The New Farmer’s Almanac
A year in the life of Boulder chef-farmer Eric Skokan, who’s redefining Colorado produce and elevating the standard for farm-to-table dining. —Kelly Bastone
Early one May morning in 2006, cup of hot coffee in hand, Black Cat Farm Table Bistro chef Eric Skokan shuffled outside in his bathrobe and slippers—and suddenly, his life changed. From the tangled vines creeping up a trellis in his backyard garden, he plucked a plump pod, popped a ripe pea into his mouth, and had an epiphany. That pea’s incomparable sweet intensity made all commercial produce—even the California-grown organics he was cooking at his Boulder restaurant—seem utterly mediocre. “I didn’t know what really good food was until I became a gardener,” Skokan says.
More from our July 2018 Issue
- Why Pilots Still Can’t Land a Seaplane in Colorado
- We Say Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to Chipotle
- Denver’s Flourishing Ultimate Scene Takes The World Stage
- Two New Waterparks to Check out on Balmy Days
- Meet the Squad Saving Crested Butte’s Wildflowers
- The True Story of a Reluctant Forest Bather
- Tap Into Colorado’s Western Roots at These Weekly Rodeos
Today, he supplies both of his restaurants—he opened Bramble & Hare, a more casual cafe, next door to Black Cat in 2012—with grains, vegetables, eggs, and meat from Black Cat Farm in Boulder County, which he owns and operates with his wife, Jill. The certified organic and biodynamic (a holistic, sustainable form of agriculture centered around biodiverse land management practices) operation spans some 500 acres and produces an abundance of food year-round. Here’s how Skokan and his team work the calendar—and where you can taste the bounty.
January: Skokan selects and orders seeds (a two-week process), maps out crop rotations, and completes documents for the farm’s organic and biodynamic certifications. “Jill and I have to recertify every year, which takes about 20 hours of paperwork,” he says.
February: It’s time to harvest the leafy greens and leeks Skokan planted the previous fall. “The sweetest greens of the year happen from December through March,” he explains, “because it’s cold and they’re stimulated to put their sugars out.”
On Your Plate: Order the goat cheese gnudi—served atop greens braised with leeks and white wine—from Black Cat’s tasting menu.
March: Lambing season kicks off late in the month, when 130-plus frolicking babies make the farm look “like a playground full of first-graders,” Skokan says. He conducts all-night vigils on the coldest nights to assist birthing ewes and then coaxes the mothers and their newborns into the warm, dry barn. The Skokans also raise 160 Mulefoot hogs, some egg-laying hens, and—a new challenge—cattle.
April:Spring’s lengthening days spur Skokan’s hens to increase production to six eggs per week (compared to just one egg per week from December through February). “Even eggs are seasonal,” Skokan says. Meanwhile, he collects rapini, sorrel, spring onions, mustard greens, and asparagus.
May: Buckwheat is sowed as turnips, peas, fava beans, and Hailstone radishes, a white variety with leaves that are smooth instead of hairy, are harvested.
On Your Plate: Try Hailstone radish greens in a warm salad with bacon (pictured) at Bramble & Hare.
June: Skokan plants 30 rows of Valencia peanuts, which he grows successfully even though the tropics-loving plant is supposedly intolerant to Colorado’s cooler climate.
July: It takes a team effort to harvest the farm’s plenitude of buckwheat, summer squash, haricots verts, and sweet corn.
On Your Plate: Enjoy goat-cheese-stuffed, polenta-battered squash blossoms with a juicy burger at Black Cat’s new cooking stall (offering ready-to-eat fare) at the Boulder Farmers Market.
August: Eggplant and tomatoes ripen as Skokan mills buckwheat “groats,” or hulled kernels, into flour using custom equipment he designed to efficiently separate the husk from the inner seed. (Most buckwheat flours available in the United States include some husk.) He’ll use the superfine buckwheat flour to make soba and blini all winter long.
September: Skokan plants cover crops, such as farro and einkorn, to replace vital soil nutrients throughout the winter. He also sows root vegetables and more greens.
October: Winter wheat seeds go into the ground; Skokan goes through 2,000 pounds of wheat annually making bread for his restaurants. The peanuts are harvested.
On Your Plate: Take home some Valencia peanuts from Black Cat Farm’s stall at the Boulder Farmers Market; use them for snacking, making butter, or, as Skokan recommends, in a classic Southern preparation: “Boiled fresh green peanuts are mind-bogglingly good.”
