Monday, November 11, 2013

Boone Scenic Valley Railroad

A few weeks back, my family took a trip on the Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone.  It's been on our to-do list for quite a while, but we've never been able to get our schedules lined up to go.  In fact, my sister and I bought my dad a gift certificate to buy tickets for the train, and it took him two years to actually use them.

But the trip was worth the wait.  My dad used his gift certificate and bought us first-class tickets for the afternoon train.  My niece got to ride for free with her "first-class toddler" ticket.

Again, I was having so much fun catching up with my family, I didn't take very many photos.  I did get this picture of the Des Moines River Valley as we went over the Kate Shelley high bridge.  The train engine let off a puff of steam so we could see a rainbow over the valley.

I thought I'd share just a few tips if you are planning a trip on the Scenic Valley Railroad. (I could tell by all the out-of-town license plates that it's a pretty popular tourist attraction.)

I would recommend spending the extra money for a first-class ticket.  The first-class car is a double-decker, and it was fun to take a seat up above. We also found out the first-class section is air-conditioned, which was nice since it was a little warm that day.

Also, there were four different train rides on the day we visited, so it was hard to find a parking spot.  I ended up parking on the street.

We got there a couple hours early and decided to eat lunch at the concession stand. But the concession stand was tiny and only offered hot dogs and brats for lunch.  When we ordered hot dogs, the volunteer behind the counter took four huge, frozen-solid hot dogs out of the freezer, and then microwaved them as we watched!  We couldn't believe that she had to microwave the hotdogs! And the hot dogs weren't cooked through when she served them.

I don't blame the volunteer; she probably had the worst job of the day, because there were a lot of people at the concession stand and she was working by herself.  But if you do go and want to have lunch, I recommend bringing your own food and eating at the picnic tables in the adjacent park.  Just a suggestion if you plan your own visit.  There is a dinner train at night that serves a meal from Hy-Vee, but we really enjoyed the afternoon ride.

It was a great family trip, and as you can see, my niece seemed to enjoy the day.  She even slept on the train!

Have you ever been on the Scenic Valley Railroad or another passenger train excursion?  What did you think of the trip?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Pumpkin bread & autumn in Iowa

I think I've mentioned before that I'm trying to focus my time on family favorite recipes.  Now that canned pumpkin is on sale at the local grocery store, I'm baking up loaves of pumpkin bread to freeze and share with my family.  I can't believe how many recipe variations there are for simple pumpkin bread!  I finally settled on the version I found from Better Homes and Gardens.  It has my favorite fall spices -- nutmeg and cinnamon (I can't believe some pumpkin bread recipes don't have cinnamon!).  It also uses vegetable oil instead of shortening. 

It's a great recipe. My only complaint is I don't think my old oven is working right.  It takes forever to bake anything lately, including these pumpkin bread loaves.  And by the time it was finally cooked through the middle, the outside was a little dark and dry.  We probably should replace our oven, but we've got so many other projects on our list right now!

Before I share the recipe, I thought it would be fun to show off my neighborhood in the fall.  I live in a small town with a lot of old, large trees, and each tree turns a different color.

 Unfortunately, I also have quite a few leaves to rake up!

The first freezing night finally arrived two weeks ago.  I picked the few last flowers from my garden before they were gone.

For Halloween this year, I made the popcorn ball recipe from Two Chicks from the Sticks.  It was my first attempt at making popcorn balls, and they were so good!  They tasted like caramel popcorn.  You can buy the Two Chicks cookbook here.

Here's the pumpkin bread recipe, if you want to try it at home.  Enjoy!


Pumpkin bread

  • 3-1/3 C. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1-1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1-1/2 C. sugar
  • 1-1/2 C. brown sugar
  • 1 C. vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 2/3 C. water
  • One 15-oz. can pumpkin

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of two 9x5x3-inch pans, three 8x4x2-inch or four 7-1/2 x 3-1/2 x 2-inch loaf pans; set aside. In a large bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, 2 tsp. cinnamon, salt and nutmeg; set aside.

