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Cooking and Eating Well in the Mountains

Column by Hal Walter

Cuisine – March 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT WAS BROUGHT to my attention recently that our household might be spending too much on food. This is astounding since we live 15 miles from the nearest groceries, and nearly 50 miles from what could be considered a serious supermarket.

While I mulled this strange possibility of financial misappropriation, a rack of pork ribs from a pasture-raised pig was slowly cooking in Frontera Border Barbecue Sauce (Original Sweet and Smokey) over a bed of onions. Later, this fall-off-the-bone pigmeat would be served with a ranch-dressing coleslaw of cabbage, onion and shredded carrot, a medley of roasted squash and sweet potatoes, and polenta sautéed in butter.

I am often asked about what I eat, I suppose because some people think I am some sort of health ninny and others mistakenly believe I know my way around the kitchen. There might be shreds of truth to both of these notions, but the fact is I make most of my diet and cooking up the way some writers do fiction.

Novelist and poet Jim Harrison has noted that he tends to eat poorly when he is living poorly. And I think this is true for many people. Harrison often writes about filling the stomach and filling the soul in such a way that one begins to believe that they are one in the same. And truly they are.

For years now I have eaten predominantly in a style crafted by Phil Maffetone, a noted expert on health, fitness, and nutrition. I worked as his editor for several years, helping publish his newsletter and books, including his popular In Fitness and In Health.

Phil’s approach is a departure from the typical low-fat nonsense preached by most nutritionists. This no-diet diet could be best described as an individualized balanced style of eating with an emphasis on high-quality, nutrient-dense real foods. When you get really good at it, you can intuitively eat almost whatever you want and feel good about it.

A typical day for me almost always starts off with coffee with heavy cream, two or three eggs from the local 7 Pines Egg Farm usually served with some sort of vegetable like spinach, or tomato and avocado slices, and sprouted-grain toast with butter. Thanks to the daily eggs and butter, a recent blood test showed that I had an HDL “good” cholesterol level of 87, which is pretty much off the charts.

I snack on raw nuts throughout the day. These are mainly almonds and cashews, though sometimes I also eat peanut butter. Often these nuts are accompanied by some sort of fruit, like an organic apple, pear, or occasionally a banana.

Lunch is usually fairly light for me. It could be leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, or perhaps a salad with a scoop of cottage cheese. Sometimes I have another egg in a sandwich, or a grilled cheese. It just depends on what I have on hand and how busy I am on any given day.

Then there’s dinner. I’m lucky enough to be on a friendly basis with a farmer, so I usually have a good stockpile of pasture-raised pork and grass-finished beef. There’s also an occasional wild salmon fillet or organic chicken, and wild game I hunt myself.

This provides the basis for any number of tasty and nutritious meals, ranging from chili con-carne, to grilled pork chops and steaks, to dishes like the aforementioned ribs or perhaps a chicken cacciatore, a beef shepherd’s pie or a carné adobada. It all depends on my mood and energy level.

While some sort of protein is often the centerpiece, vegetables are also a major focal point of meals. Sometimes a starchy vegetable, such as winter squash or beets, replaces a grain starch. Quite often there’s an onion or garlic in the mix. And there’s usually something green — chard, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, or salad greens such as arugula, mache, or baby lettuces.

DESSERT IS USUALLY a couple of squares of dark chocolate. Sometimes more. This caused me some alarm when I realized that our chocolate bill might rival our yearly propane expense. But then, we don’t have to pay for water since we have our own well. This is not to say there isn’t some “dirt” in my life, with the sporadic bakery cookie, truffle, ice cream, or other novelty. But I haven’t had a doughnut since 1998.

The overriding theme is to not eat too much prepared or processed food out of boxes or bags. Instead I try to eat mostly real, whole foods prepared in a healthful manner.

A famous scribe once wrote that the mountains are a great place to live if you can make it through a winter without money and fresh produce, or something to that effect. And it’s true that living in Central Colorado does pose certain challenges to eating well.

Recently, a dish called “Pinto Beans with Chile [sic]” from the Santa Fé School of Cooking Cookbook prompted a regionwide search for two ingredients — a spice called epazote and canned chipotle chilis in adobo sauce. The epazote, which imparts a flavor characteristic of Southwestern dishes and said to be an antiflatulent, was finally found at Buena Ventura Mexican Imports in the neighborhood of Pueblo known as Bessemer. The canned chilis were rounded up just up the avenue at Grocery Warehouse. All this for beans.

I’m not one who plans out menus far in advance, so I try to keep the basics on hand. For me this means at least one weekly trip to a larger town, usually Pueblo, and maybe one or two trips to Westcliffe, where a small grocery and health-food store help me to fill in the blanks. I try to plan my grocery shopping in conjunction with other trips so that I’m not always running to the store for this or that.

Greens are particularly a problem to have fresh on-hand, since they are sometimes hard to find, and don’t last very long in the refrigerator. One of my long-term goals is to grow my own salad and cooking greens. But the harsh environment at 8,800 feet has thus far thwarted my efforts. For now I find the King Soopers to have a good variety of salad greens, including the health-enhancing arugula, and the local health-food store often has baby spinach.

Much has been made of the debate about organic vs. conventional, and locally grown vs. food that has been shipped in from far away. To this one must apply common sense. For instance I recently purchased a bag of “Colorado grown” organic onions. After I got them home I consulted a map and found out they came from a somewhat less than pristine area of the Denver metro clusterplex.

Another thing to consider is how much you want to restrict your diet in order to eat locally. For example, not many avocados are grown in Colorado, but they sure taste good and are good for you. The same goes for just about anything green during the winter months, though some area greenhouses produce limited amounts of tomatoes, lettuce, and other greens.

That said, I really would prefer to buy foods grown closer to home, and I generally avoid certain conventional produce that has been shown to have high levels of pesticide residue, such as celery, spinach, strawberries and apples. A good source of info about pesticides in produce is the Environmental Working Group (

For various reasons I shy away from most grocery-store meats. For one thing, this is one area where I can easily support local agriculture, and small-scale farming in particular. It’s healthier, plus it just tastes better. As one noted chef said of the pork I buy from my farmer friend: “It tastes like something — it tastes like pig!”

This is why, despite the budgetary concerns, I have another half of a pasture-raised pig on the way, and, barring an economic depression, I don’t plan to change my eating habits very much in the near future.

As gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

In this case what I am — a few bucks lighter this month — is much better than being hungry.

Hal Walter cooks and writes from his burro ranch in the Wet Mountains of Custer County.