Thursday, March 28, 2013

What I've been up to: March 2013

Well, it's quite a spring we're having this year.  Our alley was a mess after all the snow and rain we received in mid-March.  Such a change from last year, when I was planting pansies in March because of the 80 degree temps.

Also this month, I stopped at the new Prairie Canary restaurant in downtown Grinnell. It's a gorgeous restaurant, with a great upscale menu. I ordered the grilled cheese pesto sandwich, which was excellent.

My family and I also stopped for lunch at  Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown.  After I posted these photos on my Facebook page, a friend told me that it used to be a no-no to put ketchup on your maid-rites at Taylor's. But now they have ketchup bottles at the counter, so I guess it's OK?

 I got to meet my new niece, Brenna Lou! She's a little shy around the camera, but such a cutie!

For work, I got to visit Berry Patch Farm in Nevada, where they are growing lettuce in greenhouses in the winter.  It was 30 degrees outside when I took this photos, but 90 degrees inside the greenhouse.  Love the Bright Light kale planted in the rows.

I'm hoping for warmer temperatures soon so I can start planting lettuce in my own garden.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sewer line repair

A few weekends ago, my hubby noticed that our sewer line was slowly backing up in our basement. This happens to us every spring when the snow starts to melt.  There are tree roots growing into the tile line that's our sewer line, so we have to call the Rotor Rooter folks out a couple times a year to clear up the line.

Well, this time, the Rotor Rooter guy couldn't clear up the line. So we brought in another drain expert, and he told us that a section of the tile line had collapsed, and he'd have to dig it up and repair it.  We knew this repair was a long time coming, so we weren't too shocked by the news.  It just wasn't the best time of year for digging up the yard. The ground was very soft and muddy, and the backhoe left tracks in the front yard.

The repair crew was very professional, though, and we're so happy to have the sewer line fixed. We couldn't run water for almost a week, which meant we couldn't wash dishes, flush the toilets or take long showers. We ate a lot of sandwiches off paper plates, and I took showers at the local gym.  Like I said, I'm happy it's fixed and now I can get back to the kitchen to try some new recipes!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

ISU's mobile maple syrup sugar shack

March is maple syrup season here in Iowa.  We don't have a lot of maple groves in central Iowa, but there are a few maple syrup farms in north-east and eastern Iowa. A few weeks ago, Iowa State University forestry students brought the mobile maple syrup sugar shack to the Iowa Arboretum near Madrid. It's a trailer that's been outfitted with a wood-fired maple syrup evaporator, donated to the university by a fellow Iowan.

Here's an exterior photo to show that the sugar shack is indeed on wheels and mobile.

And here's the inside of the sugar shack, with the wood-fired evaporator.  It was a cold day, with temperatures below freezing, so there wasn't any maple sap flowing from the trees yet.  The maple sap starts flowing when the daytime temps reach above freezing, while the nighttime temps dip below freezing. For the demonstration, they filled the evaporator with tap water to show how it works to "evaporate" the sap down into a thick syrup.

Logs to fuel the evaporator.
 The mobile sugar shack is lined with fire-proof material for safety, and there's a chimney to vent the smoke.

Also during the event, the ISU forestry students served up a pancake breakfast with real maple syrup.  I can't pass up a good pancake feed!

The ISU maple sugar shack tours the state in the spring. You can also find it on the ISU campus. (I was told that it's located near the greenhouses by Agronomy Hall, but I'm not exactly sure if I'm remembering that right.)

Do you have a favorite maple syrup recipe?  I've been looking for a fun maple recipe to try out at home.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Carrot cake

I haven't been able to do a lot of baking lately, but I did find time to try out this carrot cake recipe I found in the January/February 2013 issue of Taste of Home. This recipe was crazy good, but it also has a crazy thick layer of cream cheese frosting on top. It was almost too much frosting. Almost. My hubby really enjoyed the addition of crushed pineapple in the cake.

Here's the recipe, if you want to try it at home.  This would be a terrific cake for Easter or to bring to a church potluck.  Enjoy!


Carrot Cake
Recipe from Taste of Home

  • 3 C. shredded carrots
  • 1 can (20 oz.) crushed pineapple, well drained
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 1 C. canola oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 C. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon

  • 1 package (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 C. butter, softened
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3-3/4 C. confectioners' sugar

In a large bowl, beat the first five ingredients until well blended. In another bowl, mix the flour, baking soda and cinnamon; gradually beat into carrot mixture.

Transfer mixture to a greased 13-inch-by-9-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  Cool completely in pan on wire rack.

