Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Country Life: Patriotism, one Iowan's perspective

Patriotism is a big subject during these trying times for our nation. Many people tend to think only the bigger cities have monuments dedicated to our fallen, current and past veterans, and future military men and women, and that the small towns are just farm towns. In Iowa, they couldn't be more mistaken.

Just off of Interstate 80 at the Greenfield, IA exit is one such monument, one that is carefully, thoughtfully and with great dedication, repainted every year before Memorial Day to honor our military heroes. I'm sure the artist has been interview many dozens of times, and told his story many dozens of times, but it's one of such dedication and humbleness that it should be told again and again.

Inspired by the movie "Saving Private Ryan" the artist, Ray "Bubba" Sorensen felt a need to honor our veterans in his own personal way. As a very gifted artist, he does just that, each year starting over and repainting most of the Freedom Rock with a new theme honoring our servicemembers and their sacrifice.

The helicopter side of the Rock will never be repainted, as the green paint contains
the cremains of several Vietnam veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice.
He does this not because he has to, or is paid to, but because it is his way of giving back. The Freedom Rock has become such a dear Iowa treasure, now people donate to help cover the costs of materials needed to complete the new murals each year. That's just how we do things here in the midwest, we support one another. 

Adair County's wonderful treasure has caught on! In the last year a program has been launched in which each of Iowa's 99 counties can raise the funds and provide a boulder and location for their own Freedom Rock, which Ray will travel to, and complete. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley and journalist Kyle Munson were important leaders in getting this program off the ground.

Family and friends of those who served often place memorial items
on a pole next to the Rock. It's hard to put into words the sense of loss.
You might also notice many of the small towns in West Central Iowa have large murals in their towns, usually a city park or the side of a very visible building. Ray paints murals all over the country now but has not forgotten the humble beginning in Iowa......that all started with a rock, a dream, and a few cans of paint.......

You can learn more about the Rock, see galleries of past murals and much more at

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A night out on the (small) town

How do two former city dwellers find a way to have the perfect date night in a rural Iowa town? It's not easy! We have very limited options- a movie theater, a bowling alley, a handful of restaurants and a couple bars. Not the most romantic of possibilities, but with the right person and a good imagination you can have an awesome night out!

Sometimes we have to drive to a nearby town for something different. We don't mind at all. The countryside is very lovely out here in West Central Iowa and the small towns in the distance, with their water towers dotting the landscape, add to the charm. On this Friday afternoon we decided to visit the town of Adel, in Dallas County. Adel has several really good places to eat, we just had to choose which one we wanted.

They have a pretty popular Mexican restaurant, but we passed on that. We have a really good Mexican place near the lake that we eat at often enough. China Village? The Chef was not really "feeling" Chinese tonight. So I suggested The Italian Villages. I could have a nice quiet Italian dinner (usually a safe bet) and a glass of wine. Sounds perfect to me, so that's where we went!

Walking in the restaurant my first impression was "a typical small town family owned" restaurant. Murals of Italian street scenes, canals, sidewalk cafes, line the wall on one side. Neat rows of tables with plastic tablecloths fill the dining room. They do a substantial pizza and takeout business and near the front door is a big pizza oven and the cashier, making it easy for people to pop in and pickup an order to go.

Jacqui was our server and she was a hoot! She took lots of time answering our questions, not just about the food and wine, but about the restaurant, their history, the town, pretty much anything we threw at her. She had great stories about the restaurant over the years and recommended some of her favorites.

The specials were baked cavatelli and steak and shrimp- we both went with the cavatelli. I did get my glass of wine with dinner. No wine list in this little place, but that's ok. I asked for red and got a nice glass of a fairly sweet red wine, which was fine. It was a little bit on the bubbly side, reminded me of Stella Rosa, a very mild wine I used to recommend to "new" wine drinkers.

Nothing fancy....... just really nice
When in Rome, do as the Romans, right? So in Iowa, do as the Iowans- always order the onion rings, and we sure did. The onion rings were great- thinly sliced and perfectly battered and fried. The chef was very friendly and came out to chit chat with us, and he shared his trick to such great o rings- a very very fine cracker meal, packaged shrimp tempura batter mix and seasonings like garlic and parsley. You could see parsley flakes in the breading and they were light and crispy. 

There is a salad bar in the dining room, nothing spectacular, just a giant chilled bowl of salad greens, a few toppings and dressings and a couple pasta salads. It was clean, fresh and well stocked but just the basics, not that it's a bad thing at all. There also was a large heated tureen with the soup of the day. 

It wasn't long before the cavatelli arrived, and it was delicious. The sauce reminded my of The Chef's pasta sauce, with chunky tomatoes and mushrooms. Iowa's famous Graziano's sausage and loads of pasta filled the dish, which was covered in melted mozzarella. It was so so so good. I didn't even eat half of it!

We finally headed home, full and looking forward to lounging on the couch for a bit. Would we go back the The Italian Villages for dinner? Heck yes! It was a thoroughly enjoyable, peaceful meal, at good prices, generous portions and great staff. Next time I want to try the pizza!

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."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Country Girl in the City- wait, what?

I thought I'd be a city girl my entire life. Turns out that after nearly four years in The Little Lake House I am a full-fledged country girl. Don't get me wrong, I do love the city. I love the resources, the variety of places to eat and shop, especially the specialty stores like tea shops, cooking shops, and spice stores. I love dressy clothes, designer shoes and handbags and making sure I never leave the house without makeup and styled hair. What I don't like- the crowds, the traffic, parking lots, the mall.

A drizzly gray winter day in Des Moines.
Seems I have exchanged grocery stores the size of shopping malls for a teeny tiny six lane grocery store with three checkouts and kids who still cart your groceries and load them in the car for you. 

The whole TOWN of Dexter could fit in the city's
supermarkets!! Crazy!!
I don't have 47 types of pasta shapes and an entire six lanes of organic only groceries, but do I really need that? I don't think so. I don't teeter down the aisles in sky high designer heels and I don't need to anymore.

If you time it just right- almost no traffic even on a weekday
Main street nearby my house is one lane each way, rather than four lanes of one way traffic that screeches to a halt at the precise moment "rush hour" starts.

No raincoats or umbrellas needed downtown!
We don't have fancy skywalks where I live now. We don't need them. All of our buildings in town are single story. We don't even have a traffic light.

Our movie theater features all the latest releases, on one screen. One. Not twenty. You can park right in front of the door, not what seems like the next county! A chain restaurant on every corner? Not at home. The chains are all up on the interstate exchange, and they aren't very interesting at that.

Heading back to the city I did get to experience all the things I do sort of miss- the cool urban lofts that people live in. Downtown Des Moines is a residential hot spot these days. 

Modern lofts fill what used to be warehouses and old office
Lots of trendy restaurants that are not chains are all over. Those skywalks? They link most of downtown in an endless loop of climate controlled perfection. You can go from your uber cool loft to work to a fantastic restaurant and a hip club for after dinner drinks without ever stepping outside or having to deal with parking your car. 

Inspired by the skywalks of Minneapolis, Des Moines began constructing skywalks in the 1970s as a convenience to downtown workers and continues today as new construction expands the downtown skyline. Every parking ramp is attached to adjoining buildings, and the rest of downtown, by skywalks. Stores, restaurants and offices line the skywalk level and during the workday hours is as busy as a shopping mall!

My neighborhood where I grew up seems unchanged.
Sure, the usual tall buildings and parking ramps are everywhere but so are very trendy breweries and brew pubs, wine bars, a park filled with art- giant sculptures cover several city blocks of green space, several cool places to see a Broadway show, a concert or the symphony and some very luxurious hotels.

Exile Brewing Company
The Exile Brewing Company is one of several breweries in Des Moines. They recently released their 100th batch and have a huge following. They have four regular brews and a large variety of rotating seasonal brews with something for everyone. Between the brew house and the fermentation room is the Beer Hall- the perfect place to stop in and sample a couple of their handcrafted brews. Exile has a beautiful restaurant in the former warehouse of the Fitch Soap Co., and showcases the steel trusses and original wooden ceiling from the 1920s. The kitchen is open-style so diners can see the hustle and bustle behind the scenes, and the menu is modern and inventive.

The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park graces the far west end of downtown Des Moines and has a wonderful collection of large scale art pieces for visitors to experience, and touch. It's a favorite location for photography and in the summer is home to the annual Des Moines Art Festival.

In the country we have a lot of narrow bridges that aren't much to look at, and a few old metal truss bridges that look like they have been there for decades (and they have), and in the city they have bridges lined with arty lighting, arched with sweeping blue metal arches and paved with brick.

Ahhhhhh, Heaven!!
Huge apartment complexes occupy huge parcels of land, the airport anchors the city on the southwest edge, a lake in the middle of the city, lots and lots of residential streets, neighborhood business districts, the millions of fast food spots and convenience stores- just the typical city landscape. Most importantly, my trip to the city is never complete without a trip through the drive thru at Starbucks. THAT is the one thing I truly miss about city life.

At the end of the day, and in this case several days, I'll be happy to see the rural sunset, be the only car on the road for a change, and get home to my own Little Lake House.

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."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cooking my first spaghetti squash

Can you believe I have NEVER cooked one of these things? That's right- never. I have eaten them, when I was younger my dad, the 1970s version of a foodie, was always on top of the trends and he grew these in the garden a few times. I don't remember how he finished them, I just remember them being in the garden and the kitchen.

Recently spaghetti squash have been in food news quite a lot. A low carb replacement for pasta, it's a big favorite of dieters. Vegans replace pasta made with eggs with this vegetable. It's just a healthy version of something many of us really junk up with meatballs, sauce and gooey cheese. We're not doing that today. In fact, we're going to serve ours as a light vegetarian entree, or a delicious side for a simply prepared grilled meat. A while back I stopped in the Vom Fass store in Des Moines and picked up a jar of their Pesto Rosso- so I'm going to give our spaghetti squash a light toss in some pesto and a hit of fresh herbs.

I can't tell you how delicious this blend of sun dried tomatoes,
extra virgin olive oil, basil, cashews and Grana Padano cheese
is. You need to check it out for yourself. 
But first we have to cook this crazy thing. Many people bake it in the oven- certainly an easy way to do it, but it can take a while, so we're going to get some assistance from Chef Mic (rowave) and get dinner on the table in minutes. Start with a sharp heavy knife and a stable cutting surface. USE CAUTION- winter squash do have a tougher skin and this one is round and oblong and might move on the board. Watch your fingers!  Cut the squash in half lengthwise and use a spoon to remove the seeds- I use a melon baller and it works like a charm.

Place the squash halves cut side down in a glass baking dish, like a pie pan. Cooking them one at a time, microwave on high for 10 minutes. Remove to the cutting board while the second half cooks. When it's cooled for a few minutes, use a fork to separate and remove the thready meat- kind of like raking. You will have beautiful strands of squash that look just like spaghetti. At this point you can use your squash in any recipe you would use cooked pasta- from Italian to Asian noodles. 

I placed my squash "pasta" in a large bowl and tossed with a couple tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, pesto to taste, salt and pepper. When combined, pile into serving bowl and garnish with chopped fresh parsley and a little sprinkle of shredded Parmesan cheese. Served with a pan seared pork loin chop, the squash was so tender and delicious. I wanted more squash and less of everything else!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation nor free product 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."

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Easy Apple Galette- with a few cheats

Who doesn't love pie? The quintessential midwestern dessert, pie has fans of all ages. And what variety! Cool, creamy fillings, fluffy whipped fillings, custardy and spicy, fruity and delicious, all snuggled into a flaky pastry crust that shatters when you break it with your fork. I want some right now in fact!

Several years ago I came across a unique way to make pies. At first I thought it was the height of gourmet baking and expert pastry work but really, it's just a very attractive and super easy way to cheat and get pie on the table with minimal work and no special pans. Some call them galettes, others call them crostatas, but they really are a free-form rustic way to form a pie with your delicious filling piled in there. The pastry gets just as crisp and delicious and these must be pies that have a fruit filling- custards and cream fillings are a no go.

This particular combination is very very French, and as you know, everything French makes Monica very happy! Tart and sweet apples, crunchy walnuts, a gooey caramel-like sauciness, a pop of French Cognac and a very special surprise- dates! Anyway, to make this really pretty dessert you need to get your pastry ready first. Each galette uses a recipe of pastry for a single crust pie, so we will make that ahead and get it chilling. Please use BUTTER for the crust or if you must substitute- use vegetable shortening. Don't use margarine, it contains water and makes a dense crust, not a flaky crust.

Single crust pastry

1 stick butter (COLD!!!) 
1 1/3 cup flour, plus more
1 tablespoon sugar
pinch of salt
4-6 tablespoons ice water

I make this in a food processor but you can use a pastry blender if you like. Pulse, or cut the butter into the combined flour, sugar and salt until the mixture resembles rough crumbs. Add the water, a tablespoon at a time just until the dough forms. Don't knead the dough! Remove from bowl, wrap tightly in plastic and chill about an hour.

Sometimes I like to add a pinch of cinnamon or other spice with the flour- it brings a little bit extra flavor to the pie. Nutmeg is a great choice. Now let's work on our filling.

Caramel Apple Date Galette

2 Granny Smith apples
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup cognac
1/4 cup caramel sauce
pitted dates- cut up and loosely packed to make 1/4 cup
1/4 cup broken walnuts

A quick note- dates can be very very sweet so if you pack them firmly you will find they overpower the apples and get cloyingly sweet. It should take between 4 and 6 dates, depending on their size, to make the amount needed. One more thing- they can be sticky. Very sticky. Sometimes it helps to start with a lightly oiled knife.

I only needed 4 dates for one galette, so I have plenty
left for snacking!
Peel and slice the apples. Chop the dates in small pieces. In a heavy skillet, melt the butter; add the apples. Cook and stir over medium heat until apples are slightly softened. Add the dates and sprinkle with cognac. Raise heat to medium high and cook off the excess liquid. Remove from heat, add the nuts and let cool about half an hour.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with silicone mat or spray with baking spray and set aside.

Roll the pastry out into a circle about 11 or 12 inches across. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. I cheated and used a store bought rolled pastry sheet- and it works just as well, so feel free to cheat a little.

Almost looks like Apple Bacon Something- but it's dates!
Pile the filling in the middle and spread it out a bit, leaving at least 2 inches uncovered edge. Then start folding the edge over towards the middle, tucking and pleating as you go, until the entire galette has been "edged". Drizzle with half the caramel sauce. Brush the pastry edge with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar if you like. 

I cheated and had a little trouble with my edge, but it was
still flaky and delicious and no one cared it was't perfect
Bake for about 40-50 minutes until pastry is deep golden and filling is bubbly. Pour the remaining caramel sauce over while the galette is still hot. Don't worry if a little of the juice leaks out. Allow pastry to cool for a while, and serve warm, drizzle with additional caramel sauce if you like and whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.

This is truly delicious and super easy, and if you keep refrigerated pastry on hand and fruit- frozen, fresh or even canned- in the pantry, you can whip up a quick dessert that looks like you spent hours in the kitchen.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Comfort Food with a Twist

Ahhh comfort food. Bringing smiles to faces as long as people have been cooking. We all have our favorites, the things that warm us up on cold days, Mom's famous chicken soup, Gramma's homemade spaghetti sauce, just the favorites, maybe from our childhood, that remind us of good times- you get the idea. For a lot of people that favorite is macaroni and cheese.

Sliced scallions add a light hint of onion under that crunchy
cheesy crumb topping- so delicious!
Now I am not talking about the powdered junk in the blue box. That is about as comforting as a foam cup of dehydrated noodles and reminds a lot of people of starving student days in college. I mean real mac and real cheese, the kind that comes off a block and has to be shredded, and melted, and baked til crusty and delicious. I remember when I first mastered white sauce, many years ago- I made cheese sauce for EVERYTHING. We ate cauliflower and broccoli allllll the time. Any excuse to make cheese sauce was good enough for this young housewife. Even the Velveeta kind reminds me of when my girls were learning how to cook and that was one of their favorite things to make. It's ooey and gooey for sure.

It's all about the CHEESE
For the most part I have never been a big fan of mac and cheese. Maybe it's the fact that it appears on far too many kids menus (usually the powdered junk) and just doesn't seem very........grown up. But I was wrong about that. Choose a unique pasta shape, step out of the comfort zone with cheeses and you can really jazz up this old favorite. I really wanted gemelli but had to settle for rotini, which, happily, worked out much better in the end anyway.

I don't know what got into my head today but mac and cheese was on my mind and I was going to make it no matter what. Maybe because I have been making a lot of different dishes using bechamel, maybe I just wanted something different for a change. I set off to get the few ingredients I didn't have on hand- a macaroni of some kind, and some cheese. Nothing but real cheese will do here, folks. Well, that loaf of cheese-something works, but I don't like it much. Anyway, mild cheddar brings the cheesy goodness, Parmesan brings a salty savory background and pepperjack gives it a kick in the pants. Perfect for us at the Little Lake House. Poured over some rotini pasta and baked til blazing hot it was the perfect side dish for pork chops.

Homemade Mac and Cheese for Grownups
  • 1 lb rotini pasta (I just used about 2/3 of the box)
  • 1/4 cup butter plus 2 tablespoons
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 5 scallions, sliced
  • 2 1/2 cups milk
  • several dashes Tabasco sauce
  • 1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mild cheddar cheese, divided
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup crushed cornflakes
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Get the rotini going and cook till al dente. Drain.

*Note- I did not use the entire pound of pasta. I wanted to make sure the pasta had plenty of sauce and didn't end up dry. I wanted to keep it creamy.

Ready to go in the oven.
In a large saucepan, melt 1/4 cup butter. Add the scallions and saute for 4 or 5 minutes until softened. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes. You need to cook out the raw flour taste. Add the milk and cook, whisking constantly until sauce thickens and just begins boiling.

Remove from heat and whisk in the Tabasco to taste and stir in the cheeses until melted. Add the rotini. Pour into buttered baking dish. 

That crunchy topping. Toss the butter with the crumbs
before tossing with the cheese.
In a small bowl toss the cornflake crumbs with the 2 tablespoons butter (melted) and the 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese. Sprinkle over the mac and cheese. Pop in a 425 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, until the top is browned and crusty and sauce is bubbly hot.

Hot and bubbly......smells amazing!
Let me tell you, the crusty topping is absolutely heavenly. The pasta twirls really held on to the cheesy sauce. Using scallions instead of regular onion kept the onion flavor sweet and not overpowering, a lot like using leeks. The pepperjack cheese added just the slightest heat (kicked up a little by a few shakes of Tabasco sauce) and the Parmesan added its salty, nutty undertone. I just couldn't get over the crunchy topping. 

This recipe makes a nice casserole full of cheesy goodness. We had LOTS leftover so I'd guess 4 to 6 servings. I served it with crumb-crusted pork chops but fried chicken or sliced ham would also be awesome. Taste the sauce before adding the pasta and add Tabasco sauce to heat it up to your taste, or add more diced chilies or jalapenos. Enjoy!