Foodventurous: Miami

September is not the month this Iowa girl would pick for a trip to Miami.  Cooler temps and turning leaves typically have me pulling out flannel shirts and making chili and molasses cookies. However, when an opportunity to spend a few days in southern Florida presented itself, I pulled out my swimsuit and sunscreen and started planning a foodventure.

There were two culinary boxes I wanted to check during my stay: seafood and Cuban food. The best way to find the most authentic, fresh and unique offerings?

Ask the locals.

In this case, “the locals” just happen to be my relatives.

When my mom and aunt said they wanted to visit their older brother and sister-in-law in Miami and wanted someone act as their tour director, they didn’t have to twist my arm … at all. When my cousin offered to go along and be my copilot, I knew we were in for a great time. We would be visiting the family who introduced us to Cuban foods like picadillo, arroz con pollo, café con leche, and flan. Four generations now live in the Miami Springs/Hialeah area so other than booking a flight and a hotel, I quickly handed over the “tour director” responsibilities to my cousins and followed them wherever they wanted to take us.

signature Cuban meal

Ropa Vieja

The debate began simply with the common question, “Where should we go to eat?” Knowing how much I wanted to experience Cuban meals, several places were proposed. When asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to try, I shook my head and said, “something traditional”.

The answer was unanimous. Molinas.

Spend one minute inside Molinas Ranch Restaurant in Hialeah and the word “eclectic” comes to mind. Diner-style seating, 80’s classic music, big screen televisions broadcasting soccer/baseball games and even a John Deere toothpick dispenser (which made my uncle smile like he was back on the farm) work together to give this place a comfortable and casual vibe.

Spend one minute looking at the menu and you will need more time. We non-Floridians looked up with lost and confused expressions. Only one question was asked: “Beef, chicken or fish?” My response: “what’s the most traditional dish on the menu?”

Ropa Vieja.

Close the menu.

Ropa Vieja Dinner

What does ropa vieja mean? Literally, it means “old clothes”. Technically, it means shredded beef but my taste buds will always translate it: the best tasting shredded beef I’ve ever had. It is not a complicated dish. It is slow-cooked beef with deep flavor from onions, peppers, roasted red peppers, olives, tomato and paprika (among other things) and served with peas, white rice, black beans and sweet plantains.

If you are not familiar with plantains, Molina’s would be the perfect place to get acquainted. Similar to bananas in appearance, plantains are starchy and require cooking. As plantains ripen, like bananas, the peel turns from green to yellow to brown. “Green” plantains are used for savory preparations and ripe plantains for sweet. At Molinas, we tried three different, but equally delicious side dishes.

As pictured above with the Ropa Vieja, these caramelized, ripe plantains, or maduros, are soft and sweet and buttery. Tostones are made by frying thick slices of a green plantain, smashing each and frying again. Apologies for eating the subject before photographing it for you.

Plantain Chips

Frying very thinly sliced, green plantains creates the Cuban version of chips and salsa, where the “salsa” is a very light and flavorful combination of oil, vinegar and garlic. Trust me, they are every bit as addicting as the Mexican counterpart.

Like most people, I judge a restaurant by the quality of the food and the atmosphere. However, I will elevate a restaurant to a dining experience when I leave with increased food knowledge and the inspiration to create something new in my own kitchen. Molinas was a most enjoyable dining experience. Time to start searching for Ropa Vieja recipes!

cuban bakery

Vicky Bakery Pastelitos

One of the most underutilized dining experiences in any community is the local bakery. Often the word “bakery” brings to mind doughnuts and bread and is considered a place to stop for a coffee break. I love that but I want people to consider it to be an opportunity to try some regional and cultural specialties, both sweet and savory.

Vicky Bakery is the perfect example. Family-owned, this bakery, or panaderia, has been making Cuban pastries and specialty items in Miami for almost 50 years. They are now a chain of more than 20 locations using family recipes that “have been passed down from Abuelito to Abuelo”, or generation to generation.

To say we had a “sampling” of Vicky’s menu would be a complete lie. We bought a large amount of a wide variety of their offerings and loved every bite. It’s called research.

On the sweet side, we highly recommend the Guava and Cream Cheese Pastries (pictured above) and the Caramel Coconut Balls (pictured here on the left). For all of you who know my affinity for bread pudding, there was an ever-so-tempting tray of that too but I stuck to my plan to try new things.

Vicky Bakery Coquito Prieto

I think the thing that impressed me most about this bakery was the selection of savory items. I am now officially infatuated with Croquetas de Jamon (ham croquettes) and Papa Rellenas (meat-filled mashed potato croquettes). Oh how I wish I had a picture of these! It’s probably a good thing we don’t have them around here. If we do, please don’t tell me … on second thought … please tell me!

Vicky Bakery Pizza Pastels

This pizza pastry also caught my eye but didn’t make it into our box. Add it to the list for the next trip!

buy local

When I tell people that local grocery stores are on my agenda for any trip, I’m pretty sure they refrain from putting the back of their hand to my forehead to make sure I’m not ill. Like bakeries, grocery stores vary greatly from region to region and country to country. The produce isle is the perfect example. Those plantains we ate at Molinas?


