Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Shop local: Iowa gift ideas

So are you getting back into a routine after the first round of holidays?  This is the time of year when things get crazy where I work, so I don't have as much time to spend on my hobbies.  For a change of pace, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite Iowa discoveries over the past year.  These would make great gifts and stocking stuffers for those hard-to-shop-for friends, co-workers and family members.

Farmers Best Gourmet Popcorn, grown in Rockwell City, Iowa:  I was fortunate to meet the family that grows Farmers Best Gourmet Popcorn, and they generously gave me a free sample so I can discover what makes their popcorn a "premium" product.  Farmers Best popcorn is tender, white popcorn that doesn't have the tough hulls that the brand-name popcorns have.  You can find Farmers Best popcorn in 1-pound bags, or in microwaveable bags, at several Hy-Vee and Fareway stores across Iowa.  Or order online at www.farmersbestpopcorn.com.

Spring Valley Honey Farms lip balm, from Perry Iowa:  I love these little honey-flavored lip balms so much!  I carry one in my purse and one in my make-up drawer so I'm never far from them.  They're a must for the dry winters, and I prefer these honey lip balms to the Burt's Bees products.  In the summer, you can buy these at the Iowa Honey Producers booth at the Iowa State Fair.  Or order online at www.springvalleyhoneyfarms.com. (Don't forget to buy some Iowa honey on the site, too.)

Beaverdale Confections gourmet marshmallows, from Des Moines, Iowa:  I discovered these marshmallows at the World Food Festival in Des Moines this fall, and it was love at first bite!  These soft marshmallows come in a variety of yummy flavors (the marshmallows pictured above are coconut and caramel flavored).  I'm planning to buy these for holiday gifts this year, and a few extra for myself!  They would be perfect with hot chocolate. Visit the candy store in Beaverdale, or order online at http://www.beaverdaleconfections.com/.

Do you plan to shop local for the holidays?  Do you have a favorite local product that would be perfect for gift-giving?  I would love to hear about it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving successes & messes

 Hello everyone! Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, with plenty of pie!

Once again this year, my hubby and I enjoyed Thanksgiving together at home.  It's quite a marathon to put together an entire Thanksgiving meal, even when it's just for two.  This year, I made all the classics: cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes.  My husband is an expert at making gravy, so I let him take over that task.

Can't believe I ate this whole plate of food! On the plate: stuffing, cranberry-apple sauce, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls and, of course, turkey.
Thought I'd share a few of my successes and messes from Thanksgiving meal prep.  I'm hoping I'll look back at a few of these later on for a good laugh:

Success:  We decided to roast the turkey the night before to save time the next day.
Mess:  I dropped the turkey on the floor!  No kidding!  I pulled the turkey out of the oven and set it on top of the stove to check the temp.  When I turned around to grab the food thermometer, I heard a loud clatter and saw the turkey and roast pan drop to the floor!  Thankfully, I cooked the turkey in a Reynolds bag.  So my husband just picked the turkey bag up, plopped it back in the roasting pan and put it back in the oven to finish cooking. Some of the liquid spilled onto the floor. But otherwise, the bag protected the turkey!  We're still laughing about this one today!

Success:  I finished preparing the entire Thanksgiving meal before noon!
Mess:  I ended up leaving the pumpkin pie in the oven a little too long, and the crust got way too brown -- almost black on the edges.

Success:  I woke up early to burn a few extra calories at a 7 a.m. Spin class.
Mess:  I didn't have time to take a shower until 1 p.m.!

So how was your Thanksgiving this year?  Did you cook the turkey yourself, or do you get together for a big family gathering?  Hopefully, your turkey stayed off the floor!

I'm thankful for all you blog readers out there.  You really inspire me to try new things and not be afraid to fail every once and a while.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Whole-wheat rolls (using Iowa-grown wheat)

A few weeks ago, I visited Carlson Christmas tree farm near Hampton in northern Iowa.  I met Cathy Carlson, who started the tree farm with her husband 25 years ago.  In addition to selling Christmas trees, Cathy also runs her own home-based bakery.  You can find Cathy's baked goods at Dudley's Corner, the gas station along Interstate 35 off the Hampton (Highway 3) exit.  She gave me these blondie bars to take home to my husband, which he quickly devoured, of course.

Cathy also gave me a sample of her home-grown whole wheat flour.  That's right -- in addition to her baking business, Cathy also grows 6-1/2 acres of wheat.  She sells the wheat either as milled flour or unmilled, if you prefer to mill the wheat yourself.  (I would love to get a grain mill someday.)

