Growing up in New Jersey, local author Beth Dooley loved to visit the farmers market with her grandmother, picking out plump tomatoes and other seasonal ingredients to use in the kitchen. In grad school, the budding writer baked bread and prepared vegetarian meals for her friends.
“I read cookbooks like I did novels,” says Dooley. “I’d go to bed with them.”
Her interest in food remained a hobby until she started covering local government for a newspaper in Princeton, N.J.
“I covered zoning and planning board meetings, and it hit me that all of these farms were being sold off to developers,” she says. “In two years, you stopped seeing Jersey tomato farm stands and you saw all this stuff coming in from California.”
The importance of local, sustainable agriculture continued to resonate with Dooley when she relocated to Minneapolis 40 years ago and joined the Wedge Co-op. “I learned a lot about food politics, and the connection between how I spend my dollar and local farmers.”
While working in public relations at advertising agency McCann Minneapolis, Dooley’s skills as a writer combined with her passion for food and the people who grow it. She penned press releases for cookbooks, wrote newsletters connecting farmers to retail grocers and developed contacts in the organic farming community.
She started sending out query letters and book proposals that showcased her portfolio of writing about food, and in 2004 she had her first book published, Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland, a collection of 200 recipes coauthored by Lucia Watson, the James Beard Award-nominated chef, former owner of Lucia’s in Uptown and a pioneer of the local food movement.
“Lucia is one of the best chefs in this region, and I learned a lot,” says Dooley. “We have so much going for us here, and I feel as though it’s our responsibility to pay attention to that as citizens and as cooks.”
Dooley’s ability to connect her cooking and personal experiences with the history and ingredients of the Midwest contributes to a writing style that is both convivial and informative. Her well-researched and relatable writing currently appears in the Star Tribune, and she is a regular guest on Kare 11 TV and Minnesota Public Radio’s Appetites.
Her book In Winter’s Kitchen, a 2016 Minnesota Book Awards finalist, is a prime example of Dooley’s unique voice. Using her family’s Thanksgiving meal as a framework, the hybrid cookbook and memoir weaves together recipes, personal experiences and visits with Ojibwe wild rice harvesters, Hmong sweet potato farmers and Wisconsin cheesemakers to create a richly detailed picture of our shared home.
“Like writing anything else, writing about food has to have a voice and a point of view,” says Dooley, citing authors Mark Bittman, MFK Fisher, Michael Pollan, Laurie Colwin and Jane Grigson as sources of inspiration. “Recipe writing is close to writing memoir or fiction, drawing the reader in with specific details and narrative. My readers feel as though they get to know me, and that’s what food does: It brings people together.”
Dooley’s latest book, Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen, coauthored with food photographer Mette Nielsen and inspired by Nielsen’s Danish roots, was published last spring. The modern take on traditional canning pays homage to the Nordic practicality and long winters that made preserving so crucial to Midwestern cooks.
“It’s a fun way to extend our local foods in to winter; you get tired of having corn every night, but you can make a corn relish and freeze it and it’s a totally different product,” she says. In addition to being cheaper and more sustainable than store-bought versions, “People think you’re some sort of genius when they drop by for a glass of wine and you put out a cheese plate with a homemade chili-strawberry relish,” says Dooley.
She aims to break some of the myths around preserving, opting for small batches (all of the recipes can be made in a 10-inch sauté pan) and choosing freezing and chilling over the traditional hot-water bath method.
“The hot-water process keeps food shelf stable, but they lose some color and flavor when cooked in a water bath,” she says. “Jams, jellies and relishes taste fresher from less cooking.”
Overcooking can sap the vibrancy from even the freshest ingredients, but chilled preserves can keep for weeks in the fridge or for months in the freezer without losing their taste and texture.
Dooley’s emphasis on simple and heartfelt cooking extends from everyday meals to large family gatherings during the holidays.
“You have to enjoy the process; don’t fret about making it perfect, because it’s about getting together and sharing,” she says. “Decide what you want to make, but let people bring things; give yourself a break and have fun, enjoy your guests.”
Hot and Tangy Strawberry Jam
Makes about 2 ½ pints
A happy combination, this recipe calls for out-of-season frozen strawberries, cayenne pepper, and in-season grapefruit. When fresh strawberries come into the market, substitute limes or lemons for the grapefruit.
- 2 10-oz. bags frozen
- whole strawberries,
- cut into smaller pieces (about 5 cups)
- ¾ cup cane sugar
- 3 Tbsp. fresh red grapefruit juice
- 1 Tbsp. finely grated grapefruit zest
- ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
Combine all of the ingredients in a 10-inch sauté pan. Cover the pan, and macerate the fruit at room temperature for at least one hour or until soft and completely thawed.
Uncover the pan, and set it over medium heat. Bring the jam to a gentle boil, and then reduce the heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally and smashing the berries with a fork, until the jam begins to thicken, about 12–15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat when thick. Spoon the jam into clean jars. Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, and add the lids and bands. Cool completely and then tighten the bands before storing the jars in the refrigerator or freezer.