Friday, July 29, 2011


 Earlier this week, I met up with 10,000 cyclists traveling the state as part of RAGBRAI, the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.  I was sent to cover a Farmers Feed Us event for our ag newspaper.  This was my first time I caught up with the RAGBRAI riders on the country roads, and I was thrilled to see it in person.  It's hard to imagine the scale of that many bikers on the roads unless you see it first-hand. 

Western Iowa farmers were shaking hands with the riders and serving up free beef samples under the shade of a grain bin.

I met so many interesting people!  There was a Michigan man who rides the entire week of RAGBRAI across the state by himself.  His wife drops him off in the starting city and then picks him up at the ending city a week later.  I learned from him that "sport kilts" are very popular with the male bike riders.  He told me the kilts were very comfortable when the temps hit 90 degrees!

Spandex-wearing cyclists checking out the farm equipment on display.
 I met a couple of father-son teams who were biking the entire route, statewide, together.  The sons were under the age of 13!  Can you even imagine doing something like that at such a young age?

Yet what really surprised me was how many baby boomers were riding RAGBRAI.  I just pictured that the cyclists were college students looking for a summer party.  But many of these cyclists were grandpas and grandmas, also looking for a party!  So inspiring!

Fun to see all the team jerseys.
The farm I visited was a "pit stop" half-way between two towns.  Several vendors set up shop on the farm's front lawn, including a homemade ice cream vendor that was cranking out ice-cream on gas and solar-powered churns.

 Back behind the grain bins was a cattle feedlot. Several cyclists stopped to take pictures of the cattle.  I wonder what the cattle thought of all the commotion -- there were hundreds of bicyclists who stopped at the farm!

I'll be posting more photos from RAGBRAI soon.  I grabbed my bike and joined in on the fun earlier this week.  Can't wait to show you what I found!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Iowa recipes: Cherry pie

About a month ago (Yikes! Where has the summer gone?), I visited Berry Patch Farm in Nevada, Iowa, first thing in the morning to pick pie cherries.  I wasn't sure if there would be many left.  Cherry season is short on their farm.  Usually, the cherries are gone in a little over a week's time.  I didn't have time to visit their farm until the weekend, which was about five days after their U-Pick cherry season opened.  And it turned out to be slim pickings.  I had to pick cherries from my tip-toes, since another woman was "hogging" the one ladder in the orchard, and I didn't want to be rude and bother her.  After a lot of reaching and stretching, I finally came home with enough cherries to make a pie.

Aren't these cherries beauties?

On my way home from the farm, I stopped at the Cook's Emporium in Ames (my favorite kitchen supply shop in central Iowa) and found a cherry pitter.  Last year, I pitted cherries with the tip of a knife, and it took forever!  I'm so glad I bought this little pitter for about $15.  It cut like 20 minutes off the cherry prep time!

Place the cherry like so...

And out goes the pit!  Easy!

The cherry pie turned out wonderful!  By far my favorite pie, and by far worth the effort of picking cherries on my tiptoes in the heat.  I'm still not great at making my pies "pretty," but they sure taste good!

A couple days after I baked this pie, Berry Patch Farm put a recipe on their Facebook page for freezer cherry pie filling.  I'm totally going to try this next year.  Would love to have all the ingredients ready to make sour-cherry pie for the holidays.

Here's the recipe, as it appears on their Facebook page:

Pie filling recipe: 3 cups cherries,1 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour, dash of almond flavoring, mix & put in plastic freezer bag. Handy for pies later !  (Just mix the ingredients in the bag and pop in freezer.  No need to pre-cook.)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Garden update: July 2011

Oh dear!  I'm so, so far behind in sharing this garden update.  I've just been so busy this summer traveling, biking and enjoying the warm weather.  I took these photos on July 1, and my little backyard garden looks a lot different now. But here's a recap of what I've been up to so far.

In early July, my container tomato started wilting from leaf spot, or early blight.  It was fading fast, and I couldn't stand just seeing the leaves yellow and die off, especially when the plant was already setting fruit.  So I broke down and bought a fungicide at the local garden center.  Now my tomato plant has bounced back, and I'm being more careful to keep the leaves dry when I'm watering it.

My container strawberry plants are still growing and flowering, but the birds get to the fruit before I do.  I haven't decided if I'm going to overwinter the plants or just use my stack-a-pot to grow herbs next year.

I love my herb pot.  I bought Christmas basil, purple basil and curly parsley at the Des Moines Farmers Market.  They are all growing very well, and they look so pretty!  So much fun to brush past the basil plant just for the fragrance.

I planted begonias in these little pots my Mom and sister gave me for my birthday a couple years back.  I love the pink flowers in the pastel-colored pots.

