30 December 2010

Hangover Food: A Love Story

Ever have one of those nights when you’re up too late with friends, you drink too much, then you all pass out on the floor until the dog licks your faces in the morning? With New Year's coming up, I get nostalgic about these things.  I know, it’s much more romantic and charming in your 20s than it is in your—ahem—30s, but it still happens (right? It’s not just me?) and the cure is always the same: a breakfast of protein and a little grease will slowly get you back on track. But don’t buy that “hair of the dog” crap—I’ve tried, and it's not a good idea.  Momma says no. 

I love this so much that I even make this when I’m sober. Then I have it with beer, but don’t do that in the morning! I’m watching you!

The Morning After Skillet
(feeds 4)

1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup milk
Salt and pepper
6 eggs
½ cup shredded cheese
½ cup salsa
½ can black beans
Leftover veggies (cooked green things, mushrooms, onions) if you’ve got them
A couple handfuls of tortilla chip crumbs (check the bottom of the bag, couch cushions, your friend’s cheek…)

Beat milk, salt, pepper, and cracked eggs in a bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet on medium high; oil shimmers when it’s ready. If you’re going to get ambitious and toss in vegetables, sauté them to your preferred level of doneness and then toss in the egg mixture. Stir eggs constantly (you’re scrambling them) until they’re close to done, then toss in the tortilla chips crumbs, black beans, and the salsa. Continue cooking, and stirring, until the tortilla chips are a bit soggy, then stir in the cheese. Heat until cheese is melted and divide onto plates. Top with sour cream or plain yogurt if desired.

25 December 2010

Dark Lord of Vegetables

From now on, you will please refer to me as Queen of the Socialist Tubers and Bringer of the New World Order.

Merry Christmas, Everyone!  Even you, Sarah Palin!


23 December 2010

A great place for your sushi fix in Denver

Chain restaurants are bad, right?  We can all agree that Applebee’s, Chili’s, and the like should not be encouraged to keep pushing out mediocre fatty food with our money.  Local is best, but there is this hybrid, the “local chain”, that poses a philosophical problem.  I grew up in Chicago and then moved around the Midwest in college, and it was in Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana that I learned Chicago is the home base for a lot of national chains.  But when I moved to Denver, all tucked carefully away on the other side of the Mississippi in a much less populated part of the country, I learned about the local chains that you only find in Colorado and maybe western Nebraska or Wyoming.  For me, it was a no-brainer: I had the convenience of a chain location and the consistency in food quality that is implied, and greatly appreciated on the road in an unfamiliar location, but I was still supporting the local (albeit statewide) economy.  I still prefer the really local when possible, but I will take a  trip to Rockbottom Brewery any day over Arby’s.

Since I moved here in 2006, some of these local chains have gone viral, and now my parents email to tell me about the new noodle place (Noodles and Company) or Chipotle that just opened near Aunt Joan’s house.  But some chains remain a tight community, as is the case of Sonoda’s Sushi.  They opened in the Denver area over a decade ago and are going strong in their tacky (I say this with affection), tribute-to-the-80s basement location in LoDo on Market street along with the 6th Ave & Broadway location and their suburban sites in Aurora and Park Meadows.   The fish is good (though their claim that “If it was any fresher you’d have to catch it yourself” is always dubious in this landlocked state) and so are the drinks.  I suppose if you don’t like sushi you can enjoy their wide variety of cooked items, but why would you do that?  Just kidding—their menu is huge.  I won’t think less of you. 

Sushi rolls cover the spectrum from clean and traditional to adventurous fusion influences, but they do tend toward the traditional end, meaning that if you like covering up your sushi with lots of crunchy bits, you won’t have too much choice.  When I first started drinking coffee, I didn’t really like it but I was in college and everyone was going to those insipid B.O.-filled hippy zones with acoustic music and I wanted to fit in.  So I would order a coffee (this was before the days of Caramel Macchiato and the like) and put so much sugar in it that the level of the drink was higher when I finished.  My friend Stephanie Pedretti  would  call everyone’s attention to my beverage while I was preparing it to taste less coffee-like and we all had a good laugh.  But I digress…

I really like sushi, and I want to be able to taste the fish and enjoy its texture, is what I’m saying.  And I really like Sonoda’s sushi chef in LoDo.  They make good use of their eel, which is difficult to find around here, the crab is always real (and delicious), and they have an entire vegetarian sushi menu full of enticing combinations, rather than just the usual “veggie roll” which ends up being avocado and carrot.   The house sake, served warm, is also very good.  

I do also appreciate that when I am at Sonoda’s (at least on Market Street), the food seems to be more important than the décor.  Sure, the place is clean, and I have no problems parking my fanny on the toilet seat, but the place is a little dorky.  Enormous, deep blue aquariums behind the sushi bar make me feel like I’m in an episode of Miami Vice circa 1986, and the giant checkerboard floor looks like it’s been there (though well cared for) since the ‘50s.  Coupled with that “junior high party in Kristen McKenna’s basement” look of the random cement pillars scattered around the room and the pop music piped in a little too loudly to hear your waitress, the truly fantastic food and friendly service become even more special, like you’ve stumbled into a secret gem no one knows about and it’s all just for you. 

It’s not all there for you, of course, so plan accordingly.  Happy Hour is Monday-Friday 4:30-6pm (and at the LoDo/ Market Street location, also Friday & Saturday from 10pm-12am), featuring 2 for 1 drinks—that includes large carafes of sake—and a 15-20% discount on food.  You won’t be the only one there. 

And don’t worry—I’ve cut the sugar out of my coffee.

I bought a lot of sushi the other night...please buy my book and help a seafood snob.

17 December 2010

Pass the artisan sea salt, asswipe

It may not surprise you all that much to learn that I do a fair amount of my grocery shopping at a “natural food store”.  I do, after all, live in Colorado, a state that is just littered with these places; furthermore, since I tend to eat more tahini, tempeh, and other oddities than the average Safeway shopper, it’s my only choice for said items.  I do not delude myself into thinking I’m something special for going to Sprouts instead of King Sooper’s (that’s a weird name for a store though, right?), nor do I take my shopping choices lightly.  My desire for healthy (and sometimes very fatty but exotic) food is often in direct conflict with my extreme cheapness as a human being.  

Can't you just imagine what a good
person you'd be if you shopped here?
And so it is with some trepidation that I venture out to Sprouts every week, where the floors are a blonde “beechwood” (I think they’re fake), the lighting is a mellow, earth-friendly shade of fluorescent, and all of the magazines and the skin care products have that certain smug look to them.  The sense of pride in identity when I enter these stores is palpable to me, and a fair number of the Mercedes-driving, Dansko clog-wearing, manicured and frosted clientele around me seem to be buying it along with their “free range” bacon and imported cheddar cheese. 

