Tag Archives: Colorado

TWICE-BAKED POTATOES

There were a few more items in our fairly bare cupboard when we returned from our Colorado visit. Besides, I was holding off a trip to the grocery store for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I felt a bit lazy.

I found two russet potatoes, and baked potatoes came to mind. They are certainly easy, but they also seemed a little boring. Twice-baked potatoes use almost exactly the same ingredients, but somehow they seem a little more festive, so that’s what I decided to do.

Just out of the oven

Just out of the oven

Ready to eat

Ready to eat

RECIPE

Twice-Baked Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 2 large russet potatoes, scrubbed
  • vegetable shortening
  • 2 slices bacon
  • 4 crimini mushrooms, chopped coarsely
  • 4 tablespoons butter + more for the topping
  • ¼ cup cream
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 1 small shallot, finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated
  • salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup bread crumbs
  • ¼ cup  freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method

  1. Rub the potatoes all over with vegetable shortening, pierce on both sides in several places with a kitchen fork and place on a baking rack in the middle of an oven preheated to 350°F. Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes, turning once halfway through the baking. Remove from the oven and cool until the potatoes are easy to handle.
  2. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise, and with a large spoon, scoop out the flesh, leaving about ¼ inch rim intact. Try not to pierce the skin. Transfer the scooped out flesh to a large bowl. Mash coarsely with a table fork.
  3. In the meantime, sauté the bacon in a small pan over medium-low heat until crisp. Drain the bacon on several layers of paper towelling and crumble when cooled. Set aside.
  4. Drain all but about 1 tablespoon of the rendered bacon fat in the still hot pan. Add the mushrooms and sauté until cooked through. Drain and set aside.
  5. Melt the butter, and stir it into the mashed potatoes along with the cream and sour cream. Then add the shallot, garlic and Gruyère cheese. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  6. Divide the mixture evenly among the hollowed potato shells. Smooth the tops, paint with more melted butter using a pastry brush. Sprinkle evenly with bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese.
  7. Bake in the middle of the oven at 350°F for 20 minutes. Then increase the oven temperature to 400°F and continue to bake until the tops of the stuffed potatoes are browned, about 10 more minutes. Watch closely to prevent burning.
  8. Remove from the oven and serve immediately. Two potato halves make a light dinner or lunch. One potato half is a good side dish.
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FRENCH ONION SOUP AND COLORADO’S MOUNTAIN MEN

We spent a few days in Estes Park giving our sister-in-law/sister a helping hand during her recovery. Before it was time to go, we drove around town. There were sights to behold. The Stanley Hotel sits high over the town. It is a beautifully preserved white clapboard hotel of the same era as the Coronado Hotel in  San Diego and the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. It has one further attraction – it served as the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, even though the very scary movie was filmed at the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood with interiors styled after the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. Every room in the Stanley is said to be haunted, but room 217 where King stayed is the epicenter of supposed paranormal activity.

The Stanley Hotel. Ask for room 271.

The Stanley Hotel. Ask for room 271.

The other sight we enjoyed was the herds of elk grazing on the lawns of various homes in the city. The elk are not tame, but you certainly wouldn’t know it. I’m not sure that I would like elk in my front yard, especially during rutting season, although they probably enrich the soil.

Elk herd grazing in the subdivision

Elk herd grazing in the subdivision

Front yard grass is the best

Front yard grass is the best

We left Estes Park by way of the Peak-to-Peak Highway, a winding but excellent road that clings to the Front Range, including the spectacular 14’er, Long’s Peak. The day was warm; the skies were clear and deep blue; so the white snow on the peaks and the dark green of the conifer forests was truly breath-taking. We saw herds of deer and even a flock of big horn sheep.

Along the Peak-to-Peak Highway

Along the Peak-to-Peak Highway

Long's Peak

Long’s Peak

After a short bypass on I70, we headed off into South Park (the real South Park), an enormous valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks including the Collegiate Range – Mt Princeton, Mt. Harvard, and Mt. Yale. Then we headed over the pass into the San Luis Valley decorated with a wall of several 14 thousand foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. It was humbling to think that the famous Mountain Men were the first Europeans to see this country, but the names of rivers – St. Vrain , Platte – reminded us of them.

Then on to New Mexico where Kit Carson hung out, and the mountains were every bit as beautiful. When we got home we discovered catkins on our backyard aspen. Spring cannot be far away.

Aspen catkins

Aspen catkins

Unfortunately, the cupboard was bare. We had a few onions, so I decided to make French onion soup. I took some modest shortcuts with Julia Child’s recipe. It turned out to be remarkably easy, and the result was delicious. It is hard to understand why French onion soup in restaurants often tastes so bland and watery.

