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Amy Thielen and her kitchen

Amy Thielen has a big, fluffy rescue dog named Hilly, a sculptor husband named Aaron, and a lovely son named Hank. She lives outside rural Two Inlets, Minn., near her childhood hometown, in a house with a big yellow Italian wood cookstove.

She also has a couple of books to her name (The New Midwestern Table and Give a Girl a Knife) and another one coming, as well as a TV show in her rearview mirror (Heartland Table) and another one in development.

How does one writing cook manage it all? Mainly, she says, by turning a skeptical eye on ideas like having it all.

“I minored in women’s studies,” Thielen explains, “and I’ve always been very aware of this performative femininity that you’re ­expected to do in food media.” So, you won’t find her wearing of-the-minute fashions or lounging amid gardens filled with hedges neatly trimmed into geometric shapes.

You will find her posting videos of the dump truck delivering a cord of firewood for the weekend and shooing the dog away from the cutting board as she dices bacon.

“People expect me to be this aspirational forest mama, and I can provide a bit of that, but my generation is more of an authenticity-seeking unit,” she says. “I care about writing, I care about teaching people to cook. If I need to provide some of that aspirational ideal to make that happen, I can do that a little — a very little.”

To keep things real and down to earth, Thielen employs a few helpful tools and tricks, including these.

Component cooking: 

“Instead of cooking from recipes, I like to make one simple thing — usually some local meat — with potatoes, rice, or beans on the side. If I just get something going, it’s creative material. I don’t have to think about what we’re having for dinner — I build from what I started, which takes the decision-­making pressure away.”

Soak, soak, soak: 

“I always have bowls of ingredients soaking. I start them the night before — sometimes it’s dried beans like mayocoba beans or something fun from Rancho Gordo — and in the morning, I get them going on the woodstove with three bay leaves, two or three chili pods, a garlic head with its top lopped off, salt, and pepper. I also might have dried hibiscus flowers soaking, dried apricots in white wine. I just like to have a lot of things soaking all the time ­— it makes me feel good.”

Color: 

“When we redid our kitchen [pictured above], I went for a riot of color — really dark cabinets that look almost black but they’re a really intense blue-green, a red-brick floor, a yellow stove, and lots of green plants. I want a feed of visual stimulation; it’s pleasing, there’s information in it. Half the year in Minnesota the entire landscape outside the windows is white — why would you want more of it?”

Dumbbells: 

“I’m more into weightlifting than cardio, so we built a gym in Aaron’s studio. I’ll have the TV on with captions, put music on my headphones, and lift until I feel sore. It makes me feel like I’ve worked. I love it.”

A sensory kickstart:

“I get food going first thing in the morning because it kickstarts the day. If I’m engaged immediately with something sensory — like digging in the dirt — it sparks everything and puts me on a good footing. If I’m feeling off-center, I always go to the fridge, take a spoon, dip it into this, dip it into that — something about that gives me a little juice.”

Dara
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer based in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two children and buys only local honey.

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