As I asked local chefs to tell me about a dish from their current menus that they thought was particularly midwestern, it seemed relevant to ask what midwestern food means to them. A lot of the same words and phrases came up in their answers: "simple," "comforting"—and, overwhelmingly, "meat and potatoes."
All the chefs are also committed to using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients—which makes their jobs just a bit more difficult during Chicago's long winters. As Carrie Clark of Bridgeport Pasty says, "You have to be a little creative to make beef, chicken, pork, and root vegetables taste good all year round. This ain't Sonoma, kiddo."
- Lucy Hewett
Crispy carnaroli rice cake
by Edward Sura
at Perennial Virant
1800 N. Lincoln
For this appetizer—which has been on the menu since the day Perennial Virant opened—Edward Sura makes risotto with carnaroli rice and "a ton" of Parmesan cheese, folds in Brunkow cheese curds, and lets the mixture cool overnight in sheet pans. The next day he cuts it into rectangles, dusts each one in rice flour, and panfries them on all sides in clarified butter until the outside is crispy and the inside is gooey. Then he tops them with pea shoots, pickled summer beans, and vinaigrette made with smoked spring onions.
"Basically, it's an arancini," Sura says of the rice cake. So what makes an Italian rice ball midwestern? According to Sura, it's the cheese curds—something most people associate with the midwest, or at least Wisconsin—and the pickled beans. His mom used to have a huge garden and did a lot of preserving, he says. "That's what I grew up with, so that's midwestern to me."
- Lucy Hewett
Flank steak with potatoes and cauliflower
by Emily Kraszyk
at Farmhouse Tavern
228 W. Chicago
Steak and potatoes seems like the most quintessentially midwestern food there is, covering all the bases the chefs listed: simple, comforting, and local (in this case, at least). Emily Kraszyk says that the mission at Farmhouse is to cook food that chefs would want to eat themselves—nothing too fancy. "I don't want eggplant five different ways. You should just let the food speak for itself."
To make this dish, Kraszyk sears Hoosier Farms flank steak that's been rubbed with coffee and spices and serves it with new potatoes braised in coffee and beef or lamb fat, aromatics, and white wine, as well as cauliflower in an herb marinade. The cauliflower and potatoes are finished with butter and lemon juice, and the dish is served with a red-wine agrodolce, an Italian sweet-and-sour sauce, then topped with pickled mustard seeds, caramelized plums, and dill.
That may not sound simple, but Kraszyk explains that while she wants to make food that people understand, she can't just serve them what they'd make at home; the extra steps and ingredients build flavor. "We add our extra twist, but at the end of the day it's meat and potatoes."
- Lucy Hewett
by Carrie Clark
of Bridgeport Pasty
3142 S. Morgan
Defining midwestern cuisine may be all but impossible, but there are certain foods that everyone thinks of as midwestern—even if they originated in another country. The pasty, a meat-and-vegetable-filled baked pastry that comes from Cornwall, is now firmly associated with Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Carrie Clark, who started Bridgeport Pasty with her husband, Jay Sebastian, actually first came across pasties in the British Isles when she was growing up; she's never even been to the UP (though she's quick to add that her family on both sides is midwestern through and through).
For her, what makes pasties midwestern is their simplicity and use of fresh, local ingredients. The Yooper contains only steak, onion, potato, and rutabaga in a butter pastry crust. (She decided against carrot, a controversial ingredient, on the basis that it's not traditional in England.) "When you take good ingredients you can make something simple but delicious," she says. "Midwesterners like a recognizable thing—that's why deconstructed dishes don't go over too well here."
Bridgeport Pasty is temporarily closed due to road construction in front of the restaurant, but you can get its products at Bridgeport Coffee and the Hideout's Riverwalk location.
- Lucy Hewett
zucchini-sunchoke puree, amaranth chips, and fermented elderberry sauce
by Iliana Regan
at Elizabeth Restaurant
4835 N. Western
The only chef I talked to who didn't mention simplicity when talking about midwestern food was Iliana Regan. Maybe that's because most people wouldn't consider the foraging-focused multicourse meals she serves at Elizabeth particularly simple. Regan, however, concentrates on ingredients. "The things that are midwestern are actually really beautiful and delicious and amazing," she says. "We just went on a foraging trip and I got persimmons, wild grapes, mushrooms."
Recently, she's been incorporating sunchokes into Elizabeth's Native American-themed dinner series. "It grows wild everywhere around here, and it was the fourth most cultivated vegetable by [the Native Americans who lived in the area]," she says. She roasts the sunchokes, removes the skin, and purees the rest, combining the mixture with a zucchini puree. And she makes chips with amaranth, a local grain, and sauce with the liquid from fermented elderberries (gathered in Indiana); the puree, chips, and sauce are served with brisket from Strauss Farm and garnished with sunchoke or marigold flowers. v