November: Skokan and his crew harvest 18,000 pounds of winter squash and 42,000 pounds of root vegetables; he times the intake to happen after the first few frosts of the year, which sweeten parsnips and other varieties.
December: Continual harvests of greens and Belgian endive supplement the foods he’s cellared, which include beets and carrots. Says Skokan, “We’re able to supply everything for the restaurants except for when we have a foot or two of snow.”
On Your Plate: Sample endive—“the unsung hero of Colorado,” according to Skokan—cooked in roasted pork drippings and served with a dollop of mustard, at both of his restaurants.
How Colorado farmers are enjoying what they’re reaping right now. —Denise Mickelson
“Anything that starts with bacon is good, so I fry half a pound of chopped bacon until it’s almost done. Drain off most of the grease, add sliced onions and thinly sliced zucchini, and fry them up, too. When everything is almost done cooking, add shrimp (and sliced mushrooms, if you like) and cook for another two minutes or so. It’s a meal in a skillet!” —Sara Bevan, Kiowa Valley Organics in Roggen
“I like to create salads with freestone peaches. My favorite: Sprinkle sorrel ribbons around sliced peaches, then add a squeeze of fresh lime and a few grinds of black pepper. It’s amazing with lighter dishes, such as fish or chicken.” —Theresa High, High Country Orchards & Vineyards and Colterris Wines in Palisade
“I make a delish European-style potato salad using all Purple Majesty potatoes, which are high in antioxidants. Boil the potatoes, then toss with sea salt, celery, Dijon mustard, stone-ground mustard, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. No mayo, no onions.” —Sarah Jones, Jones Farms Organics in Hooper
It Takes A Village
A plethora of local organizations and businesses work together to provide livelihoods—and dignity—to refugees working the soil on one small Aurora farm. —Callie Sumlin
Sandwiched between Aurora’s City Center and Buckley Air Force Base is DeLaney Community Farm. There, on an April morning, farmworkers gather for a lawn mower lesson adjacent to the fields. The instruction is interposed by the murmurs of two translators converting English into the workers’ native tongues: Maay Maay (an African language) and Burmese.
Hamadi Mayenge (pictured), an infectiously upbeat, 67-year-old Somali refugee, is the first to ride the machine. Mayenge has long been a pioneer at DeLaney: He was part of the original group of refugee Bantu (an ethnic minority widely persecuted in the ongoing Somali Civil War) to farm this land through a grant program with Denver Urban Gardens (DUG). He worked alongside the farm’s director, Heather DeLong, from 2006 to 2009, when the funding dissolved; after that, he still tended DeLaney’s fields as an unpaid volunteer. “Refugees have been through a lot,” DeLong says. “But they find the farm to be a supportive place.” Now Mayenge, along with four other refugee farmers, is again being paid for his time spent sowing, weeding, and harvesting produce on the five-acre farm—thanks to community support and connections that run root-deep.
This Aurora nonprofit (which provides refugees with everything from dental care to English classes) officially partnered with DUG and DeLaney in 2017. Aided by a USDA grant, it helps pay the farmers.
The Elyria-Swansea nonprofit sprouts most of DeLaney’s seedlings in its greenhouses.
Row 7 Seed Co.
The refugees cultivate 140 varieties of organic vegetables, several of which are special varieties donated by Row 7 Seed Co. The arrangement came about via Annette’s chef-owner, Caroline Glover.
Denver Urban Gardens
DUG, a metro-area community garden nonprofit, has operated DeLaney Community Farm since 1997, running internships and
apprenticeships and a public CSA.
The Yu Meh Food Share
DeLaney produce helps fill tables at Project Worthmore’s fresh market, which fed 413 refugee families last year.
Members pay $650 and supervise two pickups in exchange for 18 weeks’ worth of seasonal, organic produce from the farm.
Every Wednesday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., through October 10, the refugee farmers gain experience selling produce at a pop-up stand.
