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I’ve been a delinquent foodie this summer.  I’ll blame it on hectic work projects and monster amounts of vegis from my CSA (now Grant Family Farms since Cameron Place ceased doing business in Steamboat). The harvest has kept me on an epic late-night cooking schedule in hopes of savoring so much fresh food before it wilts each week.

But I’ve been taking notes and snapping photos throughout the bountiful harvest…waiting for the right moment to sit down and share some of it here. The nudge I needed was Saturday night’s gorgeous Farm to Table dinner at South Routt Nursery — scrumptious food and fine company on a warm fall night under the willows. Perfect.

Laying the table...

Getting back to our roots: The Yampa Valley's first Farm To Table dinner of the 21st Century, Sept. 25, 2010, at South Routt Nursery in Phippsburg

Wow.  Let me tantalize you with a few highlights of just how divine a local menu can be as fall looms in the shadow of the Flat Tops.

  • Caprice Farms made mouth-watering kibbeh (savory little mouth-bombs of ground goat meat and grains): Goats raised west of Steamboat, near Milner.
  • Quiche muffin appetizers: Eggs from Linda Dilley in South Routt, chard from Grant Family Farms and jalapenos from Elkstone Farm in Steamboat.
  • Fresh bread baked by the Mugshot in Oak Creek: wheat grown by Mike Williams in Hayden and ground by Dutch Meyer
  • Herb rubbed beef from just down the street: Roast from Yampa Valley Beef and herbs from the nursery’s community gardens.
  • Spicy horseradish sauce: Grown in the canyon above Oak Creek (Note to self…consult the master gardeners about how to get this going in my yard!).
  • A root roast: Potatoes from Elkhead Ranch in Hayden, plus beets and onions from local gardens.
  • Mint chocolate mousse: Fresh cream from Taft Hill Dairy, sweetened with clover honey from Oak Creek.

Plus  there was home-grown music – and some dancing –  too!

Paul and Ellen Bonnifield cut a rug at the Farm To Table dinner.

I even scored myself a party favor…one beautiful jar of Oak Creek honey…

Chrissy's bees' bounty

We can hardly wait for the next one of these! Thanks for the vision, and the beautiful execution, Zuschlag family and South Routt Nursery!

Once upon a time, we grew a lot of potatoes here in the Yampa Valley. Or, more specifically, on the hillsides above the valley floor. Emerald Mountain is known to have grown a particularly abundant crop.

Then it stopped.

Until now.

Elkhead Ranch spends the summer growing potatoes in North Routt so you can enjoy them all winter long.

Elkhead Ranch spends the summer growing potatoes in North Routt so you can enjoy them all winter long. Photo: Jennie Lay

A few months ago, I mentioned in a Steamboat Magazine story a local cattle ranch that dug up an experimental plot to grow potatoes and sold them to friends and acquaintances around the valley last year. This summer, I started to feel like Elkhead Ranch’s personal potato stalker – scoping out potential inventory as they were buying seed potatoes, worrying with them that the long spring rain and early summer frost might have done the fledgling potatoes  in, hoping there would be some semblance of a crop for a winter potato stockpile.

Turns out, they successfully grew potatoes around here a century ago for a good reason. A mere 59 frost-free days didn’t really matter. Elkhead Ranch has officially harvested loads of delicious purple majesties, all blue and mountain rose potatoes. About 2,000 pounds of exotic, colorful potatoes grown without pesticides, herbicides or a truck trip across the country.

Local potatoes in unconventional hues. Photo: Jennie Lay

Local potatoes in unconventional hues. Photo: Jennie Lay

Having sampled them all, I’m happy to certify them DELICIOUS. Even better, they’re beautiful. I made a quiche with little purple potato bombs inside that not only looked amazing but added a delicious flavor sensation. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the camera to that creation before it was devoured. I did, however, grab a shot of the prettiest mashed potatoes I’ve ever made in my life.

 Yup, naturally lavender and pink mashed potatoes. I left all the skins on too.  Note that these potatoes cook faster than those regular ole' Russets.

Yup, naturally lavender and pink mashed potatoes. I left all the skins on too. Note that these potatoes cook faster than those regular ole' Russets. Photo: Jennie Lay

Buy Elkhead Ranch’s potatoes in five- and 10-pound burlap bags (or bigger upon special request) that are sealed with a simple homemade tag that bears the ranch’s brand and their name. They’re $2 per pound and they’ll store all winter long if you keep them in a dry, dark, cool place (wood crates good; plastic bad). Or leave them in the cute bags and give them as presents to the rest of your local foodie friends this fall.

Call Heather at 970.276.3920 to get your potato delivery. She’ll head down from the ranch to meet buyers downtown Steamboat Springs for pickups.

Get your potatoes direct from the ranch

Get your potatoes direct from the ranch. Photo: Jennie Lay

On Main Street in Yampa, the historic Antlers Cafe remains closed. That’s highly regrettable, because many a feisty beer and plenty of tasty meals  have been had there over the years. But there’s still one great reason to make a culinary expedition to this tiny town on the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness:  Montgomery’s General Store.

