Being from the Midwest, I had no idea how beautiful the western part of the United States is. I had visited California and Colorado before, but they were short trips with a busy schedule. This summer Roy and I had the opportunity to explore this area of the country in a motor home and of course, one of our goals was to investigate the food! This post highlights what we found; I’m sure I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg, so please let me know what I’ve missed in the comments below.
Bison and Elk
I had my first taste of bison (photo above, left) at the Cowboy Cafe in Medora, North Dakota. Medora is a cute little touristy town right at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I was a lot more excited about the park than I was about that bison burger! Bison meat has less fat than chicken and fewer calories. I figured that was why it tasted so dry. But I didn’t give up! Each time I found it on a the menu, I’d give it a try. Some bison burgers were tastier than others. The best one I found was at Wall Drug in South Dakota. We also sampled elk burgers made for us by our friends Jim and Carol in Missoula, Montana. They were delicious (Carol is a great cook) and really not that much different than hamburger. However, our best bison experience was when we grilled a bison tri tip steak which we bought at Specialty Cuts Meat Market in Columbia Falls, Montana. In the West, beef tri tip is a common cut rubbed with dry spices and cooked up Santa Maria style which I tried to mimic. I used what spices I had on hand, and bragging aside, it was delicious!
Bison Tri Tip Steak
Ingredients for Four Large Servings:
Tri tip steak close to two pounds (about one inch thick)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and put through press
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons thyme
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
Combine the salt, garlic, olive oil, thyme, pepper, and marjoram together to make a paste. Rub it into the steak, covering all sides. Allow the steak to sit (with the rub on) until it comes to room temperature. Heat the grill up to high temperature. Sear the outside of the steak by cooking each side on high for 2 minutes. Then, turn the heat down to medium low and cook 9 minutes a side for medium well. Tri tip has sort of a rectangle shape, so the ends of the steak will be well done and the middle inside will be pink. After taking the steak off the grill, let it rest on a covered platter for 5 to 10 minutes. Then slice the steak against the grain and enjoy!
Smaller than a blueberry and a bit more tart, huckleberries are a big deal, especially in Montana and nearby Idaho. They are good in everything that blueberries are, but perhaps because there is a short window when they are in season, they are found in a lot of packaged food as well. We enjoyed them in ice cream, chocolate sauce, and even taffy.
Not just beef jerky, but a multitude of different meats and flavors such as teriyaki turkey and jalapeño bison are available. In the Midwest, I’ve seen this stuff in sporting goods stores or Walmarts, but I have never seen anyone buy it. Out west, everyone seems to have it in their grocery cart. It’s a great snack that doesn’t have to be refrigerated, so for car trips it’s handy – especially since every destination is so spread out from the next one. On the plus side, jerky consists of protein, but the down fall is the high sodium. However, since these strips of dried meat take an eternity to chew, not many can be eaten at one sitting!
Traditional Dishes Passed Down From Immigrants
Thousands of immigrants came to settle the West due to the Homestead Act of 1862 and the railroads. Their lasting influence is felt in various Irish pubs, German restaurants, and Italian produce companies in the region. Our friend Carol is of Norwegian descent. Her ancestors came to Montana via Minnesota. She belongs to The Son’s of Norway and I was thrilled to see her and other members make a traditional Crown Cake (Kransekake). It was evident that Carol and her dear friends Tolly, Susan, and Betty had a wonderful time doing this labor of love together. This time consuming celebration cake is served at milestone events such as weddings and graduations.
Rings of batter consisting of ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites are baked in special form pans. Then they are stacked 18 high, held together with royal icing, and decorated with Norwegian flags and candy. As you can see from the photo collage above, there are many different recipe versions; some use almond paste while others include more than just the three basic ingredients. I got to taste a baked piece of a ring that broke while it was being removed from the pan. It reminded me of a macaroon cookie and was delicious.
Huge Candy Stores Where the Star of the Show is Licorice
We encountered huge candy stores such as the one in Arlee, Montana above. I never knew there could be so many different kinds of licorice – including huckleberry!
While in Denver, we met up with our old friends Jerry and Helen. Roy and Jerry have a hilarious fishing history which they managed to continue during our visit. I won’t go into it here, but I will say tears of laughter streamed down my face when they came back after hours of fishing with a grocery store bag full of trout. At least they were cleaned and gutted! Helen cooked them up using the foil packet method and the results were scrumptious!
Helen’s Colorado Trout
Ingredients for Four Servings:
4 trout- about 2 pounds, gutted and cleaned
4 pieces of heavy duty foil, each about 12 by 24 inches
1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half if large
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon seasoning salt
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Mist each piece of foil with cooking spray and place a trout in the middle. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon seasoning salt, lemon pepper, and garlic powder over each fish. Evenly sprinkle the cherry tomatoes and diced onion among each fish. Top each one with a tablespoon of butter and seal the packets tightly. Either bake in the oven or place on a gas grill at 400 degrees heat for fifteen minutes, turning once in the middle of the cooking time. The fish should flake easily with a fork when done.
Green Chiles of Colorado and New Mexico
We hit Pueblo, Colorado just in time for the annual Chile & Frijoles Festival. Contrary to what Midwesterners think, this event doesn’t celebrate a ground beef and tomato sauce concoction, but rather dried beans and green chilies. Huge bags of mirasol chilies are carried over by fork lifts to roasters that resemble those devices that turn raffle tickets. Only these are huge baskets that flame up and smoke the chiles. People line up to get huge plastic bags full of the roasted chiles which they take home and divide into freezer bags to last them until the Chile Festival next year.
The signature dish in Pueblo is the slopper, shown above left. An open face cheeseburger is covered with a sauce made from green chiles and sprinkled with chopped onion. It also comes with red chile sauce which is a less spicy version. We sampled one at Grays Coors Tavern, an iconic place that was started by the Coors company to promote their beer. It’s only changed hands a couple of times and it’s full of character. Lots of families were sitting in booths along the wall watching the Broncos play and there is outdoor seating as well.
New Mexico is know for bring a bowl of both green and red chile (sauce not the stew) to the table. A few years ago when we were driving across the country to California, Jenny and I found their brand of Tex Mex food as enchanting as the terrain. We are headed there next, and I’m looking forward to Sopapillas drenched with honey! Anyone have any recommendations?