Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Granola bars from scratch

This spring, my husband bought a 5-pound box of dried cherries on Amazon.com, our new favorite shopping site. He wanted me to make homemade granola bars using the dried cherries.

My homemade granola bars, made from oats, dried fruit, honey and sliced almonds, are chewy and crumbly. They can be messy to eat, but my husband takes them to work in a plastic container. The bars are much cheaper than the afternoon snacks he usually buys at the convenience store.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Slow food

I took the day off today to visit this summer's UNI Museum exhibit, "Slow Food: The Way Iowans Eat." The exhibit featured information, photos and kitchen items from the late 1800s to today. I'm fascinated with culinary history, particularly with the cooking methods of the early 1900s to 1950s, so this exhibit was a "must see" for me.

The exhibit started with a look at how dining styles have changed since the late 1800s. Back then, families all gathered around a dinner table, which was often decorated with a centerpiece and full place setting. All the courses were served at once, so the table was full of food. Families dressed up for supper. They bought meat from a local butcher, who cut the carcass in front of the customers to their specifications.

Canning was essential to Iowans back before refrigeration to preserve the garden bounty. Here's a display of canned foods, including meats.

Notice the sauerkraut slicer in the bottom left-hand corner. I'd love to find a working one of those to play around with in my kitchen.
Early refrigerators weren't electric. They were cooled with blocks of ice, sometimes broken off from nearby rivers in the winter months.

The exhibit featured a quote from one Iowa n who remembered her grandmother always had cookies, bars and pies in the ice box ready for grandkids and guests. Reminded me of my grandmother, who always had a plate of bars at the table when I came over to visit. She was a terrific baker.
Thought this picture of a "meat locker" was terrific. I didn't actually realize that the "locker" actually had lockers for customers to rent to keep meat cold before at-home freezers became the norm. Looks like a bank deposit box for meat.

The exhibit included several old-fashioned aprons on display. In a glass case was fabric from old flour sacks, which often were turned into aprons. Don't you just love the colorful patterns.

Also on display were antique food containers, such as this Wheaties cereal box.

The exhibit ended with a look at today's fast-food lifestyle. Convenience has certainly changed the way Iowans eat today. And like the exhibit says, it makes you wonder what we have lost in terms of quality and diversity in our diets.
However, it's difficult for a 30-year-old woman like me, who grew up on convenience foods, to learn how to prepare meals the way my grandmothers did. Even my grandmas embraced convenience foods, including boxed cake mixes. I hope to find some a balance between healthy, back-to-basics eating and modern convenience to accomodate my busy work schedule.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How my garden grows

Thought I'd share another update on my backyard garden. So far, it's been a cool growing season. Temperatures tonight will dip down in the 50s. And we've had steady rain showers, so I haven't had to water the garden at all this summer.

It's definitely a postage stamp-size garden. This year, I planted carrots, bush beans, bush cucumbers and baby acorn squash from seed. It's looking nice and green in mid-July.

The cucumbers haven't fared well, however, which is disappointing. I was hoping to make lots of pickles from home-grown cucumbers. But I did end up with a few carrots. Quite surprising, since I planted these carrots in early April, and a week after planting, it snowed a couple inches.

I turned the carrots into raisin-carrot-oat muffins, a great breakfast treat. Despite a few setbacks, including squash bugs and squash borers (my husband had to cut out the white grubs from the inside of the vine), I'm actually starting to see the beginnings of an acorn squash.

The Swiss chard I planted last spring is also getting bigger by the day, although it was a little smothered by all the lettuce I planted in the same spot.

I planted more lettuce this weekend for a fall crop. I also planted edible flowers, nasturium this spring, just for fun. The yellow and orange blooms open up every night when I get home from work.

But I didn't plant just vegetables this year. I love a colorful garden, so I'm happy to see so many perennial flowers in bloom right now.

These white roses survived an extremely cold Iowa winter; it dropped down to -20 degrees Fahrenheith earlier this year. I'm so happy to see them blooming now, and they smell terrific.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In a Pickle

In my continuing adventures in home canning, I've started experimenting with the pickle. I'm crazy about pickles and have been known to eat almost an entire jar by myself. My husband always gives me a bad time about it, complaining that we never have any pickles in the fridge for sandwiches because I've gotten to the jar first.

I bought the home-canning kit specifically because I wanted to learn how to make pickles. But it's been a little trickier to learn than I thought it would be. First, you have to find the right cucumbers. The cucumbers at the grocery store won't work, because they are usually coated in a wax that makes pickling impossible (or so I've read).

I've been buying cucumbers at the farmers' market, but I haven't been able to find the gherkin-size cucumbers that my recipes call for. So I've been slicing the cucumbers up to get them to fit in the jar.

I'm lucky to have a "wild" dill patch growing in my garden. It's wild because I planted dill in these spots about two to three years ago, and the dill just keeps coming back each year with a vengeance. I later learned that dill can take over a garden if you're not careful, so it's best to plant it in a container. But it's too late for me now. I just keep pulling out the new dill shoots before they get too big. Here's what the dill looks like once it's seeded:

According to the recipe, I placed one sprig of dill in each jar, along with one garlic clove and a slice of jalapeno (at my husband's request). Overall, it was a pretty simple recipe: Just boil 2 c. water, 2. cups vinegar, 2 Tbls. pickling salt and 1 Tbl. sugar, then add the liquid to the jars stuffed with cucumbers. Here's the end result:

Unfortunately, I have to wait two weeks before I can dig into them, so I don't know if the recipe is a keeper or not. And I'll keep looking for little cucumbers, since my own pickle bush cucumbers aren't growing so well in our garden.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Norwegian treasure

A few weekends ago, I visited one of my favorite places in La Crosse -- the antique mall downtown. It's a three-story building of retro treasures. I didn't have to walk too far to find several kitchen antiques that caught my eye, including this small pie plate. Don't you just love the lettering. How could I not buy it?

