Planning An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Dinner, Portlandia-Style

About four years ago, I wrote an Edible Aspen story on Brook LeVan, a farmer friend of mine who lives in western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. Brook and his wife, Rose (that’s them, in the photo), raise heritage turkeys, among other things, and part of my assignment was to ask him how to celebrate a locally sourced, cold-climate Thanksgiving.

Brook, whom i’ve since dubbed “The Messiah of the Roaring Fork Foodshed,” embarked on a lively discourse about apple-picking and root vegetable storage. It was inspiring, and sounded like fun … to a food geek like me. But how many urbanites realistically wanted to make their own pumpkin butter, or sausage for stuffing?

Fast-forward to 2011, when a little TV show called “Portlandia” blew up with hilarious, bitingly satirical (and dead-on) skits about farm-to-table dining (Remember Colin the chicken?), mixology, and preserved foods (“We can pickle that!”). Suddenly, being an avid home cook, home brewer, and fermenter of sauerkraut had become part of our cultural zeitgeist.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up Brook’s lovely ideas for making Thanksgiving not just eco-friendly and delicious, but fun and educational for family and friends. Ideas after the jump.

Get an early start on future holiday meal planning, especially if you want to order a heritage turkey – meaning an antique breed raised for flavor, rather than maximum output and yield. If you can’t find a heritage or organic bird, serve a different type of poultry or farmed game bird. The LeVan’s usually sell out of pre-ordered turkeys by July.

If possible, order your bird from a local farm, and make a field trip of picking it up. Maybe you can pick apples or winter squash as well, or purchase eggs, cider, preserves, or homemade bread or stuffing-mix.

Shop your local farmers market, food co-op, or specialty store for locally and/or sustainably-grown ingredients for your holiday table: potatoes, onions, or other root vegetables; winter squash, apples and pears, persimmons, pomegranates, even cheese.

Preserve seasonal foods. Whether it’s a bumper crop of summer peaches or pickled celery root or beets, there’s no end to the type of ingredients you can put up to last throughout the winter. Apple butter, fresh cider (you can often find local distilleries or farms that will press apples for you), poached pears, or pickled radishes all make wonderful additions to the holiday table.

Even if your Thanksgiving shopping consists of nothing more than a trip to a local farm stand or specialty market, it makes a difference, from both a taste and food security standpoint. As Brook said to me back in 2008, “When you make your dinner from all that local, fresh or preserved food, you’re going to put a taste memory in your family. It’s all about the little things we do, as individuals, each day. It’s flavor, and love.”

For more information on the LeVan’s family farm and learning center, Sustainable Settings, click here.

[Photo credits: Sustainable Settings]

Roadside America: Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley

If you were to ask most Americans if they’d heard of the Roaring Fork Valley, you’d get a blank stare. Mention Aspen, however, and the light goes on, regardless of their social or economic standing (blame reality TV, our cultural obsession with celebrity, and 1970s/Reagan-era excess).

Aspen may be the St. Moritz of the U.S., but its location at the upper (southeast) end of the western Colorado’s stunning Roaring Fork Valley is what makes it special. The 50-mile valley runs along the river of the same name (the Frying Pan and Crystal Rivers down-valley are tributaries that provide top-notch fly-fishing and paddling).

It’s a region of meadows, aspen groves and the soaring alpine peaks of the Elk Mountains, as well as stark red cliffs and pine forest. The Ute Indians inhabited the area before the mining boom of the late 19th century. Following the silver crash of 1803, coal mining drove the local economy, through the early 20th century. Today, the valley towns are largely comprised of refurbished original storefronts housing galleries, boutiques, cafes, bakeries, coffee houses and restaurants, but the remnants of ghost towns can be found throughout the valley.

While Aspen is an international destination, the down-valley former mining/ranching towns of Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are more affordable, low-key options for lovers of outdoor adventure, solitude and a thriving local food scene. And just minutes from Aspen is the lovely, rural hamlet of Woody Creek, home of Hunter S. Thompson in his final years, and a favorite spot for Aspenites to engage in outdoor recreation due to its extensive trail system.While it’s true down-valley is blowing up, real estate-wise, and housing developments are popping up like toadstools in outer Carbondale and neighboring El Jebel (where the August opening of a Whole Foods had the valley in a divisive uproar), the region is still pristine with regard to commercial tourism and most of the ills of urban living. Ranching and farming are still the backbone of the valley economy, and Carbondale has become an epicenter of grassroot organizations dedicated to alternative energy, green living and the local food shed. Indeed, the entire region is very invested in sustainable, low-impact living, and that carries over to tourism.

