Thursday, June 30, 2011

Aspen Water Tastes Better

The insistent marketing of Fiji Water in Aspen has infuriated me. Aspen tap water comes from local mountain springs, and trucks aren't necessary to bring it up the mountain, nor boats to bring it from distant exotic islands. Fiji Water sponsors many of the Aspen events, thus buying the right to have its logo all over town. I think it's shameful! Aspen tap water is delicious.

Today I was happy to read (here) that the city of Aspen is rolling out an effort to create appreciation for their own local water. According to a city official: "When people talk about bottled water, they have this image that comes from mountain streams and pristine environments, and they don't realize that's exactly where Aspen's tap water comes from."

Like several national parks that I visited lately, Aspen is installing "filling stations" where tourists and locals are encouraged to fill their re-usable water bottles instead of buying plastic ones and throwing them away. The city is selling stainless steel bottles with the logo "Aspen Tap" and the words “Better Than Bottled.” The national parks have also instituted a policy that park-located shops sell only re-usable bottles, not bottled water, a policy that wouldn't work in a city with private enterprise. I hope that they can counter the pernicious advertising efforts.

Wrap up: Simple Cooking

During our 3 weeks in Aspen (we leave Sunday), I've been paying a lot of attention to the contrast between elaborate restaurant meals and simple, more healthful home cooking -- as I've mentioned. When we arrived, I set myself a challenge: to cook without many condiments, spices, and extra ingredients; that is, I've been trying to buy only plain, unprocessed foods that are intended to be eaten at one or two meals. I'm avoiding a lot of food that normally remains on the shelf or in the refrigerator and would go to waste when I leave. Even peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or hot dogs with crisp rolls and mustard qualify for my simple fare.

Here are a few things I've done. One night, I flavored pan-fried lamb sirloin with strips of red pepper, and served it with mustard, a few tomato wedges and sprigs of cilantro, and a side of steamed broccoli.

For dessert we ate fruit: cut-up cantaloupe, and strawberries. The cantaloupe was unadorned, but I glazed the berries with a mixture of 1/3 cup apricot jam (initially destined for PB&J) and 2 tablespoons of my wonderful wine vinegar made from Italian Pinot Grigio. I heated the glaze in a pyrex cup in the microwave so that it would melt together and be able to coat the strawberries. Sugar would be easier -- but bulk items like sugar or flour weren't on my very short list of pantry staples.

Another day, I made meatballs with sweet-sour sauce from some moderately low-fat ground beef.

To make the meatball mixture, I had no flour or prepared bread crumbs, but I crushed a few AkMak sesame crackers to serve that purpose. Besides fixing the texture, this gave the meat balls a bit of sesame flavor. Other ingredients: an egg, some chopped onion, and of course my Spanish smoked paprika and Trader Joe's salt, the two trusty spices I brought with me. The meatball mixture also had a tablespoon or two of the sweet-sour sauce I made. In this: a can of prepared organic tomato sauce, a drizzle of my wonderful vinegar, a shake of salt and paprika, and 2 purloined packets of brown sugar from a cafe (yes, that's cheating, I know, but I did buy a cup of coffee). I sauteed the meatballs in a bit of olive oil and added the sauce, which I'd heated in the microwave. Garnish again: tomato and fresh cilantro. On the side: fresh pineapple chunks also from the supermarket.

Not all restaurant cooking is that much different, though it frequently has considerably more added fat and salt. Here is an admittedly delicious restaurant salad at Mezzaluna restaurant that wasn't that much more complex than my concoctions:

The restaurant salad did contain quite a few more ingredients than most of my productions. The price was also a lot higher than cooking at home -- the overwhelming cost of restaurant meals is another motivating factor here in Aspen more than most places.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Aspen Restaurants Again

Last night we celebrated Elaine's birthday at a restaurant called "Elevation." It was excellent. Seating was in a courtyard above the actual restaurant, which seems to be in a basement. The food was excellent, and so was the service. The first course, charcutrie, was house-made and wonderful:


One of our main courses:


Elaine's dessert with a birthday sparkler:


Click on any of these to see the flickr set with more photos.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Eating Out in Aspen

The restaurants in Aspen are all very good. Some are famous, and some are known for their famous clients. I've already described how we also like quietly eating simpler things in our condo -- tuna and vegetable salad, chicken strips, seared lamb chops with broccoli, and always cereal for breakfast.

The first time we ate out, we tried a very nice but unremarkable Mexican restaurant called Palapa, which didn't seem very photogenic. I'd be surprised if it's frequented by the Aspen elite either, but one never knows around here.

