Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Mother-Daughter Lunch Outing with Prairie Earth Tours

(Photo credit: Prairie Earth Tours)

“You can see so far off into the distance here,” Mom said, as we road along Highway 50 through the Flint Hills of Kansas.

I was surprised by her reaction since she just lives across the state line in Missouri. Still, as I looked out the bus window, I could see why she was enthralled by the landscape, with its western horizon which goes on forever, green rolling hills of prairie grass changing hues in the shade of the passing clouds overhead, and the specks of cattle—and sometimes buffalo—grazing away the day.

We were on our way to Peabody, Kansas on a Prairie Earth Tours weekly lunch trip. Owner Casey Cagle invited us to go along with this week’s group of hungry people headed to Pop’s Diner for lunch. Each week the tours go to a different unique, locally-owned restaurant, often in a small Kansas town. It’s Casey’s way of giving people an authentic Kansas experience.

Casey started his tour company last year. He has lots of experience guiding people around, including a stint living and giving tours in Australia. But, being a Kansas boy at heart, he wanted to find a way to interest people in the state. The weekly lunch tours seemed like a great idea because, well, who doesn’t like to eat!

The bus holds only 14 people, and many of them are regulars who take the trip every Tuesday. We gathered at the Granada Coffee Company, which is right next to the beautifully restored Granada Theatre in downtown Emporia. After getting drinks for the road, we all boarded the bus and headed to Peabody. Along the way, we picked up Christy Davis, who is the director of the Symphony in the Flint Hills program and a font of knowledge about the small towns in the area.

Christy told us about Peabody while we traveled down the road. The town was named after F.H. Peabody of Boston, who was a former vice-president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The community was established in the 1870s. The downtown is known for its 1880 architecture, most of it built after the devastating fire of 1884.

The town of Peabody appeared just the way you would expect a small rural town to look. We pulled up in front of Pop’s Diner, ready to eat and explore.

Pop’s had just moved into a new space across and down the street from its old location. The new spot was once a Mexican restaurant, which was evident from the bright colors on the wall. The food, however, was true diner fare.

I got the pork tenderloin sandwich, which was served on white bread, and a side of both onion rings and house-made fries. I ate it all! Many of the tour group got the daily special of BBQ brisket. Since it was almost 100 degrees outside that day, Mom chose the fruit plate with chicken salad. Other than there being a touch too much dressing on the salad, she liked her lunch very much.
Before we left, I got a cinnamon roll with raisins to take with me. Mom and I ate it for breakfast the next day, and it was WONDERFUL! People should put raisins in cinnamon rolls more often. It was so good I forgot to take a photo!

When we returned to Emporia, Mom and I got drinks for at the Granada Coffee Company for our drive back to Topeka. I have to say, they make great coffee and tea. The atmosphere is also perfect for enjoying a cup of something and a conversation, reading, or working on your computer.

Besides the weekly lunch tours, Prairie Earth also hosts moonlight tours on the prairie, brewery tours, and ones called The Flint Hills Experience. Many of the tours have taken place for the summer (there are a few lunch tours still available), so keep an eye on the website (or sign-up for the newsletter) to see what’s coming in the fall.

I know I’ll be signing up for future tours. It’s a great way to see the Flint Hills while someone else drives.

(Photo Credit: Prairie Earth Tours)

(All photos are credited to Linda A. Ditch unless otherwise noted.) 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Discovering Central Missouri Meat and Sausage on the #FarmFoodTour

Besides getting an education about GMOs on the spring #FarmFoodTour this past April, I also discovered a delicious place not far from my family’s farm in Missouri. Located in the town of Fulton, Central Missouri Meat and Sausage is basically a one-stop location for all your meat needs. And, FYI, they make the best summer sausage I’ve ever tasted!

In their Butcher Shop and Processing Center, they prepare meats from locally-raised stock. On the day I was there, they were packaging bacon they smoked on site.

 I bought a package, and it was wonderful. I used it to make my first BLT of the season!

They were also packaging their bratwurst…

…and cutting up pork steaks.

Next to the butcher shop is their Barnyard Steakhouse and retail store. I enjoyed our lunch very much.

It started with crunchy fried pickles….

…and BBQ pulled pork nachos.

For my lunch, I chose the smoked bratwurst. It was good, but my fellow travelers gave me samples of what they ordered, and I think I liked their picks better!

