Thursday, March 31, 2011

Northwest Flavors: Snorting Elk Deli's Crocodile Spice Cookies

Have you ever had an unforgettably delicious cookie that made you ignore common sense and turn into a raving cookie monster?

“Me want cookie!”

Yea, I thought so. Me too.

I discovered that special cookie at, of all places, an out-of-the-way, postage-stamp-sized deli tucked in the back of a pub at a downhill ski area.

Crystal Mountain skiers who’ve made it past the bar and snarfed down Snorting Elk Deli’s amazing cookies instead of (or in addition to) beer and pizza know what I’m talking about. Maybe your favorite is the chocolate espresso or another Snorting Elk cookie since they’re all so tasty…but my cookie fixation is the crocodile spice.

David, a friendly twenty something who works in the deli, doesn’t know exactly who came up with the recipe or how long they’ve been around. When I tell him I remember crocodile spice cookies from my years as a ski instructor at Crystal in the early 1990s, he says “Wow, I was only three years old then!” (Ah, nothing like being reminded that you are not a youngster anymore.)

What I do know is that these cookies are unique to Snorting Elk. “You can’t get these cookies anywhere else,” David tells me. (Indeed, I did a Google search for crocodile spice and got no hits.)

So what makes crocodile spice cookies so wonderful? Think of the perfect chewy-yet-crisp chocolate chip cookie, then throw in strong hints of cinnamon and ginger, toasted walnuts, and a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar.

Sounds simple, huh? But it’s a brilliant combination, in my seasoned cookie-loving opinion. I’d call it an exotic-rustic treasure of a cookie.

When I ask David if they’ll give up the recipe, I get the answer I expected: “No.”

Silly me. But at least he’s nice about it.

“The recipe has evolved over the years.” He tells me Lindsey the baker starts at 4 a.m. every morning during the ski season making cookies and other goodies in the Snorting Elk kitchen. I’d personally like to thank Lindsey for doing a superb job!

Of course I just have to see if I can replicate the crocodile spice in my kitchen. I start with a modified Tollhouse recipe, but make numerous tweaks.

The results? Not bad. Not the real deal, but close enough to try if you can’t make it to Crystal in the next few weeks. I think I overdid it a little on the spices, so I’m reducing the amount a teeny bit here. This makes about two dozen cookies, depending on how big you like them.

Mock Croc Spice Cookies

Mix the following dry ingredients in a medium bowl:
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ cup unbleached white flour
½ tsp baking soda
Touch of salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ginger

Cream in a larger bowl:
8 oz unsalted butter
8 T unbleached sugar
4 T dark brown sugar
½ tsp vanilla
Mix in 1 large egg

Slowly stir in dry ingredients into the sugar/butter mix, then stir in:
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
½ cup milk chocolate chips or small chunks from a baking chocolate bar
½ cup chopped walnuts

Bake for 8 minutes in preheated oven at 350 degrees.

After cooling for a few minutes on a rack, spoon some powdered sugar atop each cookie and smear across the top.

Cookie Monster Details
David says Snorting Elk Deli will only for sure be offering their cookies through the regular downhill ski season ending April 17 this year, although they might extend into late-season spring skiing, which starts in late April and goes into early June.

To find Snorting Elk Deli, cross the wooden bridge just below the base lodge complex on the south side of the upper parking lot and follow the footprints in the snow to the bar entrance. Inside, go left past the first few booths, then right and walk past the fireplace straight to the back, where you’ll see the deli entrance. If you want to get a cookie, go early! Cookies go on sale at 11 a.m. and usually sell out by mid-afternoon. BTW, Snorting Elk Deli has great soups and sandwiches too.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Skiing Whitefish: Big Mountain, Big Fun

With stunning Rocky Mountain panoramas that make you gasp for their grandeur, Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwest Montana is worth the trip just for the lift ride to the top. But c’mon, what really lures us skiers and snowboarders here is the abundant and great snow, varied and expansive terrain, and the friendly Montana vibe.

We almost didn’t go today because from Flathead Valley the mountain looked socked in with dark clouds. Good thing we did, though. By the time we arrive after the short drive uphill from the town of Whitefish, the clouds are starting to dissipate and it’s snowing just lightly.

Although it’s March, we’re bundled up for midwinter conditions. This is the northern Rockies after all.
As we near the top of Chair 1/Big Mountain Express, we pass eerie clusters of snow ghosts, trees caked in a hard icy rime.

While snow clouds are still drifting low overhead, the Flathead Valley opens up below as a huge patchwork of blue and white. I feel like we’re in the cockpit of an airplane, ready to fly.

“Let’s start with a blue cruiser run down the front side,” says our local host Allison. And so begins a great day of skiing.

