Home on the range 

Exploring Montana’s culinary heritage through cookbooks

Almost every place and culture is defined in part by its food. Consider the barbecue traditions of the South, New Mexican chili, pasta of Italy and Washington state cherries. Pinning down Montana’s food culture is a little tougher, although there’s one thing that’s hard to leave out of the equation: beef. But a trip through Montana-produced cookbooks reveals the different foodways winding through our 147,046-square-mile state, and they go way beyond bovines. Game has been a staple here for thousands of years, and even today, I can put out a request on Facebook for venison and have friends looking through their freezers within minutes.

Many Montanans grow up on meat-and-potatoes, Kraft-macaroni-and-cheese-type cooking; all the processed stuff might not be healthy, but it’s still very much embedded in our lives. The first thing I ever learned to cook was tuna noodle casserole for my little brother and sister during summer vacation, and it remains a cherished family dinner.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the classier stuff we reserve for special occasions or resort trips, like pan-seared trout with butter, roasted duck or Flathead cherry pie.

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  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Clockwise from left: curried butternut squash soup, fresh sage biscuits and spicy venison beer chili, as found in Greg Patent’s Montana Cooking.

In day-to-day cooking, I’m a fan of the middle ground. I still make tuna noodle casserole, for instance, but with from-scratch mushroom cream sauce instead of the goopy canned stuff. Bigger global trends like locavorism, sustainability, vegan diets and vegetarianism have found their way into Big Sky Country, too, and they’re proving to be here to stay. Even the most remote rural Montana kitchens are starting to open their doors to fresher ingredients and new flavors. So here we’ve assembled cookbooks that take a trip through Treasure State kitchens, from old to new. It’s a big sampler platter of what makes our state special.

Eat Our Words: The Montana Writer’s Cookbook, compiled by Montana Center for the Book

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These recipes are unfussy, down-home and unafraid of canned chicken-and-stars soup. As you might have expected from local authors, the idea is much more about the stories they want to tell. William Kittredge’s New Year’s Day Ramos Gin Fizz begins, “The task of separating whites from yolks is demanding and onerous but must be faced, egg by damnable egg.” Lauri Olsen’s instructions for Montana Winter Casserole include, “Wade through snow, brush off the truck, slide through icy highways until you reach the grocery store …. Then buy some fresh vegetables, a lottery ticket, a can of snoose for the old man, and head home.” If only all cookbooks could be so evocative.

Montana Celebrity Cookbook, compiled by Susie Beaulaurier Graetz

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Everyone from Huey Lewis to the Montana Logging and Ballet Company to Chief Earl Old Person makes an appearance here. The 1992 compilation reprints recipes as they were sent in, making it a hodgepodge of typewriter printing, curly handwriting and old-school letterheads. Evel Knievel contributes his grandmother’s green rice casserole, which includes two cups of rice combined with nearly a pound of cheddar. Attempt any of these recipes at your peril, but it’s a neat armchair trip through Montana history and notable names.

Big Sky Cooking, by Meredith Brokaw and Ellen Wright

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This is a tribute to Montana from big-city folk who’ve discovered quiet ranch life. Meredith Brokaw documents the good life on the Livingston-area ranch she shares with her husband, Tom Brokaw, with a series of themed menus like a Mexican fiesta. Recipes put an emphasis on fresh, whole ingredients with high-cuisine twists, like pork tenderloin with chokecherry glaze and vichyssoise with chives.

A Montana Table: Recipes From Chico Hot Springs Resort, by Seabring Davis

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Planning a special occasion? Here’s the book to bust out. Seabring Davis compiled recipes from the Chico Resort kitchen, and it’s mouthwatering throughout, from the glistening caramel rolls to baked brie with huckleberry coulis and hollandaise to rack of lamb with basil-mint jelly. Davis thanks several recipe testers in the acknowledgements section–always a good indicator that replicating the recipe will turn out well–and the back includes instructions for making fine-dining workhorses like balsamic reductions, stocks, garlic butter and crème anglaise.

Open Range: Steaks, Chops and More from Big Sky Country, by Jay Bentley and Patrick Dillon

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You can almost hear meat sizzling in a cast-iron pan when you open this hefty love-letter to cowboy cuisine, inspired by the Mint Cafe in Belgrade. Open Range is lavishly photographed and filled with recipes for just about everything that walks or flies in this state, from bison carpaccio to elk brisket to buttermilk-fried quail. The authors offer a heaping serving of Montana history and culture throughout, too.

New West Cuisine: Fresh Recipes from the Rocky Mountains, by Chase Reynolds Ewald and Amy Jo Sheppard

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New West Cuisine takes a road trip up through the Rockies, featuring recipes from restaurants along the way, like St. Mary’s Park Cafe. Missoula’s Pearl contributes a romantic Valentine’s dinner menu, with roasted beets sliced thin and cut into heart shapes (making heart beets, get it?) plus a curried asparagus soup, beef tenderloin steaks, roasted potatoes and chocolate chip tarts to finish.

Cookin’ Up Good Vibrations: Deliciously healthy gluten-free and dairy-free dishes in harmony with the season, by the Jwalan Muktika School for Illumination, Miriam Katz

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The Jwalan Muktika School for Illumination in Whitefish and its staff nutritionist Miriam Katz published this 2010 guide aimed at people with food allergies. Most recipes are vegan and sugar-free. It’s by no means restrictive, though, with drinks, main dishes and desserts organized by season, and vibrant color photographs of produce and herbs. One late-summer menu calls for chickpea sweet potato dip, summer squash pancakes with basil-mint sauce, beets with honey, and zucchini bread. Even if you’re an avowed omnivore, it still has creative, tasty-sounding ways to get more color and variety into your cooking.

Montana Cooking: A Big Taste of Big Sky Country, by Greg Patent

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If you’re going to pick one essential Montana cookbook, it would be hard to go wrong with this. Patent, a James Beard award winner and Missoula-based chef, offers mostly homey western-style dishes with the occasional Asian twist, like noodles with stir-fried beef and mizuna greens. Dishes are simple yet sophisticated enough to please both hip foodies and your Grandpa Jerry, like trout in tomato and onion sauce, grilled buffalo rib-eye or rhubarb, strawberry and hazelnut crisp.

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