Come for a visit if you’d like to avoid the exorbitant prices and scene that can make Aspen (a place I love, it bears mentioning) a bit of a bummer during high season. Let me be clear that down-valley accommodations aren’t cheap, but they’re affordable compared to the ski resorts, and provide a different kind of holiday, whether it’s self-catered, or designed for lots of snuggling on the couch in front of the fireplace.

This time of year, the aspens and meadows shimmer like gold, and the mountain peaks are dusted with snow. Starting next month, big-spending skiers will head up to Aspen, but valley locals are more likely to strap on their snowshoes or Nordic skis and avail themselves of the trails and famed 10th Mountain Division Hut system. Follow their lead, then end the day by unwinding in a nearby hot spring or preparing dinner, reading, and enjoying a regional craft beer or wine (the nearby Western Slope, just over the McClure Pass outside of Carbondale, leads to a number of wineries and tasting rooms, open in summer) before a cozy fire.

There’s no shortage B & B’s, inns, cabins, farm stays, and guest ranches in the region, and in summer, camping is also a popular pastime, as is kayaking, rafting, horseback riding, fishing, climbing, hiking, road cycling, and mountain biking. The seasonal farmers markets in Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale are full of handcrafted foods and beautiful produce from nearby farms. In winter, you’ll still find many menus in the area dominated by locally-grown and -made foods; check out Edible Aspen magazine’s website for more in the way of great local eats and brews.

Getting there
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and Chicago. From Denver International Airport, it’s approximately a 3.5-hour drive to Glenwood Springs on I-70. It’s best to have a car for exploration if you’re staying in the valley, although there is a bus system.

[Flickr image via JimLeach89]

Exploring Western Colorado’s Undiscovered Wine Region

While many people know Colorado for its rich beer culture and plethora of breweries across the state, their wine regions have somehow managed to go undetected. The reality is, western Colorado is home to many fertile vineyards, boutique wineries and vino-related events. To help shed some light on the subject, here is a guide to exploring western Colorado’s wine region.


Historically, western Colorado was too dry to grow the grapes and fruit necessary to make wine. While the soil was rich and the climate mild, the precipitation was uncertain and the land barren. Then, in 1882, water from the Colorado River was diverted to irrigate orchards and vineyards. Because a reliable water source had been secured, fruits and vegetable crops began to flourish. Although Prohibition in the 1920s halted wine production for a bit, it didn’t stop it forever. Today, there are more 100 wineries, many of which are boutique venues putting an emphasis on quality over quantity.Wine Regions

There are two regions in western Colorado that are designated American Viticultural Areas (AVA), The Grand Valley AVA and The West Elks AVA. These areas feature unique geographies and climates that allow for grape growing. The Grand Valley AVA includes Grand Junction and Palisade, residing along the Colorado River. Moreover, the West Elks AVA rests around Paonia and Hotchkiss, along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

What Makes Western Colorado Wines Unique?

The elevation alone makes western Colorado a unique wine region. The dryness of the area helps vintners to control the water because they’re forced to irrigate. Too much water can actually be detrimental to the fruits, so this gives them a leg up in production. Additionally, the elevation, about 4,700 feet, allows the strong sun to beat on the grapes and fruit, making them more flavorful. And, because the region is new, they barely have to deal with pesticides and diseases many wine regions encounter. The dry and mild climate actually kills many popular crop diseases, so this may never become a problem for the region.

Wine Tasting In The Grand Valley AVA

The region makes 70 percent to 80 percent of Colorado’s grapes. They have the longest growing season in the state, thanks to the cooling effect from nearby canyons, and the milding effect from the surrounding Grand Valley. While there are myriad wineries in the area, my top picks include:

Carlson Vineyards– Open since 1988, Carlson Vineyards offers free tastings in a fun environment. While low-key, the staff is extremely knowledgeable about wine and the region. For example, they informed me that wine doesn’t have to have grapes, but can be any fermented fruit, which you can sample with their numerous fruit wines. Make sure to try their cherry wine, described as the original “cherry pie without crust.” They serve it in a small plastic cup with the rim dipped in chocolate. Likewise, their cherry lemonade, which contains Carlson Cherry Wine and frozen lemonade is delicious. If you’re interested in buying a bottle, it’s $12.99 or less.

Colorado Cellars Winery– Open since 1978, Colorado Cellars Winery is the state’s oldest winery and the only one allowed to have Colorado in the name. What’s really nice about tastings at the winery is it’s self-serve, with numerous pull handles to pick and choose from (shown above). They’re also well known for their meads, which are extremely sweet and combine wine and honey. And if you’re hungry for some vino-inspired foods, they sell goodies like garlic riesling mayo, zinfandel orange mustard, merlot chocolate almonds and chardonnay havarti cheese. There are often free samples of these out, as well.

