Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Homestyle Pork Roast

Sometimes you just have to have good homestyle comfort food. For many of us, especially in the Midwest, that's a nice pork roast. Bacon has become a trendy item to cook with, but it also makes an excellent self-baster and tastes amazing in just about anything. Pork roast happens to be my personal favorite and apparently I live in the right state for it.

Roasts are not only delicious, but they are easy to prepare and many times leave you some delicious leftovers for another meal or two. Options for sides are endless, gravy or not, it's all up to you. This recipe is very flexible too. Change up the herbs to something you like or have on hand. Don't like or don't eat pork? No problem. Grab a beef roast and go with that. Some roasts are better braised or cooked low and slow in a crock pot, but this particular recipe you want to use a fairly shallow, open pan to allow the bacon to crisp up. To make Bacon Wrapped Pork Roast, you will need:

boneless pork loin roast (mine was about 3 lbs)
1/4 cup olive oil
herbs- I used thyme, rosemary, marjoram
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
4 TB grainy German mustard (or more for bolder flavor)
salt and pepper

Trim pork roast of any silverskin or excess fat. Place the roast in a heavy duty zip close bag- like a freezer bag. It's going to be a gallon or maybe 2 gallon bag depending on the size of your roast. To the bag add the herbs, oil, mustard, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Close the bag removing as much air as possible. Then massage the bag to combine the ingredients and completely and evenly coat the meat. Place in fridge and marinate overnight.

When ready to roast, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove roast from bag, it's not necessary to remove excess marinade. Using bacon slices, wrap the roast completely, using twine to hold the bacon in place. 

Yes, I was out of kitchen twine, so I used yarn- hey it worked!!
Put the roast on a rack in a roasting pan. As you can see, I had to improvise a little and make a "rack" from foil "sticks". Roast uncovered at 350 degrees at least an hour or until meat thermometer registers 160 degrees. If you find the bacon is browning too quickly, tent the roast with foil. Remove from oven and allow to rest about 10 minutes before slicing.

I served the roast with mashed potatoes and green beans from our garden (thank you, pressure canner) and it was delicious. The roast was moist and tender and we skipped the gravy completely. This is a great meal for a lazy weekend day, Sunday dinner, or a cold dreary day when the heat of the oven would be welcome. As long as you have the oven on, why not throw in an apple pie? Let me know what time, and I'll be over for dinner!

Spring is just dandy!!

The dreaded enemy of yard fanatics everywhere, the bouquet of love presented by a chubby child's hand, a weed to some, a flower to others, the beautiful and sunshiny spring dandelion is one of the first signs of warmer days ahead. I so loved the days when my kids were little and they would bring me little bouquets of "flowers". No they were not weeds- they were bouquets of love, and always made me smile.

These days dandelions are so much more. They are also a valuable food source. Yes! Your common yard dandelion is a delicious treat in disguise. Young leaves are a delicious addition to salad mixes, and the blossoms are used for all sorts of things. Today I'm going to be using them for jelly, but we have tried dandelion wine as well- it was too sweet for me, but it was a first try.... I noticed this year that even some seed catalogs offered dandelion seeds in the section of salad greens- imagine that! 

Harvesting dandelions for jelly is fun. The Chef and I, on a warm sunny day, took a box across the street to the park, sat down in the grass and picked. We filled an entire copy paper carton before we knew it and barely had to move from our spot. ONE IMPORTANT NOTE: Pick your dandelions from a location you are 100% positively sure has not been treated for weeds!!!! Once you have a nice big pile, it's time to head in the kitchen.

Wash the dandelion blossoms gently with cool water to help get rid of that bitter "milk" and any extra friends with many legs you might have gotten. I'm not a big fan of friends with THAT many legs- yuck.  Drain them well- a salad spinner works great for this, and spread out onto a towel-lined tray to start working on them. You will be separating the yellow petals from ALL the green parts. It's a little time consuming so pull up a chair at the kitchen table and put on a movie while you're working.

Go ahead and pick as many flowers apart as you can. You will be measuring PACKED petals for the jelly and it can take a lot more than you think. You can pick and pack as you go too- whatever works for you. So let's get busy making our Dandelion Jelly. You will need:

2 cups packed dandelion blossoms
4 cups water
5 1/2 cups sugar
1 box powdered pectin

Bring the water to boil, pour over dandelion petals in large pot or pitcher. Allow this mixture to steep for a couple hours or overnight. When it has steeped, strain into a clean pot using a jelly bag. DO NOT squeeze the bag- let it drip for a half hour or so on it's own. If you don't have a jelly bag you can line a small strainer with coffee filters and strain- slow process but it works in a pinch.

