For Purple Mountain Majesties

I have not written a blog post in too long.  Someone asked me recently if I had blogged anything new and I was sad to realize I had not.  I am not sure what the theme of this post is going to be exactly, but hopefully it will reveal itself to me before I get to the end.

It’s about the mid-way point through Summer for us and we have definitely been enjoying Summer’s bounty in the Casa Kitchen.  There is a roadside produce stand (more like the trailer portion of a tractor-trailer but whatever works) in my town that I visit at least once a week for tomatoes and peaches from Palisade on the Western Slope and other fresh vegetables from Southern Colorado and beyond.  I can make the corn tasty by grilling them in a lime butter with husks on but it’s not the sweet Ohio Silver Queen I grew up with.  There are a few things that were better in Ohio and corn and tomatoes probably top the list.

We took a very different sort of vacation this year—high in the mountains.  This was our first 4th of July not spent picnicking on the beach in Florida in nearly 25 years.  Instead, we took a break from the Florida humidity and rented a cabin in Grand Lake, Colorado on the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park.  We rented a pontoon boat, went fishing, horseback riding, rode ATVs, hiked, biked, paddled and, of course we ate and drank like the Kings and Queens of Colorado!

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I planned our weekly menu ahead of time and purchased everything at home to save money and maximize leisure time.  I wanted easy food that would please a crowd as the trip included our family, a friend for each child, my Dad and my bestie.  The menu included such all American favorites as Hebrew National All Beef Hotdogs, my previously blogged about Au Some burgers, chicken salad, steak and chicken kabobs and a 6 pound pork shoulder that became shredded pulled pork BBQ in honor of our Nation’s Birthday.

I packed 3 cold and 3 dry coolers and away we went.  The kitchen in the rental was spacious, included a 6 range gas burner and previous tenants who had left a better than decent supply of condiments, seasonings and pantry items.  The cabin had an extra-large grill on the wide covered porch that overlooked the lake.  Other than the pork shoulder, most of our meals were grilled.

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Our 4th of July Happy Birthday America Menu included Pulled Pork Sandwiches, Macaroni & Cheese, Collard Greens, Coleslaw and Smores.  I applied my usual approach blending ‘from scratch’ and ‘store bought.’  I braised a Pork Shoulder with a chopped Vidalia onion in store-bought stock with salt, pepper, garlic, and a bay leaf for 5 -6 hours covered on low on the stove top (no crock pot). Then I shredded the meat, poured off the excess liquid and added a bottle of store bought BBQ sauce.

For the macaroni and cheese I purchased the Family Size Velveeta shells and cheese in the box but added half a stick of butter, a half cup of milk, a small tub of sour cream and mixed that together with the fake cheese in the pouch.  I poured the mixture into a 9 x 13 pan that I then topped with a mixture of Panko bread crumbs and shredded cheddar cheese.  I baked the casserole for 40 minutes at 375 until it was brown and bubbly on top.  America’s Birthday Party is most certainly not a time to be on a diet People.

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The best part of our menu was 100% from scratch–collard greens.  I actually brought 2 quarts of homemade stock that I found in my deep freezer to the cabin and used that to braise 2 pounds of chopped greens to which I added a chopped sweet onion and a pork shank.  Some salt and pepper and leave the whole thing on low covered in the stove top for several hours.  To serve, strain the greens in a slotted spoon.

Collard-Greens

They are AMAZING with the rick savoriness of the pulled pork, the decadent cheesiness of the mac & cheese and the cool crispiness of the cole slaw. The slaw was store bought but tasty.  I recall a time when the word “coleslaw” used to conjure in my mind an image of the little styrofoam container of the crap the Colonel used to sell.   I hope they have re-formulated that shit.  NOT FINGER LICKING GOOD.

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I may not have been in the South but my menu was definitely Southern.   I am happy to report that the weather was anything but Southern and the day was partly sunny, partly cool with no humidity and the fireworks burned just as brightly over the lake as they did over the ocean.  Happy Birthday America, you are looking great for your age.

