Too often the culinary stories in the United States come out of coastal cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami. There is however, much magic in the Midwest. Bluestem in Kansas City is a prime example. Lawyer-turned-food writer/photographer Bonjwing Lee helps Colby and Megan Garrelts tell their story of food, passion and life in a restaurant that has helped set the bar for fine dining in Kansas City.
The Bluestem cookbook released by Andrews McNeel Publishing distills years of food passion and experience into a single volume. This is graceful food, the favors are sharp and clear such as in the nettle soup with whipped lemon ricotta that begins the book. It is divided by season and structured around the idea that one should eat within season as much as possible celebrating fresh fruits and vegetables. Each season’s menu is broken up by type of food and also includes wine pairing suggestions. The book also contains beautifully photographed profiles of local purveyors from farmers to butchers, driving home the message that good food is local, small and slow.
This book requires the home chef to step up their game. There are recipes, like black olive caramel or smoked salmon panna cotta that make the reader wonder, dare I? You won’t find reassuring old favorites here or, when you do they barely resemble what you are familiar with such as the clear gazpacho broth topped with a foam puff of almond, grapes, garlic, vinegar and cream. Some cookbooks leave dessert as a last chapter but here you’ll find each season has its own collection of unusual and well-constructed confections created by Megan Garrelts. She manages to combine Midwestern practicality with major pastry chef pyrotechnics on tempting desserts such as a gingerbread ice cream sandwich with milk chocolate-walnut ice cream and butterscotch or malted strawberry macarons.
The recipes are intricate creations woven of many small steps. Some ingredients have to be special ordered or are only available at certain times of the year and while some substitution ideas are offered, mostly, it’s best to either make the recipes as directed or forgo the experience entirely. The back of the book includes essential recipes from garlic butter, fish stock and herb crumbs to a glossy chocolate sauce. Some of the recipes are meant to be made in large quantities but can be stored for a while and can add enviable panache to other ordinary meals.
There are no apologies for chasing flavor in this book. Many cookbooks might shy away from posting a winsome shot of a lamb in a recipe for rack of lamb but not this one. There is an understanding that this level of cuisine demands sacrifice on all sides. The images in the book are sometimes instructive but most are decorative. A few more photographs of finished dishes would have gone a long way toward making this cookbook more comprehensible but this isn’t as much of a how-to cookbook as it is an exploration of what food can truly be.