Next, measure out 3 cups of liquid and place in large pot. Combine with pectin. Bring to a full rolling boil while stirring the entire time. Add the entire measure of sugar at once, and return to boil, still stirring. Boil exactly one minute, then remove from heat. Ladle the hot jelly into prepared jars and fix lids and rings. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Remove jars and allow to cool. 

A lot of people wonder what it tastes like- well, it tastes amazingly like honey! It kind of looks like honey too. It's great on toast or biscuits and I've also melted some and used to make pan sauces and glazes for different meats by adding herbs and spices. It's very versatile and looks so pretty in the jar- it makes a great gift. I have experimented with other flower petal jellies as well, so maybe this spring we will do some more- just make SURE the flowers are non-toxic and pesticide-free. Have fun playing!!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Foodie Field Trip: Wallace Country Life Center

Most people would not think of Orient, Iowa as a mecca for gourmet foods, much less an incredible story packed with history. But on those dusty gravel roads you will find exactly that- not only a lovely place to experience fine dining, but a working organic farm that uses the seasonal produce to prepare an ever-changing menu and treat rural Iowans to something quite special.

Below is a revision of a blog post I wrote last summer for the tourism blog I write at work, and since it fits perfectly with everything City Girl, Country Life is all about (the glamour and finesse of a great gourmet meal out and the quiet and serenity PLUS sustainability of the new era of farming and rural life), I thought it would make a great post to share here as well.

When leaving a legacy, some families really know how to do it BIG TIME. The Wallace Family would be one of those families. Who are they? Why should we be interested? I am going to borrow some information from the website to help start off our experience at this wonderful place in rural Adair County. Let's meet the four generations of Henry Wallaces who have significantly influenced American agricluture.

The first Henry WallaceHenry Wallace, the first editor of Wallaces' Farmer agricultural journal. The first Henry Wallace came to Iowa in 1862 as a Presbyterian minister, and co-founded  Wallaces' Farmer with his sons Henry C. and John in 1895. Through this publication, he became known as "Uncle Henry", helped establish Iowa State College as a premier agricultural research institution, and promoted the Agricultural Extension Service. When asked to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Wallace deferred to his friend James "Tama Jim" Wilson. He died in 1916. 
Henry C. WallaceHenry C. Wallace: farmer, college professor, editor, US Secretary of Agriculture. Son Henry C. Wallace was a professor at Iowa State College, editor of Wallaces' Farmer, co-founder of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and longtime secretary of the Corn Belt Meat Producers' Association. Henry C. worked hard to help farmers organize in associations and cooperatives. He served as Secretary of Agriculture for two presidents from 1921 until his unexpected death following surgery in 1924. 
Henry A. WallaceHenry A. Wallace: scientist, editor, politician, US Secretary of Agriculture, US Vice President, humanitarian. Grandson Henry A. Wallace graduated from Iowa State College and went to work for Wallaces' Farmer. In high school, Henry A. was already researching and breeding corn. He founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company in 1926, now known as Pioneer, A DuPont Company. Henry A. served as Depression-era U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933-1940, implementing revolutionary farm policies and programs for resource conservation and economic stabilization, many of which have remained in place into recent times. From 1953 to 1996, programs he designed to assure family-scale farmers support of commodity prices in the marketplace through supply management and on-farm grain storage were eventually weakened or phased out. Parallel to this has been a dramatic consolidation of farm units and a massive out-migration of population from America’s rural landscapes into urban settings. As Vice President from 1940-1944, Wallace traveled widely. He became Secretary of Commerce until 1946, and then ran for president in 1948. After his defeat, he retired from politics to write, travel, give speeches and farm. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1965. 
Henry B. (H.B.) WallaceHenry B. Wallace: scientist, businessman, environmentalist. Great-grandson Henry B. (H.B.) Wallace did for chickens what his father had done for corn. In 1939 he took over the fledgling hybrid poultry division of Pioneer Hi-Bred. His efforts icreased egg production and industrialized the egg and broiler business. The pouktry division became Hy-Line Internation, the world's oldest layer genetics company. H.B. died in 2005.  

Now THAT is a family legacy! And lucky for us that legacy continues today at the Wallace Country Life Center nearby Orient, in Adair County. The Country Life Center is a self-sustaining farm and restaurant that showcases seasonal produce grown on the farm. Their goal is to utilize and highlight sustainable agriculture, supporting local food growers and providing an opportunity for education about farming and sustainability.

