Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
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Plains Folk: Bison Cookery
Tom Isern, Professor of History
For years Iíve argued there is a need on the Northern Plains for a distinctive regional cuisine. We have good food and good food traditions, sure, but we lack the sense of art and pleasure in cooking and eating that would enrich our lives and appeal to others. Our ethnic traditions are rich, but they tend to fossilize into ritual and festival, rather than play an evolving role in contemporary cookery. It would be great public service for good prairie cooks to lay aside the standard cookbooks and prepared foods, take up the materials seasonally abundant in our own land, and make good things happen.
This time of year, I think of root crops, the satisfaction of unearthing their abundance, and the possibilities of their use. At all seasons we have the field crops of the plains, the grains and beans. And Iím not yet shy about saying that as temperatures cool, I crave red meat. Really red meat--like bison. So letís see what we can come up with.
First, the obvious. I still have some of the buffalo roasts that Elaine Elijah sold me last winter, so I cubed one into stew meat. Bison meat has depth of flavor; it can take heavy seasoning; this was to be a hearty stew.
The first step was to salt and dredge the meat and sear it in canola oil. In with it I put some chopped onion and dried herbs--marjoram, thyme, and lots of lovage from the garden. (You want the herbs in the hot oil to punch them up.) Next I flooded the skillet with red wine, brought it back to a boil, turned off the burner, and let it sit overnight.
The next day the skillet mix went into a crockpot, along with chunks of carrot, potato and onion. A couple cans of diced tomatoes. Forget about it all day, come home to a house full of sensuous scents, season to taste, and try not to overindulge. Biscuits would be good.
Next, I thought about the right grain to put with bison. Barley seemed the obvious first choice. This time I marinated the cubed bison in soy sauce along with ground pepper and coriander. Next day the meat began the boil. The root vegetables--chopped onion, carrot, and cubed turnip--deepened the stock, as did some vegetable boullion, and the same herbs as in the stew. I fooled around seasoning the broth to taste, and when it was about right, added handfuls of pearl barley.
This is dark, winter soup that speaks to our light-deprived broodiness, but stirs us by the complexity of bison flavor. A caraway rye would be good with it. Put some pickled stuff alongside. Youíve got beets, havenít you?
Perhaps youíre one of those cooks who never has a flop, but as I approach a third possibility for fall cooking with prairie materials, I have to admit partial failure. I need help. I knew there was something to be done with the combination of bison meat and Great Northern beans. So I started a stock with bison stew meat, onions, and carrots, then boiled the beans in the stock.
The scent and taste of the mix told me I was onto something, that the deep-meat flavor of the bison answered the blandness of the white beans. This was a marriage made in heaven, or at least in North Dakota.
I know, generally, where this has to go. Into a hot dish. The beans and bison need some sort of sauce that will juice up the mix without overwhelming the more subtle flavors of the base materials. I tried making a mustard sauce, using a sort of rue and some meat stock, and it wasnít bad, but it wasnít right.
Prairie cooks, to your ranges! Can this marriage be saved? What will make it work?
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