Cornbelt or Winebelt — and Colorado Too

I was intrigued by a piece in today’s New York Times about the small, but mushrooming, wine industry in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest. Intriguingly titled “Iowa Finds Itself Deep in the Heart of Wine Country,” it reported on Iowa and other mid-country farmers who have discovered the pleasure and profits in growing grapes and making wine.

The lead reads:
“Stan Olson used to grow corn and soybeans on hundreds of acres here on the Raccoon River west of Des Moines, but no more. These days, Mr. Olson’s empty grain silo is useful only as a rustic image to promote his new vineyard and tasting room.

“Mr. Olson’s Penoach Winery is a tiny operation in a red barn behind his family’s farmhouse, next to a small grape nursery. It does not have much of a customer base yet or any vintages that go beyond last year, but Mr. Olson is thrilled nonetheless.

“ ‘I will make as much selling grape plants off of two acres this year as I did many years on 1,000 acres of corn and raising 3,000 head of hogs,’ ” said Mr. Olson, who makes much of his money selling cuttings to other aspiring vintners.”

In the wine business, production from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa is collectively known as “New World Wines.” Iowa and neighboring states might have the newest of the new, but they are not all that far behind Colorado’s burgeoning wine industry. When I moved here in 1988, the first vineyard had just planted its first grapes. Now, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, there are upwards of 60 wineries here.

As in the Midwest, Colorado vineyards have planted hybrid grapes that can take cold weather. Most of Colorado’s vineyards are in the Grand Junction area, with wineries scattered throughout the state. BookCliff, for instance, has its vineyard near Palisade, just east of Grand Junction, but its winery and tasting room are in Boulder. The beautiful Winery at Holy Cross Abbey grows some grapes on the grounds of the former Benedictine monastery in Canon City, west of Pueblo, where the winery is located and also buys grapes from other growers. Due to a change in state law, multi-winery tasting rooms are now legal. When you come across one while traveling through Colorado, stop in and sample some of the state’s wines. You might be surprised at their quality.

First Bite at Black Cat

Maybe I ought to call this “Third Bite Boulder,” because a Friday evening feast at this new downtown restaurant was the third one I ate at during the week of First Bite Boulder. As I noted earlier, each restaurant worked out its own details within the parameters of the promotion’s overall format, which primarily meant offering a three-course meal for $26.

Aji’s special menu offered a choice of three appetizers, three entrees and two desserts, while Mateo gave no choice at all. Black Cat Bistro owner/chef Eric Skokan provided the most attractive deal of all that I tried. Diners were able to order from the regular menu, with a choice of any one of the six small-plate first courses ($4-$7), any of the seven entrees ($17-$22) and any one of the five desserts (I don’t know their individual cost because prices weren’t printed on the dessert menu). To read what my party and I ordered and what we thought, please go to my website and click on ‘Dining Diary.’ But I’ll tell you here that everything was beautifully presented, well prepared and served with care and elan. The photo above of Black Cat’s molten chocolate cake, for instance, shows a signature presentation of several desserts: warm sauce poured from a small pitcher at the table.

First Bite Boulder is winding down. Many/most top Boulder restaurants have participated — and it seems to have been an outstanding success. Mild November weather certainly encouraged people to leave the house and eat out, but I believe that the fine values were the main incentive for people to try different Boulder restaurants this past week.

Another terrific value this week has been the fifth anniversary promotion at Solera Restaurant & Wine Bar at 5410 East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Solera’s owner/chef Goose Sorensen is offering a three-course dinner for two for $54.10 and “select” wines for $5.41 per glass and $54.10 per bottle. I wish I’d been able to alert you to it before it was almost over.

First Outside Recognition for This Blog

Colorado food (and parenting) blogger Anne-Marie Nichols has honored this blog by making it her pick for “food blog of the week.” She wrote: “Claire has only been food blogging for a couple of months, but she covers the Colorado (especially Boulder) food scene better than any of the local papers.” Her site, This Mama Cooks, is one of my links, but I’d like to draw your attention to it. You’ll find it at http://mamarant.blogs.com/mamacooks/.

