September 14, 2019

‘Farm Girl’ Molly Yeh Serves Up Jewish and Chinese Delicacies

Molly Yeh; Photo courtesy of the Food Netwoork

You might expect the host of a Food Network series called “Girl Meets Farm” to serve simple fare from the American heartland, but you’d be only half right. Molly Yeh is of Jewish and Chinese heritage, and she uses that unique culinary perspective to blend both influences in the innovative cuisine she prepares on the show. Her eclectic menus include homey casseroles, decadent desserts and such exotic hybrids as pastrami egg rolls and scallion pancake challah. 

Yeh was a percussion student at the Juilliard School in New York when she discovered that her real passion was food, and began the popular blog that spawned videos, the bestsellers “Molly on the Range” and “Yogurt,” and in 2018, launched her TV career. Beginning its fourth season on Sept. 8, “Girl Meets Farm” emanates from Yeh’s kitchen in northern Minnesota, where she lives with her fifth-generation farmer husband, Nick Hagen, and 6-month-old daughter, Bernie. 

“I want to create food that takes people to another country, another time, or tells a story about something,” Yeh said. “It’s about exploring new things, new flavors, flexing my creativity and just having fun, too.”

Since marrying fellow Juilliard alumnus Hagen, who is Norwegian, she has added Scandinavian recipes to her repertoire, such as lefse, a thin potato crepe with butter, cinnamon and sugar. She also has learned to make bagels but hasn’t mastered Chinese noodles yet. “And I miss really good pizza,” she said. 

Without Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, she relies on friends to send her hard-to-find ingredients, and she stocks up when she travels. “I have my sources,” Yeh said. “And I’m always looking for things to bring home.”

Growing up in Glenview, Ill., Yeh, a self-described “very picky eater,” lived on her Hungarian-Jewish mother’s challah, matzo ball soup and noodle kugel. Feeling homesick for fresh-baked braided loaves when she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., she called her mother for the recipe. “It took me a full two days to make it,” she said. “It was so satisfying and I ate it all.”

“[Israel] is where so much of my culinary inspiration comes from. Whenever I go there, I come back with a suitcase full of spices and stock up on tahini and halvah.” — Molly Yeh

Yeh made the challah for her 2015 interfaith wedding, along with most of the food, including mini pot pies, a potato dumpling soup called knoephla and coconut, chocolate marzipan and Funfetti wedding cakes. Hagen built the chuppah. “Nick and I aren’t very religious, but it was really important to celebrate traditions like breaking the glass,” she said.

Her clarinetist father, who met her mother at a party when he dropped a plate of food at her feet, is Episcopalian. “We did celebrate Christmas and Easter,” Yeh said. But she considers herself Jewish. She plans to raise her daughter Jewish and send her to the same Jewish summer camp she attended. “I do love Jewish culture and Jewish values and will teach them to her — family, tradition, tikkun olam, being part of a community,” she said. “It’s one of my priorities.”

But being Jewish isn’t always easy in a community where there are few Members of the Tribe and worship options are a tiny synagogue in the nearest town, Grand Forks, N.D., that depends on a traveling rabbi, or the Chabad in Fargo, 90 minutes away. “When I first moved there and wanted to celebrate the holidays, I realized I was in charge of making it happen,” Yeh said. “In New York it was taken for granted.”

Yeh has been to Israel three times, including a culinary Birthright trip, and most recently, two summers ago. “It’s where so much of my culinary inspiration comes from,” she said. After her first visit, “I came back and lived on Israeli salad, hummus, pita and shakshuka for months. Whenever I go there, I come back with a suitcase full of spices and stock up on tahini and halvah.” 

Rosh Hashanah is Yeh’s favorite Jewish holiday and she’ll celebrate it with a themed episode of “Girl Meets Farm” airing on Sept. 22. She plans to serve her visiting family a brunch menu featuring sweet apple butter rolls with honey-marzipan frosting and brisket with a carrot hash she described as “a mix between a latke and tzimmes.”

Later this season, there will be a Chrismukkah episode for Christmas and Hanukkah, which coincide this year. “I usually do a latke party but this time it’s a sit-down dinner — roasted chicken with apples and latkes on the side,” Yeh said. Also for Hanukkah, she will host a Food Network competition highlighting traditional Jewish foods. She hopes to continue appearing as a judge on the network’s seasonal baking competitions, and has an interest in possibly opening a restaurant. 

“There are so many great little spots near here that would be great for that,” she said. “It would be a lot of hard work and would involve skills that I have no idea about. But if somebody came to me and asked me to create a menu for a restaurant, and they’d do all the business stuff, I would love that.”

“Girl Meets Farm” premieres at 11 a.m. Sept. 8 on Food Network.