And the guava from the pastry at Vicky’s?

Guava Fruit

Ever seen an avocado as big as your hand?

Slim Avocado

What do you call groceries bought on a foodventure? Souveniers. Cannot wait to take these home to add to my Cuban-inspired meals.

Cuban Grocery Shopping


Pizza? How does that fit into the Cuban/seafood agenda of this trip? It doesn’t. But when your cousin says “you have to try this pizza!”, you try it!

Nic's Pizza Hialeah Florida

Meet Nic. Born in Italy, learned to make pizza from his father, achieved Maestro Pizzaiolo status (like his father), moved to New York City and refined his skills as a chef, Nic knows what he’s doing. Now, in Hialeah, he is making some pretty awesome pizza in his own pizzeria. While our pizza was in the oven, my cousin told me that when he was a kid and other kids were hosting lemonade stands, Nic was making and selling pizza. That’s one way to make a lot of friends fast.

If there is one pizza on the Nic’s New York Pizza menu that you must try, it is the Black Truffle. The only reason to skip this pizza is if you really don’t like mushrooms. Even then, I think you should try it. Black truffle cream, mushrooms, ham, mozzarella and white truffle oil … not your traditional toppings but completely unforgettable!

We thought we should take a variety back to the family waiting for us so we also got the BBQ and the Hawaiian. They all disappeared but it was the Black Truffle that got the most compliments.

Nic's Pizza Hialeah Florida

Now it’s time for me to confess. While waiting for our pizza, my cousin and I shared an appetizer.

Only, it wasn’t an appetizer … it was dessert. Nutella Tiramisu.

Tiramisu at Nic's Pizza in Hialeah

Thanks, Nic, for brining your craft to Hialeah. Any interest in opening a satellite in Des Moines??


On one of our drives between my aunt and uncle’s house and our hotel, I noticed a small place called Ceviches By Divino. Having only recently discovered how much I love ceviche, I had to ask my cousins about it. After getting the thumbs up from them and having a break in one of our days, I asked my travel partners if they wanted to try something very different. They surprised me and said they wanted to go along even if they chose not to be too adventurous.

Ceviche is a style of cooking where the acid from citrus fruit cures the fish and/or seafood that is added to it. It is served cold with a variety of sauces and fruits (e.g. mango or pineapple) and vegetables (frequently onion, avocado and peppers). Since we happened to stop during a quiet time for the restaurant, we were given the full attention of the staff. They answered all of our questions and helped us choose the Trio de Ceviches pictured above. My travel partners were totally curious and tried some bites of each preparation, preferring the one with avocado and mango.

The real surprise for me was a traditional Peruvian drink called Chicha Morada, or purple corn juice.

Chicha Morada

This is a non-alcoholic drink made by boiling and straining dried purple corn in water with cinnamon and adding sugar and lime. It was the most unusual thing I had encountered on this trip and I enjoyed every sip.


Key Largo

My request for fresh seafood spurred an offer to spend an afternoon and evening on Key Largo. My cousin, Gloria, has a stunning home in Tavernier. The last time I visited, this home was still in the construction stages. Having followed the progress via Facebook over the years, the opportunity to see it completed sounded perfect. Getting a boat ride around the island and spending a few hours lounging by the pool was priceless.

Travenier House

Salt water and sunshine … is there a better way to prepare for an ocean-front seafood dinner? Don’t think so. Before leaving Key Largo, we stopped at Sundowners. We missed the sunset by about 20 minutes but were still rewarded with a beautiful view from the patio and live music.

Sundowners Patio

Always looking to try something new, I saw one fish selection that I did not recognize: hogfish. Among the preparation options for this entree was a key lime and caper sauce … yes, please.

Hogfish Dinner

I may not be able to find hogfish in any midwestern grocery store, but I sure will be trying to recreate that key lime and caper sauce!

While we’re talking about key limes …

Key Lime Pie

… let’s close this day with a slice of Key Lime Pie.

Every bite of this pie was infused with lime: the meringue, the custard-style filling and even the crust. Perfect meringue peaks look like the waves of the ocean.

Don’t mind me … I’m just having a kumbaya moment here.

family dining – Miami Style

As I sit here looking at all of these pictures and remembering all the amazing places we visited and food we ate, I still have one more favorite to share: family dinners. There is nothing better than gathering around my aunt and uncle’s table … actually, there were enough of us that it was two tables put together … and sharing home-cooked meals.

One meal in particular was an exceptional treat for us midwesterners. Several members of our Miami family are quite talented and adventurous fishermen (and women). They were willing to share some of their catch with us in the form of creole.

Lobster and Snapper Creole

Yes, they caught the lobster (snorkeling). Yes, they caught the snapper (deep-sea under a full moon using live lobster as bait). Yes, they made the creole themselves. Yes, they are pretty cool people! Served with white rice, avocado salad and a guava/lime/vodka or gin drink we created ourselves.