The sticky burger is the most popular item on the menu. It is a BBQ seasoned and smoked pork patty.  This is the Triple Down Sticky Burger, which is the pork patty topped with pulled pork and bacon. It was yummy! I will order this on my next visit.

The smoked beef brisket sandwich was also tasty, as were all the side dished we ordered.

Before leaving, I explored the retail store and went home with bacon and the house-made summer sausage, which are the fat tubes of deliciousness hanging on the lower part of the rack. I wish I’d bought more than one! I’ve always been a summer sausage fan, but seriously this is the best. It has a little kick to it, but not too much, and the flavor is gorgeous. 

I will make many return trips just to get this tasty treat.

Central Missouri Meat and Sausage and the Barnyard Smokehouse
5009 Pendergras Rd.

Fulton, Missouri

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The #FarmFoodTour Ventures Into GMOs

Disclaimer: This post and the #FarmFoodTour are sponsored by the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Pork Association, and the Kansas Soybean Commission, who paid for all of my travel expenses and compensated me for this post. However, my writings, views, opinions, thoughts, and cravings are entirely my own.  

Most of you know I’m a big supporter of local and organic foods. As much as my food budget will allow, I buy Kansas or organic products. I buy local produce at the farmer’s market, even if it isn’t organic, to help support area farmers.

I buy organic products for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes it’s because I interviewed the company’s owner or founder while I was an editor at a natural health magazine years ago. However, I’m usually motivated by taste. For example, I think organic strawberries taste better than conventional. The same goes for organic eggs, dairy, and meats. I buy organic milk because it is ultra-pasteurized, which means it stays fresher longer in my refrigerator. I don’t wind up pouring out half a carton because it spoiled before I could drink it.

On the flip side, there is my family farm. Founded in Hughesville, Missouri in 1909, many generations have grown up and thrived on those 128 acres. When my maternal grandfather got too old to farm, a younger neighbor farmer took over the work part and continues to do so today. Corn and soybeans are grown there…all GMO.

What are GMOs?

Chances are pretty good you’ve eaten GMOs, which is short for genetically modified organism. These are plants that have had their genetic code (DNA) changed in hopes the new plant will be more productive for farmers.  According to the USDA, approximately 90 percent of soybeans, corn, and cotton grown in the US are from GMO seeds.

                      (Image from "Farm to Plate: Learning How Food is Grown" by Monsanto)

Recently I went on a #FarmFoodTour sponsored by the Kansas Farm Bureau, the Kansas Soybean Commission, and the Kansas Pork Association. We were a group of bloggers, dietitians, and farmers in search of information about our food.

One of the days on the trip was spent at Monsanto in St. Louis. This is the company who pioneered GMO technology around 20 years ago…and also the one who is the villain to non-GMO advocates. Today they’re not the only ones producing GMO seeds, but they were the first and best known.

Why genetically modify a plant? The primary reasons are:
  • Insect resistance
  • Herbicide tolerance
  • Climate tolerance—coping with drought and temperature extremes
  • Increasing crop yields
  • Increasing nutritional value

There are only 9 GMO crops in the United States—alfalfa, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. Apples will be added to the list soon.

I could write an entire book about GMOs. In fact, people have! Here are some websites to check out for more information:

I first learned about GMOs while working at the magazine. The people in the natural health and organic worlds are very much anti-GMO, so that is where my mindset was when I went on my Monsanto visit. I’ll let you decide how you feel about this topic, but some of the things I learned after my day in St. Louis include:

1. Many of the farmers I know, not only from this trip but also throughout my lifetime, are comfortable with using GMO seeds. They feel these seeds make their job easier and increase their yields—and profits. They also believe strongly that using GMO seeds is the only way they are going to be able to feed a quickly growing world population in the future.

2. The scientists at Monsanto care about the work they do and its impact on the environment and our health. Before a GMO seed is available for sale, it goes through eight to ten years of research and approval from the USDA, EPA, and FDA.

3. Monsanto produces non-GMO seeds as well, including ones sold to organic farmers.

Some of you may have noticed GMO labeling on many products in the grocery store. This is due in part because of a Vermont law requiring GMO labels. If a product doesn’t have it, you can usually find the information on the company’s website.

One of my fellow food travelers had a “GMO free” label on her morning yogurt. Another found “made with GMOs” in tiny print on the back of her package of gum. Sometimes a product is labeled with GMOs because an ingredient, such as corn syrup, is made with a GMO plant, or animals, such as dairy cows, are fed GMO grain.