It would be hypocritical of me to simply mock these people, for I am, in some small way, one of them.  Yes, I’m wearing  grass-stained jeans from Goodwill and a t-shirt that says “I Love Carbs”, so I don’t think that the pretty ladies in line would like to claim me, but I am shopping there.  I just keep wondering if I have any kindred spirits—do people think critically about their journeys to the bulk section to get Muesli and bulgur wheat?   Am I the only one experiencing a mixture of satisfaction at eating tasty food and self-loathing for fueling this smug culture? 

I have been buoyed by several recent articles attempting to tackle this very issue, most of them hilariously entertaining, to boot.  A couple of years ago (but I just found it), The Independent (UK) published an article debunking popular myths about organic food.   So, did you know that organic farmers still use pesticides, just different kinds?  And organic animals certainly aren’t cleaner: “In 2006 an Austrian and Dutch study found that a quarter of organic pigs had pneumonia against 4 per cent of conventionally raised pigs; their piglets died twice as often.”  Now, I’m not saying organic piglets are weak little sissies, but it just goes to show that you have the same variety of health in every animal.  I ate casseroles based on cream of mushroom soup as a kid, and I haven’t died yet! And did you know that organically reared cows burp twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle?  Who wants to eat stinky, hippy cows who belch all the time?

This is the weird-smelling grocery
store in my neighborhood.  
Click here to enjoy Slate’s Troy Patterson rip the Planet Green network to shreds in 2008, including the pronouncement that host Adrian Grenier and his buddies are “douches”.  (And don’t even get me started on taking dietary advice from Gwyneth Paltrow.  She doesn’t even look like she enjoys food.)   It’s not the earth movement’s fault that they keep attracting douchey actors to their cause, but it does lead me to my next musing, which is: do average people shopping at Vitamin Cottage also have to be douches?  Because it sometimes seems that way.  Honestly, the old ladies at Safeway are a lot more courteous about sharing the aisle than at Sprouts, and there’s no dress code.  

Slate comes to the rescue again in a December 2009 article entitled, “Buy Local, Act Evil” Their findings?  Smug shoppers can sometimes be gigantic jerks.  In a University of Toronto study, “subjects who made simulated eco-friendly purchases ended up less likely to exhibit altruism in a laboratory game and more likely to cheat and steal.”  So, no, you are not a better person because you purchased that sulfide-free, fragrance-free shampoo at $16 per 8 ounces; you’re just poorer.  (But don’t get me wrong—if you have sensitive skin or dry hair, buy the shampoo!  It’s fine if you’re not in love with yourself because of it.)

Finally, all in the name of poking a little good, sarcastic fun, I love “Shopping for the most expensive possible dinner for two at Whole Foods”.    By taking snobbery in grocery shopping to its logical limit, author Noreen Malone manages to spend $443.48 on what sounds like a pretty weird-ass meal.  But I’m sure the locally sourced frisée at $12.77/lb. is much tastier than Romaine lettuce. 

Now, there might be some value in purchasing certain produce items from the organic section. New Jersey’s Environmental Center has a helpful guide of the most pesticide-ridden fruits and vegetables out there, and it might be worth considering skipping those chemical-drenched apples if you can get some that are slightly less beautiful and a whole lot less toxic.   And in the spirit of full disclosure, I readily spend more on Greek-style yogurt because I like it so much better than Dannon.  I cringe every time I see the price, but I do it anyway, because breakfast deserves to be a happy time.   Especially on Mondays. 

But in the debate over whether to get “organic”, “free range”, “cruelty free”, or “high self-esteem” eggs, it might be good enough to stick with the cheap stuff at Safeway.  Buy what you want--just don't be a butthole, OK?

10 December 2010

Recipe for North African Party Dip

It's party season!  From now until New Year's Day, when the food hangover finally becomes permanent(ish), your friends will be more willing to come over and help you polish off your infused vodkas than at any other time of the year.  I don't like being tied to the kitchen the entire time my guests are over, so I prefer to make as many things ahead as I can.  Case in point: dips.  Throw some stuff in a food processor, pour it in a bowl, and you're done.  Perfect.

North African party dip

I love how incongruous those words are together.  The “North African” is a reference to the spices used, which attempt to pay homage to Arabic and North African cuisine, and the party dip is…well, essential! 
Use this as a dip with crackers, raw veggies, or bread; and if you want to be a real piggy (I love this stuff), spread it on a sandwich or toss it with some pasta and steamed veggies for a light meal. 

1 garlic clove, smached
1/3 cup walnut pieces
2 jarred roasted red peppers, roughly chopped
¼ cup crumbled feta cheese
1 teaspoons black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
Drizzle olive oil

Place garlic and walnuts in a food processor and pulse for thirty seconds.  Add peppers, cheese, and all spices and blend.  While blending, drizzle in a little olive oil through the top feeder until the dip has a creamy consistency.

03 December 2010

Drinkin’ in LoDo

There are a lot of bars in the LoDo neighborhood of Denver, Colorado.  So many that it seemed a crime to not take advantage with my very own, private bar crawl.  Is that OK, or is it sad when it’s just a 36 year old woman and her husband who has the day off from work?  

Before we started, we took our Groupon coupon (is that how you’re supposed to say it?) to Mangiamo Pronto! at 1601 17th Street.  Meh.  My Panini was mostly bread, though my husband’s hand-tossed pizza was pretty pleasant (after adding plenty of salt).  The coffee, however, is very good here.  If I lived in the neighborhood, I can imagine developing a cappuccino problem. 

