Category Archives: iowa

Thank God for Daffodils

There’s a reason that midwesterners are strong, hardy people. It’s because midwestern winters are long, bleak periods of torture. Everything is brown and gray and barren and depressing for months on end. And then one day you see daffodils at the grocery store and you heave a sigh of relief.

“Soon, it will be grey no more,” you whisper to yourself.

In a matter of weeks the leaves will populate the trees, flowers will dot the landscape and life will seem worth living.

Until then, we have these little stems of sunshine.

The First Snowfall of the Season

This American House: An American System Built Home

Here in the upper Midwest, the first snow of the season – whether it comes in October or December – is always exciting. Snow has a way of quieting the world and making the newly naked trees seem a little less obscene. It’s winter, folks. Grab the beauty while you can. For a new year awaits us on the other side.

Mr. Porter’s Garage: A Frank Lloyd Wright Connection in Decorah, Iowa

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

While showing friends around lovely nearby Decorah late last summer, we happened to pass by the incredible Porter House Museum. This beautiful 19th Century Italianate house is notable for its one-of-a-kind surrounding rock wall, a contribution made to the property by its equally one-of-a-kind owner, Adelbert Field Porter (1879-1968). Mr. Porter, commonly known as “Bert,” was a gentleman explorer, naturalist, and photographer who culled from his vast collection of natural curiosities to create “nature art,” such as his remarkable wall.

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A Return to Home: Homemade Lefse Recipe

Lefse Recipe on This American House

In many ways, buying this house in northeast Iowa has felt like returning home for us. This despite the fact that neither of us are from Iowa. For me it’s a return to the small town life that I knew growing up. And for The Mister we’re once again in a region of the country that proudly celebrates its (and his) Norwegian heritage. And just like in his native Fargo, North Dakota, that Norwegian heritage means that there’s lefse in grocery stores.

Lefse is a Norwegian flatbread that I, a small town boy with southern roots, had never encountered until I met The Mister. It’s kind of like a tortilla but it’s made out of potatoes. And whereas a tortilla is stuffed with meat and cheese and other fixings, lefse is simply smeared with butter, rolled up and eaten as is.

Enjoying Homemade Lefse at This American HouseI was introduced to lefse on our our first visit to The Mister’s parents’ house in Fargo. It was one of the first things we were presented by The Mister’s adoring and adorable mother, Louise. We were kids then, The Mister and I, and so of course we had made the entire twelve hour drive in the dark. After The Mister picked me up from work on a dark February Friday, we set out on our first road trip together. We had only met the month before but we were already quite smitten and this trip was one of those “take him home to meet mother” deals. To say that I was nervous is an understatement. Fortunately Louise made me feel right at home, even as she had to explain lefse to me.

Over the years I’ve found ways to bring this Norwegian treat into our lives. One Christmas I ordered a box of Freddy’s Lefse, The Mister’s preferred brand made in his hometown, as a surprise treat. And on every visit to Fargo we’ve picked up a package or two to take back to the city with us. While it has yet to become my favorite food, I appreciate the heritage and, more importantly, the memories associated with lefse.

It was during our first weekend in This American House that I spied packaged lefse for sale in the local grocery store. I purchased a couple packages and excitedly brought them back to the house. “You’re home!” I said to The Mister, and held up the packaged lefse to illustrate the point.

Like anything, packaged lefse is only half as good as homemade. The Mister has often told me how delicious his grandmother’s homemade lefse was. There was always a sense of wistful longing in his voice when he would say this. I’ve heard stories about how his dad had taken a class to learn how to make it and how his lefse was almost as good as his grandmother’s. Stumped for a birthday gift this year, and now that we have a house with the space to store it, I bought The Mister an 8 Piece Lefse Starter Kit  . And now I understand what he was raving about all those years. Homemade lefse is delicious!

We set up shop in the dining room for our inaugural lefse experiment. As an experienced baker, I was pretty confident that I’d be able to follow the lefse recipe that came with the kit. And except for a few oopses along the way, our first batch of lefse turned out quite nicely. Here’s how it’s done:

Making Homemade Lefse at This American House

HOW TO MAKE LEFSE

1. Make mashed potatoes. (Or, if you’re pressed for time, make a batch of instant mashed potatoes.) Let cool.

2. Add equal amounts of flour as potatoes. For instance, if you have 2 cups of mashed potatoes, add 2 cups of flour.

Lefse Dough

3. Form the potato mixture into balls that are roughly the size of tennis balls.

4. Chill the potato dough balls overnight.

Rolling Lefse on a Floured Surface

5. The next day, place the chilled ball of dough on a well floured surface. (This handy board and cover were included in The Mister’s lefse kit.  You can also roll your dough on a counter top or large cutting board.) Smoosh the dough to flatten it a little.

