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Bill Kurtis hosts a little barbecue on the prairie

Bill Kurtis is known for digging deep.

The TV news anchor and investigative reporter famous for delving into hair-raising stories like his 1996 expose of serial killer Richard Speck’s life in Stateville Prison, today applies his information-gathering skills to all things prairie.

Now he’s gone even deeper into his subject — to the base of the prairie fire pit, in fact. Kurtis recently embraced an ancient technique of cooking meat directly on burned down coals in a hole in the ground.

At his home in Mettawa, Kurtis and Chef Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook recently revived the ancient technique to grill meat cuts from Kurtis’s Tallgrass Beef Company. Tallgrass beef comes from free-range cattle raised on tall grass on Kurtis’s ranch in Kansas, where some graze on land once briefly owned by claim jumper Charles “Pa” Ingalls of the “Little House on the Prairie” books.

From pioneers to cavemen, grilling meat directly on coals has long been a way to transfer heat instantly, directly to meat. Even Julia Child expressed her love for “dirty grilling,” as many affectionately call it.

Prairie Grass Café General Manager Dan Sviland joined Kurtis and Stegner for the grilling session in Mettawa, where Kurtis maintains about 20 acres of restored prairie on his 64-acre property.

“Restoring” the prairie requires perennially burning the land to destroy invasive growth. The burnings enhance the soil by leaving behind magnesium-rich ash. What grows after the burning is pure prairie. On Kurtis’s land, what grows back is the kind of stuff that even motivated late filmmaker Robert (“Nashville,” “M.A.S.H.,” “Prairie Home Companion”) Altman to shoot b-roll footage there.

Kurtis said he and his prairie friends are “crazy” for just about everything Native American, and his latest “grill-less” grilling hobby would have been how meat was cooked every day near this site in Mettawa many years ago when it was a Potawatomi camp. “There were no slick Weber grills,” he joked.

For their little barbecue on the prairie, Stegner blended a salad of fresh peas, pea shoots and microgreens — studded with a sprinkling of violets and dianthus from Three Sisters Garden in Kankakee. “Today was the first day of peas at the Green City Market,” she said. “Normally, I cook them a little bit, but you just don’t need to when they’re this fresh.” She tossed the salad gently in sherry vinaigrette.

With help from Kurtis and Sviland, Stegner watched the beef closely, since cuts from tall grass-fed cattle tend to cook about 30 percent faster than other beef. That’s just one of the many advantages of tall grass beef, as Kurtis explained. More of vitamins A and E and a healthier ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids to Omega-6 provide greater health benefits.

Grass is also, arguably, a better diet for the animals. What’s more, as Kurtis pointed out, growing grass removes carbon dioxide from the air and uses it to grow, which is better for the environment.

Cooking the meat directly on the coals leaves a bit of char, but Stegner rinsed each cut into warm beef stock quickly right before laying it across her cutting board. “You could also use a marinade or vinegar, water and oil,” she said.

“Don’t even bother,” Sviland said, “you don’t even need to. I like the char.”

Tallgrass Beef Company products are available at Mariano’s, Produce World, Sunset Foods, Plum, Hillers Markets and Pete’s Fresh Market. Soon, Kurtis’ meats will also be available at Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, Tony’s Finer Food, Valli Produce, Potash Market and Cermak Fresh Market.

In May, Kurtis began producing a new line of products from beef cattle fed on tall prairie grass: Hot dogs. “All you need is a steak knife,” he laughed. No joke. The lean, beefy hot dogs are a healthier — and some say tastier — take on most standard franks.

Kurtis is also busy raising bees. They pollinate everything from his chives and lavender to long-stem flowers from his cutting garden.

Kurtis’ honey inspired a cocktail recipe at Prairie Grass Café that Sviland dubbed “Bill’s Bee’s Knees.”

From frankfurters to filet mignon, Kurtis favors a time-tested recipe for Corn Fritters to serve as a side. The recipe is among those in “The Prairie Table Cookbook” (Sourcebooks, 2008).

Corn Fritters

For this recipe, fresh corn removed from the cobs works best.

1¼ cups flour

2 cups fresh corn

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon paprika

2 eggs

¼ cup milk

Stir dry ingredients together and add the corn. Then add the egg yolks beaten thick. Fold in egg whites beaten stiff. Fry in hot lard or other oil. Remove from oil and daub off any excess grease. Serve hot.

— “The Prairie Table Cookbook” by Bill Kurtis with Michelle M. Martin (Sourcebooks, 2008)

Sherry Vinaigrette

Ideal for summer salads, courtesy Chef Sarah Stegner, Prairie Grass Cafe.

1 teaspoon minced shallots

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 tablespoon honey (She uses honey from the Kurtis hives.)

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

Mix shallots, vinegar, honey, mustard together. Season with salt and pepper. Slowly add olive oil. Drizzle over salad.

Bill’s Bee’s Knees

1 ½ ounces of “Bee’s Knees Mix” (See Below)*

1 ½ ounces North Shore Distillery’s Distillers Gin No. 6

½ ounce Licor 43 (Spanish liqueur)

Combine hot water with local honey, and stir in lemon juice. Refrigerate until cold.

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake well, and serve with a lemon twist garnish.

*Bee’s Knees Mix

1 cup hot water

1 cup local honey

1 cup fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients.

Combine hot water with local honey, and stir in lemon juice. Refrigerate until cold.

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake well, and serve with a lemon twist garnish.

— Daniel Sviland, Prairie Grass Cafe

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