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What You Should Eat in the Southwestern U.S. and the Rocky Mountains

Cuisine varies across the United States. Let us help you decode some regional foods that may end up on your plate as you travel throughout America.

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Taken from National Geographic's newly published book, Great American Eating Experiences

HUCKLEBERRIES

From Mark Twain and Davy Crockett to the modern music of country star Toby Keith, huckleberries have a long and distinguished place in American folk culture. But just about the only place they’re treated with equal respect in the culinary world is western Montana, where the annual berry harvest is cause for much celebration and tasting.

Similar to blueberries in both their dark-blue hue and sweet-tart flavor, huckleberries thrive in the Montana Rockies where the volcanic soils, high altitude, abundant summer sunshine, and cool nights present almost ideal growing conditions. They are difficult to cultivate commercially (or even in your garden), so “huckleberry hounds” have no choice but to pick them in the wild during the July–September berry season. And huckleberry-hunting can be a dodgy pastime: In addition to steep slopes, berry pickers have to keep a sharp eye out for grizzly bears, who also cherish hucks.

As well as eating them raw, Montanans chuck huckleberries into all sorts of things, from pies, jams, and pancakes to salads, sauces, and martinis (why not?). 

WYOMING STEWS

Variously called three sisters stew, cowboy stew, or Wyoming stew depending on the ingredients and your point of view, this longtime Wyoming staple combines aspects of Native American and chuck wagon cooking.

Vegetarian varieties are largely derived from the “three sisters” of the Plains Indian garden—corn, beans, and squash. Cowboy cooks tended to add some kind of meat to their medley, in particular salted pork, although beef and lamb were also popular alternatives. The stew can be flavored with a variety of herbs or spices, and you can basically toss all kinds of vegetables into the brew—potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, celery. A Dutch oven is the preferred cooking vessel, although Wyoming stews can also be prepared in a large pot or cauldron on a stovetop or over a robust campfire. 

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MIRASOL CHILIES

Colorado’s hottest dining fad (no pun intended) is the copious use of Mirasol chilies in breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes. Chilies have long been cherished in southeastern Colorado, given the region’s proximity to chili-crazed New Mexico, but over the past decade, Denver has also become an enthusiastic user of the Mirasol in restaurants, food trucks, and home kitchens.

Three to five inches long and about two inches wide, the Mirasol boasts a flavor that’s almost fruity or berry-like, mild but still savory, in contrast to some of the more piquant peppers. Colorado cooks use these full-bodied peppers in chicken, fish, potato, and pork dishes as well as in salsa, stew, and chili. Dried Mirasols are one of the main ingredients of traditional mole sauces. Pueblo remains the main source for homegrown Colorado chilies, especially St. Charles Mesa on the city’s eastern fringe. Connoisseurs like to choose their own Mirasols from chili stands and farmers markets in Denver and other cities. You can get them already roasted or roast them yourself before adding them to dishes like chile relleno, chile verde, burritos, or corn bread.

DENVER OMELET

Which came first: the city or the omelet? Nobody knows for sure. A standard item on restaurant and diner menus around the nation, the Denver, or western, omelet is a simple yet surprisingly tasty blend of eggs, ham, onions, bell peppers, and cheese.

Like many American frontier foods, the exact origin of this breakfast and brunch standby is lost to history. There are those who think it began as an egg sandwich, the omelet wedged between two pieces of bread (toasted or otherwise). Others theorize it evolved from the egg foo yong of Chinese laborers working on the transcontinental railroad. No one is even certain if this variation on the omelet even started in Denver.

No matter, the Colorado capital long ago claimed the eggy delight as its own.

FRY BREAD

Ubiquitous throughout the Southwest, fry bread is a traditional Native American quick bread. It’s normally leavened with baking powder or soured milk rather than yeast, and fried or deep-fried in oil or lard. Eat it on its own with butter, honey, or even jam, or as the base for Indian tacos. Although it’s the official state bread of South Dakota, fry bread originated during the middle of the 19th century in the Navajo lands of northern Arizona.

Nowadays, Phoenix is the hotbed of fry bread, especially places like the Fry Bread House, which in 2012 received an “America’s Classics” award from the James Beard Foundation for its nurturing of Native American cuisine 

BISCOCHITOS

The Land of Enchantment is renowned for its piquant foods. But New Mexicans also have a sweet tooth, especially when it comes to the biscochito (or biscochos, as they call them in southern New Mexico), butter cookies flavored with anise and cinnamon. Anyone who’s lived in the state more than two or three generations probably has a family recipe passed down from a beloved abuela (grandmother) or tía (aunt), prepared with loving care on birthdays, weddings, graduations, holidays, and other special occasions, or perhaps just as a school lunch snack.

