Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Sunday, June 29, 2014

About me: Why do I can?

This is a question I am asked quite often. "Why do you can?"  Well, why not? 

Canning has been part of "me" for years. Once part of every homemaker's routine, modern convenience, dual income families and busy schedules pushed canning to the back burner. It began "something Grandma did" and over time became a lost food art. But there is something special and rewarding about seeing the shelves lined with those beautiful jars of colorful food. The hours of hard work, time spent over a steaming kettle of water, waiting for the weighted gauge to jiggle, and listening to the musical ping of sealing jars makes it all worth it. Throw in the various social media groups of other canners and I have become good friends with loads of people all over the world, all with a common passion- canning.

As I have gotten older I no longer have the really big garden like I once did, and I don't have the variety of vegetables and fruits as before. These days I love spending an afternoon at the pick-your-own farm loading up a couple hundred pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and take my bounty home to spend a couple days making salsa, pickles and canned tomatoes of all kinds. I stock up on berries when they are in season or on sale and freeze them for jams and jellies later. Generous friends with way too much rhubarb or a yard full of apple trees always offer all the freebies we can pick. As the garden season comes to an end, the pick-your-own farm has a free pick day and friends with an abundance of green tomatoes give them away by the box full. Any given day you can stop by my house and find piles of beautiful produce waiting to be transformed.

I have very generous friends, with lots of apple trees!
Another benefit of home-canning is having control over what goes in our food. I carefully examine the vegetables for bad spots and spoilage- something a factory assembly line cannot guarantee. Nothing chemical or artificial goes into my home canned foods. The glass jars don't leave that metallic taste some commercially canned foods have and the jars are reusable. Chemical-free and recyclable containers- that's a pretty good couple of reasons right there! Don't get me wrong, we aren't health nuts or anti-GMO protesters or chemical-free advocates at all, but it's nice to know we're eating fresh, wholesome food.

Creativity comes into play as well. I can make fruit combinations for jams that you would never find in a store. Pickled vegetable combinations are up to me. I can turn up the heat in salsa by adding different, hotter peppers to get just the right melt-your-face-off heat that we love so much. Keep in mind, when you start to play with and alter tested recipes you may be venturing off into uncharted waters. I am willing to take this risk for myself because I feel like I make SAFE choices and don't change things that make foods unsafe for canning at home. You should know, however, that if you ONLY want to use tested and approved recipes, many of these are not. I stick very very close to the tested versions though, for safety's sake, and never sell any of my home canned foods. 

Nothing boosts a person's self esteem more than winning, and entering jars of home canned foods in the county fair is a great way for me to get that little pat on the back I sometimes need. Everything from humble green beans to elaborate relishes and conserves get loaded into boxes and displayed on shelves in the Guthrie County Fair's Arts Building. I entered for the first time in 2013 and was surprised to win several ribbons! I've already planned my entries for 2014 and am looking forward to seeing what my results are this year.

Just a few of the entries for the 2014 Guthrie County Fair
So what is on my canning agenda for the summer season of 2014? Lots of fun things. I have been searching high and low for gooseberries for a very special recipe I have been working on for two years. As always, loads and loads of tomatoes. Last year I ended up with a few odd zucchini and tomatoes at the end of the summer and I canned them together with garlic- NOW, heated up and tossed with some pasta I have a delicious, meat-free meal in the time it takes to cook the pasta, so this year I will be making that on purpose! I am hoping to make some jams with foraged fruits and berries too, now that I have the wild plums pinned down (and the trees are BRIMMING with unripe plums right now) and loads of mulberry trees and wild blackberry brambles everywhere. I might even get lucky and find some wild grapes this year too.

So.......why do YOU can?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Easy Summer Pasta Salad

Pasta salad. It's just about everyone's favorite. It's easy to make, easy to transport, and is one of the easiest recipes to switch up and add or take out things you don't like. It can be mayo-based or vinaigrette dressed. Almost any shape of pasta works, it's all up to you.