Last weekend, we bicycled to the very quirky Woody Creek Tavern, around 6 miles down the extraordinary Rio Grand Trail. Woody Creek Tavern is known for home-style food in an eccentric atmosphere. The walls are entirely covered with trinkets, photos, notes from customers, and posters -- such as one of their most famous customer, the late Hunter Thompson, who ran for sheriff in 1970.

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We also ate dinner one night at the famous Ajax Tavern at the foot of the Gondola which carries skiers in winter and hikers in summer. I suspect that celebrities do come here but I'm not much good at spotting them. Ajax Tavern's green gazpacho was delicious.

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Here's the Ajax Tavern kitchen/staging area:

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The Ajax Tavern has a lot of trendy dishes, such as truffle-oil-flavored french fries and reimagined ice cream bars:
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For lunch one day, right near our condo, I tried Mezzaluna, a small cafe with a very nice patio and very appealing menu. I love the way the trees cast shadows on the big cafe awnings. My salad was very good, and I hope to go back and try their pizza.

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For access to the entire Flickr photo set -- lots more photos of each place -- click on any photo here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Picnic Game from Louise

Louise at the blog Months of Edible Celebrations is hosting a picnic!! She just announced this game today, inviting bloggers to celebrate by bringing a full alphabet of picnic treats. Louise assigned me the letter A: I'm "baking" for the picnic even though my reality right now is a condo in Aspen, Colorado, where I have no pantry supplies whatsoever. I'm looking forward to getting home in a few weeks, and baking in my own kitchen where I keep flour, baking powder, and where I have many baking dishes!

Well, I'm going on this virtual fantasy picnic, and I'm bringing:


Other bloggers will be bringing foods from B to Z.

Here is a photo and recipe:

Apricot (or Peach) Cobbler
Preheat oven to 400°F.

Make the filling first:

1 1/2 lb ripe apricots or 9 to 10 ripe peaches
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (2 for peaches)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon or lime juice
3/4 teaspoon almond extract

Cut apricots in quarters. (Or peel the peaches and cut in 6-8 slices each). Toss all the ingredients together in a 9-inch round or square glass or ceramic baking dish. Let stand until juicy, about 30 minutes or as long as it takes to make the topping.

For topping:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar mixed in
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk OR 1/2 c. milk plus a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar
2 or more teaspoons of cinnamon-sugar for sprinkling.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar in a bowl. Blend in the butter with your fingertips or a knife until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the buttermilk with a fork just until combined. Do not overmix.

Drop rounded tablespoons of dough on top of the filling; leave spaces in between the blobs to allow topping to expand. Sprinkle with remaining 2 teaspoons cinnamon-sugar.

Bake cobbler in 400 degree oven until fruit is tender and topping is golden, about 30 minutes. Cool slightly, about 15 minutes, and serve warm with ice cream.


While I'm thinking about apricots and what I could do with them -- another good picnic dish with apricots would be a traditional Polish fruit cake. Similar recipes appear in many traditional Eastern European cuisines -- I always knew it as a Jewish tradition before friends gave me a Polish cookbook a couple of years ago.

I include a scan of the cake recipe, with my notes on how to make the depicted cake:

Click on this copy of the cake recipe with my notes to see a full-sized version.

Even Simpler

Continuing to report on how I cook in condo with good cooking equipent, but starting with a completely empty pantry and frige -- last night, I made the least-demanding dish there could be: scrambled eggs with red peppers, mushrooms, and chopped cilantro, seasoned only with salt. On the side: a salad and some French bread. As I've mentioned, the oil and vinegar for the salad are the basics that I always get for a temporary kitchen. Instead of mustard I used some Colorado goat cheese -- a very nice cheese that I've not seen outside the state.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


As I walked around the streets near our condo, I noticed this Fiji water being delivered to the Aspen Food and Wine Classic. Several drums of it stood under a huge semi-truck -- one of many delivering supplies to the big tents in several locations. All over Aspen, I see preparations for this event, which is happening this weekend. I'm not a food professional: no one would pay the $1200 admission fee for me to attend. So I'm outside the big tents.

Fiji water in Aspen: this is apppaallling!!!! Think of the energy this big truck expended bringing the water up to the Rocky Mountains, and the energy expended bringing the water by boat from Fiji. I know the owners of Fiji Water are really good at promotion, and sometimes questioned about its ethics; but really, how did they sell this...