However, one person talked about seeing a “GMO free” label on fresh basil. Of course it’s GMO free! There is no such thing as GMO basil. This is where you as the consumer need to be informed.

I remember when natural labels were put on everything. Now the term “natural”  has little meaning. The same thing was happening to organic labels until the USDA created labeling standards.

As a consumer, it is important to understand what GMOs are and if those labels are providing accurate information or being used as a marketing tool to get you to buy a product. I’ll admit, after my Monsanto visit, I feel better about GMOs and their place in agriculture. We are lucky in this country to have a lot of choices when it comes to buying food. Being informed allows you to decide the best food direction for you and your family.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

When Foodie Meet Finicky…and Love Happens Anyway

For the past six years, I’ve shared many tales about The Picky Eater. Some were cute and funny. Others were sad and poignant. All of them were tied in some way to food…my love of just about anything edible and his dislike of all but just a few dishes.

Somehow we made it work.

I’ve added a tab at the top of this blog page titled Tales of The Picky Eater. Click on it to find more stories about the love of my life: How we met. How we ate. How we loved.

I think about him every day and it makes me happy to still share him with you.
He loved being known as The Picky Eater! 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Extreme Chocolate Bundt Cake

Okay, I’ll be brave and admit it: I hate Valentine’s Day. All my life it has been the most disappointing holiday of the year. In school, I got lots of Valentine’s in my carefully decorated shoebox, but never one from that special boy who held my heart at the time…probably because he didn’t know about my crush on him. I never had a secret admirer, or if I did, he was so secret he didn’t tell me.

As an adult, I either wasn’t in a relationship or had just ended one when the holiday rolled around. In the decade+ I was with my ex, he saw Valentine’s Day as more of a chore than a special day to show your love how much you cared.

The holiday was at its best the three and a half years I was with my late husband, The Picky Eater. On our first one, he said he was going to cook dinner for me. Considering his lack of culinary interest and skill, I was a bit concerned. However, he was so excited at the prospect, I enthusiastically, if somewhat warily, agreed. Maybe he would let me help?
When the day arrived, The Picky Eater headed to the grocery store. On his way home, he called to say I was banished to the bedroom until dinner was ready! After he got home, I could hear him rustling grocery bags in the kitchen, and the microwave was getting a workout. 
Finally, he said dinner was ready. I emerged to a table decorated with flowers, and a meal of fried chicken with all of the fixings—mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and rolls—all from the grocery store’s prepared foods section. He stood by the table, grinning, proud of his accomplishment.

I never felt so loved.

Whether you’re on your own this Valentine’s Day (I once had a group of single friends hold a horror movie marathon on the day!) or with someone special, you can’t go wrong with chocolate to celebrate. While there are all kinds of fancy chocolate treats available, they would be hard pressed to beat out this Bundt cake for chocolate supremacy. It is easy to make and has the most kicked-up chocolate flavor of any cake I’ve ever tasted. It is over-the-top chocolatey! 

This cake is so good it will make you look forward to Valentine’s Day, with or without a sweetheart!

Extreme Chocolate Bundt Cake
The original recipe says you can use either natural or Dutch-processed unsweetened cocoa powder. I used Hershey’s Special Dark, which is a combination of both types and made the cake wonderfully chocolatey. The recipe also calls for coffee, which doesn’t give it a mocha flavor but does enhance the chocolate flavor even more. However, you can substitute water if you wish. The original recipe also recommends testing the cake for doneness with a piece of uncooked spaghetti, which worked great!

For cake:
1 cup cold coffee
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder of choice
2 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream

For icing:
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray the Bundt pan with non-stick cooking spray and set aside.

To make the cake: Into a microwave safe bowl, place the coffee, butter, and cocoa powder. Heat on high at 30-second intervals until the butter melts. Remove from the microwave and whisk the ingredients together until smooth, and then set aside to cool for 10 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, place the sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and flour. Mix for a few seconds to combine.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vanilla, eggs and sour cream. Set aside.

Turn the mixer on low. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture into the sugar-flour mixture and mix until combined, making sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Then add the egg-sour cream mixture and mix until well combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until your cake tester comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Then turn the cake over but leave it in the pan to cool for another 5 minutes. Remove the pan and allow the cake to cool completely before adding the icing.