The future of flavor is growing right here in Colorado. —CS
Most of the fruits and vegetables at your supermarket are there because they’re bountiful varieties with long shelf lives, not because they’re particularly delicious. With his new venture, Row 7 Seed Co., superstar New York chef Dan Barber aims to change that. Row 7’s experimental, bred-for-flavor, never-patented organic seeds are revolutionary and are being grown all over the world, including in Colorado. Barber has tapped local chefs Kelly Whitaker (Basta, the Wolf’s Tailor) and Caroline Glover (Annette) to cultivate and cook Row 7 produce. By utilizing chefs as ambassadors to spread the flavorful food gospel, Barber hopes to encourage consumers to demand better and, eventually, to add more diversity to our industrialized food production system. Want to experiment with Row 7’s magical seeds? Order some now to sow in your own garden next spring. Here are the varieties we’re (literally) digging this year.
Remember when cucumbers burst with flavor and fragrance? Neither do we. This experimental breed aims to restore the pleasantly bitter complexities of heirloom cucumbers.
Badger Flame Beet
With its intentional lack of the oft-maligned “dirt” flavor that gives beets a bad rep, this striped orange variety will convert any beet hater.
If you’ve ever wished you could savor all the sweet, fruity flavor of a habanero without the mouth-singeing spice, you can live the dream with these little sunset-colored peppers.
Robin’s Koginut Squash
This firm, sweet squash changes from green to tan as it ripens, so you know just when to harvest the perfect specimen for dinner.
Two Birds With One Box
The GrowHaus’ food subscription helps feed hungry Denverites in more ways than one. —Andra Zeppelin
Want to shop local and help alleviate food insecurity? Do both by subscribing to the GrowHaus’ CSA-like food-box program. You can feed your family with a weekly assortment of fresh, Colorado-grown veggies (lettuces, greens, and mushrooms are cultivated on-site), organic fruits, and locally sourced Bluepoint Bakery breads, High Plains Food Cooperative eggs, and Raquelitas Tortillas. Meanwhile, your dollars contribute to the GrowHaus’ goal of providing healthy options for the residents of the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, a food desert. “The primary mission of our boxes, which we call ‘food justice in a box,’ is to engage other area communities to help those in need,” says Kathryn Ardoin, the GrowHaus’ director of food initiatives. “All of the revenue goes directly into our free grocery program and to support the discounts we offer in our market.” Choose the size of your box depending on the size of your family and your appetite for helping others. 720-515-4751
Not all Colorado food producers labor in the dirt. Here are the locally made—and, in some cases, locally grown—wares you should stock up on at home. —Carolyn Davidson, Denise Mickelsen & Callie Sumlin
1. Farmhand Organics: Daikon Kimchi
Kimchi, a probiotic-rich, lacto-fermented Korean pickle, is the darling of chefs these days. Farmhand Organics (formerly MM Local Foods) crafts a stellar daikon version made, in part, with radishes from Red Wagon Farm in Longmont. Its mild tang and gingery crunch make it the perfect gateway kimchi; we love it atop rice bowls, alongside fried eggs, on sandwiches, and right out of the jar.
2. The Spice Guy: Black Charcoal Spice Blend
Even if you doubt the power of activated charcoal, now trendy for its purported detoxifying benefits, you’ll approve of this beguiling, black-as-the-mountain-night-sky spice blend, dubbed Buffalo Bill’s Black Gold. The tasty combo of coconut charcoal, garlic, paprika, basil, thyme, and oregano plays well with anything cooked over an open fire.
3. Erie Coffee Roasters: Hopped Nitro Cold Brew
Cold-brewed joe may be standard at Denver java joints these days, but Erie Coffee Roasters’ Prop’d -’N- Hop’d Citra Cold Brew kicks up its new canned iteration with Citra hops and nitrous. The resulting sipper sports a creamy, Guinness-esque head and bright, not-too-bitter hop flavor. Stash a couple in your cooler to fuel early morning hikes.
4. Duke’s Meats: Snack-Size Smoked Sausages
Duke’s Shorty sausages, made in Boulder, are pretty near perfect: petite and packable (even in a pocket, we report from experience). Plus, they’re slow-smoked over custom wood blends for optimal flavor; the original takes a turn over hickory, while the Hatch green chile variation smokes over mesquite.
5. The Good Jar: Picnic-Size Pickles & Relish
Good things come in four-ounce glass jars—or so figured owner Eric Vierra when he decided to sell alfresco-ready versions of his Louisville brand’s crunchy, spicy bread-and-butter pickles and tangy-sweet vegetable relish, often made with produce from Lyons’ Rocky Mountain Fresh and Petrocco Farms and Trinity Farms in Brighton. Tuck a tiny jar or two into your bag for big-time off-road flavor.
