Fireworks Ban? Try These Fourth Of July Alternatives

fireworks ban
Ming Xia, Flickr

With fireworks bans in place across parts of the Western U.S., it’s going to be another Fourth of July calling for alternative celebratory activities. In Colorado, where I live, we’ve learned to accept this fact, and it doesn’t stop the outdoor revelry.

Picnics and parades are standard July fourth fare, anyway, so if you happen to live in a place suffering from drought or plagued by wildfires, don’t let the lack of fireworks get you down. Instead, find a spark-free way to celebrate our nation’s birth (it also makes for a nice tribute to those victimized by said wildfires). Some suggestions:

Open flame isn’t required for a successful barbecue; use a gas grill instead.

Gather a group for a moonlight hike (this is also a good idea with regard to personal and wildlife safety). Sunset city walks are also fun; end your stroll at a wine bar or brew pub.

Get on the water. Find your nearest reservoir, lake or river, and spend the holiday appreciating this precious resource.

Ride a bike. In Boulder, where I live, Awe-struck Outdoors offers activities like creekside rides that include a bike-to-farm dinner. Get inspired, and organize your own holiday ride.

Planning The Perfect Picnic (Food Poisoning Not Included)

paris picnic
Trey Ratcliff, Flickr

The solstice may be a few weeks off yet, but let’s not kid ourselves: summer has begun. A favorite warm weather pastime the world over is dining al fresco. I first discovered the joys of the picnic, in particular, when I was 10, and my family spent the summer traveling Europe in a borrowed Westphalia camper van.

From the Swiss Alps to the Yorkshire Dales, we practiced the art of picnicking and the menu was always a regional variation on bread/cured meat/cheese/chocolate (this is also what fueled my obsession with those foods).

Now that I’m an adult (at least, in theory), I still find picnics to be the ultimate form of outdoor indulgence. This summer, whether your travels take you overseas or only as far as your backyard, plan on making a habit of putting together a portable meal. Eating outdoors is a fun, easy, relaxing way to enjoy the season, especially if you follow these food-safety tips:

  • Make your menu tempting at room temperature. Fried chicken may be a Southern picnic staple, but it’s also a case of food poisoning waiting to happen if it’s not consumed within two hours of preparation (click here for the USDA’s microbiological explanation). Also, two words: soggy coating. Instead, serve sandwiches and grain-, pasta-, or roasted vegetable-based salads.
  • Keep it cool. Line an ice chest with ice packs, and then stash perishables, or if you’re hiking, fill and freeze the bladder from a hydropack. If something needs to be served at “room temperature,” use the ambient air temp to gauge when you should remove it from the cooler. Got some great cheese and it’s 100 degrees out? Five or ten minutes will do the trick.
  • retro picnicepiclectic, Flickr
  • Good hygiene begins at home, but don’t forget to pack some anti-bacterial gel for pre- and post-meal cleanup.
  • Keep it compact, green and clean. A bottle of wine is the ideal companion for a picnic, but broken glass definitely doesn’t make for a good garnish. Use a neoprene wine bag to keep your bottle chilled and protected (if temps are soaring; even red wine needs a cool-down). Use designed-for-outdoor-use stackable cups. For plates and cutlery, forgo the paper-waste and invest in either outdoor dining dishware or biodegradable bamboo products, which are widely available. If you have access to a compost bin (or some chickens), save all non-meat and dairy food scraps in a Tupperware. Leave your picnic spot cleaner than you found it.
  • Keep food fresh and pest-free by covering it with a lid, clean dishtowel or mesh dome (you can frequently find vintage versions of the latter at flea markets and antique shops).

5 Alternatives To Fireworks This (Very Dry) Fourth of July

wildfireIt’s hard to imagine the Fourth of July without fireworks, but for drought- and fire-stricken regions like Colorado, that’s the way it’s going to be this year. If you happen to be living or traveling in a no-fireworks zone, don’t despair. There are still ways to celebrate our nation’s birth without setting it ablaze.

