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Midwestern Cooking

Midwestern cooking really is comfort food. Here are some comforting recipes.

I've always lived in the American Midwest, first Ohio, then Wisconsin and Illinois. Midwest food is hearty, filling comfort food. If you've ever come in from a Midwestern snowstorm, you can see why we need that.

A central feature of Midwestern cooking is the casserole. The idea of the casserole is to combine a meat or fish, a starch, and some vegetables in a creamy sauce and bake it all together. This basic formula can produce an almost endless variety of casseroles, because just about anything you like can go into a casserole.

One favorite is the tuna fish casserole. I grew up eating this Fridays in Lent, on cold spring evenings. You mix together three cans of tuna, half a package of cooked egg noodles, whatever vegetables you like, and two cans of cream soup. The most popular soup for this is cream of mushroom soup. But you can also use cream of celery soup, cream of potato soup or cream of broccoli soup, especially if you're adding broccoli to the casserole. Favorite ways to top the tuna fish casserole are with toasted bread squares, American cheese, or both. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for forty minutes. As the first shadows of night are falling outside, you lift the lid and it fills the kitchen with a warm, delightful aroma.

A casserole I've made a lot includes baked beans. You brown a pound of hamburger with some chopped onions and green peppers, and cook half a package of egg noodles or macaroni. Put all those into a baking dish and add a can of baked beans and a can of tomato sauce. Put a lot of cheese on top, preferably American cheese or Velveeta. Bake it covered at 375 degrees for forty minutes. The sweetness of the beans, the bite of the tomato sauce, and the creaminess of the cheese set each other off perfectly. There can be a full-on blizzard outside, rattling the windows and howling around the corners of the house, but this supper will warm you up.

Midwesterners will even make casseroles out of dishes that aren't casseroles. One example is baked spaghetti. Nothing could be easier. Cook half a small box of spaghetti and put it into a large baking dish. Add a pound of browned ground beef or some frozen meatballs, and a jar of spaghetti sauce. Shake plenty of parmesan cheese on top, cover, and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. The advantage of baking the spaghetti is that all the flavors enhance each other from being cooked together, which is the appeal of any casserole. Many nights I've come home to this after long hours of work, and found that life is once again worth living.

Casseroles are not all we eat here in the Midwest, though. Another favorite is meat loaf. Mix a pound of hamburger, a cup and a half of oatmeal, an egg and half a cup of ketchup. It's easiest to mix it with your hands. Shape it into a loaf and cover it with ketchup or barbeque sauce. Bake it covered at 375 degrees for about 50 minutes. It's great with any side dishes. I especially like it with sweet potatoes. You can also make it into sandwiches, and if there's any left over it makes delicious cold sandwiches.

You can make a salmon loaf almost the same way. Instead of a pound of hamburger, use a can of salmon. Substitute milk for the ketchup. Cook it for only 30 minutes, because salmon is much less dense than hamburger.

Now I can't go any further without mentioning the crock pot, which is the greatest invention since the printing press. Well, maybe not, but it's a cooking essential in the Midwest. It's especially good for making stews. Here's how I make beef stew in it. Brown a pound of stew meat with some cut-up onions. Boil four or five cut-up potatoes and four or five cut-up carrots for about twenty minutes Put all that in the crock pot. Add whatever other vegetables you like. Add two cans of cream of mushroom soup. Set the crock pot on medium, and six hours later you have hot, fragrant beef stew.

Add a product called Kitchen Bouquet to your stew. It comes in a small, dark brown bottle with a yellow label. It adds a great subtle, meaty flavor and a rich brown color to anything you make. You only need a capful or less.

Stews are a great way to use up leftovers. Recently I had leftover ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, and cream of chicken soup. I threw it all into the crock pot with some frozen vegetables. Anything can go into a stew in the Midwest, especially if you're Irish.

Here's a Midwestern stew that's a little different. It's called Swiss steak. Brown two or three pounds of stew meat. Put it into a large cooking pot on the stove. Add a large can of tomato juice, a little Kitchen Bouquet, and some peas if you like them. Bring it all to a boil and then simmer it on low heat on the stove for two to four hours. Check it and stir it now and then. The tomato juice will thicken into a tasty sauce with a bit of tomato bite to it. Serve it over a helping of mashed potatoes. You can't make this in the crock pot, though, because it will never thicken properly.

One of the main attributes of Midwestern cooking, which you've probably observed, is that it's heavy on meat and starch and very filling. Some people may see that as a good thing, and others as not such a good thing. Midwestern food has the definite advantage of being easy to cook, though. You don't need any particular cooking skills, and a lot of the ingredients come frozen or ready-made. Another advantage is that you can make almost any dish any way you like. If you don't want beef stew, throw in some chicken or ham instead.

Other places are nice, but I've never been tempted to move away from the Midwest. That's not because the climate is so great, because it's not. It's mostly because of the food.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

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Comments (2)

My husband is from Minnesota and they called their Midwestern casserole meals "hot dish."

Great article, brings back memories...voted