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Memorial Day Cookout Madness

Hello dear Readers, long time no…….nothing.  I have been on a hiatus of sorts (I didn’t know that is what is was going to be when it started but that is how it turned out….kind of like some of my  best dishes). I was lucky enough to take a trip to the beach for Mother’s Day, visit my Dad, watch some great golf and stuff my face with seafood (salmon, sea bass, oysters and mahi-mahi in one weekend).  Then I went to Texas on business where I found a nice divey BBQ joint a few miles from the construction site I was visiting.  Love me a plate of brisket with 2 sides, Texas style!

But alas I am home from my travels in time for a long weekend of cookouts and the company of friends and family.  This was the perfect opportunity to blog because I was asked to bring a side dish to my neighbors cookout and my neighbor makes great pulled pork.  I thought my green beans slow cooked all day in the crock pot sounded like the perfect companion to pulled pork and macaroni and cheese.  Off I went to the local Safeway whose beans were pathetic looking.  But their collard greens looked tasty…….

So I bought 3 pounds of greens, trimmed the stems and chopped the greens.  Cooked it just like I would green beans–in 3 quarts of homemade chicken stock, with a diced Vidalia onion and a large pork shank.  Let it simmer on low in my crock pot with some salt and pepper for about 6 hours.  They were amazing–the peppery flavor of the greens in the savory goodness of the pork infused stock….I cannot tell you how many people at the party 1) discovered they are a fan of greens 2) asked for the recipe and 3) could not believe how easy the recipe was!

I decided to throw an impromptu cook out at the Casa on Monday.  I asked everyone to bring a side dish and something for the bar.  My friends and neighbors did not disappoint!  I grilled hot dogs, cheeseburgers, chicken sausages and brats.  But my cheeseburgers are not your standard fare….my cheeseburgers are a cut above!  I will digress just a moment now to tell you that I prepared a version of these cheeseburgers for my Dad on Mother’s Day who pronounced them “the best cheeseburger he may have ever had.”  Not an exaggeration.  If you know Papa Ron ask him if he said that.  Go do it now.  I will wait.

OK so back to my cheeseburgers.  First a confession–these are not really MY cheeseburgers.  A dear friend, who is also an amazing cook, made these for me at a pool party at her house years ago and I have been making them ever since.  So to you Caroline at Fancy Farm, a shout out!

Start by whisking 2 eggs, add a handful of bread crumbs, a handful of finely chopped fresh spinach, a handful of finely chopped green onions, a tub of feta cheese, 1/2 jar of minced sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, a squirt of Worcestershire sauce, a squirt of mustard (yellow or brown), kosher salt, cracked pepper and 2 lbs of ground sirloin/beef/chuck (you already have the fat from the oil and the eggs for binding so OK to go lean with the meat).

Mix together with your hands and form the burgers into balls, pressing the thumb into the burger to create a well in the middle (this keeps the burger from cooking inconsistently).  Prepare your grill with Olive Oil spray and get it nice and hot.  Avoid turning them too much as the burger can tend to instability.  Cook to desired temperature.

I like mine on a bun with a pickle and smear of mayo and a drop of yellow mustard. But honestly these things are tasty with no bun and no condiments.  How many burgers can say that?  Lastly, thank you to our veterans and our service men and women fighting for our right to live free and stuff our faces on the last Monday of every May.  God Bless America!

Spring Training a la Francaise

It happened again.  My passion for food and cooking has caught up to me and I find myself in need of a little “Spring Training.”  We like baseball in this house, well the hubs loves baseball and my own fandom was the obvious response to watching my own son play for many seasons, well that and being born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio.  And just like the pudgy boys of Summer who return to their Spring Camps in March in need of some batting practice and cardio, so too must I re-introduce a bit of discipline to the Casa Kitchen.

Readers know by now that I have always admired the French–for their food, architecture, style, food and drink mores, and especially their approach to diet and exercise.  To sum up: eat everything but not much of any of it.  If you drink the wine, skip the desert and only 1 piece of bread.  Eat at least 3 small meals a day but avoid snacks.  Stay stated with protein in the form of roasted chicken (take the skin off), grilled steak, broiled fish and as many fresh greens and vegetables as you wish but lightly dressed and make the most of herbs and spices.