After our first run, snow starts falling again as we head back up Chair 1 and then down the north side. Over here the snow is lighter and fluffier. We ski down the mellow Gray Wolf traverse, but as we skirt past steep drop-offs into untracked snow and trees, I can’t resist.

“Hey, are you guys game?” And then I plunge down into the trees with a big smile.

We’re all game today.

Every run on the north side is wonderful powder or packed powder today, so we work up quite an appetite for lunch. “Lunch at Hellroaring today,” instructs Allison as we follow her down.

Rustic and cozy Hellroaring Saloon is in the original timber lodge built here in the 1940s. Allison tells us that the new resort owners threatened to tear it down, but the locals set them straight. I love these old wood-timbered ski lodges.

We snag some seats at the bar and have a very tasty lunch (green salad, tuna sandwiches, and chili). We also get some good tips on where to ski from our friendly bartender, an Oregon transplant who has been here over 20 years.

With a taste of tree skiing in the morning, we decide to try the longer, steeper Connie’s Coulee glade into Hellroaring Basin next. We pick our way through the trees in the tracks of others until we find a few open glades to carve up.

Uff da!” I hear Julie cry a few times on the way down. We decide it’s not quite as fun as our morning, but the runout down Glory Hole through the forest is beautiful as the sun finally breaks through for good.

Although I know it’s too early, I can’t help but glance around for signs of grizzly bears as we ski through the basin. In not much more than a month, the slumbering grizzly bears that hibernate in this basin will be starting to wake up and emerge.

For our last run of the day we start down Inspiration on the front side, where it looks like we could just ski jump right off the mountain and land in the valley far below. Off to the east, the dramatic glacier-scoured peaks of Glacier National Park are now visible, making the backdrop even more stunning.

After passing Schmidt’s Chute, we drop down north-facing, black diamond Elephant’s Graveyard, which today is lightly bumped with soft, fresh snow. Very sweet.

“This is so fun!” I find myself shouting to no one, anyone, or maybe just the sky.

Then it’s the long runout along Expressway on the lower mountain back to the base lodge. Us urban dwellers from west of the Cascades are tired after a full day skiing this Big Mountain, but it’s a good tired.

When You Go
If you want to enjoy Big Mountain this season, go right away! The mountain closes April 1 to protect the grizzlies in the Hellroaring area coming out of hibernation. Whitefish is a doable day’s drive from Seattle (9 hours or so), but you can fly into Flathead Valley (direct flights from Seattle, Minneapolis, and a few other spots) or cooler yet, take the train from Portland or Seattle.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Living in Cascadia: When will the next megaquake strike?

Let’s face it: Geology happens.

And it has been happening for millions of years, well before humans were around to conceive religion and creation myths. What better reminder than the recent devastating quake and tsunami in Japan.

Are you prepared?

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re living on borrowed time, really. It’s just a coincidence or quirk of fate that our region has become more settled, populated, and developed in a period of quiet between the massive subduction quakes that regularly rock our region every several centuries. Just like the 9.0 quake that struck Japan, only probably bigger and closer to major cities like Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Oregon.

I’ll admit to being a bit of an earthquake geek when it comes to our region. It all started back in Geology 101 (Rocks for Jocks) and then Geology 345 (Geology of the Pacific Northwest) at the U Dub, a.k.a., University of Washington. We were introduced to what was then still a theory of plate tectonics, and explored the region in search of ancient mudflows from volcanoes and faults from past earthquakes. What a geologically active and great region to study geology!

Since then, with better technology, scientists are learning that our region is absolutely riddled with active earthquake faults, besides the Cascadia subduction zone that lies just off the coast, from northern California to B.C.’s Vancouver Island. (Note that our volcanoes parallel this zone, from Mt. Lassen in north Cali to Garibaldi and Mount Meager in southern B.C.) Not only does the Seattle Fault run for miles just south of downtown Seattle, geologists have discovered that the South Whidbey Fault runs all way from Puget Sound across the Cascades Mountains into eastern Washington.

So it’s not a question of if, but when the next HUGE ones will happen. The geologic record shows at least 18 subduction zone quakes over the last 10,000 years (maybe more, I just read 41 instead of 18, yikes!). That’s close to one every 240 to 500 years, megaquakes bigger and longer than the recent Japanese quake. The last one was 311 years ago. Ironically, we know the exact date because a tsunami from our quake hit Japan and was recorded at a Zen monastery.

The biggest stratovolcano in the Cascades.

The whole 600 miles of the Juan de Fuca plate slips (subducts) under the continental plate and causes earthquakes that can last up to 6 minutes or longer. The Japanese plate that slipped was just less than 200 miles.