The whole wheat looked gorgeous coming out of the bag, very soft and caramel-colored.

As soon as I got home, I baked up Cathy's recipe for 60 minute whole wheat rolls.  Actually, these rolls took me a couple hours to make.  I live in a drafty house, so I find it difficult to get bread to rise quickly.  Also, the recipe called for quick-rise yeast, which I didn't have on hand. I just used the Red Star active dry yeast I keep in my freezer at all times.

These rolls turns out great! They were very soft and tender for a whole wheat roll.  I drizzled them with honey, which was an excellent decision.  My husband also gave these rolls a try, but he didn't like them as well as the white rolls I typically bake.  He's just not a big fan of whole wheat anything, but I'm trying to convert him since whole wheat is a more nutritious choice.

Here's Cathy's recipe for 60-minute whole wheat rolls.  Enjoy!


Cathy's 60 Minute Rolls

  • 2 C. whole wheat flour
  • 2-1/2 C. of unsifted white flour (Cathy's note: I mix the flours together before I start to make the recipe)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3 Tbls. sugar
  • 2 packages Fleishmann's Active Dry Yeast (Cathy's note: I recommend rapid rise yeast)
  • 1 C. milk
  • 1/2 C. water
  • 1/4 C. margarine

Combine milk, water and margarine in a saucepan.  Heat over low heat until liquid is very warm (120 degrees). Margarine doesn't need to be melted.

In a large bowl, measure 1-1/2 C. of flour, then sugar, salt and yeast.  Mix thoroughly and gradually add the heated ingredients.  Beat 2 minutes at a medium speed of electric mixer, scraping bowl occasionally.  Add 1/2 C. of flour.  Beat at high speed.  Stir in enough flour to make a soft dough.

Turn onto a lightly floured board; knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.  Place in a greased bowl cover and let rise for 15 to 20 minutes.  Make your favorite rolls.

Cover and let rise in a warm place free from draft, 15 to 20 minutes.  Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes or until golden brown.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Iowa recipes: Blue-ribbon pie crust

I'm convinced that some people have inherited a gene that makes them a natural in the kitchen.  My husband can throw together a bunch of ingredients from the cupboard and come up with a 4-star meal.  Yet almost everything I cook turns out bland and boring.  That's why I like baking.  Just follow the recipe, and it will likely turn out great.

But I've always struggled with pie crust.  I've tried all kinds of recipes -- using lard, butter, shortening or a combination of these, and I've even taken cooking classes to learn how to make pie crust.  Yet when I get home, I can never get the crust to turn out.  It's either too crumbly, or too wet.  I've tried to keep my ingredients in the freezer to keep them as cold as possible (as recommended by Martha Stewart).  I've tried pastry blenders, the food processor and the two-knife method to cut the butter or shortening into the flour.

And then there's the waiting.  Most recipes call for refrigerating the dough for a couple hours or overnight.  I don't have that kind of time to wait.  When I want pie, I want it now!

A few years ago, I visited a farm for a luncheon, and the wife served us the best apple pie.  She said it was easy to make the crust -- she just "eyeballed it" by mixing vegetable oil with flour. Vegetable oil?  I had to find that recipe.

Then I found my new favorite pie crust recipe.  It was printed in several Iowa State Fair Cookbooks. It was a recipe from Louise Piper, an Iowan who is famous for her blue-ribbon pies.  It's a four-ingredient pie crust recipe that doesn't require refrigeration.  Just mix it up, roll it out between two sheets of wax paper (no sticking to the rolling pin!) and fit it on the pie pan.  This pie crust is easier to mix up than a batch of cookies!

I've got nothing against store-bought pie crusts, by the way.  But it's fun to impress your family and friends with a pie made from scratch.  Plus, a home-baked pie always tastes better because of the work you put into it. 

Give this pie crust recipe a try for Thanksgiving or year round.  Enjoy!


Blue-Ribbon Pie Crust
From Iowa State Fair Cookbook, submitted by Louise Piper of Rolfe

  • 2 C. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 C. cold milk
  • 1/2 C. vegetable oil

Stir together flour and salt.  Pour milk into oil; do not stir.  Add liquid to flour mixture; stir well.  Shape mixture into two balls.  If mixture is too dry and crumbly, add 1 to 2 Tablespoons more oil.  Roll each ball out ball out between two sheets of waxed paper.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Iowa recipes: Pumpkin bars

Pumpkin recipes are very trendy in the food blog world right now.  Over the past few weeks, I've seen recipes for pumpkin cookies, pumpkin cakes, pumpkin rolls, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin granola, pumpkin lattes, pumpkin pastas -- and the list goes on and on.

