Saturday, July 31, 2010

Relish these words: Cheered by cherries

Just as the plump, wine-red cherries from the Western slope of Colorado ripened (Ranch Foods Direct gets them from the Glenn Austin family at Paonia) I came across a book at the library I’ve long wanted to read called Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times. Author Suzan Colon, a New York magazine publishing exec, describes being laid off during the current recession but finding herself spending more time in the kitchen, cooking and sharing family stories with her mother, drawing inspiration from women of earlier generations who lived with more uncertainty and got by on far less.

She writes: “I’ve learned that there’s a difference between showing up for dinner at my parents’ house and making dinner with my mother: as the ingredients go into the food, the stories come out of the making.”

The stories teach her that being poor doesn’t mean living poor, if you remind yourself to splurge occasionally on something simple and fabulous like winter “bings,” fine French raisins juicy with “joie de vivre” or a new blue porcelain vase in a store window available for the price of eating only bread and applesauce for dinner.

Another timeless lesson: Change what you can, and make the best of the rest. Looking back over her family’s journey and reflecting on her own, she writes: “Sometimes what looked at first like more rotten luck turned out to be fate’s little crooked smile.”

Hers is a heart-warming book for dispelling the chill of somber economic times. As publisher Random House describes: “It makes you want to cook, it makes you want to know your own family’s stories, and, above all, it makes you feel rich no matter what.”

She includes a few old family recipes, including this simple treatment of a picnic staple that makes use of the earthy, robust potatoes now in season:

German Potato Salad

4 slices bacon

1 cup diluted vinegar (1/2 cup vinegar plus ½ cup water)

1/4 cup sugar

6 good-sized cooked potatoes, diced

3 onions, diced

Cut bacon into small pieces and brown in frying pan. Add vinegar and sugar and allow to cook together until heated and sugar is dissolved. Add to cooked diced potatoes and diced onions and allow to heat through.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Another round of Fiddles, Vittles and Vino

Perfect weather and an unbeatable backdrop drew hundreds for the annual Fiddles, Vittles and Vino fundraiser at the
Rock Ledge Ranch historic site, nestled into the beauty of the surrounding Garden of the Gods Park.

The event is organized by local chefs to support the ranch and features restaurants and wine distributors handing out food and drink under tall trees and giant tents. Ranch Foods Direct grilled complimentary burgers. Many favorite local restauranteurs were also there, including the Margarita at Pine Creek (home to the Saturday Colorado Farm and Art Market) and relative newcomer Pizzeria Rustica (the charming wine and pizza place, "green certified," which provided slices of classic Margherita style pies adorned with thin ribbons of fresh basil and toasty hot from their real brick oven.)

Interrupting the energetic bluegrass musicians to give a warm welcome was Brent Beavers, the event's founder, still well-known and beloved for his Sencha restaurant of years past (sadly, long closed) and characterized by his devotion for all ingredients local and his natural artistry with food. As everyone in the Colorado Springs food world knows, Brent is overseeing a transformation at Giuseppe's Old Depot downtown, a local landmark now under new ownership. While the re-tooling is still underway, Brent is already purchasing all of his ground beef from Ranch Foods Direct with plans to introduce more local items to the menu soon.

Jake Topakas, who was handing out grilled chicken on skewers with a creamy Greek dipping sauce and his signature rice-stuffed grape leaves, reminded us that he now features a "Callicrate Burger" on the menu at Jake & Telly's. (Ask for it by name.) And Brian Fortinberry, owner of Front Range BBQ with two locations in the Springs, shared word that he is expecting another visit from his mom, Mary Boname, the wonderful Southern cook who came out last summer to help prepare a special menu of family favorites (including chicken tetrazini) and to unveil her cookbook, Top of the Range. (Some of the recipes were included last August in our Ranch Foods Direct newsletter, with a story recapping more about their project, pages 2-3.)

Brian assured us he still has cookbooks available for sale and also promised to deliver a few to the Ranch Foods Direct store. To tantalize you with just one more sample recipe from the collection, here's Amy Graham's Peaches and Cream Pie, obviously ideal for this time of year. (Amy is proprietor of Smiley's Cafe323 North Tejon Street, 719-328-9447) 

Peaches and Cream Pie

6 c. sliced ripe but firm peaches

(about 10 small)

2/3 c. granulated sugar

2 T. all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp. ground ginger

1 large egg

1 T. granulated sugar

1/2 c. heavy whipping cream

1/4 tsp. pure vanilla

1 9-inch unbaked double crust


Preheat oven to 350. Place in large

bowl: 5 cups sliced peaches. Mix

together and then gently mix into

peaches: 2/3 c. sugar, 2 T. flour and

1/8 tsp. ginger. In another bowl, beat

together and set aside: 1 large egg, 1

T. sugar, 1/2 c. whipping cream, and

1/4 tsp. vanilla. Gently stir the peach

mixture and spoon into pastry-lined

plate. Pie crust will be full, but there

will be some settling as it cooks.