For exercise, make sure you walk everywhere you go and if walking is not the appropriate form of transport from A to B ( witness my own rural address 10 miles from town), then take a long walk to nowhere every day.   If you have dogs, leash them up and take them along.  A long walk is good for your soul and exercise  curbs the appetite.

I will watch my calories and avoid all processed food and most alcohol for a few weeks and I will be right back on track.  I love food too much to ever have to go on a serious diet so I keep things in check.  In a few weeks I will feel slimmer in all my clothes just in time for a short trip to the beach to see my Dad.  Nothing like some motivation before pool season!

When watching calories its important to dress your food up with flavor so you do not feel deprived.  I make a bit of a spectacle about my reduced calorie creations and I find myself looking forward to meals.  A few of my favorite foods to eat when watching calories:

Microwaved eggs (good for breakfast, lunch or dinner)–

2 organic eggs beaten in a bowl with salt and pepper and 1 oz. shredded Irish Sharp Cheddar Cheese.  Cook in microwave for 45 seconds until soft set.  Stir and let rest.  Sprinkle with fresh parsley and dill.  Serve with a side of diced organic tomatoes and 1/2 of a sliced mango.  This meal is 300 calories.

Tuna salad on crackers–

Start with one of the very small cans of tuna packed in water.  Mix in a bowl with a little chopped celery, 1-2 T of mayonnaise, salt, pepper, white pepper, and parsley.  Serve on 5 saltine crackers.  Total calories 300.  I add fresh sliced tomatoes, greens tossed in a tiny bit of vinaigrette, and whatever fresh fruit I have on hand.  This week I have d’anjou pears, mangos, strawberries, apples and bananas.  Keep the serving size to 1 cup or less as fruit does tend to have a lot of sugar.

Grilled steak–a lean cut like NY strip and cut on the small side–maybe 4-6 ounces will run 400-500 calories.  Salt and pepper and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.  Grill to desired temperature.  Pair with a nice salad and one glass of red wine.  I have a flair for making a salad.  It sounds so ho hum but everyone (Jeff mainly but really he is EVERYONE to me) says I make the best salads.  I do tend to indulge some creativity in this area.

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Things you can add to a salad–blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, apples, organs, pears, grapes, nuts, banana peppers, olives, corn, tomatoes, avocados, green beans, peas, beans, onions, crumbled/shredded cheese of any kind, pickles, beets, dried fruit, shredded coconut (toasted is delicious and crunchy), croutons, seeds, tortilla strips, hard boiled egg, broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, etc! But don’t add all of those at once.  That would be weird.

Instead think about natural flavor pairings like tangerine sections, toasted coconut, green onion and feta.  Strawberries, blueberries, chopped pecans, and crumbled blue cheese.  Make sure to economize on all of the ingredients to be aware of their effect on overall calories.  Eggs and avocado are calorie dense but also super healthy and a great choice if you watch calories in another area.

And for heaven’s sake make your own vinaigrette!  Its easy, tastier and cheaper.  Look up any vinaigrette recipe but stick generally to this formula–2/3 EVOO, 1/3 vinegar, lots of salt and pepper, a pinch of sugar and a shot of mustard.  Thank you People of France.

Now at this point we are making a major digression from the reduced calorie musings but this one bears posting for those who might not be in Spring Training.  The other day I made an Ina Garten vinaigrette for salad with warm goat cheese croutons.  The vinaigrette gave me the perfect excuse to use my new hand blender–I used it to emulsify a dressing of 2 egg yolks, 1 cup EVOO, 1/3 cup champagne vinegar, salt, pepper, white pepper and a pinch of sugar.  It’s a little on the tart side but if you use it to dress greens and then add the warm goat cheese crouton it becomes perfection.

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Slice goat cheese into 1 inch rounds, dip in egg white and dredge in panko crumbs.  Fry at medium heat in a small sauté pan in 1 T. EVOO and 1 T. Butter a few minutes each side until golden.  Top salad dressed in the vinaigrette.