In an extra-large mixing bowl, beat granulated sugar, brown sugar and oil with an electric mixer on medium speed until combined. Add eggs; beat well. Alternately add flour mixture with the water to egg mixture, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined. Beat in pumpkin. Spoon batter into the prepared loaf pans, spreading evenly.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes for 9x5-inch loaves, 45 to 50 minutes for 8x4-inch loaves, 40 to 45 minutes for 7-1/2 x 3-inch loaves, or until a wooden toothpick inserted near the centers comes out clean.

Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove from pans. Cool completely on wire racks. Wrap and store overnight.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Homemade pretzels

Pretzels must be a hot food trend right now, because I've been seeing them everywhere -- in cooking magazines, on fast-food menus, at the grocery store bakery.  I took a few days off of work earlier this fall and decided to try a pretzel recipe I found in the latest issue of Hy-Vee's Seasons magazine.

I was surprised by how easy this recipe is. I mixed and kneaded the dough in my Kitchenaid mixer.  (Thanks again to my parents & sister for giving me the mixer for my birthday!)  The dough rose beautifully.  The hardest part was rolling out the pretzels. I don't have enough counter space to roll out the dough in long ropes.  So my pretzels puffed up quite a bit in the oven and ended up looking more like pretzel rolls than knots.

My hubby got the bright idea to turn the pretzels into hamburger buns. He made blue-cheese mushroom burgers (with Maytag blue cheese).  So good!

You can find the Hy-Vee Seasons pretzel recipe here:

Have you ever made homemade pretzels?  Do you have any tips for shaping the pretzels?  I'm definitely going to try this again, now that I know how easy it really is.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Crumb topped apple pie

A few weeks back, my mom and I rode on the annual Boland, Iowa, bike ride and we were treated to pie at the finish. I picked the crumb topped apple pie and loved it so much I wanted to make it at home.

Pie after our Boland bike ride

I clipped a recipe for crumb topped apple pie from Taste of Home a couple years ago. I loved the back story behind the pie: The 80 year old pie baker from West Des Moines makes dozens of apple pies each fall for her son's business clients. Sounds like her recipe is a keeper!

My apple pie didn't turn out as pretty as the recipe photo, but it tastes terrific. I used MacIntosh apples from Center Grove Orchard near Cambridge, Iowa.

Click here for a link to the recipe, if you want to give it a try:

Monday, September 30, 2013

Osage artisan festival

Last weekend, I drove up to my hometown in northern Iowa to visit my mom and stepdad.  My mom suggested that we drive to nearby Osage and check out the town's fall artisan festival.  We didn't know what to expect.  We thought we'd find a few food booths and a couple pumpkins to buy.  But boy, were we surprised by what we saw!  The main street was lined with food and craft vendors. Visitors were walking up and down the street, in and out of stores, wearing their knee-high leather boots and drinking pumpkin lattes. My mom and I had no idea it was such a big event!

I wish I would have taken more pictures, but I've been told it's kind of a "no-no" to take photos at a craft fair. The vendors don't want other people stealing their project ideas -- although maybe that's not as big of an issue nowadays with Pinterest and all.

Anyhow, I took a photo of the "Autumn" sign above, because I wanted to buy it but didn't have the cash.  (Again, we had no idea that it was a craft fair, so I didn't budget for it. If I go again next year, I'll save up some spending money!)  I also thought this jack o' latern chair was adorable.

Here's one of the parking lots full of vendors.  There were four of these vendor lots, if I recall correctly.

There was a taco truck that had a huge line of people, and the food looked wonderful.  But my stepdad wanted to stop at one of his favorite Osage restaurants, Teluwat.  The place was packed, but we managed to snag a table by sharing it with a group of really nice women, one of whom told us that she had more than 30 grandkids and four great-grandkids! She was adorable!