Myself, I prefer penne pasta when making pasta salad, and I always make a homemade vinaigrette. Lots of people use Italian dressing and that's great too, I just prefer to make my own. I love adding as many vegetables as I have on hand, fresh and colorful, and that can change the way my salad tastes. It can go from herby and fresh with lots of bell pepper, Italian parsley and carrots to spicy and Asian-influenced with edamame, sliced radish and cucumber.

Let's start with the dressing. Everyone should have a basic vinaigrette dressing they can whip up without thinking about it. This is my personal favorite, using Dijon mustard, and it's super delicious.

You will need-

  • 1/4 vinegar- I like Champagne vinegar or red wine vinegar, and sometimes I use half vinegar/half lemon juice
  • 1 TB Dijon mustard
  • pinch of salt, fresh ground black pepper
  • pinch of thyme, minced finely
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
Combine everything in a jar, cover and shake well until completely blended.

Now cook your pasta. Like I said, I prefer penne, but you can use anything, even spaghetti if you break it into smaller lengths. Farfalle is nice also and looks pretty with the vegetables. Always cook pasta in lots of salty water- and salty like sea water. This is the only way to season the pasta itself, so make sure you always use salt in the water. Cook to al dente and drain well. Rinse the pasta with plenty of cold water to stop the cooking process. 

In a large bowl toss the pasta with your choice of chopped vegetables. I like to use olives; chopped onion; chopped bell pepper or banana pepper; shredded carrots; chopped cucumber; sliced radishes; chopped fresh herbs; fresh green peas or snow peas; drained canned garbanzo beans; halved grape tomatoes- of course not all at the same time, but whatever I have on hand. Toss the mixture with enough dressing to moisten, cover and refrigerate until cold. Toss again before serving, adding more dressing if you need to. 

Some people like to add cubed cheese, if that sounds good to you, go for it. I like to make BIG batches of it so I can snack and lunch on it for a few days, so I leave cheese out. You can also add cut up Italian meats like salami or pepperoni too. Grilled chicken or shrimp makes it a whole meal, but I think it's just fine alongside a grilled burger, steak or chicken. Simple, and delicious.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

City Girl's Wine Journal- Gewurtztraminer

Ahhh, Gewurztraminer. One of the most incredible of all the white wine grapes in the world. Definitely one of my favorites. It's pink skin hints at wonderful things to come. It's a very perfumey and aromatic wine. It's a lower acid wine, which I really love, and it's very fruity. Typically a German wine it translates literally to "spiced traminer". Traminer is a different varietal and Gewurztraminer is a mutation of that varietal.

A lot of people describe Gewurztraminer as rose-scented, with lychee notes and Turkish Delight (a popular candy in England). You will notice a lot of stonefruits such as mango, peach and apricot. It's rare to find this varietal outside of Europe but it's really gained a presence in South African vineyards.

This wine I have today is a Robertson Winery 2007 Gewurztraminer. I've had it in my collection all these years. Carefully stowed away in a wine fridge, it has been patiently waiting for me to open it, and explore the wine of South Africa. The Robertson Winery was established in 1941. Named after Dr. William Robertson, a Scottish minister who landed in 1822, the winery was named after him to honor his work. He founded a church on the property and many years later, in 1941, the winery acquired the church and converted it for winemaking and cellaring. Today the winery is led by 7th generation winemakers. Thirty five families cultivate the land today and take great pride in the wines produced there.

I found this wine to be very floral- lots of honeysuckle and rose aromas. Not overly sweet but a hint of honey lies in there. I drank mine with a piece of German apple cake and it was a fantastic accompaniment. It would pair beautifully with Swiss, Havarti, or other soft cheeses. For savory dishes, pair with an onion tart or almost any Asian dish. It also went PERFECT with that apple pecan cake !!

