If you are a parent with a small child (or children), my guess is that you are about to (or already have) spent a whole lot of time with your kids. It's winter break and most preschools are closed for the holidays. My own children have been off since December 20th and classes don't resume until January 7th! Yup. There's a whole lot of quality time taking place up in here...
Since winter break began, we have visited the Children's Museum, the Clyfford Still Museum, the Denver Art Museum, and the Museum of Nature and Science (also referred to in our household as "The Dinosaur Museum"). Joyce, our fabulous realtor, cooked a five-course dinner at our home for some friends (party!) and we ate lots of delicious food at Christmas Eve dinner…and even more yumminess at a lunch the following day. I felt like a walk was in order and I wanted to do something new…
So when my friend Kelly asked me if I wanted to go to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, I was game. It was also going to be 60 degrees in Denver (we are having a stretch of mild weather), so really, how could I refuse? I don't know why I hadn't visited the refuge before-- it's so close and so cool!
The refuge sits on about 15,000 acres and it's only 10 miles outside of Denver. I would liken it to the distance between Manhattan and Jacob Riis beach; you can't believe it's so close and yet it seems so far away. The refuge has gone from Native American hunting grounds, to homesteader farmland, to a WWII weapons arsenal and an Army chemical manufacturing facility (I believe sarin and mustard gas were produced here), to land leased to the Shell Oil Company. The arsenal was quite controversial until it closed in 1992, but then it was cleaned up (a major urban achievement) and turned into a wildlife refuge, managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Today you can find more than 330 species of wildlife at the former arsenal.
We parked in the lot near the Visitor's Center and immediately spotted two coyotes. The kids colored coyote masks, howled a bit, alarmed some of the other visitors, and we snagged free exploration packs (borrowed for the day), complete with magnifying glasses, nets and bird charts. Then we set off in the direction of the bison (you have to drive, you can't walk or bike due to safety concerns).
After viewing some bison (we saw calves too!), we walked around both lakes and set up a picnic lunch. The views of the Rocky Mountains were breathtaking. If you are looking for someplace near the city and want to see wildlife, this is the place to do it! It's a hidden gem that's right in your own backyard.
Getting there: It takes about 15-20 minutes from our home in the Congress Park section of Denver (close to the Botanic Gardens).
Activities: The new Visitor's Center has a lot of information, colorful wall panels and a kids activities room. Pick up an exploration pack too!
Hiking or walking on an empty stomach is a big no-no in my book. I get grumpy and so do the boys. So before we set out on our arsenal excursion, I made this simple and super tasty dish. Shakshuka, eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, is one of my favorite things to eat in the morning and it's relatively easy to make. I've posted the dish before and I've been playing around with the recipe ever since.
For that post I used an old Saveur recipe, adapted by Smitten Kitchen. This time I futzed around with the original recipe and made a few adjustments- but they were pretty minimal. Instead of using 8 cloves of garlic, I used 5. I also used 3 jalapeño peppers instead of 5 Anaheim chiles. Instead of crushing the tomatoes by hand, I pureed them (I like the sauce a little bit smooth, though there is some bite thanks to the peppers and onions) and I cooked the sauce longer than suggested, until the garlic was really soft (that's just my preference).
I firmly believe that recipes are meant to be tinkered with, so fool around with it until you find what tastes best to you.
Eggs Poached in Spicy Tomato Sauce, Shakshuka
(Adapted from Saveur)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 jalapeños, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. paprika
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained (I puree them)
Kosher salt, to taste
8 eggs (I always use at least 6)
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
Warm pita, for serving
1. Heat the oil in a 12" skillet over medium-high heat (I love using my cast iron skillet for this dish). Add the chiles and the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, and paprika, and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is soft, about 2 more minutes (this step takes me 5-7 minutes).
2. Put the tomatoes and their liquid into a medium bowl and crush them with your hands (see note above, I favor pureed tomatoes). Add the crushed (or pureed) tomatoes and their liquid to skillet along with 1/2 cup water, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened slightly, about 20 minutes (sometimes longer, taste it). Season the sauce with salt.
3. Crack the eggs over the sauce so that the eggs are evenly distributed across the sauce's surface. Cover the skillet and cook until the yolks are just set, about 5 minutes. Using a spoon, baste the whites of the eggs with tomato mixture, being careful not to disturb the yolk. Sprinkle the shakshuka with feta and parsley and serve with pita, for dipping.
Share it with a group of friends, a loved one, some kids…or just gobble it up yourself! Enjoy!
Other shakshuka recipes that I can not wait to try:
This one from David Leibovitz
This one from Kate Bradley's Kenko Kitchen
This one from Melissa Clark at the New York Times