First stop after buffering our stomachs with some food was Wynkoop Brewing, just around the corner at 1634 18th Street.  I will admit that I am a fan, from afar, of Denver mayor and most likely Colorado governor-to-be John Hickenlooper.  He seems far less stupid than your average politician and even likes public transportation, so even if the beer at his brew pub was lackluster, I would be inclined to like it.  But actually, it kind of sucked.  My husband (alright, his name is Jason) asked for the most bitter IPA they had, and the bartender proudly presented him with the Mile High IPA.  It was somewhat bitter, but also had a strange, unbalanced middle note to it, almost as if the warmth of your saliva could transform it into a Hefeweizen.   That is a cool magic trick, but not what he ordered.  His second pint, the chili beer, was also disappointing.  We’re accustomed to—and very fond—of Coopersmith’s Sigda’s Chili Beer in Fort Collins, with its crisp lager-ness and spicy chili flavor.  This chili beer would be great for someone who doesn’t like spicy things, as it mostly just smells like green chili, but you know, the quality of the beer was kind of off, too.  My Cowtown Milk Stout, one of my favorites on a fall day, was not ready to be tapped—it was absolutely sweet.  So much for the Hick’s quality control…

On we went to a couple of the bars located in some of the swank hotels in the area.  I know, you’re picturing a sad crowd gathered around in a Holiday Inn bar somewhere listening to “Hotel California” on tinny speakers, but Denver’s hotels have worked the kinks out of the system.  You’d hardly know that you were in a hotel, except that you are greeted by a door man and get a glimpse of the luxurious lobby before heading in to grab your martini. 
Ship Tavern

Several blocks away is the Brown Palace (321 17th Street) with two options: Ship Tavern, set up to look like…the Titanic?  That Molly Brown almost sank on?  A little morbid, but clever, and it’s a quiet enough old-school pub/sports bar hybrid.  Then there’s the Churchill, a cigar bar with fancy booze.  Ship Tavern is cute—you can see what it looks like to the right—but I can easily find a pub at home.  What I cannot find is a martini bar that’s all dark and sexy and filled with leather furniture, and so it was to the Churchill we went.   Besides the usual wines and cocktails, be sure to browse their extensive list of vodkas, single-malt scotches, and small-batch bourbons.  The hushed voices and muted personalities of the very scientific, very exacting wait staff make you feel like a wheeler-dealer in 1930s Manhattan.
The Churchill

Cruise Room
On a recommendation from a friend, we also wanted to head back up the street to The Cruise Room, housed within the luxury boutique hotel, The Oxford (1600 17th Street) .  This bar doesn’t open until 4:30pm, so there will be no luxurious lunchtime sipping for you.  The bar is designed to look like an Art Deco bar on a cruise ship (I am not boat-obssessed, I swear), and it’s pretty charming.   I only wish they had something more comfortable to sit in than a booth—the dark lighting and narrow frame of the room seemed to call for something more intimate, like some couches where you can drunkenly make out while you wait for your drinks (just kidding).  The Cruise Room calls itself a martini bar, and sure enough, there is a two-page menu of very sweet, dessert-like martinis for those of you who don’t like the taste your booze.  They can also make a classic martini to your specifications, and again, they have an impressive collection of scotch and bourbon. 

The Corner Bar
I have read and heard so much about The Corner Office (1401 Curtis Street) that I had to take a look. Yet another martini bar, this one serves actual food, with a penchant for semi-Asian fusion in the appetizer section.  Their signature martinis and cocktails are just as sweet and childish-sounding as The Cruise Room’s (I suppose you have to do it if you have a bar), and the beer and wine selection is limited.  The look is Mad Men era, and it’s mainly a sleek place for 20-somethings to meet up after work and grab an overpriced bite and a drink.  If you’re my age, you might feel a little conspicuous, but I can still remember that my single, carefree self probably would have liked this place.  My mid-30s, more experienced drinking self wanted a better bar menu. 

All the bars were stunningly decorated, if I haven’t mentioned.  And if you’re coming from out of the city, be forewarned that you pay for the high rent and expensive interior designers.  I never would have noticed this until I spent some time living in a tiny town, but the martinis average $9 per.  I’m just sayin’.

Hey, wanna buy my book?  It's real funny, I swear: go here.  

26 November 2010

Special Thanksgiving Edition: leftover magic

Let the holiday season commence. 
I love the idea of leftovers, but eatin' on the same damn gamey bird for a week after Thanksgiving gets old fast.  However, since spent the six hours cooking it, and the small fortune buying it,  you'd better get the most out of that crap-- here are my suggestions for disguising what you just ate until it's all gone.

Soups are probably the most obvious way to finish off the bits and pieces you have left.  You can dump leftover vegetables and meats in with some vegetable or chicken broth and toss in a little pasta or rice to round things out, but it still tastes like (bland) Traditional Thanksgiving. You can also put those leftover mashed potatoes to good use in my Cheesy Baked Potato Soup recipe,  and turkey makes a great substitute for chicken in the brilliantly flavored Brazilian Vatapa soup.

Finally, say goodbye to your leftover turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes, in this special Thanksgiving version of Coddle, the old Irish cure for a hangover!  Just visit my more traditional recipe here  and make the following corrections:

--No need to cook the potatoes; cook the carrots by themselves (or toss leftover T-day veggies into your broth) and when they’re tender, stir in your mashed potatoes AND gravy.

--Add shredded turkey to the soup at the end of cooking time and heat thoroughly for a richer soup with more depth to round out the saltiness of the bacon.

Make a frittata with your leftover vegetables and turkey.  Shred the turkey and cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces, then place in a large, oven-proof skillet sprayed with cooking spray.  Whisk together 6 eggs ( to serve 4 people), salt and black pepper to taste, and a dash of Dijon mustard.  Pour egg mixture into skillet over medium-high heat and swirl the skillet to distribute the eggs and filling evenly over the surface.  Shake the skillet gently, tilting slightly while lifting the edges of the frittata with a spatula to let the raw egg run underneath for the first 1 to 2 minutes of cooking.  Cook until eggs are almost set, about 5 minutes, and then place the skillet under the broiler for about 1 minute.  The frittata will puff up and brown slightly.   Cut into wedges to serve.

And my personal favorite after spending several days with family...the leftover cranberry salad cordial.  In an airtight container, combine 1 cup of cranberry sauce, ¼ cup white sugar, and 750mL of unflavored vodka.  Allow to steep on your countertop for up to a week, shaking vigorously once a day to distribute the sugar.  After it has steeped to your satisfaction, strain the liquid into a large sealable bottle or jar and discard the solids.  Keep your newly flavored vodka in the freezer and serve in cordial glasses neat or over ice.

What do you like to do with your leftovers?  Share below!

PS--Dontcha wanna buy a book or shirt for Christmas presents?  Jesus-approved!

20 November 2010

Mae Ploy Thai yellow curry paste gets the thumbs up

By now, I should tell you that I am not wasting your time with the inherited sauces in my fridge that really don’t seem to work (but a tip: don’t buy Pad Thai sauce. It’s flavored ketchup. Just make your own from scratch.)