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My 14 year old son devoured 2 salads with 2 croutons each and remarked that he was not sure what it was but it was sure delicious.  You must serve the croutons warm from the saute pan for full culinary effect and flavor explosion.  Like when Pete Rose hit number 4, 256….a record still not broken today.  Would someone put that man in the Hall of Fame already!  Go Reds (and Rockies)!

Heck Yes Chicken Thighs!

Its a beautiful Spring day in Colorado and I took a hike with the dogs and my neighbor today.  We were talking food (because really when I am not talking about food) and I mentioned that I had made chicken salad the night before with chicken thighs.  Not just any chicken thighs mind you, but ones poached with leeks, carrots, celery, parsley, salt and pepper in my crock pot.  I had strained out the stock and stored it away in my freezer for some future dish and had 3 meaty thighs who needed a home.

My hubs loves my chicken salad.  Its never made the same way twice because it is one of those dishes (oddly like a soup or stew) that just benefits from a touch of the improv.  It can take on many flavors depending upon what you add and season with.  My friend was genuinely surprised that I would not use chicken breasts.  My reaction is why would I ever use chicken breasts?

Chicken breasts have become so flavorless, not to mention scary in sheer size.  I once had a job buying poultry fat and visited a rendering facility.  Trust me when I tell you that I almost ran away when my host met me in the lobby of the facility with rubber boots and waders.  You do NOT want to visit such a facility.  But I digress.

I can understand wanting a chicken breast if you are looking for a lean alternative to grill but in a chicken salad, thighs have waaayyyyy more flavor.  Especially after I poach them with their skin on.

The basic approach:

Cook chicken thighs any way you like but poaching is best–cooking in liquid either in the crock pot or in a pan of simmering water in your stovetop.  My previous post Stock Rocks https://wordpress.com/post/84926550/61/details a basic approach to making good stock. Here is a shot of mine in the making:

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Remove the chicken thighs with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool.  Remove skin and the chicken from the bones and shred.  Meanwhile, in a bowl combine 2-4 T of mayonnaise depending upon your own preference for mayonnaiseiness. (You can cut the calories by using plain yogurt or light sour cream in place of mayo but I would recommend you still use at least 1 T of the mayo –did you know that mayo originated in Spain?  I did not.  I am learning so many new things doing this blog).

Add herbs and seasonings to the mayo–mine were curry, ginger,  salt, white pepper, black pepper, dill and a pinch of dry mustard.  Add the chicken, some finely chopped apple, celery and nuts if you like and stir to coat. If the salad is a little dry you can add 1-2 T of water to moisten it up (I used the word “moisten” to see if Sarah is reading my blog!)

I love to serve chicken salad a variety of ways–On good bread (we prefer untoasted) with a lettuce leaf and a little mayo, wrapped in a lettuce leaf or a soft tortilla, served pretty in a scooped out tomato (for the low carb days) or my hubs fav–on crackers.  When I make chicken salad, it does not last long.  This time it was gone in one meal.  But then again I do have a 6′ tall 14 year old boy in the house.  Or as we like to call him, the Food Terminator.  I did not even have time to snap a pic before he descended on the bowl like a hungry puppy.

Chicken Salad

So this weekend I am going to make another (bigger) batch of chicken salad.  I am going to share it with my friend (sans ginger as she is not a fan of that flavor…wth?) and bring her over to “the Dark Side.”  It would not be the first time I put peer pressure on a friend for not being more adventurous when it comes to food and drink.  Its not like I am asking anyone to eat a bug for goodness sake….though I do hear fried grasshoppers are pretty tasty.  There sure are enough of them hopping around the Front Range this time of year.

A New Take on Tastier Tacos

My family is Midwestern, there is no doubt about that.  We’re pretty friendly, play cornhole, love a good State Fair, we lack a certain amount of pretense and we know that soda is actually called “Pop.”