6. Quinn Snacks: Rye Pretzels
Dipped into hummus or devoured straight, these gluten-free, whole-grain pretzel sticks, made with sorghum flour and caraway seeds (to mimic the taste of rye bread), will have you forsaking Rold Golds forever.
7. Bloombox Foods: Lettuce-Specific Dressings
This nearly two-year-old Broomfield brand has changed the way we think about salad dressing. Made specifically to complement the flavors and textures of individual greens, its vinaigrettes are innovative and delicious. The spinach version, a new release with smoked paprika notes and sherry vinegar tang, makes the leaves practically sing on the plate.
8. Hope Foods: Hummus
Hope Foods’ smooth, creamy chickpea spreads, crafted in Louisville, are pasteurized using a high-pressure process that protects nutrients and preserves peak flavor. We can’t get enough of the black garlic variety, which gets an umami boost from the aged allium.
9. Happy Leaf Kombucha: Canned Booch
When this Denver-based line of canned kombucha hit shelves in 2016, we rejoiced; finally, someone thought to put the fizzy fermented tea into backcountry-friendly aluminum. Take a can of cranberry lavender or orange basil on all your adventures.
10. Morgan Handmade Rations: Potato Chips
These addictive crisps are made with Colorado potatoes, which undergo a top-secret blanching process and are deep-fried in heart-healthy rice-bran oil for less greasy results than your average chip. The chipotle-heavy Backyard Cookout flavor is our go-to.
11. Highland Honey: Herbal Honeys
How do you improve upon 100 percent raw, local honey? Mix vitality-boosting herbs straight into the sweet stuff, as Boulder’s Highland Honey does. Flavors range from Tummy Soother (calendula, coriander, fennel) to Nervous Relief (catnip, chamomile, lavender).
12. Chile Crunch: Mexican Braising Sauce
If Mexico City–born Susie Hojel launches a product, we try it…and then buy it in bulk. Case in point: Her new Adobo Rico sauce is smoky and tangy, rich with pasilla and ancho chiles, and perfect for, well, braising, grilling, or marinating any protein you have on hand. Not cooking? Stir a spoonful into mayo for a flavor-packed sandwich spread.
13. Organic Grains: Freshly Milled Flours
Why bake with flavorless all-purpose flour when Denver-based Organic Grains will stone-grind grains into fresh flour and ship it to you? Go traditional with hard white or red whole wheat (often from Colorado fields), or give triticale or amaranth flour a try. All choices lead to baked goods with higher nutritional values since the flour hasn’t been sitting (and possibly spoiling) on a grocery shelf for months. organicgrains.com
14. Wild Zora: Meat & Veggie Bars
If you crave more than a granola bar when hanger hits, these meat-and-veg bars are for you. The gluten-, soy-, and nut-free snacks come in gourmet flavors—Mediterranean Lamb with Spinach and Turmeric, anyone?—and are truly tasty thanks to pastured meat (including Centennial State lamb) and savory spices.
15. Nanga by Nature: Cocoa-Dusted Nuts
Forget trail mix. These organic almonds and pecans, each lightly coated with dark cocoa and maple syrup and flavored with the likes of coffee and five-spice powder, are crunchy and barely sweet. And since the nuts are sprouted to increase digestibility, you can feel free to polish off the whole bag.
Love Food. Will Travel.