RECIPE

French Onion Soup

Ingredients

  • 3 medium yellow onions
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil + some for croutons
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 42 ounces beef stock
  • ½ cup dry vermouth
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2  ½-inch slices good quality bread
  • garlic powder
  • 4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated

Method

  1. Peel the onions, and with a mandoline slice into thin rounds.
  2. In a heavy pot over medium-low heat, cook the onions, covered,  in the butter and oil for 15 minutes until they are wilted and translucent but not browned.
  3. Remove the lid, stir in the salt and sugar, and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the onions are caramelized and golden brown. Stir in the flour, and cook for a few minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour.
  4. Stir in the beef stock and vermouth. Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add water if the soup gets too concentrated.
  5. In the meantime, use a pastry brush to coat both sides of the bread slices with olive oil. Sprinkle on garlic powder. Cut into ½-inch cubes and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake in the middle of a 170°F oven for 30 minutes or until the bread cubes are thoroughly dry. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  6. Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls. Arrange croutons on top. Sprinkle with the grated Gruyère and set on a baking pan. Place in the middle of an oven heated to 400°F and warm until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbling, about 5 to 15 minutes. Watch carefully to prevent burning.
  7. Remove from the oven and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

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KING RANCH CHICKEN

We have gone to Colorado to visit my sister-in-law who is recovering from a hospital stay. Since she grew up in Texas, we thought some easy-to-eat Texas comfort food would welcome her back home.

If you have ever lived in Texas, you have probably eaten King Ranch Chicken. If you have never lived in Texas, it’s likely you have not even heard of the dish. King Ranch Chicken is served at Texas weddings, funerals, conferences, and of course women’s luncheons. It has even been suggested that the Texas State Legislature should designate KRC as the official State Casserole. A major function of the legislature seems to be to recognize the official state bird, fish, tree, etc. Some wags would  suggest that that is the most important thing they do.

In spite of all this fame, it is unknown how KRC got its name. One thing seems certain: it was not invented on the legendary King Ranch in Far South Texas. That assertion has been steadfastly denied by the wife of one of the past owners. A more likely explanation seems to me to be that it was invented and named by a home cook in the 1940s or 1950s during the heyday of The Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker when a can of condensed soup was the key to elegance. Perhaps the inventor developed the recipe for her local Junior League cookbook. Versions of the recipe are certainly legion in all sorts of community cookbooks.

The first time I remember eating KRC was at a noon conference for students at a West Texas university many years ago. I don’t recall the topic of the conference, but I do remember that not a speck of the KRC remained. I also remember that it was tasty, gooey, and a little bit spicy.

There are probably as many recipes for KRC as there are Texas home cooks, but there are six key components: chicken of course, corn tortillas (though recent recipes substitute Doritos – a heresy as far as I’m concerned), cheese (some recipes swear by Velveeta), canned cream of mushroom soup, canned cream of chicken soup, and Ro*Tel. If you absolutely can’t stand the thought of canned soup, you can substitute your own homemade béchamel, but then your KRC would not be completely authentic.

Ro*Tel is another Texas invention. It was created during the 1930s in a small town near the Texas-Mexico border and not far from the King Ranch. It is a secret mix of tomatoes, green chiles, and spices. It is a key ingredient of queso dip and for years was only available in Texas. The tiny company was eventually sold to Con Agra, so now Ro*Tel should be available in every grocery store.

This version of the recipe includes two other ingredients that are not always in the recipe, but in my opinion they are both essential to Tex-Mex cooking: Mexican oregano and ground cumin. If you are not accustomed to their flavors you may find them objectionable. In that case, leave then out. Mexican oregano is different from Mediterranean oregano, and the best comes as leaves, stems, and flowers that you crush between the palms of your hands,

Some folks think KRC is too mushy. If you worry about that, cut back on the liquid. One of the beauties of KRC is that you can make the recipe your own. Then you will enjoy widespread fame throughout your neighborhood.