Also at the Country Life Center is The Gathering Table restaurant, a very unique restaurant experience led by Chef Katie Routh. The menu changes depending on the season and what produce is available, making each experience unique and surprising. Chef Katie also holds cooking classes at different times throughout the year. At our visit I got Sarah to agree to try lunch there. The menu was very unique for a small town. Sarah chose pork and veggie meatballs, made from Bridgewater Farms ground pork, roasted eggplant and tomatoes, served with basil Israeli cous cous.

I chose the Beef and Vegetable Tacos. Braised Cory Farms sirloin tip, shredded, with salsa verde, cilantro lime slaw and pico de gallo. I LOVED the food, the presentation and creative use of ingredients. VERY unexpected in a rural setting.

We also sampled the dessert offerings that day, Sarah had an ice cream filled cookie with a chocolate and caramel sauce and I had a chocolate cake with apricot sauce, almonds and whipped cream.

After dessert we thought we better walk off some of those calories! The Center is a large complex of trails and interesting artworks and restored prairie, fish ponds, wild flowers and loads of beautiful Iowa countryside.

We walked around the working farm gardens as well and got to see the people actually hand weeding and tending to the vegetables that are grown for use in the restaurant and as part of the Center's CSA program. 

The Center is very involved in community activities as well, providing education, entrepreneurial guidance, and standing out as a leader in sustainable farming. They also have rental facilities for meetings, weddings and other activities. Several bed and breakfasts are in the area as well the historic and would make a great overnight visit to rural Iowa!

****That's just one of the awesome sights to visit in west central Iowa. As spring is just beginning here I hope to visit the Country Life Center a few times this season. They also have a gift shop with loads of awesome art items and local foods and fresh produce from the farm. If you ever visit this part of Iowa, it's worth the detour!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Vineyard Workshop

Apparently someone around here (namely, ME) forgot that she likes to sleep in on Saturdays! I signed up for a grapevine pruning workshop early on a Saturday morning- in Iowa- in early April! I must be NUTS! We had SNOW two days ago, but it turned out to be a very wise decision and a very wonderful learning experience.

All bundled up against the breeze, learning to prune a 2 year old vine.
As a lifelong gardener I am always looking for something new to add to my garden. I have this little nook in the yard that has kind of crummy, rocky soil. Now, my education in oenology tells me that grapevines thrive in crummy soil, crummy conditions and don't require as much water as many garden plants do. They send very long roots deep into the ground and find a water source. They are very very resilient, as long as you are growing a variety suited to your zone. Anyway.....I decided that a grapevine would look really awesome in this particular spot.

Rows of beautiful Concord grapevines
And then along comes this workshop. Hosted by Dean Rogers of the John 15 Vineyard near Scranton, Iowa, and I had to sign up! A little about John 15- it's not your typical Iowa vineyard. There is no winery here. Instead Nancy and Dean raise grapes and use them for jellies, baked goods, candies and more. You can also purchase grapes by the pound for your own creations. They have a marvelous lodge on the property with guest rooms for overnight stays, meeting space, a huge kitchen (and I wish I had some canning girlfriends nearby- we could rent it and can up a storm overnight!), a treehouse for camping (yes, a TREEHOUSE), playground and they are building a golf course on the property as well. It's located in a secluded part of Greene County surrounded by trees and wildlife, and is the perfect place for a meeting or event. You will never meet nicer folks than Nancy and Dean. They are so welcoming and helpful and love to visit.

Sarah trims up a 2 year old Concord vine
So, my friend Sarah, her brother Brian and myself arrive bright and early on this brisk and breezy spring morning, pruning shears and sweatshirts, ready to get out there and learn! Sarah has a very old and seriously overgrown grapevine in her yard, so she wants to learn how to get it back into shape. Brian is a young man seriously interested in horticulture and gardening and has started his 2014 garden from seed already, and me, well, you know- I have the perfect spot for a  grapevine!

The Vine That Started it All
Dean leads us out into the property and introduces us to the "vine that started it all"- the original concord grapevine that was there when they purchased their home. This, he tells us, is what a pruned vine should look like- to me it looks like someone cut the life out of it! But a tiny snip reveals living green wood inside the brown bark and little buds waiting for the warmth of the sun to pop them open. 

