Cooking in the Woods

Why do we go camping?
To spend restless nights on uncomfortable air-mattresses and wake up with sore hips and shoulders; to use bushes as toilets at three in the morning because the toilet is too far to walk at that hour; to wash dishes, hands, faces and teeth with unforgivably cold water. Maybe we go camping to have an uninterrupted visit with nature, with the cruising moose and the curious bear. To build a fire, to cook dinner, and hold warm cups with gloves and hats on, and to stare at the endless sparkles of the night skies.

I was introduced to camping by Scott, who is as enthusiastic for the outdoors as a Labrador puppy is for a tennis ball. Camping and I had a rough start in Utah where walls of wind carried sand into everything in its path: our tent, our cloths, the plate of food I was eating and the cup of coffee I was drinking. I banned camping from our lives for a couple of years after that, but after fifteen years married I have learned to compromise, so I go camping once in a while with two conditions: the campsite must be near civilization, and there must be a bathroom with walls, a door, and a roof. I used to have third condition: no camping in Colorado where there are bears, moose, and mountain lions, but after a few times camping on the Pacific Coast I decided to let my guard down. Silly me.

A few weeks ago we ventured to Winter Park, CO, for a weekend with nature.
I was looking forward to cooking on the fire, strolling around with Mr. Miles and lazily reading by the Fraser river. We found a site neatly secluded behind tall pine trees and bushes near the river,  we promptly sat up the tent, unloaded the food and wine, and Scott went to get wood from the camp host while I made a quick lunch of pork-black bean nachos with salsa verde and peach-corn salsa. He came back, wood in hand, staring at me,
“Don’t freak out,” he said 
“Why? what happened?” I asked, wondering if something had happened to our families, the world, a bomb? who knew?
“The host told me that there’s a small bear roaming around, to be careful,” he replied.

There are always bears roaming around Winter Park and the Frasier valley, when we lived there we saw them often, in the woods, trash containers, or by the river, and I knew they must have been watching us, waiting for us to make a mistake and leave food out so they can have a clean alibi when they break in. So, I keep going with my day, always with one eye on the bushes for good measure.

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Rustic Peach Crostata, with Shiro Plums and Chamomile Honey

We await with patience the arrival of the peach. Each year, for the past seven years, we count the weeks to the date Steve Ela, from Ela Family farms, gives us the season’s opening gala of the most celebrate fruit in Colorado. Sweet and tangy flesh with juices flowing down our chins, hands, and sometimes forearms, the peach is a glorious reminder of the abundant season; each bite is nature’s reward for our endured patience and loyalty. 

coloradopeaches

I didn’t grew up eating peaches, in fact I don’t remember it much in my childhood, and have a slight memory of it in my early-tweenties when I was in a search for new foods back in Colombia where mangoes, pineapples, and guanabana are the everyday fruit staples. Peaches don’t do well in tropical climates, making them hard to find or too expensive compared to a pile of locally grown passion fruit. 

Peach has become my mango. I don’t purchase tropical fruits because, well, I’m not in the tropics. So I dream of peaches during the cooler months when I drown my desires with spoonfuls of the homemade peach-ginger or peach-vanilla jams, atop warm oatmeal, with toasted almonds and a drizzle of honey, as I stare out the window to the fallen leaves or the piling snow. It’s a constant reminder of the bounty of summer.

shiroplums

As peaches arrive so do the trail of baked goods and jams to use up and preserve the harvest. Even thought we eat many of the peaches fresh {leaning over the sink with a towel nearby} the CSA (community supported agriculture) share provides us more than enough for our weekly consumption. Last year we received entire flats of peaches, back to back, turning our house into a mini jam factory churning dozens of jars that lasted us until a few weeks ago. 

I never thought of the idea of making jam and canning enjoyable, and I find myself void of words on how much I’m enjoying this preserving business. It might be silly but it feels as if I’m honoring the season and nature’s hard work by preserving what comes out of the earth in our area. It never occurred to me before, living in Colombia, that preserving was a thing, we have two seasons there – rainy and not rainy – and unless there are severe floods or landslides, or government manipulation of the goods {that’s a totally different subject not to bore you with at this moment}, we have the same foods available year round, so why would I ever worry about preserving back then. Now it’s different. I live in a place with seasons, and I’m learning the true meaning of seasonality. 

