rocky mountain arsenal wildlife refuge + a breakfast shakshuka

If you are a parent with a small child (or children), my guess is that you are about to (or already have) spent a whole lot of time with your kids. It's winter break and most preschools are closed for the holidays. My own children have been off since December 20th and classes don't resume until January 7th! Yup. There's a whole lot of quality time taking place up in here...

Since winter break began, we have visited the Children's Museum, the Clyfford Still Museum, the Denver Art Museum, and the Museum of Nature and Science (also referred to in our household as "The Dinosaur Museum"). Joyce, our fabulous realtor, cooked a five-course dinner at our home for some friends (party!) and we ate lots of delicious food at Christmas Eve dinner…and even more yumminess at a lunch the following day. I felt like a walk was in order and I wanted to do something new…

So when my friend Kelly asked me if I wanted to go to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, I was game. It was also going to be 60 degrees in Denver (we are having a stretch of mild weather), so really, how could I refuse? I don't know why I hadn't visited the refuge before-- it's so close and so cool!

The refuge sits on about 15,000 acres and it's only 10 miles outside of Denver. I would liken it to the distance between Manhattan and Jacob Riis beach; you can't believe it's so close and yet it seems so far away. The refuge has gone from Native American hunting grounds, to homesteader farmland, to a WWII weapons arsenal and an Army chemical manufacturing facility (I believe sarin and mustard gas were produced here), to land leased to the Shell Oil Company. The arsenal was quite controversial until it closed in 1992, but then it was cleaned up (a major urban achievement) and turned into a wildlife refuge, managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Today you can find more than 330 species of wildlife at the former arsenal.

We parked in the lot near the Visitor's Center and immediately spotted two coyotes. The kids colored coyote masks, howled a bit, alarmed some of the other visitors, and we snagged free exploration packs (borrowed for the day), complete with magnifying glasses, nets and bird charts. Then we set off in the direction of the bison (you have to drive, you can't walk or bike due to safety concerns).

After viewing some bison (we saw calves too!), we walked around both lakes and set up a picnic lunch. The views of the Rocky Mountains were breathtaking. If you are looking for someplace near the city and want to see wildlife, this is the place to do it! It's a hidden gem that's right in your own backyard. 


Getting there: It takes about 15-20 minutes from our home in the Congress Park section of Denver (close to the Botanic Gardens). 
Admission: Free!
Activities: The new Visitor's Center has a lot of information, colorful wall panels and a kids activities room. Pick up an exploration pack too!

Hiking or walking on an empty stomach is a big no-no in my book. I get grumpy and so do the boys. So before we set out on our arsenal excursion, I made this simple and super tasty dish. Shakshuka, eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, is one of my favorite things to eat in the morning and it's relatively easy to make. I've posted the dish before and I've been playing around with the recipe ever since.
For that post I used an old Saveur recipe, adapted by Smitten Kitchen. This time I futzed around with the original recipe and made a few adjustments- but they were pretty minimal. Instead of using 8 cloves of garlic, I used 5. I also used 3 jalapeño peppers instead of 5 Anaheim chiles. Instead of crushing the tomatoes by hand, I pureed them (I like the sauce a little bit smooth, though there is some bite thanks to the peppers and onions) and I cooked the sauce longer than suggested, until the garlic was really soft (that's just my preference).
I firmly believe that recipes are meant to be tinkered with, so fool around with it until you find what tastes best to  you. 
Eggs Poached in Spicy Tomato Sauce, Shakshuka
(Adapted from Saveur)
Serves 4-6
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 jalapeños, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. paprika
1  28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained (I puree them)
Kosher salt, to taste
8 eggs (I always use at least 6)
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
Warm pita, for serving

1. Heat the oil in a 12" skillet over medium-high heat (I love using my cast iron skillet for this dish). Add the chiles and the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, and paprika, and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is soft, about 2 more minutes (this step takes me 5-7 minutes).

2. Put the tomatoes and their liquid into a medium bowl and crush them with your hands (see note above, I favor pureed tomatoes). Add the crushed (or pureed) tomatoes and their liquid to skillet along with 1/2 cup water, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened slightly, about 20 minutes (sometimes longer, taste it). Season the sauce with salt.

3. Crack the eggs over the sauce so that the eggs are evenly distributed across the sauce's surface. Cover the skillet and cook until the yolks are just set, about 5 minutes. Using a spoon, baste the whites of the eggs with tomato mixture, being careful not to disturb the yolk. Sprinkle the shakshuka with feta and parsley and serve with pita, for dipping.

