Plains Folk

Soup Pot


If there is to be a Great Plains cuisine, a style of cookery identifiable with the region, then it ought to arise from two elements. The first of these is ingredients from this place-good things that thrive here. The second is traditions from this place- traditions grounded in families, communities, and ethnic identities. So here goes with a couple of contributions to a Great Plains cuisine from our soup pot.

To begin with, we’ve been making a turkey noodle soup that seems to be well received wherever it goes as comfort food with a kick. We get our smoked turkey from the Hutterite colony; the point is, smoked turkey of identifiable origin and consistent quality. We’re going for depth of flavor in the soup, so using smoked meat is a good start. Then we bolster the broth with chopped onion, diced carrot, vegetable bouillon, lots of dried lovage, dried parsley, garlic salt, and some marjoram.

For our noodles, no mechanical noodle maker involved; these are hunky hand-made ones like my mother taught me-just egg, flour, and a little salt. Except we also roll cracked black pepper into them, quite a bit of it.

The big breakthrough came because we always have a jar of our dried green chiles from the garden sitting on the counter by the stove. We crumble these into the broth until we can taste the heat. Since these chiles are not terribly hot, they bring more depth than heat to the mix.

Serve with warm buttered bread, pickled beets alongside, and winter seems tolerable.

Venison has returned as a staple of Great Plains cuisine only in the past half-century, the first wave of pioneer settlement having pretty well eradicated deer from the prairies. The quality of venison cookery today, though, is distinctly uneven. Venison, being so lean, is an unforgiving meat. Moreover, its taste, so often spoken of with disdain as “wild” or “gamey,” requires cooks to recognize that this is a different sort of red meat and to exploit its characteristics accordingly.

How often do you hear people say venison is the best meat for chili? Venison does make great chili, but to make the most of it, you need to align the seasonings with the flavor of the venison.

As you begin to brown the venison in the pot, you’ll need oil, because the venison is dry. Then, plenty of garlic. Sweet onion is fine to start out with the meat, but after that, garlic, and right in there with the browning meat, the herbs. Don’t be shy with the chili powder and cumin. You also need plenty of bitter herbs-thyme, marjoram, and oregano, preferably some Mexican (or Greek) oregano. Put some basil in, too, because of the tomatoes to come.

Canned diced tomatoes are fine, plus some tomato paste to thicken. For more liquid, add some canned enchilada sauce.

At this point comes the most important element in aligning with the flavor of venison: adding red wine, and the right sort of red wine. It should be a red wine with plenty of tannins, and not subtle ones, either. My choice is Malbec. When you taste the product, there should be a great array of flavors rolling around in there, but foremost you have the alignment of the bitter venison and the garlic and the Malbec tannins.

Pretty soon you’ll feel spring coming on, starting in your stomach.

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