Belated Obit for Great Cheesery

When I didn’t see Fort Collins-based Bingham Hill’s cheeses at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market this summer, I vaguely wondered why. Perhaps they outgrew the farmers’ market model for selling cheese at retail. Perhaps they had been bought out by a larger corporation, rather like Boulder’s Izze natural sparkling juices have been slurped up by Pepsi Cola. Perhaps they had succumbed to the belated after-effects of a production problem in 2003 that prompted a voluntary recall of a ton of their fabulous Rustic Blue Cheese. Eventually, I heard a rumor that Bingham Hill had closed, but I chose to ignore it. The “Nibbles” column in today’s Rocky Mountain News reminded me to look into this.

Alas, the rumor was true and Bingham Hill Cheese Co. is no more. The mom-and-pop cheesery (mom being Kristi Johnson and pop being Tom Johnson) was established in 1999 and quickly began winning accolades and cheese-competition awards. In fact, every one of the 20 artisan cheeses the Johnsons eventually made won some award or another. Dean & DeLuca put Bingham Hill into its prestigious Christmas catalog. Trader Joe’s became the biggest customer, buying up 50 percent of its production, and the cheesemaker struggled unsuccesfully to meet the Trader’s demand. As recently as 2005, Bingham Hill waltzed off with ten medals at the World Cheese Awards in London, bringing their half-decade medal haul in national and international cheese competitions to an astonishing 35.

Then, Bingham Hill’s problems mounted. Although the Johnsons expected to increase their production, Trader Joe’s stopped buying their products, and the landlord wanted the cheesery out in order to demolish the building and redevelop the site. The price of milk rose, and profitability fell. Wisconsin tried to entice the Johnsons to move Bingham Hill there, but Tom’s roots are in Colorado. Bingham Hill closed earlier this year, and as if to add insult to injury, the Johnsons contended that the Morning Fresh Cheese Co. made off with trade secrets from the closed Bingham Hill Cheese Co. I understand that Kristi returned to law practice, and Tom took a position as business manager of The Coloradoan, Fort Collins’s daily newspaper.

That leaves Fort Collins with two micro-cheeseries. MouCo Cheese Co. was started in 2001 by another couple, Birgit Halbreiter, whose father is a master cheesemaker in Germany, and Robert Poland, formerly fermentation manager for New Belgium beer. Morning Fresh Dairy, which the Johnsons alledged made off with their cheesemaking secrets, was established in 1894 and jumped on the artisanal cheese bandwagon in March 2006, when it introduced eight all-natural cheese.

Belatedly, I mourn the loss of Bingham Hill, both for the quality of their cheeses and for the Johnsons’ pioneering Colorado cheesemaking. And I am happy that we still have locally made artisanal cheese to enjoy.

Potluck Pleasures

The monthly potluck of the Boulder Media Women was yesterday evening. Thirty or 40 local writers, editors, designers and other media professionals gathered to chew the fat and chew on a lavish spread. The two hostesses, who provided beverages and a fabulous African stew (recipe, please!), had asked for guests to bring an “ethnic” dish. I originally wanted to make a Jamaican banana custard for dessert, but I didn’t have (and couldn’t get) five very ripe bananas. I decided that Italian was ethnic enough, so that’s what I made. Other BMWers were apparently of the same mind, because dishes included satisfying mix of dishes from many traditions, including quiche, cous-cous, a pasta dish or two, a couple of green salads, a silky bisque, a sweet potato dish, long Asian green beans and a fruit tart.

This fittata is equally good hot and at room temperature, and therefore is well suited to a potluck. I adapted the recipe from True Tuscan by Cesare Casella.

Ricotta Frittata

3 to 4 tbsp. olive oil, plus additional for drizzling on the frittata at the end
1 large or 1 1/2 medium onions, peeled and sliced thinly
1 to 2 tbsp. fresh herbs (marjoram, sage, thyme or other — individually or mixed), chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 large eggs (or 7 medium)
1 cup reduced-fat ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In an ovenproof skillet (I use cast iron) over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add onions, herbs, salt and pepper, and saute about 7 or 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent and begin to brown slightly.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine eggs and both cheeses. Stir until smooth and homogeneous (the lowest speed on a hand mixer works well). Add egg-cheese mixture to the sauteed onions and stir to incorporate the eggs. Cook on the stovetop until the eggs begin to set. Run a knife around the edge of the frittata. Transfer skillet to the oven. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until firm.