My impressions? I sincerely hope I can find this wine again. Of course, newer vintages will be different and I'm sure I won't have the patience to wait 7-8 years. If you guys find it, give it a try. I'm anxious to try the other varietals from Robertson Winery now!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Cleaning out the freezer cake

Remember last fall when we had bushels upon bushels of apples at the Little Lake House? Roasters full of apple butter simmered for days, and the cupboards quickly filled with jars of cinnamony apple goodness for toast, and many, many jars of applesauce. The dehydrator worked overtime drying apple chips for snacking, and a stack of ready-to-bake pies went into the freezer. But not only pies went in the freezer. Bags and bags of sliced apples, waiting for cakes, pies, jams and more still fill the freezer. I need to make room for fresh things from this season!

Apple cake has always been a favorite of mine. It's easy to mix up and get in the oven. No need to haul out the big Kitchenaid- you can mix this up with a whisk in a bowl. The bonus is, it's a great way to use up all those sliced apples in the freezer. It's homey, old-fashioned and reminds me of old church cookbook recipes.
I had canned apples, frozen apples, apple butter, apple sauce......
To make the cake you need:

2 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
2 tsp cinnamon
dash of nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
4 cups sliced, peeled apples (I am using frozen)
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (black walnuts are excellent)

In bowl, stir together dry ingredients and set aside. In large bowl whisk eggs and oil together until well combined. Whisk in sugars and vanilla until completely combined. Gradually mix in dry ingredients until thoroughly combined. Don't worry if the batter seems dry- it should be a lot like cookie dough.

During baking the apples release enough liquid to moisten the cake. Fold in apples and walnuts.
I used pecans because that's what I had on hand.
Spread the mixture into a greased and floured cake pan (I am using a 9x13 pan) and spread and "smoosh" it down evenly. 

Bake in 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes in a 9x13 pan, or 55-60 minutes in a Bundt pan. You can also bake this batter in muffin tins (bake about 20-25 minutes) and then pop them in the freezer for easy-to-thaw snacks or even breakfast. **Note- since I am working with frozen sliced apples I am adding about 8-10 minutes to my baking time. If you use frozen, be sure and allow for that. DO NOT thaw apples first though. They won't fold in, they will break up.

My mom often added raisins to this cake too, which is super delicious. You will want to eat this one up fast- the apples keep the cake so moist. You can serve this cake with a dollop of whipped cream but you DEFINITELY don't need frosting. A drizzle of caramel sauce on the plate before adding the cake looks elegant, but go easy on the caramel with this rich cake. It also looks pretty with a little sprinkle of confectioners' sugar dusted over the top- but do so immediately before serving as the cake is so moist it will melt the sugar after a bit. 

Keep an eye out for more apple recipes coming up soon- I have A LOT to use up. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

City Girl's Wine Journal- LaCrosse

One of my favorite Iowa grapes is the LaCrosse. It's a semi-sweet grape that's often mixed with a drier white grape to get an off-dry white wine that's fruity and delicious. Fireside's LaCrosse is an excellent representation of that grape. Here is the factoid breakdown: LaCrosse grapes are a hybrid developed in Minnesota in the 70s by Elmer Swensen. They were developed by hybridizing Seyval Blanc and a numbered Minnesota varietal. LaCrosse is grown all across the midwest as it is very cold-hardy and can usually withstand temps to -25 degrees. Our last winter was that brutal, and hopefully the majority of the vines have made it!

Iowa grows about 1/4 of all the La Crosse grapes grown in the US. Unlike many wine grapes, LaCrosse is also suitable for fresh eating. Some wine grapes just are not good for popping in the mouth- too tart, too much tannin, too seedy. A nice bunch of LaCrosse grapes makes a great addition to a cheese plate, especially during a tasting.

This time we're doing something a little bit different with this wine, since I happened to have two bottles- one from 2007 and another from 2012. Now normally you wouldn't age a white wine much more than five years, but apparently this one was overlooked in the cabinet!