One of the gems in my new collection of Asian ingredients is Mae Ploy brand yellow curry paste. I have never seen this in the grocery stores near me, but it’s pretty cheap online; amazon.com sells it for about $3.50. As with most curry pastes, it is waiting to be blended with other things to create a sauce for your veggies and meat. I followed the directions on the tub and just added coconut milk, whisked, and then cooked it with my veggies and some leftover meat from our grilling adventure. DELICIOUS. The lemongrass, garlic, and salt are pretty present in the paste (though it becomes much less salty when you add the milk), and it’s just a tad spicy. I did eventually top it off with a little lime juice to brighten the dish a bit at the end, but this paste really does the work for you. I highly recommend it.

Easy Yellow Curry (Thai style)

Serves 4

1 teaspoon peanut or canola oil

½ yellow onion, chopped

1 carrot, sliced thinly

1 cup (about half of a head) cauliflower, broken into bite-size pieces

½ cup peas

2/3 cup meat or tofu, cut into bite-size pieces

2 tablespoons yellow curry paste

1 can (14.5 oz.) coconut milk

Salt and black pepper to taste

Lime wedges and chopped cilantro for garnish

In a small bowl, whisk together curry paste and coconut milk and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or sauté pan on medium heat; when oil shimmers, add onion, carrot, and cauliflower. Cook , stirring constantly, until onions are soft and cauliflower is starting to brown slightly, about 5 minutes. If your tofu or meat are raw, cook these at the same time as the vegetables. Be sure meat is cooked through before going on to the next step.

Add the frozen peas, cooked meat if you are using it (I tossed in the leftover grilled beef from our Teriyaki adventure because the sauce was so mild it was almost undetectable), and the curry sauce. Stir to incorporate, cover, and lower heat to medium-low. Allow to simmer 10 minutes or until cauliflower is tender. Season with salt and black pepper. Serve over jasmine rice and topped with fresh cilantro and lime wedges on the side.

12 November 2010

Fine Dining in the middle of nowhere

I found myself in a slightly large town in a very under-populated area and in need of a meal not too long ago.  Now, I’ve been to the steak houses that serve iceberg lettuce in galvanized steel buckets as the only vegetable option; I’ve been to the diners with homemade pie and nothing else on the menu that requires a full set of teeth to eat; I’ve even played it safe a number of times and just gone to Subway, where I know the veggie sub will be the same boring thing it is in every other part of the country.

But I was in the convention capital of…let’s call it Cheneyland.  I wanted to be adventurous.  I wanted to live the life of a busy, important oil exec who travels around the West, being pampered by chefs and masseuses between high-stakes deals.  Well, I don’t know where those people go, but I decided to try my luck at 555.
555 was located in the decaying original downtown area of the city in a crumbling old, industrial-era brick building.  It was distinguished only by its modestly-sized sign in a simple Art Noveau font.  Classy. When I stepped inside, it was clear that someone had a subscription to Interior Design magazine: the floors were a stark concrete, the lighting was dim and sexily packaged in tiny cobalt lampshades, and the furniture was all made of thin (uncomfortable) metal tubes.  It was beautiful!  This was a restaurant I couldn’t have afforded to walk into in Chicago or New York, but here I was in bumfuck listening to low, mumbling trance music, squinting to see the exotic fish in the aquarium in the floor, and pretending I was chic enough to belong in such setting.
The menu was filled with artful-sounding risotto cakes, exotic cuts of fish and beef with overly complicated sauces, sushi, and a martini menu.  Who needs traffic and harsh, rude people on the streets?  You can recreate the city anywhere, as this place obviously proved.

Then the waitress came.  From far away she fit perfectly with the décor; reasonably slim in lean black pants and a gray top with random hunks of fabric hanging off the front, her bright purple-streaked hair and animal-print stilettos  made sense nowhere else in this town but inside 555.  Then she got closer.  Deep crow’s feet and a couple of missing teeth towards the back of her mouth subtly hinted at the fact that I was not, after all, in New York.   She spent an inordinate amount of time telling my male companion about the martini she had just “invented” that morning and that, while it obviously hadn’t made it to the menu yet, she would make them for us (well, she said “you”, but I took that to mean “us” even though she wouldn’t look at me).   We ordered two.  We asked her what she recommended on the menu and she said everything was delicious.  That is not the sign of a discerning palate or a well-trained staff. 

The special, newly-invented martinis came and they made Kool-Aid seem a bit bland and lacking in sweetness by comparison.  Because she thought vodka (the base for every martini that is not already based on gin) was too strong, she chose to make this martini with only Triple Sec for its alcoholic component; the rest was pomegranate juice and orange juice.  So, if you’re keeping track, that’s Triple Sec, pomegranate juice, and orange juice.  That was the special martini.  If she was trying to pick up my lunch companion, she was so far failing miserably.  BUT, it looked very pretty in the glass. 

My friend ordered the sushi.  As I live in a very landlocked part of the country, I am not one to be snobbish about how far my seafood travels to get to my plate, and yet I still thought this was ill-advised.  Call it woman’s intuition.  Also, it just said “sushi” on the lunch menu, not “spicy tuna roll” or “cucumber eel roll” or even “California roll”.  When asked what kind of sushi it was they served, our waitress/ martini inventor told us it was different every day, depending on what they had in the kitchen.  And still he ordered it. 

I ordered the wild mushroom risotto cake; risotto is like the rice version of mac-n-cheese, and mushrooms are easy to find, so how could that be wrong? 

As we chugged our martinis (sipping them was only giving us more opportunities to taste them) and waited for our food, there were other little telltale signs that you cannot, despite my wish for this little bistro, pick up New York and plop it down in some other part of the country.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that, while you can build it, you will still have to hire locals to work in it. 

The manager was slowly working the crowd from the other end of the room.  He was dressed in black pants (they could at least get this part of the urban uniform right in 555), a black cotton turtleneck, and a bright blue blazer that perfectly matched the cobalt blue light fixtures.  Additionally, he wore white socks that peeked out from under his slightly too-short pants and black Reeboks.  When he got close enough that we could hear him talking (and he didn’t have to be too close), it was about the local high school football team that he seemed so passionate. 

Our waitress was dressed in a reasonably urbanesque way, but the other woman waiting tables looked like she had just walked out of my junior high graduation dance.  Her black pants were accompanied by a roomy sweater with a festive, Christmas-y print.  It was March.  Her hair also conformed to the requisite fluffy code of the 80s, complete with tall garden weasel bangs.  She chewed gum and looked slightly uncomfortable, like she was really trying not to screw up. 