Since I’m in Colorado right now, I brainstormed with a group of rangers at Boulder’s Chautauqua Park (which is adjacent to the now 90%-contained Flagstaff Mountain blaze). Our ideas, below:

1. Organize a block party

2. Go to a laser show (or hold your own; those PowerPoint things are for more than just entertaining cats)

3. Have a picnic or barbecue and stargaze

4. Go to a concert in a park or other outdoor venue

5. Go camping, minus the open fire

[Photo credit: Flickr user H Dragon]

The Stop, Drop and Role Technique for Fire Safety

Five (almost) labor-free recipes for Labor Day

labor day recipesI love to cook. Just not for myself. What I truly enjoy is feeding family and friends, but indoors or out the last thing I want to deal with is a labor-intensive meal–especially when it’s hot. So, in honor of the upcoming holiday weekend, I’m sharing five of my favorite, late summer recipes. They feature easy-to-find ingredients, regardless of where you live, but if you can purchase the produce and meat at your local farmer’s market or from another sustainable source, so much the better. In my opinion, the key to great food (especially where home cooks are concerned) lies in the quality of the ingredients. Even if you’re visiting friends, local ingredients can be adapted or found for these travel-friendly dishes.

The following require little in the way of skill, prep and clean-up, leaving you more time to enjoy the final days of summer with the ones you love (or want to impress). All of the following serve two, and can be easily increased to serve a large dinner party or barbecue.

1. Pancetta-wrapped pears (or peaches) with blue cheese
Allow one piece of fruit per person, and be sure to use ripe, but not mushy, produce–softer pear varieties such as Bosc, French Butter, or Warren are ideal. Halve each piece of fruit, and core or remove pit. Brush cut surfaces lightly with olive oil, and wrap each half in a piece of good-quality bacon, pancetta, or prosciutto (you may want to use a wooden skewer or toothpick to secure it during cooking). Grill over medium-hot coals (start with one half of fruit; if it’s taking too long, wait until coals are hot) until bacon or prosciutto is crisp, and fruit is slightly caramelized. Serve with lightly dressed bitter greens, and garnish with a creamy, non-assertive blue cheese such as Original Blue, Blue d’Auvergne, or Bleu d’Basque.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Pink Thistle]labor day recipes2. Panzanella
I can’t claim credit for this Tuscan classic, but it should be in every cook’s repertoire. Tear a loaf of day-old, country-style bread into 1-inch pieces, drizzle with olive oil, and toast until golden brown. While bread cools, halve one pint of miniature tomatoes, and cut 2 to 4 medium-size tomatoes (I prefer to use a mixture of heirloom varieties for the best color and flavor) into chunks. Place bread in large bowl, and add tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and one tablespoon of good Balsamic or Sherry vinegar. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss with hands until ingredients are combined. Just before serving, tear basil leaves into small pieces and toss into salad.

3. Fingerling potato and haricot vert salad
Scrub 1-1/2 pounds of fingerling or new potatoes, halve or quarter them, and place them in a large saucepan or stockpot of cold water. Boil until tender, and drain. Pinch stems from 1/2-pound of haricot vert, blanch until tender (the younger and thinner they are, the better they’ll taste), and drain. Finely mince one medium shallot, and one clove garlic. Add shallots and garlic to small saucepan with 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil and heat on low until the the shallots and garlic are lightly sizzling (they shouldn’t brown) and the oil is fragrant. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of Champagne or white wine vinegar, and add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard (optional). Coarsely chop one large handful of Italian parsley. Place the potatoes and haricot vert in a serving bowl, and add enough of the shallot vinaigrette to coat potatoes without making the salad soggy. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, add parsley, and toss to combine.
labor day recipes
4. Grilled ribeyes with mustard-herb butter
Heat grill until coals are hot. While grill is heating, take a 1/2-stick of room temperature, unsalted butter, and place in small bowl. Add 1-2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard (or as needed), finely minced herbs such as chives, parsley, or chervil, teaspoon minched shallot or garlic and a pinch of salt. Mash ingredients together with a fork until desired flavor is reached.

