If you haven't sampled national park cuisine lately, you're going to be amazed the next time you sit down for dinner after a long day in a park. Long gone are the boringly prepared staples of steak, chicken breast, trout, and pasta. In their place are a potpourri of offerings that bring to the table not only elk, bison, and quail prepared with an array of seasonings and influences but which more often than not reflect the latest in sustainable cuisine.
For instance, find a table at the Metate Room at Mesa Verde National Park and Chef Brian Puett teases your palate with chipotle peppers with their rich, smoky flavor, habañeros with their bite, and potentially potent chile rellenos. The chef has developed a menu built around bison, elk, turkey, and quail, as well as squash, black beans, and tortillas. Oh, and with prickly pears on occasion and a few spices tossed in more often than not.
"I've got a turkey appetizer and a turkey entree. During the winter season you see a lot of turkey around here. It's a big part of the reason I wanted to get it on the menu, plus the fact that I love turkey," explains Chef Puett. "The appetizer is called 'Masa Turkey.' It's breaded in tri-color corn tortillas and served with a prickly pear red pepper jam. And then I've got a Turkey Napoleon, which is a pine-nut encrusted turkey breast fillet and it's built up with roasted red peppers, spinach, heirloom tomatoes, cilantro rice, and it's served with a sun-dried cherry demi glaze."
Now, the culinary movement to use more organic ingredients and cook as sustainably as possible hasn't been overlooked in national parks. More and more, chefs are looking to surrounding communities for ingredients, whether that's beef, poultry, or tomatoes. The goal is not only to meet the increased expectations of national park visitors, but to go easy on the environment and do as much business as possible with the locals.
How successful Chef Puett is in developing a slate of tasty, sustainable meals will be on display later this summer and into the fall during the "Taste of the Mesa" sustainable cuisine workshops being offered at Mesa Verde. Part cooking demonstration and part park tour, the workshops revolve around culinary creations that are just about as sustainable as they are palate-pleasing.
"We're going to bring people in, show them local and organic wines, pair them up with some nice dinners, try and use as close to 100 percent sustainable products as we can for the whole workshops, which is a pretty large number," says the chef. "If you get 95 percent sustainable in a meal, it's pretty tricky and it takes a lot of work to find all that stuff somewhere. It's actually a fun deal. It kind of just shows what we're working towards. Eventually, we'd like to be able to do that for everything we do here, which is going to be a huge step and a process, but it's fun to be able to do it for a few days."
And what, you might wonder, constitutes "sustainable" when it comes to creating a dinner? According to Chef Puett, that means you rely as much as possible on locally obtained ingredients, minimize fuel in rounding up those items, minimize waste in food preparation, and minimize waste in terms of what goes into the garbage.
Taste of the Mesa workshops are scheduled for August 23-25, September 30-October 2, and October 11-13. For $359 per person, you get two nights' lodging at the Far View Lodge, souvenir wine glasses, a meet-the-chef reception, the four-course workshop dinner, a picnic lunch, and a half-day Park Service-led tour of Mesa Verde. For reservations, call tel. 866/292-8295 or visit www.visitmesaverde.com.
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com. This site tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Follow National Parks Traveler on Twitter at www.twitter.com/parkstraveler.
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