There was never any hint, not even the slightest, that I would end up championing the Midwest.
Born and bred on the East Coast, my contacts with the Midwest were limited. It seemed very far away--and not all that interesting.
But in 1973, Chicago became my professional base as well as my home. And I discovered that Midwestern food has a character all its own. It is best known as farmhouse cooking, home cooking at its finest; simple, direct and fresh.
Next to California, the Midwest has the most varied agriculture in the country. Its prairies and forests harbor wild game, its rivers, lakes and streams yield fish and its woods offer a treasure trove of foraged foods.
I asked two Midwest-based chefs to share recipes that take advantage of the fall harvest and reflect the straightforward character of this region.
Chef Ciro Esposito of Gusto Italiano in Glenview, Ill. created this rolatini which this eggplant lover finds to be among the best of all eggplant dishes.
EGGPLANT ROLATINI CON GUSTO ITALIANO
1 large eggplant (at least 1 pound), peeled
4 large eggs
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup grated Romano cheese
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup flour
Oil for frying
1 cup loosely packed spinach leaves (3/4 ounce total), minced
1 (15-ounce) carton ricotta cheese, drained
2 cups spaghetti sauce
6 ounces mozzarella cheese
Cut one long side on eggplant so it sits flat, then cut into at least 12 long, very thin (about 1/8-inch thick) slices.
Mix 3 eggs, water, half of cheese and 1/4 teaspoon salt in shallow dish. Put flour on wax paper. Using tongs, coat eggplant slices first in flour, then egg mixture. Shake off excess.
Heat 1/4 inch oil in large skillet, preferably non-stick. Cook eggplant in batches until very lightly browned on both sides, turning once. Drain on paper towels. Add more oil to skillet as necessary.
Mince spinach. Combine with ricotta cheese and remaining Romano cheese, egg and salt. Blend lightly, just to combine. If using processor, pulse several times. Do not overmix.
Spoon generous 2 tablespoons filling at bottom of each eggplant slice. Roll up as tightly as possible without letting filling ooze out. Spread 1 cup spaghetti sauce in 9-inch non-aluminum baking dish and add eggplant rolls, seam side down. Top with remaining sauce.
Cut mozzarella into 12 thin slices, about same size as each eggplant roll. Place on rolls. Place dish on center rack of oven. Bake uncovered at 325 degrees 45 to 50 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: Eggplant rolls can be assembled up to 2 days in advance, covered tightly and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before baking.
Doug Morgan, chef de cuisine of the Checkerberry Inn in Goshen, Ind . --the heart of Amish farmland--uses the best of the harvest for this soup.
CHECKERBERRY TOMATO SOUP
12 medium ripe tomatoes (about 3 3/4 pounds total), chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large potato (about 6 ounces), peeled and chopped
2 quarts chicken stock or low-sodium broth
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sugar, optional
Freshly ground pepper
Julienned mint leaves, for garnish
Combine tomatoes, onion, potato, stock, garlic, cilantro, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, cloves, nutmeg and baking soda in 4-quart non-aluminum pot. Simmer very gently, uncovered, 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Remove from heat. Let stand until cool enough to handle. Discard bay leaves.
Puree soup in batches in blender. Press through fine sieve. Add sugar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill. Adjust seasonings. Garnish with mint. Makes about 2 quarts.