This was the waitress who, as it turned out, had taken over our table.  For some reason the martini-maker was no longer dealing with us.  She came over to ask us if we needed anything and told us our food would be up shortly (we had only been waiting five minutes, so I kind of hoped they weren’t rushing things past the point of good taste or safety), and it was about then that the music changed from Portishead to Whitesnake.  Someone back in the kitchen hollered “yeeeeeeeeeah!”  and began to sing along to “Here I Go Again”.  It was a scene fraught with cognitive dissonance. 

The sushi, taken surreptitiously by iPhone.
Then the food came.  Rather quickly.  It matched the music, not the interior design.  My friend’s sushi, as it turns out, was a tempura roll.  It was such a large roll that it was impossible for him to fit it into his mouth whole.  However, the tempura coating on the outside was so thick and solid (really, it belonged around a piece of cod with some malt vinegar to soften it up) that biting into a piece merely created an avalanche of flaked pieces of fish, crunchy carrot, and strips of iceberg lettuce.  The fish looked to be a pink salmon broken up into pieces.  So, he did the only thing he could do: he slathered it with wasabi, took steak knife and fork to it, and dug in. 

My risotto cake did resemble risotto, though perhaps it was more like a rice pilaf piled up and stuck together, as the consistency was hardly as creamy as one would expect.  It was also made of brown rice.  There were some mushrooms in it (not of the canned variety), and except for needing salt, it was fine; there were no herbs or other seasonings that I could detect, but I am not opposed to eating rice and mushrooms.  My biggest challenge was just eating it—piled at least ¾ of an inch high, it covered the entire dinner plate.  I could have eaten off that baby for the better part of a week.

Our 80s mom waitress came back soon after we ended our giggling fit over the sushi to ask how we were.  We said we were fine because, really, what else could you say? and she hesitated slightly while staring at my friend’s McDonald’s-style sushi roll.  “So, what is that, anyway?” she asked.  He told her it was the sushi.  “Is it good?”  “Sure, it’s fine.”  “OK, maybe I’ll try it,” she said.  Maybe she would try it. 

After we ate as much as we could without feeling bilious (well, we started to), we walked across the street to the motorcycle bar and ordered two pints of the local brew to chase it down. They were pretty good, and the bikers at the other end of the bar were debating the relevance of Nietzsche in the post-modern world.  And that’s when I learned to stop searching for fine dining in the middle of nowhere.

This story didn't make it into my book, but you can read about other hair-brained visits to too-big-for-their-britches restaurants if you buy it!  Buy my book!  That's right...go buy it!

05 November 2010

I stole this guacamole from cable t.v., and I am not ashamed

I recently visited my parents, who, among many other wonderful traits, have cable t.v. And so, I was of course watching the Food Network’s “Best Things I Ever Ate”, which celebrated Cleveland’s Lopez Southwestern Grill for their crazy, insane-sounding guacamole with bleu cheese, bacon, and sage. And you know what came next . . . here is my non-meat version, and you know, even though it does sound insane, it’s our new go-to guacamole around the house.

The basics:

1 mashed avocado
1 teaspoon powdered cumin
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
1 small jalapeno, finely chopped
1 small roma tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon (or to taste) salt

Mix all above ingredients together. Then add:

2 strips Morningstar Breakfast Strips (or real bacon), cooked to extreme crispness and crumbled
6-8 fresh sage leaves, finely cut into strips (must use fresh—dried tastes too different)
1 teaspoon bleu cheese crumbles

I thought it sounded so wrong that I had to try it. And now I can’t make guacamole any other way.

29 October 2010

Groupon: sucky, or no?

I have been subscribing to Groupon now for about two months, though I generally just watch the deals pass me by; I live about an hour away from the city housing Groupon’s mad deals, so it has to be pretty interesting to be worth the drive.  I did, however, break down and purchase one for an Italian bistro in LoDo, anticipating that we might someday be in the neighborhood for another reason and could use a bite to eat. 

Specializing in discounts for local restaurants, spas, and other merchants, the company promises “one ridiculously huge coupon each day, on the best things to eat, see, do and buy in your city.”  Launched in 2008, it actually grew out of a website called The Point, a website that lets you start a campaign asking people to give money or do something as a group once a "tipping point" of people agree to participate.  

Groupon further claims that they “came up with the patent-pending idea for Groupon as an antidote to a common ailment for us city-dwellers: there's so much cool stuff to do, but the choice can be overwhelming. With so many options, sometimes the easiest thing is to go to a familiar restaurant, or just stay at home and watch a movie. As a result, we miss out on trying all the cool things our cities have to offer. By focusing on one good or service each day, Groupon makes it simple. And by leveraging The Point's framework for collective buying, Groupon is able to offer deals that make it very difficult to say no.” (Does that last part sound a little creepy or is it just me?)

It’s a nice idea to encourage people to be tourists in their own cities (I’ve had that same philosophy for years), but is it really an antidote for a Prufrockian lack of confidence in your ability to choose a restaurant, or is it just a way to ban together and be cheapskates?  (For me, it’s the “cheapskate” one.)

I got a pretty sweet deal : I paid $10 for $20 worth of food and, because it was only lunch, and because my husband and I are cheap, we only ended up paying an extra $2 out-of-pocket to complete the transaction.  The wait staff was perfectly friendly about using a Groupon and there didn’t seem to be any problems, but for some reason I felt a little slimy doing it.  I wondered if it turned out to be an OK deal for them, and felt compelled to tip rather generously on the full amount of our meals to assuage my Irish guilt that they might be getting screwed.  I mean, if a deal (in this case, $12 + tip for two generous lunches and cappuccinos in a posh Denver neighborhood) seems too good to be true, it probably is.  But I certainly wasn’t getting hurt from my end, so I wondered who was feeling the pinch. 

Sure enough, my instincts were right—Groupon seems to be a pretty bad deal, at least for restaurants.   Some initial research has already been done on the phenomenon 
and it seems that service-based industries fair better. But restaurants are suffering from poor tipping, pressure to give deeper discounts than they want to give (“very difficult to say no”—kind of menacing, isn’t it?),  and some pretty high overhead costs (food, paying servers, rent, utilities…), making it difficult for them to recoup their losses from the Groupons presented.  And if you follow along, it’s the small, local businesses that are dealing with Groupons.  Never once have I seen an Applebee’s, Wal-Mart, or other national chain use them—they don’t need the advertising.  So if Groupon hurts the business owners, it’s the neighborhood businesses, the ones we should be most interested in supporting, that are suffering. 