So what can we do besides move to Nebraska? We can appreciate the stunning natural beauty that these geologic forces have forged in our region, such as the Cascade volcanoes and the Olympic Mountains. Then get as prepared as you can. Beyond that, well, we can’t live in constant fear of something that might not happen for another 100 years (although it could happen in the next 5 minutes).

Here are some links to websites that discuss earthquake preparedness. I’ve done basic things like get my house bolted to the foundation, the hot water heater strapped to the wall, and an earthquake shutoff valve installed on the natural gas line that runs into my house. I keep several gallons of water on hand that I empty and refill every month or so, and keep some nonperishable food around. And I just got batteries for my bedside radio since there would likely be no electricity after a big quake. Oh, I also have a first aid kit.

One thing we can appreciate is that we only have one active nuclear power plant in the Northwest, and that’s in the Tri-Cities, definitely not in harm’s way from a tsunami.

So do what you can to learn and prepare as much as possible. Then live right now!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Skiing Montana: Havin’ a Blast at Blacktail Mountain

Sometimes in a lucky skier’s or snowboarder’s life, everything converges to create a perfect storm of ideal conditions. Say a storm cell stalls right above the mountain where you’re skiing and dumps fluffy dry snow most of the day. Lots of people decide to stay home or ski elsewhere. And you’re with simpatico buddies who enjoy skiing the same pace and slopes.

Good karma or just good luck? I can’t say for sure, but today I'm one of those lucky skiers.

We’re riding up Chair 1 on this cold, snowy day at Blacktail Mountain when Allison turns to me and exclaims the understatement of the day.

“I Iike to ski.”

With fresh Rocky Mountain powder falling fast and piling up on the slopes, and beautiful glades of uncut snow almost all to ourselves, we are over the moon about skiing. Every run we’ve been whooping, shouting, and laughing out loud about this incredible day.

Skiing at Blacktail Mountain seems just what the doctor might have ordered. After a nasty flu bug, I’m skiing on adrenaline because in the last 40 hours I’ve only eaten a half a banana. But I knew if I dragged myself up here I’d feel better.

And you know what? I feel fantastic! (Okay, I’m pretty pooped later in the evening.)

Blacktail is not a destination resort by any stretch. It’s a small, family-run operation just 14 miles up a mostly gravel road above the northwestern edge of Flathead Lake. But sometimes these local operations can be little gems when the conditions are just right and the crowds are thin.

Like today.

Blacktail, which opened in the mid-1990s, caters to locals around Flathead Valley. But it’s also a nice place to dial down a bit and chill-ax after a long day of hard skiing at Whitefish/Big Mountain up the valley (see an upcoming blog post about that). Most of Blacktail’s terrain is intermediate, but with amazing and abundant snow (an average of 250 inches annually), it makes for a fun day trip.

When we leave the valley floor, the weather is mostly clear, but a mile or so below the top it starts snowing hard. A beauty of Blacktail is driving and parking at the 6,780’ summit and skiing down from there. Take your first run without hopping on a lift! Another great feature is the north-facing runs, which skiers/riders know keeps snow colder and a better consistency.

Allison lives close by and knows the mountain well. “How about we ski Chair 1?” she suggests.

Our warm-up run is a blue cruiser down a wide swath cut through the forest. With the snow coming down nonstop, the base is truly packed powder (unlike so many ski reports in the western Northwest that fib “packed powder” on their ski reports).

Then we move on to the black diamond runs: The Glades, Ponchelon’s Powder (aptly named today), and Badrock. To be honest, by bigger mountain standards, these runs are pretty mellow for black diamond.

The Glades was recently thinned, so for tree skiing it’s not scary at all. We pick our lines and drop off the cat track into the trees below. On the first run, the underlying snow is a little chunky under a few inches of fresh fluff, but throughout the next few hours it snows 6 more inches and turns into a powder hound’s dream.

Amazingly, we have these runs almost to ourselves all afternoon. Run after run just keeps getting better and better. To keep things moving, we only ski to midway on Chair 1 and then hop back on for the shorter ride to the top (no high-speed quads here).

With the snow coming down so thick and fast, but no wind, it’s truly a magical day. Every single run we get fresh tracks in the silky light snow.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. May you, too, be so lucky to catch such a perfect storm.

When You Go
Here's a map showing how to get to Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, which stays open into April each season. It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so Wednesday mornings can be pretty awesome. Lift tickets are a mere $36/day for adults and only $25 on Thursdays. Special thanks to Allison for being a great host/guide and Julie for taking and letting me use some her great photos for today's post.

Hey, I’d love to read your comments below about a great powder day you might have had!