Daniel Asher, River and Woods
The restaurant world according to Daniel Asher looks a little different than that of the bigger chains spreading across the country. Focusing on community spaces where people can gather over local, farm-fresh meals, feeling that they’re loved and also part of something that matters, Asher and his partners have worked together to open six homegrown restaurants over the last five years in the Denver and Boulder areas.
Asher deeply connected with cooking at a young age, and describes being mesmerized by the sights, smells, and sounds coming from his mother’s kitchen as a child.
“My mom made everything from scratch when I was growing up,” he says. “I was in there with her watching by age six, and by seven I was helping her make dinner. In the next few years I started making salad dressings, baking… It really planted the seed for the rest of my life, this idea of connecting over the table. I realized I wanted to recreate those moments for other people, and the feeling of love and beauty that they created for me.”
At 14, Asher dove into the restaurant world, washing dishes, peeling potatoes—it was the beginning of a lifelong career in the kitchen.
River and Woods was opened by Asher and his partners in 2016, focusing on highlighting local food systems, sustainable food culture, the seasonality of Colorado, and of course creating a community space that brings people together. In the years that followed they opened five other restaurants in Colorado, all focusing on a different type of cuisine, but all continuing to focus on fresh, local ingredients.
While emphasizing his belief that “we eat too many animals as a society,” Asher’s go-to winter dish is an exception that begs to be made: River and Woods’ signature cider wine braised short ribs with goat cheese smashed potatoes and garlic broccolini. Sourcing the short ribs from Callicrate Ranch in Colorado Springs, a famously sustainable, low-volume farm, the meat is dry-rubbed with cajun spice and seared then slow braised for hours, making it a warming, nourishing, well-spiced comfort food perfect for the colder months.
Cider Wine Braised Short Ribs with Goat Cheese Smashed Potatoes and Garlic Broccolini
Wine pairing: Domaine Cabirau Serge & Marie Maury Sec 2017
4 lbs Callicrate Ranch boneless short ribs
1/2 C Smith & Truslow cajun seasoning or Mile High steak seasoning
1/3 C Colorado sunflower oil
6 cloves garlic, smashed
3 ribs celery, large dice
2 large Starling Farm carrots, large dice
1 medium Cure Farm yellow onion, large dice
4 T tomato paste
3 T sea salt
1 C red wine
1 C Big B’s spiced cider
2 C vegetable stock
4 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
1 blood orange, quartered
1 large apple, large dice
Season beef liberally with spice blend, pressing into the short ribs like applying a dry rub. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Let short ribs sit for 30 minutes, meanwhile preheat cast iron pan on medium-high heat and add sunflower oil. Sear short ribs on all sides until a nicely caramelized crust develops, approx. 2 min per side. Remove short ribs from pan and set aside. Add apple, celery, onion, carrots, and sauté until onions are translucent.
Add tomato paste, stir until veggies are well coated and tomato paste has a chance to lightly “toast” without burning. Add red wine to deglaze pan, stir to catch up all the fond from pan bottom, and remove from heat.
In braising pan, pour red wine and veggie mixture and place seared short ribs in pan. Add garlic cloves, cider, stock, herbs, orange, salt. Make sure ribs are mostly submerged and cover pan in heavy duty foil.
Place in oven and cook 4 hours or until short ribs are fall apart tender. Let cool in braising liquid, then remove. Strain out braising liquid and reserve to reduce for pan sauce.
Goat Cheese Smashed Potatoes:
2 lbs Cure Farm redskin potatoes
2 quarts filtered water
1/4 C sea salt
6 oz butter
3/4 C sour cream
1/2 C softened local chèvre (Haystack, Lazy Ewe, Jumpin’ Good)
2 scallions, sliced on bias
sea salt and cracked pepper to taste
Bring potatoes to boil in salted water in a large pot on high heat. Let simmer until tender and “creamy.” Remove from heat. Strain out potatoes and place in mixer with paddle attachment (can also be done by hand with masher in large bowl). Add butter, sour cream, chèvre, and scallions. Mix well until all is incorporated. Add salt & pepper to taste.
