Pines to Peaks (and a Bon Appetit's Cold Soba Salad with Summer Vegetables)

Our Colorado-Relocation-Project has gotten a reprieve, a lifeline if you will. We decided to give the job hunt another 6 months instead of packing up at the end of August. If jobs line up, we get to stay. Hip, hip, hooray! If it doesn't come together in that time, we have to move back to New York City (what's the opposite of hip, hip, hooray?) I've joked that if we go back east you'll find me at Bellevue hooked up to a Lithium drip, but I am only partially kidding. So keep those fingers crossed and here's to hoping that it works out for us.
Now as much as I love it here in Colorado, raising two small boys while my husband commutes back and forth from Brooklyn can be a bit challenging. Usually I get a teeny-tiny bit blue when we pile into the car and drive him back to the airport at the end of a visit. I know that we will see him in a few weeks, but I can't help feeling a little bummed. He does too. As do the boys. I suppose this is how military families feel, but at least my husband isn't going off to battle. Okay, he's battling "the system" and fighting on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, but I think we can all agree that it's not exactly the same thing. Anyway, I find that taking a nice hike the day after he leaves helps me clear my mind and the boys love it too. 

This time around I found myself wanting to go to a pine forest, which had something to do with the recent article I read at the gym titled Colorado's Forests Are Bugging Out with Bettles. Usually I prefer not to read anything too heady while on the elliptical, and I have a tendency to opt for trashy, pointless, gossip magazines. But they weren't available at the gym last week, so I picked up a copy of the most recent Westword and got reading...
The article answered a lot of questions I had regarding the beetle problem, which is responsible for destroying vast swaths of forest pine from the mountain states all the way up into Canada. The piece had a lot of good background information and presented some solutions that may curb the damage. I won't flesh out any of the points that were made, as I am not a forester, an ecologist or evolutionary biologist-- but definitely read it if you want to learn more. 
I wanted to check out what was going on with the pines and I found a hike that looked great. The "Pines to Peaks" trailhead was only 10 minutes from Boulder, which is only about 35 minutes away from our house. I decided to make a day of this pine forest pilgrimage, so we did some cooking before we left. I made a Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Summer Vegetables (delicious) and I brought along some honeydew carpaccio for dessert. It was perfect. 
We saw female deers and a few fawns too. And then Otis pointed to a sign and yelled, "Lion!" I nearly lost it. We were, in fact, in mountain lion territory. And although a sighting is extremely rare, there were instructions on what to do and what not to do if you meet one of these predators. 
Now I can fight off a street pigeon, but a mountain lion? I don't think so. I picked up some rocks and put them in Otis's hiking bucket...just in case.

There are lots of healthy pines, but these trees have succumbed to a beetle infestation. Pine trees secrete a resin (yellow goop) that can help defend against the beetles. But there hasn't been a lot of rain and that affects the trees and their resin quality. Well-watered pines can defend against thousands of invaders. An ill-watered tree can not. The beetles are also being observed at higher (and higher) elevations. 
That said, the vistas on the trail were magnificent and there were tons of wildflowers too...

About 10 minutes away from where we did our hiking are these beautiful homes in Boulder's Mapleton Historic District

 Then we went down to the pedestrian mall and walked around. Before I knew it, I found myself in front of Tee & Cakes on 14th Street (how did that happen?). After a day of hiking (and carrying two kids part of the way back down the mountain) I felt like a special treat was in order. I got the s'mores and they were so good... 
 ...and this is what I brought along for our picnic. (Photographed at home, not on the hike!) 

Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Summer Vegetables (Adapted slightly from Bon Appétit, July 2012)
Yield 4-6 servings
Active time: 30 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon Sriracha (hot chili sauce)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
8 cups matchstick-size pieces mixed summer vegetables (I probably had about 6 cups and I used carrots, cucumbers and radishes)
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
8 ounces buckwheat soba (Japanese-style noodles) or vermicelli noodles
1/2 cup (loosely packed) cilantro leaves with tender stems
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds (you can use white too, but I prefer black)
Whisk first four ingredients in a large bowl. Add vegetables; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper.
Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente; drain. Run noodles under cold water to cool them; drain well and add to bowl with vegetables. Add cilantro and scallions; season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle sesame seeds over and serve.

