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A kitchen in the wilderness: Explorer Will Steger collaborates on cookbook

Will Steger and his niece Rita Mae Steger have collaborated with longtime food journalist Beth Dooley on what can best be described as a cookbook/memoir.

"The Steger Homestead Kitchen: Simple Recipes for an Abundant Life"
"The Steger Homestead Kitchen: Simple Recipes for an Abundant Life" by Will Steger and Rita Mae Steger with Beth Dooley.
Contributed / University of Minnesota Press
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Will Steger is famous for many things — he's been a polar explorer, homesteader, kayaker (10,000 miles), dogsledder, educator and climate activist.

Being a cook, however, is not in his curriculum vitae.

Regardless, he and his niece Rita Mae Steger have collaborated with longtime food journalist Beth Dooley on what can best be described as a cookbook/memoir. "The Steger Homestead Kitchen: Simple Recipes for an Abundant Life" has just been published (University of Minnesota Press,$27.95) and gives an excellent portrait of this man, his passion and life-long commitment to the environment and climate awareness.

Will Steger
Will Steger
2004 file / News Tribune

What will draw readers in along with the recipes and stunning photographs (taken by John Ratzloff ) are Steger's reflections of his experiences, his interactions with nature and the people he has encountered. That is the core of who he is. He is one who walks his talk. People from around the world make their way to his compound, known as the Homestead, the home he built, which includes the Steger Wilderness Center, Lodge, workshop, sleeping cabins, root cellar and icehouse, not too far from Ely but still far enough that it's isolated. For years there was no road in and those coming had either to hike, snowshoe or ski to get there. From an initial purchase of 30 acres in 1968, the Homestead now covers over 200 acres.

With a steady stream of visitors, interns, family and friends, it became clear he needed someone to prepare healthy, nutritious meals during the summer. That job went to his niece Rita Mae in 2017. A second-generation homesteader herself, she is the daughter of Steger's younger brother Bob and his Vietnamese wife Kim Chi whose influence is felt in several of the recipes. 

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Rita Mae cooks with creativity and thrift in a very bare bones, sparsely equipped kitchen. Often she has to cook for 25 people with many of the ingredients either grown in the Steger garden or purchased from a farmers market. Steger describes her as a prodigy where cooking is concerned. Off-season she is a private chef in Monterey.

News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook (right) interviews Will Steger at the North Pole after the Steger International Polar Expedition reached the pole in May 1986. Jim Brandenburg photo
News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook (right) interviews Will Steger at the North Pole after the Steger International Polar Expedition reached the pole in May 1986. Jim Brandenburg photo

As Steger writes, the heart of this compound has always been the Lodge, a perfect meeting place, and the kitchen. That is not surprising, since he grew up in a family of 10 brothers and sisters. It was a given that they all gathered for dinner "God help you if you were late to the table. ... We didn't live lavishly but good food was abundant and served with generosity and  care."

Meals at the Homestead are cooked and served in that same spirit often  followed by lengthy discussions of whatever topics, some serious, others not so much. A spirit of joie de vivre rules.

There are close to 90 recipes, simple, easy to follow, not involving complicated ingredients or directions.  Included are an appealing mix from an old, handwritten and stained cookbook from Steger's mother Margaret, from Chef Rita Mae, her  mother Kim Chi, and friends as well. It's an appetizing mix including unusual dishes like a mushroom casserole, smoked fish, beet butter and seed crackers. There are also several hot-dish recipes, thanks to his mother.

You'll also discover what his favorite pie is — not apple or blueberry. Every recipe has a story, and vice versa. There are, of course, plenty of healthy plant-based recipes alongside those for pasture-raised meats.

Much of the meat comes from regenerative farms as well as from a farmers  market. An extensive garden on the property provides a wealth of fresh vegetables and herbs while an orchard is a source for many fruits. Both garden and orchard were planted, developed and nurtured by Steger over 60 years ago.

This is not an Ina Garten or Martha Stewart food treatise but rather a collection of recipes that are simple, delicious, wholesome and most important from sustainable sources.

Black bean wild rice burgers

1 cup walnuts

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3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup breadcrumbs or oats

1-1/2 cups cooked or canned black beans, drained

1 cup cooked wild rice

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

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1 teaspoon cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

Scatter walnuts into a large skillet and toast over medium heat until they are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove from pan and cool. In the same pan heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat . Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is translucent, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat.

Transfer walnuts to a food processor and process into a fine meal. Add breadcrumbs or oats and process again until well-blended. Put black beans into a large bowl and mash with the back of a fork. Stir in the wild rice, add the onion, garlic, spices and salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Divide the mixture into 4 even pieces. Using your hands, roll the pieces into balls and press down to form burgers, holding the patty in one hand and using the other to smooth the sides. Heat the remaining oil in a pan set over medium heat. Cook burgers to brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.

Cabbage, rutabaga and sausage bake

2 pounds Polish sausage, cut into bite-sized slices

1 large green cabbage, cored and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 pound rutabagas, cut into 1/2-inch rounds

2 tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Stone-ground mustard for serving

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Arrange sausage, cabbage and rutabagas in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or casserole. Dot with butter and cover with foil or pot lid.

Bake until cabbage is tender and sausage cooked through, about 1-1/2 hours. Remove cover and continue baking until sausage is lightly browned and cabbage is slightly crisped, about 30 minutes. Serve over hot buttered noodles with stone-ground mustard.

Angel pie

Will's favorite and served on his birthday.

Meringue crust:

4 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 275. Line a 9-inch pie pan with parchment or generously grease. In a medium bowl, whip egg whites until frothy. Add cream of tartar and continue whipping until stiff. Slowly add in sugar to make stiff peaks. Spread into pie pan. Bake for 1 hour, Increase heat to 300 and continue baking for 20 more minutes. Remove from oven and set on a wire rack to cool.

Filling:

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons lemon rind

1 cup lightly sweetened whipped cream

In a medium saucepan, beat egg yolks until lemon colored, then beat in sugar. Stir in lemon juice and rind. Set over low heat and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture starts to thicken enough to generously coat a spoons, 5-10 minutes.

Remove from heat and cool to room temperature before filling the meringue crust. To finish, spread half of the whipped cream on the bottom of the crust. Add filling and smooth with a spatula. Top with rest of cream. Refrigerate at least 12 hours before serving.

Related Topics: FOODRECIPESMINNESOTA
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