plus extra for cooking water
• 1/8 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
• 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 3/4 c. milk
• 4 eggs, beaten
• Olive oil
• 1/3 c. minced bacon
• 1 tbsp. plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter, divided
• 2 tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh sage
• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 2 1/2 c. sweet corn kernels
• 1/4 c. dry white wine
• 1/4 c. water
• 1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish, optional
• Salt to taste
To prepare spaetzle: In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, nutmeg and pepper. Add milk and eggs and mix well. Allow batter to rest for 15 minutes.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add about 1 tablespoon kosher salt, then reduce to a simmer. Place a spaetzle maker over large pot of simmering water and push dough through grates (or use a rubber spatula to push it through a colander with holes that are at least 1/4 inch wide, or drop dough by the teaspoonful) into simmering water below. Cook 3 to 4 minutes; spaetzle will rise to the surface when cooked through. Remove spaetzle from boiling water with a slotted spoon, transfer it to a colander and rinse with cold water. When cool, toss spaetzle with a little olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.
To prepare sauce: In a large skillet over medium heat, cook bacon with 1 teaspoon of butter, stirring frequently until slightly browned. Remove 2 tablespoons cooked bacon and reserve for finishing dish.
Add sage and a few grinds of black pepper to the bacon, followed by sweet corn and wine. Once wine has evaporated, add water, remaining 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon butter, and the Parmesan cheese. Stir constantly until water, butter and cheese form a creamy sauce.
Add reserved spaetzle and stir until warmed through. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired. Serve with reserved bacon and, if desired, additional Parmesan.
Grilled Pork Tenderloin With Heirloom Tomato Relish
Note: From Lenny Russo, chef/owner of the former Heartland in St. Paul, in "The Farmer and the Chef."
• 2 tsp. fine sea salt
• 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
• 2 tbsp. sunflower oil
• 1 tbsp. walnut oil
• 4 heirloom tomatoes, seeded and chopped
• 1/4 c. thinly sliced green onions
• 1 tsp. minced garlic
• 2 tbsp. freshly chopped mint
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 5 tbsp. freshly chopped rosemary
• 2 tbsp. dried lavender
• 2 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 2 1/2 lb. pork tenderloin
• 2 tbsp. sunflower oil
To prepare relish: In a mixing bowl, dissolve salt in vinegar. Whisk in sunflower oil and walnut oil. Add tomatoes, green onions, garlic, mint and pepper and carefully mix until well combined. Reserve.
To prepare pork: Prepare the grill. In a small bowl, combine rosemary, lavender, salt and pepper. Brush meat on both sides with sunflower oil and generously coat meat in herb mixture.
Over moderate heat, grill pork for approximately 4 minutes on each side. Remove from heat, transfer pork to a cutting board and allow meat to rest for a few minutes. Slice pork, arrange the slices on a serving platter and spoon relish over the pork.