I've actually tried a few of these recipes.  But nothing really compares to good, old-fashioned pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting.  These pumpkin bars are always a hit whenever I bring them to potlucks or family gatherings.  My husband has also requested pumpkin bars many times for his October birthdays.

Mmm ... Cream cheese frosting

Make these pumpkin bars, and be prepared for the compliments!  Enjoy!


Pumpkin bars
From 2004 Iowa State Fair Cookbook
  • 2 C. all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 4 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 2 C. pumpkin
  • 1 C. vegetable oil
  • 3/4 C. finely chopped walnuts

Sift dry ingredients into mixing bowl. Mix eggs, pumpkin and oil.  Add to dry ingredients. Mix and stir in nuts.  Pour into greased and floured pan.  Bake at 375 degree for 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean.  Cool; frost bars.

  • 3 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 6 Tbls. butter or margarine
  • 1 Tbl. milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1-3/4 C. powdered sugar

Combine all ingredients; beat until smooth. Spread over bars.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bike Iowa: Wabash Trace Trail

I was fortunate that my work took me to a part of the state I've never been to before, the town of Malvern in southwest Iowa.  I was excited to finally get a chance to check out the Wabash Trace Trail, a 62-mile bike trail that stretches from the Council Bluffs/Omaha area down close to the Missouri border.

Malvern seems proud of its place along the Wabash Trace.  Bike art decorated the main street.  Wonder if the town has ever hosted RAGBRAI?

I had a little trouble finding the trail head, but eventually found it a couple blocks west of downtown.  It was a chilly day, and it was later in the afternoon, so I didn't venture very far down the trail.

It is a beautiful trail.  Definitely one of my new favorite discoveries in Iowa.  I'm so glad I got to see it in the fall and enjoy all the autumn colors.

About a mile north of town, the trail turned from concrete to limestone.  I was a little worried about riding my little bike down an unpaved path, but the limestone was actually very smooth.  The only bumps were when I ran over a few black walnuts that had fallen from the trees. 

Up ahead, I saw what looked like a tunnel in the distance.  It turned out that the tunnel was actually just a thick canopy of trees.  It was quite something!

The falling leaves completely covered the trail at a few points.  It was fun to sink my bike tires into a pile of leaves.  So glad I brought my bike along so I could check out the Wabash Trace Trail.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Iowa eats: Starboard Market, Clear Lake

A few weekends ago, I drove up to northern Iowa to visit my mom and stepdad before they leave for Arizona for the winter.  It was a beautiful fall day, and I was driving through Clear Lake over the noon hour. So I decided to stop at one of my favorite delis in Iowa, Starboard Market in downtown Clear Lake.

I discovered Starboard Market when someone treated me to lunch there at work.  For you Des Moines folks, Starboard Market is a lot like Palmer's Deli, but on a smaller scale.  The restaurant has soups, sandwiches, wraps and salads on the menu, plus amazing desserts like lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies and cheesecakes.  A lot of people were ordering the cheesecakes when I stopped in.

The deli doesn't have a lot of seating, so I headed outside for a little picnic lunch at the nearby Clear Lake.  There were several open picnic tables right by the water.  I loved soaking in all this beautiful fall scenery.

I enjoy trying a little bit of everything whenever I eat at Starboard Market.  This time, I ordered the salad sampler platter.

I always like to order a pasta salad, and so I picked the Greek salad with feta cheese and olives.  Just for fun, I also ordered the cornbread salad.  It was very good, although not at all what I expected.  The cornbread salad was savory, not sweet, dressed with mayonnaise and studded with red peppers, herbs and green olives.  Unusual combination, but it worked.

But my favorite was the caramel apple salad.  It was so good!  I'm not exactly sure what the ingredients were, other than the apples.  The dressing was caramel-flavored (maybe vanilla pudding, Cool Whip & caramel topping?), and the salad was topped with a crunchy sprinkle of cinnamon and brown sugar.  I would love to find the recipe to make this salad at home.

Starboard Market is famous for its cornbread, so I ordered it on the side.  The cornbread lived up to its reptutation.  It was light, delicate and perfect.  (Sorry for the terrible picture.  I was trying to be "stealthy" as a family of tourists walked by.)