It looks forlorn but it's healthy green wood waiting to burst
open new buds, leaves and bunches of Concord grapes
We move into the vineyard itself and Dean explains the different varieties they grow. Since he has just begun the pruning process many of the vines are still heavily overgrown and look like a tangled mess. I'm beginning to wonder if I've bit off more than I can chew! But he starts to work on a vine and in a matter of minutes it's trimmed and under control. I'm amazed, but still not sure I want to go hacking up someone else's vines! 

A couple of the varieties grown at John 15 Vineyard

Dean is not worried, and one by one he walks us through pruning first an older vine, then a young vine and each got a chance at pruning a couple vines. It really wasn't that scary at all! We learned to identify different diseases, live wood from dead wood, buds, old growth, and training vines to grow in the direction we want. 

Someone desperately needs a trim!
The Rogers' grow several different types of grapes in the vineyard and we learned a little about each one. You think a vine is a vine is a vine but Dean taught us otherwise- every variety is different and has different growing habits. We learned about weather affecting the vines, wildlife thinking it's a salad bar, and he shared many stories of successes and failures. He pointed out one vine- a wild grape- that he transplanted just for fun and quickly learned that was not the best idea.

Brian got right in there, identifying old and new  wood,
diseased parts and new buds
As we wrapped up our workshop we got to visit with Nancy and Dean about vines and gardens and different plants. Sharing stories about gooseberries, blueberries, even huckleberries-what an enjoyable morning. Nancy gave us all a sample of jelly made with Niagara grapes- it looks nothing like grape jelly! Niagara are sweet white grapes often used in winemaking but they make amazing jelly! Your eyes are telling you "apple jelly" and your mouth is telling you "holy heck that is GRAPE jelly."

I trimmed this little Concord vine all by myself!
After leaving the vineyard we stopped to take Brian home and he showed us all his garden plants he is working on, and the area he plans to till and raise vegetables in. I really admire that in a young man. He has a serious interest in horticulture and that makes me so happy !! So in spite of grumbling when the alarm went off, it was a wonderful Saturday morning. One of the things we learned is how to make starts from cuttings and Sarah is going to attack her monstrous vine and pass along a few cuttings, so I will have plenty of fun this summer!

If you are ever in this part of Iowa, plan to stop by John 15 Vineyard. Check out their website and Facebook page and even if you stop in for the jelly, it's worth the drive! You can find the link to their website on the right side of this blog, so check it out!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Good Stuff

"The Good Stuff". It was good enough for Al Capone, and it's good enough for me!

Way out here in western Iowa is a piece of history that's pretty darn cool. Sure, we have Jesse James' train robbery, Bonnie and Clyde robbed a bank, John Wayne was born not too far away, but can you imagine a small town in rural Iowa turning "outlaw" and distilling whiskey? Ohhhh, but it's the truth. In 1920 Prohibition forbid the making and sale of alcoholic beverages. Templeton Rye was known to be the drink of choice of Al Capone, and if he didn't care about the law, well.......

What is rye whiskey? Well if you know anything about distilled spirits, they usually are made from grains. In Templeton Rye's case, the "mash" contains 90% rye grains, more than any other rye whiskey on the market and contributes to it's special flavors. The mash is a mixture of grain, malt and water, also contains a small amount of spent or used mash from a prior batch that contains some active yeasts. This mixture is fermented and distilled in a complicated process involved some pretty technical equipment these days. After distillation, Templeton is aged in charred oak barrels before bottling. A generation or so after Al Capone's era, the popularity of Templeton Rye waned, owners changed, and production began to slip. But eventually the Kerkhoff family became involved again and they were off to the races. Even today, the whiskey is made using the original recipe created by Merlyn Kerkhoff.

An entire case of The Good Stuff

Fun fact learned talking to Keith Kerkhoff from Templeton Rye: During barrel aging a small amount of volume is lost due to evaporation. This is called "the angels share."

Barrel lid, indicating which barrel and batch. Bottles are labeled
with barrel, batch and bottle number.

Ok, so back to Templeton. The distillery still remains in the Carroll County town. The distillery is open for tours twice daily, Monday through Friday. One Saturday a month, Keith conducts the tour himself. The tour includes the distillery, bottling room, the barrel area, and tasting area. Guests on the tour get to help label a few bottles and can sample Templeton Rye right there! Now that is my kind of tour!

