Tonja Engen defines food as much more than ingredients on a plate. To this Edina cook, food moves through communities, cultures and families like a culinary chameleon, and is a vessel for emotional, social and spiritual customs. “My philosophy around food is it just opens up relationships,” she says.
Engen hopes to develop readers’ relationships with their own families and communities with Tonja’s Table: Menus and Recipes for Every Occasion (Wise Ink Creative Publishing, 2017). “It really solves the problem for any occasion,” she says. “The angst is really about what to cook.” A conversation with Engen’s neighbor led to an introduction to a publisher just over two years ago. After about a year and a half of fleshing out ideas and recipes, Engen’s book was finally published.
Don’t look for a chapter devoted to desserts, though. Engen freely admits a baker she is not. “I don’t think I’m detailed enough,” she says. What readers will find are chapters dedicated to entertaining and parties, weekend cooking, restaurant-inspired meals and weeknight dinners. Manageable recipes run the spectrum—from cabin cooking to elegant dinner parties; make one, get one (MOGO) meals to date nights at home; restaurant-inspired meals to fancy burgers; meatless Mondays to meals to drop off at the neighbor’s house.
It is clear that Engen’s inspiration is not driven by food alone. During her study-abroad program as a University of Minnesota-Duluth undergraduate, England’s Alnwick Castle served as Engen’s home base. She traveled throughout Europe and was struck less by what people ate, but how they dined. “I just really fell in love with how people shared food,” she says. Her cookbook is reflective of that notion, with several meals planned for sharing with family, friends, coworkers and teams. The cookbook even covers meals to deliver to unsuspecting families, which Engen and her family have done, much to the delight and surprise of families (“Just anybody who is on our heart,” Engen says).
Necessity also drives this cookbook author. Early in her marriage to husband Greg, Engen says the couple enjoyed dinners out, exploring the tastes of the Twin Cities. Once children Ben, 16, and Olivia, 14, were born and securing a babysitter added a wrinkle to date nights, Engen made a realization. “Oh my gosh,” she recalls thinking. “I have to make this stuff at home.” And so began her journey, which has brought her to creating her blog, tonjastable.com, which launched five years ago as a way to share her weekly menu plans. It started with 25 friends following it; it now has about 1,000. “It just grew and grew,” she says. “I was just so passionate about sharing food with people.” As a co-founder of the Saucepan Sisters (2006-11), a catering business that focused on gourmet appetizers, Engen began to garner a following for her prowess in cooking, menu planning and entertaining.
Engen draws creativity from the likes of cookbook author and the Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten. “I have always loved her because her whole philosophy is being with people and opening up your home and not making it stressful,” she says. Engen also points to model and first-time cookbook author Chrissy Teigen’s easy-going entertaining attitude and culinary connection to her Thai mother. Engen continues to be inspired by restaurants throughout the Twin Cities, including the Edina Grill, which she pays homage to with her recipe for Asian turkey burgers (see recipe on page 39).
Engen’s creativity in the kitchen continues to kindle ideas for more cookbook ventures. She’s considering focusing a book on make one, get one (MOGO) meals and another title devoted to recipes utilizing sauces to add flavor profiles and elevate meals. Whether it is around her family table or through her blog or book ventures, Engen will continue to share her love of cooking. “They say there are five languages of love,” she says. “Mine is the sixth—food.”
Tonja Engen’s Must-Have Kitchen tools:
• Sharp knives (Bring dull knives to the butcher counter at Lunds and Byerlys for free sharpening.)
• Food processor
• Dutch oven
• Immersion blender
Kitchen ingredients for the fridge and pantry:
• Chicken stock
• Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
• Dijon mustard
• Canned tomatoes
• Canned beans
• Dried pasta
• Olive oil
• Shallots and garlic
Asian Turkey Burgers With Sriracha Aioli and Crunchy Lime Slaw
(Serves 6) Recipe courtesy of Tonja Engen
- 16 oz. ground turkey
- 1 egg, beaten
- ¾ cup plain breadcrumbs
- ⅓ cup green onion, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- 3 tsp. sesame seeds
- 2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce
- 1 Tbsp. sambal oelek or any chili paste
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- ⅓ cup peanuts, chopped
- 1 Tbsp. canola oil
- 2 cups shredded cabbage or coleslaw mix
- 1 Tbsp. lime juice
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 2 Tbsp. Sriracha sauce
- 6 hamburger buns, toasted
Directions: Mix the turkey, egg, breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds, hoisin sauce, sambal oelek, salt and peanuts in a large bowl. Form 6 patties, place them on a lined cookie sheet and set in refrigerator until cook time. Heat a large skillet or grill to medium-high heat. Lightly oil skillet or grill. Cook the turkey burgers until no longer pink in the center and the juices run clear—about 5 minutes per side. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a burger should read at least 165°F.
While burgers are cooking, mix cabbage and lime juice. Set aside. Combine mayonnaise, lemon juice, mustard and Sriracha sauce to make the aioli. Mix well and set aside. Assemble the burgers and buns and top with cabbage and aioli.
Cookbook author Tonja Engen offers some helpful tips:
• Top on her list: “Don’t leave a mess,” she says. “Always clean as you go. This keeps your kitchen organized and helps you to avoid forgetting ingredients or adding wrong ingredients.”
• Allow cooked meat to rest for at least 5 to 10 minutes to allow juices to absorb back into the meat.
• “Never serve a dish without tasting it,” she says. “It seems like common sense, but seasoning is the key to most dishes.”
• Refrain from adding vegetables or proteins to a skillet until the oil is hot. This prevents sticking, is essential for sautéing veggies and helps create a great crust on meat, fish and poultry.
• “Don’t use spices over a year old,” Engen cautions. “Spices lose their flavor after a certain amount of time.”
Tonja’s Table: Menus and Recipes for Every Occasion ($25) by Tonja Engen is available for purchase at Lunds & Byerlys markets, at Rosie Posie in Edina and online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and at tonjastable.com .