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Amish food hearty, yet wholesome

by DANIEL NEMAN The Toledo Blade on August 14, 2013 11:00 AM

Amish cooking isn’t simple, exactly. Mostly, it’s just unfussy.

In their new book “Amish Cooks Across America,” Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher look at Amish cooking and what makes it distinct. Obviously, the food is made without benefit of electricity. But there is something more to it than that: Amish cooking is hearty, as it has to be to satisfy the caloric needs of hardworking people. And it is what we often think of as wholesome.

The food that wound up in the paintings of Norman Rockwell would not be out of place on an Amish table.

“What makes it Amish food is basics,” said Williams. “They take what is very basic and available and can do amazing things with a very small number of ingredients.”

Even so, Amish cooking is not homogeneous. As Amish communities have scattered across America, they have picked up regional distinctions from the areas in which they live.

In the Northeast, their dishes are made with maple syrup and potatoes. In the South, though not many Amish communities have settled there, okra is king, and cornbread and pecan pies. In the West, they serve huckleberries and some of the meats that are most readily available, such as elk and moose (a recipe for creamy moose steaks requires 2 pounds of moose steaks, salt and black pepper, 1 cup of water, one large onion, sliced, and one can of cream-of-mushroom soup).

The can of cream-of-mushroom soup stands out as exactly the sort of thing one does not typically associate with the Amish, but Williams said it and such ingredients as Velveeta cheese are making inroads in their cuisine.

“Amish cooking as a whole is changing. There’s more processed food than there used to be; they’re not as insular as they used to be,” he said.

In the Midwest, which has the largest communities of Amish, the ingredient lists run toward apples, tomatoes and corn. And apparently Mexican cuisine, or at least Tex-Mex, is making a sizable impact in Amish kitchens across the country.

The book is full of information about the people and their way of life.

But most of the book is given over to recipes popular in the various communities. Many of these recipes are for baked goods — for pies, cookies, muffins. While vegetable dishes receive their share of attention, recipes for meat dishes are fairly scarce, aside from the odd moose-steak recipe or two.

One recipe for Easy Homemade Barbecue Sauce caught my attention. It’s a tomato-based sauce — to be perfectly frank, it’s a ketchup-based sauce — enlivened with vinegar, brown sugar and regular sugar for a sweet-and-sour edge. Soy sauce, dry mustard, powdered ginger, chopped onions and other ingredients help to give it a pleasant, well-balanced set of flavors.

I put it on grilled chicken, just for the last few minutes of cooking so the sugars did not burn, and it was excellent. It would make just as good a topping on pork or beef brisket, but we won’t tell anyone if you decide just to lick it straight off the spoon.

I next turned my attention to a recipe the book calls “Outrageous Chocolate-Chip Cookies.” With a name like that, who could resist?

What makes these cookies so outrageous is that they combine the best attributes of three distinct kinds of cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter. Ordinarily, you don’t see these three ingredients put together in the same cookie because of the fear it would taste too dry. But these outrageous cookies get their moisture from a melted pound of butter.

That’s right: an entire pound of butter, melted.

Don’t worry, that’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. The recipe makes between 120-140 smallish cookies. It helps to remember that the average Amish family has eight children, according to the book, and when you feed all of them along with other family and friends you can run through 140 cookies before you know it. It also helps to remember that the Amish lifestyle involves a lot of physical work, and they need the calories provided in these gems of peanut butter, chocolate, vanilla and butter.

People who are not Amish — what the Amish sometimes refer to as “the English” — can make the cookies whenever they want to feel a little ... outrageous.

A batch of Maple-Syrup Cookies was more sedate. These are almost a cross between a cookie and a biscuit; sweet, but not too sweet; floury, but not too floury. Made with shortening and a tablespoon of baking powder, they resemble a drop biscuit in texture. Yet they also have a light maple sweetness from a full cup of syrup. They would be great with a cup of coffee at breakfast.

Or you could try Blueberry-Lemon Buttermilk Muffins, which are also excellent for breakfast. Deemed the consensus favorite Amish treat by a small army of ravenous and delighted reporters, these muffins are moist and rich and bursting with fresh flavor, courtesy of a pile of blueberries. The buttermilk helps, too, tempering the sweetness and providing a vaguely tangy background to help the blueberry flavor seem to pop.

But it is the lemon that makes these muffins so special. The muffins are a quadruple lemon threat: the batter — which tastes great on its own — contains both lemon zest and lemon juice, and the simple glaze also uses both lemon zest and juice.

You get a couple of bursts of lemon in every bite.

Finally, after an understandable bit of sugar overload, I decided to make one last protein dish. I chose Rivel Soup, which is an Amish take on a Swiss classic.

The defining characteristic of this hearty soup is the miniature spaetzle or dumplings that give the broth its heft.

Simply mix together flour and eggs until it turns crumbly, then rub the crumbs between your fingers until they clump together in pea-sized balls, and drop them into simmering chicken stock. Corn is a necessary component of the soup — if you don’t have fresh, use it from a can or the freezer — and adding cooked chicken at the end gives it extra substance.

I didn’t have any precooked chicken on hand, so I cooked some fresh chicken in the stock and removed it before adding the other ingredients.

That seemed like an appropriately Amish way to cook it, perfectly in keeping with their religion-based dedication to frugality and simplicity.

“They strive for a minimalist existence, and that goes for their food,” Williams said.

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