Sometimes I think about dropping everything and living in a tiny house in the mountains, with a homegrown Colorado garden for fresh produce, harvesting elk, deer, fish and other animals for meat, and foraging the forest to supplement what I can’t cultivate on my own. Of course my family looks at me like I’m nuts when I mention this. Bill says “NO WAY” and I’m sure my kids would hitchhike their way back into the city after being without wifi on their iPads for a few days.
So, I compromise this crazy lifestyle dream by spending as much of my free time in the mountains as possible hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, and backpacking – where my tent is my tiny house and I laugh that I have to bring backup food when I can’t catch any brookies for my campfire dinner. But I’m still out there, because just like John Muir, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
Over the last year I’ve been spending an exorbitant amount of time identifying wildflowers and observing their bloom cycles/patterns in Northern Colorado. Wildflower identification has transformed my outdoor adventures by making me stop to smell (and photograph) the flowers. Literally and figuratively. This has changed the way I spend my time on the trail and how I perceive my surroundings in the wilderness. At this point I can go on a hike and spot a new flower just because the pattern and color pop out as something different to me. It’s amazing. Since this observation skill is just starting to become refined, I want to improve and expand by educating myself about foraging for next spring. I would love to be skilled enough to forage a backpacking dinner for myself, or even just a snack on the trail.
Aside from my selfish interest in foraging, I was thrilled to see some revolutionary culinary steps being made with this dinner, as it was the first foraged pairing dinner in Fort Collins. Earlier this summer Beth interviewed me for a post in her quest to define Colorado cuisine. In that interview I talk about how native plants and animals are what define the regional food, and if we want to get to the roots of “authentic” Colorado cuisine, we need to go beyond local agriculture’s farm-to-table concepts and head for the hills.
I was nearly beside myself realizing that two of my loves – the flavor of mountains and exceptional food and drink – were going to merge for a magical evening. And yes, it was magical.
This foraged dinner was months, if not a year in the making. Foraged food expert, Nic Mouton harvested foraged ingredients throughout the year which were used either fresh, dehydrated or pickled in the dinner by Chef Oskar Arevalo, who met with Colin Westcott at Equinox to taste and decide on which beers were best for the pairing. A successful pairing dinner is no easy feat. A foraged pairing dinner is even more difficult as the flavors are unique and can sometimes be overpowering. Chef Arevalo nailed it due to his palpable passion and clearly demonstrated skill. Between foraged ingredients, creative culinary execution, and carefully crafted beer with stories of their own, this was an unforgettable dinner on the evening of the equinox.
I was exceptionally fortunate enough to sit at the table with The Growing Project members, where I gained perception-altering insights on the ingredients selected and foraging in general.
Many of the foraged ingredients aren’t necessarily special or rare, nor did they all come from the mountain sides in Poudre Canyon. Nic explained that they generally practice urban foraging, looking for plants that may be in your backyard, sidewalk berms, irrigation ditches, or an uncultivated space on a farm. Typically, foraged plants are weeds – weeds that are helping to rebalance the soil. This shows people that nature and the food our land produces is still around us every day, even with buildings and streets inbetween. Nature in an of itself isn’t necessarily just in the mountains. This shift in perception pretty much blew my mind.
It was also interesting to realize that commercial-scale foraging isn’t exactly a sustainable practice. It’s one thing to forage for yourself or a small family, but it’s a completely different ballgame harvesting enough for 160 people for a pairing dinner, as was the case with wild gobo for the evening. So the idea of a consistently fully foraged menu as a restaurant concept might not be realistic. This fact made the dinner that night even more special.
The dinner started with a welcome course – smoked bay scallops, wild gobo (also known as burdock), and dashi soup topped with tobiko roe. It was paired with Cosmic Kolsch.
This dish was downright delightful. It was delicately creamy, with an ever so slight root starch silkiness. The tobiko roe added a bit of subtle saltiness, but more importantly, a fun texture that popped in your mouth. The Cosmic Kolsch was a perfect pairing with its light and refreshing malty flavor.
The first course was seared wild salmon, arugula, wild spinach and dandelion green salad with local foco apples, candied filberts, and pickled cattail shoots. This was paired with both Gideon’s Amber Ale and Gideon’s Plum Amber.