My stepdad and I ordered the special of the day: the breaded pork tenderloin.  It was huge, but so good!

Everyone told us that we had to stop at the new Unc's Cheesecake bakery in town.  We were so full after lunch, we didn't sample the cheesecake.  But my mom and I did order a couple of carrot cake balls for the ride home. Actually, I thought they were pumpkin cake balls, but when I ate mine the next day, it turned out to be carrot cake.  Still very good, although I really wanted pumpkin!

Sugar cookies decorated for fall.

Carrot cake balls for the ride home.

Have you been to any fun fall festivals this year?  I'm always looking for a new one to visit.  I just love this time of year!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Homemade salsa

I'm happy to say that despite the dry weather, my garden tomatoes and peppers have been plentiful this year.  I planted jalapenos earlier in the summer (I found a three-pack of jalapeno seedlings for 99 cents at Fareway!)  So I thought it would be fun to try to make salsa at home.

I've never made salsa before, mostly because my husband is super picky about salsa.  Like the three little bears, he doesn't like his salsa too watery, or too hot, or too thin. I asked him what he thought the perfect salsa recipe would look like.  He said the salsa had to be thick, like the Pace picante sauce we get at the grocery store. The recipe has to have vinegar in it, he says, and a little bit of heat, but not too much.

I searched and searched for a recipe that meets his requirements, and finally landed on the Rockin' Salsa recipe from Allrecipes. (Click here for the recipe.)  I modified the recipe a bit, because all I had were jalapenos, not banana peppers and such.  I was a little worried about all the sugar in the recipe, but it really didn't taste overly sweet, and it makes a huge batch. I also didn't can the recipe; I froze the extra salsa instead.  I don't feel comfortable canning recipes that aren't USDA approved to ensure food safety.

Do you have a favorite salsa recipe?  How do you like your salsa?  I'm glad I found something that my super picky husband really likes.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Grandma's refrigerator pickles

I've been holding out on you guys. I've been meaning to share my grandma's refrigerator pickle recipe, but kept putting it off.

This is my go-to recipe when the cucumbers are plentiful in my garden. My grandma shared it with me after I just graduated from college and was learning to cook on my own. She used the giant cucumbers that my grandpa grew from an old hog lot he turned into a garden. Old hog manure turned out to be excellent fertilizer!

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


Grandma's refrigerator pickles

4 cups sugar
4 cups vinegar
1/2 cups salt
1-1/3 tsp. mustard seed
3 onions, sliced
Cucumbers to fill a gallon jar

Mix all ingredients together. This syrup is cold. Keep in refrigerator for five days, then they are ready to eat.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Iowa recipes: Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

So this is probably my third or fourth attempt at trying to find the perfect oatmeal raisin cookie recipe.  But I think I've finally found my favorite.  I found this recipe after digging through my old Iowa State Fair blue-ribbon cookbooks.  I love everything about this cookie: the cinnamon flavor, the plump raisins, the chewy texture.

Here's the recipe, if you want to give it a try at home.  Enjoy!


Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

  • Hot water
  • 1-1/2 C. raisins
  • 1 C. sugar
  • 1 C. brown sugar
  • 1 C. butter or margarine
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 C. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1-1/2 C. quick cooking rolled oats

Pour just enough hot water over raisins to cover; set aside. In large mixing bowl, cream sugars and butter until smooth. Beat in vanilla and eggs. Add flour, baking powder, soda and cinnamon; mix well. Stir in oats and drained raisins by hand. Drop by teaspoonsful onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake in 350 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What I've been up to: August 2013

I haven't done one of these monthly recaps in a while, but we've been super busy this summer. I always plant my garden a few weeks later than I should, so my zinnias just started blooming in August. For some reason, only the pink ones bloomed at first!

I bought my first Iowa-grown apples of the year in early August. These "Pristine" apples are from Wills Family Orchard in Adel.  I also ordered 10 pounds of peaches, grown at Wills Family Orchard, for canning. The Iowa peaches are a little smaller than the grocery store variety, but very sweet and juicy.

