Category: Iowa (Page 2 of 10)

Baking Pies With Food & Swine + Pork Tenderloin At Goldie’s

You can cry or die or just bake pies all day.” – From “Making Pies” by Patty Griffin

After our friend Amy Hild died in a car crash late February, I baked a pie and wrote this post about baking feelings into pies. Grief can seem like a monster or feel like riding a wave and we’re all dealing with it in our own ways. One thing I learned is that I am not the only one who finds solace in baking. My friend Shannon connected with the post and coordinated a trip to Cristen Clark’s home near Des Moines for a pie baking workshop last week.

Group pies

Cristen Clark writes Food & Swine. She and her family grow crops and raise hogs on their farm. In her free time, Cristen enters baking and cooking contests, frequently taking home blue ribbons. I’ll always remember how she extended a hand of hospitality of friendship soon after we moved to Iowa. There are those people who just get your sense of humor, and she’s definitely one of them. Cristen graciously hosted us at her home for the day and shared her best pie-making tips.

Cristen Jessica aprons

We put on our aprons and Cristen walked us through making pie crust.

Group in kitchen

During this class, we prepared all-butter pie crusts. Pie fillings varied, depending on what fruit each person brought. I combined apples and pears and Cristen helped me add sugar, flour to thicken, lemon zest, lemon juice, and this delightfully fragrant Vietnamese cinnamon she bought from the King Arthur Flour.

baking supplies

One technique we didn’t learn in culinary school baking lab was how to make a lattice pie crust. Cristen mentioned that thicker lattice patterns are “in” and demonstrated how to weave the strips.

Cristen trimming pie

I topped my double-crust pie with horse cutouts.

pie Collage

Cristen treated us to lunch at Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City while we waited for our pie dough to chill. Goldie’s claim to fame is winning the Iowa Pork Producer’s “Best Pork Tenderloin” contest in 2009. The Des Loines blog, my favorite resource for unbiased pork tenderloin reviews, lists Goldie’s tenderloin as a top contender near Des Moines.

Inside, the small restaurant looks like a diner and even has a drive-through window. At lunch time, the place was busy and people filled every stool along the counter.

goldies Collage

Mary and I ordered a pork tenderloin basket while the other bloggers ordered pork tenderloin sandwiches. “Would you like ranch? our server asked in true Iowan style. Of course we said “Yes.”

Our pork tenderloin arrived in thin strips and reminded me of the schnitzel fingers I once ordered at Glockenspiel restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. The tenderloin was fried well so that the strips were crispy without being greasy and the pork was moist and tender. When I looked around the table, I noticed my dining companions’ sandwiches were accompanied by tangles of thin onion rings. Those generic, pre-frozen rings appear on so many menus that I’ve come to expect them. Thin rings are my favorite and I really regretted not ordering them here. Val let me try one of hers.

pork strips

Cristen also noted that the owner raises cattle on his family farm. The cows are processed at a local locker and the beef is served on Goldie’s menu in the form of burgers and sausage. The Magg Combo sandwich combines a pork tenderloin and burger patty. As a new Iowan, I’m still getting acquainted with pork tenderloin sandwiches, but can claim that this is my favorite fried tenderloin so far.

After lunch, we returned to Cristen’s house and finished preparing our pies to bake at home. The way that one bakes his or her pies is so personal and there’s always something new to learn. Competition pie baking is especially fascinating. It’s a completely different beast than baking pies for home consumption, only. I’m not ready for this world, but will certainly use some of these tips Cristen taught us.

Pie Wisdom From Cristen

  • Use a foil collar to prevent crust edges from burning. To make a collar, cut a piece of foil long enough to wrap around the perimeter of your pie crust and fold it into a thinner strip. Wrap it around your pie crust edges and remove it about ten minutes before the pie’s done baking. I can not believe I’ve never thought of this before. The collar sure beats trying to crunch strips of foil around hot pie edges and hoping they don’t fall off each time you move the pie.