I know this post is about my foodventure in Miami but it is also about my family reunion. While food always seems to be the centerpiece of our gatherings, prayer and love nourish us most. We hold hands and thank God for His blessings. We sing the songs that unite us across the miles. We laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.

And every single time I make Picadillo, or attempt to make Ropa Vieja, I will remember this reunion.

Til We Meet Again!

Foodventurous in Miami and Key Largo

This experience and could not have been so successful without the guidance and encouragement of my mom, aunt and cousin who were amazing “foodventurers” and my aunt, uncle and many cousins who live in Miami Springs/Hialeah. Love you all!


Country Life Center Gift Shop

Foodventurous: Wallace Country Life Center

If you grew up on a farm in the midwest, chances are one of the publications prominently displayed in your home was Wallaces’ Farmer. If you are a history buff, the name “Wallace” triggers thoughts of Vice Presidents and Secretaries of Agriculture. Go to college in the late 70’s or early 80’s? Remember punch cards for data analysis?

None of the above? Let me try again …

Do you like fresh fruits and vegetables? Do you like farm-to-table dinners? Educational luncheons? Cooking classes? Gardening? Letting your kids run through a restored prairie while you admire beautiful sculptures?

Country Life Center Pond


country living

If your head nodded to even one of these statements/questions, I have a foodventure for you. Let me introduce you to The Wallace Country Life Center! The Wallace family has been credited as “America’s First Family of Agriculture” due to the considerable contributions of at least four generations of Henry Wallace’s to the advancement of agriculture and food science. Some of the credentials of the family members include: creator and editors of Wallaces’ Farmer, Iowa State College professor, cofounder of the American Farm Bureau Association, Secretary of Agriculture, founder of what is now Dupont Pioneer, conservationist, architect of agricultural statistical methods, and Vice President of the United States.

Pretty impressive family tree, huh? And it started on a small farm outside the small southwest Iowa town of Orient. This is now The Country Life Center and location of my recent foodventure. This place entered my foodie radar about a year and a half ago when a good friend was going to be visiting family in southwest Iowa and we wanted to meet somewhere for lunch. Since we both have strong interests in gardening, antiques, and food, this little spot in the middle of the country seemed like a perfect choice. So much so that I’ve visited the farm three times!


Country Life Center Barn and Gardens


The Gathering Table, found inside a beautiful replica barn, is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays for walk-ins or reservations. The menu changes each week in order to best feature the vegetables and fruits that are available from the on-site gardens. It is a simple menu with sophisticated flavors. My husband can attest that, when ordering in a restaurant, I narrow my choices down to three and then make a last-minute decision when the waiter arrives and everyone else has ordered. This menu generally has three main dish choices and I still can’t narrow things down until it’s time to choose!

On my recent visit, I was lucky enough to be dining with a friend who was willing to share so we could both try as much from the menu as possible. On this particular day, we shared/sampled/devoured:

Radish Turnip Bread Appetizer Plate

fresh radishes and turnips with homemade bread

Asparagus with Parmesan

asparagus with Parmesan cheese

BBQ Chicken Flatbread

BBQ chicken flatbread

Asian Beef Lettuce Wrap

Asian beef lettuce wraps

Caramel Apple Bread Pudding

caramel apple bread pudding

Ice Cream with Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce

vanilla ice cream with strawberry-rhubarb sauce

My only regret during this meal was that I didn’t take my eyes, or my camera, off the food long enough to take a picture of the bright and beautiful dining room inside the barn. It has indoor and outdoor seating and a stunning view of the prairie and pond. The barn also has a meeting room and can be reserved for special events and parties.

Follow them on Facebook to see the weekly menu. Occasionally they may have a special event on a Friday and are not open to the public so call ahead before you make a special trip.

Country Life Center Hoop Barn

community supported agriculture

CSA’s are a wonderful way to enjoy locally produced, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Each week the Prairie Harvest CSA at the Country Life Center delivers boxes of produce from the farm to Greenfield, Des Moines and Johnston for pick up by subscribers. Tips, recipes and special event invitations are provided to subscribers via a weekly newsletter.

I think the word foodventurous perfectly describes the person who joins a CSA. As with any farming enterprise, there is risk involved in gardening. Weather, insects and animals, and mechanical failures all factor in to the success of what is planted. One deer or ground squirrel finds its way into the hoop barn or vegetable patch and in a matter of hours, the lettuce or radishes intended for the next day’s boxes are gone. Extreme temperature changes, hail, or insects can completely change the course of a garden, orchard or field. Learning to adapt and plan for a successful CSA (i.e. happy subscribers) requires a terrific knowledge base. The happy subscriber must also accept, and even appreciate, the fact that there is no guarantee of what specific items will be in their box. The guarantee is that it will be fresh, sustainable and nutritious. Learning about new foods, trying new recipes and sharing the responsibility and risk are part of the foodventure!

Wallace Centers CSA produce

Do I belong to a CSA? No. Why? Because I have my own garden and I am lucky enough to belong to a farming family who provide me with all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year. If that weren’t the case, I would be a happy subscriber.