Lay a sheet of plastic wrap on counter, and place butter at one end of the plastic wrap, shaping it into a log. Roll the butter up (be sure not to roll the plastic into it) to form a tube, and twist the ends of the plastic. Chill until ready to use. Pat steaks dry and generously season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and grill until medium rare. Arrange a small mound of bitter greens in the center of each plate, add a steak, and top each with an ounce of butter. Serve immediately.

5. Grilled peaches with raspberries and ricotta
Heat grill until coals are hot. Halve peaches, and brush cut surfaces very lightly with olive oil to prevent sticking. Grill until the cut side of the fruit is soft and caramelized. Serve in a shallow dish or bowl with raspberries and a large dollop of good-quality ricotta, Greek yogurt, unsweetened whipped cream, or fromage blanc. Garnish with chopped, toasted pistachios.

All recipes except panzanella copyright The Sustainable Kitchen®

[Photo credits: tomatoes, Flickr user wayneandwax; greens, Flickr user burntfat]

Quickie Tips - Safety

How to choose a great dude or guest ranch

dude and guest ranchesHang on, I need to get something out of the way. “City Slickers.” Okay, now that the inevitable has been mentioned, we can move on. Guest ranches–also known as dude ranches–are an excellent choice for a family vacation, regardless of season. Even if it’s just two of you, many ranches cater to couples, ensuring you of an active and romantic holiday.

The guest ranch tradition was established in the Western states as early as the late 19th century. They grew in popularity after the first World War, when advances in technology and the era of the automobile sparked nostalgia for the “Old West” way of life and legendary hospitality. It was also around this time that “dude” ranches spread to the eastern U.S..

While some ranches were and are dedicated to serving tourists, many are working ranches that host guests as a means of supplemental income. My dad worked as a wrangler at one such spread in northern Colorado in the mid-1950’s, when he was putting himself through vet school. Then called UT Bar Ranch, it’s now the Laramie River Ranch, and Colorado’s “newest old dude ranch.” I spent a very enjoyable week there with my extended family for my parents’ 50th anniversary five years ago.

It was the first time I’d stayed long enough at a guest ranch to really get the full experience. Even though I grew up on a ranch, I still love being immersed in the Western lifestyle and participating in ranch activities such as cattle and horse gatherings, trail rides, feeding and care of livestock, and barbecues. When kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, nordic skiing or snowshoeing, horsemanship clinics, mustang/wildlife viewing, pack trips, or even yoga are thrown into the mix, a ranch stay can become a diverse holiday adventure, and you don’t need previous riding experience.

After the jump, tips on how to ensure you choose the right property and get the most out of your guest ranch experience.

%Gallery-128529%dude and guest ranchesFind an online resource
Ranchseeker.com provides a listing of various national and international dude and guest ranch organizations, as well as state associations for Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming. It also describes the strict criteria required for membership. The Dude Rancher’s Association site is helpful for both potential guests and those in the industry.

Another excellent site is Top 50 Ranches, which is “dedicated to showcasing some of the most breathtaking, authentic, and luxurious [international] ranch destinations.” It also allows you to input dates, destination, and other info, highlights special-interest packages, and offers helpful articles and tips, such as what clothes to pack. American Cowboy’s website has archived features on specific properties, as well as their picks for the best guest ranches, and Writing Horseback has similar content.

Authenticity factor
There’s are all kinds of guest ranches out there, from the hokey, git-along-lil’-doggies, tenderfoot tourist mills (this is just a personal quirk, but I tend to think of these places as “dude,” rather than guest ranches, although that’s not necessarily true).

Some ranches are luxury properties (and may in fact be members of boutique hotel or high-end property organizations such as Relais & Chateaux), while others are very family-oriented, with rustic cabins. Many are working ranches, raising cattle or breeding horses. I strongly recommend the latter, for the most authentic, rewarding experience.

