A Grazing Life kicks off their second season of what we at RMFR call “the most legitimate farm-to-table dinners” in Southern Colorado. The “Night on the Ranch” as it began last summer, at Audubon Rockies’ Kiowa Creek Ranch & Sanctuary, includes a happy hour with local wine, beer and spirits; a tour of the property, where Corner Post Meats practices sustainable agriculture, and a multi-course meal provided by a rotation of prominent chefs. The event keeps the same home-grown roots and focus on education but now expands into Sunday brunch, family picnics, as well as adding Thursday dates on top of their informative and entertaining dinners every Saturday night through mid-September.
RMFR snags a spot at the inaugural evening on Saturday, June 30, with Mario Vasquez, executive chef/owner at Colorado Craft Tejon Street Social, and experiences a menu built for the precipitous weather, a list of the freshest ingredients and a new crowd to absorb the sense of purpose and seasonality that A Grazing Life offers in serene Black Forest, Colorado.
“They’re doing a great thing for the education of the community and letting chefs open up and get down and dirty and use what’s around us,” says Vasquez. “We have to buy from our land so we don’t have to charge so much for everything. It’s a way for us to inspire and to show people what’s out there.”
The evening begins with a meet-and-mingle atmosphere, with samples of moonshine from 3 Hundred Days of Shine and kegs of beer from Pikes Peak Brewing Co., located in Monument, Colorado. Multiple varietals are available from Sette Dolori Winery, with snack stations nearby that hold hunks of Kansas Red, a heritage wheat blend from Nightingale Bread and accompanying olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Everyone makes chit chat and begins to introduce themselves as we hover over a magnificent charcuterie board from il Porcellino Salumi made with Corner Post Meats.
Mike Preisler, founder of A Grazing Life and perpetual party planner, welcomes everyone as they arrive and watches as guests excitedly explore the premises and peek into the new outdoor kitchen space equipped with 10 burners, two convection ovens and a prep table where Vasquez and his team are hard at work. Preisler and Vasquez take an opportunity to address the group and then gathers everyone aboard their new and improved trailer to ride around the sprawling acreage and to see the animals in action.
“People are actually looking for this type of experience,” says Vasquez. “They know they’re getting the greatest beef from Corner Post, the best local produce and learning the cycle of agriculture. They really show you what they go through everyday before it hits your table. They’re letting people get in touch with that history.”
We enjoy some coveted quality time with the pig population and continue to kick the keg before pressing back to home base to start dinner and jam out with live music from Tejon Street Corner Thieves. The rockin’ and riotous Colorado Springs-based band doesn’t disappoint and launches into a set of boot-stomping, hand-clapping, whiskey-drinking, bluesy tunes that gets many folks up and dancing. Everyone selects a chalice for dinner, of which we opt into the largest available, that proudly displays an entire bottle of Sette Dolori rosè as a possibility for summer pairings.
The first course provides produce and the dairy sourced from Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, in an apricot and purple/Lacinato Dino kale salad tossed in an oregano-lemon dressing with chèvre crumbles and a sprinkling of toasted pepitas.
“The way I approach these dinners is, this is what they have, this is what I have to work with,” says Vasquez. “Out here it’s really hard to get fresh oregano and they had it growing so it was really awesome to work with that. The goat cheese from Del Norte, [Colorado] was a new product for me to try so that also opens it up for me to try something new.”
The second course is a warming comfort food amidst the on-going rainy day with a hearty Corner Post green chili pork bolognese with handmade gnocchi, vibrant local radishes, basil and shaved Parmesan cheese. The meaty sauce is “a process” that cooks for seven hours and Vasquez brings in a Colorado component by substituting most of the tomatoes for Milberger Farms green chiles which creates a consistency that is “nice, soft and tender, but full of flavor.” A sachet holds a pound of basil that melts seamlessly into the sauce for hours on end and the pillowy pasta absorbs the bolognese but still allows the protein to be the true star of the dish.
“It’s a play on an Italian favorite with a Colorado flair,” says Vasquez. “I would love to eat this out on the ranch and it has freshness. The radishes and chiles go well together and help your body with inflammation and it’s all growing at the same time. It’s also a way to really let the ground pork shine and to show people what you can do with different cuts of meat.”
The theme of sentimental cuisine continues as a constant thread throughout the night with a steaming plate of roasted fingerling potatoes covered in an aji verde sauce. Vasquez says that the green accent is “always an accompaniment for roasted vegetables” and adds an extra kick of spice to the buttery, locally grown tators that disappear in a matter of seconds.
The third course features Corner Post braised beef shanks, sharp cheddar polenta and roasted spring onions. The entree is rich but homey and creates an ideal option for family-style sharing across the table. We all generously scoop the creamy cornmeal porridge speckled with caramelized onions onto our plates and savor the time, temperature and intentionality in Vasquez’s main. The meat braises for nine hours and offers grassy notes with ample liquid left for additional sauce and the cheesy polenta is tender and flaky.
“I wanted to pick something not too familiar and to show the harder of pieces of meat to sell, like shank,” says Vasquez. “Those types of dishes hold well outside and I want tonight to be about relaxation and enjoying, not making things too pretentious.”
For dessert we lineup to plate a gluten-free Bing cherry crisp topped with an almond flour cream cheese crumble paired with Josh & John’s vanilla ice cream. The “big boy cherries” come from Palisade, Colorado, well-known for their stone fruit and Vasquez says “they’re at the peak of the season: nice, tart and sweet.”
“This approach was more about getting people to socialize around the table and not trying to just figure out the food,” says Vasquez. “There’s really good things you can do with simple, good ingredients. I thought the overall experience was a good time and had a good flow, and it was a sweet ending to the night.”
This year the logistical improvements at A Grazing Life are obvious with the transition from cooking over the fire pits to the introduction of the open-air, outdoor facility. The transparent process allows guests to see the plating, the passion and the sweat that goes into delivering a full dinner service from start to finish. Yet the farm tour still acts as the centerpiece of the event and the mission to support local food is still strong and very much intact. For us as consumers it continues to illustrate the importance of awareness; where is our food is actually from and what’re the ranching techniques? Through these experiences we can fully take note, appreciate and savor the true cultivation and presence of Colorado in every single bite we take.
“As a chef and as cooks this is what we really look forward to the most,” says Vasquez. “Great products, good people, real purveyors that really care about what they’re serving you and how their products are grown, raised and taken care of.”