The state’s official cookie, the biscochito might be a throwback to Spanish colonial days, but there are many modern variants that add all sorts of tasty new ingredients to the ancient recipes. Traditional accompaniments include hot chocolate and peach compote.

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FINGER STEAKS

Boise’s great culinary claim to fame, finger steaks, are thin slices of beef dipped in batter and deep-fried. According to local legend, a former U.S. Forest Service butcher by the name of Milo Bybee launched them at the capital city’s Torch Lounge in the late 1950s and they soon became a local passion. Such is their popularity that one suggestion for the design of Idaho’s state quarter was that it have something to do with finger steaks. (Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and a peregrine falcon appears on the state quarter instead.)

Although they originally created a convenient way to utilize table scraps, finger steaks have risen in stature over the years to the point where some Idaho restaurants feature them as a specialty gourmet item. Chefs use various cuts of beef and batter that often features a secret blend of herbs and spices.

Rather than cooked all the way through, the perfect finger steak should display just a touch of pink in the middle

BREAD PUDDING

Utah homemakers and chefs have taken the Mormon pioneer practice of not wasting a single scrap of food and transformed it into a yummy statewide dessert tradition. Resourceful frontier-era cooks made their bread puddings by blending stale bread with milk, eggs, sugar, and lard into a simple yet tasty after-dinner treat. Modern chefs have turned the once modest dessert into a gourmet confection by combining fresh bread with things like custard, caramel, berries, and indulgent sauces.

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FRY SAUCE

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Utah’s favorite condiment is fry sauce, a savory blend of ketchup, mayonnaise, and a blend of spices. Almost every Utah restaurant and fast-food chain has its own unique ratio, a secret recipe closely guarded by the owners and chef. Originally called pink sauce, its appearance and consistency is similar to Thousand Island dressing. Although fry sauce can be used on hamburgers and hot dogs—and conceivably dripped on your breakfast eggs—its primary raison d’être is as a complement to french fries, tater tots, and onion rings. 

FUNERAL POTATOES

Once upon a time, funeral potatoes may have been strictly something you made for the wake of a deceased friend or family member. But the savory dish has spread to potlucks, picnics, and other occasions, and well beyond the Mormon sphere into Utah’s general population.

Like so many Mormon specialties, funeral potatoes are an eclectic treat that combines many different food groups into a single, easy-to-make meal. The casserole includes shredded frozen or fresh potatoes, canned cream of chicken soup, and sour cream topped with crumbled cornflakes and is then baked until molten. But there are infinite variations. Some cooks sprinkle tortilla chips across the top instead of cornflakes; others spice things up by adding onions, chili peppers, or salsa. 

FROG'S EYE SALAD

Disclaimer: No amphibians are harmed in the making of this salad. It’s actually a pasta-based casserole and a mainstay of Mormon potlucks and Thanksgiving dinners throughout the Rocky Mountain and Intermountain regions. In fact, a 2014 survey by Google and the New York Times determined that frog eye salad was the most searched Turkey Day recipe in four western states with large Mormon populations.

The frog’s eye of the title derives from the tiny acini de pepe pasta that serves as the dish’s main ingredient. When boiled to the right consistency, the little pasta balls do resemble (and feel like) something through which a frog may have peered at the world. The pasta gets chilled, doused in pineapple juice, and then mixed with crushed pineapple, mandarin orange segments, and finally whipped cream. Some cooks add coconut or marshmallows to the mix for a final result that isn’t far removed from traditional ambrosia salad. 

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CHATEAUBRIAND

Like shrimp cocktail, chateaubriand came to Las Vegas in the 1950s, but it’s always sat at the opposite end of the city’s dining table—an upscale meal to treat VIPs and high rollers rather than a way to lure your average Joe through the casino doors. The high-end steak became a staple of supper clubs, known as gourmet rooms, both on and off the Strip. The dish derives its name from the early 19th-century French writer, diplomat, and epicurean François-Auguste-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, in whose kitchen the carnivorous treat was first developed.

In its original form, chateaubriand was a choice cut of beef tenderloin seared, cooked rare to medium rare, and served with a savory wine sauce.

But as with so many things, Las Vegas has whisked the dish to a whole new decadent place. The steak is still prepared in the traditional way, but a chateaubriand Vegas-style almost always includes a prime piece of lobster, too—swanky surf and turf. And because it’s usually made for two, rather than solo servings, chateaubriand has become the ultimate Las Vegas anniversary or hot date (or mob tête-à-tête) meal. Sadly for high rollers and spendthrifts, the near extinction of gourmet rooms in modern times means the dish is relatively hard to find these days. 

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