Yup. Just made up a hexadecimal number because I have no idea how many times I’ve written about trips to Decorah and I’m too lazy to figure it out. Besides, who really reads hexdec anyway?
Anyway, Lindz and I made one of our regular trips to our old stomping grounds. We stopped by the StoryPeople studio to pick something up and I ran across what I can only assume is one of the limited edition wood paintings.
For those that are curious, the story printed on here is Living Memory. Speaking of my old workplace, I just found a new sculpture that I got quite a kick out of:
You can find it here on the StoryPeople website.
What would a trip to Decorah be without eating at La Rana?
Really not a lot to say. It’s a fun little bar with a great atmosphere and great food all at a small town price.
Last weekend, Lindz, Dave (told you he’d be showing up), and I went down to Iowa for a camping weekend. We went to our usual haunt on the Upper Iowa river next to Randy’s Bluffton Store in, well, Bluffton, IA. Lindz and I have been camping here for quite a few years with different friends and occasionally even by ourselves. This was Dave’s first trip to northeast Iowa. He had heard quite a bit about life there from me, Lindz, and Martha (who also went to Luther College). While he didn’t get to spend much time in Decorah proper, he did greatly enjoy camping north of town. He said so himself. And the way he described it was that he caught the “Decorah Bug.”
We did not do anything terribly exciting. Sat around, watched the fire, BS’ed, and just generally relaxed. My personal highlight was sitting next to the fire, having a bloody mary, smoking a cigar, and reading some back issues of Cook’s Illustrated. Basically, it was an indulgence to all of my vices at once.
Here are some images just to make you jealous of the R&R the three of us desperately needed and fortunately got.
When we go camping we tend to keep the meals pretty simple because everything just seems to taste better cooked over a campfire. We do a really basic breakfast of bacon and eggs. Throughout the day we just tend to snack when we get hungry and then make Hobo Dinners for supper one night. On half of a sheet of tin foil, put in some burger and veggies of your choice and whatever you would like for seasoning. Fold it over and roll the edges to seal it up and then put on another layer of tin foil (less likely to puncture and have everything fall out). Make as many packets as you have meat/veggies. Put the packet on a grate or on some cooler coals to cook. Ours always puffs up like Jiffy Pop from the steam inside. That is how I know that it is hot enough. If you put in potatoes, cut them fairly small because they are usually the last thing to fully cook. This last batch that I made included hamburger, onions, carrots, potatoes, bell peppers, garlic salt, and some steak rub. I ended up cooking each packet for about 8 minutes per side. Obviously, pick and choose whatever you want to throw in here and season to your preferences.
By no means you need to keep things this simplistic. One time we camped next to a middle aged Marine who had an easy half dozen dutch ovens that he cooked in. He didn’t make these while we were there but he said he did chicken cordon bleu and peach cobbler once. He was kind enough to give Lindsay a plate of homemade biscuits and gravy one morning. Completely made her weekend. For that he has my respect (as if serving our country wasn’t enough) and to him I say: Semper Fidelis.
While I was working and living in Decorah, Iowa, a couple of my friends and I would always be on the look out for new and interesting places to eat. One place we found in a neighboring town was a Mexican grocery/restaurant called Sabor Latino, which translates as Latin Flavor. Within a year after we had first visited this place they opened a restaurant in Decorah. The new place was such a regular stop that the whole staff knew our names, our order, and what was going on in our life. Plus, they would throw in some freebies on a regular basis. Which, of course, just encouraged us to come back all the more often. They closed their doors shortly after we stopped making it a regular stop. Possibly a coincidence, possibly not. The reason why we stopped going was that one our trio graduated from college and stopped coming into town on a regular basis. Of course, the fact that they got raided for having illegal immigrants working there may have been a factor. (Just for the record, we did not know that some of the workers were here illegally).
There were several things that I learned from our frequent visits. I fell in love with their pico de gallo (fresh, uncooked salsa) as well as relished their guacamole. In fact, when I make either of these items at home, it is their recipes that I try to emulate. We also discovered a drink called horchata. Horchata is a rice milk beverage made with cinnamon, sugar, and sometimes with almonds or vanilla. It is a cool and very refreshing drink that I have surprisingly not attempted to make. I’ll have to put that on my list to try. I’m not sure if it’s the same one as in his cookbook that I have or if it’s a different recipe, but here is a link to Aarón Sanchez’s horchata recipe (Right now I’m too lazy to get up off the couch and look). But, the most relevant thing to this post is that I discovered the method how Mexicans prepare their tacos. Forget about what you normally see in the U.S., i.e. covered in lettuce, tomato, and all sorts of a salad, the way we were shown was to just put some diced onions and some cilantro on top of the meat. I’m not sure what it is about that combination, but it helps to liven up the meat flavor as well as add its own dimension to each bite. I much prefer “Mexican style,” as the boys at Sabor liked to say, as opposed to what normally passes in the U.S.