pie crust guard

  • Competition bakers keep their pie chilled. Cristen mentioned that when she makes competition pies, she pops the pie back into the fridge frequently to keep the dough cold for perfect forming.
  • Add an egg to the crust: The pie crust recipe I’ve used at home at in culinary school did not include an egg. We added it to the flour and butter, along with the water. I didn’t notice a huge difference, but it turned out well.
  • On shortening & crusts: Different shortenings produce different kinds of crusts. Last November, Cristen wrote this helpful post explaining how each shortening effects crust. I’ve never worked with lard, but it sounds like the combination of lard + butter is popular among bakers. We also learned it’s possible to make a no-roll “push” pie crust with just oil that’s actually won awards at the state fair, too. I haven’t tried this method yet.
  • You can roll pie crust edges up or down: In culinary school, we always rolled the edges of the pie crust down, which Cristen recommended for apple and pear pie. However, she rolled them up on the berry pies. Now, I know I have two options!
  •  Use a giant dough scraper. I don’t own a giant dough scraper. When I’ve made pie at home, I work as quickly as possible so that the shortening doesn’t melt and sprinkle the dough with a lot of flour when it sticks to the counter. The dough scraper made it easy to lift the rolled-out pie dough from the counter and, as a result, I used less flour.
  • Tapioca thickens berry pies. Cristen says the award-winning bakers she’s encountered thicken berry pies with tapioca pearls. She uses 1/4-1/3 cup per pie.
  • Dab with butter: Just like my culinary school instructor, Cristen places little dabs of butter on top of the pie filling before covering it with the top crust.
  • Look for slow bubbles. We baked our pies for 20-minutes at 400℉ and another 40-minutes at 350℉. Slow bubbles indicate that the juices have thickened into a sauce with an ideal consistency.
  • “Blonde” pies are a thing. Pies without any browning on the crust are called “blonde pies.” Some judges prefer them while some don’t, but I’m with Cristen. I like the appearance and flavor of crust with spots of golden brown color.

And my favorite way to enjoy a slice of apple pie? For breakfast with a cup of coffee and cheddar melted on top of the crust!

group outside goldies

From left to right: Cristen (Food & Swine), Jessica (Belong, Create), Val (Corn, Bean, Pigs & Kids), Me, Mary (Natural Plus Nursery), Shannon (The Field Position).

Special thanks Cristen for hosting us and surprising us with lunch at Goldie’s and to Shannon for coordinating the event and providing transportation.  

My Five Favorite Food Reasons To Visit Clear Lake, Iowa

Disclosure: In exchange for traveling with the Clear Lake Chamber to Chicago, I have agreed to write five posts about the trip. It is my commitment to share my honest opinion about my experiences. This first post introduces our trip and the Chamber. 

Writing a post about Clear Lake, Iowa is a breeze for me, because I have a really easy time thinking of things I like in this city. There’s a Raygun shirt that says, “Clear Lake: The Hamptons of Mason City. It’s funny because it’s kind of true.

Clear Lake Dock

They’re our neighbor with the biggest body of water! It’s probably the biggest lake in North Iowa which makes it a popular vacation/summer home destination. Jake and I have our favorite spots in our current hometown of Mason City, but venture to Clear Lake often. When I received an opportunity to travel to Chicago with the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce and seven North Iowa Bloggers via our new carrier Air Choice One, I jumped.

Two years ago when Jake and I moved to Mason City, our airport was actually air-carrierless! The airport sat vacant until last November when Air Choice One began its contract. We heard tales of the previous air carrier’s unpredictability and hoped along with the rest of the city that things would improve. Now, flights go to and from Chicago, IL and St. Louis, MO for about $100 per roundtrip ticket. We’re a two-hour drive from the MSP and Des Moines airports and an hour from Rochester. I hope Air Choice One will continue to improve its service. We need a dependable air carrier and I’m hopeful about these new flight options. This will be my first time flying this airline.

For those road tripping north or south along I-35, Clear Lake is located next to the freeway making it a convenient place to grab a break or meal. The Surf Ballroom and Buddy Holly Crash Site are also located within the city. These are five of my favorite food reasons to visit Clear Lake:

My favorite butcher shop is in Clear Lake.

