Cowboy cooking is always on the menu at the Calgary Stampede — the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth — and that means beef, beans and cold brews!
Words and photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
Every year, during the first full week of July, Calgarians celebrate their wild western heritage with the Calgary Stampede.
Since the very beginning, fearless cowboys, Alberta beef and beer-fuelled wild western celebrations have been part of this legendary rodeo, aptly dubbed The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
Ranch culture is at the heart of this 10-day annual party, and competitive cowboys and visitors arrive from around the world to take part, the former vying for $1.85 million in prize money. Without Alberta’s massive western cattle ranches, we’d never have had the Big Four ranchers with the vision — and the cash — to get the first Calgary Stampede off the ground.
And without that ranching history, there would be no famous Calgary Stampede Rodeo — no chuckwagons racing home from the range, no roping and wrestling steers for branding, and no wild horses to break and train to cut cattle out of the herd.
Since that very first wild west show in 1912, beef has been on the menu at every Stampede celebration, whether it’s the smoky beef-on-a-bun served on the midway or the luxe prime rib on the menu at big corporate Stampede barbecues. And it’s all washed down with ice cold beer — another side to Alberta’s famous barley-fed beef beef industry.
So grab your Stetson, saddle up, and explore Alberta’s ranching history at Calgary’s famous wild western summer festival!
HOME ON THE RANGE
A big part of the cattle business in Alberta is the spectacular foothills ranch land and wild fescue grass that can support cattle through long winters.
Without the wide tracts of this high-protein wild grass, ranchers would never have succeeded in raising beef cattle here. This short grass prairie ecosystem sustained the plains indigenous people, and the bison that sustained them, for thousands of years — before settlers and ranchers arrived, displacing both. The majority of these prairie grasslands were broken and cultivated, planted to grain and hay by the farmers who arrived to populate the prairies more than a century ago, but in southern Alberta, ranchers helped save someof the largest areas of intact
and contiguous native grassland by sharing space to graze cattle, in community pastures along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where both stock and wildlife can roam freely without fences to impede their movement.
Bison naturally help restore and preserve the wild grasslands, and today there are several efforts to return bison to the prairies on conservation-minded ranches and in national parks working alongside local First Nations.
If you travel south from Calgary on Highway 22 (a.k.a. the Cowboy Trail) you’ll find the Bar-U ranch, a national historic site celebrating ranch life in the 1800s, and home of the legendary Northwest Cattle Company in the foothills of the Rockies. It's east to imagine the cowboys living on the range in chuckwagons while cattle grazed in their summer pastures, then racing their wagons home — the inspiration for the Calgary Stampede chuck wagon races of today.
Some of the ranch land along this historic route is still wild native fescue, just as it was when the first cattle arrived on the Canadian plains in the 1880s, with thousands of acres protected the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society, led by conservation-minded ranchers including Francis Gardner of Mt. Sentinel Ranch and John Cross of the A7 Ranche.
Pioneer rancher and philanthropist William Roper Hull drove cattle over the Crowsnest Pass to Calgary through this picturesque part of the province, and established the Bow Valley Ranche in the late 1800s. He built the 1896 ranch house that still sits in Calgary’s Fish Creek Provincial Park, and is now operated as the Bow Valley Ranche Restaurant, with Annie's Cafe in a former ranch bunkhouse next door. Hull sold his ranching business to Pat Burns, one of the Stampede backers, and the Burns family later sold the ranch to the Alberta Government to be the centerpiece of the sprawling urban park.
HERE'S THE BEEF
Professional cowboys ride special bucking stock for big money at the Calgary Stampede rodeo, but the beef on your plate is likely raised on Alberta grass and fattened in a feedlot on grain (unless, of course, it's labelled "100% grass-fed", which means the animal stayed on the range its entire life).
BEEF TENDERLOIN WITH LOVAGE CHIMMICHURI AND SAGE FLATBREAD
Sal Howell, proprietor of Calgary's famed River Cafe, is also a Stampede rodeo competitor, and likes nothing better than riding her quarter horse through the Alberta foothills.