I won a free entry to the Sweet Corn 5K in Adel in mid-August. I've never signed up for the race before, because it's in the hottest part of the summer and it's during State Fair week, when I usually have to work. It was a fun race, and we got to run on the Adel's brick streets, which felt a little strange under my feet.  I tried not to twist an ankle on the cracks between the bricks! But the weather was perfect, and I ended up finishing with a pretty decent time (for me).  Plus, it was neat to see all the costumed runners.

This summer was my first attempt at growing "White Beauty" tomatoes.  I'm a little disappointed in them. They take forever to ripen, the plants don't bear much fruit, and the tomatoes are a little mealy, for some reason. 

 Just a random photo from my iPod: I liked the painted ornamental gourds at the Iowa State Fair's Discovery Garden this year.

I'm having way too much fun with my garden tomatoes this year.

With the late-August heatwave, my peppers are finally turning color.  I started these mini orange lunchbox peppers from seed way back in February!  The peppers are a little bigger than the mini sweet peppers at the grocery store, but they have a better flavor, I think.  I like to dip the sweet peppers in Anderson-Erickson lite party dip for an afternoon snack.

One more random photo:  I bought a new pair of running shoes after I ran 300 miles in my old shoes!  I downloaded the Shoedometer app on my iPod to keep track of my running shoe mileage. You're supposed to buy new running shoes every 300 to 400 miles.  I'm going to rotate between the old and new shoes until I hit 400 miles with the older pair.

I buy my running shoes at Fitness Sports in Windsor Heights.  They fitted me with Asics running shoes several years ago, after I complained about getting blisters on the big-toe side of my feet. The Asics are designed to keep my feet from rolling inward.  Fitness Sports has my name and shoe type in its database, so whenever I need a new pair of shoes, the salesperson just looks my name up and gives me the latest model of Asics. The shoe colors keep getting wilder every year!

Hope you enjoyed your Labor Day holiday!  Can't believe it's fall already!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Growing a pollinators' garden

I'm completely in love with bees right now.  As I've learned more about how important honeybees are for pollinating food crops, and how hard the bees work in their hives, each with their own job, I've been fantasizing about tending to a backyard beehive of my own.  But my husband reminds me that our neighbor is allergic to bees, so he probably wouldn't like living next to a beehive.  Not to mention that I have more hobbies than I have time for already.  So I've settled for planting as many bee-attracting plants in my garden as possible.

I was talking to a beekeeper who was selling honey at a local farmers market last week. We got to talking about the differences between locally sourced honey versus the name-brand honeys you find in the grocery store, which may actually come from honey produced in China!  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is nice to support the local beekeepers, and the local economy. Plus, bees pollinate so many of my favorite foods grown here in Iowa -- melons, apples, cucumbers, for example.

The beekeeper gave me a brochure with a list of bee-friendly plants for the garden.  I was glad to see that I already grow a lot of these in my backyard. Here's the list, if you want to attract more pollinators in your garden:

Annuals - Asters, calliposis, clover, marigolds, poppies, sunflowers, zinnias (my favorite!).

Perennials - Buttercups, clematis, cosmos, crocuses, dahlias, echinacea, English ivy, foxglove, geraniums, globe thistle, hollyhocks, hyacinth, rock crees, roses, sedum, snowdrops, quills, pansy, yellow hyssop.

Fruits and vegetables - Blackberries, cantaloupe, cucumbers, gourds, fruit trees, peppers, pumpkins, raspberries, squash, strawberries, watermelons, wild garlic.

Shrubs - Blueberry, butterfly bush, button bush, honey suckle, indigo, privet.

Trees - Alder, American holly, basswood, black gum, black locust, buckeyes, catalpa, eastern redbud, hawthorns, hazels, linden, magnolia, maples, mountain ash, poplar, sycamore, willows.