RECIPE

King Ranch Chicken

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 18 day-old corn tortillas
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 6 crimini mushrooms, torn into pieces
  • 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
  • 1 can Ro*Tel
  • 4 ounces canned chopped green chiles
  • 1 cup chicken stock (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons Mexican oregano, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and pepper
  •  4 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
  • sour cream
  • green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)
  • red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)

Method

  1. In a large pot, cover the chicken with salted water and bring to the boil. Cook at a low boil for 45 minutes or until the chicken is completely cooked. Cool until it is easy to handle. Then remove the skin, bones, fat, and any gristle. Cut the chicken meat into bite-sized pieces or shred with two forks. Set aside.
  2. Toast the tortillas for 15-20 seconds on both sides in a dry, hot skillet. Cut the heated tortillas in half and set aside.
  3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir for a few minutes until translucent. Then stir in the mushroom pieces and continue to cook until the mushrooms are heated through and well-cooked. Stir in the mushroom soup, chicken soup,, Ro*Tel, green chiles, optional chicken stock, oregano, and cumin. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir well and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for assembly of the casserole.
  4. Prepare a 9″ x 13″ x 4″ glass baking dish by spraying the inside with baking spray. Ladle a scant half cup of the soup mixture into the baking dish and spread across the bottom of the dish. Arrange 12 tortilla halves to completely cover the bottom of the dish.
  5. Arrange about half of the cut-up chicken to cover the tortillas. Then top with a little less than half of the soup mixture. Top with about one-third of the grated cheeses.
  6. Arrange another layer of tortilla halves, topped with the remaining chicken and more soup mixture, reserving about 3/4 cup for the top, and half the remaining cheeses. Dot with teaspoonfuls of sour cream.
  7. Arrange a final layer of tortilla halves. Top with the remaining soup mixture and cheeses.
  8. Decorate if desired with the optional bell pepper rings.
  9. Bake for one hour in the middle of an oven preheated to 350ºF, until the top is well-browned and bubbling. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, and serve immediately.

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NATIVE PLANTS. DURANGO, CO

For the past few days we have been in Durango, Colorado for the annual meeting of the New Mexico Native Plant Society. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? The story goes that nearby Farmington, New Mexico sits in the desert and oil patch of northwest New Mexico with limited native plants. Durango feels isolated from the rest of the Colorado Native Plant Society but has an abundance of native plants. The two cities decided to merge their membership in New Mexico. On top of that, Durango lies at the base of the San Juan Mountains, arguably the most beautiful range of the Colorado Rockies. The mountains are filled with old-growth forests, spectacular wild flowers, and stunning trails. Besides, Durango is a quaint gold and silver mining town from the 1880s with a lot of beautiful Victorian buildings. It is the center for river trips down the Animas River, hub for mountain bikers, and the terminus of the famous Durango and Silverton Rail Road, a vintage narrow-gauge train that takes passengers on a scenic trip through the San Juans to another old mining town, Silverton. With all of that going on, it was not surprising that the meeting sold out well in advance.

At these annual gatherings, Susan always goes to the meetings and field trips. I never do either one. I usually strike out on my own for a private photo shoot. This year was no different except that I didn’t wander that far afield. Because of a crash of my Adobe Lightroom software, I wound up having to post some images from my iPad and iPhone. Apologies for the quality.

The first night we ate at the Mahogany Grille of the Strater Hotel. This landmark was built in 1887 and has been lovingly and beautifully preserved. We were looking forward to our experience, because the restaurant promised fine dining in an antique setting. We were not disappointed with the room, but the dining did not really fulfill the concept of fine dining. For starters, the place was jammed with tourists in short shorts, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Durango is a classic summer tourist town overwhelmed by huge extended families of  all ages, sizes, dress, and demeanor.

The host sat us at a very private booth in the back of the room, so that took care of the crowds problem. The menu sounded very interesting with bruschetta and various toppings, elk chops, lots of grilled meats, corn chowder and what sounded like tasty salads. The kitchen gave it a good effort, but my glazed salmon came out dry and a little burned on the bottom, and Susan’s Colorado trout (That should be local and straightforward) came out so dry that Susan had to ask for some melted butter as a sort of sauce. All in all, a bit of a disappointment, but still a pleasant experience in a great old hotel.

The next night was another story. We were staying in the student apartments at Fort Lewis College, located on a mesa top with the San Juans as a backdrop. A lovely, if Spartan, setting. Because of the long day of walking behind us, we decided to try the college’s “All You Can Eat Buffet” at the student center. The choices included the mashed potato bar with cheese, sour cream and bacon bits, the salad bar, pizza, and the night’s special: tamale pie with grilled chicken. I had forgotten what dorm food can taste like. This brought back memories of my youth. We did not go back for seconds. In fact, we didn’t finish firsts. But the high school and college students who were participating in summer programs seemed to love it. Of course, their favorite was the pizza.

Here are a few of my food images from our two dining-out experiences as well as some shots from my trip along the route of the D&SRR and the San Juan Mountains.

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