She shared this idea for an easy but elegant outdoor picnic, featuring beef tenderloin, seared over a smoky campfire, and served on grilled sage flatbread with chimichurri sauce and roasted heirloom carrots.
1 beef tenderloin roast (about 4-5 pounds) olive oil salt and freshly ground black pepper
Rub the beef with oil on all sides and season with salt and pepper. Sear the beef directly over hot coals on all sides (wait for the flames to die down – the coals should be covered with white ash). Alternatively, roast the tenderloin on a gas grill or in a hot oven. Cover the barbecue and roast the meat until it is rare to medium rare (pull it when an instant read thermometer reads 125-130F). It will take 45-55 minutes at 400-425 F.
Set the meat aside to rest for 15-20 minutes to rest before carving into slices.
LOVAGE CHIMICHURRI 1/3 cup parsley 1/3 cup lovage 1/2 cup olive oil or organic cold pressed canola oil
2 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar 5 cloves of garlic 1 teaspoon of black pepper 1 teaspoon fresh roasted cumin seeds – ground finely 1/2 teaspoon ground house dried chipotle chili – or substitute with cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine ingredients in food processor and whirl until smooth. Use with grilled meats as a condiment.
GRILLED SAGE FLATBREAD 6 cups organic unbleached white flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon sugar sea salt to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten 1 1/4 cups milk, boiled and cooled to about 126°F
4 tablespoons canola oil
Sift flour in a large bowl with the baking powder, sugar and salt and make a well in the centre. Add the egg, milk and 1 1/4 cup warm water. Make a firm tight dough.
Let rise covered, for 30 minutes. Punch down the dough and knead in the oil until incorporated thoroughly.
Cover and rise again for an hour. Punch down and divide into small balls and let sit dusted in flour and cover with warm cloth to let rise again for 30 minutes. Roll out the dough approximately 1/4 inch thick. Lightly brush with canola oil and lightly chopped sage and sprinkle with sea salt.
Grill on the BBQ, or bake in an oven at 475°F for about five minutes.
Easy to make ahead and reheat on the grill.
Serve warm topped with slices of rare beef tenderloin and chimichurri sauce.
BRAISED SHORT RIBS WITH WHITE BEANS This rustic and succulent dish was first prepared for me by Alberta rancher Leo Maynard, who cooked his tender beef and beans outdoors on a wood stove next to his chuckwagon, during a wonderful cowboy cooking contest I was honored to judge (and which Leo won with his exceptional cowboy cooking!)
It's still one of my favourite beef and beans recipes, and brings back fond memories of Leo and the little orange barn kitten we adopted from his family farm.
2 cups white or pinto beans 4 cups water 1 tablespoons canola oil 2 pounds boneless beef short ribs
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup tomato sauce 2 teaspoons cider vinegar 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 tablespoon chili powder 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon liquid smoke 1/4 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon salt
Soak beans overnight in water to cover. Drain.
Brown ribs in oil, remove from pan and set aside.
Sauté onions in beef drippings over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes.
To cooking pot, add soaked beans, 4 cups water, tomato sauce, vinegar, mustard, chili powder, liquid smoke and brown sugar. Place browned ribs on top. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 2+ hours, until everything is tender. (You can also use a pressure cooker and cook the ribs and beef in about 30-45 minutes at high pressure).
Remove cover and simmer to thicken sauce slightly.
Serve garnished with shreds of fresh horseradish. Serves 4-6.
BARBECUE BEEF BRISKET Calgary chefs like to cook beef slowly over wood fires until it's tender and smoky — try smoking this brisket on your home smoker, to serve on a bun at your Stampede party!