I drive to Clear Lake almost weekly to purchase meat from Louie’s Custom Meats. Sure, I could purchase meat closer to home, but I like this small, family owned and operated butcher the most. Plus, everything we get here just tastes better. The prices here are affordable and I can also grab a growler of beer produced by Lake Time Brewing, a Clear Lake Brewery.

You can get broasted chicken in Clear Lake.

Barrel CHicken
Jake and I get fried chicken cravings occasionally. We’ve indulged this craving at other places in North Iowa, but like the broasted chicken from the historic Barrel Drive-In the best. The skin’s crispy and the meat is tender and moist.

You can enjoy cheap cocktails and better bar food at Rookies in Clear Lake.

Rookies Collage

We’ve mentioned Rookie’s often, because it really is one of our favorite date night spots. I hear the atmosphere can get rowdier on weekend evenings, but we’ve always found a laid-back vibe at dinner time. Rookie’s is connected to the restaurant Sevens so customers can order more than just bar food while sitting around the big, shiny bar.

This is not to say their bar food isn’t good, though. Rookies serves one of my favorite version of sweet potato fries in North Iowa. They’re sprinkled with an addicting seasoning salt and served with a creamy dip that tastes like bacon. One of our other favorite entrees is the sautéed lemon-pepper cod served with a crisp green salad. The fact that I can sidle up to the bar and eat a better than average salad with homemade lemon vinaigrette is enough to make me loyal.

An old school supper club is located in Clear Lake.

half moon Collage
Half Moon Inn is an old school supper club near the Surf Ballroom. There is no flashy sign and the building isn’t showy, so you might not know it’s there unless someone tells you to look for it. Many rave about Northwestern Steakhouse’s Greek-style steak, while other friends prefer Half Moon.

We haven’t visited Northwestern yet, but liked the charred flavor of our ribeye. It was tender and the juices had a compelling acidic note. Meals start with a cute, pre-bread basket cracker basket with butter and dinner salads. A small loaf of bread arrives later with the entrees. The blue cheese dressing indeed included chunks of blue cheese and one can order hash browns as their potato side. Most restaurants in North Iowa offer shredded hash browns as a potato option and I love this.

You can dine lakeside at The Landing in Clear Lake. 


To my knowledge, the Landing is the only lakeside restaurant located in the city of Clear Lake (however there is a popular supper club called the Muskie Lounge in Ventura). The Landing is connected to a small hotel, so don’t be surprised to see vacationers hanging out on the yard or their patios. We enjoyed a meal here late last summer near the end of the season and have looked forward to returning. You’ll really get your money’s worth if you dine here on an evening with live music.

The Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce welcomes questions from visitors. Contact them online or visit their office at 205 Main Ave. They also share information through their tourism blog and visitors’ guide

My Quest To Understand Ham Balls

I’m on a ham ball quest.

Ham balls are a food I’d never heard of until I moved to North Iowa. Growing up in Minneapolis-St. Paul, we rarely ate pork. It never appeared on our school lunch menus, except in the form of Mr. Ribs, and we missed out on pork burgers at picnics. My friend Val of Corn, Beans, Pigs & Kids introduced me to my first ham ball at a blogger potluck.


After looking at some recipes, I created my own version with a spicy cranberry fruit glaze and called them “Iowan ham balls.” My friend Katie was like, “Oh no, those may be good ham balls, but those are not quite Iowan ham balls.” She even left her family’s recipe in case you want to try them.

Hamballs watermarked

If you think I’ve been talking about ham balls a lot, you’re right. When something piques my curiosity, I tend to pursue more information about the subject with tenacity. Remember my obsession with learning about the Lincoln family after visiting Springfield, Illinois last summer? My friend observed that I was dedicated to the subject of ham balls, to which my genuine answer was, “I must understand them.

Friends continue to suggest their favorite family recipes as well as local stores from which to purchase ready-made ham balls. I stopped by Louie’s Custom Meats and Fareway in Clear Lake, Iowa to try two popular versions. These balls are pre-cooked and available to purchase by the pound.


Fareway, $4.99/lb: I’ve received so many suggestions to try Fareway’s ham balls. Each ball is larger than a golf ball. The meat’s grind is finer and the sauce is sweeter with a maple note.

