In new cookbook, Arctic explorer shares favorite recipes and reflections

"The Steger Homestead Kitchen: Simple Recipes for an Abundant Life," by Will Steger, Beth Dooley and Rita Mae Steger. /University of Minnesota Press/TNS

What do you eat when you're a larger-than-life polar explorer, kayaker, dogsledder, educator, homesteader and climate advocate? Like many people, Will Steger enjoys a good apple pie, meatloaf and ice-cold watermelon.

It's where he ate those favorite foods that sets the Minnesota-born explorer apart.

He devoured the melon on the banks of the Mississippi River after a motorboat adventure from Minnesota to New Orleans at age 15. The meatloaf was stuffed into sandwiches that would last him through three days of hitchhiking and hopping freight trains, his preferred way to get around as soon as school let out for the summer.

And his beloved apple pie, a gift from his mother Margaret, dropped from a resupply plane delivering provisions to the North Pole. The frozen pie sprung out of the box and rolled down the runway. Steger chased it until it landed in a snowbank.

"That thing was destined to make it," said Steger. "It was thoughtful, as she always was."

Stories about the sustenance that powered Steger through his awe-inspiring achievements in exploration accompany recipes for these dishes and more in "The Steger Homestead Kitchen: Simple Recipes for an Abundant Life."

There are the homemade granola bars he'd pack for students on his Outward Bound expeditions. The warming stew he would serve his friends who come up once a year to help him cut ice from nearby Picketts Lake and haul it to the icehouse at his Ely, Minnesota, homestead as an alternative to refrigeration. The gingersnaps - one of many recipes from his mother's spiral notebook - that he puts out for guests on retreat at his isolated conference center, the Steger Wilderness Center.

This transporting collection, which Steger wrote with his niece Rita Mae Steger and local cookbook author Beth Dooley, is as much a cookbook as it is an argument for eating whole, clean and local during a time of environmental strife.

"I think one of the solutions of climate change is to be sustainable as a life, as a person," Steger said. "You don't have to look at coal or whatever the polluters are. It's a matter of living sustainably. That's a joy, and that's the life we need to survive what's ahead of us."

The recipes are rooted in simplicity. Most dishes ask for few ingredients and fewer steps. Because when delivery doesn't reach your address, be it Ely or Antarctica, working with what you have is the only way to survive.

THE VALUE OF FOOD

Steger, of course, knows about survival, from his adventures as a teen to the remote Northwoods homestead he established in 1964 when he was 19. Since then, he has persevered in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. Steger led a crew on a heralded 56-day dog-sled journey to the North Pole in 1986, the first of its kind to make it with only the supplies the team carried with it. He repeated the feat two years later when he trekked across Greenland, traveling 1,600 miles south to north, again without any resupply. In 1989, he led the first 3,471-mile dog-sled traverse of Antarctica.

In forested regions, he would get by on game provided by native hunters. But in polar regions, where there's no game and nothing grows, he relied only on rations. Among the majestic surroundings few humans ever see, he stared starvation in the eye.

"In Antarctica, it really looked like we were going to perish, and I think anytime anybody starves, your perspective of life changes," Steger said. "It really puts you in touch with our fragility, and with those that don't have the privileges that we all do here in America. It's hard to put into words, but food is a little different to me. It's something I never take for granted."

Here's what not taking food for granted looks like: planning every meal so nothing is wasted; growing what you can and buying in bulk what you can't; knowing the farm, and maybe even the exact animal, your meat comes from; and, most of all, keeping it simple.

"For myself, simplicity is really quality," Steger said. "We usually equate simplicity with the opposite - that we're going to compromise our values and our way of living." Not so, he said. Not when the way you eat aligns with your values to nourish your body and preserve the Earth.

Helping in those pursuits is Rita Mae, Steger's 27-year-old niece, who spends her summers at the homestead cooking for residents and visitors in a bare-bones kitchen, with a pantry of essentials, the biggest cast-iron skillet she can find and a lush garden.

"It definitely connects you to food more, gardening and picking and harvesting your food, washing it and making sure it's clean - it makes it really rewarding," she said. "Everything just tastes better. Relaxing feels better."

In addition to a number of recipes from her Grandma Steger, Will's mother, the book also includes recipes from Rita Mae's mother, Kim Chi. Both matriarchs valued family meals, and their imprint is stamped upon the large gatherings she caters at the homestead.

"My grandma, she always had a setup on the table. No matter what it was she was cooking, there was always sliced bread and butter, a glass of milk and applesauce," she said. "And on my mom's side, my aunts cook a lot and we would always have lunch and dinner together. It's just been the example I've been given my whole life. I definitely connect with my ancestors through food."