Japanophilic: Kizuna and Black Sesame Otsu

Some people use the word obsessed pretty casually. Not me. I reserve the word for things that I am absolutely nuts about-- things that really preoccupy my mind. Examples of such things include the Momofuku/Milk Bar Birthday Cake Truffles, Pinterest and Japanese design. I'm also (mildly) obsessed with bamboo. A fast growing, incredibly strong grass, bamboo has become popular in green design and building. And bamboo forests are just the coolest. 
I was really excited when I heard that Kizuna (which means the "bond between people" in Japanese) was going to be on display at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I mean, c'mon. Japanese installation art with bamboo? It's just too good to be true!  
Kizuna: West Meets East is a series of pieces that were created by Tetsunori Kawana and Stephen Talasnik. The bamboo was plied and manipulated to form bold, striking pieces on land and more intricate, delicate water-based sculptures. The ephemeral forms play off the landscape's really something you should check out if you live in the city.   
In addition to the installation art, pretty much every inch of the botanic gardens is in bloom right now. There are peonies, irises, and poppies. We saw butterflies fluttering and colorful beds that were buzzing with bees. And the wildflower patches? They are pretty much what I hope my own garden will look day!
As if the spring  blooms and Kizuna were not enough, the annual plant sale is also taking place. Otis really wanted a 'blue plant' and I found one that was just the right size. He named the plant Walter, which I think is a pretty good name for a potted lobelia. When I found out that it was buy one-get one free, we went back to the tables and picked out another plant. Otis named the second plant Alice-- which I think is in honor of "Imo" Alice who gifted Otis and Theo their very first Radio Flyer wagon..and boy do they love it! 
After we returned from the gardens it was nap time. The boys shluffed and I read up on Bonsai trees and maintenance. I regret to inform you that I think I'm getting a little bit obsessed...

Inspired by Kizuna, I made this Japanese-style soba (buckwheat) dish for lunch. I used a whole bunch of scallions (light and dark parts) that were fresh from the farmers market. Though scallions are available year round, this is their season and their flavor is delicious.
The recipe comes from my un-official bible, Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Black Sesame Otsu (Courtesy of Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Every Day)
Serves 4.
1 teaspoon pine nuts
1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
1/2 cup black sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons mirin
Scant 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Fine-grain sea salt
12 ounces / 340 g soba noodles
12 ounces / 340 g extra-firm tofu
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
  • Toast the pine nuts and sunflower seeds in a large skillet over medium heat until golden, shaking the pan regularly. Add the sesame seeds to the pan and toast for a minute or so. It's hard to tell when they are toasted; look closely and use your nose. Remove from the heat as soon as you smell a hint of toasted sesame; if you let them go much beyond that, you'll start smelling burned sesame - not good. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush the mixture; the texture should be like black sand. Alternatively, you can use a food processor. Stir in the sugar, shoyu, mirin, sesame oil, brown rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust if needed.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously, add the soba, and cook according to the package instructions until tender. Drain, reserving some of the noodle cooking water, and rinse under cold running water.
  • While the noodles are cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into matchstick shapes. Season the tofu with a pinch of salt, toss with a small amount of oil, and cook in a large skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, tossing every couple minutes, until the pieces are browned on all sides.
  • Reserve a heaping tablespoon of the sesame paste, then thin the rest with 1/3 cup / 80 ml of the hot noodle water. In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, half of the green onions, and the black sesame paste. Toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Serve topped with a tiny dollop of the reserved sesame paste and the remaining green onions.

For another Heidi Swanson soba dish click Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing. It comes from Super Natural Cooking

Big Pot Udon Curry and a little tour of South Broadway and Historic Baker

This is a great dish from Heidi Swanson's first book, Super Natural Cooking. It's the second recipe from that book that I've posted on this blog. And I love this dish. 
For this creamy curry bowl, I used a flat Udon noodle, a green Thai curry paste (the original recipe uses red curry paste), lite coconut milk (because I'm trying to cram myself into a teeny-tiny dress for my friend's upcoming nuptials in about 4 weeks) and a good quality extra-firm tofu. You could probably play around with the ingredients too-- maybe substituting chick peas for tofu and adding some wilted greens? There are endless possibilities. 
So go ahead, ladle out a big ol' bowl of curry noodles and enjoy! 

Big Pot Udon Curry (Adapted from Heidi Swanson)
8 ounces dried whole-grain Asian-style wide noodles (like Udon)
2 tablespoons oil
2 garlic cloves , finely chopped
1 onion , chopped
1 1/2-2 teaspoons green curry paste (original uses red)
12 ounces extra firm tofu , cut into thumb-sliced slices
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk
2 cups vegetable stock
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 tablespoons shoyu sauce
1 tablespoon natural cane sugar
1 lime, juice of
2/3 cup peanuts
1/3 cup slivered shallot
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  • Cook noodles in plenty of boiling salted water until just tender. Drain and set aside.
  • Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat, then stir in garlic, onion, and curry paste and mash the paste around the bottom of the pan a bit to distribute it evenly. Cook until nice and fragrant - just a minute or two.
  • Add the tofu and gently stir until coated with the curry paste.
  • Stir in the coconut milk, stock, turmeric, shoyu and sugar. Bring to a simmer and simmer gently for 5 minutes.
  • Remove from the heat, stir in the lime juice, and add the noodles, jostling them a bit if they're sticking.
  • To serve, heap big piles of noodles into individual bowls and top with a generous ladle or two of the curry.
  • Top with peanuts and finish each bowl with a sprinkling of shallots and cilantro.