2007, left, and 2012, right
Fireside's 2007 LaCrosse is a lighter style white similar to Riesling- especially those not grown in the US or Europe, which tend to be drier. I expected it to be on the dry side but it was actually quite a bit more on the sweet side, but not overpoweringly so. Maybe because of it's age? Big grape flavors, almost jammy, which I usually find in red wines, hints of citrus, green grass, and a slight minerality. If you are unfamiliar with the term "minerality", which you will find in wine descriptions quite often, I'll do my best to describe it. It's an earthy note- not spice, not sweet or dry, not a fruit flavor, but more in the aroma. Think of the fresh smell after a rain- the way the sidewalk smells. Minerality is affected by where and how the vines grow, what's in the soil. If you were to gather up a small bowlful of rocks, get them wet, then smell the fragrance, that is a good way to imagine minerality. This wine also boasts 13% alcohol, which is really pretty substantial.

The 2007 bottle has a deeper amber color and was noticeably sweeter
Then we move on to the 2012 LaCrosse. I was tempted at first to stash it away for a few years and see what happens, but I decided not to. The first thing I noticed was the difference in color. The 2007 had almost an amber hue in comparison.This one is more straw-colored, like a Riesling. It is less sweet than the 2007 vintage, and has some similarities to Riesling, but also to Pinot Gris. The 2012 does not have the same pronounced minerality as the 2007 did, and it has a lot of stone fruit and citrus flavors. It is a very enjoyable wine and would be a perfect pairing with strong cheeses and anything off the grill. I loved this vintage!

LaCrosse is a wine created with food in mind. It's a great wine to serve with roasted or grilled chicken and seafood- it's slight sweetness is a nice counterpoint for spicy barbeque sauce. Serving fish? Perfect. Main dish salads and even pastas with creamy sauces go well with this wine. If you're looking for good cheese to pair with this wine look to cheddars, baby Swiss and Boursin.

Fireside Winery is located in Marengo, Iowa, but they sell through numerous vendors across the state. Check their website for a retailer near you, or plan a trip to the winery! You will love it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

City Girl's Wine Journal- Edelweiss

Just up the road from the Little Lake House is a pretty cool old schoolhouse. Now remodeled and home to Dale Valley Winery, it's one of my favorite places in the region to visit. The building is quite fantastic, restored with great care and some schoolhouse memories left intact, and features a nice tasting bar.

While my sister and I were avoiding getting wet on our terribly rainy garage sale day, we decided to stop in the winery and see what was new. Wine flavored lip glosses for one thing, and a custom made bath soap that contains some of the actual wine from the winery. Amazing fragrance!

Since my nephew was along for the ride (and old enough to drive,but not old enough to drink) we had a designated driver so.......let the wine tasting commence! We tried several wines that day and they were all so delicious.

I always buy a couple (or several) bottles to take home and today was no exception. I really love wines made from the Iowa-grown grape Edelweiss. It is so versatile- it can be made into a sweeter wine, and kept quite a bit on the dry side. 

Today I bought a bottle of the new limited release, Estate Edelwiess, which, unlike their other Edelweiss wine, which is a little sweeter, with green apple and tropical fruit notes, the Estate release is much drier. It's acidic, fruity, and reminds me of Granny Smith apples and limes. Quite tart, not a lot of tannins but brings on a nice pucker. It's great for drinking on its own or made into a white sangria to sweeten it up a bit.

All of the wines here are wonderful, and the labels all feature a cute depiction of a one room schoolhouse. If you are ever in west central Iowa be sure and check out Dale Valley- you will love it!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Canning Cookbook- Canning Springtime

What do you look forward to every spring? Fresh asparagus? Beautiful spring flowers? Fresh berries of every color? Me too! All of it, every one of them and so much more. One of my favorite spring and early summer foods is the wonderful, juicy sweet strawberry. Strawberry farms do so well in Iowa, and I'm lucky enough to live near one.

Lots of strawberries means I need to find lots of ways to hang on to that juicy sweet memento so I have something to carry me through the cold winter months. Strawberry jam is always a favorite, and strawberries pair so well with other fruits too- like mangoes. I was lucky enough to find strawberries and mangoes ripe and ready at the same time, so you know what that means- time to make some jam!