I've been having really good luck at planting cucumber a little later than normal, about mid-to-late June.  It seems like they miss out on the moth season and avoid getting attacked by insects.  Plus, the cucumbers grow really fast in the summer heat.  They are already crawling up the trellis now.

I planted broccoli and cauliflower for the first time this year.  Right away, they were eaten by rabbits.  So I bought more seedlings and "caged" them inside cut-off buckets.  The plants grew fast, but unfortunately, they didn't produce much.  The cauliflower never formed, and the broccoli heads were small and went to flower right away.  Not sure if I'm going to plant these again next year.  Not really worth the space in such a small garden.

As a happy accident, I spilled a package of lettuce seeds when I was planting flowers.  And the lettuce grew in the middle of my flower patch.  So cute!

So far, I haven't harvested much, other than the lettuce, a few pea pods and a few radishes.  The radishes and peas didn't grow very well this year.  I think next year I'm going to try different varieties, although I'm sure the weather (and the rabbits!) are partly to blame.

I'm almost embarrassed to share this garden update, because I've discovered so many wonderful garden bloggers with gorgeous edible gardens.  But I try to remind myself that the important thing is that I try.  And I really do enjoy spending time outside tending to my little garden.

So how are your gardens growing?  Do you have any ripe tomatoes yet?  I've got lots of green tomatoes, and no red ones yet.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Osceola Community Garden

I recently was invited to attend the annual open house for the Osceola Diversity Garden, a community garden on the north side of Osceola in southern Iowa.  The garden is located behind the Farm Bureau and ISU Extension building along Highway 65, if you're interested in seeing it yourself.  Anyone can stop and take a look at what's growing.

Once a weedy lot, this community garden is now divided into more than a dozen different plots, each measuring about 8 feet by 20 feet.  Local residents can reserve their own garden plot to grow whatever annual vegetable, herb or flower they would like.  The cost is $8 per plot, and garden tools and expert advice from volunteer Master Gardeners are included.  What a deal!  I wish I lived in Osceola.  I would love to have this sunny space to grow veggies.

The Master Gardeners also have planted several demonstration plots to show off different gardening ideas.  There is a "scratch-and-sniff" herb garden (loved this idea!), and my favorite -- a grocery bag garden!  One of the volunteers told me I could plant lettuce now in a reuseable grocery bag (with holes poked in the bottom), then move the bag to a shady spot to avoid the summer sun.  I'm going to try it out at home and see if it works.

Local gardeners have planted a wide variety of veggies in their plots.  There were several plots with nothing but tomatoes.  One plot was planted with green beans only -- just plain ol' green beans for canning.

Scratch 'N Sniff herb garden
I wish my garden looked so neat and beautiful!  And I loved this idea -- tomato trellising.

To raise money, the volunteers were selling leftover tomato seedlings for 25 cents a piece.  I couldn't resist coming home with this little guy.  It's called "Mom's tomato."  It's grown by one of the Master Gardeners, who saves the seeds from a variety of tomato that her mom used to plant back in the Victory Garden days. She doesn't know what variety it is, so she just calls it "Mom's tomato."  It's so popular in Osceola, that the farmers' market vendors sell "Mom's tomatoes" each year.  I was told it's a pinkish, meaty tomato, with an excellent flavor.  And I got some tips for how to save the seeds myself.  I'll share those with you if I ever get to that point.

What -- doesn't everyone keep tomato plants in their cupholders? :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Iowa Road Trip: Le Mars & Blue Bunny

Yikes!  Our Internet service has been on-and-off this week, so I didn't think I would get this written tonight.  Fortunately, (or unfortunately) I haven't called it a night yet, and our web connection is back up and running -- for now.

Last week, I traveled on a 4-hour road trip (8 hours round trip!) to the far northwest corner of Iowa.  Because the Missouri River flooding has closed Interstate 29 in western Iowa, I had to take the back roads to my destination.  On my way home, I drove through Le Mars, home of Blue Bunny ice cream and famously known as the "Ice Cream Capitol of the World."  I heard that Blue Bunny just opened a new visitors' center a couple weeks earlier, so I just had to stop and check it out.

As it so happens, I had to work over the noon hour and skipped lunch.  I drove through Le Mars around 3 p.m., the perfect time to stop at Bob's Drive-In -- home of the "Bob's Dog."  It's seriously the best hot dog I've ever eaten.  I've been told the hot dogs are specially made by a local meat locker. And this dog has a serious bite!

OK. So this is kind of a crummy picture.  I couldn't get my camera to focus for some reason.  But you get the idea.  I ordered mine without the "Bob's sauce" or chili sauce, because I was saving room for ice cream!