I also was very excited to find multiple sets of rosette irons. I grew up in a small North Iowa town where everyone, I mean everyone, was of Norwegian heritage. At family gatherings, my grandmother served potato lefse, romegrot and the infamously stinky lutefisk, a cod fish that's "preserved" in lye. It's absolutely awful, but a lot of my family members love it.

Many women in town would place rosettes on their Christmas cookie trays. Rosettes are hard to describe -- kind of a lighter version of a funnel cake. (Lighter in texture, not calories.) To make, you coat the rosette iron in a pancake-like batter, then put the coated iron in frying oil. The finished rosette is crispy like a cracker and dusted with powdered sugar.

I had an 80-year-old Iowa woman tell me that the best rosette irons are the old ones. The new irons are flimsy compared to the heavy cast-iron ones they made before the 1970s.

I found several different antique rosette irons, in various conditions. I decided on the one pictured below, mostly because it wasn't so covered with gunk. (But maybe gunk is a good thing, I don't know.)

As you can see, the "patty" iron came in its original box and included a recipe.

Not sure why they are called "patties." The manufacturer was from the East Coast, so maybe patty sounded less "ethnic" to the homemakers. Most antique rosette molds I've seen were made in Minnesota -- home of the Vikings (which, not so coincidentally, was also my high-school mascot. It's Norwegian country, remember.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Relaxing weekend?

Well, I told myself I was going to relax this weekend after my busy July 4th in La Crosse. But instead of relaxing, I went a little crazy in the kitchen.

On Friday night, I stayed up until midnight making apricot jam. I loaded up on apricots at our local grocery store. Apricot jam is my husband's favorite, so I wanted to learn how to make it at home.

It was surprisingly easy to make -- now that I have a little practice. I placed the apricots in boiling water for 30 seconds to loosen up the peels. Then I plunged the fruit in a bowl of ice-water to stop them from cooking. The peels came off easily, and the apricots were ripe and easy to cut and mash. I used a recipe from the "175 Best Jams, Jellies, Marmalades and Other Soft Spreads" book, which I received as a promotional freebie at work.

The jam looks great, although I have to admit I haven't tasted it yet. We're still finishing up a jar of the peach jam I made last weekend. My husband is loving the peach jam; he actually likes that it's a little softer than the jam you buy in the store.

Of course, to go along with all this homemade jam, I made my favorite white dinner rolls. They look great right out of the oven.

I was on my feet all day on Saturday, working in the kitchen. But it was one of the best weekends I've had in a while. I'm at peace at home.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

First summer blooms

I'm still catching up from my fourth of July weekend in La Crosse. I had a great time catching up with my dad, running my first 5K of the year, watching the fireworks and eating -- a lot! The city's Riverfest celebration features many wonderful food vendors that offer more than the typical festival food. I ordered the blackened fish sandwich, and I split a "Blarney Bar" -- a gigantic brownie sundae -- with my dad and his girlfriend. It was a sugar overload, but I loved every bite!

Anyhow, with a deadline at work this week, I haven't done much at home but read and sleep. But I try to walk outside and admire my little victory garden every night. I was excited to see the first acorn squash blossom this week.

Unfortunately, the squash is starting to look yellow and mildew-y from all the wet weather. We probably received another inch of rain this weekend. The temperatures are also below normal -- tonight it dropped down into the 60s.

The first nasturtium are also starting to bloom this week. It's the first time I've planted these edible flowers, and they have been doing well and growing fast. Here's an odd, fuzzy picture:

I've got big reverse-homemaking plans for this weekend. I checked out a copy of "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" at the local library, and I've got a month to experiment with the recipes before I need to turn the book back in. I'm also going to make more jam; I bought a bunch of apricots at the grocery store.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mid-summer garden

Happy Independence Day! I'm in a rush to leave for La Crosse to spend fourth of July with my dad. La Crosse has an amazing Riverfest celebration. I signed up for the event's 5K charity run, and we plan to spend most of the day in the park along the Mississippi River, where there are food vendors, bands and fireworks.

Before I leave, I wanted to share a few photos of my garden as of July 4. The frequent rains have made the vegetables in my little victory garden grow fast, although we could use some heat to really get things growing. The forecast calls for a high of 78 degrees this morning, which is mild for this time of year.

As you can see, I've got a pretty small garden. It's my first attempt this year at a vegetable garden.

I planted baby acorn squash, bush beans, picklebush cucumbers and marigolds for a little color.

The bush beans are really growing fast and are starting to take over the small space:

The cucumbers, which I'm growing for pickles, are struggling. But a few plants grew quite a bit in the last week:

I'm really excited about the baby acorn squash. It's a new variety; I think it's called honey bear, or something like that. But I know squash and pumpkins can be hard to grow, and I'm a little worried about the yellow spots I see on the squash and the cucumbers:

I'm trying to grow a tomato plant in a hanging container this year. It's funny how the plant is curling itself upright:

One of the cool things about our 100-year-plus-old house is that we have several old-fashioned, cottage-garden flower varieties in our yard. We've been told that this climbing rose is at least 40 years old:

Finally, I wanted to give an update on my latest canning adventure. I stayed up past midnight last night trying to make peach jam for the first time. The peaches were terrible to work with; they weren't ripe, and they were hard to slice and pit. In my frustration, I forgot to measure out the peaches for the recipe. As a result, the peach jam turned out runny. But it still looks good in the jar:

Have a great holiday weekend, everyone!
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