Grande River VineyardsGrand River Vineyards has an extremely charming ambiance, with bottles and knick-knacks set up around an oak room. The winery features numerous wines with quirky labels, for example, their “Havin’ A Cow” features a clothed cow sipping wine and jumping on a pogo stick. Their focus is on French-style wines, using grapes grown from western Colorado. A tasting of three is free, while five will cost $3.50.

Wine Tasting In The West Elks AVA

There are many excellent vineyards and wineries to visit within the West Elks AVA. This is where you’ll find the highest wineries in the northern hemisphere, making the products exceptionally unique. When I visited, my favorites were:

Terror Creek Winery– At 6,400 feet, Terror Creek Winery is the highest estate bottled winery and vineyard in the northern hemisphere. The winemaker, Joan Mathewson, is a woman who studied the craft in Switzerland, and came to Colorado to open her own boutique winery. She makes Alsatian-style wines, featuring a dry riesling, a spicy gewurztraminer, a unique chardonnay vinted without oak, a dry and fruity pinot noir and her own creation, a light red chalet. All grapes used to make wines are from western Colorado. From the tasting room, you’ll be able to look out at the vineyards and West Elk Mountains.

Azura– Another excellent place to stop into is Azura in Paonia, an art gallery and winery combined. The space features contemporary fine art from artists and sailors, Ty and Helen Gillespie. Not only is it beautiful inside, but also outside, as the winery has a relaxing courtyard overlooking the North Fork Valley.

Black Bridge Winery & Orchard Valley Farm Market– Also in Paonia is the Black Bridge Winery & Orchard Valley Farm Market. This place is unique in that it’s a lot more than just a winery. They sell and do tastings of boutique wines, while also being one of western Colorado’s only orchards and vineyards combined. You’ll be able to pick your own produce, while also purchasing homemade jams, honeys, sauces, dried fruits, nuts and meats.

Wine Trails

Numerous worthwhile wine trails reside in western Colorado. Some of the best include:

Front Range Wine Trail– This trail contains 24 wineries and tasting rooms from Cañon City, near the Royal Gorge, to Estes Park by Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll head west on I-70, traversing through Georgetown, Dillon and Winter Park, while sampling wines at high altitude. Additionally, these areas feature opportunities for adventure sports like skiing, snowboarding, rafting and hiking.

Heart Of Colorado Wine Country Trail– Resting between Glenwood Springs’ famous hot springs pool and Fruita’s challenging mountain biking trails, this wine route encompasses both the Grand Valley AVA and the West Elks AVA. Follow I-70 along the Colorado River, from Palisade to the base of the Colorado National Monument, just west of Grand Junction. From there, you’ll be able to drive south on US Highway 50, passing Delta to visit the sweet corn capital of the world, Olathe. Afterwards, you’ll turn east at Delta onto CO Highway 92, veering north on CO Highway 65. Here you’ll find wineries along Surface Creek, on the south slope of Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world. You can take the outer loop of the mountain, following the Gunnison River along CO Highway 92 east until you reach Hotchkiss for some tastings, before going to Paonia. The drive is very scenic, and offers many excellent opportunities for the lover of wine and nature.

Four Corners Region– This trail mixes history and scenery with wine. Start at Durango, home to the narrow gauge steam railway, then head west to Cortez and the Four Corners Region near Mesa Verde National Park. You’ll see ancient pottery shards, ancestral puebloan ruins and, of course, vineyards.

Upcoming Wine Events In Western Colorado

West Elk Wine Trail (August 4 to 5, 2012)- This event will help you experience wine, food and closeness to the land as you set off to venture the West Elk Wine Trail. The nine participating wineries will feature local food and wine pairings, activities and complimentary vino. Email if interested.

Food, Farm, Film And Wine Festival (August 10 to 12, 2012)- Taking place in Paonia, this event will focus on local foods, wines and films. Click here for more information.

Dinner In The Vineyard At Stone Cottage Cellars (August 18, 2012)- The event begins with barrel tastings with the winemaker at Stone Cottage Cellars, tours of the vineyard and wine making demonstrations. A five-course dinner follows, emphasizing the art of food and wine pairing. Contact if interested.

Colorado Mountain Winefest (September 13 to 16, 2012)- This year will be the event’s 21st anniversary. It is the largest wine festival in Colorado, and will include wine tastings, food, music, art, golf, celebrity chef dinners, demonstrations and winery and vineyard tours. Click here for more information.

Uncorked Wine And Music Festival (September 15, 2012)- Surrounded by the beautiful San Juan Mountains, attendees will listen to live music while sipping wine and sampling delicious local foods. Click here for more information.