For frosting, in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla until blended. Gradually beat in confectioners' sugar until smooth. Spread over cake. Cover and refrigerate leftovers.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tropical fruits

A couple weeks back, before we got another 2 feet of snow in early March (seriously, what's the deal with this winter that won't die?), I decided to go a little crazy -- or as crazy as boring ol' me ever gets -- and load up my basket at Hy-Vee's tropical fruit sale.

When I arrived at the grocery store early Saturday morning, one of the produce guys was stacking these little monsters on the display shelf.  I asked what in the world was this spiky fruit, and how are you supposed to eat it.  He told me it's a hairy lychee. You don't eat the peel (or is it the hair?). Instead, you split the shell open and eat the fruit in the center.  He offered me a sample, and after I popped it in my mouth, he warned me: "Don't bite down! There's a pit."  So there's actually not much fruit involved, just "hair."  And no, it doesn't actually have the texture of hair; more prickly like a hair brush.  Still fun to eat, though.

Split the shell, then eat the fruit. But don't bite into the pit!
What I was actually looking for was the dragon fruit, which was also on sale.  Several years back, when I was fortunate enough to take a work trip to China, I remember they served sliced dragon fruit at every meal.  It's such an alien-looking fruit.  My husband couldn't believe that there was a fruit with white and black polka dots.

Maybe it looks a little like a dragon if you use your imagination.

Dragon fruit's white and black interior with a hot pink peel.
 I have to admit, the dragon fruit wasn't quite a sweet as I remembered.  Maybe because in China, they don't use a lot of sugar in their meals, so the dragon fruit tasted sweet after going a week without eating a cookie?  More likely, I think it wasn't quite ripe.  It should taste a lot like a kiwi.

On my way to the checkout aisle, one of the store employees recommended I try the star fruit too.  It sure was fun to cut up at home. Look how cute it is? But again, I would say it wasn't my favorite; it didn't have a lot of flavor,  and I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to eat the peel or not. It's kind of impossible to take the peel off, unless you are really good at cutting around the star-shaped angles.

So have you ever tried any of these tropical fruits?  What did you think?  And do you know, was I eating the star fruit wrong?  I sure loved the display of tropical fruits at the local Hy-Vee store.  It was a nice reprieve from the snowy weather outside.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Iowa recipes: Lemon salmon

After indulging in bacon and desserts over the past few weekends, I've been wanting to eat a little healthier at home.  I picked up a copy of the Centsable Health magazine at my local Fareway store, and I decided to give one of the salmon recipes a try.

This recipe for lemon salmon looked the easiest for a beginner like me. My hubby and I decided to play around with the seasonings. He cut the salmon fillets in half, then he added steak seasoning to a few pieces.  I added dill and rosemary to the others.  Then I topped them with sliced lemon. 

Everything turned out perfect, but my husband still isn't sold on salmon.  He doesn't like the taste for some reason, but he did like the salmon served cold, flaked into smaller pieces and then mixed into a romaine lettuce salad with the salad dressing of his choosing. He told me he would like to eat salmon that way again sometime, so I'll take that as a victory in trying to get him to eat healthier!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Iowa recipe: Healthier Meatloaf

I'm embarrassed that this is the best photo I got of the meatloaf recipe I recently tried.  The meatloaf didn't stick together that well because I added more ground beef than was called for from the recipe.  So it's my fault; I don't blame the recipe.

One of my favorite blogs is Iowa State University Extension's "Spend Smart. Eat Smart." I've learned a ton about meal planning from this blog and the website that goes with it.  The big take-away that I've learned from this website is that when it comes to meal planning, less is more.  Healthy meals at home don't have to be complicated or expensive.  Just keep your pantry stocked with ingredients for easy meals that your family enjoys. 

I used to buy groceries whenever our cupboards were bare, and then I'd go on a huge shopping trip and fill my cart until it was overflowing. But after following the advice from ISU Extension, now I go shopping once a week, and I'm more careful to plan my meals around what is on sale. It's made my trips to the grocery store a lot less stressful and helps me manage my food budget better.

In February, the "Spend Smart. Eat Smart" website featured this recipe for Mouthwatering Meatloaf. I loved the healthy ingredients: shredded carrots, oats and skim milk.  So I gave it a try and was very happy with the results.  It's a pretty basic recipe, but you can play around with the spices if you want.  My husband added a little mustard in the ketchup topping before we placed it back in the oven to finish cooking.  We also liked that the recipe says to cook the meatloaf on a broiler pan so the fat drips away.

Oh, and if you're wondering, you can't taste the carrots in the finished dish, so I'm sure kids will like this meatloaf, too!  Please let me know what you think if you give it a try.
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