Pour cream mixture over the peaches.

Top with pie crust. Cut four slits

in top of crust. Fold the bottom edge

over the top edge of the crust and

seal. Flute edges. Sprinkle granulated

sugar over top of crust (just a

pinch.) Bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes,

until crust is golden and filling

is bubbly.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Chicken fries and buttermilk pies

I still remember my first taste of buttermilk pie.

It happened last year at the Pikes Peak or Bust chuckwagon cook-off.

During competitions, chuckwagon cooks are all provided with a few common ingredients and allowed to improvise. Twice this month, Ranch Foods Direct provided competing teams with beef and let them work their rustic magic. Over Fourth of July weekend, prior to the Ride for the Brand Ranch Rodeo, the contestants cooked up melt-in-your-mouth tender chicken-fried steak and whisked up gravy in their cast iron cookery.

For the Pikes Peak or Bust competition, cooks had their choice of working with cube steaks or a chuck roll.

Teams tend to have their preferences and specialties.

Kit and Phil Haddock with the Heart Bar Wagon from over at Monument — who often cater events featuring Callicrate Beef — are masters at turning simple peaches into a perfectly cooked fruit-studded golden brown bread pudding.

One of the teams last year introduced me to a favorite of theirs, buttermilk pie, which at the time didn't sound particularly appealing (despite the fact that I consider buttermilk indispensable for baking), but, wow, it was dreamy good.

I still haven't gotten around to making it myself but when I do I will probably turn to one of the many great pie recipes contributed by Amy Graham (owner of Smiley's Cafe, 323 N. Tejon) to Top of the Range: A Recipe Collection, a stellar cookbook put together last year by award-winning and perennially popular Front Range Barbeque. Looks to be luscious, but with minimal effort. 

Lemon Buttermilk Pie

3 large eggs, room temp
1 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 9-inch partially baked pie shell

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, beat 3 large eggs until creamy and lemon colored. Gradually add, while beating, 1 cup sugar and beat until thick. Blend in, in this order: 1/8 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons flour, 3 tablespoons melted butter, 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. 
Turn beater to low speed and slowly add 1 1/2 cups buttermilk. Beat until well mixed. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon powdered sugar over the pie crust bottom. (This is to help prevent the crust from becoming soggy.)
Pour filling into partially baked shell. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes or until the top is golden and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Refrigerate any leftovers. Garnish with whipped cream and lemon twists.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Tips for cultivating a seasonal kitchen

Michele Mukatis returns for another cooking class Saturday at Ranch Foods Direct. Classes start at 9:30 a.m. and cost $35 each. Consider treating yourself to a couple of hours spent in a small group setting mulling the intricacies of incorporating fresh, seasonal, affordable ingredients into your kitchen routine.

Last month, Michele brandished wild tendrils of garlic scapes and clusters of tender salad turnips while discussing the pleasures of cooking with seasonal vegetables and whisked up simple vinaigrettes with ideas on how to tweak the flavors to suit individual tastes.

Michele is a “certified holistic health and gardening counselor” and runs her own business, Cultivate Health.

Her common sense approach to cooking emphasizes two main points: experiment, based on your own preferences and what’s on hand; and eat in a way that works with your unique physiology and lifestyle.

Michele teaches a variety of cooking and gardening classes around town and also works at Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado, where one interesting new pilot program sponsors CSAs for low-income households. In the initial launch, six families are splitting three CSA shares during the growing season.

“In my business, I work with people who want to experience personal health, planetary health, edible landscaping, and education on growing, cooking and preserving your own food,” she says.

Michele also coordinates the Peak to Plains Alliance, a unique collaboration of farm and food related businesses that celebrate and promote the region’s agricultural heritage. “The group uses its combined strength to leverage marketing, but also fosters community around food resources and having fun in southeastern Colorado,” she says.

Call her at (719) 231-6265 to sign up for a class or to get more info. Additional cooking classes are scheduled in August, September and October.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Growing Good Food: How sweet it is to avoid “honey-laundering”

The recent media buzz on potential new purity standards for honey made me think of Katie.

Katie Aguero was filling in for her dad one recent weekend at Denver Urban Homesteading year-round indoor farmers market, representing products from Lee’s Bees located northeast of Brighton.

“Raw unfiltered honey has the best health benefits,” she said, standing behind a table crowded with containers of honey in an array of sizes, shapes and hues. “You don’t need to pasteurize honey because no bacteria can live in it. A fine filter process takes out the pollen and then it no longer gives you the full health benefits. Many honey sellers buy honey from other states, even other countries, and blend it.”