You can find the original recipe here.

Share it with a group of friends, a loved one, some kids…or just gobble it up yourself! Enjoy!

Other shakshuka recipes that I can not wait to try:
This one from David Leibovitz
This one from Kate Bradley's Kenko Kitchen
This one from Melissa Clark at the New York Times

A Market Inspiration: Swiss Rösti topped with Shakshuka

Last week I took the boys to the Denver Christkindl Market, a traditional German Christmas market that replicates the kind of markets that have existed in Germany and throughout parts of Western Europe for over 700 years. The month-long market (which ends on December, 22) is located at Skyline Park in Downtown Denver, right on 16th Street at Arapahoe. 
Vendors are selling German crafts (ornaments, biersteins, wood-carved toys, lace, nesting dolls, etc.) from traditional wooden stalls. 
And in addition to the crafts (which were quite beautiful), there's lots of great food: cinnamon pretzels, German pastries, crepes, and bratwurst, to name a few.... 
You can eat your culinary treats (and drink some Glühwein too) in a large tent at the end of the market. The tent is filled with picnic tables and benches, a bar, and a stage designated for musical performances.

One of my favorite food vendors at the market is Latke Love. They are serving traditional potato latkes (which I always considered quintessential Jewish food from Eastern Europe, but turns out also exists as a German dish called Kartoffelpuffer or Reibekuchen). I got the classic: latkes topped with applesauce and cinnamon whipped cream. I'm also a big fan of their other vegetarian option, Oy Vey Caliente!- where latkes are piled high and topped with green chili and a poached egg. Delicious!(For the omnivores, there are meat options too.)  
Now many cuisines have potato latkes, they just go by a different name. 
In Germany the latke is called Kartoffelpuffer or Reibekuchen. In Luxembourg you'd order Gromperekichelcher. Poles slather their placki ziemniaczane in sour cream. Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians call their potato pancake deruny or draniki. And the Swiss have Rösti, a very large potato pancake that's a lot like a latke, except it doesn't contain eggs or flour. 
There are variations on rösti: some recipes add herbs like rosemary and caraway seeds. Others add meat, eggs or cheese. But they are all basically grated potato, that's been pressed and fried in a pan. 
This rösti recipe, considered the definitive version, is from Restaurant Della Casa in Bern. It was first published in the January/February 1998 issue of Saveur magazine. And last month, in celebration of Saveur's 150th issue, they reprinted it under 150 Classic Recipes. (I also saw it on Lottie + Doof, one of my favorite food blogs.)
Rösti: Swiss Hash Browns (Courtesy of Saveur Magazine


2¼ lb. russet potatoes (about 3 large)
2 tbsp. lard or unsalted butter
2 tbsp. canola oil
1 tbsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste


1. Place potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain potatoes, and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes. Peel potatoes, then refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour. Grate potatoes using the large holes on a cheese grater; set aside.

2. Heat butter (or lard) and oil in an 8" nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. When lard has melted, add potatoes, sprinkle with salt, and mix well, coating potatoes with fat. Using a metal spatula, gently press potatoes, molding them to fit the skillet. Cook, shaking skillet occasionally, until edges are golden brown, about 20 minutes.
3. Cover skillet with a large inverted plate, invert the rösti over onto plate, then slide it back into the skillet, cooked side up; cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board, sprinkle with salt, and cut into wedges to serve. 

Now rösti is plenty delicious on its own, but I was feeling inspired by the latke toppings I'd seen at the market. I decided to top the potatoes with shakshuka, a fabulous dish whereby eggs are simmered in a spicy tomato sauce. 
I used a tried-and-true recipe that I've posted here, but  made a few adaptations:

  • Omitted the peppers and instead added a few pinches of red pepper flakes.
  • Omitted the fresh parsley and instead used a few pinches of dried parsley.
  • Used 1/2 a small onion and added one shallot, chopped.
  • Pulsed the sauce a few times with an immersion blender to give it more of a pomodoro-like consistency, which I thought would go better on top of the potatoes.

But get creative. Top the rösti with something you like. Or, you can do as Swiss purists do...and eat it like it's been eaten at Bern's Restaurant Della Casa for hundreds of years.
Happy holidays and happy eating! 

