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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I eat Denver

I apologize profusely to my very few dedicated readers, to myself and to the world that has been without my written voice for some time now. My life has been a busy one as of late: buying a house, looking for employment and lots of little ventures into the mountains in a fleeting search for snow. I have also been dedicating myself, full-time, to buying and eating as much of Denver as is humanly possible. I have spent the last ten years of my life in small towns, and while I love certain things about each one, none of them had the stuff that a city does: I have seen about twelve shows since touching down here, (some great: The Wheel, Tune-Yards, Stella Star...Some lackluster: Brett Dennen, Mason Jennings) I have officially become a member of most every museum and/or group that I have come across and I am attempting to eat the entirety of Denver. The restaurants that I have come across have run the gamut from sexy and delicious to simply a good attempt, but none have been terrible. All the chefs are trying their damnedest to carve out a little personality niche in the local food scene. There is a heaping amount of young energy in the food, decor and general mood of the restaurants, and I think it is a great lens with which to view Denver. In no particular order, I will reminisce about my chompings....

I must jump on the bandwagon a bit, and give some props to my neighborhood, the Highlands, for dropping some serious food knowledge on the 303. Sushi Hai, Vita, Venue Bistro, Duo, Felix's are doing a sincere job of pushing out great food and my two ultimate favorites are absolutely killing it: Root Down and Masterpiece Delicatessen. Root Down is arguably the hottest spot in Denver, and definitely the most talked about. I casually attempted a Tuesday reservation for two last week, not a chance. Root Down takes place in a renovated auto mechanics shop, with the backwaiters and bussers rocking the short-sleeved, polyester, rectangular name-tagged shirts. The atmosphere is mod, and nearly a bit too hip, but pulls it off, with large format paintings and colorful found art (30 or so old phones on one wall and paint/oil can lids mosaic-ing a wall in the private dining room). The food is fun, playing the neo-American, local, organic, sexied up comfort food angle quite well. I'm a sucker for the Beet 3-ways salad (pickled, fried, roasted with Etorki cheese, sheeps deliciousness) and then the small plates: the Smoked Organic Portobello Gyoza with the Soy Milk Dunk rock my world everytime without fail. Simple as can be, but ridiculous...get it. The Seared Gnocchi Cakes are crunchy and spiced just right and the Lamb Meatballs with the Herbed Chickpea Broth can be amazing as well as a bit overdone, I guess it depends on the night. Entrees have some interesting options, but I say stick with the small plates, lots of em. Croissant Bread Pudding with Sour Cream Ice Cream owns the dessert realm, believe that.

Masterpiece Deli has been my jam for around two years. A friend of mine worked there, and would bring me butcher paper wrapped sandwiches whenever he would come to Steamboat. The Deli is all business when youre there, some cute paintings but pretty utilitarian. A rockin fleet of tattooed employees keep the food moving, and the food is super gangster. Everything is around $9, and everything is worth it. I usually stick with the (12 hour) Braised Beef Brisket sandwich, dripping with meaty jus on a fresh baguette, or the Seared Ahi Tuna, with Asian slaw on an English Muffin - Morimoto meets Mary Poppins, how could it go wrong?! But, I must admit, if I'm up, (and perhaps a touch hungover) breakfast is where simplicity shines at Masterpiece. The sandwiches come on a bagel or english muffin, with an heirloom egg, cheese and killer meat/umami options: sauteed wild mushrooms (that's me baby), applewood smoked bacon, Taylor pork roll, pastrami...its all good. The heirloom egg bleeds deliciously all over the plate after the first bite, life is dandy! I suggest stopping by Living the Sweet Life bakery next door for a cupcake, the girls are cute and the chocolate is beautiful.

