ON A SUNNY FRIDAY AFTERNOON at Merrick Lake, a glinting fleck of marine blue tucked beneath a ponderosa overstory, anglers and outdoorspeople gather to toss horseshoes, trade the day’s fishing and wildlife tales, and share food over an open fire.
The Merrick Lake Fish Fry is a rite of summer at Vermejo, entrepreneur and environmentalist Ted Turner’s sweeping northern New Mexico ranch. It’s a chance for guests to swap the formality of the dining room for picnic benches, wood-fired flavors, and the Culebra Range atmosphere. Held from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the weekly event marks high season on the ranch, a reminder to visitors and residents alike to get outside and savor the golden days of summer.
“Look, there’s nothing more fundamental than gathering with friends and eating food cooked over open flames,” says Giovanni Lanzante, Vermejo’s executive chef, who organizes the weekly cookout. “And it’s a good excuse to get out and take advantage of our backyard.”
Calling the 560,000-acre Vermejo your backyard is like calling Amazon a friendly neighborhood store. Vermejo is the largest piece of contiguous private land in the lower 48. Purchased by Turner in 1996, the property continues to run as a hunting and fishing lodge—as it has for nearly a century. But Turner redirected the ranch’s aim from profit to conservation.
Bison roam Vermejo’s lush meadows.
Vermejo ditched cattle farming, tore down fences, reintroduced bison, and actively works to rehabilitate endangered species, including the black-footed ferret and the Río Grande cutthroat trout. The end game: Bring the land back to its natural state.
Turner likes to say, “We’re in the business of large-scale ecosystem restoration.” As proof of the work, visitors taking any given drive on the property can see elk, deer, bison, turkeys, bears, pronghorns, beavers, bobcats, coyotes, and often even mountain lions.
On Friday evenings, guests also get line-caught trout and flame-seared bison tenderloins. Lanzante sometimes puts a New Mexican twist on the classic fish fry with a blue-corn breading for the trout, which can include rainbows and browns hooked from the shores of Merrick. On special request, he’ll also grill the trout whole, his preferred method of preparation, as it shows off the flavors of the wild fish.
“A lot of outdoor dining is about letting the simple flavors shine through,” says Lanzante. “But that doesn’t mean basic. The setting—the glassware, the linen, the silver—still makes it a special experience.”
One perk of living and working at Vermejo, as I do, is the regular opportunity to stop by Lanzante’s station on a Friday. After a long week in the office—yep, ranch workers have desks, too—a few hours in such a pristine setting is a fine reminder of why we work so hard every day.
One recent Friday, spears of light cast the forest in ocher camouflage and ropes of woodsmoke lazed in the trees. With anglers casting from the banks, a family paddling a canoe across mirror-smooth water, the occasional clunk of a throwing ax finding purchase in the stump target, and guests mingling over plates of succulent meat and fresh fruit salad, the scene gave new meaning to “happy hour.”
Chef Giovanni Lanzante grills bison steaks on an open flame.
Another staple of the Merrick Lake menu is bison tenderloins, which not only reinforce the summer-by-the-lake gestalt but also underscore Vermejo’s mission. One of Turner’s biggest motivations in conservation has always been to help restore bison to the western landscape. He almost single-handedly built a market for the meat with his Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant chain, and his herd, which he started with three animals and now numbers some 60,000 head across 15 ranches. On Vermejo, 1,500 of the creatures roam free.
“People will tell you they don’t like game because it’s strong-flavored,” says Lanzante. “But it’s all in the handling and the preparation.” On the whole, bison tends to be of a higher quality than beef, because it’s cultivated in smaller quantities and there’s no grading system. Purchasing from a reputable supplier, such as the artisan butcher Beck & Bulow, in Santa Fe, will also ensure the best-quality meat.
Lanzante, who shares three recipes on the following pages, advises grilling slowly over an open flame and turning only once to ensure a good exterior char. “I prefer bison because it’s leaner and healthier, but also because it’s indigenous to this land.” As with everything on the ranch, the goal is to reconnect guests with the northern New Mexico landscape. “You can actually taste the grass,” says Lanzante. “It’s a taste of Vermejo.”
A fly-fishing guide helps guests catch what chef Giovanni Lanzante then grills up for dinner.
ROOMS WITH A VIEW
Ted Turner Reserves properties in New Mexico include Vermejo, near the Colorado state line; Sierra Grande Lodge, in Truth or Consequences; and Armendaris and Ladder ranches, near Truth or Consequences. All offer lodgings, day trips, historical tours, outdoor recreation, and opportunities to experience wildlife recovery efforts.