1 lb organic broccolini, washed & trimmed
8 cloves of garlic, rough chopped
1/4 C good olive oil
large flake finishing salt like Jacobsen, Maldon, etc
Heat sauté pan on medium high heat. Add olive oil, let heat until shimmering. Add broccolini and toss in oil; let heat build until color intensifies and texture softens. Add garlic and toss again; turn heat to low to avoid burning garlic. Heat until tender and garlic oil becomes fragrant. Remove from heat and sprinkle with finishing salt.
Eric Skoken, Black Cat
Black Cat’s farm-to-table model is not uncommon in the restaurant world these days—however, what is uncommon is the owner’s 425-acre farm, located a mere 20 minutes from their restaurants, which serve fresh produce on a daily basis. The harvesting and the cooking are both done in-house.
Eric Skoken, owner of the farm and head chef of Black Cat, has a long history with recruiting fresh produce for his creations.
Working his way through college in restaurants, Skoken fell in love with being in the kitchen, finding it captivating and, most important of all, fun! “I guess I decided somewhere along the way during those years that I’d rather be a chef than a lawyer,” Skoken says.
Always gravitating towards the healthier side of food and cooking, Skoken went on to run a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, eventually moving to Colorado to be the head chef of a spa and resort. He’d always been a gardener as well, boasting a small backyard garden here in Colorado when he was in the process of opening the Black Cat.
“The garden really just got out of control!” Skoken laughs. “Initially I just loved being in the garden, loved having that fresh produce. But what I found when I was harvesting was that the juxtaposition between what I was growing and what standard produce restaurants are bringing in was startling. The English peas I’m growing give me goosebumps, and the ones I’m going to serve at the restaurant are ho-hum. Right away I thought, ‘I can’t stand for that.’”
Skokan first doubled the size of his garden, then doubled it again, and again, until it was ten acres, then fifty, and now 425. The decision had been made that the best thing about the restaurant was that it revolved around what was being harvested on the farm.
“The idea is simple: We grow great things close to the restaurant, harvest what we need for the day, bring it in, present it in a simple way, and let the vividness of the produce that’s still fresh and alive carry everything forward.”
Spring Pea Soup with Mint Lemon and Crème Fraîche
675 g fresh peas, shucked (reserve pea pods)
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
1 liter vegetable stock
8 ice cubes
60 ml crème fraîche
Lemon juice to taste
10 g mint leaves, julienned
12 pea flowers
6 pea shoots
I T lemon zest, finely julienned
In a medium saucepan over high heat, blanch the shucked peas in boiling salted water until their color brightens, 20-30 seconds. Drain the peas and immediately plunge them into a bowl of iced water. After the peas have chilled, drain and set aside.
In a medium saucepan over a medium-high heat, combine the reserved pea pods, onion, garlic, potato, and stock. Boil until the stock is reduced to three-quarters of its original volume and the potato is very tender, about 40 minutes.
Transfer to a blender or food processor. Add half of the reserved peas. Blend until velvety smooth, adding water if the soup is too thick to easily puree. Strain through a fine colander. Add the ice cubes and crème fraîche and stir until the ice cubes have melted. Season with salt and lemon juice and place in the fridge to fully chill, about 1 hour. To serve the soup warm, return it to the saucepan and warm fully over a low heat for 10-15 minutes.
Divide the soup into four soup bowls. Top each with the mint leaves, pea flowers and shoots, and lemon zest. Serve immediately.
Sheila Lucero, Jax
Growing up in Colorado, Chef Sheila Lucero of Jax Fish House didn’t have much exposure to seafood. Now, after nearly 20 years at Jax, Lucero is deep in love with seafood, fueled by the same passion and curiosity that characterized the start of her career.
After going into college to play soccer and a brief post-collegiate career playing the sport, Lucero was adrift after quitting, wondering what she was going to do next.
“I started working in restaurants at that point,” Lucero says, “and just naturally gravitated to the back of the house. It felt like a natural replacement for soccer: It was team oriented, fast-paced, and gratifying work.”
Drawing on memories from a childhood of watching her father cook fantastic meals and subsequently being exposed to good food, Lucero, aware she had no formal training, made the choice to attend culinary school at the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder. The road after graduating was, at first, a bumpy one.
“I bounced around a lot early on trying to figure out where it was a good fit,” Lucero says. “Everything felt very transient in the industry—people were always being hired on and then quitting, coming and going. I was really looking for community in the kitchen, and I worked in several places before meeting Dave [Query, of Big Red F Restaurant Group], and feeling like I really found that.”
