In northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, Midwest cuisine looks and tastes a little different on the plate than it does in Kansas City, Chicago, or St. Louis.
We aren't heavy into barbecue like Kansas City, or chic like Chicago, and we don't have the wild rice dishes of Minneapolis.
From Ohio to Iowa, from Michigan to Missouri, the farmlands are rich in grain and corn, produce, meat, and poultry. As you travel, you'll find similar foods from the ethnic migrations of the last two centuries, yet there are foods unique to different locales.
Cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs in northwest Ohio and Southeastern Michigan have access to a wonderful array of fresh ingredients, high-quality meats, and the bounty of field and stream.
To define Heartland cooking, simply look at the food grown and processed locally as well as foods foraged in fields and found in waterways. Trendy and innovative chefs on both side of the state line are using these ingredients in creative new ways.
For example, Craig Common in The Common Grill Cookbook uses Pork Tenderloin with a Dried Cherry Compote. The restaurateur gave a decidedly regional flavor to basic foods – pork, cherries, and corn. In Chef Common's recipe, a mustard marinade seasons the meat, which is grilled or broiled. Sliced on the bias, the cooked meat is ladled with a Dried Cherry Compote and served with Corn Pudding.
A recipe is considered regional Midwest based on the ingredients used, the way it is cooked, and the presentation. Here is a partial list of regional ingredients:
1. Pork, a major commodity, is among the meats and poultry produced in Ohio and Michigan. The days of pork roast and sauerkraut are increasingly replaced with new flavor combinations. Whether it's paired with cherries or drizzled with an apple brandy sauce, pork lends itself to other regional ingredients.
2. Tart cherries, whether dried, canned, or frozen, are used in recipes from salads to sauces, from baked goods to pies. Note that normally Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries in the United States, and that cherries are marketed throughout the country and throughout the year in processed forms of canned, frozen and dried, according to Jane Baker of the Cherry Marketing Institute in Okemos, Mich.
3. Corn is a major crop in both states. Corn pudding is a side dish that is part of Americana. When paired with Ohio and Michigan foods, corn pudding becomes a regional taste, as in Chef Common's dish. Today, corn is more than a side dish; it's used in salads, chowders, and appetizers.
4. Northwest Ohio, like Michigan, is intertwined with the waterways. Walleye and Lake Erie perch are favorites on the plate, whether the fish is lightly breaded, sauteed with citrus, or made into a dazzling dish with fresh morels. Whitefish is equally popular, either sauteed or used in a bubbling chowder.
5. Morels, savored by gourmets for their smoky, earthy flavor, are foraged and fought over in the fields of Michigan. Many Ohioans trek north to get their fill each spring. One spring, I saw morels at $28 per pound at Detroit's Eastern Market. Those who find them or buy them often freeze them for later use. Some folks buy dried morels. They prepare morels stuffed, sauteed, with brandy cream, or in a dish with asparagus and onions.
Morels can also be hunted and found in the Hocking Hills in southern Ohio. “Morel season generally runs from the second week of April through the first week of May,” according to Ellen Grinsfelder, innkeeper of the Inn at Cedar Falls in Logan. “We set up hikes led by my husband, Terry Lingo.” The morels are then used by Chef Maureen Michels to make caramelized onions and morels in Brie strudel, morels duxelle, stuffed chicken breasts with morel cream sauce, and beef tenderloin medallions with Cognac peppercorn morel sauce.
Logan is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Toledo. Hike dates are April 23 and May 1. Five-course dinners at the inn are $35. Lodging begins at $95 mid-week rates. Call 740-385-7489.
6. Hunting is a big sport in Ohio and Michigan, with venison, duck, and rabbit among the dishes prepared. Recipes include duck confit and duck a la orange, venison roast and venison sausage, and old-country rabbit braised with vegetables. Combine any of these recipes with fresh morels or tart cherries or another locally grown produce and you've created a regional dish.
7. The many varieties of apples grown in Ohio and Michigan yield apple pies, crisps, dumplings, cakes, applesauce, tarts, and apple cider. Locally grown strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and peaches give the sweetest, richest flavors to assorted recipes. From basic recipes with old-fashioned flavors to chefs who incorporate contemporary twists, these foods are melt-in-your mouth delicious.
8. Asparagus is a big crop in Wood County and also in western Michigan. It makes a delicious side dish to any entree, and can be used in soups and appetizers.
9. Tomatoes are processed in Northwest Ohio for use in sauces, salsas, entrees, soups, and stews. This vegetable combines well with so many foods. With any of these regional ingredients, it could yield a contemporary regional dish.
10. The list of regional foods extends to cabbage, pumpkins, and soybeans, to name a few. Everyone loves side dishes, from potlucks to gourmet menus. It's the side dishes that can make the entree spectacular. Cabbage used to be limited to sauerkraut and stuffed cabbage rolls; not anymore. Pumpkin is no longer just for pie. And soybeans mixed with any of the above ingredients have become avegetarian's delight.
This world of Midwest regional cooking has clean, uncomplicated flavors and seasonings that complement the ingredients without overpowering their taste.