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When I was seven, my parents took me and my older brother on a ski trip to Vail. The thing I remember most vividly isn’t schussing the slopes, but rather, a restaurant named after a convicted cannibal. If you know anything about my childhood, this should come as no surprise.

In search of a place for dinner one evening, we stumbled upon a creekside eatery called Alfie Packer’s- I can recall my parents cracking up at the name. I think I had a mouthful of cheeseburger when they explained the story behind the restaurant’s moniker, thus instilling in me a lifelong obsession with cannibalism and a lust for fucked-up survival stories.

Just to clarify, it’s a happy memory.

Alferd Packer. Photo love: Lake County-Hinsdale County Chamber of Commerce

For the uninitiated, the “Colorado Cannibal,” Alferd (née Alfred) G. Packer, was a prospector convicted of murdering and eating his five companions while trapped at the base of Slumgullion Pass, outside of present-day Lake City, during the winter of 1875. (read the dirty details in my post for 5280 magazine).

Packer was eventually released on parole, and became a Colorado folk hero of sorts. The embodiment of pioneer badassery, gumption and fortitude, he’s been immortalized in everything from film and song to food service (the University of Colorado Boulder cafeteria is named the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill; when it opened in 1968, its catchphrase was, “Have a friend for lunch!”). My brother lives in Truckee, and I’m fond of pointing out that California could stand to get a sense of humor about the the whole Donner Party thing (note that both of us live in areas infamous for cannibalism: Coincidence? I think not).

“Downtown” Lake City. Photo love: LCHC-CCC

This Memorial Day weekend, Lake City is bringing its defunct Packer Days festival back from the dead (sorry, had to). It’s less a celebration of cannibalism than survivalism, featuring events like a Run for Your Life Survival 5k, a Mystery Meat Cook-off, and Scavenger Hunt.

Lake City is worth a visit even if you don’t consider cannibalism cool; it’s a bitch to get to, but the region’s alpine lakes, outdoor pursuits and scenery are worth the effort. The town itself is just as alluring, nestled as it is in a pocket of the San Juan Mountains. It’s a legitimate relic of the Old West, boasting well-preserved buildings, a dusty main drag, and a handful of saloons, restaurants and a truly excellent museum; just up the road is the famed Alferd Packer Massacre site and Cannibal Plateau.

Ready for a road trip? Hit up the Lake City Chamber’s site for details, and don’t forget to pack some snacks- you can never be too prepared.

When in Lake City…

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Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch.

Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch, Sustainable Settings.

Every year at this time, my family and I duke it out over the turkey. It’s not about, “Should we brine it or deep-fry?” or, “Do we baste it with cultured butter made by blind Norman nuns or massage it with a dry-rub of hand-harvested spices grown on an 8th-century Kerala plantation?”

Sorry to disappoint, but with the Miller’s, the conversation always comes down to this (the following are direct quotes I’ve received from family members this month):

“I found a pre-brined turkey at Trader Joe’s. ”

“Why would you pre-order a turkey? You’re the only one who cares about its upbringing.”

So, despite the Butterball currently residing in my parents’ refrigerator (my flying in from out-of-state makes lugging a fresh turkey from a friend’s farm logistically impossible), I’d like to share my recent Edible Aspen article on pasture-raised turkeys.

In this big, complicated country of ours- where we have so many choices with regard to our food supply–  it’s about doing the best you can. Armageddon will not occur when said Butterball lands on the dinner table- but I firmly believe that as consumers all, we have a moral obligation to educate ourselves and our children about where our food comes from. As consumers, we deserve to have access to that information, regardless of our socioeconomic status. Wholesome, responsibly-raised and -grown food shouldn’t be a luxury for anyone, but realistically, we must rely upon integrated agriculture to feed our growing domestic- and global- population.

Worrying about how my Thanksgiving turkey was raised is a First-World problem, and for that, I’m thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Photo love: Epicurious

Photo love: Epicurious

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Photo love: Fruit Maven

Photo love: Fruit Maven

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

Glenn Austin, a 72-year-old seventh-generation peach farmer, recently posed this rhetorical question as we wrapped up our interview for an Edible Aspen feature. He and his wife of 55 years had just taken their first non-work-related vacation, and while they enjoyed the trip, they were happy to return to their 26 acres of high-altitude paradise on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Peach farming reminded me of the six years I spent slinging stonefruit at Bay Area farmers’ markets– a formative and formidable time when I was trying to find my footing as a cooking teacher and food writer. In 2000, I was four years out of culinary school and living in Berkeley- epicenter of the nation’s sustainable food movement. I was working multiple jobs to get by, while simultaneously launching a home-based cooking school and journalism career. Back then, my energy was boundless, and my back a hell of a lot stronger.