At the end of my tour of the gardens, hoop barns and orchard, I was gifted some produce. Turnips, rainbow chard, and green garlic … three things I had never cooked. For the purpose of this blog I wanted to show how gorgeous and fresh these vegetables are, how someone with no experience cooking them might start, and what I learned about each one.

Green garlic is similar in appearance and use to green onions (a.k.a. scallions) but with … you guessed it … garlic taste. It can be eaten raw, sautéed, or even pickled.

Rainbow chard is a powerhouse of nutritional value. Considered a super-food, like spinach, it is a vegetable that needs to be on more tables, including mine. It can be eaten raw in a salad but is often sautéed.

Turnips are a root vegetable with a wide range of preparation options. The white “root” part can be eaten raw or roasted like a radish and the greens can be sautéed or added to soups and stews.

Here are my experiments and results:

Pork Polenta and Chard

roast pork with sautéed tomatoes/onions/chard/green garlic over polenta

For this meal, I sautéed tomatoes and onions in olive oil and then sautéed the chard with the green garlic. The colorful chard stems were chopped and pickled with some rhubarb and green garlic. Leftover roast pork was placed with the tomatoes and chard on a bed of polenta and topped with a bit of the pickled chard/rhubarb. This meal met with a variety of reviews from my family members: one loved it, one voted that I move on to the next experiment but was willing to try the greens again, and one voted “needs improvement”. What we did decide was that the combination of the tomatoes and chard was a great pairing and should be explored further.


Bowl of Ham Beans and Greens Soup

ham, beans and greens soup

As the tomatoes seemed to be a successful pairing with the greens, so is a salty meat like bacon or ham. After paging through turnip green recipes on Pinterest, I decided to make a soup using a smoked pork chop, white cannellini beans, some of the green garlic and the turnip greens. Delicious! I wish I had taken the tip from my mom’s Ham and Bean Soup recipe and added an apple to the broth as it simmered. My next experiment will be a turnip green sauté with Canadian bacon, onion and apples.

I also tried a recipe for roasted turnips with a Dijon mustard sauce. The flavors were good but the overall result was less than ideal (therefore, no picture). Eating them raw with a slight dusting of a flavored salt is, to this point, my favorite way to eat the turnip.

and there’s more!

As if the food and the setting aren’t enough, this farm offers so much more. The original farmhouse has been restored and serves as a gift shop, produce market and office space. The gift shop is an eclectic mix of items made by the hands of Iowans and people with historical and familial ties to Iowa. Gardening and cooking classes, tours and other educational opportunities and special events fill their calendar.

Given the family’s involvement with academics and politics, it is not surprising to know that the Wallace Centers have a presence in the urban settings of Iowa too …

city living

In downtown Des Moines, you can find the Wallace House, a Victorian home owned by the Wallace’s from 1892-1940. After being converted to an apartment building and later vacated, it was purchased by The Wallace Foundation in 1988 and restored, guided by photographs from the family.

This beautiful home is actively sustaining the tradition of the Wallace family with farm to table dinners, educational leadership luncheons, historical teas, and special programs. I visited the house twice last year. The second visit was to enjoy a wonderful three-course, farm fresh meal with live music. Guests are seated at a variety of tables throughout the first floor of the home. My husband and I shared a table with a couple we did not know but quickly found easy conversation and common interests.

My next foodventure with the Wallace Centers will be to tour the Mickle Center Shared Use Community Kitchen. This is a large kitchen space near the Wallace House that was renovated to meet the needs of food entrepreneurs: chefs, caterers, bakers, and instructors. This space has already had a big influence of several start-ups making appearances at one of my favorite places, the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market.

Rootz Chicken Des Moines

This past weekend I found Rootz Chicken, serving Afro-Caribbean cuisine, on their first public appearance because the Wallace Centers shared their information on Facebook as one of the Mickle Center clients. Don’t you just want to know the story behind this chicken? I do!


As the website says:

“Inspired by the Wallace family legacy, The Wallace Centers of Iowa provides a variety of programs and services to build awareness of local food, sustainable agriculture, and civility.”

I am always happy when I find fellow foodventurers … I don’t think there’s a better word to describe the Wallace’s and those who preserve their mission.

Disclaimer: In exchange for this post, my lunch at the Country Life Center was compensated
and I received the produce mentioned previously. All of the other visits to the farm in
Orient and the house in Des Moines were on my own. My affection for this organization
established long before this particular visit.

Country Life Center Orient Iowa

Picnic at Minneopa State Park

Foodventurous: Mankato

If I invited you to share a picnic with me and gave you the opportunity to choose one of the following settings, which would you choose?

  1. Wine & Live Music
  2. Waterfalls & Pie
  3. Military Tanks & Beef Jerky

Did you think I was going to make it easy for you to choose?

What if I told you all of these options are available in one midwest city and that my husband, Marty, and I enjoyed all three picnics … and so much more … in one weekend?

Welcome to Mankato, Minnesota!

Mankato, MN

Mankato is located 90 minutes southwest of Minneapolis, Minnesota and has a population of about 42,000 … big enough to have the advantages of a larger city but small enough to foster the hospitality of a small town. The key to having a true Mankato experience is to talk to the people.