Her mother's Vietnamese background comes through in twists she added to American recipes, such as ground beef goulash, deepened with soy sauce, and breakfast fried rice. Rita Mae makes both of those at the homestead and offers those recipes in the book.

A TASTE OF THE PAST

Nostalgia is a thread throughout "The Steger Homestead Kitchen," both in Will's remembrances of his adventures, and in his affection for a grass-roots way of living that's been largely subsumed by modern conveniences. Whether he's talking about clearing the land, getting rice-cooking tips from his tentmate in Antarctica or griddling flatbread on a stove he named Harvey that's fashioned out of a barrel, every story has a recipe and every recipe has a story.

"Storytelling was a big part of this collaborative effort," said Dooley, the Stegers' co-author. "The recipes reflect Will's values: Live simply, offer hospitality. Will loves gathering around a fire after a good meal, talking. His meals are never fussy, no exotic ingredients or fancy equipment. It's about being together."

But simple doesn't mean easy.

"Homesteading requires thinking ahead, stocking up on whole grains, dry beans, oils, seasonings and essentials, keeping things organized and labeled and in mouse-proof containers," said Dooley. "It's garnering resources, not buying more perishables than will really be put to use."

Steger, who says he hasn't eaten anything out of a box in 50 years, admits even he can slip up. "I'm not a perfectionist or militant, but it's an awareness" to do better, he said. An awareness he garnered from traveling to the ends of the Earth.

He hopes his stories, and the book, can give others that awareness, too.

"That's why I go on these experiences, because, sometimes, I'm not sure - there's no guarantee I'm going to come back. And then when I come back, I'm actually a different person in many different ways, because it's opened my whole life up to the reality of life, and that's really reflected to me in food," Steger said.

"I hope the book reflects that simplicity and joy, simple living and simple eating with friends and community."

Very American Goulash

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: "My mom, Kim Chi, has a knack for spicing up American recipes, adding a dash of soy sauce and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes to boost flavors," writes Rita Mae Steger in "The Steger Homestead Kitchen." Serve this over buttered noodles.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 pound ground beef

1 onion, diced

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon salt

4 cloves garlic, smashed

Film a large, deep skillet with the oil and set over medium heat. Crumble the ground beef into the skillet and cook until it is no longer pink. Stir in onion and cook until softened, then add tomatoes, tomato paste, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, salt and garlic. Lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is slightly reduced, about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Mom's Gingersnaps

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Note: A favorite from Will's mom's spiral cookbook. "We make these cookies every week," said Steger. From "The Steger Homestead Kitchen."

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup maple or brown sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 egg

2 tablespoons sorghum or molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Granulated sugar, for coating

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment, or lightly grease.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda and salt.

In a separate bowl, cream together sugar, butter, egg, sorghum or molasses and vanilla.

Form a well in the center of the dry mixture, and add the creamed butter mixture. Mix together until everything is well combined.

Pour a little granulated sugar on a plate. Using a teaspoon, form the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls and roll in sugar to coat. Place cookies on baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between each one. Press down slightly with your fingers to flatten the dough. Bake until the edges have just begun to crisp and center is soft, 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven, and allow the cookies to sit for about 1 minute. Using a metal spatula, transfer cookies to a cooling rack.

Black Bean Wild Rice Burgers

Serves 4.

Note: This is the burger of choice for omnivores and vegans at Hobo Village gatherings. They are made with the simplest pantry staples. You can also scramble the bean mix in a skillet for nachos and burritos. From "The Steger Homestead Kitchen."

1 cup walnuts

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1 onions, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup breadcrumbs or oats

1 1/2 cups cooked or canned black beans, drained

1 cup cooked wild rice

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon cumin

Salt and pepper, to taste

Scatter walnuts into a large skillet, and set over medium heat. Toast the nuts, stirring frequently, until they are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove from pan, and allow to cool.

In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until the onion is translucent, about 7 minutes; remove from heat.

Transfer the walnuts to a food processor, and process into a fine meal. Add the breadcrumbs or oats, and process again until blended.

Turn the black beans into a large bowl, and thoroughly mash with the back of a fork. Stir in the walnut mixture and the wild rice, and add the onion, garlic, chili powder, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Mix together thoroughly.

Divide the mixture into 4 even pieces. Using your hands, roll the pieces into balls and press down to form burgers, holding the patty in one hand and using the other to smooth the sides.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a pan set over medium heat. Cook the burgers to brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.