Next stop, the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Visitors' Center!  Just look for the giant ice cream sundae on Main Street!

This new visitors' center is beautiful! It's housed in a two-story renovated bank building. The top floor has Blue Bunny memorabilia and casual seating. The main floor has a gift shop and, of course, an ice cream parlor!  I ordered my favorite -- "Bunny Tracks" ice cream with peanuts, fudge swirls and chocolate-covered peanut-butter bunny-shaped candies!  In a waffle cone, of course.  And as always, they weren't skimpy on the scoops.

If you ever find yourself in northwest Iowa, or if you're looking for an unusual vacation destination, be sure to check out the Blue Bunny Visitors' Center in Le Mars.  It's well worth the drive!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Strawberry freezer sauce

Just one more strawberry recipe to share with you.  I've made an overabundance of strawberry jam, so I thought it would be fun to make a strawberry sauce that I could freeze for later use (over ice cream, of course).

I found this recipe for strawberry sauce on the Our Best Bites website.  I used a food mill instead of a food processor, but otherwise, I followed the recipe exactly.  It turned out great!  I froze the leftover sauce in plastic freezer bags laid flat on a cookie sheet so I could stack them neatly in the freezer.

I bought another 4-pound carton of strawberries last weekend because they were on sale for $4.99.  Strawberry season is short, so I'm buying up the inexpensive berries as long as I can.

What's your favorite way to eat strawberries?  I love strawberries over ice cream.  Nothing better, in my opinion.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Strawberry rhubarb pie

Almost a month ago (I can't believe it's been that long), I headed out to Berry Patch Farms in Nevada on the first Saturday morning when they offered ready-to-pick strawberries.  I showed up right at their opening at 8 a.m., thinking that I was arriving way too early.  To my surprise, there were already about 30 people out in one of their strawberry patches!

At first, I was directed to a row in the field that didn't have many ripe berries for the picking.  I was a little disappointed.  But when I walked back towards the beginning rows of the patch, I discovered all these berries that other folks neglected for some reason.  (I also stepped on quite a few half-chewed up strawberry stems.  Eww! Can't people wait to eat the berries till they get home?)

Pretty soon, I filled up a box with berries.  I ended up picking 9 pounds of strawberries!  I could have stayed and picked more, but I've learned from experience that one box is enough, unless I want to be making strawberry jam for the next three days straight.

Of course, I made a couple batches of jam.  But I really wanted to make a pie, too.  And my favorite pie is strawberry-rhubarb.  Last year, I didn't have much luck with strawberry-rhubarb pie.  The pie filling was way too runny.  But this year, I followed a tip I discovered on the Kitchn website that suggested draining the juice off the berries after they've sat in sugar for 15 minutes.  It sounded a little strange, but I decided to give it a try.  And guess what?  My pie turned out perfect!  No runny filling!

(I'm still not great at making "pretty" pies. But trust me, they taste good!)

I also decided to try out one of the cute metal pie pans I found at an antique store.  I was hesitant to use them for fear I would scratch them up.  But then I pulled the pan out of cupboard and realized that it was already dinged up.  These pans were meant to be used!  And they are the perfect size.  The only pans I can find at the local stores are 10-inch or deep-dish pie pans. Most pie recipes are for a 9-inch pie.

Here's the recipe for the strawberry-rhubarb pie.  I know it's a little late to pick strawberries, but I found some beautiful California strawberries on sale this weekend.  It's the next best thing to locally grown.



Strawberry rhubarb pie
From Iowa State Fair cookbook
  • 1-1/4 C. sugar
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 2 T. instant tapioca
  • 1 T. strawberry gelatin
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 C. fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and halved
  • 3 C. fresh, chopped rhubarb
  • 1 T. butter or margarine
  • Pastry for double-crust 9-inch pie
  • Milk
  • Sugar, for sprinkling

In a large bowl, combine sugar, salt, tapioca, gelatin and cinnamon.  Add fruit and let rest 15 minutes, or until tapioca softens.  Pour all into pastry-lined pie pan.  Dot with butter.  Cover with vented top crust.  Flute edges.  Brush top with milk and sprinkle with sugar.  Use pie bands or foil to prevent dark edges.  Bake 20 minutes at 400 degrees.  Reduce heat to 350 degree; bake an additional 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

July 4th parade

This weekend, I traveled back home to northern Iowa to see my hometown's July 4 parade.  There aren't a lot of towns in central Iowa that still hold big Independence Day celebrations, so I'm glad that it's still a tradition in my hometown.

Here are a few of my favorite highlights from the parade.  Hope you and your family had a great July 4 holiday, as well!

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