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Mouthing Off

Our daily bread: Although I haven't seen capirotada on any menus in town besides La Loma's (see review above), this Lenten bread pudding has been around at least since seventh-century prophet Mohammed, according to Western food historian Sam Arnold, who owns The Fort restaurant in Morrison. In his book Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, Arnold writes that it was a popular dessert "mentioned by many travelers along the Mexican part of the Santa Fe Trail." Since American mountain men sometimes had trouble with Spanish words, they gave the dish another name, "spotted dog," because of the raisins that stud it.

Whatever it's called, in our family capirotada has been the annual Christmas breakfast since we discovered a sensationally sweet and rich recipe for it in another book, Spirit of the West ($35), by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs. (Arnold, who wrote the introduction for that book, provides a recipe for capirotada in Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, too, but it's a little less rich and contains apples, which makes it taste more like a traditional bread pudding.)

I'm eating the leftovers as I write this: The recipe serves ten to twelve, and since we don't know that many people who can stand to see us in our jammies, we make it knowing there will still be some come New Year's, so I can attest to its durability.

Cox and Jacobs got the recipe from the Gamez family of Benson, Arizona, and it calls for piloncillo, the brown-sugar cones used in Mexican and Southwestern cooking. But American brown sugar, tightly packed, works just fine. We leave out the cilantro--we're usually not making anything else that calls for cilantro around Christmas, and it seems a waste to buy a bunch of the stuff just for a tablespoon--and we've always gone with the cheddar instead of goat cheese, because it makes for a chewier dish. And though it may sound strange to have a dessert-type dish that contains onions, you'll just have to trust that it all works out in the end--and how. (In fact, because it's filling and such ingredients as cheese, raisins and onions are quite nutritious, capirotada has long been an alternative during Lent to fish-fry Fridays.)

Capirotada
(from Spirit of the West, reprinted with permission)
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter
6 green onions, thinly sliced
2 1/2 cups crushed piloncillo or firmly packed brown sugar
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
1 pinch ground cloves
1 cinnamon stick
8 cups cubed day-old French bread (about a 1-pound loaf)
1/2 pound or more of shredded cheddar cheese or crumbled mild goat cheese
1 cup raisins
1 cup shelled pine nuts, or chopped pecans or walnuts
1 cup heavy cream (optional)

To make the syrup, place 3/4 cup of the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the green onions and stir-fry until you can smell them cooking, but do not let them brown. Add the sugar to the pan and stir briefly. Carefully pour in 2 1/2 cups of water and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cilantro, cloves and cinnamon stick. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer the syrup gently for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and discard the cinnamon stick.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the bread cubes on a baking sheet and brown lightly in the oven, turning to toast on all sides. Butter a 9-x-13-inch casserole dish. Arrange half of the bread cubes in an even layer in the pan. Sprinkle half of the cheese and raisins over the bread and drizzle with half of the syrup. Repeat the layers, finishing with the syrup. Sprinkle the top of the pudding with the nuts.

Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is browned and crunchy. Serve warm or at room temperature. Top with cream if desired. Serves 10 to 12.

Now that I've found La Loma's cream of cilantro soup, I might rethink my position on cilantro at holiday time. This herb isn't everyone's favorite--when it's overused, it makes things taste like a freshly mowed lawn. But La Loma's soup is wonderful, a distinctive, tongue-teasing brew that gets its bite from serranos and its richness from a hefty portion of heavy cream.

Because the cream cools the capsaicin--that's what makes chiles hot--I found that upping the serranos to four makes for a livelier dish, but it also kills a little of the cilantro flavor (which for some might be a good thing). I also discovered that a really rich chicken stock overpowers the blend, so I diluted my homemade stock by substituting 1/2 cup of water for 1/2 cup of stock (if you use canned chicken broth, dilute it even more, because its high sodium content will be intensified by the cream). One final warning: After you bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat quickly so that the cream doesn't burn.

La Loma's Cream of Cilantro Soup
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
2 bunches cilantro, stemmed
2 serrano chiles
juice of two limes
2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 1/2 cups heavy cream
extra cilantro leaves for garnish

Saute onion and garlic in butter over medium-high heat until translucent but not brown; remove from heat and let cool. Transfer to food processor or blender; add cilantro, chiles, lime juice and stock. Puree and pour into heavy saucepan. Add cream and bring just to a boil; quickly reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Garnish with whole cilantro leaves. Serves 6 to 8.