What I most wanted at that time was a job at the farmers market, both for the education and industry contacts. It was difficult to infiltrate the ranks of the vendor community, because the most-coveted farms had little employee turnover. I’d gotten to know some of these folks in between teaching, waiting tables, and working in kitchens, and I yearned to become part of the tight-knit market clan.

Home is where the farm is. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Happy place. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Deliverance came one afternoon when I was getting my weekly dog fix from the puppy at Frog Hollow Farm’s stand. Owner “Farmer Al” Courchesne’s peaches were the stuff of legend in the Bay Area; his luscious stonefruit appeared on the menus of the region’s most influential restaurants of the day, including Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Zuni Cafe. A peach, Al was fond of saying, “is like sex in a fuzzy skin.”

I’d gotten to know Al’s wife, Becky, as an occasional customer (their stuff ain’t cheap). Perhaps she was just sick of me molesting her dog but rarely purchasing fruit, or maybe she took pity on me. Whatever the case, Becky hired me and thus began my glorious career as a part-time peach and pastry pusher. For over half a decade, I worked three markets a week in Berkeley and San Francisco, year-round.

I gleefully did manual labor, unloading and loading the farm truck, setting up tables and pop-up tents, hefting up to 50 pounds of fruit at a time, and tying down loads. My hands were callused, my nails perpetually dirty, my body bruised, my skin a cancer-cultivating hue. Al was a mercurial taskmaster. But I loved the job. I was also totally ripped, my refrigerator overflowed with peerless product (bartering being the raison d’etre for working low-paying market jobs) and I had a wonderfully diverse group of friends and colleagues who shared my passion for food and family farms.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

By 2003, I’d transitioned to food and travel writing (Becky, more than anyone, is responsible for encouraging me to do so), and contributed to several Lonely Planet guidebooks. The following is an abridged excerpt from World Food California, for which I wrote an essay on the Berkeley Farmers Market:

If…waiting tables is a challenge in Berkeley, then try selling food products at its farmers’ markets…due to any number of food sensitivities, aversions, allergies, purported allergies, or political statements. When Becky, a gifted pastry chef, started making organic jam and pastries from the farm’s fruit, she was fulfilling a longtime dream of turning the raw ingredients growing right outside her kitchen into edible offerings that reflected the soul of the farm.

I severely underestimated the high-maintenance requirements of Berkeley’s food militia, but despite the occasional verbal assaults from pissed-off vegans and early-adopting gluten-phobes, most of our customers were pretty cool. The people-watching never failed to disappoint. Entertainment came in the form of observing Berkeley’s resident weirdos, busting thieving kids and derelicts (my nickname was “The Enforcer”), and trying to prevent customers from double-dipping when tasting our jams.

The defendants at the SF Ferry Building farm shop. Photo love: Edible Excursions

Becky’s tarts on display. Photo love: Edible Excursions

“Freeloaders and freaks, homeless and housewives, children and chefs…the market is a truly special place to work. To be surrounded by people so connected to the land and so committed to preserving California’s precious resources, growers of exquisite produce, food artisans of a quality equal to any found in Europe; these are the reasons I stay...There’s a camaraderie that exists amongst the market vendors. We’re a family. We support one another. I’ll trade you some first-of-the-season Burlat cherries for some of your haricot verts.

The market offers a respite from the urban racket. It’s an oasis of green, earthly things, a refuge from the ever-growing parade of strip malls and tract homes that threaten to engulf our agricultural land. I can think of no other community so deeply dedicated to supporting sustainable agriculture, or of so many chefs and consumers enamored of cooking and eating the fresh, the seasonal, the local.”

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Some Colorado Easter Egg radishes.

As much as I loved the market, I began a slow but inevitable burn-out. I called my conundrum the “velvet handcuffs” because I didn’t know how to a leave a secure job (Becky and Al were nothing if not supportive of my writing career, allowing me to take off as much time as needed for assignments) with decent pay (Al believed in rewarding hard work). I spent nearly two years agonizing, until the combination of a bad breakup and a collapsing housing market made the decision for me. It was time to move on.

