I'm sitting here in a coffee shop near my house enjoying a big cookie and a cappuccino, with two dogs at my feet, and acting like I've been a Denver resident my whole life. Ok... maybe thats how I feel but, in reality, I probably don't look that way. Especially when I get on the light rail and ride 10 minutes before I realize I should have been on the bus, abandon mission, and trek half-way through the city by foot. This coffee shop has some parallels to the shop I worked in during college, so I really like it. It serves up giant cookies like the onces we baked, has comically large milk pitchers, offers you drinks in pint glasses meant for beer, has a large loose leaf tea selection, friendly baristas, bakes in-house, is next door to a bar, has a well-loved and welcomed slightly-crazy, semi-homeless person who leaves his bag behind the counter, is not over-decorated, really needs new tables/chairs, and serves up decent coffee with good foam but without the fancy, high-coffee style that comes with perfect pours. Give me a single shot cappuccino in a small cup spilling over with foam and I'm happy.
Anyways, I'm getting use to this place. Denver that is, not just the coffee shop. Although I do miss the trees and my dogs miss the grass. Don't get me wrong. There are lots of trees planted in Denver and it is a beautiful, green, cheery place but I'm use to being able to drive 5 or 10 minutes down the road and let myself and my dogs free and go trail running through a deciduous forest. I miss that... those plants and trees are friends I have left behind. Even though my dogs miss grass (it is too dry of a place to grow grass in dog parks and waste precious water resources by watering a lawn solely meant for dogs to pee on... which is a responsible thing for the city to do) they have so much to do, see, smell here. Everyone loves dogs and almost everyone has dogs. Seriously, our first morning here was an insane welcome with the manager of the restaurant we brunched at buying us "welcome to Denver, we love dogs cocktails" and providing us a list of dog-friendly Denver activities.
Last weekend we took advantage of the holiday weekend since Ty had Monday off work and we headed out towards The Great Sand Dunes National Park for some camping. On Saturday we camped at a place called The Orient Land Trust where they have natural hot springs. This true, off-grid community can be found several miles off the highway on a dirt road. You know those types of roads that make you feel like you are in a secret, secluded place as the dirt kicks up around your car in a cloud that streams down the road as the largest feature in a broad, flat landscape. It is a special place. We were hoping to get a walk-in camping spot even though no one answered our morning call. Being Memorial Day weekend we arrived to find all the camping spaces filled up, they have a strict daily entry limit, and I was still hoping we could sweet-talk in a place for our tent. Fortunately they let us pitch our tent at some of the trail heads but we were not allowed to go to the hot springs. It was a little disappointing but more than understandable, we did take some beautiful hikes and watched the low-horizon sun play rumpelstiltskin on all the desert plants by turning them to gold before our eyes. The rockies were dark silhouettes with a sunset cloak patterned in never-ending colors. Gawking over the sunset our dogs pricked up their ears and turned in the direction of the howling coyotes nearby and watched eagerly at the deer and elk grazing. We had the whole place to ourselves and in that moment we were the only ones.
The next day we woke up early and got to the sand dunes around 8 in the morning, before the welcome center even opened. I've been to a similar desert before and I know how hot the sand can turn under the fierce afternoon sun. There was only a handful of people at the dunes so early, lucky for us. (If you plan on going I recommend going early. When we left there was a streaming tail of cars filled with impatient faces waiting to get in.) We trekked the dunes from 8-12 and banjo sniffed the sand, pawed at it playfully and ran around in circles like she does in the snow. We kept climbing up big peaks, pausing to take in the view and then sprinted in a path straight down the dunes as fast as we could, with both hands failing in the air. Eventually we had to turn back even though each new dune peak was taunting us; begging to be climbed. The sand heated up and we had left our shoes behind at the car, while puppy paws had received an exfoliation treatment better than any spa could do. I love the duney desert, the grit in the air, salt in your mouth, and the wind in your hair. Leaving the dunes you resolve to an awe over how diverse and beautiful this country is. I've now seen this country from tippy-top north to low-country south and from east to almost west; it is truly magnificent. The weekend was for the spirit of remembrance, and gratefulness. Despite the bad, we have a whole country filled with beautiful things to be grateful for.