Making Homemade Lefse at This American House5. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a very thin disk. As The Mister’s high school friend and fellow lefse lover advised, you want the rolled dough to be the consistency of a paper towel. That is, you want it to be super thin and almost transparent.

Making Lefse at This American House

6. Our lefse kit came with a turning stick, which is an invaluable tool when you’re dealing with such a thin dough. The turning stick is used to lift the dough off the pastry board and place it on the grill.

Lefse Cooks on a Grill at This American House

7. Once on the grill, let the lefse cook for about one minute. Then, use the turning stick to flip the lefse over on the grill. Let it cook for an additional thirty seconds.

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8. To keep your finished lefse from getting crispy as it cools, store it sandwiched between towels. The condensation created by the hot lefse will keep them soft.

The Mister and His First Homemade Lefse

9. Try not to eat all the lefse as it comes off this grill. This will be harder than you think it might be. Once you slather butter on a hot lefse and gobble it down it’s hard to stop yourself from having another. And then another. If you do end up with any leftover lefse, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

While The Mister has always enjoyed his lefse simply buttered, according to a post on the Lefse Facebook page others have been known to eat it with butter and sugar, cream cheese and lingonberries and even lutefisk.

*By the way, I hope the photo at the top of this post says “You’re going to love this lefse.” Google provided the translation to Norwegian. If it turns out that I’m wrong about that, let me know!

Images: This American House

Cars of Crude: Transporting Oil in the 21st Century

Cars of Crude: Transporting Oil in the 21st Century

Sometimes there are things happening out in the word and, even though you know they’re there, you don’t really pay attention to them. Then one day something happens and your interest is piqued. Such is the case with my interest in the way we transport crude oil in America. In the parlance of so many action movies, this time it’s personal.

It started with a news story on Friday morning. I saw a headline on my morning news roundup about a train derailment near Galena, Illinois. Galena happens to be part of the route we take from the city out to the house. I clicked on the news story with selfish interest. We were going to be driving to the house Friday night so I was wondering whether this derailment would have any impact on our trip.

According to the Yahoo news story about the Galena derailment, this particular train was pulling 103 cars of crude oil, plus 2 cars filled with sand. Let that sink in a moment. 105 train cars! That’s a mighty long train! Fortunately only 21 of those cars derailed in Friday’s accident. Unfortunately, those cars still burst into flames and created ginormous explosions. Also quite fortunately, this accident occurred in a sparsely populated region of the midwest. Imagine if this derailment had occurred closer to the town of Galena or if it had occurred during the height of the summer tourism season, when more people would be in the region.

A freight train pulling hundreds of cars of crude oil

Not all of these concerns occurred to me when I read the story about the Galena derailment Friday morning. Again, I was first looking at the story from a selfish standpoint. Would the crash affect me in my trip out to the house? Later that night, however, as we made that trek to the house for the weekend, we listened to an episode of Fresh Air about the risks of transporting oil by train. Fresh Air guest host Dave Davies interviews Marcus Stern in this episode and it was truly an eye opening interview. Not only are these train accidents becoming more common, thanks in large part to he Bakken region’s oil surplus, but it seems to be just a matter of time before a derailment occurs in a more densely populated city. While the trains start their journey in a very rural region of the Dakotas, they inevitably make their way through city centers along the way.

Take into consideration the fact that the train that derailed in Galena would have travelled through Chicago on its way to refineries on the East Coast. Can you imagine the devastation that would be caused by a series of rail cars exploding in a city with a population of more than 2.5 million people?

As we listened to the Fresh Air story (not coincidentally while driving through Galena) we started thinking about the freight rail line that runs through out little town. The romantic in me has always enjoyed the echoing of the train’s horn as it lumbers down the tracks less than two blocks from our house. I had assumed that these trains were carrying corn and soybeans and other farm products. Now, knowing that the trains are pulling highly explosive materials as they snake their way through town makes me a little wary of the romance of the rails.

And then Saturday morning, as I crossed the Mississippi to pick up groceries at Piggy Wiggly in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, I spied the train that’s pictured above. There, sitting on the tracks along the Mississippi River, were cars of crude. I was standing near what I assume was the middle of the train. Looking left and looking right, there were rail cars as far as my eye could see. More than a hundred of them, I’m sure. This is literally getting a little too close to home.

So what’s the solution? Pipelines? Maybe. But pipelines are expensive and, really, aren’t very safe either. Stop using so much damned oil? Well, yes, that’s the most obvious solution but it’s not very practical, is it? I mean, we still have to heat our homes and drive our cars. Frankly, I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that I am now aware of the problem. And it scares the hell out of me.

Images: This American House