Eventually, I ended up back in Colorado, always my longterm goal. I love my rural life in the Rocky Mountains, in a valley nationally renown for its sustainable agriculture. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being part of a market community, and the happy exhaustion that comes at the end of a long, physically demanding work day. I’ll never get used to the short growing season, lack of indigenous citrus, and crappy tomatoes. My fridge is far more anemic, since my freelance budget doesn’t permit splurges on walnut oil, fresh chestnut flour pasta, duck fat, or dry-farmed heirloom produce- bartered items I once took for granted.

Yet, moving here has finally enabled me to earn a living as a writer. True, writing softens you in ways the physical demands of restaurant and farm work don’t- muscle tone and posture are the first to go, followed by the ability to think quickly on your feet and interact with other Homo sapiens. But writing also hardens you. To rejection, setbacks, and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Writing isn’t an occupation for those with weak constitutions, a shitty work ethic, or lack of passion. But then, neither is being a chef. Or a farmer.

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

I don’t know. I hope I’m never able to tell you.

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

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Crooked Stave's divine Surete Provision Saison

Crooked Stave’s divine Surete Provision Saison

Today kicks off Denver’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), so what better way to get all y’all inspired than to give you some guidelines for pairing beer and cheese? Few folks realize that  cheese is easier to match with beer than wine. The tannins, acids, and oak (when used for aging) in wine can be problematic when pairing with cheese, whereas beer and cheese have similar production methods (they’re both grass-based, fermented products, and tend to have similar flavor profiles- toasty, malty, yeasty, nutty, etc.).

Despite being a long-time Colorado resident, I confess I only got into beer fairly recently (my aversion being due to the usual generalized chick reasons: bloating, sleepiness, emotional scarring from too many warm, shitty, skunky brewskis at college keggers, and a still-rampant dislike of turbo-hopped beers). Fortunately, being in the cheese industry and living in a state home to some of the nation’s top craft brewers has set me straight.

While there are some key tips to follow with regard to pairing, there are exceptions to every rule. I say, eat and drink what you enjoy, dissenters and haters be damned. The cheese police are not going to come kick down your door. Still, a good match is, in the words of my lovely Cheese for Dummies co-author Lassa Skinner, like a good marriage. Both parties should have their own, distinct, positive qualities, but when combined, magic happens. Here are some tips to bear in mind when you’re shopping for a pairing:

  • Match intensities. A chocolatey Stout will completely overpower many cheeses. Conversely, a soft, delicate varietal will be lost when paired with a super funky or sharp cheese.
  • Bear terroir in mind. Don’t just assume “this beer style will go with this cheese,” because variations in climate, geography, vintage, and production method vary greatly. The same is true of cheese. Ultimately, tasting before you buy or serve is the best way to determine if you have a match; barring that, talk to your cheesemonger (or buy my book!).
  • Aim for similarities or contrasts. A rich, buttery cheese such as a triple crème or brie will go well with a beer with similar qualities. That said, too much butteriness is overkill. You want your palate to be refreshed and cleansed by the beverage.
  • Strive for balance; when in doubt, I’d go for something light and effervescent, be it a cheap Mexican brew or a killer lambic or saison.
  • Think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you have a super bomb, special cheese, talk to your local wine shop about what to serve with it. Conversely, if you have a limited edition import, make sure you find a cheese that does it justice.
Hello, Cantillon Kriek.

Hello, Cantillon Kriek.

I’ve compiled a little cheatsheet for you, to help you wrap your head around some basic beer and cheese love matches. Give these a try:

  • Fresh cheeses like burrata, mozzarella, or chevre: Lager or Pils.
  • Camembert or othery earthy, mushroomy bloomy-rinds: A fruit or vegetable beer, like Rumpkin barrel-aged pumpkin ale, from Avery Brewing Co.
  • Floral, grassy, or ash-coated bloomy rinds, like La Tur and St. Marcellin: Lambics, Saisons, or a Trappist Ales.
  • Blues: Try a fruity, non-assertive variety like Rogue River Blue (which is washed in brandy-soaked Syrah leaves) with a Kriek (cherry lambic) like Crooked Stave Mama Bear’s Sour Cherry Pie.
  • Nutty alpine styles or hard, aged cheeses like Cheddar, Gouda, or Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Company: Go for a Porter or Stout; the deep, rich, complex flavors will play well of the buttery rich, umami notes in the cheese.
  • Washed rinds like Epoisses, Livorot, Pont l’Eveque, or funky domestics like Grayson, by Meadow Creek Dairy: Trappist ales, hard ciders, lambic, or floral IPA’s, baby.
  • Semi-soft, mild cheeses like Jack or Havarti: Lager, Pilsner, or a Mexican cerveza.
  • Aged cheeses like Beemster XO Gouda, robusto, or an alpine style like Gruyere will do right by a Porter or Stout.
Photo love: Murray's Cheese

Photo love: Murray’s Cheese

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Don’t miss acclaimed chef/restaurateur/author/snappy dresser/”Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson, who will be giving a talk on “The New Home Economics” at the Basalt Regional Library. I’ll be moderating the event, which is $20 (including wine and guest appearance by Avalanche Cheese Company’s delectable goat cheeses).