Aspen has the most delicious pure water I've ever tasted running out of the taps. It wells up in fountains in the streets:

All around us are high mountains, and the snow is melting and pouring down in little rushing trickles, rivulets and bigger streams. I'm sure it's purified a bit before going into the city water system, but probably needs very little.

Thursday morning we took a long hike to the Maroon Bells, where water was running through the meadows and coursing through the little mountain lakes. Water everywhere -- and somehow they are bringing it from Fiji. Maybe it's emblematic of the type of thing that's going on at the Food and Wine Classic, but I'll never know.

Cooking with basic ingredients

Last night I cooked two dishes: baked chicken with Spanish smoked paprika (I brought it with me from Santa Barbara) and Gratin Dauphinoise, my favorite potato dish. I learned this Alpine dish when I was in Grenoble, France, so it's appropriate to make it here in the Rocky Mountains, I think. Also, it requires no special condiments or spices. It's made of sliced potatoes, a chopped shallot (could be onion or garlic), milk (I discovered long ago that it's good with skim milk though the authentic version uses cream), real gruere cheese, and butter. I heat the milk with a bit of salt and pour it over the vegetables, cheese, and butter, which are layered in the baking dish. After baking it for an hour at 300, I turned it up to 425 and put the chicken in the oven. That's it: very basic.

So far, here are the only condiments I have:

Mayonnaise, olive oil, white wine viengar, Dijon mustard. And you can see my temporary kitchen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Food and Art in Spain

In today's New York Times I read an article about Spanish restaurants: After El Bulli, Spain Looks Forward. The description of Spanish restaurants that may become famous or popular after El Bulli closes included a description of a dish called the Mondrian. It intrigued me with its intersection of food and art.

The Mondrian comes from a restaurant called Sant Pau where: "dishes like a gorgeous, lightly jelled Mondrian made from green almonds, red peppers and olives, and a juicy chunk of roasted foal (horsemeat is not unusual on local menus) are jammed with flavor."

Obviously I'm not among the few hundred people per year who have eaten at El Bulli during its long season of fame (or notoriety), and I'm not really that interested in its closing. However, it was an example of the most extreme gap between restaurant food and what I am tempted to call real food. I'll get back to blogging about my basic, limited-ingredient, not-at-all-like restaurant cooking tomorrow. Today was the group picnic for the workshop Len is attending -- to which we brought some quite good sausages and crisp rolls. The organizers supplied us with relish and catsup -- not even those are currently in my small larder.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Back to Basics

Well, here we are in a condo in Aspen for 3 weeks. As is normal for such rentals, the kitchen is pretty well-equipped but NO food at all is left between occupants. I've done this in temporary condos before -- stocking a pantry and frige without spending a fortune on stuff that will be thrown away when I leave.

This is a real challenge. How can one make simple meals with only a few ingredients. Home cooked food can use better materials, as I discussed in the previous post. But how to give them full-scale flavor? I thought I would keep track of what I did to try to make food that we'll like better than restaurant food.

The nearest market (half a block from here) is called City Market, but it's really a Krogers. Last night when we first arrived, I bought some flavored rolls, sliced beef (of my preferred brand, Applegate), gruere cheese, a tub of whipped butter, and prepared potato salad. For dessert: strawberries and cookies. I also bought a box of cereal, coffee, milk, and orange juice. Somehow I brought my Trader Joe's Himalayan salt grinder with me.

Tonight I needed to start cooking. Happily, City Market had a special on wild-caught Alaska salmon that they said came in today. I bought a pound of the salmon, various vegetables, a sour-dough bread, and three basics: olive oil, vinegar, and mustard. In the apartment's handy no-stick pan, I seared the salmon in a bit of olive oil, salted it a little, and covered it til done. Then I swirled in a spoonful of my butter and a splash of wine from my glass. (We had one bottle of Santa Barbara white wine that we babied in the hot car for the whole week on the way here!) Salad: avocado, lettuce, fresh cilantro leaves, tomato, and classic vinaigrette I made from the oil, vinegar, and mustard. The bread was good with a sop of the butter sauce -- after all, we're at home.

Yes! The flavor of the simply-prepared never-frozen Alaska salmon beats every piece of fish I've recently tasted in any restaurant. The salad is fresher. And the total dinner is lighter and more enjoyable -- at least I think so. I'll be using the oil, vinegar, mustard, and cilantro in lots of ways.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Excellent Point!