Participating in Groupon is sold to businesses as a great way to market your restaurant or store, and it certainly made me aware of a new watering hole I didn’t know about.  But, in my case, I am not very likely to go back because I don’t live nearby; I was willing to try it and go a little out of my way because I had this great coupon for the place.  And even if I did live nearby, there’s nothing compelling me to return and pay full price.  While our sandwiches and coffee were good, I can easily make those things at home, and for $12 each for lunch, this bistro doesn’t seem nearly as special as it did at 50% off.  I wonder how many people are in the same boat as me?  Does Groupon foster the expansion of a business’s loyal customer base, or just bring one-timers in because they love a deal?    

The early research done on this phenomenon does offer some suggestions for making Groupon work better for long-term profits, like spreading the coupon out over multiple visits, but that doesn’t sound like as good of a deal to me, and I would be less likely to bite if I had to make a longer-term commitment to using my coupon.  The beauty of Groupon, for the consumer, is that you can try something new with no strings attached, and if it sucks, you really didn’t pay that much for the experience.  But even if it was great, why go back and pay full price when you can just wait for the next Groupon to come around and send you to another new restaurant? 
Like purchasing responsibly made goods, it might be worth a few extra bucks to just say “no” to Groupons and give the businesses you care about what they need to survive.  For a compelling argument against using this company, read this first-hand testimonial from a “Mom-andPop” coffee shop in Portland.  It convinced me.


23 October 2010

Grill Extravaganza with weird sauces

If you have been following the tale of the inherited Asian foods, you are aware of our friends’ move to New Jersey and depositing of various sauces, pastes, and leaves in our refrigerator. I have been experimenting with a lot of raw ingredients I had never before used, like banana leaves, kaffir lime leaves, and ghee. This weekend I turned to the various pre-made sauces and marinades taking up a fair amount of space in the fridge door and had a big ol’ grilling extravaganza.

It is not my way to simply pour sauce out of bottle and call dinner done; at the very least, I usually doctor said sauce and make it into something fussier than it probably needs to be. But these jars and bottles promised a complete, and authentic, taste experience, so I followed the directions and simply marinated various meats in them without any other additives. Then, because it is still warm outside and there were cold beers in the fridge, we grilled everything on skewers and served with more of the sauces to dip on the side.

We used pre-cut pieces of “stew meat”, which you can get in the meat section of any grocery store. We got packages of pork and beef stew meat; they’re cheap, tougher cuts, but the marinade softened them up and we didn’t have to cook them long (about 10 min., turning after 5). We also got some chicken tenders and thread those through skewers like (very thick) satay sticks.

Sauce #1: Lee Kum Kee Korean Barbeque: We had this on pork, and it was delicious. There was just a little bit of sweetness to it (much less than American BBQ sauce), and a lot of salty, garlicky flavor coming through. It was really a great balance of flavors. The sauce is a bit thick, so you can afford to add some water to it if you choose to provide some dipping sauce on the side. This turned out to be our favorite sauce of the evening.

Sauce #2: Kikkoman Takumi Teriyaki Sauce: This is not the Kikkoman from the grocery store (Takumi is their premium line), and this is not the syrupy sweet crap you get in restaurants playing Madonna’s greatest hits and offering chop suey and American burgers on the menu. This stuff is actually quite salty and has a pretty strong sesame flavor (probably because it’s loaded with toasted sesame seeds). I thought it was really good, and if I hadn’t had the Korean BBQ sauce to compare it to, I would have loved it. It was just a bit more one-dimensional than the Korean BBQ, which had such an excellent balance of sweet, garlicky, and savory. This teriyaki sauce didn’t have any sweetness to it at all, so it was mostly just salty and nutty (but very good). It is thin enough to use as-is as a marinade or dipping sauce. We used it on beef and the flavor combination was great.

Sauce #3: Lee Kum Kee Satay Sauce: I was pretty excited about this one but it was actually our least favorite. It was a very thick paste, so you need to cut it with water just to marinade the chicken. And it hardens up like natural peanut butter in the fridge, so remember to take it out and let it warm up on the counter for 5 minutes or so before trying to work with it.
The sauce had peanut butter as its base, but it also had a strong shrimp flavor to it. (Shellfish allergy sufferers, beware! There is shrimp paste in this.) There was a moderate level of spiciness from the chilies in it, but it really needed a lot of salt, we all thought. So, even though it was peanutty (which I love) and a bit spicy, it seemed pretty flat in taste. Not only was it lacking salt, but I think it could have used some brightness, perhaps from vinegar or something. We have a lot of this sauce left, so I’m going to experiment with using it in a soup or something.

I also whipped up a batch of my usual tofu marinade and grilled some of that on the side. If you grill tofu alongside meat, just keep your eyes on it—the tofu is done within 5 minutes, and the meat takes about twice as long depending on the size of your chunks. On the side, I just served a cold rice salad with some of the tofu marinade and some fresh edamame, diced carrot, and broccoli.

15 October 2010

excerpt from Carpet Store Diaries

Please enjoy my humble offering, this excerpt from my new book, Driving a Rental Car in Heels. Like it?  There's more!  Order now!  

Monday, June 5, 1995

I need a job.  I am calling this “family-owned and run” carpet store because it does not involve fast food, small children, or getting dirty.  I do not really have that rigid of a list of deal-breakers, but these are all things I generally dislike, and it seems like it would be nice to avoid them.
I call the store and speak with the owner.  At first he seems a bit evasive. “Hi, is Joe there?”  “Uh, I don’t know.  Who is this?”  “My name is Nicole; I’m calling about your ad for clerical help.”  “Oh, I’m Joe, yeah.”  Uncomfortable silence.  I hear small, high-pitched clicking sounds.  Is he trimming his nails?  “Sooo, have you filled the position?” “No.  Do you want it?” “Yes, I’d be interested in coming in and meeting with you.”  “OK, can you come tomorrow morning?  We open at 9am.  Okthanksbye.”  Click.
The conversation is so abrupt that I sit for the next several minutes wondering if I have a job interview for tomorrow.  I want the job (if it pays money and not root vegetables, I will take it), so I eventually decide that I will show up and, if he didn’t mean for me to come, he might feel pressured into taking me because I am standing there in front of him.  I am not proud.  I am slightly behind on my rent. 
It also occurs to me that I do not know where this place is, because the name of the carpet store is not even listed in the ad: “Joe” and a phone number, that’s it for information.  I really don’t want to come off as a dope or one of those people who asks too many questions, though.  Hoo boy, this is awkward.  I know!  I will just call and ask for directions to the store!  I won’t identify myself–what are the odds of Joe answering again when he seemed in such a hurry?  I will pose as a potential customer.  I won’t even have to say this–it will be understood.  Add problem-solving skills to the resume.  “Hello, can you give me directions to your store?” “Yeah, is that you, Nicole?  I wondered if you knew where we were.  Take Cicero to 57th, North on 57th, West on Wolf.  We’re next to the 7-11 in the strip mall.”  Click.  I wonder if he will remember what an idiot I am by tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 6, 1995