Last call: La Loma's cream of cilantro soup recipe first appeared in the Denver Post years ago, in the food column that Helen Dollaghen Vogel wrote for forty years. Sadly, Dollaghen Vogel died at the beginning of 1998. And just a few weeks ago, we lost another friend of the food world, Sam Arnold's wife, Carrie, who drew and painted the eye-catching illustrations for Arnold's Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, as well as the watercolors for several other books.

I never knew Dollaghen Vogel, but I read her columns to stay in touch with what people in the area were cooking and eating. And Carrie Arnold I knew only socially, from running into each other at culinary events, but she was always exceptionally warm and gracious, and she was the ideal hostess for The Fort. The first time I visited that restaurant, I was eight months pregnant, and when I shivered in the mountain air while eating on the restaurant's expansive patio, Carrie walked over to me and without a word took the sweater off her shoulders and put it around mine. From what I've heard, that was Carrie all over. She'll be sorely missed.

In fact, there were too many sad losses this year. Ed Maestas, who ran the wonderful Johnnie's Market on Larimer Street, passed away in February; the old storefront that housed his market--downtown's oldest grocery until it shut its doors when Eddie became ill in the fall of 1997--remains shuttered. Two doors away at 2010 Larimer, the forty-year-old La Casa de Manuel closed in mid-December when the landlord abruptly terminated its lease. The building is slated for demolition; owner Manuel Silva hopes to reopen elsewhere. But farther up the street, at 2706 Larimer, M&G Cafe is gone for good; when Pat Gaitlen died a few months ago at almost ninety, the city lost another institution that had started over forty years ago on Larimer.

There was one bright spot on Larimer, though: After Esther Garcia, the matriarch who ran the Mexico City Lounge at 2115 Larimer Street for the past three decades fell ill last year, the eatery closed for a few months--but then Alicia Muniz and her husband, Bob, took over. Today the Lounge (pay no attention to the banner out front that calls it an "Inn," or earlier signage that refers to it as a "Cafe") is better than ever--and, in fact, proved just the spot for some fog-clearing New Year's Day huevos.

Say cheeze: La Loma isn't the only decades-old Mexican eatery still open for business. Tortilla Flat, still doing a big business at 2850 West Church Avenue in Littleton, originally opened in 1959 as The Shanty on Littleton Boulevard. Three years later, owner Helen Estrada was forced to move the eatery when the landlord sold the building; she reopened the restaurant, now named Tortilla Flat, at the corner of Bowles and Church. But that location wasn't meant to be, either: The flood of 1965 wiped out both the restaurant and the Estradas' house. When a new Tortilla Flat debuted the next year, it occupied the site that once held the Estrada home. The restaurant moved once again twenty years later, to the spot it has now occupied since 1986.

From what I understand, it hasn't changed much since then. I ate there recently with a late-thirty-something Denver native who says she's been going to Tortilla Flat since she was a little girl. "Whenever we'd go shopping, or when we just had that craving for a lot of gooey cheese and green chile, we'd head over there," Geri Steele says. "I think the only thing that's different is that they opened up the dining room and put in these booths." Even the waitresses have been around forever, like the one we had to cajole into admitting that she'd worked there "about thirty years."

We'd stopped in after a hard morning of Christmas shopping, and I was so hungry that I ordered from the dinner menu instead of lunch. Tortilla Flat serves up the cheap, greasy stuff, all right, but it was delicious cheap, greasy stuff. The chile relleno in the Helen's Combo ($8.50) sported not the typical egg batter or crispy shell, but a combination of egg and breading that gave a crunchy skin to the softer bread inside. And inside that was a well-roasted poblano, packed with runny American cheese. The whole package had been smothered in a thin green that contained minuscule bits of pork and big chile heat. My combo also included a chalupa, the little boat made from corn-tortilla dough, which in this case was filled with shredded chicken, and a beef taco de guacamole, which showcased Tortilla Flat's simple but tasty guacamole.

Steele ordered her usual: the cheese enchilada a la carte ($2.30) as well as the chile relleno ($5.50) lunch special that comes with standard-issue rice and beans. The enchilada was smothered in green and loaded with cheese--Steele says she once asked what kind it was so she could re-create the dish at home, and all they would tell her was that it was from Borden. We ate every last bite and scraped the final bits of cheese off the plates with our forks.

In this fast-changing town, it's nice to know that some things remain the same.

--Wagner

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