It’s been an exciting year collaborating with Amy Thielen , the James Beard Award-winning chef, author of The New Midwestern Table and host of "Heartland Table" on Food Network. Get to know Amy and try her recipes here.
What made you want to become a chef? Who has influenced your cooking the most?
My mom and my Grandma Dion, her mom, were both huge influences on me, and laid the foundation for my lifelong cooking obsession. Grandma Dion taught me how to make the family coffee cakes, breads, and pies by feel and ratio rather than cup-measure, which is a more accurate way to bake. But it was my mom who put a paring knife in my hand at a young age and taught me how to use it. She also taught me how to shop, how to look for the best ingredients—not at the farmer’s market, but at our hometown grocery store. She sought out the best romaine (curled at the tips), the best pork roasts (marbled with fat), the best limes (smooth-skinned). From her, I learned that good food lives and dies with the details.
At Red Gold we believe that the best recipes start with the best ingredients. Why do you think Red Gold is different than other canned tomato brands?
I use all kinds of canned tomatoes in my kitchen, but most often I use whole canned tomatoes, which I pour into a bowl and crush them by hand, and Red Gold tomatoes are without peer, my favorite canned tomato. They crush to a tender slush right away, which tells me just how ripe they were when picked, and that they’re naturally sweet.
Where do you find inspiration in the kitchen?
In the summer, I find inspiration in my garden. I love adding fresh herbs—basil, cilantro, parsley, thyme—to my food, and I do it in large amounts, in handfuls. But I also love looking out my kitchen window over the sink and seeing my cut-flower garden. I know, flowers aren’t edible, but their beauty inspires me to make something beautiful at the stove—does that make sense?
What’s your favorite go-to ingredient?
I would have to say GARLIC. I’m a garlic fiend. I’m also a big fan of toasting nuts in butter in a pan on the stove, until they’re brown and crisp, and pouring them over greens.
You’re from Minnesota, how has being from the Midwest influenced your cooking style?
My Midwestern upbringing has made me unafraid of butter! I use about half of what my mom would use, and people from other regions still think it’s too much. (Not true. You can’t ever have too much. French chefs and mothers can’t both be wrong.)
Are there any culinary trends you are wild about right now?
I’m really happy to see a resurgence in wood-fired cooking, which is something that my husband, Aaron, and I have been doing for a long time. He designed a grill that lowers up and down over our campfire, which allows me to grill over wood coals. It goes without saying that steaks grilled over hot oak and pine coals taste incredible, but I love to grill vegetables over wood, too: potatoes, romano beans, asparagus, you name it.
What spring ingredients are you most excited to cook with this year?
I cannot wait until the rhubarb is big enough to harvest. I make pies, but also make large pans of slow-cooked baked rhubarb spears (from a recipe in my cookbook), which we eat all week long over yogurt and ice cream. Rhubarb is our family-fruit (even though it’s technically a vegetable).
What’s your favorite meal to cook for family and friends?
I like to have large parties, and enjoy making wide spreads of food based on a theme: lamb shashlik cooked over the wood fire, for example, with all kinds of Persian sides; Chinese gingered ribs with greens and rice; Crock-Pot Barbecoa with a big taco bar. Things like that.
If you could tell the home cooks of the world one thing, what would it be?
When you’re entertaining, don’t be afraid to make something new! I love experimenting on my guests. As long as I make one thing I know will be successful, generally guests love to help you decide whether the new one is successful, and what you might do to improve it.
Do you have a go-to quick and easy meal for school nights?
Spaghetti and Meatballs. I make every part of it from scratch, but rely on my food processor to speed up the process. I’ll give you a little rundown: I process some fresh bread to crumbs and set aside. I blitz the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic in the food processor and then cook this vegetable base in a pan in plenty of butter until it’s soft and copper-colored. I scoop out half of the caramelized vegetables and add to the meat—half ground-pork, half ground-beef—and then add the fresh bread crumbs, a couple of eggs, a dollop of ricotta cheese, a bunch of grated parmesan, and some herbs (dried or fresh, depending) and mix swiftly. I roast the meatballs in a hot oven.
Meanwhile, I puree the canned tomatoes (If it were just for me, I’d just hand-crush them, but my 8-year-old son, Hank, likes his spaghetti sauce smooth. What can I say? Kids.) and add the tomatoes to the rest of the caramelized vegetables, along with a little swished water from the can, and cook until sweet and thick, about 20 minutes. Tip the cooked meatballs into the sauce, and ladle both over cooked spaghetti. It takes about an hour, but makes the very best spaghetti and meatballs.
What advice would you give parents who want to involve their children in the kitchen?
Start involving them early, and around age 6 or so, let them use a knife! I give Hank a small paring knife and encourage him to cut things for me: cheese, apples, tomatoes. It gives them confidence.