Strawberry Mango Jam

3 cups sliced strawberries (measure them AFTER slicing of course)
2 mangoes, cut into dice- should be about 1 1/2 cups
zest of one orange, finely shredded
2 TB bottled lemon juice, NOT fresh
1 box powdered pectin
5 1/2 cups sugar

Combine the fruit, lemon juice and pectin in large pot. Bring to boiling, crushing the fruit. Add sugar all at once and stir to dissolve. Bring back to boiling, and boil hard for exactly one minute (just like almost every jam with pectin recipe you'll ever see).  Remove from heat, skim off any foam. Ladle into hot, sterile jars and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. You should get 6-8 half pints from this recipe.

This jam is soooo pretty in the jars, and so so so delicious. I'm sure you and your family will love it. 

*Note- if you do happen to find good deals on different fruits throughout the year, you CAN freeze them and use them to make jams later. I like to cut them up and freeze on cookie sheets until solid, then bag in freezer bags- easy to measure! Plus the cut-up fruits are handy for smoothies, ice cream, desserts, breakfast- whatever you like.

Monday, June 9, 2014

City Girl's Wine Journal- Firefly

Nestled in the farmland in eastern Iowa, close to the historic Amana Colonies, lies one of Iowa's true treasures, Fireside Winery. Iowa has been growing as a wine-producing state by leaps and bounds in the past ten years and Fireside is one of the must-see wineries. Founded in 2005 by Bill and Rona Wyant, whose passion for wine and "life is too short" credo inspired them to share great wines with their guests.

The wine I have selected to try tonight is Firefly. It's a light and fruity rose that reminds me of strawberries. There are no strawberries in this wine though. It's a blend of Catawba, Cayuga, Chambourcin and Merlot grapes with just enough sweetness to make it a great sipping wine. It's a great second step wine for new wine drinkers too, people who are ready to move beyond moscato into something more complex. It also would be a great wine to serve with a light lunch, like a salad or sandwich. It's no slouch either, with 12% alcohol, it can pack a punch.

Fireside has many wonderful wines (I should know, I have tried them all!) with something for everyone, from very dry reds to sweet white wines and port-style dessert wines with that extra punch of alcohol. I'm looking forward to sharing each one with you and I hope you get a chance to visit the beautiful Italian villa-esque winery and tasting room. It's truly a magnificent place with lots of room to relax with a bottle and take in the wonderful Iowa country air.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The White Pole Road Marathon and Three Crazy Goofballs

Every summer here in rural Iowa we have a day-long event that spans five towns, many miles, and lots and lots and lots of sales. The Old Great White Way is now known as White Pole Road. Originating just to the east of Dexter, in Dallas County, the road meanders through Stuart, Menlo and Casey, in Guthrie County, and ends in Adair, in Adair County. Part of one of the original cross-country roads, our quiet little piece of history was once a busy thoroughfare.

If you've ever seen the Disney movie Cars, then you'll understand the fate of The Great White Way. Once the interstate was completed, traffic chose the higher speed roadway, and the little towns, the motels and hotels, the restaurants, the gift shops, the gas by one began to close their doors. New motels and restaurants were built on the interchanges. Big truck stops replaced the old style service station. A little piece of Americana was lost forever.

The White Rose Gasoline attendant stands at attention in Menlo.
Don't tell that to those of us that live here! We embrace our scenic little byway and celebrate its history by paying homage to the old name- lining the highway with white-painted phone poles and calling it The White Pole Road. Every year the towns along this historic road pick a date and hold the White Pole Road Marathon Sale- basically mile after mile of garage, yard and rummage sales. And it's fun! Every town has loads of participation. Some folks set up the traditional tag sale, others hold bake sales, hot dogs and cold drinks, churches get involved- it's a great day and an event unique to American small town life.