A couple years ago in Iowa, Templeton Rye was extremely hard to find. Stores would be sold out before the bottles even hit the shelves. You literally had to know someone who worked in a liquor store to even stand a chance OR....... if you were lucky and lived out in the rural areas, like our Little Lake House, Templeton was easy to find. What's so special about rye whiskey? It's just..... different. If you are familiar with different types of whiskey you will notice the not-at-all subtle flavors in Templeton Rye. This is the whiskey you want to make a good classic whiskey cocktail like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. Modern mixologists are hard at work concocting new cocktails like The Gangster's Martini and the Shirley Templeton (see Templeton's website for recipes).

Next time you are visiting western Iowa, think about stopping at this unique piece of history.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Apple Cranberry Galette

Also known as How To Bake a Pie Like a Cheater But Look Like a Pastry Chef. Seriously the easiest pie you will EVER bake !!!

The ingredients are so ridiculously easy- in this case I'm using apples and cranberries, some flour, sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and pastry.

Start prepping the fruit- cut up the apples (I used enough apples to get about 2 1/2 cups cut up apples). You can chop into chunks or small slices, whatever you prefer. I used about a cup of fresh cranberries, cut in half. A bit labor intensive but not too bad. Place fruit in a large bowl, toss with a tablespoon or so of lemon juice, a good dash of cinnamon or apple pie spice, about 1/3 cup flour and 3/4 cup sugar (use brown sugar for a caramel apple flavor). Set aside.

Prepare and roll out into a large circle a single crust pastry recipe. You can also cheat and use the store bought rolled up pastry if you want. Place pastry on greased rimmed baking sheet (sometimes a little juice leaks out and you don't want THAT mess in the oven). Pile the fruit in the middle, spreading out a little but leave a few inches of pastry open. 

Fold the edges up and pinch and ruffle as needed to get a nice rustic edge to the pie. Brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar if desired. Dot the fruit with butter (NO MARGARINE!!!) and bake at 375 degrees for about about 45 minutes. The crust will be deep golden brown and the fruit nice and tender.

Serve warm or cool.

You can use any kind of fruit to make this galette, but canned pie fillings don't work. Use fresh fruit. It's very versatile, quick and even easy to make up a bunch and freeze unbaked. Just pop a frozen one in the oven and bake about an hour.

Believe me, it will look like you fussed all day when it takes just minutes!!

The Perfect Roast Chicken

Once in a while The Chef and I will agree on a recipe. This time it happens to be roast chicken. Arguably one of the EASIEST things to prepare on the planet, as well as one of the most delicious, a perfectly roasted chicken will be moist and juicy with the crunchiest, crispy brown skin as an extra treat. 

I have found that the key to a really moist bird is to stuff it. Not with "stuffing" made of bread and herbs and something you're going to eat as a side dish. I like to pack the bird full of chunked apples, onions, garlic cloves. The apples and onions cook and steam and basically baste the bird from the inside. The garlic adds an aromatic touch that's subtle but delicious. We have tons of chunks of apples in the freezer and bags of cranberries too, so The Chef threw a handful of cranberries in there as well- why not? The skin needs to brown to be really good- no one wants flabby, pale, yucky chicken skin. I used to go through all the hassle of loosening the breast skin and packing butter in there- not anymore. The fruit stuffed inside eliminated that need for extra moisture. Instead, now I, well, WE actually, season the skin liberally with just about everything imaginable. A dribble of lemon juice to moisten the skin, then sprinkle on herbs and spices of your liking. The Chef used crumbled dried oregano, a tiny pinch of mint leaves, a pinch of crushed red pepper, then a few hits of some Penzey's favorites- jerk seasoning, pork chop seasoning, seasoned salt and celery seed, then finished it off with a couple grinds of black pepper. Put big chunks of butter on top and inside the bird, throw it in a 375 degree oven and roast until chicken is done (meat thermometer registers 165 degrees). I also like to baste my bird periodically to crisp up that skin and really kick up the flavor. Generally it takes about an hour and a half or so to roast.

When it comes out of the oven it's going to smell like heaven! If you let it rest just a few minutes the juices will stabilize and the meat will be tender and succulent. And don't forget that delicious skin. It should be browned and crispy all over and sooooo delicious- don't fight over it! Share!

Roast chicken is one of my favorite things to cook. You can pair it with almost any sides- potatoes (we had baked with butter and sour cream) or mashed- if you're up to it, the juices make amazing pan gravy. You can make stuffing. Any kind of veggie goes well too. If you're feeling festive and you have it around, break out the cranberry sauce! It goes deliciously with roast chicken. Have a mini Thanksgiving anytime you want to. I can't guarantee you will have many leftovers but if you DO they make great chicken salad or chicken and noodles, and don't forget to make chicken stock out of that tasty chicken carcass.