Will Steger is famous for many things – he was a polar explorer, farmer, kayaker (10,000 miles), dog sled, educator and climate activist.
Being a cook, however, is not on his resume.
Anyway, he and his niece Rita Mae Steger 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 paints an excellent portrait of this man, his passion and his lifelong commitment to environment and climate awareness.
What will draw readers in with the recipes and stunning photographs (taken by John Ratzloff) are Steger’s reflections on his experiences, his interactions with nature and the people he encountered. It’s the heart of who he is. It is someone who walks his speech. People from all over the world visit his compound, known as the Homestead, the home he built, which includes the Steger Wilderness Center, Lodge, workshop, sleeping cabins, root cellar and cooler , not too far from Ely but still far enough that it is isolated. For years there was no road and those who came had 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 constant stream of visitors, interns, family members and friends, it became clear that he needed someone to prepare healthy and nutritious meals during the summer. That job passed to her niece Rita Mae in 2017. A second-generation farmer herself, she is the daughter of Steger’s younger brother, Bob, and his Vietnamese wife Kim Chi, whose influence is felt in several recipes.
Rita Mae cooks creatively and economically in a very simple, sparsely equipped kitchen. Often she has to cook for 25 people with many ingredients grown in the Steger garden or purchased at a farmers market. Steger describes her as a cooking prodigy. Out of season, she is a private chef in Monterey.
As Steger writes, the heart of this complex has always been the Lodge, a perfect meeting place, and the kitchen. This is not surprising, since he grew up in a family of 10 siblings. It was a given that they all gathered for dinner “God help you if you were late to the table. … We did not live lavishly but good food was plentiful and served with generosity and care.”
Meals at the Homestead are cooked and served in the same spirit, often followed by lengthy discussions on nondescript topics, some serious, some less so. A spirit of joie de vivre reigns.
There are almost 90 recipes, simple, easy to follow, without complicated ingredients or instructions. Included are an attractive mix of an old handwritten and stained cookbook by Steger’s mother, Margaret, chef Rita Mae, her mother Kim Chi, and friends as well. It’s an appetizing mix featuring quirky dishes like mushroom casserole, smoked fish, beet butter and seed crackers. There are also several recipes for hot dishes, thanks to his mother.
You’ll also find out what her favorite pie is – not apple or blueberry. Every recipe has a story, and vice versa. There are, of course, many healthy plant-based recipes alongside those for pasture-raised meats.
Much of the meat is sourced from regenerative farms as well as a farmers market. An extensive garden on the property provides a wealth of fresh vegetables and herbs while an orchard is a source of many fruits. The garden and orchard were planted, developed and maintained by Steger over 60 years ago.
This is not a culinary treatise by Ina Garten or Martha Stewart, but rather a collection of recipes that are simple, delicious, healthy and above all from sustainable sources.
Black Bean Wild Rice Burgers
1 cup walnuts
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup breadcrumbs or oats
1-1/2 cups cooked or canned black beans, drained
1 cup cooked wild rice
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread the walnuts in a large skillet and toast over medium heat until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool. In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is translucent, about 7 minutes. Remove from fire.
Transfer the nuts to a food processor and process into a fancy meal. Add breadcrumbs or oats and mix again until well combined. Put the black beans in a large bowl and mash them with the back of a fork. Stir in wild rice, add onion, garlic, spices, salt and pepper. Mix well.
Divide the mixture into 4 equal pieces. Using your hands, roll the pieces into balls and press down to form burgers, holding the patty with one hand and using the other to smooth the sides. Heat the remaining oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook burgers until browned on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.
Cabbage, rutabaga and sausage gratin
2 pounds Polish sausage, cut into bite-sized slices
1 large green cabbage, cored and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pound rutabagas, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Ground mustard to serve
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Arrange the sausages, cabbage, and rutabagas in a 9×13-inch baking dish or casserole dish. Dot with butter and cover with aluminum foil or a pan lid.
Bake until cabbage is tender and sausage is cooked through, about 1-1/2 hours. Remove lid and continue cooking until sausage is lightly browned and cabbage is slightly crispy, about 30 minutes. Serve over hot buttered noodles with stone ground mustard.
Will’s favorite and served on his birthday.
4 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup of sugar
Preheat oven to 275. Line a 9-inch pie pan with parchment paper or grease generously. In a medium bowl, whisk egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and continue to whisk until stiff. Slowly add the sugar to make stiff peaks. Spread in the pie pan. Bake for 1 hour, increase the heat to 300 and continue baking for another 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 cup lightly sweetened whipped cream
In a medium saucepan, beat the egg yolks until lemon-colored, then stir in the sugar. Stir in lemon juice and zest. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture begins to thicken enough to generously coat a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature before filling the meringue crust. To finish, spread half of the whipped cream on the bottom of the crust. Add the filling and smooth with a spatula. Cover with the rest of the cream. Refrigerate at least 12 hours before serving.
Holly Ebel, food editor of the Post Bulletin, knows what’s coming. Send comments or story tips to