Louie’s, $3.99/lb: These ham balls are the size of typical meat balls with a courser grind. Their flavor is smokier and the sauce is slightly less sweet.

I’m not quite done investigating ham balls. Val has graciously accepted my plea to learn how to make real Iowan ham balls and invited me into her kitchen later this month. There will be a blog post and video to document our adventure. In the meantime, here’s a silly little video explaining my quest to understand ham balls.

JeniEats Investigates Ham Balls from JeniEats on Vimeo.

A Bakery That Smells Like Butter In Belmond, Iowa

Last weekend, Jake and I postponed our little getaway to the Twin Cities. So, obviously, my second choice of destination was Belmond, Iowa, a small town of about 2,300 located 40 minutes southwest of Mason City.

On one of our first warm and sunny days in North Iowa, Beth asked if anyone was interested in joining her on a mini road trip. Her travel plans had been dashed by bad Tennessee weather, so her second choice was also Belmond, too. Why Belmond? The owners of Sugarpie Bakery & Cafe recently reached out to our North Iowa blogging group inviting us to visit.

I posted this photo on Facebook when we arrived in town.


One friend who grew up near Belmond asked me, “What in the world are you seeing in Belmond? Are you visiting Cattleman’s?”

Belmond has survived two tornadoes in recent history. In 1966, a tornado destroyed most of the downtown area, injuring 100 people, and killing six. And in June 2013, an F3 tornado hit the town destroying several local businesses including Cattleman’s restaurant which the Abel family purchased over 30 years ago. Cattleman’s actually reopened at the city’s golf club just this past November. We only had time for one meal on this trip, but so many people recommended Cattleman’s, we’ll have to return for dinner.


We arrived late Saturday morning so we could explore out some of the antique and gift shops our friends suggested. The main street was very quiet and most of the stores were closed. We watched as a fellow shopper tugged at the flower shop door. At first, she appeared surprised to find it closed, but remembered there was a big robotics competition at the school. We had to smile as we imagined the business owners cheering on their sons and daughters at this competition.

The day was so beautiful. We enjoyed strolling the awning-covered sidewalk and found an open thrift shop and pharmacy with a real soda fountain.


This Jazzercise storefront brought back happy memories. Jessica and I are children of the 90’s who grew-up with moms who religiously attended Jazzercise classes, while Beth was one of those moms. She recalled her Jazzercise outfit complete with leg warmers. We also passed by a Belmond historical museum. The sign said it was open by appointment and even listed four individuals’ phone numbers to call. We saw visitors inside as we left for Mason City.

Beth found a Teapot Tuesday treasure at the thrift shop and I bought an epic mug that I’ll share in the next Mugshot Monday. “What can I collect?” wondered Jessica. We also found Girl Scout cookies for sale by the register and lots of doll heads. The clown heads were my favorite.

Doll Head Belmont Collage

We met Val and her kids for lunch at Sugarpie. What struck me upon opening the door was that the cafe smelled like butter. I don’t trust bakeries that don’t smell like butter.

PicMonkey Collage

At Sugarpie, customers can order breakfast or lunch. My friends gravitated towards hot pork and beef sandwiches, while the kids and I chose breakfast.I chose a Denver omelet ($7) filled with cheddar, ham, onions and peppers with a cup of coffee. I like how Sugarpie serves their coffee from an eclectic collection of mugs.

The previous week, I dined at Perkins with some blogger friends and still had omelets on my mind. When I was in high school and college, Perkins was the watering hole for flirting over chicken tender melts and ham and cheese omelets. I hadn’t visited a Perkins for years and was surprised to find out that about half of their omelets contained celery!

For whatever reason, this just cracked me up and I have been laughing about it ever since. This is what Jake refers to as a “Jeni Joke.” This Sugarpie omelet did NOT contain celery. In fact, none of them did, because most omelets don’t. My meal was simple and satisfying.


I got a kick out of this salt and pepper holder.


I have to admit, I eyed Jessica’s pulled pork sandwich. The pork was cut into thick chunks. When Val’s kids left the table to play with more toys, some of the adults nibbled in the leftover french toast sticks. These were no pre-frozen school cafeteria product, but long strips of real french toast.