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So here we are a Midwestern family of four living in the Front Range and it is showing up in our food. To wit, Mexican food.  If you don’t already know, Mexican food is pretty much the state cuisine of Colorado.  You can find “so called” Mexican food in every State now I am sure, but its prolific here in the birthplace of Chipotle (which some will argue is not really Mexican food at all but I don’t think they care as they run laughing to the bank with their bags of money–have you seen the lines there?) I have always enjoyed a taco (who doesn’t?) and Taco Night has long been in my repertoire of family dinners—quick, easy to make, a real crowd pleaser, not expensive and very versatile from an ingredients standpoint.  But my tacos in Ohio went something like this: 1 lb. ground beef–brown in skillet, add packet of Taco Seasoning and 3/4 cup water.  Simmer for a few minutes and spoon beef into shell and top with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream.  Done.  Everyone was happy.  For a while.  But then….we moved to Colorado and I started going to Mexico City on business trips. Now I am a taco snob and proud of it.  Maybe not a snob, more of a Taco Elitist.

After sampling some delicious Mexican food in and around Denver (Lola–I love you, you too Tamale Truck guy in the parking lot, and my friend Marguerite who makes the best enchiladas ever) and eating street tacos for lunch in Mexico City I have taken Taco Night in my house to another level.  Tonight’s taco menu includes Carne Asada tacos with fresh guacamole. Start with 2 lbs top sirloin marinated in Mojo Sauce ( which is actually cuban in origin but let’s not be picky here) and grilled to medium rare.

Sirloin in mojo marinade

Mojo sauce for marinade: Mash together 4 cloves of garlic with a minced jalapeno and some fresh cilantro, salt and pepper to make a paste.  Then add the juice of 2 limes, the juice of an orange, 2 T white vinegar and 1/2 cup olive oil.  Pour over steak in a shallow dish and wrap tightly with plastic wrap.  Marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours but not longer or the meat will start to break down.  Credit on this recipe must go to Tyler Florence.  Thanks Tyler!

Grill the sirloin 7-10 minutes each side until med-rare and remove to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing the steak across the grain on the diagonal.    Meanwhile, warm each soft tortilla in a small dry skillet until toasted and pliable.  Fill each tortilla with steak and toppings as desired and do not forget to include a small bowl of fresh cut limes.  Mexicans use limes the way we use ketchup–you will receive a small dish of fresh limes in just about every restaurant you visit in  Mexico.  The last time I was there I swear the waiter brought me a dish of limes to go with my poached eggs and toast at breakfast!

sirloin on the grill

Fresh Guacamole: Scoop out 3 ripe avocados into a bowl.  Squeeze fresh lime juice over the pulp and mash with kosher salt and cracked pepper.  Add finely chopped red onion (a little goes a long way so I use less than 1/2 of an onion), several cloves of finely chopped garlic, cilantro, more fresh lime juice, 1/2 t. of cumin and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately for best flavor.

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No one is ever going to mistake me for Mexican–the fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes likely give me away before I even open my mouth to speak in my flat, midwestern twang.  But I know my way around a taco now and the days of buying little yellow packets of seasoning mix are banished forever.  Ole!

Brioche dans le four!

Its early on a Monday morning after an amazing weekend.  Our kids are on Spring Break with their Papa Ron in Florida so we have been kid-free and making the most of it.  If you read my earlier post you already know that we spent part of our weekend in Boulder dining with friends and skiing.  Any other weekend that would have been enough for the highlight reel.  But little did we know the best was yet to come!

Sunday dinner is special in this house and since we were kid-free we decided to invite two of our best friends over for dinner.  Alex is the very first friend I made after moving to Colorado and she is French and stereotypically fussy about food and wine.  I LOVE this about her.  What I love even more is the fact that our husbands get along famously and act like a couple of goofy teenagers when they get together.  We have enjoyed a lot of laughs over food and wine with our dear friends.

Lane has celiac disease so I have learned to be mindful of my menu when they join us for a meal.  If you are unfamiliar with Celiac it requires vigilance against any form of gluten in the diet–wheat, rye and barley.  Its amazing how many places gluten shows up when you start looking for it!

For Sunday Dinner we enjoyed cedar planked Salmon on the grill, steamed asparagus finished with sesame seeds and melted butter, oven roasted new potatoes with sweet onions and fresh rosemary.  Alex brought a delicious gluten free apple cake that I served with Talenti Vanilla Bean Gelato.