When In Rome: Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Pepper)

I think I've mentioned this before, but there's a Murray's Cheese Bar in my local supermarket! One of my favorite cheese shops from Greenwich Village (which is where I lived during my college years) has a little outpost here in Denver and I've been eating a good deal of high-quality cheese over the past few weeks. Bulgarian Feta, Broncocci, Manchego, smoked Gouda, for example. Anyway, this week I picked up some Cacio de Roma and Pecorino Romano for Cacio e Pepe (literally cheese and pepper), a classic Roman dish. 
The pasta is tasty, its minimal ingredients are simple, and it's easy to make. You can prepare this dish in under 15 minutes. Cacio e Pepe is unpretentious, unambitious, but still entirely delicious. 
Making the ubiquitous Roman dish reminded me of Italy, which is where I vacationed in 2006 during a layover after visiting the Middle East. It was a lifetime ago- before marriage, before Otis, before Theo, and before Colorado... 
On that trip I walked and ate, and the walked some more. The city of Rome is really one of a kind.

I dined at cozy, dim-lit restaurants, but had my fare share of street food too. I ate amazing tiramisu, roasted chestnuts, wonderful bread and drank fabulous wine too. Of course I am a semolina junkie, so I consumed one bowl of pasta after the other. I mean, how could I not? But back to Cacio e Pepe...
The first time I had Cacio e Pepe it was served in a hollowed out Parmesan wheel. I wondered how the wheel was cleaned for re-use and the general sanitariness of it all, but after a bottle of red wine I didn't really care anymore. It was good, good, good. 
I found myself craving it last night after looking through my travel pictures. I had good quality pasta in my pantry, olive oil, freshly cracked black pepper, Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma, thanks to Murray's. Dinner was on. 
So here it is. I promise you that one bite of this will have you conjuring up images of the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica. It's a classic and when it's made right (with high quality ingredients) it's makes the perfect dinner. Bon Appetito!
Cheese and Pepper: Cacio e Pepe 
(Courtesy of Saveur Magazine, from Anya von Bremzen's "Eternal Pleasures," April 2010.)

Serves 4.
Kosher salt, to taste
1 lb. pasta, preferably tonnarelli or thin spaghetti (you could use vermicelli too)

4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste

1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano

3⁄4 cup finely grated Cacio de Roma (some recipes use Grana Padano or Parmesan)

 Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil. 
Add pasta; cook until al dente, 8–10 minutes; reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta.  
Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12" skillet over medium heat until shimmering.  
Add pepper;cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. 
Ladle 3⁄4 cup pasta water into skillet; bring to a boil. 
Using tongs, transfer pasta to skillet; spread it evenly. 
Sprinkle 3⁄4 cup each Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma over pasta; toss vigorously to 
combine until sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping, about 2 minutes, 
adding some pasta water if necessary. 
 Transfer to 4 plates and sprinkle with remaining Pecorino and more pepper.

Pairing Note: A medium-bodied Sangiovese, like the 2005 Brancaia Tre Toscana ($21), 
will complement this dish's peppery notes. — David Rosengarten

Lunch Is Served: Senegalese Saladu Awooka ak Mango (Avocado-Mango Salad)

Generally speaking, I'm not someone who typically eats a salad for lunch. But yesterday I found myself craving a salad-- not lettuce or spinach based-- something with a little bit more heft. I saw this recipe for Saladu Awooka ak Mango in Saveur Magazine and since it's packed with avocados, I was pretty sure it would leave me feeling sated. 
The verdict on lunch? It was absolutely delicious and bursting with flavor. The Senegalese like eating this refreshing salad because it's a nice break from their traditional stews which tend to be much heavier. I thought it was the perfect lunch. It was just over 80 degrees in Denver yesterday, so light(er) was the way to go.
Making this salad reminded me that I really want to delve into West African cooking, though I think that this particular dish seems rather Caribbean too. And while I'm going the West African route, maybe I should try to cook my way through the whole continent! There's a ton of diversity in African cooking (from ingredients, spices, styles, influences, etc.), and that means that there are lots of options. I know that most people don't typically think of vegetarian fare when they think of Africa, but there are some really great national dishes that don't use meat. Well, okay, unless you are Masai (Maasai). They eat cow and...that's pretty much it. 
I travelled to Kenya and Tanzania a few years back, and actually had amazing vegetarian food-- thanks in large part to the sub-continental Indian community's influence on East African cuisine (many Indians were recruited to work on the British railway that connected points in Uganda to the Indian Ocean at Mombasa.)
Of course North African cooking (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Egyptian) has some great options for vegetarians such as tagines, couscous and legume dishes. And there's Ethiopian food, one of my favorites...but I don't think I'm confident enough to start with that just yet.
So there you have it. My first West African post. I hope to explore more Senegalese dishes in the future. 
Happy eating!

