I grew up surrounded by people who love food. My mom is an incredible cook and baker who used to have a chocolate business. My sister went to culinary school, worked in restaurants all around Chicago, and now works at a catering company. And my dad is a crazy restaurant enthusiast — all of the restaurants in his neighborhood know him. He loves food; he'll eat anything and everything.
I was a very picky eater growing up — I could have lived on macaroni and cheese and oatmeal. But I also saw cooking and baking and making food for people as a very joyous, happy thing. Around the holidays, we’d do “dumplings of the world” parties. My mom made a bunch of potsticker fillings, and we’d stretch the definition of “dumplings” and make arancini and empanadas and set up stations around the house and fold our own dumplings. They’d go into the steamer or oven, and we’d eat them as they were ready.
I saw cooking and baking and making food for people as a very joyous, happy thing.I moved to New York for college, and I really fell in love with the restaurant scene. I was a total food-truck groupie, I became friends with the Schnitzel Truck owner and went to the Vendys and rode my bike all over Midtown finding food trucks, making friends, and trying new foods. I always kept diaries and enjoyed scrapbooking, so I started a blog to document my adventures in the city. It quickly became mostly food-based — initially about restaurants, but then my own cooking, once I learned how creatively fulfilling (and cheap!) it was to make my own food.
I was a percussionist at Juilliard, and that entails a lot of sitting in the back of an orchestra, waiting for your one cymbal crash or triangle note. As much as I loved playing beautiful music, I felt like I should be creating something rather than waiting around and learning how to play the most beautiful triangle note. I wanted to physically build something. To me, the most satisfying part of cooking is the physical act of assembly — I truly love nothing more than lifting a batch of brownies out of the oven and using my accordion pastry cutter to cut perfectly uniform squares. It's the math person in me: I love things that are geometrically pleasing.
I wanted to physically build something.I found myself leaving the practice room earlier and earlier to go home and make a cupcake in the flavor that I wanted, decorated how I wanted, and I’d photograph it and write a blog post about it. It was this new creative process for me that was so fulfilling; I could control every step and just have fun with it. I didn’t have to play someone else’s music.
Growing up, I helped my mom make a lot of challah and rugelach, and those were two of the first things I made in my tiny Upper West Side kitchen. I’d call her up and ask her for recipes and tips and tricks as I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom trying to whisk egg whites into peaks. Eventually my mom made me a big binder of our favorite family recipes.
Blogging was this new creative process for me that was so fulfilling; I could control every step and just have fun with it.
The blog became my obsession. After graduation, I stayed in the city and freelanced as a musician and a writer. I dabbled in recipe development, but my true passion was always my blog.
I started dating my now-husband, Nick, and we were both ready to be back in the Midwest. He floated the idea of living on his family farm, and I thought, Oh my gosh, this could be the opportunity to really focus on my blog and not have to worry about paying New York rent! It was a lot less pressure.
In Minnesota, Nick was busy on the farm, and I worked part-time at the bakery in town. I had a lot of free time, so I threw myself into my blog. I pulled a lot from my Chinese and Jewish heritage, making recipes that I missed from New York and Chicago.
As a mom, there is this full-circle element, where I am now reliving a lot of my favorite childhood foods with Bernie. I’m reaching back into my memory and thinking, What did I like when I was a kid? Of course, we put smiley faces on pizza and toast and do homemade macaroni and cheese, and I try to sneak vegetables in every food. I’m also cooking with food from the farm: rhubarb, apples, fresh eggs and a huge garden.
I pulled a lot from my Chinese and Jewish heritage.
Then there’s the Upper Midwest cuisine, like hotdish and cookie salad and other salads that either don't have vegetables or have vegetables coated in mayo. I'm learning about all of these foods that you want to eat when it's so cold that there’s a weather advisory and you should not even try to go outside.
I like a rustic vibe with my cooking; it goes with living on the farm and being a mom. I try to keep my recipes make-able for a home cook, and I don’t want to be too specific. For me, it's really important to not turn people away if they don't have access to certain ingredients. I want people to feel like they can make my recipes and do substitutions, which is a running theme in a pandemic, but it's also a running theme of living in the middle of the country. I don’t have a Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods or the Union Square Greenmarket. There are so many ingredients that don't exist here that people on the coasts have access to, and I want people to enjoy creating my recipes and not feel like they're screwing up if they can't get the fancy olives or find the right broccoli — it'll still be delicious.
For me, it's really important to not turn people away if they don't have access to certain ingredients.
With all of my recipes, I want to either tell a story, open up a new world, or show a new way of styling an otherwise-familiar recipe. I want there to be a reason for that recipe to exist. There has to be a reason to take up space, whether it's on the internet or in a cookbook.
With all of my recipes, I want to either tell a story, open up a new world, or show a new way of styling an otherwise-familiar recipe.Today, I’m making a chicken and wild rice hotdish in the Hot Dish. It’s a version of the first hotdish I ever had, which my mother-in-law, Roxanne, made for me. It was love at first bite — so flavorful, so creamy and hearty and comforting. I got it immediately.
Let's start from the top: A hotdish is a subset of casseroles; it’s a full meal in a dish. All hotdishes are casseroles, but not all casseroles are hotdishes. A hotdish has to have a protein, a vegetable, a starch, and something to hold it all together — commonly a creamy soup. The best hotdishes have something crispy on top, like tater tots or crushed Ritz crackers. You can pour veggies and condensed soup out of a can, throw in some browned hamburger meat, top it with something, and bake it, and it's the quintessential super-easy weeknight meal that will feed a crowd. It’ll fill you up, and it's everything you could ever want in the dead of winter. (You can also easily make two at once and freeze one!)
It’ll fill you up, and it's everything you could ever want in the dead of winter.
The first time I was making a hotdish for Nick, I was embarrassed about buying a can of condensed soup — my mom would throw a fit if she knew. I thought, Maybe I can make a roux of chicken stock, and that will be my homemade condensed soup? It worked, and I’ve been doing that ever since for most of my hotdishes. I love the wild rice — it’s a staple ingredient around here and gives a nutty, chewy texture. For the meat, you can use chicken or turkey — this is a really good dish to make with Thanksgiving leftovers. Or you can get a rotisserie chicken and shred that up.
Since I'm working on my next book, which includes a few hotdishes, I’m making them quite often, and we'll probably make them more often as it gets colder. When people here find out I didn’t grow up with hotdish, they’re like, What did you eat growing up?! It’s not really known outside of this region, but I want everybody to fall in love with hotdish the way I have fallen in love with it as a new Upper Midwesterner.
Photos by Chantell Lauren Photography.