“Oh, my god. This is what food is supposed to taste like,” I said aloud after my first bite. The intensity of the bright flavor, the sweetness and bitterness of the greens was complex. It tasted of life. It was my favorite dish of the whole evening.
The beers paired with this dish came with heartwarming creation stories, brewed for old Fish staff member Gideon’s wedding, pulled together by current Fish manager and Gideon’s brother, Tucker. Hours of pitting local plums and apparently a lot of celebration went into these two beers. And it tasted like it with a bit of lambic tart sourness from not-yet-quite ripened plum skins. I’m not much of a lambic fruit beer drinker, but I thoroughly enjoyed these.
The second course was foraged porcini, morel, and oyster mushroom agnolotti with squid ink, lobster cream sauce, and roasted ramps. This was paired with Skyrocket Pale Ale.
The Growing Project table was on pins and needles waiting to dig into this dish, while sharing stories of foraging morels in secret places in Poudre Canyon and telling me how mycelium spreads. Morels are the one foraged menu item that was rare and special, a labor of love personified in creamy pasta. So much so, that I’d heard an extra serving was set aside by the Chef for Tucker with a smile and an “I love you.”
It was lovely, indeed. Decadently rich with earthy mushrooms and sweet, lightly salty lobster.
The third course was pan roasted Colorado striped bass, roasted sunchokes, pancetta, Red Dirt Farm tomatoes, wild oregano pesto and foraged lemon balm puree, with wild purslane garniture. It was paired with Space Ghost IPA.
This course is what Colorado tastes like. When I talk of the general terms of comprising native plants and animals to create regional cuisine – it is this very dish, even down to the Colorado craft beer, that highlights the specifics. When Chef Oskar was describing this dish, he talked about how he thought Colorado striped bass “…tastes like sand. Delicious sand.” And it’s certainly an accurate description. That with the tuber-like root starch of sunchokes and the captivating lemon drop candy-like flavor of the lemon balm, and the super hoppy pay-attention-style IPA (and my favorite beer from Equinox), this dish was IT – Colorado on a plate.
A gorgeous bite that did the trick! It was ever so strongly flavored and reminded me a bit of cough syrup, but not in an unpleasant way, more in a natural flavoring way. Also, how could eating flowers be unpleasant…
Before each course, Nic, Chef Arevalo, and Colin would talk about the ingredients, how they were paired with the beer, and essentially how they came together to create the magic on our plates. Of all of the foraged ingredients, these were the ones that had the potential to be reactionary as being related to the nightshade family. Granted, Nic is an expert, so there was no real concern, but it did take that extra effort in identification and thorough cooking (spoiler alert – nobody died). It was also a good reminder that if you forage for yourself, make sure you get your plants properly identified and double-checked by an expert.
This was fantastic after all was said and done. Decadently rich with a bit of slight pepper-like spiciness from the tequila and sumac. I would have had seconds if there were more (and if I had more room).
Dessert was Mama Bush’s brown sugar bars with wild mallow and coconut mousse. It was paired with Deep Space Porter.
Mama Bush is Tucker and Gideon’s mom, and their family has been part of the Fish family for many years. So many years that Kat, owner of Fish with her husband Mike, regaled stories of how Mama Bush was one of the first to hold their youngest son when he was a newborn in the hospital. Evidently, she had shared this family recipe for brown sugar bars with the restaurant. BOY, WERE THEY LUCKY.
While the kitchen was preparing the mucous extracted from the mallow by whipping it in the mixer to create the traditional marshmallow consistency, the mixer broke halfway through in their work. Unbeknownst to everyone enjoying their dinner, all hands were on deck in the back manually whipping the mallow with whisks to execute flawlessly. Talk about teamwork and an fabulous dessert to end the evening. Everyone slowly sipped on Deep Space Porter, savoring the chocolaty notes and conversation.
There are a scant amount of times throughout the year that I look forward to a pairing dinner such as this, and even fewer that leave me feeling high on culinary, community happiness. I felt exceptionally privileged to have gained some insight into local foraging from passionate experts, inspiring me to learn more, and I can say with completely honesty that this was the best dinner that I’ve had in 2015 (I looked back at all of the reviews – no joke. Nothing else compares). These are the kind of moments that keep me excited about Fort Collins food, the caliber of chefs that our city holds, and the hope for exceptional deliciousness as we grow.