Minnesota Chef Amy Thielen is Bringing Ease Back to Entertaining

We chatted with the James Beard award-winning author about the pleasures (and anxieties) of cooking for guests and the iconic Midwestern 9x13 dish.

Cookbook author Amy Thielen in a kitchen
Amy Thielen. Credit: Blaine Moats

In northern Minnesota, where two-time James Beard award-winning writer and chef Amy Thielen lives, you'd be hard-pressed to find a buzzy new restaurant or cocktail bar to celebrate the season. Instead, her cabin is party-central for neighborhood gatherings, holiday feasts, and no-occasion dinner parties. Whether you think hosting is an art or a drag, Theilen insists it's never a waste of time. Her new cookbook, Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others, aims to quell anxieties and celebrate the joy of cooking for family and friends. Recipes are organized into menus, and make-ahead tips abound. The end goal? Overflowing plates piled high with comforting dishes, a little messy but filled with a whole lot of heart.

cookbook called Company by Amy Thielen
Carson Downing

Congrats on your new book! As someone who struggles with the idea of throwing a dinner party from scratch, the menu-style structure of Company is so helpful.

I wanted to create something that replicated how I cook in real life. I realized that for years I'd naturally been creating these standard middle-American, meat-and-three menus that could be translated into a book. A lot of the recipes have been in my personal repertoire for 10 to 15 years—my go-to's for weekends with friends or family holidays. Then there are recipes I got to take the time to develop and perfect. They range in difficulty from slam-bang easy to more of a challenge. Most of the menus yield six to eight servings, like a casual Saturday night get-together. Others, like the Deer Camp Feast or the Secretly Thrifty Brazilian-Inspired Buffet, can serve 10 to 20.

When it comes to food, you say, "Fast, cheap or good—you can pick two." Any tips on how to balance this when cooking for a crowd?

Putting on a big dinner with any kind of regularity depends on having it be sustainable for you, whether that means how much time you have or how much it's going to cost. Things that take a long time to cook tend to be cheaper. For example, a braising cut of meat is less expensive, but it'll take longer to bring out the best flavor. Whereas a high-quality steak cooks quickly and is delicious with little effort but will cost you more. It's all about finding what works for you. None of my menus will be both expensive AND take a long time—because that's just a double whammy!

You write that you have an aversion to the formality of the "E" word (entertaining). I don't think you are alone.

For me, it's almost a bigger historical and cultural answer. In the 50's and 60's, there was the big, aspirational, "let's get fancy and show off" American dinner party——which, don't get me wrong, can be fun. But for some people, that feels like a lot of pressure and keeps them from inviting people over. We shouldn't have to perform food or cooking. We should revel in the enjoyment of it. This book focuses on those precious pre-party hours in the earlier part of the day to the middle afternoon as a friendly guide as you prepare. Once the first guests arrive, you can take it from there. Just because you are cooking, doesn't mean you can't also be having fun.

What about those of us that get caught up in the idea that everything has to be perfect?

To me, the best meals are unkempt and sprawling with bowls and platters being served up all at once. It's charming to see bits of people's real life and their imperfections. It's okay to be a little messy because that's the vulnerability, but also the beauty of bringing people into your home.

Unlike your first cookbook, The Midwestern Table, this book isn't inherently about the Midwest.

It's not, but there's a strong sense of Midwestern-ness permeating throughout. In-house entertaining has always been a staple in my life. The title Company, is a bit of a high-pitched dog whistle to other Midwesterners who grew up having neighbors over for a potluck or just to stop by and visit, and heard their parents say, "We're having company over. You guys better be on your best behavior. Let's go get some clean shirts on!"

Who did you learn your hosting skills from?

My mom was the cook of the family and has always—and still does—throw down while entertaining. She has people over at the drop of a hat and she cooks big, but always with a sense of calm. I learned a lot about that fearlessness of hosting from her. If four more people were tacked on she wouldn't freak out, she'd just make another side dish.

Any parties in particular that you remember?

She occasionally threw fancier parties with hors d'oeuvres, where people felt pressure to keep their shoes on. Mostly there were a lot of neighborhood block parties thrown in the garage with kids running all over. She'd bring out the sawhorses and an old door and throw a tablecloth on it for a makeshift table. Then we'd line up the crock pots with a bunch of extension cords and finally put out the platters or ice cream buckets full of side dishes to share.

As a fellow Midwesterner, I can picture this scene perfectly.

I think the heart of Midwestern cooking is seen through the vessels we use—like hefty, large cast iron pans or the iconic 9x13 dish. They are egalitarian and very communal. When you see that 9x13 pan you know there's something sweet or a casserole there just waiting to be cut into squares and shared. That type of communal way of cooking is reflected in all my menus throughout the book.

Cast-Iron Garlic Shrimp with Chorizo and Olives from chef Amy Thielen
Credit: Kristin Teig

Speaking of cast irons, you shared with us a recipe for Cast-Iron Garlic Shrimp with Chorizo and Green Olives from your Thielen Family Christmas menu.

When you are in the landlocked middle of the country, do you ever get those incredibly powerful seafood cravings? Because I do. This one-skillet dish makes a perfect holiday appetizer for two reasons. One, it has a short buy list with shrimp, chorizo, large green olives, an orange, olive oil and herbs and spices. You can also make-ahead, marinate-ahead and toss into the oven right before the party. Simply serve with lots of crusty bread for everyone to dip and share.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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