Plan ahead
Guest ranches often book up to a year or more in advance. Plan accordingly.

How long do you plan to stay?
Most guest ranches offer a standard week-long program, says the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association (CDGRA). To get the most out of your visit, you’ll really need that amount of time. Some ranches do, however, offer weekend packages.

Ranch capacitydude and guest ranches
Depending upon where you stay, you might find yourself in the company of only a handful of other people or a hundred. If you’re looking for a quiet or kid-free holiday, be sure to take capacity into account during your research.

Accommodations
Are you looking for luxury or a rustic, refurbished historic cabin? Main house or separate building? Full-on Old West decor, or something a bit more modern or genteel? Mountains or desert? Tipi or luxury safari tent?

Dining
Whatever your preference, you’ll find it: Family-style, communal, formal, menu options or no, traditional Western cuisine, kid’s menus, cookouts. Some properties, such as Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs and The Home Ranch, or Montana’s The Resort at Paws Up are justly famous for their food, made with locally-sourced ingredients. Policies differ on alcohol, as well: be sure to ask whether it’s included, or if you need to BYO.

When to godude and guest ranches
The best thing about guest ranches is that most operate year-round. It’s hard to beat summer in the Rockies, but you may want to consider visiting in the early fall, when the aspens are changing color. Winter allows you to ride horseback in the snow and engage in traditional winter sports, or you can head to parts of the Southwest or California where the climate is mild. Depending upon where you want to go, spring is the only time I’d suggest you think twice about, because “mud season” can be a logistical pain, and blizzards well into April aren’t uncommon.

Activities and special packages
From traditional wrangling work–gathering cattle, roping, and caring for livestock–a ranch vacation revolves around horses and riding. If horses aren’t your thing, this is the wrong type of vacation for you. That said, you don’t have to ride, but you’d be missing out on a key part of the ranch experience. But there are all manner of outdoor activities offered by ranches. If paddling is your primary interest, look for a ranch on or near a river known for its whitewater. Ditto fly-fishing.

Many ranches offer specialty packages; Central California’s Alisal Ranch, for example, hosts a four-day “BBQ Bootcamp” where guests learn how to master the grill from local experts, and enjoy a traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Kid/teen programs
Most ranches are very family-oriented, and I can’t think of a better–or healthier–vacation for kids. Be aware that every ranch has a different age policy, and not all offer kid’s programs or babysitting. You’ll also want to check on minimum age requirements for independent riding.

Level of horsemanship ranch caters to/Can you bring your own horse?
It may sound counter-intuitive to bring your own horse, but if you’re an experienced rider, you may have a more fulfilling holiday and equestrian experience on your own mount (be sure to get referrals, first, to ensure your animal’s health and safety).

Some ranches hold horsemanship clinics, which are as much about educating the animal as the rider. If you’re just planning to pleasure ride but are an experienced equestrian, there are many ranches that breed and train their own animals and emphasize natural horsemanship and the cowboy way of life. Regardless of your skill level, you should always ask detailed questions about instruction, safety policies, how the ranch goes about pairing horses and riders, and their horsemanship philosophy. A poorly-trained mount or injury can really take the fun out of your holiday.

Handicap accessibility
Not all properties have it. Do note that some ranches offer riding programs for those with disabilities.

Phone, wifi, and internet access
Many ranches seek to provide guests with a complete escape from the stresses of modern life. If you can’t live without your cell or computer, rest assured there’s a property that can accommodate your needs.

Pack appropriately
A good ranch will always provide you with a packing list, but you can definitely leave your fancy duds at home. If you don’t own a pair of riding boots or other heavy-duty shoe with a heel, get some (you can find an inexpensive used pair at a consignment or vintage store). These are essential for safe horseback riding, so your foot doesn’t get hung up in a stirrup.

Proximity to a major medical faciilty
If this is a concern for you, definitely bring it up in your initial conversation. Many ranches are located in isolated rural areas.

Cancellation policies
Ask what they are.

How Tourists See Life on a Cowboy Ranch