Erin and Tammey. Jane and Kent. Jim, David and Jenny. Angie. Karla.

In 48 hours, these people … and many more but I apologize for the limits of my ability to retain names … transformed our trip from a bunch of awesome stops to a place we want to visit again. Here’s the scoop …

Mom & Pops Ice Cream Mankato

You must understand. My husband is my camera-holding, make-a-u-turn, lets-stop-here, patient-beyond-reasonable, designated driver on these foodventures. I know how to get a trip off to a great start for him … ice cream! Add to that the warmth and conversation of Erin and Tammey, owners of Mom & Pop’s Ice Cream, and a beautifully restored 1856 building (complete with artifacts found in the renovation), and we were truly impressed. For the purpose of quality research we felt obligated to try several different flavors: (left to right) This $&@! Just Got Serious, Chocolate-Cherry Bomb, Exhausted Parent, and Carrot-Mango Italian Ice. Ice cream AND a sense of humor … go get some soon! Watch for that carrot-mango combination in upcoming PLF recipes.

His weakness is ice cream … mine is wine.

wine & live music picnic

Chankaska Creek Winery

There were several wineries in the Mankato area and, someday, I hope to visit each and every one. For this trip, we were lucky enough to experience Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery and meet Jane and Kent Schwickert. The Dakota Indian word “Chankaska” means “forest enclosed” … perfect word for this private, gorgeous setting just north of Mankato and outside the town of Kasota.

Chankaska Creek Winery Property

Jane and Kent clearly understand what it takes to make people feel comfortable and relaxed. The ambition, hard work and commitment that it takes to create wine, hospitality and a retreat like this is remarkable. Did I mention food and live music?

Chankaska Creek Winery Food


Chankaska Creek Winery Music

After completing a wine tasting, I found my personal favorite: the Creekside Red. Two things I can guarantee:

  1. I will be toasting Jane and Kent as I enjoy the bottle I brought home, and
  2. We will return for an outdoor picnic on their amazing property in warmer weather!

Cheers Chankaska Creek!

Returning to Mankato to call it a day, we checked in to the Motel 6.

You heard me … Motel 6. You know … “We’ll leave the light on for you!”

Motel 6 Mankato

Let me convince you to think about Motel 6 in a new way:

  1. New.
  2. Saving money for things like food and wine.
  3. No more carpet.
  4. Simple, bright and clean.
  5. Friendly.

Perfect for our trip. We were out and about so much, we didn’t need breakfast (but the coffee sure helped) or a pool. We just needed a quiet, convenient, clean, comfortable place. If you want more amenities, there are lots of other options around Mankato.

Waterfalls & Pie picnic

I said before that wine was my weakness. I didn’t say it was my ONLY weakness.

Rapidan Dam Store Pie
Banana Cream & Rhubarb-Sour Cream

About 15 miles southwest of Mankato is a beautiful spot. It’s called the Rapidan Dam on the Blue Earth river. Mother Nature is working overtime in this area and so are Jim, David and Jenny. What’s not working overtime? Cell and internet reception.

Rapidan Dam Store Mankato Minnesota

Go back in time to the Rapidan Dam Store … where the water, conversation and jokes center around the dam. Play the Wurlitzer jukebox … no coins needed … it’s part of the ambiance. Dance in the isle if you like. Watch the milk shakes blend in the coolest, mint green, Hamilton Beach antique malt machine. Listen to the tables of friends and family laughing and talking without a cell phone in sight. Ask Jim, David and Jenny about their history and the area. Be prepared to be amazed and entertained. Sign the guest book and read the quotes from those who came before you. Eat pie.

Paraphrased telephone (attached to the wall with a cord) conversation heard:

Jenny: Yes, we have the rhubarb-sour cream pie today … no, we don’t sell whole pies … seven pieces is a whole pie … all right, I’ll hold seven pieces of the rhubarb-sour cream pie for you … see you then. (She hangs up the phone and walks to kitchen.) Sorry David … just sold one of your favorites again.

If you are looking for a fishing/camping spot, pie, a break from your cell phone or laptop, or the epitome of “Minnesota Nice”, Rapidan Dam is your destination. Still not convinced? Maybe you should ask the people at Food and Wine Magazine.

So we have the pie … where are the waterfalls?

Minneopa State Park

Minneopa State Park

Waterfalls in Minnesota? Absolutely! Minneopa State Park is not only a perfect spot for a picnic but also the much-needed hike and fresh air following the overindulgence of pie. A lingering winter here in the midwest has provided plenty of water for the thundering of the falls. Despite the snow on the ground and the lack of green grass often associated with picnics, the beauty of a park like this is evident all year. After a stop at the visitor’s center and a chat with Angie, we knew what our options were for hiking and setting up our picnic photos. According to the website, “GPS units, kids’ activity bags, birding kits, fishing rods and tackle, volleyball, soccer ball and horseshoes” are available on loan from the park office.

You have to bring your own pie though.

Minneopa State Park Picnic

We’ve covered ice cream, wine, pie … what other Mankato cuisines shouldn’t be missed?