Lucero’s journey with the restaurant group began when a fellow culinary school graduate introduced Lucero to the restaurant she had been working at: Zolo, one of Big Red F’s restaurants in Boulder. Listening to her rave over the familial atmosphere, the passion for food and hospitality that flowed freely from the staff and owners alike, Lucero decided that this was the type of restaurant work she was interested in. Quickly finding work at Jax Fish House, also owned by Big Red F, in the late ’90s, Lucero has been on board ever since.
“Everything that I was looking for came together for me at Jax,” Lucero says happily. “We were all young hungry culinary grads who spent our time eating together and talking about recipes and techniques and food—we had this constant infectious banter with each other in and out of the kitchen. That was what really connected with me. Ever since I’ve always tried to embody and share that, and I’ve been fortunate that Jax has been the place to consistently let me do that.”
Lucero’s go-to summer dish is a delightfully fresh Mediterranean Grilled Tuna Steak, with freshly grated tomato sauce, summer squash, zucchini, roasted Kalamata olives and fresh basil. This time of year is tomatoes’ time to shine, she says, making this a light but filling dish that screams summer!
Jax Grilled Tuna Steak with Summer Squash, Fresh Grated Tomato Sauce, Roasted Kalamata Olives, and Sweet Garlic Puree
Suggested wine pairing: Any dry, crisp Italian white
Grilled tuna steaks:
4 portions yellowfin tuna steaks (6 oz portions)
28 g olive oil
10 g kosher salt
8 g black pepper, fresh cracked
10 g basil, fresh leaves
Season tuna steaks with olive oil, salt, and cracked pepper on both sides of each steak. Reserve basil for garnish.
Garlic puree (yield 1 cup):
300 g garlic cloves
5 g kosher salt
5 g sugar
Place the raw garlic in the small pot and cover with cold water. Place the pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, strain off the water (leaving the garlic in the pot). Fill the pot again with cold water and bring to a boil again. Repeat this process four times in total.
After you have blanched the garlic four times, strain out all the water. While the garlic is still hot, place it into a blender with the salt and sugar. Blend the garlic by starting on low speed and slowly turning up the speed. Go all the way to “High” and blend for about 20 seconds.
Turn the blender off. Scrape down the sides of the pitcher making sure there are no remaining chunks of garlic. Repeat the blending process again a second time starting from low. The garlic should be smooth and about the thickness of loose mayo.
Grated tomato sauce (yield 1 quart):
500 g tomato, vine ripened, medium size
20 g garlic puree (see above recipe)
5 g kosher salt
5 g sherry vinegar
Wash and dry the tomatoes. Grate them on the box grater into the medium mixing bowl—use the large citrus zesting side of the box grater. You do not need to grate the skin. Discard skins. Add the salt, vinegar, and garlic puree. Mix well.
Roasted Kalamata olives (yield 1 cup):
250 g Kalamata olives, pitted and drained
5 g olive oil
Drain olives from their liquid and place in a medium metal bowl. Add the olive oil and mix. Lay the olives out on a sheet tray and roast in the oven at 350 degrees for 25 mins. Pull the olives and shake them on the tray (to help cook evenly) and return them to the oven for another 10 mins. Olives should appear roasted, dry and firm. When cooked properly they will almost have the mouthfeel of a meringue.
Grilled zucchini and summer squash
500 g zucchini
500 g yellow squash
25 g olive oil
5 g kosher salt
7 g sherry vinegar
3 g kosher salt
Wash the zucchini and yellow squash. Trim off the stems and ends. Slice the zucchini and squash longways (north to south), 1/4th of an inch thick. Place the squash and zucchini in a mixing bowl and add the olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Mix gently and evenly. Grill the squash and zucchini (make sure the grill is hot and clean). Cook the squash and zucchini for about 2-3 mins on each side, just enough to get grill marks. Do not overcook: if anything they can be a little “undercooked” as they will continue to cook even after being pulled off the grill. Once you have grilled the zucchini and squash place them back into the metal bowl and season with the sherry vinegar (while still warm). Keep the grill on for the tuna steaks.