Herbs - Bee balm, borage, catnip, cilantro, fennel, lavender, mints, rosemary, sage, thyme.

Now whenever I buy a new perennial, I look on the tag to see if it is pollinator friendly.  And it's really made a difference.  This summer, I've seen butterflies, bees and hummingbirds when I step out my back door.

I've also seen these little guys -- Asian beetles -- which I'm not to happy about, because I know they can really do some damage on a garden. So far, I've only seen a couple.  I'm hoping I don't have many more next year.

So do you grown any bee-friendly plants on this list?  Have you had trouble with Asian beetles this year?  This is the first year I've seen them in my garden.  I'm hoping it's just a fluke because of the drought.  We've only had 1.25 inches of rain since mid-June!  I can't believe my garden is still hanging in there, but the heat this week is going to shut some plants down, I think.

Monday, August 19, 2013

2013 Iowa State Fair eats

I was lucky to visit the Iowa State Fair three times last week, twice for work and once for fun.  I took the day off on Friday and had a blast eating my way through the State Fair with my sister.  Our first stop was the corn dog stand.  We decided to stick to the original instead of trying the funky varieties offered this year (bacon maple, sweet corn & honey).

On my first afternoon at the fair, I grabbed a lamb burger at the Iowa Sheep Association's stand.  The burger was grilled perfectly.  And the lamb burgers must be popular, because people were buying them two and four at a time!

I wanted to try something a little crazy for dessert, and I saw that the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers stand was offering apples with caramel dip and bacon.  I pretty much love bacon on everything, so I thought "Why not?"  They served me an Iowa grown apple, of course.

But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when the kid behind the counter sprinkled bacon bits on top of my caramel apple.  I was hoping for chunks of bacon, not powdered bacon.  But it still was a surprisingly good combination.  I ended up eating most of this, because I loved the caramel dip!

I was also craving onion rings, and I stumbled upon a food stand offering homemade onion rings.  These onion rings are the real deal.  I had to wait 6 minutes while they cut, battered and fried them on the spot.  I think this is my new favorite fair food!

Did you visit a fair this summer?  What was your favorite food?  I wish I had the appetite to order a funnel cake, too, but I'll have to wait for next year for that one.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Tomato update: From seed to BLT

I've been so busy this summer, I haven't taken the time to give an update on my first-ever successful attempt at growing tomatoes from seed.  As you can see, it's been a pretty good year for tomatoes, even though we've only had 1.5 inch of rain since mid-June.  I run the soaker hose once a week to give the tomatoes a good 1 inch of water or so, and I think that's helped.  I posted the photo above on my Facebook page to show my mom, and one of my friends commented: "Those tomatoes aren't ripe yet!"  After a bad fruit fly infestation last year, I learned it's best to pick my tomatoes when they're just turning color, and then let them ripened on my kitchen counter.

Back in April, I started roma and orange blossom tomato seeds using a growlight and coconut fiber biodegradable trays, which I bought at Earl May.  If I remember right, the photo below was taken just three weeks after the seeds were planted. So far, everything was looking good.  I kept the trays watered, but let them dry out a little bit between waterings to let the roots get stronger.  I also fertilized them about every 2 weeks with a fertilizer specifically for seedlings.

Can you spot my garden gnome behind the tomatoes?

In mid-May, I finally got the courage to take these babies out of their indoor environment and started "hardening" them off by placing the tray under my back porch awning.  Everything was looking good until I accidentally left them outside overnight, and we got a 2.5 inch pounding rain.  When I woke up, the tomato seedlings were squashed and soaking from the heavy rain. So I dumped the excess water off and placed the seedlings in my enclosed back porch to let them dry out, but still get used to cooler temps.

A week later, I planted the the seedlings. They were pretty spindly, but the roots were so strong, they were poking through the coconut fiber "pots."  I planted the seedlings directly in the ground, without removing the pots.

