By Shiryn Solny/JNS.org
A new Food Network show that premiered in June stars best-selling cookbook author, food blogger and chef Molly Yeh, whose one-of-a-kind recipes are inspired by her Jewish-Chinese roots, the Midwest and farm life.
In the seven-episode show, “Girl Meets Farm,” viewers are invited inside her farmhouse on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, where she lives with her husband, Nick Hagen, a fifth-generation farmer whom she described as a “mensch.”
“We put together such a fun colorful lineup of recipes that each tell a story and that I care about a lot,” says Yeh, 29. “My dad comes for an episode, and we make Chinese food together, and my mom comes for an episode, and we make her brisket together, so there are a lot of personal aspects to it.”
Yeh, whose father is Chinese and whose mother is Jewish, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. She always loved food, even though she apparently was a picky eater when she was younger. She says she used to eat only brown, white and yellow foods — like macaroni-and-cheese and matzah balls. Still, her love for food started at home and stayed with her even when she left.
“My mom is an amazing cook and baker, and my dad is a human garbage disposal, so I grew up around food lovers and just thought that everyone loves food as much as we do,” says Yeh, whose sister, also a chef, works in Chicago. “It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I got inspired to try new foods. I made up for lost time and jumped at every opportunity to try new things; it was a very delicious time.”
Post-high school, Yeh moved to New York and attended the Julliard School, where she studied percussion. She moved from Brooklyn to a Midwestern farm with her husband five years ago, and says that the transition has been amazing.
“I was ready for it, and I love life on the farm with my chickens and farm cats and rhubarb patch,” she says. “There were a few things about the transition that were rocky, like suddenly being very, very far away from good bagels, but then I learned to make them, so I’m OK now.”
Moving also opened Yeh’s eyes about her Jewish roots and what she had assumed, for the longest time, to be the normal way of life. As she explained, “Something I didn’t realize that was particularly Jewish until I moved to an area filled with Scandinavian descendants is how we’re encouraged to speak our minds, have strong opinions, discuss, argue, etc. Growing up in Chicago and New York, I just thought that was the way.”
“Then when I moved to the Upper Midwest, I learned about this new way of interacting with people which is very polite. Things always start on time here, people don’t speak their mind upfront; it’s a totally different world. It’s not better or worse; it’s just this totally different new thing that made me realize that this particular aspect of Jewish culture is in fact unique and great. Every week, I listen to my favorite podcast Unorthodox, which is like comfort food for my brain.”
Jewish cuisine is one of the biggest influences in Yeh’s cooking, she says. One reason is that because she lives on a farm, she no longer has the luxury of going to a local store and buying herself a Jewish-inspired meal. If she wants one, she must make it from scratch.
“And I love doing that because it opens up opportunities to put homegrown ingredients in my favorite comfort foods,” she says, “like adding potatoes from the garden and eggs from my chickens to my challah dough, or topping my babka French toast with rhubarb from my patch. My Chinese background also plays a large role in how I cook on an everyday basis, and the two cuisines tend to overlap nicely, [like] between kreplach and pot stickers. They both have the best dumplings, that’s for sure.”
Infusion of Middle Eastern Tastes And Ingredients
Yeh often shares recipes and pictures on Instagram of dishes that are connected to the Jewish holidays, including Passover, Chanukah, Purim, Shavuot and Tu B’Shevat. Although not all her ingredients are kosher, she uses many Middle Eastern items in her dishes. She even told Food Network that tahini is one ingredient that is always in her pantry.
Among her numerous creative recipes are ones for maple-tahini cupcakes with labneh frosting; kale matzah pizza; cardamom macaroons with a rosewater raspberry glaze; onion jam and za’atar sufganiyot (“doughnuts”); marzipan challah; French yogurt malabi; molten halvah lava cakes; a saffron, cardamom and rosewater tiramisu; challah-crusted schnitzel; falafel sliders; and salt-and-vinegar potato “knishentaschen,” which is like a marriage between a knish and a hamantaschen—those delicious tri-cornered filled pastries eaten at Purim time.
So many of her ingredients are pulled from her garden and what she can find locally. She once shared with her Instagram followers a picture of her “l’chaim-ing into the weekend” with a pistachio-rimmed frozen cocktail that includes strawberries, cream, cardamom and local Minnesota vodka.
Doing So Much With Dough
Over the years, Yeh has received a lot of recognition for her craft. She was named “Blogger of the Year” in 2015 by the gourmet, food, wine and travel magazine Saveur, and in 2016, she was dubbed “one of the most popular food bloggers in the game” by Bon Appetit magazine. That same year, she dropped her first cookbook, the International Association of Culinary Professionals award-winning Molly on the Range.
She was on Forbes‘ “30 Under 30” list in 2017 and published a book on yogurt this year. She’s been featured in Food & Wine magazine, among other publications, and some of her favorite Passover recipes were published in the April 2018 issue of Rachel Ray’s magazine. She also reported on arts and culture for the Olympic Channel live from South Korea during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
Yeh says that inspiration for her food stems from her Jewish-Chinese heritage, but also her travels, the 1990s, the Upper Midwest, foods she misses from New York, her love for “savory things” and “a desire to make savory versions of sweet things.” Savory sufganiyot are her favorite kind of doughnuts.
In fact, her favorite thing of all to make it challah dough.
She says: “Whenever I make challah dough, I usually make one regular loaf and then use the other half of the dough to play with. It’s such a versatile, delicious dough. I like frying it into doughnuts, flattening it out to make pizza, dipping it in a baked baking soda bath to make pretzels, waffling it … the options are endless.”
“Girl Meets Farm” airs Sundays on the Food Network.