Montgomery's General Store in Yampa, Colo. Photo: Jennie Lay

Montgomery's general store in Yampa, Colo. Photo: Jennie Lay

Montgomery’s has been selling a little bit of everything since 1890. Foodies on a mission can bypass the hunting and fishing supplies, groceries, hardware, clothes and kitsch and head straight for the meat counter at the back of the shop. That’s where Ken Montgomery, the general store’s proprietor and butcher, makes sausage. Seven styles of pork sausage are wrapped in white butcher paper and burst with seasonings like maple and sage, or less definable varieties bare a simple stamp like “Ken’s Sausage #6″ or “Ken’s Sausage HOT” which merely denotes the fire power in that particular package of deliciousness. Ken makes it right there in the store in 60-pound batches.  He wraps it up for $2.89 a pound.

Ken's makes seven varieties of his sausage. Photo: Jennie Lay

Ken's makes seven varieties of his fresh sausage. Photo: Jennie Lay

My favorite is Ken’s sage sausage. Patty it up for breakfast…scrumptious.  I’m officially stockpiling it in my freezer.

KensSausagePattiesWeb

Breakfast, thanks to Ken's sage sausage. Photo: Jennie Lay

But the real coup came when my husband heaped Ken’s sage sausage on homemade pizza along with mushrooms, mozzarella, sliced heirloom tomatoes from our CSA and a thick homemade herb-intense tomato sauce. Yum!

Homemade pizza starring Ken's sage sausage and the week's brilliant heirloom tomatoes from my CSA. Photo: Jennie Lay

Homemade pizza starring Ken's sage sausage and the week's brilliant heirloom tomatoes from my CSA. Photo: Jennie Lay

Insider tip from my pals in Yampa: Ken also cuts a mean steak (or whatever slice of meat you need) – always to order.

Aside from those decadent Western Slope peaches that I wrote about before, the other amazing option for local Colorado fruit during these dwindling days of summer is melon. Hot days, cool nights and high elevation are said to make Colorado melons among the world’s sweetest. (A NPR Morning Edition story reported that this year’s Rocky Ford cantaloupes from the southeastern part of the state are coming in at 17 percent sugar content !)

Rocky Ford, in southeast Colorado, is our state’s most famous melon town – a reputation that hinges on precarious water rights.  Still, according to a USDA cantaloupe report, 2008 saw 2,100 acres of the fruit harvested in the state, more than any year since 1971. Closer to home, this summer my CSA share has included four plump varieties of watermelon and a slew of other sweet melons with flesh that ranges from orange to translucent yellow.

August melons from my CSA in Palisade.  Photo: Jennie Lay

August melons from my CSA in Palisade. Photo: Jennie Lay

Thankfully, my CSA has shown that melons grow well on the Western Slope too (although Rocky Ford isn’t too far outside that 180-mile local food radius for Yampa Valley folks – certainly a better bet than melons from Argentina). This August, I’ve been getting as many as four melons per week in my farm share. They’re organic to boot.

Finally I’ve resorted to more creative options than offering simple slabs of juicy watermelon for dessert. Watermelon tastes great with arugula, feta cheese and balsamic. And all these melons make delicious aguas frescas that taste every bit as good as I remember at my favorite L.A. taco stand.  Nope….better.

Watermelon agua fresca

Watermelon agua fresca

Cantaloupe agua fresca

Cantaloupe agua fresca. Combine melon, a touch of lime juice, a spoonful of sugar and a trip through the strainer after a whir in the blender. Photos: Jennie Lay

In this neck of the Rockies, local fruit undoubtedly brings to mind peaches –  one of Colorado’s  sweetest summer treats.

Organic Palisade peaches. Photo: Jennie Lay

Organic Palisade peaches. Photo: Jennie Lay

Buy them by the 50 pound box if you dare.  (And I did…but more on that at the bottom of this post.)

Lucky for us, there are lots of organic peaches coming out of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Palisade on the Western Slope. The alternatives, according to results of a USDA study published this month  by the Chicago Tribune , are grim:

Preliminary 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture tests obtained by the Chicago Tribune show that more than 50 pesticide compounds showed up on domestic and imported peaches headed for U.S. stores. Five of the compounds exceeded the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and six of the pesticide compounds present are not approved for use on peaches in the United States.

In the Yampa Valley, we have ample regional resources to not have to resort to those pesticide-laden peaches:  Support Colorado’s organic peach farmers. Their peaches are available at Sweet Pea Market, the Saturday farmers’ market and all of our grocery stores (big chains and small health food stores alike). Eat them whole.  Bake them into pies. Cut them in half and grill them, then drizzle with a bit honey and balsamic vinegar. Slice and freeze them in anticipation of your best-ever January smoothies.