Continue reading Rustic Peach Crostata, with Shiro Plums and Chamomile Honey

Heirloom Tomato Salad + Garden Lessons: Diversity

Summer reaches its peak when the markets begin to fill with tomatoes. Our garden tomatoes are still green, as each cultivar fills in with new blossoms and sets fruit. At the market were we go there’s a farm stand that each week displays an array of tomato cultivars with a rainbow of yellow, orange, purple, pink, green, red, tie-dye, and multiple shades of colors, shapes of cherry, grape, elongated, round, boat and even deformed, flavors high in acid and sweetness, and nuances I never knew existed. All different, all beautiful, all tomatoes. 

tomatobasilsalad

This year we planted five different tomato cultivars: cosmonaut, speckled roma, black cherry, cherokee purple, and pink Berkeley tie-dye, to create a microsystem of diversity and insure a harvest for different uses. The speckled roma to make sauce, the cherry tomatoes to sprinkle in salads or make a quick pasta pomodoro, the cherokee purple and cosmonaut to slice in big slabs and eat simply adorned with a sprinkle of salt. Next to them we planted a couple of miniature red and yellow pepper plants, a few purple, globe, genovese, and lemon basil plants to impart flavor {or so I read}, and marigolds to ward off pests. Purslane made its home sharing space underneath the tomatoes helping break the hardpan, clay Colorado soil, while growing deep roots and releasing nutrients from the sublayer. 

Continue reading Heirloom Tomato Salad + Garden Lessons: Diversity

Living Paris

Paris is a place to celebrate big milestones; our tenth wedding anniversary, my 40th birthday, our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and my husband’s 40th birthday. Each trip devoted to learning more about the city, walking its streets, sitting at a café and drinking a few glasses of house rosé or a couple of coffees, visiting the farmer’s market and fantasizing about having a small flat around the 3rd or 11th arrondissement from where we could walk to the bakery every morning and buy croissants and pain au chocolat, or go to the market on the weekends to buy fish and groceries and flowers and sit on a bench eating an authentic falafel wrap. Each trip is an attempt at Living Paris

The RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to Paris links the reality of a heavily diverse city to our fantasies of french speaking, macarons, and duck confit. La Gare Du Nord is a chaotic, organized mess where patrons rush through walking highways to the train platforms. Underground the city is ugly, unsettling, and real. 

The city up the stairs is a breath of fresh air. Out of its cavernous veins the dream of Paris becomes a reality. 

Les Marais 
Our first trip we rented a studio apartment in Les Marais neighborhood near the Arts et Métiers train station. I love that station. Copper walls that arch around the ceiling holding cooper wheels and pinions suspended beneath the ancient streets, and the submarine-like windows displaying magical images from Jules Verne’s science fiction books.

My husband got up early each morning to try the different bakeries around the block until he finally settled for Earnest and Valentine, the pain au chocolat won him over. From our studio on the Rue Montgolfier we walked to Rue de Bretagne to buy groceries and rotisserie chicken for lunch or dinner, depending on our plans for the day. On the same street we found the Marché des Enfant Rouges, an indoor market and dining hall, and around the corner we lunched on bento boxes at Nanashi Asian Bistro.

Continue reading Living Paris

Black Lentil and Bulgur Salad with Carrot Greens Pesto

Even with its unbearable heat waves, summer is a luxurious time of year. I wish I could grab it by its tail, harness it and slow it down. I love the flowers in every yard, walkway and park. The plants bearing fruits and vegetables, and the farmers bringing their best to the market.

With July gone, we are down to August and September, and then is winter. Unless we get a long enough fall to drown our sorrows before the snow stars to pile. I shouldn’t be thinking about winter and should just enjoy the present, the hot weather, and the abundance from the land.

My new weekly ritual includes a trip to the Union Station Farmers Market, which is proving educational. We’ve had markets in Denver on previous years, but none that accumulated the quantity and quality of locally grown produce that this, new to the city, market is bringing.

For years, I envied the Boulder and Longmont markets, and traveled at last once a month during the summer to indulge on buying produce grown just a few miles away; now they travel every Saturday to bring their produce to us in Denver.

union station farmers market denver

Many meals and cooking ideas spring every week based on what’s available, a concept I didn’t follow particularly close before I challenged myself to cook the majority of our meals using only seasonal produce. By seasonal, I mean whatever is in season around me, or at least in the United States especially during the winter months, not including Hawaii, I haven’t bought a pineapple in years, and not including snow and sticks from our Colorado winter harvest.

Some meals are simple variations using, for example, different types of cucumbers {which just this year, after 15 years in the U.S. and 13 of those in the kitchen I found they are nicknamed “cukes”} like lemon cucumbers in a cucumber-tomato salad dressed with carrot greens pesto.

lemon cucumbers

Other meals, like this Bulgur and Lentil Salad, are born out of the necessity for an easy to take lunch that’s nutritious and simple to make, all while providing a punch of flavor to keep me from stopping at the burrito place nearby for a second snack. Continue reading Black Lentil and Bulgur Salad with Carrot Greens Pesto

Pig Talk

The 289 lb pig carcass laid on the chef’s counter, cut in half from torso to tail, bagged, and headless. The head, I heard, sat in the walking refrigerator outside the restaurant, where the delivery person from the farm left it a few minutes before I arrived.