While flipping through the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a Tacos al Pastor (shepherd’s style taco) recipe. I was even more surprised when they just called for cilantro and onions for a topping. Given this gift of a recipe and the memories that I have connected with eating this dish, I couldn’t wait to cook it. At this point in time, we had already made plans to go down and visit one of the people that I had spent so much time with at Sabor Latino. It seemed almost sacrilegious not to cook it for him. It was even more fitting in my brain to cook this for Narren because he has cooked for me countless times in the past. Granted, it was often payment for helping him with something (hence him dubbing me a food-whore). But the occasional payback is nice too.
I did end up making several modifications to the recipe because I wasn’t cooking in my own kitchen. As usual, I’ll put my notes in parenthesis.
- 10 large dried guajillo chiles, wiped clean; can substitute New Mexican chiles (I used a Tbs of Crushed Red Peppers)
- 1 1/2 C Water
- 1 1/4 lbs plum tomatoes, cored and quartered
- 8 Garlic Cloves (I used 1 1/2 small bulbs)
- 4 Bay Leaves
- Salt and Pepper
- 3/4 tsp Sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground Cumin
- 1/8 tsp ground Cloves
- 3 lbs boneless Pork Butt Roast (the one I got weighed 3.5 lbs and had a bone, but it dressed out to 3 lbs)
- 1 Lime, cut into 8 wedges (I used 2)
- 1/2 Pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2″ thick rings (did not use at all)
- Veggie Oil
- 18 Corn or Flour Tortillas, about 6″, warmed
- 1 small Onion, chopped fine
- 1/2 C fresh Cilantro, coarsely chopped
Toast guajillos in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until softened and fragrant, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to large plate and when cool enough to handle, remove stems. (Obviously, I completely skipped this step.) Bring toasted guajillos, water, tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves, 2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, sugar, cumin, and cloves to simmer in now-empty Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occassionally, until guajillos are softened and tomatoes mash easily, about 20 minutes (I only cooked it about 12 minutes).
While the sauce simmers, trim excess fat from exterior of pork, leaving 1/4″ thick fat cap. Slice pork against grain into 1/2″ thick slabs.
Transfer the pepper-tomato mixture to blender and process until smooth, about 1 minute (I pulled out the bay leaves). Strain puree through fine-mesh strainer, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Return puree to pot, submerge pork slices in liquid, and bring to simmer over medium heat. Partially cover, reduce heat, and gently simmer until pork is tender but still holds together, 90 to 105 minutes, flipping and rearranging pork halfway through cooking. Transfer pork to large plate, season both sides with salt, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Whisk sauce to combine. Transfer 1/2 cup to bowl for grilling. Save another 1/2 cup for use later. Squeeze 2 lime wedges into sauce in bowl and add spent wedges; season with salt to taste. (This is where I stopped with the recipe, I just used the bit of sauce to keep the pork moist for serving it.)
Heat grill until hot. Clean and oil cooking grate. Brush one side of pork with 1/4 cup reserved sauce. Place pork on one side of grill, sauce side down, and cook until well browned and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Brush pork with remaining 1/4 cup of sauce, flip and continue to cook until the second side is well browned and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Transfer to cutting board. Meanwhile, brush both sides of pineapple rings with vegetable oil and season with salt to taste. Place on other half of grill and cook until pineapple is softened and caramelized, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer to cutting board. Coarsely chop pineapple and transfer to serving bowl. Using tongs to steady the pork, slice each piece crosswise into 1/8th inch pieces. Bring remaining sauce to simmer, add sliced pork, remove pot from heat, and toss to coat pork well. Season with salt to taste. Spoon small amount of pork into each warm tortilla and serve, passing chopped pineapple, remaining 6 lime wedges, onion and cilantro separately.
Normally, I try and stick pretty close to the recipe the first time I follow it. I make notes and change it on the subsequent tries. The reason I deviated so much on this one is because I was cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen (Narren’s) and using a grocery store that I was unfamiliar with, i.e. I would have picked up the peppers somewhere else had I known I couldn’t get anything close to them. I’m going to go one of two ways the next time I do this recipe. Either I will follow the recipe as intended and grill the meat and pineapple, or, more likely, I will do a slow roast in the oven instead of the stove top treatment. Really the only critique that I had with the way I did it was that the meat ended up a bit tough. But through some creative slicing, I was able to minimize it. Which is why I’m thinking of doing a slow roast, and almost going for a pulled pork sort of effect. Although I do like the idea of crisping up the pork. Well, we’ll see where my whims take me.