So anyway......what's more fun than two goofy sisters and a nephew getting together for a road trip, town to town, sale to sale, winery stop along the way? That's exactly what we did! Got an early morning start and hit the highway. What does a carload of lake residents do for entertainment? Hang on- you're about to find out.......

We started our adventure in Dexter. Fueled by caffeine, we were ready to hit the road and do what former city people do in the country- whoop it up. Well.....calmly, it is still morning, after all. 

Our big plans for a day of bargain hunting and fun turned south very quickly. The few sprinkles on the windshield as we left Dexter quickly turned into a torrential downpour that lasted the better part of the day. We planned to tough it out anyway, after all, sales in garages should stay pretty dry. However, many of the sellers didn't agree. Garage doors closed, plastic tarps covered yardfulls of goodies, and we headed to Carver's Ridge in Stuart. What better way to wait out the rain than in a store that sells wine! 

A few of the goodies Carver's Ridge offers
Carver's Ridge is so much more than that. Tyson and Anne Greenwalt are the owners of this company and what they do is just awesome. Besides landscaping, they engrave- everything from custom glassware and little rocks for wine bottle stoppers to huge boulders in your yard. The retail shop also carries a great selection of gourmet foods and mixes, like baking mixes made just for them, and WINE. Wonderful Iowa wines! Bet you'll never guess what I bought.....

Menlo is next on the hit list. By the time we got there many of the sales had given up. We stopped at one but most of what this man was selling was well outside of the garage sale price range, and I really didn't need a camper.......

Casey, Antique Country. You got that right! I'm starting to feel a little like an antique right about now! A wet antique...... by the time we arrived in Casey, well, the day was pretty much a bust.

And finally, Adair. We never made it this far. Too much rain, too much disappointment, we figured we might as well look at the weather radar and find some non-rainy towns. We headed over to Earlham, in Dallas County, and had a little more success. After Earlham we drove back to Stuart and with no garage sales having reopened,we gave up on the garage sales and hit the winery.

The Dale Valley Vineyard and Winery it just north of Stuart near the old ghost town of Daly City. The tasting room is in the old Daly City school, which was moved to the winery site and restored by the owners, Ed and Tracy Mahlstadt. It's a fantastic place with rolling hills of vines,a beautiful outdoor covered patio, and delicious wines, many of which have school-theme names,such as Recess. The gift shop offers lots of fun wine-themed items and of course, you can taste the wines!  We bought some- no surprise there.

After that we headed further north to Panora and Britches and Bows Country Store. This adorable little shop is out in the country, on a farm, and is brimming with cute crafty items, unique clothing and jewelry and antiques. I found a couple things I could use for food props and wished I had a lot more money to spend in there.

Arriving back the lake we decided to see if any lake sales were open and we hit the motherload! I scored several gorgeous vintage chianti bottles, dishes, and a sweet little sign for my garden. So, in spite of the rain, the day turned out quite good. The busy day turned into a quiet evening with The Chef and a bottle of wine. country girls (and boy) know how to have a good time!

Friday, June 6, 2014

City Girl's Wine Journal- Chardonnay

Generally speaking, I am NOT a Chardonnay drinker. I like the fact that it's a white wine that's not loaded with sugary sweetness, and I love a good dry wine, but too many Chardonnays are aged in oak. That is the one technique in winemaking that I truly dislike. I think it leaves the wines with a sawdust flavor that is very very offputting. Red wines that are oaked usually have enough body and fruit tones that it's less noticeable.

A few years ago my friend Jessica and I made a big event out of watching the movie Bottle Shock and while watching, we actually drank Chateau Montelena wines. It was a great evening, a great movie and a wonderful couple of bottles, neither of which were Chardonnay though. If you haven't seen the movie, it's the story of the first American wine to beat the French in a competition back in the 70s and it's all about the Chardonnay. 

Every once in a while a Chardonnay comes along that really surprises me. I always seek out an unoaked wine whenever possible, and SunFish Chardonnay 2010 is one of those wines. I have had bottles from several vintages of SunFish Chardonnay and every one has been a delight. Unoaked most importantly, the bright fruity flavors really come through. You can pick up peach, melon, some citrus, a little green apple, slightly grassy, nice acidity and no cloying sweetness. 