Proceeds go toward funding the library’s educational programs, including its landmark Heirloom Seed Bank. If you’re unfamiliar with Hugh and his unibrow, he’s a force to be reckoned with, and one of the most talented, articulate, funny, down-to-earth chefs around. Don’t miss out on this special event.

P.S. Take a peek at Hugh’s new booklet, Pick a Pickle, and get inspired to put up a summer’s worth of produce.  The summer issue of Edible Aspen, featuring my Q & A with Hugh, is on the shelves.

BRLF Hugh Acheson Poster-3-page-0 (2)

 

 

 

 

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Harvesting Tupelo Honey in Florida Panhandle

Harvesting Tupelo honey in the Florida Panhandle

I’m a purist when it comes to most foods. I was the kind of pain-in-the-ass kid who refused to eat items that were touching on the plate (actually, I refused to eat pretty much everything that wasn’t Kraft mac & cheese or mashed potatoes; my mom is wont to sigh, “You liked white food.”). While times have changed and I’m now apt to do things like ignore the “30-second rule” or snack on deep-fried crickets, I still retain my puritan philosophy when it comes to pairing ingredients.

I like to enjoy certain foods in their pure state. If, for example, I’m tasting cheese, I skip the cracker. I dislike cheese plates that feature jam or other condiments glopped atop the offerings. This isn’t to say I don’t find aforementioned jam alluring with cheese- I just prefer to serve the two separately, and then pair them at my discretion. This is my own anal-retentiveness at work, and certainly, there’s no wrong way to go about pairing cheese.

With that said, honey is absolutely bombtastic with cheese, whether you enjoy them solo, or drizzle a bit of liquid gold or smear a chunk of comb atop your dairy. In culture magazine’s first-ever dedicated Pairing Issue, I show you how to pair cheese and honey to maximum effect. Think fresh chevre or sheep’s ricotta with orange blossom honey, or specific combos like River’s Edge Chevre’s Up in Smoke with Turkey Hill’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Honey, or Redwood Hill Farm’s California Crottin with Marshall’s Farm’s Pumpkin Blossom Honey. It’s the little things in life that make it sweet.

 

 

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Photo love: Anthony Bohlinger

Photo love: Anthony Bohlinger

If you’re like me, you’re a world-class procrastinator. That’s why I don’t feel bad about this 11th hour posting on how to throw an epic holiday apres ski party. I wrote this piece for the new winter issue of Edible Aspen because I’m the laziest cook on earth, which is one reason post-snow shindigs are the best- everyone is exhausted and presumably happy, thus expectations are minimal.

Despite being a slackass, I know how to rock an amazing cheese plate, and I love to entertain. My preference these days is to pair cheese with spirits. It’s easier than wine pairing, which can be tricky due to the tannins and oak. True, many brown spirits are aged in oak, but they generally lack the acidity that makes cheese pairing a bit dicey. I love few things more than an aged cheese matched with a great bourbon.

Currently in rotation at my house.

Currently in rotation at my house.  Photo love: Peach Street Distillers

For Edible Aspen, I decided to focus on pairing cheese plates with alcoholic punches (the latter not to be confused with what happens when you’re a bit belligerent after one too many). Punch as a generic beverage was created by British sailors in the 17th century, by way of India and the Caribbean. Because their beer rations would grow flat and sour from the heat, they added local spirits and fruit to the swill. The resulting concoctions were exceedingly popular in Victorian-era England (Christmas trivia: Charles Dickens was a fan).

By using a pre-batched punch (or any cocktail) recipe, you can prep a day ahead. Follow my tips, and you can have a killer cheese plate ready before the snow melts off your skis. Since we have some skilled mixologists here in the Aspen area, I asked three of my favorites- Anthony Bohlinger of Chefs Club at the St. Regis Aspen, Jimmy Yeager of Jimmy’s, and Joshua Peter Smith of Justice Snow’s– to create recipes to go with my savory and sweet cheese boards.

The results: some pretty kickass cocktails that take the pain out of throwing a holiday party. Unless, of course, you have a sock drawer to organize. I completely understand.


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