In addition to eating a big pot of udon curry, we also explored  the "SoBo" (South Broadway) neighborhood in Denver-- specifically, Historic Baker District. The houses are so quaint in this part of town, and there's a huge inventory of Queen-Anne style homes in the district, most of which were built between the 1880s and early 1890s. Broadway, the main thoroughfare, is home to the Mayan Theater, which has a gorgeous design and some great Native-American images on the façade. The theater was built in 1930 and was saved from demolition in the 1980s. There's also St. Augustine Orthodox Chrisitan Church, which was built in 1912. And my favorite modern-merchantile, Hazel & Dewey, on S. Broadway too. 
This is a great neighborhood to walk around and there are some fantastic places to eat in case you get hungry!

Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger-Sesame Dressing

There are certain cookbooks I just can't live without; they're the cookbooks that contain the recipes I make over and over and over again...never tiring of the flavors or the dishes, no matter how many times I make them. One such cookbook is Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. I've credited that book dozens of times since I started this blog. And then I realized that I've never made any of the dishes from her first cookbook, Super Natural Cooking. I didn't own it, so I decided to buy it-- despite my little moratorium on no new cookbook purchases. 
Now unlike some of my cookbooks, which call for obscure ingredients, contain difficult cooking techniques and have prep times that just don't gel with my current lifestyle, this book is right up my alley. It has inspired dishes that are super flavorful, easy to make, and don't require advanced culinary degrees for successful execution.
I decided to start with the 'Otsu' recipe because my friend Charlotta highly recommended it. I loved it- the otsu is a wonderful cold soba (soba is buckwheat in Japanese) noodle salad, with cucumbers, pan fried tofu and scallions. The salad is coated in an awesome ginger-sesame dressing-- one that is salty, sweet, spicy, tangy (all at the same time) and just plain delicious. I thought I'd pass on this dish to you...

The original inspiration for the dish comes from a little restaurant in San Francisco called Pomelo. And Heidi's adaptation is terrific. You can easily eat the 4-6 portions by one sitting. I promise, I won't tell.
As they say in Japan, どうぞめしあがれ (douzo meshiagare). Enjoy your meal! 

Ginger-Sesame Otsu (Adapted slightly from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking)
Ginger-Sesame Dressing:
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1-inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 teaspoon cayenne
3/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 1/4 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup unseasoned brown rice vinegar
1/3 cup tamari soy sauce (the original recipe calls for shoyu sauce)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
(Note: I didn't have any sesame oil on hand, so I just used 3 tablespoons of olive oil. It worked for me. I've seen other modifications to this recipe that use canola oil.)
For the Rest:
12 ounces dried soba noodles
12 ounces extra-firm nigari tofu (I used organic extra-firm tofu.  Nigari is even firmer than standard extra-firm, but my regular tofu held up well when it was pan fried and added to the noodles.) 
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (I omitted the cilantro because I don't care for the taste of cilantro in this kind of dish. Adjust according to your preference.) 
3 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds for garnish (I toasted the seeds in a fry pan for a few minutes.  Be careful! Seeds can burn easily, so keep an eye on 'em.) 
To make the dressing, combine the zest, ginger, honey, cayenne, and salt in a food processor (or use a hand blender) and process until smooth. Add the lemon juice, rice vinegar, and shoyu (tamari) and pulse to combine. With the machine running, drizzle in the oils.
Cook the soba in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water just until tender (I cooked them for about 6 minutes) then drain and rinse under cold running water. 
While the pasta is cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into rectangles roughly the size of your thumb (1/2 inch thick and 1 inch long). Cook the tofu in a dry nonstick (or well seasoned) skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until the pieces are browned on one side. Toss gently once or twice, then continue cooking for another minute or so, until the tofu is firm, golden, and bouncy.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, the 1/4 cup cilantro (optional), green onions, cucumber and about 2/3 cup of the dressing and toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Add more dressing until the dish is to your liking. Serve on a platter, garnished with the cilantro sprigs and toasted sesame seeds.