Oh that’s right … Lebanese food.


Welcome to Olive’s!

Olive's Mankato

Shawarma … hummus … tabbouleh … baba ghanoush …

Even if … especially if … you’ve never tried Lebanese food, let the Massad family expand your horizons. Owners John (also head chef) and Najwa Massad, along with their daughters, Meray and Karla, will make sure you enjoy every bite! Trust me … I’ve been trying for years to get my husband to share my love of hummus (hum-us). After a few minutes talking to Karla and learning about the restaurant, the family, and her menu recommendations, he was willing to try it again. Karla pronounces it “hoo-mus”.  On her next visit to our table, he tells her that he doesn’t like “hum-us” but he does like “hoo-mus”.

Funny guy.

Olive's Mankato Mezze
Mediterranean Mezze – Tabouleh, Hummus, Baba Ghanoush, Marinated Olives with Feta Cheese and Pocket Bread

Seriously though … the food was amazing!

Olive's Mankato Kabobs
Beef & Chicken Kabobs with Mediterranean Couscous

Olive's Dessert Mankato

It’s not just the food that’s amazing here. There’s a strong family feeling throughout the restaurant. Our waitress, Annie (hope I used the correct spelling), was incredibly attentive and patiently answered our many questions even though it was clearly a busy night. There were two gals eating at the bar that seemed to know everyone … Karla pointed out that they were former restaurant staff who came back for visits. Karla’s eyes sparkled as she talked about them and called them “a couple of her kids”.


Unfortunately, we missed what has become a cornerstone event for the restaurant … the gathering of the Massad family at the corner table. The family has two other restaurants as well as a flourishing catering business and this was one of those nights when they were needed elsewhere. Pictures of Meray’s son donning a chef’s hat are on display as are many other pictures of the family. A small statue of a family of 4, seated at the dinner table, is on display at the entrance to the restaurant. The Lord’s Prayer is engraved on it. It was a gift from a customer.

Faith. Family. Food.

Oh yeah … we’ll be back.

military tanks & beef jerky picnic

If you type “Mankato” in the search bar of Pinterest, you will get a plethora of fun things to do in the area. Now type in “kasota, mn” and watch the tanks appear!

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

Drive A Tank is located on the western edge of the town of Kasota. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will leave you with a greater appreciation for the conditions and danger our military personnel experience. The experience isn’t cheap but neither are the memories.

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

I booked this as a gift to my husband for an early Father’s Day and Anniversary present. We spent about 4 hours at the site, rode in a transport vehicle and a Humvee, Marty drove the tank and I rode along with a view from the top.

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

And if you’re really lucky, someone in your group will book a bigger package and you’ll get to watch them drive a tank over a car. Literally!

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

Just to really cap off the experience, there’s an indoor shooting range for firing machine guns.

Where’s the beef jerky, you ask?

In Marty’s pocket. I actually had it for a picture and for once in my life was so distracted I didn’t even think about food. They even had picnic tables out by the course. Best thing about beef jerky …. it’ll keep for the next picnic.

much much more

If you still need more reasons to visit Mankato … click on pictures to learn more!

art & History

City Art Mankato
City Art Walking Sculpture Tour
Reconciliation Park Mankato
Reconciliation Park








brewery tours

Mankato Brewery

Mankato Brewery

sibley park

Sibley Park Mankato










breakfast options

Pub 500 Bloody Mary
Pub 500 Blood Mary
Tandem Bagels Mankato
Tandem Bagels








Start planning your weekend trip or vacation now. Remember, I define a picnic as “simple food, good company and a comfortable place”. You are in good hands in Mankato, Minnesota!

Full Disclosure: Thank you to Visit Mankato and the incredibly hospitable businesses of the greater Mankato area for sponsoring a good portion of our stay. The opinions and recommendations of this post are my own. The kindness and generosity of this city are genuine and greatly appreciated.

Visit Mankato Minnesota

Foodventurous: Olive Oil in Lazio

Which travel personality are you? Are you the laid-back, we’ll-figure-it-out-as-we-go type? Or are you like me … Type A, FOMO (fear-of-missing-out), Google-obsessed planner? You can imagine then that a trip to Rome as the master-planner for 6 people might send me into overdrive. It did. Prioritization became a must … “everyone pick ONE thing you REALLY want to see/do.” Thanks to my relentless Google/Pinterest/travel guide browsing, I knew that we would be in Italy during the heart of the olive harvest and I wanted to see it.

After eliminating a few tours based on location and price, and browsing through the results of google and Pinterest searches, one name kept popping up: Johnny Madge. Phrases like “world expert”, “judge”, and “expertise” led me to google him and find his website. This Englishman lives in  Italy and judges olive oil competitions all over the world. After exchanging a few e-mails with Johnny, I knew we were in good hands. My choice for the ONE thing I REALLY wanted to see/do in Italy was booked.

We were to take a train from Rome to Fara Sabina (about 45 minutes NE of Rome) and Johnny would meet us at the station with a passenger van. After two cancelled trains and one arriving 20 minutes late, we were on our way.