4-pound (2 kg) beef brisket 1 teaspoon each: freshly ground black pepper, dried sage, oregano and crushed chilies 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon dry mustard 5 cloves garlic, minced 1-inch piece of ginger root, minced 1/2 cup ketchup 1/4 cup each: molasses, red wine vinegar, tomato paste
Rub brisket with pepper and set aside. Heat oil over medium heat and add mustard, oregano, sage, chilies, garlic and ginger. Cook for 4 minutes then stir in 1 cup of water, ketchup, molasses, red wine vinegar and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Cool to room temperature and pour marinade over meat. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 days. To smoke, light one burner on the gas grill or a small pile of lump wood charcoal on one side of a covered kettle barbecue. Place the meat, fat side up, on the unlit portion with a drip pan of water or beer below. Lower the lid and cook, maintaining a constant temperature of 200-225°F (100-110°C). If using charcoal, you will have to add one or two pieces from time to time. Add soaked wood chips (in a punctured foil packet if using gas) occasionally.
Cook the brisket, turning every 2 hours, for 5-6 hours, until a meat thermometer reads 210°F (98°C). Let stand 10 minutes before slicing. Serve sliced brisket on a bun with barbecue sauce (recipe follows) and horseradish, or with roasted potatoes and slaw on the side. Serves 6-8.
RIPPIN’ KICKIN’ BBQ SAUCE
Chef Michael Allemeier created this recipe, which I first published in my award-winning book High Plains: The Joy of Alberta Cuisine. It makes enough killer cowboy barbecue sauce to last the entire Stampede season and beyond!
1 1/4 cup (8 oz) brown sugar 1 cup honey 1 cup white vinegar 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce 1 1/2 litres Big Rock traditional ale (or other red ale) 4 tablespoons chilli powder 4 tablespoons ground black pepper 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard 2 tablespoons salt 1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander 1 1/2 tablespoons dry mustard 1 tablespoon each: onion powder, garlic powder, lemon powder, powdered ginger 1/2 tablespoon ground allspice 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 2 litres tomato ketchup
Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 20 minutes. Cool and chill.
Mix with slow-cooked shredded beef brisket for barbecue beef sandwiches or slather on grilled burgers. Makes 3 L.
COWBOY CAVIAR WITH ROASTED TOMATO SAUCE
Along with beef, there's always cowboy beans — served hot in classic chili con carne or in vegetarian dishes, like this black bean and smoky tomato "caviar" which makes a tasty appetizer, salad or side dish.
3 medium ripe tomatoes 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup red wine or balsamic vinegar (if using wine vinegar, add a pinch of sugar)
1 tablespoon lime juice 3 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cups dried black turtle beans or black-eyed peas (about 5-6 cups cooked beans)
1 tablespoon canola oil 1/2 cup chopped red onion 1/2 cup chopped cilantro 1 jalapeno pepper, minced
On a hot cast iron pan or under the broiler, roast tomatoes until charred on all sides, turning occasionally. Cool, peel and core. Combine tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, lime juice garlic and salt in food processor and process until smooth. Soak the beans in plenty of water overnight. Drain. Place the beans in pot and cover with at least 3 inches of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat low, and simmer 1 hour, until beans are tender. Drain beans well. Pour the roasted tomato sauce over the beans in a large bowl and allow them to cool slightly. Mix in the red onion, cilantro and jalapenos. Let mixture stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving to allow flavours to develop.
Serve like a chunky salsa with corn chips and pita chips for scooping, as a starter salad on a bed of lettuce, or as a side dish with barbecued chicken or beef.
WHITE BEAN DIP
Bean dip is a healthy alternative to hummus, and great to serve with corn or pita chips.
2 cloves of garlic 2 cups cooked white beans — cooked from scratch or canned 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 5 tablespoons virgin olive oil 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 pinch of crushed hot chilies or chili paste
Rinse beans under cold running water to cool or remove salt, if canned.
In food processor, combine garlic, beans, lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper and process until smooth. Season with chopped cilantro and crushed chilies or chili paste to taste.
Serve with pita or corn chips. Makes 2 cups.
BEEFY TWIN BUTTE CHILI NACHOS
This combination of beefy chili and taco chips creates a hearty plate of nachos to share that's a meal in itself.