Saladu Awooka ak Mango (Avocado-Mango Salad), Courtesy of Saveur Magazine, A Feast for All
Serves 4–6


½ cup finely chopped parsley
¼ cup peanut or canola oil (I used peanut)
¼ cup fresh lime juice
2 tbsp. fresh orange juice
1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1/4" cubes (I went with 1/2 inch)
2 ripe avocados, pitted, peeled, and cut into 1″ chunks
1 small navel orange, peeled and cut into segments (I only had half an orange left, so I used it)
2 tsp. unsweetened shredded coconut (optional)


1. Whisk together 6 tbsp. parsley, oil, both citrus juices, jalapeño, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add mangoes and avocados, and toss gently to combine; cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate to meld flavors, about 1 hour. (I didn't chill it for an hour, and still thought that the avocado and mango soaked up the flavor.)
2. To serve, transfer avocado salad to a serving bowl; halve orange segments crosswise, and lay over salad. Sprinkle with remaining parsley, and coconut if using. Serve chilled.

Baghali Ghatogh (Lima Beans with Eggs and Dill)

My interest in all things Persian and Iranian predates that little/embarrassing guilty pleasure called The Shahs of Sunset on Bravo television. Before I got married and had children, I did a lot of traveling. But there was one country I'd always wanted to go to but never managed to visit. And that country was Iran. I was curious about ancient Persian history and modern-day, post-revolution, multi-ethnic Iranian society. 

Iran holds an important geographic location: Iraq is situated to the West, the Caspian Sea is to the North, Afghanistan to the East, the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman are to the South. Turkmenistan and Pakistan share a border with Iran as well. Basically, Iran straddles the Middle-East and South Asia. 
Persian cuisine is considered one of the most ancient and developed styles of cooking. It has influenced the cuisine of its neighboring countries as well as those countries that are hundreds of miles away. Countries in North Africa, the Middle-East and the Indian-Subcontinent can trace some of their dishes back to Persian precedents. That said, Iranian cuisine is really distinct from what most people associate with greater Middle-eastern cooking.

I‘ve wanted to delve into Persian cooking for a while, so I excited to see Saveur’s story “The Land of Bread and Spice” last month.  It was full of great looking Iranian recipes, and quite a few were vegetarian. This dish- Baghali Ghatogh- was the first one I tried and it was fantastic. I'm always looking for new vegetarian entrees, and this one was not only delicious, but it perfumed the house with the smells of saffron, garlic, dill and turmeric. Fantastic, really. 

Now regarding the preparation:
Since I live at altitude I had to cook the beans for a bit longer than suggested and I added a little bit more water to get the beans tender. I also modified the amount of dill, using 3 cups instead of 4, but that is only because that's what I had in my fridge. Next time I'll use 4 cups.

After the success of this dish I'm definitely going to be doing a lot more cooking with these flavors and spices. And with a little bit of assistance from The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, I'm sure I'll get it right! As they say in Farsi, nooshe jan! نوش جان 
Baghali Ghatogh (Lima Beans with Eggs and Dill)

Eggs cooked with dill-scented lima beans is a northern Iranian specialty. This recipe appeared in Saveur magazine (March 2012) in Anissa Helou's story The Land of Bread and Spice.

Serves 4

6 tbsp. unsalted butter

½ tsp. ground turmeric

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

4 cups finely chopped dill (I used 3 cups*)

1 cup dried lima beans, soaked overnight, drained
¼ tsp. Crushed saffron {See comments below. I used safflower, next time I'll use saffron.} 
5 cups of cold water

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 eggs
Saffron threads, to garnish

Heat butter in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. Add turmeric and garlic; cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add 3 cups (I used 2) dill and the beans; cook until dill is slightly wilted, about 2 minutes. Add crushed saffron and 5 cups water; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until beans are tender, about 1½ hours. {My cooking time was more like 1 3/4 hours and I had to add a bit more water.} Season with salt and pepper; stir in remaining dill. Using a spoon, form 4 shallow wells in bean mixture; crack an egg into each well. Cook until eggs are cooked over-easy, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with saffron before serving.