Our lives are currently up in the air because our future plans decided to take a hard left turn in the last month. So we’ve been exploring different possibilities. One of which was moving back to Decorah, IA, where we first met. Through various discussions, we decided against this and are planning on staying in the Twin Cities for the foreseeable future. But these discussions had me reminiscing about when we lived down south. Below is a list of some of the highlights of one small town in the “good corner of Iowa”.
A very regular stop from when I first moved down there was Oneota Food Co-op. As I explained to people more than once, this way I got at least one healthy meal per week. As true as that may have been, I also made it a regular stop because the food was really, really good. This was almost entirely due to one cook there, Ruthie, but I’ll get to her in a bit. The Co-op was also my go-to place for anything that the normal grocery store didn’t carry. Which for 99% of my very early experiments this was a great place for supplies. A few years ago they moved into a larger space and overall it was a very good idea. However (and there always is one, isn’t there?), I miss the smaller, more intimate feel the old store had. Of course along with the new store and new merchandise they had a bunch of new hires which completely diluted the pool of people I knew which didn’t help the coziness factor. Still a great place, but like everything else it changes. Not good or bad, just it’s different from what it used to be.
Two of the community projects that I got involved in were the Puppet Project and Edible Alien Theatre. The Puppet Project came about as a brain-child of one of my then bosses. She was always involved in musical theater and did at least a workshop (possibly more, but I don’t remember) with a group here in the Cities called In the Heart of the Beast. Heart of the Beast does puppet theater and parades with puppets of all kinds and sizes. What we did was build a bunch of backpack mounted puppets for the annual parade. That was a yearly occurrence for awhile and a huge hit with everyone. Around the same time a different project got started. This was the Edible Alien Theatre. The idea was centered around dinner theater. A little song and dance to go with a really good meal. I was involved in various capacities with the first six years. I was everything from backstage help to a troll to a cross-dressing cabaret girl (true story). You may ask why I would put myself into embarrassing situations like this. The truth is two-fold. It was 20% because I missed my theater days from high school. The other 80% was Ruthie’s cooking. Oh, I should mention that Ruth was half of the brains for EAT (again, more on Ruthie later). I’ve been called a food-whore many times in the past. And, well, it’s true. I will do anything given the proper food incentive.
One of the interesting people that I met through Edible Alien Theatre was David Cavagnaro. He let us use his house one year for the show. David is an amazing photographer who specializes in nature and garden photography. He is well known for his shots and for good reason. He has the dedication to find heirloom varieties of various vegetables, plant them, nurture them to beautiful fruition, and then finally arrange them and take breathtaking photos. Total respect for him and his work.
And finally onto one of my longer standing food crushes. Ruth is a self-taught cook (and rightfully proud of it) and a good ol’ Iowegian country gal. I’m sure I first ran into her cooking at the co-op, but what I really remember is her catering the second StoryPeople Christmas party that I went to. In each bite you could taste the love and passion she poured into the dishes. I know that it’s a very over-used phrase, but I’m not using it flippantly. Each little nibble was an excursion into the realm of food-gasm. I’m not too proud of it, but I did eat myself stupid that night. The copious amount of good wine probably didn’t help matters either. Yes, it was a night of culinary hedonism. This theme was repeated for quite a number of years and in quite of a number of places. One of my favorite memories of Ruth is when she was cooking fried rice at the co-op. The back entrance led through the amazingly tiny kitchen. It was so small that having a cook and a dishwasher in it at the same time was ok as long as the dishwasher only leaned to grab stuff. I’ve seen Ruth cook in this kitchen for years, but my favorite was the fried rice because it seemed like she was doing twenty different things at once. Reaching for ingredients to throw in the wok, tossing the wok, scooping up some rice for the next batch, putting out plates to serve on, and I think you get the idea. I realize that this is really no different than any other kitchen anywhere else during the lunch rush, but she has such a grace about her while doing this it was amazing to watch. Also, she was more than happy to chat with you while you were waiting to grab your to-go box. Or it could just be because the fried rice was my favorite dish of hers. Since I’ve been several hours drive away from Ruthie’s cooking, I was extremely pleased to see that she started her own webpage called AWEsome Cookery! She developed a gluten sensitivity around the time that I left Iowa, so she is an excellent resource for really good gluten-free dishes. Oh, Ruthie, how I miss thee.
To finish things off, a quick shout-out to my StoryPeople People. Thanks for the best job ever!