When you fear the peachy freshness in your 50-pound box might be getting away from you, try homemade cinnamon peach ice cream filled with extra chunks of peaches for good measure. That’s where my last dozen peaches disappeared…

Homemade peach cinnamon ice cream: milk, sugar, egg yolks, lemon juice, cinnamon and fresh organic Palisade peaches

Homemade cinnamon peach ice cream: milk, sugar, egg yolks, lemon juice, cinnamon and fresh organic Palisade peaches. Photo: Jennie Lay

And when you can’t possibly eat another fresh peach, here’s some good advice for how to store them from the folks at PickYourOwn.org.

If you live in the Yampa Valley, the most local cheeses you can buy are the sheep milk cheeses from Sunny Breeze Farm. They’re made near Craig.  Buy direct from the lovely Mennonite ladies who sell their family’s yummy feta and seasoned soft cheeses at Steamboat Springs’ farmers’ market on Saturdays, or find their cheeses in many shops around town.

But there is one way to get that handmade cheese even closer to home: Make it!

Fresh homemade mozzarella takes 30 minutes, a few simple supplies and a gallon of Colorado Proud Milk. Perfect every time. And extra-scrumptious with the piles of fresh tomatoes and basil I'm getting from my CSA this month.

Fresh homemade mozzarella takes 30 minutes, a few simple supplies and a gallon of Colorado Proud milk. Perfect every time. And extra-scrumptious with the piles of fresh tomatoes and basil I'm getting from my CSA this month. Photo: Jennie Lay

I’ll blame Barbara Kingsolver for launching me into this pursuit. By the time I got to the end of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver’s personal tale about a year of eating local, she had me completely convinced that making your own cheese (at least fresh mozzarella) is easy. I trusted her completely. I did no homework. I simply pulled up the same New England Cheesemaking Supply Company that Kingsolver raved about and ordered myself the 30 Minute Mozzarella and Ricotta Kit.

The first thing you learn is that ultra-pasteurized milk won’t work. Pasteurized is OK. And while you can get raw milk from other parts of Colorado delivered here in the Yampa Valley, I was hoping to merely pop through City Market, grab a $2.60 gallon of milk and head home to make cheese. Turns out, ultra-pasteurized milk usually means your milk has traveled quite a distance to get to your grocer.  So I went straight for the Colorado Proud milk.

Colorado Proud milk makes perfect mozzarella. Photo: Jennie Lay

Colorado Proud milk makes perfect mozzarella. Photo: Jennie Lay

It’s not organic, but it is not ultra-pasteurized either. And, it comes from cows right here in Colorado.  This makes for happy local dairy farmers, with what I can only hope are happy cows.

And guess what? It worked! I followed the directions precisely. A gallon of milk in the pot, a little rennet, a little citric acid, some heat, some salt, some stretching…Voila! I’m eating fresh mozzarella this morning, made right here in my own kitchen.

It’s making the Mother Lode of tomatoes I’m getting from my CSA in Palisade all the sweeter.

Cameron Place CSA in Palisade, Colo., grows decadent tomatoes to go with my homemade mozzarella. Photo: Jennie Lay

Cameron Place CSA in Palisade, Colo., grows decadent tomatoes to go with my homemade mozzarella. Photo: Jennie Lay

This year, Tammie and Patrick Delaney purchased Routt County's last standing granary in Hayden. Operating as Yampa Valley Feeds, they're also selling Routt County flour that's been grown, harvested and ground right there in Hayden.

This year, Tammie and Patrick Delaney purchased Routt County's last standing granary in Hayden. Operating as Yampa Valley Feeds, they're also selling Routt County flour that's been grown, harvested and ground right there in Hayden. Photo: Jennie Lay

There I was, writing away in Steamboat Magazine, pleading for our Yampa Valley wheat farmers to grind up some local flour…

And just as my story comes hot off the press, Vonnie and Kurt Frentress in Hayden are already coming through with the goods:  Frentress Ranch Whole Wheat Flour is now available at Hayden’s Friday night farmer’s market and the Hayden Granary, a.k.a. Yampa Valley Feeds.. Vonnie is milling it on-site at the Hayden farmer’s market with her mother-in-law’s small electric table-top grinder, and selling the 1.5-pound bags of freshly-milled flour for $4.

The Frentress family plants both winter wheat and spring wheat on their Hayden ranch (where cattle and hay also grow alongside an 1,800-acre stretch of Frentress ground that they’ve opted to place in conservation easement with the Colorado Division of Wildlife for permanent protection of grouse habitat). The flour you’ll have ground before your eyes right now is  spring wheat.

Vonnie says she initially just wanted to come out and show some support for her town’s new farmer’s market – and make sure truly local products keep a presence.  A crowd of enthusiastic locavore bakers might just catch her off guard once the word gets out.  Reporting back from one seasoned baker who has already delved into making loaves out of  Frentress Ranch Whole Wheat Flour: It bakes up fairly light, like pastry flour.

(And, by the way, Vonnie says she’s happy to grind up larger quantities if you give her a call: 970.276.3602)

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