I've been traveling and eating all my meals in restaurants (or just crackers and peanut butter or something like that). So I appreciated this point from the Atlantic food section:
"I'm perturbed that people have gotten so turned around that they think restaurant food is the best food, and that today's modern, self -aware 'foodie' thinks that the highest level of cooking is to cook restaurant-style food in the home. Even in the finest restaurants, restaurant food, while delicious and deserving of its place as entertainment and theater, is really not the best food at all. It's over-sauced and over-salted and over-rich, because the only thing restaurant chefs have to worry about is that the food tastes exquisite on the table. They don't have to worry about whether you should eat less salt and fat or eat more vegetables or if you are consuming trans fats or saturated fat or petroleum. Even very good restaurants buy industrial commodity chicken and veal bones for their stock, and bulk up the plate with cheap commodity vegetables. What you pay for in most restaurants is for the transformation from ordinary into good or exquisite. And one of the ways that food is transformed is through copious amounts of butter, salt, and stocks." -- from Why Home-Style Cooking Will Always Beat Restaurant-Style

Friday, June 10, 2011

Zion Lodge Restaurant

The terrace of the restaurant at Zion Lodge has a magnificent view of the cliffs that overshadow the valley. Besides the view, the restaurant offers a very nice menu of Southwest-style food: I enjoyed the quesadilla.

As we ate, the sun still vividly lit the eastern wall, though the cliffs to the west had been in the shadows since shortly past noon. Look carefully at the wine glass: you can see the reflection of the cliff!

Morning Snack

This squirrel was amusing the hikers this morning as he pulled seed-filled grass stalks towards him and munched away. We saw him on the trail along the Virgin River at the rock formation called the Temple of Sinagawa in Zion National Park. The scenery is spectacular!

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Evening Meal

The scenery here at Zion National Park is spectacular. The last rays of the sun were still shining on the highest parts of the steep walls when we saw this young deer browsing on tree shoots.

Monday, June 06, 2011


The holiday of Shavout begins this evening. The LA Times ran a very interesting article about foods for the holiday: "Shavout: A Feast for Body and Soul." One of my interests is the history of foods for Jewish holidays and celebrations -- and also cooking and eating them. Shavout, a grain-and-fruit-harvest festival, has an especially rich tradition of foods and complex history of what and why people chose them.

In Biblical times, bread was the main food for Shavout. After the Temple fell, Rabbinic scholars shifted the significance of the holiday to a celebration of the giving of the Torah: "Searching through the Bible like employees at a 'CSI' crime lab, they found clues that proved to them that the ancient harvest festival had actually coincided with a crucial 'spiritual harvest' as well: What the Israelites 'reaped' at Shavuot was the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai."

Still later, the Shavout food tradition morphed again, and dairy foods appeared as the centerpiece of the holiday table. As a secular Jew, I enjoy the complicated explanations for why this is the tradition (as well as liking to eat them). For example, it's said that the Jews waiting for Moses didn't know about dietary laws until the Torah was delivered. To celebrate, they had to make a kosher meal -- but had no time for kosher slaughter that had just been explained to them. What to do? Eat blintzes.

I also like the more historic explanations, such as those in the L.A. Times article and those I wrote about last year here: Blintzes for Shavout. This post is also on my other blog for today.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Super Cucas and Its Opposite


We really enjoyed the burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas, and green and red salsas at Super Cuca's Taqueria, quite near our temporary home in Santa Barbara. It's a completely informal place -- order at the counter, eat in a kind of garden area or take it home, which we've done a couple times. Cucas' kitchen makes a much more interesting photo subject than the food.



Cucas' also has a grocery section with an outstanding selection of fresh and dried chiles:


Earlier this week, we had a very different meal at the elegant French-California restaurant called Bouchon. Local food is their focus. The chef shops at the same farmer's market where I've spent almost every Tuesday afternoon. Probably he was one of the guys I saw with a wheelbarrow or other huge conveyance, buying in large quantities.

I've eyed the artistically arranged red and yellow beets at various farmers' stalls each week: at Bouchon, I ordered the beet salad with local greens and a sort of croquette made of wonderfully flavored cheese:


I love the contrast between delicious but informal tortilla-based food to eat with coke or beer, and special boutique-y food with local wine pairings. Other dishes in our Bouchon meal included rillettes of duck (Len's appetizer), local sea bass for Len and a duck main dish for me, and a meyer-lemon bread pudding and a blood-orange-and-strawberry tarte for dessert.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Government Nutrition Advice

Does anyone but me find it funny that the new government graphic of advice on what to eat looks like the one they used during World War II? Note in case you need it: the new one has a website listed on it. The Ancient one lists butter as a food group.