‘Aspen Cookbook’ editor recounts a summer collecting recipes from local chefs to raise funds for our restaurants
Special to The Aspen Times
This past April, a committee of young real estate professionals convened on Zoom to discuss a spring fundraising event. The COVID-19 crisis had just hit Aspen: ski lifts were shut down, restaurants were closed, and the fate of small businesses hung in limbo.
“Historically, we met in person over a meal or drinks to debrief past events, share ideas, and plan upcoming programming,” explains Alexandra George, who leads the Young Professionals Network Aspen alongside Raleigh Vos and Kiki Peisach with guidance from Aspen Board of Realtors CEO Maria Cook. “When we were unable to do so — seemingly overnight, due to state orders — this was, in many ways, a lightbulb moment.”
With team meetings at local watering holes and member events (typically for 75 to 100 attendees) at venues such as W Aspen off the table, the group brainstormed a socially distanced, philanthropic project instead. “The Aspen Cookbook” was born to unite the community by sharing recipes for favorite dishes from area restaurants, thereby raising funds for a relief grant fund established by YPN Aspen.
“Producing this cookbook is a way to support the people, businesses, establishments and places we so dearly missed and were unable to support in the traditional way,” George adds.
In May, I joined the team as editor, and spent the next four months collecting, editing and testing what ended up being more than 100 recipes from 69 chefs in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. This week we published a 164-page, full-color feast that includes brunch, soup, salad, starters, main dishes, dessert, cocktails and even a dog treat. Many recipes are vegetarian (or easily adapted) and all were created and tested for cooking here at 7,908 feet above sea level.
Connecting with chefs and restaurateurs during those strange spring months solidified what I already knew: Aspen is full of passionate people who take pride in nourishing their community. That said, tensions were high — restaurants were closed during what should have been a lucrative spring break. Proprietors of all types of eateries were unsure if the shutdown would kill their business.
Once allowed to reopen in late May, restaurants launched takeout and delivery and began building the big, outdoor patios seen around town all summer. Thanks to these extra seats on sidewalks, restaurants survived. But without those tables, and with winter promising more uncertainty once again, they still need our help.
Enter “The Aspen Cookbook,” which presents recipes for all kinds of moods, situations, and cooking skills, from zesty pico de gallo and guacamole served at 520 Grill (now Silverpeak Grill; see recipe in infobox) and Paradise Bakery’s simple yet decadent banana chocolate chip muffins (a local classic since 1981) to more advanced creations, such as Cache Cache’s Colorado rack of lamb au jus and the theatrical Escargots Candle by Velvet Buck at the St. Regis Aspen Resort.
I discovered the history and stories behind some of my Aspen favorites. LuLu’s Kale Salad from Steakhouse No. 316, for one, started the kale salad trend here in 2006 at predecessor LuLu Wilson (and was later replicated at a Texas wine bar). Meat & Cheese’s roasted beet, Swiss chard and chèvre empanada with chimichurri joined the menu this year as a way to use more local produce in an easy-to-takeaway package (a prescient addition, as the restaurant will offer takeout but no dine-in service this season). Betula’s Colorado Striped Bass Ceviche Bonito is a Rocky Mountain spin on the Peruvian appetizer its sister restaurant in St. Barts can’t take off the menu.
“The Aspen Cookbook” also features formulas found further afield, such as the crab-stuffed baked avocado special at Thai House Co. & Sushi in El Jebel, which opened last year and was quickly becoming a dining destination before COVID hit (it still is, thanks to omakase dinners and other creative offerings). Longtime locals might be excited to find chef Mark Fischer’s classic goat cheese gnocchi salad with oregano vinaigrette, a staple at six89 in Carbondale (1998-2012), then Town (2013-2017), and now The Pullman in Glenwood Springs.
Other recipes speak to the times. Chef Martin Oswald, who founded Pyramid Bistro in 2010 as the country’s first “nutritarian” restaurant, supplied a vegan farro risotto made with sun-dried figs, sweet potatoes, and cashew butter. These ingredients, he wrote, “were carefully selected to showcase some of the best nutritional choices to achieve a balanced immune system. A low-sodium/high-potassium combination is key for anyone concerned with COVID-19,” since hypertension and diabetes increase mortality risk from the disease.
As the Aspen Times Weekly “Food Matters” columnist for seven years, I felt a certain thrill upon receiving recipes for dishes that have earned cult status. Among them: Ellina’s Artichoke Bruschetta, a signature of the Hyman Avenue hotspot since it opened in 2009; the Hotel Jerome’s famed Chicken Soup, first created years ago for a consistently sick VIP guest; The Little Nell’s lemon soufflé pancakes; and an updated chocolate chip cookie recipe from the Mrs. Fields (a local resident of 25 years).
For me, summer 2020 was spent feasting on Aspen food, almost all of it made in my tiny apartment kitchen with virtual guidance from chefs. Despite isolation, I enjoyed sharing these comforting, familiar flavors when I dropped off samples to friends and acquaintances. Seeing smiles of gratitude — in person, yet at a distance — made all of the hard work worth it.
As we approach an uncertain winter, I’m hopeful that “The Aspen Cookbook” will fulfill its mission to bring beloved dishes to home cooks everywhere and continue to raise money for YPN Aspen restaurant grants. (Pre-sales and donations have grossed about $27,500; order online at AspenCookbook.com for home delivery.)
Meanwhile, collaborations continue. L’Hostaria Ristorante is showcasing “The Aspen Cookbook” at its 24th anniversary wine dinners this weekend.
“It’s a community celebration,” says owner and founding chef Tiziano Gortan. (See L’Hostaria’s traditional Spaghetti alla Carbonara in infobox.)
In our foreword, Food & Wine editor in chief Hunter Lewis kindly concludes, “this cookbook has the goods to help keep the home fires burning.”
As a visitor and the ringleader of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen — canceled in June for the first time in 37 years — Lewis could not imagine his most epic day in Aspen without food. It is what bring us all together, whether around our own dining tables or out at favorite restaurants.
Let’s do our part to ensure these communal tables don’t disappear.
Amanda Rae is Food Matters columnist for the Aspen Times Weekly and editor of “The Aspen Cookbook.”
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Development in Basalt barely skipped a beat in 2020 despite the coronavirus. It’s expected to be busier next year.