Fast forward about a month later, and it's hard to believe this little seedling grew up to be a 4-foot-tall tomato plant.  This year, I'm trying to keep up the tomato plants from getting too big, rather than setting fruit, so I'm clipping the vines back every couple weeks or so.  I haven't been as careful about it as I should, but so far, the tomatoes are doing a good job setting fruit.  You might notice in the photo below that I mulch my veggie garden with grass clippings.  I also lay down a layer of newspaper underneath to help weeds from poking up.

This photo was taken in mid-June. The tomato plants are much larger now.
So that pretty much sums up my tomato growing season.  The tomatoes are actually starting to wind down because of the cooler weather this August. Oh, and the lack of rain. Can you tell I'm annoyed because we missed the rains again today?!

So how's your garden growing right now?  Do you have any tomato growing advice?  I've still got a lot to learn.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Texas brownies

I had a fierce craving for chocolate cake -- with chocolate frosting.  So I looked through my Iowa cookbooks and found this recipe for Texas brownies.  I'm pretty sure most folks call this Texas sheet cake.  They're definitely cake-like, but brownie-like at the same time.  Not sure if that makes sense, but I'm going with it :)

The frosting was definitely the best part.  It was almost like a layer of fudge on top of cake!  Can't wait to make this again for family and friends when they come to visit.

Here's the recipe, if you want to give it a try at home.  Enjoy!


Texas brownies

  • 2 sticks butter
  • 5 Tbl. cocoa
  • 1 C. water
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 2 C. flour
  • 1 Tbl. baking powder
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/3 C. buttermilk or water
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

  • 1 stick butter
  • 5 Tbl. water
  • 1 box powdered sugar
  • 4 Tbl. powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 C. walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter and combine with cocoa and water. In a separate bowl, combine flour, sugar and baking powder. Pour the butter/cocoa mixture over and mix well. Add eggs, buttermilk or water, and vanilla, beating well. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 inch pan and bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Frosting: Melt butter and combine with water, cocoa and vanilla. Add powdered sugar slowly until well combined. Stir in walnuts. 

Note: Frosting must be hot and spread on hot brownies. Cool and cut into squares.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Peach crisp

OK. So this photo looks a little bit like a mess in a bowl, but I was focused more on eating this more than taking the picture!

Peaches went on sale at my local grocery store (78 cents a pound!). I made a batch of peach jam and was planning to make a peach pie. But my hubby requested peach crisp.  I've tried a few different recipes for peach crisp (or cobbler) and haven't really found one I really like.  So I just decided to use my favorite recipe for apple crisp, but substitute peaches for the apples.  It was a good decision!  The peaches were super juicy, which is why this crisp looks a little soupy.  But the oatmeal topping was good and crunchy on top.  I ate my peach crisp with vanilla ice cream and a raspberry sauce I made based on this recipe from (Raspberries were on sale, too.)

You can find the recipe for my favorite apple crisp (and now peach crisp) from my previous post.

Do you have a favorite peach recipe?  I'm a huge fan of peach pie.  I'd like to try to make peach ice cream sometime, too.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Peaches and cream popsicles

I bought a set of popsicle molds a couple years at a local kitchen supply store. But I have to admit, I've only used them twice.  I've been seeing a lot of homemade popsicle recipes floating around the Internet again lately, so I thought it would be fun to dig these out again.

I bought these popsicle molds because of the non-stick silicone. However, I wish I would have just bought one of the cheaper popsicle mold sets at Wal-Mart. It's a little difficult to get the popsicles out of the molds when they are frozen. And the drip tray actually makes it hard to eat the bottom of the popsicle.  Here's a photo of the popsicle in the mold. Definitely cute but not very practical.

I ended up making the peaches and cream popsicles from Skinny Taste, and they were excellent.  I used non-fat milk instead of almond milk, because that's what I keep in my fridge.  I've been eating these popsicles as an after-workout snack, which has really hit the spot in this hot weather.
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