If you're ever driving north on Interstate 35, maybe on a trip to the Twin Cities, take a few extra minutes to visit Starboard Market in Clear Lake.  Or stop at one of the many other restaurants in downtown Clear Lake.  It's a much better alternative to the fast-food choices along the Interstate, and it's just a couple miles out of the way.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Garden update: Planting tulips

Last weekend, I spent an afternoon cleaning up my garden after the first hard frost.  I dug up as many gladiolus and dahlia bulbs that I could find.  Even though I enjoy growing a backyard vegetable garden, I really love to grow flowers.  My favorite vase was full of dahlias, zinnias, asters and glads from late summer to mid-fall.  Always made me happy to look at those cheerful flowers on my kitchen counter while I was washing dishes.

I don't have a lot of garden space in my backyard, but I still like to reserve a spot each fall for planting tulips and daffodils.  It's so much fun to watch the tulips pop up in the spring before the other perennials start growing.

This year, I once again bought my tulip bulbs at Earl May, an Iowa-based garden center.  The store has an excellent selection of tulips shipped in direct from Holland.  I like that Earl May lets me mix-and-match different types of tulips, instead of having to buy one large bag of one type of tulip.  Since I have a lot of purple spring perennials in my garden, I decided to buy purple tulips and yellow daffodils this year.

By coincidence, right after I bought the tulips, I happened to watch an episode of the Martha Stewart show about planting tulips in the fall. Martha invited a couple of tulip experts from Holland to her farm, and they showed her how to "scatter" tulip bulbs in the garden for a natural look.  So instead of planting the tulips in straight rows, they took the different types of tulips, mixed them up in a paper bag, threw them on the ground, then planted the bulbs where they landed.

I decided to give the "scatter" method a try in my own backyard.  I just mixed up the different tulips and daffodils and threw them on the ground.  Then covered them up with soil and pine needles.  (I have pine needles everywhere thanks to our giant evergreen trees.)

It was a little difficult to plant tulips this year because the ground was so dry.  We went almost an entire month without rain this October!  But Iowa State University Extension recommends that Iowans plant tulips in October.  Unfortunately, I noticed last weekend that a few squirrels have already dug up a couple of the bulbs.  I could probably remedy that with a little bit of chicken wire fencing, but I'm not sure I like the look of it, so I'll probably just take my chances with the squirrels.  But I'll have to figure something out in the spring before the rabbits get to tulips.  They ate all my tulips last year!

I also planted a few garlic cloves just for fun.  Last year, I planted a large patch of garlic.  But for some reason, the garlic died back way too early, around July 4, and never grew large enough to harvest.  My husband told me just to leave the remaining garlic in the ground and see if it will grow bigger next spring.  Sure enough, the garlic started to green up again this fall. Gardening is always an experiment, isn't it?

Did you plant tulips or garlic this fall?  Do you have any planting tips you can share? Or any advice on how to keep the squirrels and rabbits away?  I'm always looking for new ideas.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Iowa recipes: Caramel Apple Bars

Nope, I'm not done with apple recipes yet.  I made these caramel apple bars for my husband the other day, and he loved them!  This recipe is a keeper.

I found the recipe for caramel apple bars in an Iowa ag newspaper. Just goes to show, farm women know how to bake!

These bars actually turned out more like a coffee cake.  My favorite part was pouring the caramel sauce on top, of course.

My husband loved the coconut on top of these bars.  Who knew that apple and coconut were a perfect pairing?

Here's the recipe if you want to give them a try.  Enjoy!


Caramel apple bars

  • 1 C. pecans, chopped
  • 2/3 C. brown sugar
  • 1 C. coconut
  • 2-1/2 C. flour
  • 1-1/2 C. sugar
  • 1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 C. evaporated milk
  • 1/3 C. water
  • 2 C. apples, peeled and finely shredded or chopped

  • 2/3 C. brown sugar
  • 1/2 C. evaporated milk
  • 4 Tbls. butter, softened

Combine pecans, brown sugar and coconut in bowl and set aside. In mixing bowl, combine the next six ingredients.  In a small bowls, combine egg, milk, water and apples. Add to flour mixture. Mix well. Pour into a greased 10x15-inch pan and sprinkle with nut mixture. Bake 40 to 45 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. In a heavy saucepan, combine topping ingredients. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves and mixture thickens slightly, about 8 minutes. Poke holes with fork in top of hot bars. Immediately spoon topping over bars. Cool.

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