1 tablespoon oil 1 1/2 pounds extra lean ground beef
1 large onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 red bell pepper, diced 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced 2 tablespoons chili powder 1 teaspoon each: cumin and paprika 1/2 teaspoon salt 14-ounce (398-ml) can tomatoes, pureed in the blender 14-ounce (398-ml) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained 1/2 teaspoon Asian chili paste (or more to taste) 3/4 cup water or broth 1/4 cup tomato paste salt and black pepper Corn chips and garnishes: green onions, olives, tomatoes, cheddar
In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium high heat and fry the ground beef, breaking it up with a fork, until it is nicely browned. Add the onion, garlic, red pepper and jalapeno pepper. Sauté together for 5 minutes, then stir in the chili powder, cumin, paprika and salt. Cook for a minute, until the spices are fragrant, then stir in the pureed tomatoes, beans, chili paste, water and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to simmer until the chili is thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add a little more chili paste if you like. To make nachos, layer corn chips and chili on a big pizza pan. Top with chopped green onions, black olives, chopped fresh tomatoes and lots of grated cheddar and broil for 3-5 minutes, just until hot and melted.
From the beginning, along with the cowboys, there were indigenous people at the Calgary Stampede, families from the Treaty 7 First Nations setting up their teepees along the Elbow River, riding in full regalia in the Stampede Parade, and celebrating with dance competitions, art and traditional foods, as they still do today.
Beyond the indigenous cowboys and wagon racers, in recent years, exciting Indigenous Relay Races have followed the Rangeland Derby chuckwagon heats every evening. Young riders race the track bareback, then leap off to swap horses for another wild lap, in a race that celebrates traditional indigenous horsemanship. This year a single lap Lady Warrior Race was added for female racers, too.
The other indigenous connection is the celebration of the once prolific prairie bison or buffalo, an animal that provided food, clothing, shelter, even tools. The story of the bison, and how they were systematically destroyed to subjugate First Nations, is a tragic one. But today these majestic animals and their entire prairie ecosystem are returning to the plains, thanks to creative initiatives by indigenous communities and others.
PEMMICAN PATTIES These patties are inspired by the traditional Native staple, pemmican, a mixture of ground dried bison meat, fat and wild berries which kept nomadic tribes alive over harsh prairie winters. Serve them for breakfast or as appetizer meatballs.
1 pound lean ground buffalo (or ground beef)
1/2 pound ground pork 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 2 teaspoons salt
1 cup minced onion 2 cups fresh saskatoons, blueberries, cranberries (or a mixture), roughly chopped in food processor 1 teaspoon crushed allspice berries
2 tablespoons dried juniper berries, soaked in boiling water to soften
1 cup melted cranberry or red currant jelly 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Combine ground meats, salt and pepper. Add minced onion, berries, allspice and juniper, and work together lightly with your hands to mix well. Form into small patties and grill or sauté until browned and just cooked through, about 4-5 minutes per side.
Serve patties as an alternative to breakfast sausages. Or to make pemmican balls to serve as appetizers, roll into walnut-sized balls and place in a baking pan. Bake at 350°F for 30-40 minutes, until well-browned and cooked through.
Drain any excess fat and toss browned meatballs with 1 cup of melted red currant or cranberry jelly, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve warm with toothpicks.
Makes 16 patties or 40 meatballs.
THE COWBOY BAR Stock your Stampede party bar with the fixin’s for some contemporary Stampede cocktails but don’t forget “the barley sandwiches,” craft ales and lagers from locale microbreweries.
The Caesar is the classic Stampede cocktail — originally created by a barman at a Calgary steakhouse, and tipped at many a pre-parade breakfast. Or consider a cocktail created with prairie rye - Alberta Springs 100% rye whisky, made by Alberta Distillers, is considered one of the finest in the world, our own prairie version of single malt whisky.
Created in Canada, eh? Yep, and this is the classic morning eye opener for your cowboy brunch crowd. And with it’s celery stick (or beef jerky stick) garnish, it makes a nice happy hour snack, too.