To venture out of my neighborhood, which Highlanders are known to do on very rare and momentous occasions, the grazing to be had is colorful and vast. Stuebens, Snooze, Fruition, Organixx, Potager (bringing that true, local flavor), Cucina Colore, Sputniks (late night sweet potato fries, SICK!), Bistro One, Marczyks (Local food, wine galore, nice fonts...) - Point is, theres lots. I have probably eaten at a bunch that aren't coming to me, or I had too much wine, lo siento amigos. For the time being, I'll talk about a place that I dug hard recently. Beatrice and Woodsleys. No sign in front. It looks kind of like an art gallery on acid from outside. There are old chainsaws murdering the liquor shelves. I love it. We bellied up to the bar, and ordered a half bottle of pinot noir from my old Cali stomping grounds. The bartender put a little "toe" tag on the neck of the bottle, ID'ing its origins, for you to pocket on departure. All small plates, we chose about five or six, the menu reading through like a kooky Grimms fairy tale. The Sheepish Beignets (truffle ricotta batter, fried, topped with a sugary/salty gremolata), the Cheeky Bastard (Braised Veal Cheek Rillette, encased in a buttery, crunchy polenta, smokey tomato/parm jam on top) and the Stewed Garbanzo Beans (w/grilled eggplant, harissa paste and a garlicky yogurt) were inventive and inspired. The food, the atmosphere, the company and probably the wine...I felt transported and as tranquil as warm jello. As I slid out of my seat to head to the bathroom, I unwittingly entered a sort of Alice and Wonderland room of installation artwork. The bathroom doors are one with the wall, you enter by pushing a round ball and the wall becomes an entryway. The sinks have medieval chains and wood handles that you pull in one direction or another (I don't think I figured it out fully) and the water comes cascading 15 feet from the ceiling, cloying to a cluster of ball-bearing strands until it hits your hands in the basin. Where the F__K am I? I DIG it...It's hard for me not to act like a kid anyways, but this just pushed me over the edge. We left with lots of giggles and perhaps a touch of skipping on the way home.

In closing...Go/Come Eat Denver with me. I'll be doing it with or without you, so giddy up kid.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Go Farm Yourself: a Manifesto

Our food world is in disrepair. Our fellow countrymen are becoming a swollen, ignorant mass of indiscriminate consumers, bent on low prices and consequently, even lower nutritional value. Our countries kids are suffering as a bi-product, with increasingly more sedentary lifestyles as a catalyst. People in general simply do not know from where or how their food really comes to them. There are those that are fighting to bring it back to it’s origins, but their numbers pale in comparison to those pulling it further away from us. The need for people to be reintroduced to what they are eating is dire.

Plant gardens and make compost. Meet your nearby farmers and ranchers. Identify local producers of your main food items. Reuse rather than buying new.

Reprioritize. Don’t believe the hype.

Live creatively.

There was a 20% increase in 2008 of people planting home veggie gardens in America. Of course, much of this was due to the economy, but what better a way to kick-start people into action. Schools around the country are teaching kids all subjects with the garden/farm as a starting point. If the kiddos are excited about vegetables, you should be. Break out the overalls dad. I raised strawberries, garlic, tomatoes and potatoes out of an old claw foot tub in Steamboat, where the growing season is like 2 days. If you have dirt, you can have veggies. Nearly all your food and paper waste can be composted (and most others can be recycled). With minimal effort, you can have compost that is good enough to eat…and your garden will do just that. California is considering eliminating home trash bins, only to use compost and recycling containers! Compost is like veggie bling! Pimp your garden! I sit here, eating a fried green tomato with basil (and homemade queso fresco), both from a friends garden…my mouth is in lust. Go Farm Yourself!

I am just moving back to Colorado from living in Napa Valley, CA and the Olympic Peninsula, WA, (two of the most fervently growing and producing areas imaginable) and I’m knocked out by what Colorado is creating. I sat down one night last week and had Haystack Chevre (Lakewood), with beets and late season greens from a friends yard, local grass-fed beef from Mavericks and a neat Stranahans whiskey (both in Denver). Just because we have four seasons, and we’re about a mile up, by no means dictates that our stomachs must suffer. For anyone who loves food, I suggest that you take a day, and visit, or even better, work on one of our local farms. I’ve been working as a chef on a 400-acre organic farm in Wash State for the last year, and I have never known my ingredients (or the farmers that care for them) more intimately. In my estimation, I feel that local is a bit more important at this point than organic. Supporting your local foodshed and artisan producers’ keeps the money in your community, reduces wear, tear and the carbon footprint on your food and it simply tastes like where you live.

We as Americans have become well trained to discard and repurchase items the minute that they begin to fail. Though, as of late, I have noticed more duct taped, reconstituted and DIY fix jobs than ever before. The old, dusty shoe and watch repair shops are revitalized with customers not willing to let go of their trusted accoutrements. Even the hipster kids are diving into their mother’s justifiably discarded 80’s accessories, (perhaps this has little to do with sustainability, but thought I would try to give them some credit). Think about your “garbage” conscientiously. Fill your fridge with used glass and plastic water bottles, wash your Ziploc bags, install a grey water catch for use in your garden, or even make some cool, original art with the kiddos using items formerly earmarked for a landfill life. Compostable egg crate artwork?! Sustainable-chic!