On memorial day we felt a responsibility to use our roommates grill. After-all, it was Memorial Day, we are American, and neither of us had lived with a real grill before. Still sandy and with skin warm-to-the-touch, these spicy, tofu-q's with a cooling slaw hit the spot. You really want to factor in at least a few hours of marinating time, you can even leave it in the refrigerator overnight.
Tofu & sauce recipe (Makes 2 big ones)
Buns - 2 buns
Extra firm tofu package - Pressed for 30 minuets and then sliced thinly.
Habaneros - 3, chopped (I didn't take the seeds out but you can)
Apricot - 1, peeled/sliced (I think you could use 2 without it being too fruity tasting)
Onion - scant 1/2 a sweet, yellow onion, chopped.
Tomatoes - 2, chopped
Tomato paste - 6oz can
Garlic - 3-4 cloves, chopped
Honey - 2-3 TB
Apple cider vinegar - 1Tb
Liquid smoke - 1tsp optional (vegetarian version)
Chile powder - 2tsp or 1TB - depending on your desire for spiciness.
Cinnamon - scant 2tsp
Paprika - 2tsp
Salt- to taste (about 1-2tsp for me)
Slaw recipe - also makes a good side
Purple cabbage - about 1/6 a small head of cabbage, slivered
Onion - 1/4 an onion, slivered
Avocado - 1, sliced
Limes - 2, juiced
Salt - to taste
Press the tofu for about 30 minutes. Once pressed, sliced into thin "patties" the size of the tofu block. While the tofu is pressing make the sauce. Chop up all your vegetables. Place the olive oil in a small saucepan on medium heat. Add your garlic and onions and let it cook for a few minutes, until slightly soft. Add in your habaneros and apricots and let cook for a few more minutes until soft. Add in the tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir until well combined and let cook for 3-5 minutes until soft, slightly bubbling, and evenly dispersed. Then add in all the rest of the ingredients and let cook for a few more minutes, until just fragrant. Add the mixture into a blender and blend until smooth. Adding in some water if needed to bring the sauce to the desired consistency. Taste and adjusted spices. Layer the tofu in between a generous amount of bbq sauce, making sure all the tofu is covered. Let it marinate on the counter for several hours (2-3 at least) or overnight in the fridge. The extra bbq can be stored for later use (think veggie kabobs or pizza sauce).
Heat up the grill (or grill pan) and cook the tofu straight on the grill (rubbed down with a little oil since tofu can stick) or cook on top of bamboo skewers on the grill (soaking the skewers in water for a hour first). Cook the tofu for about 5 minutes on each side. Brush over some more bbq sauce after flipping. We even threw our burger buns on the grill for 1 minute to crisp them up.
For the slaw, toss together the onion and cabbage. Add in the avocado and stir, slightly mashing up the avocado among the slivers of onion and cabbage. Squeeze over the lime and season with salt.
To assemble the burger spread a little of the paprika aioli below (admit for vegan), top with strips of tofu and then pile on a good bit of slaw on top. No shame in adding some more bbq sauce too... bbq is suppose to be messy. Serve with grilled asparagus.
Grilled asparagus recipe + paprika aioli
Asparagus - 1lb with 1 inch of the ends trimmed off
Olive oil - 2Tb
Salt/pepper- to taste
Egg yolk - 1 large egg yolk
Lemon - Juice of 1 lemon
Olive oil - several TB
Paprika - scant 1 tsp
Salt/pepper - to taste
Pumpkin seeds - a handful, coarsely chopped (optional) .
To make the aioli add in the egg yolk, lemon juice, and salt into a small bowl. Beat with a whisk. Slowly drizzle in the oil in a very small, steady stream while whipping with a whisk. The aioli with start to thicken up and lighten as you whisk. I let my aioli get to about a medium consistency since I didn't need much and didn't want to use too much oil. Add in the paprika and more salt and pepper if necessary. Whip until combined.
Toss the asparagus in a bowl with the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Lay on a pre-heated grill and cook several minutes, rotating the spears with tongs. You want the asparagus to get soft, a little brown in spots, but still retain a slight crunch. Lay the asparagus on a tray, top with some aioli and the sprinkle with pumpkin seeds.