1.5 ounce (45 ml) vodka 5 ounces (150 ml) Clamato juice (tomato and clam juice) dash of hot sauce double dash of Worcestershire celery salt and lime leafy stalk of celery to garnish
Rub the rim of a tall glass with lime and roll in a plate of celery salt to coat. Fill the glass with ice and add the vodka, Clamato, hot sauce and Worcestershire. Sprinkle a bit of celery salt on top. Stir it around with a stalk of celery and serve. Serves 1.
There’s a sweet side to the Calgary Stampede - big breakfasts, warm fry-bread dusted with cinnamon sugar, cotton candy and those addictive little donuts (and other deep-fried fare) that never fails to find takers on the busy Stampede midway.
From the perfect breakfast pancake to old fashioned prairie fruit pies or a contemporary take on the sugar doughnut with a spot of local MacKay’s ice cream, it’s the kind of stuff to wash down with a steamy cup of cowboy coffee as the rodeo winds down and the sun sets over another day at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
SASKATOON CORNMEAL FLAPJACKS Pancakes are integral to a Stampede Breakfast — they're free, and held along the downtown city streets every morning during the 10-day Calgary Stampede.
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup boiling water 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 tablespoon brown sugar pinch salt 1 egg 1/4 cup melted butter 1/4 cup milk 1 cup fresh or frozen saskatoon berries (or substitute blueberries )
Combine the cornmeal and boiling water and stir well. Cool. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Whisk together the egg, melted butter and milk and add to the cornmeal, alternately with the dry ingredients. Stir well. Heat a nonstick pan over medium high heat and brush with a little canola oil. Reduce the heat to medium and spoon the batter into the pan, forming several 3- inch (8-cm) pancakes. Scatter a handful of berries over the top of each pancake, pressing lightly into the batter. When the pancakes start to brown around the edges and bubbles break on the surface, they’re ready to flip. Turn and cook the second side until golden, about 1 minute longer. Makes about 10 pancakes.
TIP: Saskatoon berries are native to the Canadian prairies (called service berries in other places). You can substitute wild or domestic blueberries for saskatoons.
DOUGHNUTS WITH ICE CREAM AND APPLE SAUCE
I adapted this classic doughnut recipe from the folks at the Ramsay Community Association (where you can watch the fireworks and chuckwagon races for free from Scotsman’s Hill). MacKay's Ice Cream once made a mini-donut flavour to celebrate the summer fair season, which is perfect to serve alongside, but vanilla is tasty, too!
1 package active dry yeast (2 teaspoons) 2 tablespoon warm water 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for sprinkling and rolling out dough (use half whole-wheat if you like) 1 cup milk at room temperature 2-4 tablespoon. butter, softened 1 large egg 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt
cinnamon sugar mixture ice cream and apple sauce for serving
In a large bowl, stir together the yeast and water; set it aside for 5 minutes, until it's foamy. Add the flour, milk, butter, egg, sugar and salt, and stir until you have a soft, sticky dough. Cover and set aside for 2 hours or overnight. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat with floured hands until it's about 1/2 inch thick. Cut out as many rounds as possible with the rim of a shot glass, and poke a hole in each with your finger, stretching it out a bit as it will puff up as it cooks, closing the hole somewhat. Alternatively, roll into small balls for fritters.
Cover doughnuts with a kitchen towel and let them rise for another 30 minutes (this will produce lighter doughnuts). Heat 2 inches of canola oil in a heavy pan over medium high heat and fry doughnuts two at a time, 2 minutes each, turning until puffed and golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels and toss quickly with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar to coat.
Serve warm doughnuts with homemade apple sauce and a scoop of MacKay’s mini donut, cotton candy or vanilla ice cream.
Looking for more cowboy and Alberta recipe inspirations?
Check out My Cookbooks page to learn more about my books, The Wild West Cookbook and High Plains: The Joy of Alberta Cuisine.