Aug. 1 is Colorado Day, marking the day in 1876 when President Ulysses S. Grant declared our state the 38th of the union.
Around the same time, farming and ranching had begun to eclipse mining as more profitable enterprises for those living here. Growing food began to make more sense (and money) than digging for silver and gold.
Colorado foodstuffs such as the sugar beet, the Palisade peach and Rocky Ford cantaloupe all trace their lineage hereabouts to the late 1800s.
Nowadays, Colorado agriculture is huge: $40 billion a year spread over 36,000 farms and 32 million acres of land. We eat but one of the officially designated states critters — the greenback cutthroat trout — although moves have been afoot since 2014 to crown the Palisade peach the official state fruit.
(The debate has been both rancorous and difficult, a unique cocktail that could occur only in Colorado. On the one hand, folks from Rocky Ford dearly love and promote their melon as a foremost Colorado fruit. On the other, Colorado is the only state in the country where it is a crime to malign or disparage a fruit or a vegetable.)
Other foods come to mind when thinking Colorado: bison meat, Olathe sweet corn (always use the entire three-worded name), Pueblo green chiles and, of course, Rocky Mountain oysters.
Some of the reasons all these foods of Colorado taste so very good are themselves distinctly Coloradan. We’re dry; we’re high (I reference altitude). Our growing conditions are marginal, with large day-to-night temperature fluctuations and relatively poor but mineral-rich soils.
Abundant uninterrupted sunlight — the “high” part — and minerally soils help develop color and flavor intensity in fruits such as peaches and cantaloupes. Diurnal temperature swings slowly ripen and augment fruit sugars but also retain fruity acidity (meaning that that peach is both sweet and tangy).
And even the lack of water can be a benefit. The “father” of the Rocky Ford melon industry, George Washington Swink, found that watermelons and cantaloupes grown in the dry climes of southeastern Colorado were more concentrated in flavor and fruit sugars, and less prone to melon burst from excess rainfall.
These two recipes using Colorado foods come from Gabrielle Langholz’s “America: The Cookbook” (Phaidon 2017). It contains more than 800 (mostly home-cooking) recipes from all 50 states.
Palisade Peach and Basil Salad
6 Palisade Colorado peaches
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup very thinly sliced red onion
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 large basil leaves
3/4 cup crumbled sheep’s milk feta or plain goat cheese
Slice the peaches and toss with the tomatoes, lemon juice, honey, red onion and salt. Tear the basil leaves into small pieces and add to the salad. Top with crumbled cheese.
Pan-seared Bison Filets
4 bison filets (also called tenderloin or filet mignon), 6 ounces each
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Season the filets with salts and pepper. In a cast-iron skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over high heat until shimmering. Add half the filets to the pan and sear on all sides for about 5 minutes. Remove the filets from the pan and add half of the butter. Baste the filets with the melted butter and transfer to an ovenproof dish. Repeat with the remaining steaks. Transfer the meat to the oven and roast until the internal temperature reads 115 degrees, 4-5 minutes. Let the steaks rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing.