Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Summer Berry Crisp

Summer is officially kicked off! That means it's time for loads of fresh fruit and berries in our gardens, farmers markets and store shelves. Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries...... so many delicious summer desserts can be made with these juicy summer favorites.

Last year here in Iowa we had an unexpected late snow and killing frost that really hurt the berry crops. Many of the pick your own berry farms nearby didn't have enough of a crop to even open. Not the case this year! I'm already seeing beautiful berries in the markets and that makes me so happy! Berry pies and crisps have always been favorites of mine, so imagine how thrilled I was today to run in to the store for just a couple things and find they have a great sale of fresh berries. You bet I grabbed some and headed home to bake something.

I could have taken the easy way out and just sliced some strawberries, tossed with the raspberries and blackberries and served draped over ice cream, but I wanted something really good, and really homey. Fruit crisps have always been among my favorite desserts. This classic recipe is a church cookbook staple, and something you can find at just about every potluck or church dinner. Often made with sliced apples or peaches, or even cherries, here I used a four berry combo to make a ruby red and crunchy crisp with loads of juicy berry goodness. Just a package of each kind of berry is all it takes. Wash, drain and you're ready to go. I quartered the strawberries so they'd be similar size and shape as the other berries. Let's bake!

Fresh Berry Fruit Crisp

1 package blackberries
1 package raspberries
1 package blueberries
1 package strawberries, quartered
1/4 cup cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar

1 cup flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
dash cinnamon

In a large bowl toss the berries with the sugar and cornstarch. Pile the fruit in a 9x9 baking dish.

In a medium bowl mix the topping ingredients, dry ingredients first, then use a fork or pastry blender to cut the butter in until mixture forms coarse crumbs. Sprinkle evenly over the fruit.

Bake at 400 degrees about 45 minutes until bubbly and the topping is deep golden brown.

This recipe is a super simple dessert that's just as easy to throw together with frozen berries as it is fresh. I like to stock the freezer with berries when they go on sale- freeze them on a sheet pan until frozen solid, then spoon into freezer bags. You can easily measure out the amount you need when you need it! With most recipes, just add 10 minutes to the baking time if using frozen berries.

This fruit crisp is delicious with a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream. It is heavenly if it's slightly warm from the oven!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Country Life: The patriotic spirit of Casey, Iowa

Nowhere is patriotism more alive and well than in America's small towns. The hustle and bustle of city life is not part of the day here, and the relaxed lifestyle gives people more of a chance to reflect on what we have to be thankful for. At a time when America is embroiled in conflicts the rest of us see on television, it hits home in a much larger way when a "hometown kid" is wounded or killed in action.

The town of Casey, Iowa, in Guthrie County, is one of those towns that is very proud of their patriotism. Along the quiet main street, lined with antique shops and businesses long gone is a gap in the facade of brick buildings. In that quiet spot, the town has built a memorial to our men and women in the armed forces.

Veterans Memorial Park was founded in 2000, and features beautifully landscaped gardens, benches for reflecting and quiet moments, a gazebo, and most notably, a huge mural painted by the local artist, Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II.

Like his other patriotic artwork, the mural is dedicated to the United States Military, past, present and future, and depicts scenes from almost every war.

Each scene in this incredibly detailed two-story mural tells the story of war, from the loss of a fellow soldier,

to the brotherhood that develops among soldiers during times of conflict, far from their homes, and often in very dangerous locations.

A Gulf War pilot of memorialized,

as a soldier fighting during the Vietnam War works his way through the jungle.

Generations old images of Uncle Sam recall the "I Want You" campaign nearly a century ago.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is also captured,

as is the landing of American troops on Omaha Beach in World War II.

Above all else, we are reminded to say thank you to all of our servicemen and women, for the freedom we enjoy today, for their sacrifices and that of their families. Veterans Memorial Park is a very fitting and sincere tribute, and an Iowa small town gem that should NOT be missed.

You can learn more about the artist, Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II, and his many beautiful works of art my visiting

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Springtime at The Little Lake House

Seems like winter took forever to go away, and it wasn't all that BAD really! Maybe I'm just getting old and grumpy. Maybe I'm turning into one of "those" people- you know the ones, they live in a winter climate state but complain all winter long about snow. Guess what guys- Arizona has vacancies.......

So spring has finally arrived, and with that the start of gardening season. I have been a gardener for many many years. I have had all sorts of gardens- patio gardens, little gardens, huge gardens, raised beds, water gardens, container gardens. I'm always trying something new it seems. Container gardening seems to fit my lifestyle the best right now. Our big wraparound deck has lots of space and I manage to fill it with containers every year.

What do I grow? Everything! If it grows in the dirt it can be grown in a container. I have grown every vegetable you can think of from lettuce to carrots to ghost peppers. Every year I have the requisite tomatoes. This year I am growing six different kinds of cherry tomatoes- Husky Red, Gold Nugget, Yellow Pearberries, Chocolate Cherry, Indigo Blue Berry and Indigo Rose. I have one regular tomato plant just for hamburgers and BLTs and such. 

I can't have a garden without peppers. Hot peppers. The hottest of the hot. This year is no exception. Basking in the sun this season are ghost peppers, scorpion peppers, Kraken, Infinity Naga, Morango, Black Congo and Fatalii chilies. I have grown ghosts and scorpions before, but the others are all new to us. I don't grow bell peppers most years because they are so readily available at the farmers market in town or at the Amish farm we visit every year. 

Every kitchen garden needs herbs, and ours always has plenty. I have a big pot that is home to a chive clump that is over 30 years old and still producing. It came from my mother's garden many years ago and I have no idea how long it lived in her garden. It has moved with me numerous times, to California and back, and finally here at The Little Lake House. 

The 30 year old chive clump has been in that pot for more
than 20 years.
Big pots of parsley sit next to this old chive, and all around the deck we have different kinds of basil, different kinds of thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, rosemary and mint. Mint is a great container herb because you can control it. Plant it in the ground and you have just unleashed the beast. It spreads like wildfire. 

Before long little baby herb plants will fill all these pots
and will flavor our food
Some of the more uncommon vegetables I grow in containers include lettuces and kale, radishes, carrots (the Parisian Market carrots are round like golf balls), eggplant and even sweet corn. Cabbage grows well in containers and so do Brussels sprouts as long as you have a secure place for them - out of the wind so they don't blow over. 

What are some of your favorites to grow in your own garden? What kind of gardens do you prefer?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Canning Cookbook- Kicked Up Veggie Pickles

Ohhhhhh pickles!!!

When I was first getting into home canning in a big way, pickles were among the first foods I learned to make. Spicy dills, bread and butter pickles- my favorite, pickled carrots, pickled onions, quick asparagus pickles, relishes of all kinds. Dills. So many dills. Chunks, slices, whole, spears. Blue ribbon winning pickles. 

There are two types of pickles- brined pickles and fermented pickles. Fermented pickles, like sauerkraut, get their sour flavor from being fermented in a crock in a salty water mixture. I prefer to make brined pickles- pickles that get their sour flavor from a vinegar brine. It's quicker and since I have fur kids, I don't want to have crocks of fermenting foods sitting around. I prefer my pickles with no fur.

Adding spices to the brine changes the flavor of the pickles. Dill, of course, gives a tremendously green and fresh flavor to pickles, and garlic, mustard seed, black peppercorns and even hot peppers bring varying levels of heat and spiciness to the brine. I got the bright idea to add ghost peppers to jars of pickles one time- wow!! Talk about spicy!! 

Pickling is also a great way to preserve those beautiful summer veggies and a great addition to your relish tray for parties and holidays. I will pickle pretty much everything. It's easy to whip up a quick brine, add some herbs and aromatics and pour over a colorful mix of veggies. You don't even have to "can" the pickles- fridge pickles, also known as quick pickles, go right in the fridge and last for weeks. 

If you have a crinkle cutter you can make gorgeous slices of
bright carrots. You can also purchase crinkle cut "chips"
What kind of veggies should you pickle? Whatever you like! That's the great thing about pickles- the brine adds the necessary acidity to make your vegetables safe for canning at home, and using a colorful combo makes the jars beautiful and interesting. 

Isn't this gorgeous? I just couldn't say no
Strolling through the produce section at the big grocery store in the city I had so many choices to make. I found gorgeous little shishito peppers back on the shelf so I had to grab a couple handfuls to use in this pickle recipe. There was a fabulous display of cauliflower and broccoli set up including the most beautiful purple cauliflower. Naturally I chose one of those. I considered baby carrots but instead went with "carrot chips"- slices of large carrots cut with a wavy blade. Those are going to look great in the jars. Fresh green beans and red onion round out the veggies for this batch.

Shishito peppers are sweet with an occasional odd spicy one

Kicked Up Veggie Pickles

1 head cauliflower
1 pound fresh green beans, ends trimmed
1 lb baby carrots (or regular carrots, peeled and sliced)
2 ears fresh corn
2 onions
3 bell peppers or other peppers of your choice*
3 cups apple cider vinegar
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
yellow mustard seeds
garlic cloves
dried cayenne peppers*

*Instead of bell peppers I bought a couple handfuls of shishito peppers and used them whole. If you use a spicier pepper you can omit the cayenne pepper. I used dried Serrano chilies instead of the cayenne since I have so many.

Cut the cauliflower into good sized florets. You need about 3 cups. Cut the bell peppers into strips. I used whole shishito peppers so I just cut slits in them to allow the brine to get inside the peppers. Clean the corn with a veggie brush to remove all the silk, then cut it into one inch chunks, then cut into halves. Cut the onions into wedges. 

Fresh corn on the cob makes an interesting addition
Bring a stockpot of water to boil. Add the veggies and boil for one minute. Remove from water and into a large bowl. DO NOT use an ice bath!!

Bright veggies make beautiful jars of pickles
Meanwhile, in another pot, combine the water, vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the salt (or you can add a teaspoon of salt to each jar). 

Pack the hot vegetables into hot canning jars. Add a teaspoon of mustard seed, several peppercorns and 2-4 cloves of garlic (smash them a little to release the flavor) and a cayenne pepper (or half) to each jar. Pour the hot brine over to 1/2 inch headspace. Fix the lids and rings, place in boiling water bath canner. Process for 10 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 pints.

Make it easy on yourself- use the wide mouth pints for this pickle recipe. The brine is great for all different kinds of pickles so use your imagination. The brine acts as a preservative and the heat of processing in the boiling water bath seals the jars. Remember, you can also make the pickles and just pop them in the fridge instead of processing in the canner. I chose to make them a quick pickles this time because of the vibrant color of the cauliflower- I wanted to preserve that stunning purple as much as possible.

NOTE: This recipe has not been tested by the NCHFP. If you are not comfortable canning untested recipes, please do not use this one.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Family That Cooks- Janelle's Crab Dip

My family is full of great cooks. Holidays and get togethers with my family always include some amazing homemade foods, especially appetizers and snack foods. We definitely love our snack foods. My son in law is the cheese ball master. The girls in the family make fancy cheese plates, delicious appetizers and all kinds of different dips and spreads. In fact, it's not uncommon for us to eat up all the snacks and appetizers and have no room for the turkey and trimmings!

You know when you get together with friends, maybe it's a Super Bowl party, or a neighborhood barbeque, or even the office potluck, and you have to sit and think about what to make? Do you have a go-to recipe for a great dish to share? I have a couple but I like to switch it up and try new things once in a while as well. My daughter in law shared this recipe with me, as well a sample before she brought it to a friend's house for a party, and it was awesome! 

Normally I am a strong and loud spokesperson for real crab and protest loudly against the use of fake crab, or surimi as it's sometimes called. My mind is changing! Besides being a common ingredient in sushi, which I love, and several delicious recipes that my friends have shared with me, I'm really beginning to appreciate this often maligned ingredient as a pretty good replacement for the real thing!

That's where my daughter in law, Janelle's dip come in. Loaded with finely chopped artificial crab, fresh veggies and a lime-infused mayo from the Hispanic market, piled high on a crispy cracker and topped with the slightest drizzle of spicy hot sauce, it's absolutely scrumptious. You can use any hot sauce you like, but Janelle recommends Valentina brand. 

This sauce was smooth, thick and spicy and not messy when drizzled over the top of the dip. It had a smoky quality to it too that went really well with the sweetness of the crab. If you like, you could spread the dip out onto a plate instead of a bowl and drizzle the sauce over the entire dip instead of individual bites.

Janelle's Spicy Crab Dip

1-2 lbs crab meat (imitation is great in this recipe)
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/2 medium onion, diced
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup Mayonesa with lime (in the Mexican aisle)
Hot sauce of your choice

Chop the crab meat into small pieces. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Chill to blend flavors. Serve dip with saltine crackers.

This dip was perfect on top of a saltine cracker. You can use any type or brand of cracker you like but choose one that won't compete with the dip's flavors. Throw in a handful of chopped ripe olives or diced bell pepper, or even jalapeno if you like. I especially like that it's not the usual hot crab dip. The tomato is so fresh, the onion adds a little crunch and the cilantro makes it herby and bright. I was also once a cilantro hater, but I have learned to embrace this beautiful herb.

Note: If you can't find the mayo in a Mexican store, you can substitute regular mayo with the zest and juice of a lime added.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ridiculously Easy Brownies

Come on and admit it. We have all been there. It's the evening, you're kicked back relaxing for the night. Comfies are on, hair is pulled up, and suddenly you remember. Food day in the office tomorrow. Ugh.

While I rarely buy prepackaged mixes, I cannot deny they are handy in emergencies such as this. Brownie mix, in particular. Brownies are easy to make, don't require a lot of fussy decorating or frosting and just about everyone loves them, right? Of course! So when faced with the dreaded Tomorrow Is Food Day And I Didn't Make A Thing....... brownies (and a secret stash of brownie mix) are my go-to emergency food.

The occasion this time was Cinco de Mayo. Bring your favorite Mexican food to share, they requested. Mexican? How do you make nachos for an office potluck? I work for a huge company. I am NOT making a bazillion enchiladas or tacos for 100 people. Instead, 2 boxes of brownie mix and a 10x15 sheet pan made life so much easier. How did I manage to get brownies to fit in the Mexican theme? Easy- ever heard of Mexican hot chocolate? A little cinnamon.....a little chocolate........

Ridiculously Easy "Mexican" Brownies

2 packages (9x13 size) brownie mix
1 1/3 cups oil
4 eggs
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 small bag sliced almonds
1 cup cinnamon chips*

You will find these in the chocolate chip area- I used half the bag, approximately one cup

In a large bowl combine all ingredients except the almonds and chips. Spread the batter in a 10x15 sheet pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Sprinkle the almonds and cinnamon chips evenly over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Allow the brownies to cool completely before cutting. This make a TON of brownies- great for a crowd or party, and super easy. I used the no-name store brand brownie mix, just the plain one, no caramel or anything else in the mix. They turn out ooey and gooey and just the perfect brownie soft and chewy consistency. The cinnamon really warms up the bars and the chips are absolutely delicious. Believe it or not I got a ton of compliments! 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Iowa On A Plate- Girl Bonding Over Rhubarb

I get super excited in the springtime. Everything is turning green and growing, and around the lake, that means rhubarb! 

In the Midwest it seems like everyone's yard has a nice rhubarb patch. Certainly everyone's grandmother had a nice big spot in the yard and a folder stuffed full of recipes from generations of amazing home bakers. Rhubarb cakes, crisps, cobblers and so much more make up entire sections of church cookbooks. Bake sales surely include a rhubarb coffee cake or two. The first spring strawberries usually partnered up with rhubarb in a juicy delicious pie. So many wonderful food memories include rhubarb!

Rebecca's Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
In spite of this rich history, modern palates seem to shy away from this perennial delight. Even though I see rhubarb in many modern recipes such as jams and sauces, many people I talk to "don't like it" and don't want to try the classic recipes. It's time we turn things around, and get this tart and sweet favorite back on the plate, folks. It practically grows itself, is relatively pest-free and is super easy to freeze for use throughout the year. Simply wash the stalks, chop or slice, freeze on a sheet pan until frozen and bag up in freezer bags. You can easily scoop out whatever you need to make something truly delicious, just like Gramma used to make.

Social media has replaced the backyard fence in today's world, and where I might have shared a recipe with a neighbor across the way years ago, these days we meet and get to know other cooks and recipe collectors through our social media networks and online groups. This is exactly how I got to know Rebecca Manship. In the Facebook group Iowa On a Plate she shared a picture of her Old Fashioned Rhubarb Cake and instantly, the connection between two women who love to bake and love rhubarb was made. Her cake looked delicious and so homey and the pile of fresh rhubarb on the table just screamed springtime.

Like so many wonderful cooks, Rebecca learned by watching and helping her mother. She tells me her mother loved cooking and baking, and I'm quite sure had a number of family favorites in her memory. Talking about the different foods we love to make Rebecca shared that she loves baking pies and zucchini breads and many other things- and, like me, she takes pictures of all her goodies as she bakes them! 

Rebecca's Rhubarb Cake

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter or shortening
1 egg
2 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Cream 1 1/2 cups sugar and the butter or shortening until fluffy. Add remaining ingredients except the cinnamon and remaining sugar. Spread batter in greased baking pan. Combine the remaining sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the batter.

Bake at 325 degrees for 40-45 minutes or until the cake tests done with a toothpick.

This cake is delicious served warm with cream or vanilla ice cream. Rebecca's mom used to make this cake and she thinks the recipe came from her grandmother. I know one thing- as soon as the rhubarb is ready I will be making this cake!