Remove from oven. Run a knife around the edge of the frittata. Place a serving plate over the skillet and turn the fritrata out. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Serves 4 as an entree, 6 as an appetizer or whatever number at a potluck.

I’m not the only foodie in BMW. Mary Collette Rogers, author of Take Control of Your Kitchen, is teaching a collaborative, hands-on cooking class featuring “warming winter dishes” in North Boulder this coming Sunday (November 19 from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.). The cost is only $10, including eating the dishes prepared in class. Since time is short, it’s probably best to phone in reservations; 303-730-8960.

Celebrating First Bite Boulder

At the halfway point of First Bite Boulder, a local advertising, strategic planning and branding firm called the Sterling-Rice Group hosted a reception to celebrate the first annual city-wide restaurant week, whose name and logo it was instrumental in creating. Wine, beer, soft drinks and a quartet of hors d’oeuvres were set out in advance, but the real highlight of the evening was a demonstration by Hosea Rosenberg, executive chef of Jax Fish House. Focusing on seasonality and the impending Thanksgiving holiday, Rosenberg made half-a-dozen dishes with his own not-so-secret ingredient: sweet potatoes. These luscious autumn tubers are low in calories and pack a nutritional wallop.

Sterling-Rice’s client roster includes a number of food and beverage corporations (Nestle, Horizon Organic Dairy, Frito-Lay, Kraft, Kellogg’s Tropicana, Starbucks, Heinz, Quaker Oats, Fantastic Foods, Hellmans, Coors and Celestial Seasonings) and one of their top executives is culinary director Cathryn Olchowy (Johnson & Wales culinary grad and MBA holder), which makes it all the more remarkable that they took on a one-week, local restaurant festival.

Rosenberg made Sweet Potato Bisque (served in tall tall shot glasses), Sweet Potato Hash, Sweet Potato Corn Muffins, Sweet Potato Chipotle Gratin and Sweet Potato Souffle. The photo above shows him cutting the peeled sweet potatoes for his gratin (recipe below), which would be ideal for a Southwestern-themed Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, but could easily be reduced for fewer people:

Sweet Potato Chipotle Gratin

1 large yellow onion
3 tbsp. butter
salt and pepper
5 pounds of sweet potatoes
1/2 can chipotles in adobo
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup Gruyere or other Swiss cheese, grated
1 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated

Peel and slice onion. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and cook onions with a little salt and pepper until soft. Turn up heat and cook until onions begin to caramelize, being careful not to let them burn. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Peel sweet potatoes. Using a mandolin or slicer (or sharp knife), cut potatoes into thin strips. Oil or grease the bottom of a two-inch-deep baking pan and place an even layer of potatoes on the bottom. The “pattern” resembles shingles. Sprinkle with a small amount of the cheeses, onions, salt and pepper, distributed evenly over the sweet potatoes. Repeat process, ending with a layer of potatoes. Press down with a spatula to even the layers. Pour cream over the potatoes and top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil, being careful not to permit the foil to touch the cheese. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Remove from oven and pierce with a knife to make sure the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. Allow to rest before slicing; slice as you would a lasagna.

After we feasted on sweet potatoes, a group of us continued to celebrate. Sterling-Rice clients include Applebee’s and some other chain, but fortunately, we headed for Mateo, where we enjoyed the First Bite Boulder menu. See the Dining Diary on my website for a review.

An eyeball evaluation of First Bite Boulder gives it high marks. En route to Sterling-Rice’s offices and then to Mateo, I walked past a number of participating restaurants. While I didn’t see any out-the-door lines, most tables appeared occupied. And that was the whole idea.

First Bite at Aji

Aji is Boulder’s newest South American restaurant

My husband and a friend an I took advantage of the great prices during the First Bite Boulder promotion to visit Aji Restaurant, a South American restaurant east of the Pearl Street Mall and a few blocks from our home. The food was wonderful, the portions ample and the price appealing. For a review, please go to my website’s Dining Diary.

Beyond our own satisfying meal, I have to sing the praises of cities and participating restaurateurs that team up to offer well-priced meals for a special week each year. Denver does a Restaurant Week each February, following the lead of such culinary meccas as San Francisco and Seattle. Whatever these promotional weeks are called and whenever they fall on the calendar, they provide an opportunity for diners to try places they haven’t been or to return to a favorite without running up a huge bill.

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.