This summer, why not enjoy Colorado’s culinary bounty at the source? We’ve rounded up some of the state’s most edifying, entertaining places to sip farm-fresh cider, learn the art of fermentation, milk a mama goat, or play ranch hand for a day. —Ruth Tobias
1. Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy | Buena Vista
While this dairy’s popular ash-dusted, soft-rind First Snow is a local cheese-board staple, its Colorado Merlot–soaked goat cheddar deserves a spot in your picnic basket, too. Take a tour of owner Dawn Jump’s dairy farm (offered at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays all summer long; prices vary but top out at $15 per person) to learn about the farm’s sustainable production practices. Granted, you may forget all the details in the excitement of meeting, and possibly even milking, Jump’s frisky four-legged friends. 31700 U.S. Highway 24 North, Buena Vista, 719-395-4646
2. Three Leaf Farm | Lafayette
Back in 2010, restaurateurs Lenny and Sara Stewart Martinelli—of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse and Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant, among others—bought a farm to supply their kitchens. Today, Three Leaf has evolved into a community center of sorts, hosting culinary and herbal workshops, between $25 and $65 each, on everything from bone broth (July 28) to fermented and preserved foods (August 11). Themed farm dinners featuring mushrooms (July 15) and the summer’s bounty (August 12) sell out quickly, so buy tickets on the website as early as possible. 445 S. 112th St., Lafayette, 720-334-4724
3. Jack Rabbit Hill Farm | Hotchkiss
Overseeing an acclaimed distillery, cider house, and winery from vineyards to cellar is all in a day’s work for Lance Hanson, owner of this certified organic farm. He somehow also manages to offer whirlwind tours of the action. Entry is free (by appointment only), and tastings are just $5—a steal for the chance to sample Hanson’s award-winning CapRock spirits, estate wines, and New Avalon ciders in one sitting. To make an appointment, visit the website’s contact page. 26567 North Road, Hotchkiss
4. Music Meadows Ranch | Westcliffe
Grass-finished-beef producer Elin Parker Ganschow believes “a day without learning is a day wasted, and so is a day without fun.” Head down to her ranch and she’ll make sure you get plenty of both as you try your hand at horseback riding (from $50 per person) and herding cattle. Don’t leave without purchasing steaks to go—or, better yet, don’t leave at all. Guest lodging with personal chef service is available; an all-inclusive, four-night stay is $1,495 per person. 6076 County Road 119, Westcliffe, 719-783-2222
5. Heritage Lavender | Berthoud
A walk among the rows of this mom-and-pop lavender farm amounts to alfresco aromatherapy—especially this month, when peak bloom “offers the most color,” according to owner Trudy Perry. Mood boosted, you can proceed to the on-site shop for dried flower buds for culinary use, cookbooks, and expertise from Perry herself: “I love to talk lavender with foodies!” Free and open by appointment Tuesday through Saturday. 4809 Foothills Drive, Berthoud, 303-514-6504
Putting Down Roots
Former chef Joshua Olsen on growing the next generation of farmers—as well as ingredients for Front Range diners—at Acres, Warren Tech Central High School’s 2.5-acre urban farm in Lakewood. —DM
5280: How did Acres at Warren Tech get started?
Joshua Olsen: This land was a horticulture site for Jefferson County—they held 4-H activities and grew poinsettias—until 2006, when it went dormant for budgetary reasons. In 2015, I sat down with a few instructors and Warren Tech’s principal and asked if we could move the Squeaky Bean farm [which supplied produce for the eponymous LoDo restaurant] here. They agreed, and when the Bean closed in 2017, I dedicated myself to the farm full time.
What do you grow here?
Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, root vegetables, greens, garlic, leeks, peas, squash—you name it. We have a greenhouse nursery program where we start seedlings for small farms and nonprofits that don’t have the facilities to start their own; Sprout City Farms, Brown Dog Farm, CityGal Farms, and even Denver Public Schools leased space to grow their starts here this year. It’s great because Warren Tech’s culinary and S2TEM [science, sustainability, technology, engineering, math] students are learning career soft skills and concrete farming techniques simultaneously.
What does Acres’ curriculum entail?
My partners, Dave DeMalteris and Liz Hudd, and I are teaching Warren Tech’s culinary students about sustainable food-services operations. S2TEM students do all kinds of projects for us; a junior just emailed me about a Wi-Fi-connected soil moisture and temperature sensor he created for the farm. MSU Denver students are here learning greenhouse management and urban vegetable farming, and the School of Mines is working on a project to turn one of our greenhouses into a “climate battery” [an eco-friendly system that naturally regulates the temperature of the greenhouse].
What’s next for the farm?
We had a Freight Farm [a shipping container outfitted with a vertical hydroponic growing system] donated that we’re using this summer; my goal is to get the greens we grow in there into Jeffco Public Schools cafeterias. I’m getting the MSU Denver interns involved in a Slow Food Nations food-waste project, and soon S2TEM students will help design and construct a new hybrid classroom building made from shipping containers and traditional materials. Chris Starkus [executive chef at Urban Farmer] will teach beekeeping, and we’re getting chickens, too, so we can teach animal husbandry. I’m hoping we can offer college-level culinary and agriculture curriculums before long and,
of course, teach even more Warren Tech students.