On a recent business trip through southwest Montana, I had my evenings free. That allowed me to make the 30-mile trip from Bozeman to Norris Hot Springs.
I'm usually lukewarm on developed hot springs, preferring the rustic wilderness settings in all respects, except perhaps the sleazy dude with his tent set up in viewing range of the pools so he can conveniently appear when a party of ladies shows up.
But Norris Hot Springs, also known as Water of the Gods, is a special place. The large, wood-clad soaking pool is filled with deep water at the right temperature—I'd guess 102. At the foot of the pool is a stage sheltered by a geodesic dome, where live music occurs on weekend nights. One evening I floated in the warm waters while Missoula's Tom Catmull played, sending buttery blues notes toward the pool.
The low-key ambience at Norris inspires a certain peaceful camaraderie among the soakers. The vibe is interesting, with a mix of liberal-intellectual types, mountain men, hermits, rednecks, hippies, college students and would-be rowdy kids kept in line by a squad of poolside patrollers who quietly make sure everyone behaves and nobody drowns. The patrollers' job is complicated by the fact that the on-site restaurant, the No Loose Dogs Saloon, serves beer and wine, including offerings from Missoula's own Tenspoon Vineyard and Kettlehouse brewery.
I came for the soaking, found myself pleasantly surprised by the tunes, and ended up staying for the food, which was an unexpected and inspiring treat. The No Loose Dogs Saloon serves a small but lovingly crafted menu of food made from largely local ingredients. Many of the vegetables come from the Norris Hot Springs' garden. The meats are local too, as is most of the cheese.
"About 95 percent of the ingredients in our food is local," estimates Rebecca Heemstra, kitchen manager at the No Loose Dogs Saloon.
I had a great bowl of cheddary potato leek soup, washed down with a refreshing glass of Tenspoon St. Pepin, which cut through the warm cheesy richness to bring out the fine bouquet of the soup. Then I had a chicken quesadilla that was crispy in all the right places, with just the right amount of salsa to send it home. It was peppery, garlicky hot, featured the right balance of chicken and cheddar, and was unusually spiced.
"Is there, like, coriander and cumin in that quesadilla?" I asked.
The kitchen help, impressed with my tasting prowess, rewarded me with a Norris Hot Springs bumper sticker that said "Hot," because those were indeed the spices.
That helped ease the pain of having been taunted by the dry erase board that still advertised yesterday's special: lamb meatballs with curried aioli and kamut pilaf.
Heemtsra has been at the helm of the No Loose Dogs Saloon for two and a half years. In addition to helping build the garden program at Norris, she's been building relationships with local farmers. The grass-fed, grass-finished beef in the freezer is from the Sabo Ranch in Harrison. All four cheeses—including the goat cheese—in the four-cheese macaroni and cheese are local, as are the breadcrumbs, while the sundried tomatoes are from the Norris garden. So are the oven-roasted tomatoes and the basil in the tomato basil soup to be served alongside the four-cheese mac and cheese. Future specials include black bean soup and turkey pot pie (local turkey, "all our veggies"). Heemstra also makes a point of keeping vegetarian and vegan options on the menu.
The food is cooked in a commercial kitchen on-site, portioned out, and reheated poolside in the No Loose Dogs Saloon. It's then served in the cozy dining room. With the nearest grocery store more than 30 miles away, sometimes Heemstra is forced to wing it. She says those conditions have forced the creation of some of her most popular dishes.
As is often the case with locally based diets, things really pick up in the summer. Grilled zucchini and asparagus, all from the garden, are a regular fixture when they're in season. As are garden salads. And she has high hopes for garden salads all year round in the near future, thanks to an ambitious plan to build a greenhouse that's heated by hot water from the springs.
The world needs more places like Norris Hot Springs: tight ships with a down-home feel that are light on the earth, good for their local economy and that feed the bodies and souls of their guests.
Ask Ari: Color bind
Q: Hi Ari,
Do you know where one might find dried beet and spinach powders in Missoula? I'd like to use them as natural food coloring in homemade pasta (they have some nutritional value as well, unlike commercial food coloring). The Good Food Store has an all-natural food coloring set that is prohibitively expensive, but does not stock the dried vegetable powders.
Any ideas? Thanks!
A: Dear True Colors,
As far as I can tell, you're outta luck for Missoula options. But I did some online research and found an interesting website that will ship you what you're looking for at a very low price of about $1 an ounce—which is insanely low considering how much raw material goes into dried veggies.
Barry Farm in Ohio has your spinach and beet powder, as well as powdered tomato, carrot, asparagus and pumpkin powder.
Based on the photo, the pumpkin powder appears bright yellow. And it comes with the curious note:
"Dried pumpkin powder can also be used as a natural colorant to foods. This is especially helpful if you are trying to color yogurt coating for dog biscuits."
Wow, to think that all of this time that I've been making my own yogurt coating for my dog's biscuits, but not even coloring them. No wonder Stinky is such a head case. I'm glad to know that for less than the price of a Missoula parking ticket I can color her yellow yogurt-covered dog biscuits bright yellow. Hallelujah!
Barry Farms also sells powdered vegetables that don't seem to give any color, like artichoke. To see the entire list of offerings, go to www.barryfarm.com/veggies.htm.
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