I chose a flaky bacon and cheese turnover from the bakery case to share with Jake.


While we enjoyed our meal and chatted over coffee, the cafe’s tables and lunch counter remained busy with customers. Val’s kids had a lot of fun playing with toys and coloring on a chalkboard with the other kids in the children’s area. Val’s son was very dedicated to his craft of baking dominos into different flavors of crackers in the toy cash register. The dominos with yellow dots were cheese, the chocolate dots were chocolate, the green were pepper, and some of them were simply cracker flavored crackers. We nibbled on dominos as we chatted over lunch.

This cafe has only been open since September 2014 and owners report they’ve been so busy, they forgot about their six-month anniversary until after it had passed. I love big and little cities, alike, but there are some charms that occur in small towns that make them sparkle. Like Jazzercize awnings, stores closed on a Saturday so proprietors can cheer on their children at the school’s robotics competition, and real soda fountains in pharmacies. Every town needs a scratch bakery and coffee cafe that smells like butter.

Kindness & A Grain Co-op

I grew up learning nothing about farming.

The closest I got to farm animals was the exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo and our annual trip to the Minnesota State Fair. My dad recounts visiting a family member’s farm growing up, but the rest of the farmers in our family have lost since passed.

As I start a new job in a field I never expected to find myself, I’m reflecting on all of the new experiences I’ve had while living in Iowa. Many of my new experiences are very old experiences for friends. Just a year ago, they were aghast that I’d never stepped foot on a non-hobby farm before. I couldn’t tell the difference between a tractor or combine and had no idea that people took pride in owning red or green ones. Last week, I made people laugh when I admitted that I’ve never seen a cow in real life.

One thing I’ve noticed about Iowans is that every time I mention something I’ve never experienced in my city upbringing, someone always extends an invitation to their home or farm. I’m not naive to the evil and sadness in this world, but I continually encounter good people who makes me never run out of hope. Generosity can sign big checks for nonprofits and go viral when caught on video and shared in social media. But generosity can also take the form of quiet acts of kindness whose effects shouldn’t be discounted. I’m always humbled by the kindness of others, especially when I lave myself in strangers’ care while visiting places away from home.

During last fall’s harvest, the team from Five Star Co-Op in Burchinal, Iowa invited Sara and I to visit. Jake and I have often stared in awe at co-ops and grain dryers since our move to Fargo, North Dakota and speculated about their functions. I’ll never forget the quiet winter evening we visited the Crow Bar in Sabin, MN. We parked along the main street and stared in wonder at a towering grain elevator illuminated only by the stars.

To us city kids, these buildings seemed as mysterious and ominous as skyscrapers might to those who grew up in a smaller agricultural community.


Now that I know more about these buildings, they feel friendlier.


Vertical Collage


This is the view from the cashier’s window.


Trucks full of grain go through a weighing process to determine how much grain they carry. A probe “pokes the load” and collects a few kernels that deposited into a bucket. Then, a machine determines the grains’ moisture content and an employee examines it for quality. The farmer is then offered payment for his or her load depending on these factors. This past harvest was tough for many North Iowan farmers because precipitation made the grain moister than what’s ideal. Grain that’s too wet can be dried in the co-ops grain dryers for an additional fee.


When the grain is dried, it goes into trucks that take it to a processing facility to be made into feed or ethanol.


Our co-op guide explained how corn dust is highly flammable, so it’s important to sweep down the areas where corn is loaded and unloaded.


The control panels inside a corn dryer are massive.


The controls looked like something from a space ship or Cold War movie.

More buttons

One of my favorite things I learned is that each strand of silk corresponds to a kernel of corn.


As my friend Donna always says to farmers discussing agricultural concepts to us, “Explain it to me like I’m five.” She’s a city girl like me who grew up in South Florida and moved to a smaller agricultural community for her husband’s work. It’s fascinating to learn the differences between the norms my new friends and I carry, having grown up in a big city or smaller community.

There’s a lot that I don’t understand about farming and only a tiny amount of what I do. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had this year to connect with local farmers, both large and small, organic and conventional. All have treated me a great amount of hospitality and kindness that I’ll never forget.

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