Patti Bess: Keeping it fresh |

Patti Bess: Keeping it fresh

Patti Bess
On a recent trip Patti Bess took to Montana, she felt homesick due to the underwhelming supermarkets she visited that had some sad looking produce.
Photo by Patti Bess

Last summer I drove through fields of barley transitioning from green to gold along miles of two-lane backroads. We whizzed past acres of sugar beets, wheat and pristinely rolled bales of hay under the famous Montana “big sky” etched with cotton candy clouds. It was more beautiful than I imagined.

But the supermarkets left me underwhelmed. Homesickness crept in as I walked past tired, limp lettuce stacked next to flaccid zucchinis and tomatoes pink with jetlag.

The farmers market was 1/10 the size of our own (in all fairness it was a small town). Mentioning the value of “organic” was akin to speaking Russian.

In 1979 I worked as editor of a small news/magazine in Santa Cruz called Focus on Health. I was asked to join in a round table discussion and interview with Dr. Lobsang Dolma, who was touring the U.S.

She was, at the time, the physician to the Dalai Lama. For centuries, physicianship in Tibet was passed down from father to son. To be a doctor in Tibet also meant studying and advising people on mental and spiritual disharmonies.

In the 10th century it was prophesied that when a woman became a physician and broke this tradition, the Dalai Lama would be forced to escape the country.

In a simple, cotton dress that looked like it came from the Sears catalog, Dr. Dolma spoke succinctly, humbly and with clarity. I can still recall her answer to one question.

Someone asked if she had an opinion on why cancer was so prevalent here in the West. Summarizing, her response was that we eat old food.

New vs. old

If you think about it, the salad greens I buy at my farmers market are picked that morning, and they last a week in the fridge. Lettuce in a supermarket, especially in other parts of the country, may be more than a week or 10 days old before it’s even purchased.

How many months is the ketchup on a shelf? How old is the sugar, the canned beans, etc., etc.

I write this every year, but I feel superbly rich especially in September in Nevada County or Northern California for that matter. The vitality and diversity of what is available at my farmers market is like bringing home a whole new palette of colors, flavors and textures to cook and paint with.

Even in our supermarkets there is an awareness of higher quality and freshness. The aging population in Montana had a different feel as if still in the 1950s than my “maturing” active, highly engaged community in Northern California (though I am a tad bit prejudiced). It’s the only place I could live.

Both of these recipes are inspired by Debra Madison’s book, “Local Flavors.”

Roasted peppers and tomatoes baked with capers and marjoram

4 bell peppers, red, orange and/or yellow

1 large beefsteak-type tomato or 1 1/4 pounds other varieties

2 smaller yellow tomatoes

1/2 cup parsley, stems removed

1 tablespoon fresh marjoram leaves or twelve large basil leaves

2 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons capers, drained

12 Nicoise olives, pitted

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and fresh ground pepper

Roast the peppers until charred in an oven or on the grill. Place them into a bowl, cover and set aside while you prepare everything else.

Chop the parsley with the marjoram and garlic, then put them in a bowl with the capers, olives, and olive oil. (You can score the ends of the tomatoes, then drop them into boiling water for 10 seconds to remove the skins if you choose to do this.)

Add the tomatoes cut up into bit-size pieces. Season with about 3/4 teaspoon salt and grated pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. When the peppers have cooled, remove the blackened skin, pull out the seeds and cut into wide strips.

Lightly oil a small gratin dish. Add the tomatoes, peppers, and sauce and gently toss with your hands. Cover and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve over quinoa as a main dish or separately as a side.

Golden pepper and yellow tomato soup

OK, this soup is little time consuming, but if you use rice from a previous menu it’s easy to put together. I use quality cubes of stock or those boxed stocks that are free of additives. You could use red tomatoes but yellow are incredibly striking as well as being less acidic.

1 pound yellow or orange tomatoes

Salt and fresh ground pepper

1 cup cooked rice

1 medium onion

2 cloves garlic

2 yellow or orange bell peppers

2 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch saffron threads

1 bay leaf

2 thyme sprigs, leaves plucked from the stems

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika or smoked Spanish paprika

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 quart vegetable or chicken stock

Chopped marjoram, parsley or basil for garnish

Prepare rice in a rice cooker or use rice from another dish.

Bring two quarts water to a boil. Slice an “X” at the base of each tomato. Plunge them in the water for about 10 seconds, then remove and set aside. When cool slip off the skins.

Chop the onion. Mince garlic and dice the peppers into small squares after removing the seeds and skins. You should have about 2 cups peppers.

Warm the oil in a soup pot and add the onions, peppers, saffron, bay leaf, thyme and paprika. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the onion has begun to soften, about 5 minutes.

Add the garlic, tomato paste and one teaspoon salt. Stir and add one quarter cup water. Mash the tomatoes with a potato masher. Stew for 5 minutes then add the tomatoes and stock.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

When ready to serve, add a spoonful of rice in each bowl and spoon the soup over it. Garnish with the basil or marjoram.

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author from Grass Valley. She can be reached at

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