Part of the curriculum of the class I taught during spring semester included meats and fish, and the art of butchering, a knowledge not associated with those of us who spend our time with flour and sugar, and building cakes and tarts, and I had a few weeks to learn a lifetime of skills.

Pig trotters

For weeks, I had recurring nightmares of butchering the animals into inadequate and unrecognizable pieces, or having the slippery fish coming back to life to chew my fingers off as I tried to skin it in a classroom full of students.

At that point my choices were:

  • Call in sick the day before each protein class and risk loosing my job,
  • Take sleeping pills so at least the nightmares would go away, even if my skills didn’t improve,
  • Spend hundreds of dollars buying entire hogs and countless fish, plus the refrigeration system to store them
  • Or, Find experts who could instruct me in the art of butchering

Continue reading Pig Talk

Lemony Carrot Greens Pesto

carrot greens and curry pesto

The garden glows. Spring harvest past its prime with the last few peas the bunnies stole and the bolted radishes and arugula left behind, giving way to beans, tomatoes, squashes, peppers, and the heat of summer.

potted eggplant

The Union Station Farmers Market bustles. With growers from Boulder, Longmont, Hygiene, Larkspur and more towns I can’t even recall, and patrons eager to taste the local harvest. Carrots and beets from Cure Organic Farms, mushrooms from the Mile High Fungi, cherries from Ela Family Farms, are just a few of the goods I found.

garden lavender

This season I’m striving to try every vegetable I see and every new, to me, idea I’ve read, like using carrot greens, for example. I’m guilty of composting the tops of many vegetables, unaware of their delicious possibilities in the kitchen. It makes me wonder, what do Colombians do with all of those tops? Feed them to animals? I have never seen a beet or radish green in the markets there and it never occurred to me they could be used in cooking.

using carrot greens

Continue reading Lemony Carrot Greens Pesto

Budget Grocery Shopping

One of the assignments for one of the classes I teach at the school is a scavenger’s hunt. The students have to go to different grocery stores and look for the price of different cuts of meats from different animals, analyze and compare. They found that there are “less desirable” cuts of meat, like chicken legs or shoulder-blade chops, to name just a couple, that have great amounts of flavor and are sold at a much lower price per pound than, say, chicken breast or pork tenderloin, because they require too much cooking or are perceived as difficult to cook.

ingredients for vegetarian french cassoulet

The most interesting part of this exercise, to me, is that in many cases the prices don’t change drastically from store chain to store chain. It does, however, change based on the quality and demand of the product. For example, organic, boneless chicken breast, the most popular piece of animal protein in the U.S., is between $5.99-$6.99 dollars per pound across the different store chains, compared to chicken legs at $2.49 dollars per pound at whole foods.

If we do the same thing for other items, like legumes, for example, we can see that 1-15 oz can of black beans costs an average $1.50 dollars, at any store, twice as much if it’s an organic product, $2.50-3.00 dollars. Now, the net weight specified on the label is not the food weight we get, consumer report did a test and found that most canned foods have an average of 40% of that weight in the liquid that we throw down the drain, so we end up with a little over a cup of cooked beans.

In comparison, a pound of organic dried black beans costs an average $2.25 dollars. Continue reading Budget Grocery Shopping

Whole Grain Banana-Chocolate Bundt cakes

Once in a while the grocery store where I shop has ‘brownish’ bananas on sale, as it happened a couple of weeks ago, so I buy enough to make a few loaves of banana bread.

The desperate look of the in-need-of-a-home bananas brakes me every time and I end up sheltering more than enough to make the usual banana bread, plus some other quick bread variation that I could serve for afternoon tea or even dinner; banana-chocolate bread baked in mini bundt pans fools anyone into thinking is dessert.

chocolatebananabread

The whole wheat and rye flours hide behind the dark {extra-brut} cocoa powder and the chunks of 68% chocolate giving it a sense of indulgence, plus lowering the sugar allows the chocolate flavor to shine and support the bananas as the first act.

chocolatebananaminibunts

Continue reading Whole Grain Banana-Chocolate Bundt cakes

A Weekend in Los Angeles

The scent of the orange, mandarin and lemon trees’ blossoms from the backyard of our friend’s house in Los Angeles filled the air with the sweetness of a long-awaited California beach vacation.

fresh of the tree oranges

The morning sun and the eight pound dogs running around the house woke us up as the bed covers insisted we stayed in a little longer after a night of blackberry and bubbles’ slushy cocktails at a nearby bar with an outdoor game room and an adjacent art gallery filled with millennials taking selfies and playing video games on a giant screen. My head empty with sleep and only the ocean waiting with a dose of sun and adventure could break my inertia.

The Hike
We drove to Malibu looking for the Solstice Canyon National park, right off the Pacific 1 Highway. Continue reading A Weekend in Los Angeles