I could sit in a shady spot on a patio and have this wine with a salad or veggie meal, avocados, maybe some seafood like shrimp or scallops. Sushi would be awesome, as would something French like an asparagus and mushroom omelet. A cheese plate with some sliced baguette and olives and I would be in heaven!

SunFish wines can be a little difficult to find, but if you really hunt you might be able to find it. You'll be glad that you did.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Gardening at the Little Lake House

Well, I'm more than a month in and things are really starting to take off! I have baby plants and larger plants, have been picking lettuce and kale already, and a few herbs. Garden season is off to a nice start in 2014. We have been getting plenty of rain- which is a huge help. And sunshine, loads and loads of warm, sunny days, humidity, warm breezes. Let's take a look at what is growing. Almost every summer I try something new and this year it is almost exclusively container gardening. With a very large wraparound deck, I have plenty of space for plenty of containers and I love growing my own food.
Cherry tomatoes and peppers are thriving in the sunshine.
Tomatoes- They are doing fantastic so far. The cherry tomato plants have been in the soil the longest and are the biggest plants right now. They are looking great! I see baby tomatoes in there too! So exciting! My four San Marzano plants are off to a good start, have settled into the soil well, they love the rain, and are loving the sunshine. Still a little on the small side so I haven't caged them yet, but that will happen soon. A growth spurt is coming, I can feel it. The Mr. Stripey single plant I got it is doing so/so. It's a little "stemmy" having suffered some leaf loss. The other two that I thought for sure were goners have had a sudden resurgence so I'll probably plop them in the flower bed and call it good!
Mixed baby kale plants
Peppers- The serrano chilies are growing like crazy as well. They loved the hot days we had recently. Little flower buds are starting to form and it won't be long til I have baby peppers! The habanero peppers are also doing ok- they are not quite as big as the serrano plants but I'm sure they will catch up. Their leaves look glossy and shiny and very healthy. A few more weeks of sunshine and they will be standing tall.
A couple weeks ago the plants were noticeably smaller
Sweet corn- Yes, I know I said I'd never grow sweet corn but I heard of people growing it in containers and I have to try everything at least once. It's doing great! I did have to add tomato cages to their containers because the wind was beating them up a little but now they are doing great. Leaves are nice and bright green, strong stalks, getting close to a foot tall.
The tomatoes have overcome the slight frost damage from early May
Lettuce and kale- I've been picking! They are growing beautifully. I have Black Seeded Simpson lettuce and mixed organic kale and both are doing awesome. Lots of salad and nibbling has been going on! It won't be long and the lettuce will bolt, but having never grown kale before I'm not really sure if I can grow it all summer- I'll find out!
Today these corn plants are nearly a foot tall and supported by cages!
Herbs- This year I am limiting the herbs that I am growing. I haven't had a very good basil crop for a couple summers so I have tons of basil planted, lots of pots of thyme, and my old chives that come back very year. Also new this year is a Japanese herb called red shiso. I've never tried it but I've done my research and it's going to be a great addition to salads, Asian dishes and sushi. It will be interesting to see how it grows. 
I keep picking that lettuce and it keeps filling out
Zucchini- Boy oh boy did I plant zucchini! Ten plants to be exact. I might live to regret that....... but I have some relish recipes to try (maybe some winners at the fair?) and I can always throw some zucchini bread in the oven. Last summer I found myself with leftover tomatoes and a couple zucchini, so I cubed everything and tossed with a little garlic and canned and it turned out delicious. I've used it for pasta sauces and smothered steak recipes.
I love chive blossoms. This particular plant is over 30 years
old and has been transplanted in gardens at several houses.
It came from my mother's garden years ago.
Other vegetables- I have a large shallow Rubbermaid-type container filled with soil for growing things in shallow soil. I'm trying a crop of Parisian Market carrots- they are small, round carrots, maybe the size of a big radish. These are also a new vegetable to me so we will see. Mexican Gherkins are also something new I have planted- these cucumbers grow on small vines and produce cucumbers that look like  teeny tiny watermelons. I think they will be wonderful pickles and hopefully a blue ribbon winner at the fair!
Not the best backdrop but a little fire in the chiminea is so nice
Flowers- I don't normally plant a lot of flowers, but I do have a few. Marigolds and zinnia, started from seed, are growing nicely in pots that will fill the bakers rack and nestle among the vegetable plants. And since we all know a gardener is never truly done......I just might find a few more interesting things to plant. But for now, it's time to kick back and relax by the fire.......