To make the icing: Put the chocolate chips and cream into a microwave-safe bowl or mixing cup. Microwave at 30-second intervals until the cream just begins to bubble. Remove from the microwave and whisk the mixture together until it’s smooth. Pour the icing over the top of the cooled cake.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

When asked to name the heroes in my life, Katharine Hepburn is on my list. My admiration of her talent started when I was a teenager and dreamed of being an actress. I loved her work, especially in two of my favorite movies, "On Golden Pond" and "Desk Set".

As I got older, I started to admire Katharine Hepburn, the person. I liked her spunky, straight-forward attitude. I loved that she would only wear pants because she didn’t like dresses. She was strong, smart, talented, and witty. I want to be just like her.

(I highly recommend reading her autobiography, Me. As you’re reading the book, you can hear her voice in the words.)

With all the upheaval going on in the world right now, I thought we could all use some chocolate. This brownie recipe came from a New York Times letter to the editor. It’s a sweet story about the writer’s encounter with Miss Hepburn, who lived near her family’s Connecticut home.  (You can read the story here.) Besides learning life lessons from the actress, the writer also learned her key to delicious brownies: Do not use too much flour! Notice the recipe only calls for a quarter of a cup.

I made two small changes to the original recipe. First, I added a bit of instant espresso powder, since I find it enhances the chocolate flavor in any recipe. Second, I baked the brownies in a 9-inch-square baking dish instead of the 8-inch one called for in the recipe because, well, I didn’t have an 8-inch one. I shortened the baking time a bit.

That is the key to this dish…do not over bake. These brownies are supposed to be fudgy and gooey.

This is an easy, make-any-time recipe since it contains ingredients most of us keep in our pantry. The resulting brownie is a chocoholic's fantasy. 

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies
Serves 12

1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 cup chopped walnuts
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon instant espresso powder

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray an 8-inch-square or 9-inch-square baking dish with non-stick cooking spray and set aside until needed.

Put the cocoa powder and butter into a large microwave-safe bowl. Place in the microwave for about 1 minute, or until the butter is melted. Whisk the mixture together until smooth. Set aside to cool a bit.

In a small bowl, mix together the sugar, flour, walnuts and salt. Set aside.

When the butter-cocoa mixture has cooled slightly, whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Then whisk in the vanilla and espresso powder.

Pour the sugar-flour mixture into the cocoa mixture. Stir until just combined. Don’t over mix. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish. Bake the 8-inch-square pan for 30 to 35 minutes, and the 9-inch-square pan for 20 to 25 minutes. Do not over bake. The brownies are supposed to be fudgy and gooey.

Remove the brownies from the oven and place on a cooling rack to cool completely before cutting.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix

Sometimes you just need chocolate.

I’m in the midst of a January let-down. Like many people, I feel this way after the excitement and joy of the holidays. I wait all year for September to arrive, and my heart dances a little jig when the weather turns crisp and the celebrations roll through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday, and the New Year.

In some ways, January is a relief…a time to relax and recharge. However, this year started with a sinus infection. Plus, the Kansas weather can’t decide what season is the current one. We’ve had a couple of days with snow, but we’ve also had temperatures reach the 60s. This weekend, we were all prepared for a dangerous ice storm, and while there were a few incidents of ice around, the ice apocalypse transformed into a dreary, foggy, chilly, rainy day.

My go-to comfort drink when I want something warm is a nice cup of hot tea. But on days like today, the warming drink has to be hot cocoa.

I saw this Alton Brown recipe online and was attracted by the idea of having a hot cocoa mix ready to go without all of the chemicals found in the store-bought mixes. 

This mix makes a heavenly cup of cocoa. Along with an engrossing book, it will help drive away the winter doldrums.

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix
Adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown

I cut the original recipe in half so it would fit in a quart-sized canning jar. The recipe calls for Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Regular will work, too, but it won’t be as chocolaty tasting. I used Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder, which is a mix of both types. You can use water to mix up a cup, but I prefer milk warmed in the microwave.

1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 1/4 cup powdered milk
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Hot milk or water
Measure all the dry ingredients into a quart-sized canning jar or another container of choice. Put the lid on tightly and shake to combine the ingredients. (You will need to shake the jar before each use to make sure the mixture is combined.)

To make a cup: It takes 2 tablespoons of hot cocoa mix for every 6 ounces of liquid. While the milk or water heats, add 2 tablespoons of the mix to a mug. Pour in half of the heated liquid and stir until the mix is dissolved. Add the remaining liquid, stir, and enjoy!