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What to do with a buffalo in your freezer

Column by Hal Walter

Food – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

COOKING, IF YOU REALLY LOVE FOOD, is almost certain to take on a regional flavor. In Central Colorado, this brand of culinary snobbishness is known as cuisine opportunisme, which roughly translated means “eat well when you have the opportunity.” It has occurred to me to do as dead comedian Sam Kinneson suggested and “live where the food is,” but then I realize that there are better restaurants in Salida than there are in Pueblo, a town 15 times the size. Incidentally, nobody in Pueblo can muster a cup of coffee that compares to anything Bongo Billy’s brews up either.

Since I live somewhere between these two towns and mostly cook for myself, I have formed certain odd habits. For instance, I usually take an ice chest whenever I drive more than 15 miles from home. Locally, I shy away from grocery stores that are constructed of sheet metal. It registers in my mind every Thursday that the shipment of fresh produce, perhaps including plump, long-stemmed organic artichokes or fresh salad greens, has arrived at Sunflower Natural Foods. Sunflower also carries real chocolate, as does Candy’s Coffee Shop where they also carry Colorado Central magazine and serve coffee better than anything in Pueblo. Candy’s is located just southwest of Jennings Market, where they carry “Pueblo Fire Roasted Chile” salsa which I have only seen elsewhere in high-end gourmet stores. Jennings also has an old-fashioned meat counter where people actually know how to properly wrap meat in paper rather than plastic.

When driving beyond Westcliffe in either direction it is helpful to plot out appropriate food stops. If heading south through Gardner, I pull up the dry wash near the rodeo arena to visit the old Wahatoya co-op where an outside cooler almost always offers the best selection of organic produce in a 100-mile radius. In Salida Neighborhood Natural Goods always has interesting items, and the Safeway is one of the best big-box groceries around. In Pueblo, where I often go on business, the ubiquitous King Soopers, Safeway, and Albertson’s can help you stave off starvation so long as you are smart enough to keep to the perimeter of the store and not venture up the aisles where they keep most of the packaged food that will truly harm you.

Recently I unsuccessfully scrambled for vegetarian recipes when a friend visited with her new boyfriend in tow. Weeks later, when she announced that the relationship was doomed, I told her I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t last as she is much too sensible to be involved with a person who has an eating disorder (vegetarianism nervosa).

I have been on a southwestern-style cooking spree lately since purchasing The Santa Fé School of Cooking Cookbook. In particular a “Black and Red Pork Tenderloin with Onion and Green Chile Madeira Cream Sauce” stands out as something that my friend’s ex would not have cared for, but others say it’s the best thing I have ever cooked. There are some fey entries in this Santa Fé cookbook; salmon tamales come to mind as one of the more disco recipes. But if anything the volume was worth purchasing just to learn how to cook with chipotle chiles, a taste sensation previously only properly served at Salida’s La Frontera Cantina which I recently discovered, much to my dismay, is not open on Sunday afternoons during the winter.

AS I WAS RELEASING the flavor of some chipotles _in hot olive oil recently, while preparing my own creation of Chipotle Buffalo Tostadas, I enjoyed a glass of moderately cheap Australian red wine labeled Lindemans (available locally at the Liquor Cabinet) and remembered a recent tale of cuisine opportunisme that involved the very buffalo I was preparing to sauté.

Last summer a bison bull escaped from a nearby buffalo ranch and found its way onto the highway near Bear Basin Ranch. Now I was not there for this episode, so this is more legend than journalism. But as the story goes, my friend Gary Ziegler was seen in full cowboy dress including hat, chaps, and spurs, wielding a whip and jogging along the highway behind this crazed bison while traffic backed up on Highway 96 for miles. At some point the bull decided to charge through the fence and onto Gary’s ranch.

Gary went back to the main ranch compound for his horse, and rode out to round up the buffalo. But when he found the animal, there was a matter of role reversal and only through some tricky riding through the trees did Gary and his horse escape. There was no way to capture the buffalo and the risk that it might get back on the highway and cause an accident was very real. So finally the decision was made by the buffalo’s owner to send the buffalo home via the packing plant.

In the resulting deal between Gary and the buffalo rancher, Gary ended up with more meat than he could possibly store or eat. So we dusted off the old freezer in my garage to store the excess meat with the storage agreement being that I could help myself.

The buffalo meat completely filled the freezer, top to bottom, wall to wall. On the bottom three shelves we just shoved in the cardboard boxes the meat was packed in. The top shelf was chock full of loose packages, mostly hamburger, and we stored some more packages of steaks on top of the three boxes.

About a week after the meat arrived all the steaks disappeared. The mystery grew as we went down the list of who knew where the buffalo meat was stashed and who knew where the key to my garage was hidden. Finally a certain person called long distance from Portland, not the place where they make cement near Florence, to admit that she had absconded with the meat as a “practical joke” before her business trip to Oregon. After the steaks were returned, we simply ate them all to prevent such an event from being repeated.

But it occurred to me that the history of cuisine opportunisme had already repeated itself. Back in 1806, expeditioners on a mission led by Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike to find the headwaters of the Arkansas River killed eight buffalo north of Salida on Christmas Eve. I wasn’t there for this buffalo adventure either, but I’ll take the liberty to assume that Pike’s crew also ate the steaks first. Wrote Pike on Christmas Day: “I will not speak of diet, as I conceive that to be beneath the serious consideration of a man on a voyage of such a nature.”

Hal Walter cooks buffalo, trains donkeys, and writes prose at his home in what Pike called the Blue Mountains, now known as the Wet Mountains.

Chipotle Buffalo Tostadas

Heat some olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add two to four dried chipotle chiles according to your taste, and heat to release the flavor of the chiles. Add one medium chopped onion. Season with salt and pepper. When the onion becomes tender, add two to eight cloves minced garlic. Cook for another minute then remove and set aside.

Brown one to two pounds buffalo burger (you could also use elk, deer, antelope or beef). Salt and pepper to season. When meat is brown add the chipotle-onion-garlic mixture back to the skillet. Then add half a can or more of tomato sauce, one or two tablespoons dried Chimayo chile, and a can of red or black beans, rinsed.

Don’t mess with boxed corn tortillas. Get some real ones or make your own. Toast them either in another skillet or a toaster oven until they are crispy.

Spread the buffalo-meat mixture over the freshly toasted tortillas. Top with freshly grated Monterey jack cheese, salsa, fresh diced tomatoes, lettuce, guacamole and sour cream. Share with friends.