NOTE: In Rome, Train and bus schedules, as well as most parking and driving “laws”,
are more like suggestions. Scheduled routes are subject to strikes and cancellation
without notice. If a smart car can fit in a spot, it will. Three lanes of traffic will likely
result in four (with a couple of vespas thrown in for good measure). Accept it. 

Worried that Johnny would be upset by our late arrival, it was instantly obvious he was quite accustomed to it. Not flustered or upset in any way, he found us quickly and with a smile said the most beautiful word I’ve ever heard …


Am I blushing?

That English accent transformed my name from a heavy “uh-nee-duh” to a light and melodic sound. This was going to be a GREAT day! We all introduced ourselves to Johnny and in no time we were on the road to Selci to begin our lessons and tastings.

While riding in the van and taking in the gorgeous countryside, Johnny filled us in on what we could expect for the day. Because of our late start, we would begin with lunch and our lessons on tasting olive oils. We pulled up to a quiet and incredibly charming place, La Vecchia, that turns out to be the bed and breakfast of my next trip to Italy (fingers crossed).

We walked through one dining room, another small dining room, and into a private room, complete with fireplace and a family style table. Before eating, Johnny tutored us on quality olive oils and how to taste them. Here’s a YouTube video of Johnny describing differences in olive oils as well as the best way to taste test them making lots of “stupid noises”.

As we were concentrating on identifying certain nuances of the oils (aromas of tomato, citrus, pepper, etc.), this incredibly sweet man named Giuseppe showered us with bottles of wine and plates of bread and the parade of food continued for well over an hour.

Johnny continued to share stories and information about olive oils and his experiences and, as each plate arrived, we were encouraged to drizzle the food with olive oil to have the full concept of how it can brighten or highlight the flavors. After about 12 different “antipasti” plates (roasted vegetables, meats like prosciutto and head cheese, breads, etc.), the platters of crepes and ravioli and pasta arrived one after another.

For dessert, we were given a choice of Nutella panna cotta (yes, that is olive oil drizzled on my dessert) or tiramisu cake, served with a wine cookie (ciambelline al vino), espresso, and/or grappa (a wicked strong after-dinner alcoholic beverage meant to aid in digestion). Every bite and sip were amazing.

Before leaving La Torretta, we were treated to a tour of the kitchen and the biggest wood-fire oven I’ve ever seen (indoors or out). If you notice, the people who are cooking for us and serving us are well past traditional retirement age. These people move around like twenty-somethings who just want to make guests happy.

Well done, my friends … well done!

You want to give me a bottle of locally produced wine before we leave? I love these people!

Resistant to leaving this quiet, lovely place, we returned to the road and wound our way through the countryside to a local olive grove where harvest was in progress. Olive trees remind me of a crab apple tree in size and shape but the leaves are long and slender and have a silvery hue.

The olives are harvested by hand using a tool that looks like a small rake. Some producers will mechanically harvest the olives but many have found that to be much too damaging to the fruit. The rakes are drug through the branches to knock the olives to the ground which has been covered with fabric or blankets.

Once the fabric is gathered, the olives are added to large crates and taken to the processing area. They pass through several stages of sorting to remove the stems and leaves before they pass through the press. Within minutes, a gorgeous chartreuse liquid is pouring out of a spout.

This might be my favorite (non-family) picture of our trip.

Our final stop on this trip was to see an olive tree that is nearly 2000 years old. 

This is the tree in the picture at the beginning of the post. We were surrounded by history all through our trip but there was something about walking around a tree that was beginning its life about the same time Jesus was teaching about peace and harmony on earth. What a wonderful way to end our day.

I cannot say enough about the quality and value of this tour. Johnny is the ideal guide: accommodating, patient, attentive, and funny. He will be the first to admit web design is not his forte but to his credit, he is on top of his e-mail and will make the process easy.

For more of our food experiences in Rome, check out my first post here.
To find out more about Johnny’s tours, click here.
Want to try some truly high quality Italian olive oil? Click here.

All this talk has made me hungry … Mangia!

Note: I am not receiving payment of any kind for this post. My family lists this tour
as one of the best things we did during our week in/around Rome. 

Join me as I relive our tour from Rome into the countryside of the Lazio region to see the olive harvest and pressing, to sample some of the finest olive oils, to eat traditional Italian food, and to learn from an olive oil expert and genuine great guy, Johnny Madge!

Foodventurous: Rome

Just how exactly does one put Rome into words?

Even if I narrow it down to “food in Rome”, it is still an overwhelming task.

Having just returned from a week in Italy and placing a magnificent check-mark next to one of my upper-tier bucket list items, I find myself trying to pick just the perfect pictures and words to do it justice. The story could be told chronologically, or by food type, or even through recommendations and reviews. But it has to be so much more than just a retelling of what we did … it needs to be a collection of food related experiences and lessons. I have more than enough material because I took advantage of every opportunity to ask questions, sample the unfamiliar, and learn from “mistakes” made along the way.

The first thing you need to know is my new favorite word: Mangia!

It means, “Let’s Eat!” 