Assembly: Grill tuna gently to medium rare. Place the tomato sauce in the center of four shallow bowls. Place the grilled tuna in the center of the tomato sauce. Place 7 dots of the sweet garlic puree in the tomato sauce. Partially top the grilled tuna with the grilled squash (some on the tuna and some cascading on the plate). Top the squash with the roasted olives. Finish the plate with torn basil and olive oil.
Rob Hurd, Frasca
Frasca is one of Boulder’s shining stars of exemplary culinary achievement. A three-time James Beard award winner, holding a AAA four-diamond rating, the restaurant is known for its northern Italian cuisine and stunning wine selection. Head chef Rob Hurd started his career by accident at the age of 15, getting a job as a busboy in a restaurant because he wanted what every teenager wants: to be able to afford a car when he turned 16.
“It was all by accident,” Hurd laughs. “I walked in for my first day as a busboy and they were short staffed, so they immediately led me back to the kitchen. It was Mother’s Day 1993. They threw me an apron and asked me to dip 1,000 chocolate covered strawberries. As soon as I finished that they handed me a 10-inch chef knife and told me to cut carrots. After that I never looked back.”
Hurd describes the magnetic environment, fast-paced and crazy where people are cursing and adrenaline is flowing. As a shy 15-year-old, it was just about the coolest place he’d ever been. It was different from any other job he had worked—he was hooked.
“What I realized over time, the reason I kept doing it, kept putting myself through long hours and holidays and missing friends’ parties, weddings, baby showers, was that I really got something out of taking care of other people. That’s been the main driving force: I love making sure people have a good time.”
Hurd’s favorite fall dish, Chestnut Risotto, is a testament to his background in several ways. Having grown up with chestnut trees, and then later in life living in Paris, where during the fall season chestnuts were roasted and sold on street corners by local vendors, this dish looks, smells and feels like autumn. With its combined lightness and warmth, and ingredients that speak to the changing of seasons, this dish is the perfect addition to any Autumnal dining experience.
Chestnut Risotto (for two)
Wine pairing: Podversic Damijan “Prelit,” Gorizia, Friuli, Italy 2013
1 ½ qt water
125 g onion (lg dice)
50 g fennel (lg dice)
40 g celery (lg dice)
75 g russet potato (peel & lg dice)
1 tart apple such as granny smith (peel & lg dice)
12 coriander seed
5 black peppercorns
250 g fresh peeled chestnuts, peeled weight (can substitute frozen chestnuts]
(roast 450 degrees for 10 min)
Place all ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a light simmer, and cook for 30-40 mins. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Keep warm for making the risotto.
Brown butter sage chestnuts:
100 g fresh peeled chestnuts, peeled weight (small dice; can substitute frozen chestnuts)
50 g unsalted butter
1 small sage leaf
Place 50 grams of butter, sage leaf, and the diced chestnut into a sauté pan; over medium high heat, toast chestnuts until golden brown (approximately 5-10 minutes). Pour chestnuts and the lightly browned butter onto a plate to stop the cooking process and cool slightly. Reserve chestnut mixture for making the risotto.
125 g Vialone Nano rice
100 g dry white wine
1½ c chestnut brodo (approximate)
2 T olive oil
8 g kosher salt (approximate)
10 g unsalted butter
Brown butter sage chestnuts (1 batch)
Add olive oil to a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat; when warm add rice and stir until nicely coated. Cook until toasted, about 45 seconds. Pour in wine, stirring continuously, and cook until wine is almost completely evaporated. Add ½ cup of hot brodo and a pinch of salt (season throughout the whole cooking process), continue to stir until the rice has absorbed almost all of the brodo (the risotto should lightly simmer throughout the whole cooking time). Continue to add brodo to the rice, ¼ cup at a time. stirring continuously and repeating each addition of brodo as the rice absorbs the liquid fully. The more you stir, the creamier the risotto will be. After 13 minutes, add the browned chestnuts and the butter they were browned in with ¼ cup of brodo. Lower the heat and continue to stir every 20-30 seconds for 3 minutes. Taste and adjust salt. Finally, stir in 10 grams of butter and adjust the consistency of the risotto with remaining brodo if needed. The consistency should be thick but somewhat soupy. Plate two portions of risotto and, using a microplane, grate a couple of grams of black truffle over each plate. Serve immediately.