The drive to Garden of the Gods Market is glorious on a spring day -- a minor escape from the concrete of downtown to swishing grasses and painfully blue skies. Climbing up 21st Street from the north, the Mill Hill Tavern appears at the top of the first major hill, a plastic bucking bronco reared up on its roof. The back parking lot is crowded with pickup trucks of every denomination -- vintage, beat-up, shiny new, rattletrap -- and beyond that in a nondescript, flat brick warehouse is Garden of the Gods Market.
The overwhelming scent upon entering is of crushed herbs. Blenders roar from the back room and a woman in a white apron appears to prop the front door open.
"Sometimes it gets to my eyes," she says, "when I'm mixing in cayenne or peppercorns."
She is making fresh batches of Garden of the Gods' famed seasoning mixes -- herb and spice blends with no salt ranging from Lemon-Pepper to Mustard-Dill to Caribbean. They're packaged in stackable clear plastic cylinders with shaker tops and can be used as rubs, dip mixes or just as seasonings. The locally owned company's theory is simple: Intense flavors from natural ingredients can enhance a dish with minimal use of added fats and salt.
The mixes are complex but well balanced. Perhaps the most versatile is the Garden Blend, a fragrant mix of basil, marjoram, parsley, thyme, pink peppercorns, oregano, onion, garlic, savory, bay, rosemary and lavender. The Market's own cookbook suggests mixing it with cream cheese or sour cream for a savory spread. I used it liberally on and inside a roast chicken cooked atop a bed of root vegetables, also liberally sprinkled with Garden Blend. The result was a dish so fragrant that I could smell it outside the house as it cooked away inside.
The Market offers a wide variety of its own entrees, soups and sauces that are prepared using their seasoning blends and frozen in take-home packages, and the ones I've tried have been uniformly delicious.
On this particular day, the available entrees are Beef Burgundy, Wild Mushroom Lasagna and Penne with Sausage. Soups include Cream of Asparagus, French Onion, Black Bean, Potato Blue Cheese, Roasted Red Bell Pepper, Corn Chowder and Avgolemono, a classic Greek soup made with chicken broth, lemon juice, egg yolks and rice. I take home two chicken soups packaged in quart-size portions -- Thai Chicken Soup and Chicken Pot Pie Soup. Both are hearty and at around $7, a bargain meal that will easily feed three.
The Thai Chicken Soup is as fine as any I've had in Thai restaurants, made with a broth of coconut milk and chicken stock, seasoned with lemongrass, cilantro, kafir, red curry paste, lime juice, fish sauce and green chilies, and filled with generous chunks of chicken and whole slippery straw mushrooms. The Chicken Pot Pie soup is a rich broth, enhanced with Garden of the Gods' Garden Blend, packed with carrots, potatoes, celery, broccoli, peas and white chicken meat -- milder than the Thai soup but comforting and pleasing.
A favorite staple of many Colorado Springs families, also to be found in the freezer case of Garden of the Gods Market, are their signature Spring Rolls, available either with beef or vegetarian for $8 per dozen. The Veggie Rolls are stuffed with cabbage, bean sprouts, onion, scallions, bell pepper, carrots, zucchini and garlic, and are so delicious they prompt the only occasions when I am willing to work with a heavy skillet of hot oil and deal with the inevitable splattering that comes with deep frying. An inch in a skillet is enough; be sure to heat it almost to smoking before dropping in the frozen springs rolls so that they'll turn out crisp and brown. Garden of the Gods also sells Mae Ploy Thai Sweet Chili Sauce in huge bottles for only $4 -- a good dipping sauce for the spring rolls and a versatile condiment to keep in the fridge. I've used it for glazing a meatloaf -- a risky kitchen experiment that turned into a new family standard.
Four frozen pasta sauces are available at the Market: mushroom, Bolognese, Alfredo and a shrimp sauce that makes my mouth water just reading the ingredients -- cream, shrimp, red peppers, onion, garlic, chicken stock, paprika, cayenne, dried chili and sea salt. A refrigerator case offers a nice assortment of cheeses: mascarpone, Maytag bleu cheese, aged Parmigiano Reggiano, goat cheese, brie, feta and the Market's cheese torte -- a colorful layering of pesto and sun-dried tomato spread with various creamy cheeses. La Brea breads are sold frozen as are parbaked crusty French rolls and frozen pizza dough.
I've never tried it but I'm mighty curious about Garden of the Gods' frozen Porketta -- a huge pork butt (7-9 lbs. for a little more than $20) rubbed with Garden Blend, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, then wrapped in foil. Thaw it in the fridge, then slow roast it in foil for 4 to 5 hours at 325 degrees. The label promises pork that will pull apart easily -- sounds like the perfect party dish for my son's upcoming post-graduation blowout.
And finally -- dessert. Three bucks will get you a pint-sized tub of Holly's Best Chocolate Sauce, named for Garden of the Gods Market President Holly Mervis, made with a splash of espresso and vanilla. Pour it over vanilla ice cream. I'm telling you, next to Thai Chicken Soup and the scent of blended herbs, it doesn't get much better than this.