Foreign sourcing and blending has become commonplace in recent years, she said, noting that even natural small-label brands sold at Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage are guilty of it.

Indeed, in news reports that came out over the weekend, the honey industry protested the blending of cheaper sweeteners into honey to cut costs. Domestic honey producers also claim China is using trans-shipments to flood the U.S. market with cut-rate honey (like the Chinese have already done with garlic and apples, decimating formerly vibrant agricultural regions.)

Clearly, all honey is not created equal.

Buy your honey from a farmers market, Katie says; although, here, too, all farmers markets aren’t created equal either. The Denver Urban Homesteading year-round indoor farmers market (in a hip warehouse space south of the Santa Fe Arts District) and like the Colorado Farm and Art Market is serious about putting real farmers back in farmers markets. James and Irena Bertini are carefully cultivating a place where you can buy Callicrate Beef and Windsor Dairy cheeses and Ginger’s Gourmet organic lemon curd, while also learning bushels about good food and farming.

The liquid gold from Lee’s Bees earns lavish praise from Bill and Debby Flentje, who represent Ranch Foods Direct every weekend at Denver Urban Homesteading. In Colorado Springs, Ranch Foods Direct offers pure Austin Family Honey harvested from the Paonia area on Colorado’s Western slope. And at the Colorado Farm and Art Market, Venetucci Farm sells "Sarah’s Honey." While enjoying an old-fashioned hayrack ride around the farm at one of Venetucci’s delightful starlight dinners last year, we caught a glimpse of Sarah in her bee suit tending the hives along Fountain Creek. These wholesome jars of amber are the happy result.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Tomato Cream Sauce

After meeting a group for dinner at a favorite local restaurant, Bistro de Pinto (intimate atmosphere, exemplary service, delicious and beautifully-presented food) my thoughts lingered on Chef Mike de Pinto's pasta special, which featured a tomato cream sauce. (Mike is a recognized sauce maker extraordinaire.) What a wonderful way to combine so many of the most sensual things in season right now: sweet onions, shallots or leeks, garlic or garlic scapes, fresh basil. With the exception of the signature item, of course: tomatoes.

Sun-ripened earth-grown tomatoes are sadly a one-time-a-year indulgence. But the use of hoop houses, greenhouses and even hydroponics to extend the season is not an unwelcome development. The resulting beat-the-season fruit isn't quite the same, but it is an improvement over bland grocery store produce. Ranch Foods Direct started stocking tomatoes from Vic Mauro Produce of Pueblo in late May, just about the time when no one can stand waiting a day longer to add tomatoes back into their cooking repertoire. There's also probably some sort of food commandment decreeing that where there is fresh basil, there must be tomatoes. (And soft white goat cheese, good vinegar, wine, etc.)

So these thoughts stayed with me. With a little research I found that tomato cream sauce can be made with either chicken broth or wine (the chicken broth route seemed preferable to me) and with juicy chopped up fresh tomatoes, or — in their stead —canned tomatoes or tomato sauce (or some combination of both). Eventually, it all began to remind me of a favorite sauce I make by sauteing mushrooms in butter and then adding chicken broth and heavy cream, enough so that I thought I could do something similar but leave out the mushrooms, go heavier on fresh green onions, garlic and scapes, and add a single chopped tomato ripening on the kitchen counter.

I left the mid-week evening Colorado Farm and Art Market with (among other things) a whole fennel plant and the most beautiful bouquet of yellow, orange and red carrots, pretty as flowers, from garlic growing guru Dan Hobbs (a Ranch Foods Direct supplier and member of the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers) ... I was already planning to make a Copper River Alaskan wild salmon filet and last year (or the one before) I'd stumbled across the wonder of baking salmon with fresh fennel, which fills the kitchen with a beguilingly aromatic fragrance. This is a dish I make in various renditions faithfully, and so I did it again, with my planned modifications to the sauce (inspired by Mike de Pinto), placing the salmon in the casserole dish on a bed of beet greens, pouring on the sauce from the skillet and crowning it with a pile of the tender baby carrots (the first of the season in the Pikes Peak region), wrapping it all in aluminum foil, and letting it bake for about a half-hour. Mike de Pinto's dish came out drenched in a vibrant orange color; with one medium sized tomato chopped into mine, the color infusion wasn't nearly that intense (stirring in some tomato sauce would have done it and been rich in lycopene too, had it been handy). But still, it was a thing of beauty.

I'd worked hard all day (and while there was homegrown rhubarb and tart cherries waiting in the fridge, little time was left for making a dessert) so at the farmers market I picked up a treat: a "bee sting" from Gold Camp Bakery at Cripple Creek. (I'm German on both sides and apparently ripe for getting stung by an almond crusted, cream-filled kuchen.)