The salmon was delicious but I cannot take credit for the recipe.  It came from Allrecipes.com–

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/cedar-planked-salmon-2/

The oven roasted potatoes are one of my All-Star Go-To side dishes–chop red skinned new potatoes and a sweet onion.  I roast them in my Le Creuset braiser in a 400 degree oven after tossing them in EVOO, kosher salt, cracked pepper and  2-3 fresh whole rosemary stalks.  Roast them for about an hour.

As for steaming vegetables, I am a big fan of my microwave for this purpose.  I cut off the bottom third of the asparagus stalks and discard.  Then arrange the asparagus in a glass casserole dish in a layer and add 1-2 T. of water.  Cover with microwave safe cling wrap making sure to vent a corner.  Cook on High for 3-5 minutes depending upon how strong your microwave is and how crisp you like your asparagus.  My microwave is new so 3 minutes did the trick.  While still hot, sprinkle sesame seeds and drizzle some lemon juice with melted butter over the asparagus.  Salt and pepper to taste.

I had made a special trip to the store to pick up French wine–a lovely bottle of white from Vouvray that I knew would impress my picky friend.  I presented the bottle and she smiled and said “ah yes that is a nice wine.”  JACKPOT!  Then she said if it was OK she would just have some Pellegrino with a lime.  We gathered on the deck to enjoy our pre-dinner drinks and a plate of cheese and uncured salami.  Then they hit us with it……our dear friends are expecting their first baby next Fall!  Well that explains the Pellegrino.  What a way to end a most splendid weekend.

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Boulder bound baby!

 Anyone who knows anything about the food scene in Denver knows that some of the best restaurants aren’t in Denver at all.  Just North of the Mile High is the People’s Republic of Boulder and it has an amazing collection of locally owned restaurants doing amazing things with the craft of food and beverage.

So this post is kind of about going out to eat in Boulder.  But its also kind of about how this connected world of ours can be used to make new friends in the real world and bond over a shared love of all things yummy.

Tonight the hubs and I are headed for an overnight stay in Boulder, at a hotel. Without kids.  On the first day of Spring.  I am just going to let that sink in a minute……aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

As if that were not enough, we are going to meet up with some new friends for mediterranean food.  The backstory on Lisa……when I lived in the Buckeye state I had a dear friend who always spoke so highly of her brother’s family in Boulder. When I moved to Denver,  my friend’s sister-in-law and I connected on Facebook. Lisa hosted me on one of my early day trips to Boulder and we bonded instantly over, what else, food.  She treated me to one of her favorite French bistros and unknowingly cracked my heart open forever.  I am a sucker for French food.  And super cool chicks named Lisa married to super cool guys named Jeff.

I just finished packing for our 24 hour adventure.  In addition to a bottle of Pinot Noir and the makings for a blood orange vodka cocktail, I packed a cheese platter, crackers, clementines with sea salt, dark chocolate brownies (can’t take credit for these, my niece Kelsey made delicious brownies for us as a parting gift) and mixed nuts. Pretty nice mobile Happy Hour.

When my family moved to Denver a couple of years ago I subscribed to the local magazine 5280 as a way to get to know the food scene.  I will never forget reading there that nearly half of the top rated restaurants were in Boulder!  That is a 1 hour drive on a good day and since construction has been ongoing every single day we have lived here I have yet to experience a “good day.”  But Boulder is such a great town, a college town, with the energy and atmosphere unique to a college town but with the Rocky Mountains in the background.  So its worth making the effort now and again.  And did I mention the shopping?  Especially if you are a foodie.

Lisa is responsible for introducing me to the store Peppercorn on that first day trip years ago. This store is like crack if you like to cook and entertain.  Peppercorn is a locally owned, 2 story, all things food/kitchen/cooking/dining/entertaining store packed from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall with the most amazing collection of stuff.  I need a minimum of 1 hour here.  Today I am hunting for a large soup terrine, a marble cheese board, crystal juice glasses and salad plates to match the lovely autumn themed dishes I bought the last time I visited.  If you ever get to Boulder please stop in Peppercorn’s on the Pearl Street Mall and tell them Rhonda sent you.  They have no  idea who I am but I just think it would be awesome if you said it anyway.

Happy Spring to all my fellow Cooks and Foodies!