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

On The Farm: A look at Carl Blake

It's always fun to discover interesting new farms in Iowa. Some are organic vegetable farms, others grow a variety of berries. Some are a century old, and others run by young farmers. Some attract tourists and other attract the national media. Rustik Rooster Farms is not very close to the Little Lake House, in fact, it's quite a haul, but hearing about this farm and seeing Carl Blake on television and at Iowa's EntreFest 2014 piqued my interest, and the foodie in me had to know more! Carl had amazing stories to share- about the internet, his family, and his "self-therapy" system of planting 2,000 tomato plants with a crutch and his casted foot. He is a fascinating person. But the big reason Carl is where he is today is because of hogs.
Carl Blake talks with Andy Stoll at Iowa's EntreFest 2014.
Carl Blake runs a hog farm. Doesn't sound like the most glamorous thing to many people, but in his case, he raises a very rare and unique hog, the Iowa Swabian Hall hog. What's so special about this pig? Everything! A very rare "heritage" breed, the Swabian Hall hog is known for its rich, red meat that's well marbled, more like beef than pork. Carl has spent considerable time breeding hogs to have exactly the right characteristics as their ancestors from 100-plus years ago.  In fact, Carl says that pork really is NOT meant to be the super lean "white" meat we know today. Instead of the mass-produced everyday pig, Carl's hogs are a unique breeding of Chinese Meishan pig and the muscular Ossabaw pig, very much like the German Schwabish- Hallisches Schwein
The hogs are almost too cute to eat!
Rustik Rooster Farm is a 15 acre, 1881 farmstead north of Waterloo, in Frederika, Iowa. Here Carl's 400 or so hogs are free to graze and wander the farm doing, well, what pigs do- root around in the grass and soil, and eat. They eat hydroponically grown barley that's raised on the premises, grasses and grains. This wonderful environment helps contribute to exactly what Carl wants- the best tasting pig in the world. 
Andrew Zimmern spends quality time with the hogs
These award-winning hogs are big favorites of chefs all over the country. Des Moines' Centro executive chef Derek Eidson praised the Swabian Hall hog for it's incredible fat, which he compares to olive oil. Chefs in Wisconsin, Denver, Chicago, meat markets in Minnesota, all rave about the pork and it's unusual qualities. Charcuterers have also taken notice, crafting pancetta and prosciutto like no other pork. There is a considerable waiting list to even get a hog from the farm, and these chefs all agree, it is more than worth the wait. 
Prosciutto made from Swabian Hall pork
Carl's enthusiasm and love for his Swabian Hall hogs have also caught the attention of celebrity chefs! Andrew Zimmern featured a visit to the farm and a hog roast on an episode of Bizarre Foods America, and fell in love with the flavor of these amazing pigs, calling them "magic."

What is in the future for Rustik Rooster? How about a house-made charcuterie range, expanded operation and a shorter waiting list for these fantastic hogs? Carl has big plans for the future and something tells me a lot of people are anxiously waiting! If you are lucky enough to live near or visit Des Moines, you may be able to taste some of this amazing meat at Centro or Django in downtown Des Moines. These restaurants feature the Swabian Hall hog whenever they can.

***All photos property of and courtesy of Rustik Rooster, except EntreFest photo.