Sunday, January 30, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Colorado I - A Big Ol' Omelette

Colorado is a tough state for me to pin down, but it shouldn't be. I just don't have much experience with it. Probably outside of the state it is best known for two things: the famous Denver omelet, and Coors. It should be known for much more than that, and for this next post, I set out to find out what else there is about the foods of Colorado.

Snacking State-by-State: Colorado

Official Name: State of Colorado
State Nickname: The Centennial State
Admission to the US: August 1, 1876 (#38)
Capital: Denver (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Colorado Springs (2nd largest), Aurora (3rd largest), Lakewood (4th largest); Fort Collins (5th largest)
Region: West, Southwest, Rocky Mountains; Mountain (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Bison, Pinyon Nut
Bordered by: Wyoming (north); Nebraska (northeast); Kansas (east); Oklahoma (southeast); New Mexico (south); Arizona (southwest - one of the Four Corners states); Utah (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: nothing, but note: Greenback Cutthroat Trout (fish - but, it is endangered so you better not eat it!!!)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Southwestern (New Mexican) cuisine, beef, bison & buffalo, Denver/Western omelet and sandwich

Technically, you can call Colorado "Southwestern" - at least to some extent. The southern part of the state, at least, has geology and archaeology that parallels what you find in Arizona and New Mexico. But that ignores large swathes of the Rocky Mountains that could hardly be considered "Southwest". But is the food “Southwestern”? It’s certainly “New Mexican”, also found in Utah and (duh) New Mexico (see a more thorough description of New Mexican cuisine at

But I figured there was more to Colorado than Southwesternness, and sought more info. To help me get a better grasp on what the food of Colorado is like, I looked to the writers at They conducted an interview with Boulder-based chef Mark Monette, executive chef at the Flagstaff House Restaurant. I had hoped he would clarify just what is "Colorado cuisine". Instead, I read this:

It’s not really something that you can define anymore. We have well-trained chefs in Colorado now—people who are highly trained in food and wine and who are excited about it and they’re coming up with new ideas all of the time. They try to search for the local farmers and producers. It’s not just a grilled ribeye and baked potato anymore. [Monette, date unknown]
So Monette doesn't clear things up the way I had hoped. He does, however, note that Colorado is loving the locavore movement we see in California (qv last week). He also notes in the interview
that his restaurant utilizes plenty of locally grown and raised vegetables, fruits and animals (lamb, rabbit and - yes, bison). If ever I make it out to Boulder I must save the money for a visit.

Perhaps the most famous dish, one that needs little mention, is the Denver omelet (or Western omelet, to Coloradans). Kyle Wagner at the Denver Westword gives a very simple description of it: "ham, peppers, onion and cheese" in an omelet (Wagner 2001), as served at the Perfect Landing restaurant in Denver. The omelet has been around since the early 20th century at the latest, and then it was primarily in sandwich form. Wagner notes that the Denver sandwich was a meal of convenience - the ingredients could be traded by cattlemen and eaten without a plate. Just imagine Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist sharing a Western sandwich in that cold tent (Yes, I know that was Wyoming. When will I next get a chance to make a Brokeback comment?) The famous sandwich became a famous omelet in an equally practical way: when the bread wasn't necessary anymore, people stopped using it (Wagner 2001). I didn't use any bread either for my Denver omelet, which follows.

The recipe: Western (Denver) Omelet

Since there are a thousand variations on the Denver omelet, I went with the simplest one I could find. I stopped looking with James A. Beard's American Cookery version from 1972, which is incredibly simple: simply combine chopped onion, green pepper and ham (or bacon), season it in butter til limp, and then add beaten eggs, browning on each side. Season with salt, pepper and hot sauce, and serve on a bun. Beard's recipe allows for a lot of leeway: he regularly added tomato and bacon. I prefer red bell pepper (never a fan of the green ones here). It goes without saying that you do not need a bun for this.

Most ingredients were inexpensive or already on hand:

* eggs (I ended up using four)
* ham steak (about $3.50 for one - I needed only about a quarter of it, and froze the rest for another day)
* onion, green and red bell pepper
* cheese (my choice: Wisconsin cheddar)
* butter, for sauteing the veggies.

The Denver omelet, as Beard notes, is quite simple to put together:

Chop your veggies and shred your cheese - I used a half an onion, half a green bell pepper, and half a red bell pepper. I eyeballed the cheese until I had as much as I wanted. Cube your ham steak while you're at it. Set it all aside.

Get out a big old cast-iron skillet, and melt some butter in it. Then do the following:

Add the veggies and ham to the pan.

Lightly scramble the eggs and add them and the cheese to the pan.

Continue to fry until browned on one side, and flip over. Try not to break it all apart like I could not help doing. When both sides are browned, it's done. Put it on a plate and eat it!

This was an omelet that I had to eat in two sittings. It was what one might call a most hearty omelet: cheese, ham, egg, with whatever vegetables you care to add. Taste-wise, it turned out nicely for me. Visually, it was a mess. I think I am incapable of turning an omelet without tearing it to pieces, especially if it has lots of stuff in it. It didn't matter to me: Beard's recipe assumes you're going to put it in a roll anyway, so nobody's going to see it all torn apart.


Beard, James A. James Beard's American Cookery. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company 1972. Parts also available on Google Books.

Bishop, Josh. “Rocky Mountain Oysters: Try Them If You Dare”. (Life, Leisure & Travel in the Centennial State), date unknown. Copyright GoWorld Publishing, 2003-2011.

Colorado Beef Council. “The Legacy of Cattle in Colorado”. Colorado Beef Council, date unknown. Copyright Colorado Beef Council, 2011.

Monette, Mark (interview). “Let’s Talk Colorado Cuisine: Mark Monette”., date unknown. Copyright Colorado Tourism Office, 2011.

New Mexico Tourism Department. “New Mexico Cuisine (Culinary Enchantment)”., date unknown. Copyright New Mexico Tourism Department, 2010.

Raabe, Steve. “Bison becoming the other red meat”. Denver Post, published April 22, 2010.

Wagner, Kyle. “The Bite: The yolk's on us”. Denver Westword, published Thursday, Mar 15 2001.

Waldo, Forrest. “Best Bison Burger”. High Plains Bison, date unknown. Copyright High Plains Bison (a Trade Name of Golden Bison Company), 2010.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Colorado" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "Colorado”.