I arrive five minutes before the store is supposed to open and no one is around.  The place is completely dark.  I sit in my car and start to feel like a stalker.  At 9:02 by my clock, the lights come on, but I see no movement towards the front door, where I need to be let in.
Then a woman in her 50s (60s?) approaches with a warm, generous smile to let me in.  She is very petite and seems to be wearing a lot of gold jewelry.  Also, her hair is a strange kind of hay color.  She opens the door and beams up at me (up–she might be the first adult I have met who is taller than me) and says “Are you Nikki?  Joe’s waitin’ for ya!”  I have not been “Nikki” since I was perhaps nine years old, but now is not the time for such petty concerns.  They can call me a two-bit whore (which I am not, by the way) if they want to hire me. 
This little pistol is named Carol, and she is Joe’s mother.  She is talkative and smells slightly of wine.  When she takes me back to the break area (not a room, but a section which is partitioned pretty thoroughly from the rest of the store) I see why.  Everyone is sitting around an open bottle of Riunite burgundy with Styrofoam cups in hand.  Huh.  Carol explains that they don’t usually sit around drinking, “at least not till noon!  Ha!”, but they are celebrating closing a very big deal with a housing development.  They will be installing the carpet in every new house that goes up.  That is exciting.  I am offered wine, as well.  Not unfamiliar with a morning cocktail and not wanting to look aloof, I accept. 
Joe is a small and jittery man.  He slicks back his dark, wavy hair, but it is uncooperative.  The result is a greasy mess which is mostly smoothed to his scalp, but with the occasional half-curl forming little wings that stick out from various surprising places on his head.  He has several gold rings, and each seems to be some kind of band with a large hunk of something in the front–a gold plate with an initial, a cluster of small diamonds, and in one case, a literal hunk of unformed gold.  He is also wearing two thick gold chains: one has a cross, and one has an Italian horn hanging from it.  He is probably in his early 30s, but his outfit could have come from my dad’s closet: faded jeans, not in the purposeful, cool way; button down shirt with vertical stripes; slightly worn but very clean white leather tennis shoes. 
Joe shows me to a desk and starts explaining what I will do.  Apparently there is no job interview; I have been hired.  I will not sell carpet, of course, because I know nothing, but I am encouraged to watch the others and should “speak up” if I decide I would like to go that route.  Right now Joe, his mother Carol, and his father Joe Senior (divorced from Carol) sell the carpet. 
I will sit at a desk near the back of the store, direct people to a salesperson, answer phones, and oversee the installers.  The warehouse manager should be the one to send the installers on their jobs and make sure they get their jobs done, but he is apparently inadequate in this area, as Joe informs me “He just smokes doobs all day with them”.  So, now I will have to be the bad cop and make them do their work.  I have no management experience, but I do have experience in being an unlikeable drag, so I feel qualified for this. 
I proceed to sit at my desk and laugh uncomfortably at mildly sexist jokes for the rest of the day.  I meet Joe Senior (he is the only one who calls me Nicole instead of Nikki, because he can tell I’m “classy”.  He sort of says it like, “Nee-call”.  He is from America, however.).  I also meet Al, Carol’s husband, who calls the store “a total fuckin’ clusterfuck” and wishes me luck, and Sue, Joe’s lovely bride.  She completely ignores me, but I do not take it personally.  She only seems to notice Joe, actually.  She complains about various irritants in her life and then leaves.  I think she just misses him.  She has left their 14-month-old daughter at home to stop in and “get out of that friggin’ house”.  I am unsure what to make of her.  

09 October 2010

Tamarind Paste-?!?!

Tamarind paste, num num!
What the heck do you do with this stuff? Our friends gave this to us, along with a whole bundle of other sauces and exotic ingredients, when they moved.  I’ve seen this in Asian and also in Mexican supermarkets in different forms, but I had no idea what purpose it served. It’s a tropical fruit that grows all over India, and its pulp is very sour, acting as a good foil to sweeter ingredients in chutneys and to spicy curries. As a Midwesterner, I have not often been one to mix sweet and savory ingredients into dishes, so I definitely needed some help with this one. I turned to the excellent Laxmi’s Vegetarian Kitchen by Laxmi Hiremath (1995) and slightly revised her recipe for this dish from the delta region of Tanjore in southern India.

Tamarind-Garlic Rice

Serves 8

½ tsp. coriander seeds

1 tsp. dried yellow split peas

½ tsp. cumin seeds

2 dried red chiles, stemmed

Pinch of cinnamon

2 cups basmati rice, rinsed and drained

3 cups water

1 tsp. salt

1 ½ Tbsp. canola or peanut oil

½ tsp. mustard seeds

½ Tbs. sliced fresh garlic

¼ tsp. turmeric

½ tsp. tamarind paste

2 Tbs. chopped cashews

½ tsp. brown sugar

2 Tbsp. ghee

Toast the coriander, split peas, cumin, and chiles in a dry frying pan on medium heat until the spices are aromatic and the seeds start to darken, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Stir in pinch cinnamon and set aside.

Cook the rice in the three cups of water and salt in a Dutch oven. Set aside.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds. When seeds start to pop, reduce heat to medium-low and stir in garlic and turmeric. Stir constantly, cooking until garlic starts to brown (3-4 minutes). Add the tamarind paste and ¾ cup of water. Whisk ingredients together, bring to a boil, and then simmer for 5 minutes.

Stir in the nuts and brown sugar and remove saucepan from heat. Pour the mixture over the rice in the Dutch oven and mix thoroughly. Cover and place on hot burner, cooking gently until all liquid is absorbed (5-8 minutes). Drizzle the top of the rice with 2 Tbsp. ghee and serve hot alongside a main dish of your choice.

07 October 2010

New Book! Discount Price!

New and available at a discount price* to you, the loyal (or occasional, or first-time) readers of this blog!  

My little collection of humorous (I hope) essays, some of which have found their way to this blog, is ready and available through Create Space Press here.  It's 110 pages of pee-in-your-pants fun!  

*Enter discount code UJFDNWB2 for $2.00 off when you check out. 

