By Max Lowe Explorebigsky.com Contributor
If you’ve ever been to the Mint Bar and Café in Belgrade, you know it has a unique and eclectic ambiance. The décor is like an old Montana ranch home, adorned with fine woodwork. The classic, mirror-backed bar is complete with humble and welcoming bartenders. The photographs on the walls depict the regular and faithful clientele that has dined at the restaurant since its doors opened.
The food is classic and artistically prepared by head chef Katie Hagmeier. The menu features grass fed Montana beef and bison, locally grown vegetables and flavors that have been tried and perfected by owner Jay Bentley.
Bentley’s latest venture is Open Range, a cookbook written together with his friend Patrick Dillon that hit shelves in October 2012. Themed “steaks, chops and more from Big Sky Country,” it features Bentley’s original recipes, some of which are Mint standards, others of which come from across the country, from his journey through life.
Inspired by a love for delicious food, Bentley began cooking at age 18.
“I would go into the fridge at home and just pick out ingredients I thought would go well together,” Jay recalled. “Sometimes they would turn into something awesome… It was always a learning experience.”
Bentley came to Montana from New Orleans – where he was working as a realtor – in the late 80’s when he got a job developing affordable houses for low and middle-income families in Helena. After several days of fly fishing on the Missouri River, he knew he was here to stay.
Ask what attracted him to Montana, and Bentley will take you outside and say, “Look around, there is a reason they call it the last best place.”
Open Range’s recipes are simple and straightforward. “In so much food in this day and age, the fusion is out of control, [but] you don’t necessarily need a million ingredients to make a delicious dish.”
He believes that like classic music, many great food ideas of the past have a life of their own and should be given their due in today’s modern repertoire.
“My core menus have always tried to reflect the best of the tried and true, while the daily specials offer the chance to be innovative and creative,” Bentley says. “I hate pretension and the kinds of menus where every minute ingredient is touted as tonight’s special. That usually reinforces my belief that fusion is an excuse for many chefs with poor or no taste to pile on a whole lot of exotic ingredients [just] for the sake of [it].”
Open Range is not just a cookbook. It’s also a cultural history of Montana and all the things that connect us to it. The recipes and stories let readers imagine they’re sitting around a campfire on a brisk night with friends, sipping bourbon out of a tin cup, or smelling fresh caught trout frying on a skillet over open flame.
“I live in a beautiful place, and I have never regretted leaving the cities behind,” Bentley says. “Here, I get to do all of the things I deem important. Fly fishing in mountain streams for wild native trout; skiing that first powder up at Big Sky; sitting around a campfire with friends by the banks of the Madison River. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Open Range will be available The Mint, the Country Bookshelf, and at any Barnes and Noble
Jay Bentley’s Dutch Oven Bison
4 lbs. bison meat, cut into 1 ½ “ cubes
1 c olive oil
1/3 c flour
2 c beef stock or water, plus 2 T beef stock
1 C dark beer – porter or stout
2 – 3 medium carrots, cut in 1” pieces
2 large onions, diced coarsely
4 baking potatoes, cut into 1-½“ pieces
3 bay leaves
3 T granulated garlic
3 T thyme
1 t allspice
1 small can tomato paste
½ c chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a hot Dutch oven, pot or braising pan, add the oil, sear the bison and set aside. Add the onions and, when they turn transparent, add the flour. Stir in well. When the flour has browned a bit, add the seared meat. Pour in all of the liquids, stirring the cooked meat, flour and onions so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Add the thyme, bay leaves and garlic and cook over low heat for three hours. When the meat is tender, add the potatoes and carrots and cook until they are done but not mushy. Adjust the salt and pepper and serve. The gravy should be fairly thick. If it’s too thick, thin with water or beef stock.
Serve in warm bowls with a bit of fresh chopped parsley for color and plenty of crusty bread, and a stout Zinfandel.