Review: ‘New Prairie Kitchen’ celebrates local food, highlights area chefs

-- photo by Melody Dworak
Big Grove uses many locally sourced ingredients in their food. — photo by Melody Dworak

New Prairie Kitchen release party

Big Grove Brewery — Monday, June 8 at 6 p.m.

Solon’s Big Grove Brewery is hosting a release reception for New Prairie Kitchen (Midway Books 2015), a cookbook by Summer Miller that promotes farm-to-table eating.

At tonight’s event, Miller will join Big Grove’s chef Benjamin Smart and local foods advocates farmer Kate of Wild Woods Farm and Matt Kroul of Kroul Farms to speak on a panel moderated by Devotay’s Chef Kurt Michael Friese moderating. Smart is among the 25 chefs, farmers and producers profiled in the new book; he also contributed recipes to the cookbook, and the samples of his food that will be provided tonight are worth the event’s ticket price alone.

The full-color cookbook delivers 50 recipes from chefs who are making a name for themselves in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. The subtitle of the book — Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans of the Great Plains — raised my hackles a bit thanks to that last phrase. As an Omaha native and Iowa transplant, I experience cognitive dissonance when trying to refer to Iowa as a Plains state.

My mind cannot cope with imaging Willa Cather’s O! Pioneers, a required read for so many Nebraska eighth graders (at least in the ‘90s), taking place in the rolling hills of Iowa — this tallgrass prairie state has too many secret caves and lush forests.

The Plains portion of the book hits home when covering the bison herd at Dave Hutchinson’s organic ranch in Rose, Nebraska, roughly 240 miles northeast of Omaha. Miller writes that all of the bison on this ranch are born and will die here. The profile of Mr. Hutchinson felt more thorough than the glimpses she gives readers of other chefs and farmers, with several nicely composed photographs by Dana Damewood.

New Prairie Kitchen (Midway Books, 2015)
New Prairie Kitchen (Midway Books, 2015)

Damewood’s portraits capture these individuals in their striking natural settings. Home-cooks wanting to try out these recipes will be grateful for the photos of the cooking process. The photography works well to elevate (and maybe even romanticize) the life on the farms.

Photography can be forgiven for trying too hard (I may have rolled my eyes at the cliche Mason jar pic, but then, I’ve spent too much time on Pinterest planning a wedding). Dramatic writing can be more distracting, however.

“In the life of every craftsman, there is a moment when he plunges into the depths of his trade, when style collides with substance and embraces mission and meaning.” Okay, I get it: It’s good to find purpose in your trade. Flourishes — like this sentence that introduced Smart’s profile — distract from the great story her subject is about to tell.

After reading his profile, I do have a better understanding of what drives Chef Smart to create the meals he does. And after eating the food at Big Grove Brewery on Friday night, I am now an official believer in the Chef Smart Way.

“‘We dried the field corn, ground it and made it into polenta. When you do that, take something from beginning to end, you look at food differently and you cook it differently,” Smart explained in the book. “That is where my food philosophy started taking hold; it’s where I evolved from focusing solely on technique.”

You’ll want to read New Prairie Kitchen if you’re interested in seasonal recipes featuring foods sourced in the Midwest; if you want to get to know different chefs, farmers, and producers in these states; or if you want a guide to trying out the restaurants on a trip to Des Moines or Omaha. The $15 ticket for tonight’s event, with samples of Chef Smart’s recipes and a panel of local food advocates should be worth it.

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