02 October 2010

Hiking food: a recipe

Since moving to Colorado, I have become an outdoor person. I now voluntarily spend my free time sporting active wear made from synthetic fabrics and exerting myself in the blazing sun or icy snow. Never in all my torturous years of high school P.E. class would I have guessed it would happen. But let’s face it; the scenery is enough to distract you from a fair amount of discomfort.

I have hiked all over the Front Range--Boulder, Fort Collins, Lyons, Estes Park, and Laramie and Jackson, Wyoming--but I love Rocky Mountain National Park most of all. Because I do not need to prove how macho I am, I eschew the “14ers” for moderately strenuous hikes that afford good views and pleasant areas to pop a squat and eat my bagged lunch. At the end of this post are some of my personal favorites, but hey, chime in with yours, too! The more suggestions, the better!

The best lunch combines a good deal of protein with some carbs for energy, fits easily into your bag, and requires as little clean-up as possible. I often make this lentil “salad” (really more like a chunky spread), double-bag it in sandwich-sized Ziplocs, and bring along some whole wheat tortillas to scoop it up and eat. Paired with a bag of carrot and celery sticks or some dried fruit, I personally guarantee you will not be lacking in fuel for your hike.

Curried Lentils for Fuel

1 cup red lentils (this is not a good time to substitute--use the red)
2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1-5.46 oz. can coconut milk
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 tablespoon lime juice

Combine water, lentils, bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until water has been absorbed and lentils have broken down. Remove bay leaf and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil at medium heat in a large frying pan or chef’s pan. Sautee onion, garlic, mustard seeds, and ginger, stirring constantly until onion softens and seeds begin to pop (about 5 minutes). When this happens, reduce heat to medium-low and add the rest of the spices, stirring constantly to coat onion and garlic. Do this for another 4 minutes so that the spices become slightly toasted (they will be fragrant), and add your lentils, tomato paste, and coconut milk.

Stir mixture well, cover, and allow to simmer 10 minutes. Turn off heat and add remaining teaspoon salt and lime juice, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. (I usually add more black pepper at this point, too.)

*You can put this in Ziploc bags (I double up to avoid leaks) and scoop out with tortillas or pita bread on the trail. You can also offer some cooked basmati rice on the side and serve this as a lovely, exotic yet easy dish for guests.

Great hikes for picnicking in Rocky Mountain National Park

Cub Lake: This trail is pretty easy until the end, when it gets just a bit steep. About 2/3 of the way in, you’ll come across a beautiful, large lake with a great view of Long’s Peak looming overhead. There are lots of rocks around the lake that make perfect seats for a picnic.

Gem Lake: A steeper and shorter hike, the end yields a small hanging lake with a tiny waterfall. There are grassy areas and large rocks for sitting down to eat your lunch, and the antsy ones who finish first can do some extra climbing above the waterfall while the rest of your party finishes.

Lawn Lake: Perhaps you are sensing a pattern here. Besides two beautiful alpine lakes (Lawn and Crystal) upon which to contemplate the meaning of your lunch, the Roaring River was the site of a dam failure that led to three deaths during the great flood of 1982.

Sky Pond (pictured above): more water, amazing views, and a strenuous enough hike to earn your lentils!

Add your comments to continue this list!

24 September 2010

I Freakin' Love Lander, WY!

Yes, Lander!  Every time I go I am reminded again of its charm. Of course, I've never been there in the winter...

I like Lander's location, nestled into the Rockies about halfway up the state; I like its small-town, friendly atmosphere; and I like the great beer and food.  Oh, and did I mention how cheap everything is?

Lander Brewing Company, at 128 Main Street, is always my first stop. It's  now managed jointly by the owners of Cowfish, Gannett Grill, Lander Bar and Scream Shack, collectively forming the “Coalter Block” and creating a unique sense of community amongst the eating and drinking establishments on Main Street. Cowfish and Gannett provide a slightly more upscale dining experience (but at a fraction of the price of similar establishments in Denver or Boulder), and LBC offers a homey, laid-back outdoor beer garden with good grub and no dress code.  Together, the Cowfish (creative New American cuisine), Gannett (hand-tossed New York style pizzas and gourmet salads), Scream Shack (delicious ice cream treats, summer only), Lander Bar and Lander Brewing Pub represent the simplest, safest, and most satisfying pub crawl you’ll ever experience.

And then you can just keep crawling right down the street to bed; you don't need your car for anything in town.  There are more posh places to stay, but I love the old charm of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS, to locals). Housed in the grand old Noble Hotel (284 Lincoln Street), a relic of the 1930s oil boom, you can rent a dormitory-style room (bathroom down the hall, large kitchen on each floor) for a mere $15 per night. You will have to make your own bed and strip the sheets at the end of your stay (and you will be sharing a shower with whomever walks in while you’re there), but the still-glorious front lobby and billiards room make it an interesting mix of grubby and chic. Call ahead, though—if a course is in session, room may be tight: 1-800-710-NOLS.

Then there is the inevitable morning after, when you start to recall all the great brews Lander had to offer the night before. Have no fear—a mere stumble across the street gets you to Main Street Books, a great bookstore with a full-service coffee bar and breakfast pastries (300 Main St). You can linger in this peaceful environment, browsing New York Times bestsellers as well as works by local authors while their strong espressos prepare you for the day ahead.

Lander is home to a multitude of city parks, but none are as stunning as Sinks Canyon,  just 7 miles outside of town. Sinks is renowned for its beautiful, pristine scenery that hosts a variety of outdoor activities, as well as for the mystery of the river that seems to just disappear into the side of a mountain.

The real story is that it’s a geologic phenomenon in which the Popo Agie River vanishes into a large cavern (the Sinks) but reappears in a trout- filled pool, the Rise, about half a mile down the canyon. No fishing is allowed, but a visitor center features wildlife and recreation exhibits, viewing sites and interpretive signs about wildlife and habitat requirements. The park contains hiking trails and offers camping, picnicking, rock climbing and fishing. Sinks Canyon is home to a wide variety of wildlife, birds and plants. Visitors might see porcupines, black bears, red squirrels, bighorn sheep, mule deer, moose or golden eagles.

Doesn't this place sound cool? Don't tell too many of your friends, though, or we'll have to start dodging tourists.


Gannett Grill: (307) 332.8228
Lander Brewing Company/ Cowfish Grill: (307) 332.8227
Main Street Books: (307) 332-7661
NOLS/ Noble Hotel: 1-800-710-NOLS
Sinks Canyon Visitor Center: (307) 332-3077