Taking back our food system is a matter of reprioritization. With a bit more effort up front, (or perhaps a few cents more at the farmers market or Co-op) a considerate decision about where to buy and/or how to grow your food will reduce the overall cost in the end. The health of our population and land depends on a reinstated reverence of our food and the way in which we frame it. Listen to your body, not to commercials. Become a learned, conscientious consumer. Buy used gardening, horticulture and food books. Knowledge is sexy! Make food and life a bit more whimsical. Plant a garden, raise some chickens, compost, talk to vendors at the farmers markets, meet some new veggies, create something delicious and good for your soul! Let this be a message to the little, dreamy child in all of us: The World is our Farm, let’s care for it…and Chomp it up!

Go Farm Yourself - Mike

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Jesus hates Nipples

"I can't believe she's breast-feeding in public! Why do I have to see that?!" - some Christian Lady, on a ferry to Seattle.

I love how our country, and the religious zealots who have drawn up its moral parameters, have decided that nudity, sex and nipples (women's) should be demonized. Any bodily part, or activity has to be made private and /or inapporpriate in order to save the sanctity of our innocence. For some reason, these areas of particular concern are always those related to the most natural and life giving/creating parts of our bodies. Elbows, earlobes, the backs of knees, and a bounty of other equally unattractive body parts are allowed to be displayed in plain sight in everyday life, because they serve no higher purpose or alternate usage. If earlobes could also produce sperm or lactate, we'd all be wearing head-pants and ear-underpants in no time. If a woman is willing to feed their child in front of you, (as the woman referred to in the quote was doing, most inconspicuously) you should feel blessed to be witness to one of the most beautiful acts in life: a mother selflessly giving their child life.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Farm Terroirist

The Farm is the ultimate definition of terroir.  All that we produce is defined by the soil that it grows in, the weather in which it lives its life and who are its stewards.  I have always thought of terrior in relation to viticulture, and having the ability to taste the region from which a wine comes from.  I think that tasting the vegetables from our farm in relation to others, there is a difference.  I know how they were grown, and in what conditions, therefore, I can identify their superiority.  We live in an area in which the idea of local being better is already a commonly held belief system.  From a carbon footprint standpoint, as well as freshness, we know this is true.  Of course, for the type of vegetable, it can be a paradox.  Local is great, but I know that our tomatoes here are not half as delicious as the ones that we grew in California.  You have to grow appropriately for your microclimate.  The area in which the farm exists is a mecca for artisans.  Grown within two miles of where I live, I have available to me (all nearly year round) fresh produce, meat, eggs, cheese, milk, oysters, clams, oils, mushrooms, grains and bread.  Its an amazing dichotomy in our area, because, not but six miles away, is a five mile strip of Home Depot, Costco, Wal-Mart and Safeway; the epitome of homogenized America.   For as many people as there are that support our farm, there are ten times that patronizing each of those stores daily.  I feel that this juxtaposition is a catalyst for our farms philosophy and the change that we wish to see in our countries eating crisis. 

 The availability of any food, any time of the year in our country, has completely eliminated people’s ability to discern what “local” or “seasonal” ingredients might taste like.  The idea of the terroir of our food also reflects an innate sense of reverence for that food, that can’t be expressed when it is a food that is completely out of it’s element.  A strawberry in December is like a polar bear in California.  Depressed.  There’s no joie de vivre and as I often say, no SOUL about a lot of the vegetables that you see at Safeway; waxy and completely out of season.  People will ask me how to choose rutabagas, (or many other veggies at the market) and I will usually tell them, “You want something with character, something that has SOUL.  You’re gonna want the James Brown rutabaga, not the Barry Manilow.”  Often times the root veggies with more character, (ie. nobs, water/worm damage, or generally rougher appearances) will have a higher sugar content, as the plant has dispatched natural sugars to repair the possibly damaged root system during its growth.  A sweeter veggie, that will caramelize more quickly, and that has a distinctly higher quality of “soul”.  Food from where you are has a personality, and a distinct feeling of comfort that the consumer should and will appreciate.    

 On our farm, we create food.  The food is for everyone, and that is whom we provide it to. We are feeding our neighbors; we are giving them the bounty of the earth that they will, in one way or another, give back to.  In as much as we borrow land for our crops, we are also providing shelter for that land from development, and the area from being disrupted.  An understanding has been reached that truthful, local food can be ours, and at a sincere benefit to all involved parties.  As a business, we sell to those companies that we see fit to sell our product.  We sell to like-minded companies that are focused on our area of the world, the products that we can enjoy from it and the people that live on the land that nurtures it.  The terroir of our food not only is manifested in the direction that it comes from, but also the path that it takes.