Molly Yeh Talks Jewish/Chinese Food & Family

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Molly Yeh
Molly Yeh at her home in Minnesota. Credit: Food Network

From her sunny kitchen in northern Minnesota, Molly Yeh brings innovative recipes and a unique perspective to her Sunday morning Food Network series Girl Meets Farm. The popular blogger, best selling author (her cookbook Molly on the Range is part recipes, part memoir) and Daytime Emmy-nominated culinary host grew up in Glenview, Illinois, with her Episcopalian Chinese father and Hungarian Jewish mother, and she mines those influences in her cooking and entertaining.

Her weekly episodes are each planned around a theme, and in the September 8 season four premiere, it’s movie night. In the second episode, Yeh, who gave birth to her daughter Bernie on March 30, shares quick and easy recipes that moms can prepare. And in episode three, she celebrates Rosh Hashanah with her visiting mom, aunt and sister with a brunch featuring brisket, sweet apple butter rolls with honey marzipan frosting and carrot hash with eggs and pesto.

Since Christmas and Hanukkah coincide this year, there will be a Chrismukkah episode this season in which Yeh makes roasted chicken with apples and latkes on the side. Also for Hanukkah, she’ll host a Jewish food-themed cooking competition and will judge other Food Network competitions throughout the year. Expect more occasion-centered Girl Meets Farm, too.

“I have all these ideas for holiday shows. We start with the events, and then we build our menus from there. And usually I start with the dessert, because that’s what gets me the most excited, and then we work our way back to the appetizer,” Yeh says.

We sat down with her to discuss food, family and her very busy life.

You were studying music at Juilliard in New York. Why did you make the switch to food?

My father is a professional clarinetist and he and my mom always encouraged me in music. I grew up around both food and music. I started my blog 10 years ago and very quickly learned that cooking and creating was so much more creatively fulfilling to me than sitting in the orchestra waiting for my little part. From the beginning, I was into creating food that I didn’t see anywhere else, food that combined my Chinese and Jewish heritages, like scallion pancake challah [get the recipe here!], pastrami eggrolls. I stuck to what I was really passionate about. I never wrote a post just for the sake of getting traffic. It always was and still is a creative outlet for me. Anytime I create a recipe, I want there to be a reason that I create that recipe.

What favorite recipes of your mother’s have you learned to make?

Maztah ball soup, noodle kugel and challah. Every Sunday morning, my mom would have something freshly baked waiting for me when I woke up. When I moved to my first apartment in New York City I called her up for her challah recipe. It took me two days to make it. It was so satisfying, and I ate it all!

Molly Yeh with dougnuts
Molly Yeh with doughnuts on the farm. Credit: Food Network

Now that you’ve left the city for the farm, what foods do you miss most?

Bagels, pizza, Chinese handmade noodles. I learned how to make a really good bagel. The key is letting the dough sit overnight, and using a really good flour. I use the wheat my husband grows.

Since marrying Nick and moving to the farm, you’ve been introduced to new culinary influences.

He’s Norwegian, and I’ve learned about foods that I had never heard of such as lefse, which is a thin, really tender potato crepe, and krumkake—all of these delicious sweets that I had no idea even existed. There’s also the ‘hot dish,’ which is a subset of the casserole, really popular here.

Do you have any good restaurants nearby?

Yeah, we have our favorites—a pizza place, a place to get fried cheesy pickles, a diner. We have very few options but they’re good. I don’t have to make too many decisions when we go out.

Do you think about opening your own restaurant?
That would be so much fun, but it would be a lot of hard work and involve skills that I don’t have, but I would love to create a menu for a restaurant if someone asked me.

Can you find the specialty ingredients for your recipes?

I have my sources. People send me things. We don’t have Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods but our local grocery store has a good tahini. Whenever I travel I always look for things to bring home.

You met Nick at Juilliard and married in 2015. What was your wedding like? Was it a mix of traditions?

It was. Both Nick and I aren’t very religious, but it was really important to celebrate traditions like breaking the glass. Nick built the chuppah, I made most of the food. We did tons of little pot-pies, for the cocktail hour we had piles of salami and cheese and challah. We had knoephla, a potato dumping soup. And enough desserts to feed hundreds of people—we only had 75 at the wedding. We had a chocolate marzipan cake, a coconut cake, a funfetti cake. And we had a late-night grilled cheese bar. We danced it all off, though.

How is life as a new mom?

It’s so good. Every day she’s laughing more, holding things more. As I’m cooking, I’ll stick things under her nose for her to smell. I already have a whole set of recipes that I’ll make for her in a few months when she can start eating solid food.  We take breaks to sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Baby Beluga.” I love putting her in the baby Bjorn while I cook. I can’t use knives or stand too close to the stove. But I can make challah!

Have you and Nick discussed religion and how you’ll raise her?

Yes. She’ll be Jewish. I was raised with both but more on the Jewish side. I went to Sunday school but never had a bat mitzvah. My mom never had one. Only the guys in the family had bar mitzvahs. My dad is Episcopalian so we did celebrate Christmas and Easter. We were always celebrating something. We’ll continue that—twice the holidays! But she will go to Camp Chi, the Jewish camp that I went to.

Do you feel more connected to Judaism now that you’re a mother?

When I first moved to Grand Forks, where I’m one of only a few Jews, I wanted to celebrate the holidays and realized I was in charge of making it happen. In New York it was taken for granted. Now I’m in charge of it. And I can teach Bernie. I do love Jewish culture and Jewish values and will teach them to her—tradition, family, tikkun olam, being part of a community. It’s one of my priorities.

Have you been to Israel?
Three times. I went on a culinary Birthright, then led a culinary Birthright. My friend Brian was living there, playing in the Israel Philharmonic, and I went to visit him two summers ago. It’s where so much of my culinary inspiration comes from. The first time I went to Israel I came back and lived on Israeli salad and hummus and pita and shakshuka for months. It’s such nutritious feel-good food. Whenever I go there I come back with a suitcase full of spices.

Do you want to take Bernie to Israel when she’s older?

I would love to. And Nick has never been there. Every time I’ve been there it’s been so hot, the dead of summer. I’d like to go in the fall.

Do you have any other goals for the future?

I want to keep creating food that takes people to another country, or takes people to another time, tells a story about something that I just learned about in my mother-in-law’s vintage church cookbooks, or talks about a new spice that my friends might not have heard of before. For me, it’s about exploring new things, new flavors, flexing my creativity and just having fun, too.

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About Gerri Miller

Gerri Miller writes and reports from Los Angeles about celebrities, entertainment and lifestyle for The Jewish Journal, FromtheGrapevine.com, Brain World, HeathCentral.com, and others. A New York native, she spent a summer working at Kibbutz Giv'at Brenner in Israel and attends High Holy Day services at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood every year.