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


LESSON: Carbonara is the new pasta dish-of-choice in our family.

Our youngest son has been in Rome since August, spending a semester studying Graphic Design. He “discovered” carbonara soon after the semester began and quickly started making it for himself. Wanting to try something new but not taking too much of a risk, four out of six of us followed him in ordering it and the two of us that didn’t, wished we had. What we ordered was delicious, but the carbonara was just that good! It’s a simple dish made with pasta similar (and yet not) to spaghetti, guanciale (pork cheek), eggs, Romano and Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. Simple … but impressive.

I’m not sure if it was the third or fourth time we had carbonara on the trip when an important tip was revealed to us: more egg yolk (4) than egg white (1). If the recipe you decide to try doesn’t follow this tip, look for another one.

We left our son at the end of the week and that very night he made … you guessed it … carbonara with the egg adjustment.

Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

If you are lucky enough to be invited to the kitchen to see a wood-fire oven and pasta being made by hand, you have found authenticity.



Chicago has deep dish. New York has giant, thin slices you fold in half lengthwise. Pepperoni is a staple for pizza everywhere … well, not EVERYwhere. Certainly not in Rome … blew my husband’s pepperoni-with-tomato-sauce-and-mozzarella-lovin’-mind. If you ask for pepperoni pizza in Italy, do not be surprised when you get a pizza LOADED with peppers … like bell peppers. So what is pizza like in Rome?

I am a researcher at heart and I know that the results are only as good as the sample size. I couldn’t come back and report to you on pizza after only trying one or two slices … or one or two pizzerias. I’m devoted like that.

We ate pizza all week … breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert … by the slice and whole pizzas … square, round, “sandwiched”. In my extensive research, I found two types of crust: thin, crispy, wood-fired and a slightly thicker, but not dense, focaccia-style. Toppings are kept simple and feature a lot of vegetables (zucchini, mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes, fennel, and potatoes). Sauce and cheese are minimal but of high quality and flavor.

My personal favorite was tomato and green olive pizza on the focaccia-style crust. I should say that was my favorite non-dessert pizza. You can’t put dessert pizza in the same competition with non-dessert pizza … especially when that dessert pizza involves gooey Nutella and powdered sugar!


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


Technically, this section should have been placed before the PASTA section as that is what antipasti means: before the pasta. The best way I can describe this is to ask you to imagine an appetizer party: a party where everyone brings one appetizer and you put them all together and graze on the variety instead of having a meal. But that doesn’t work either because antipasti is just what’s before the meal.

We experienced this phenomenon twice on our trip: a parade of small plates filled with marinated and/or roasted vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto and salumi, meatballs, beans, breads, and olives. I appropriately call it a “phenomenon” because they actually expect you to eat a main course (or two) and dessert afterwards.

LESSON: Let’s say there are four of you at a table and you manage to order antipasti. If the waiter asks if you want antipasti for 4? Or for 2? Go with 2. If, after you have given the antipasti your best effort, he/she asks if you are ready for pasta, and you say “a little”, you will still get more than you can eat. True story.


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


This is a good time to introduce the equivalent of to go: “take away”. When I ordered my first morning caffe latte, it didn’t even occur to me that it might not come in a disposable cup … and it didn’t.

LESSON: The proper way to order something “to go” is to say “take away”.

Apparently the only thing more eye-roll worthy than forgetting to mention that you wanted “take away” is to then not care if they pour your latte from the ceramic cup into the disposable cup, completely disturbing the froth factor.

I would have thought it was quite apparent I just needed some caffeine!

If “to go” is replaced by “take away”, what’s the equivalent for “doggie bag”? Would you be brave/stupid enough to ask?

Awww, you know me so well!

On one of our day trips, we were treated to a private meal at a restaurant/bed and breakfast north of Rome. This beautiful place in the country is run by the most hospitable couple who happen to be in their 70’s but with energy that puts my day-to-day efforts to shame. This was the site of our first experience with the antipasti phenomenon, followed by savory crepes, ravioli, and a large platter of pasta. When we didn’t empty those plates/bowls/platters, we were asked if we were ready for the next main dish or if we wanted to move on to dessert. We opted for dessert as we were already quite satisfied (i.e. stuffed). What we didn’t know until later was that they had prepared a suckling pig for us and we were too full for it to even make an appearance. I could tell that Giuseppe (that absolutely was his name) was disappointed that we hadn’t even finished the pasta and afraid maybe we didn’t like it. The idea that we might leave this sweet couple with anything but appreciation and admiration was not something I could do.

So I asked our guide, if it was appropriate to ask for a “doggie bag”? I knew I was risking a faux pas … AGAIN … but I’m pretty sure Giuseppe understood immediately because his face brightened and his shoulders squared and off he went. We were soon on our way, after dessert and grappa (an after-dinner drink referred to as “rocket fuel”) and espresso, with a bag of “take away” containers that would serve us well back at the Airbnb later in the week.


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


True or False: Italian Dessert = Tiramisu

Trick question. Yes it’s a traditional Italian dessert. Yes, it’s delicious. But it is far from the only option. I still had it three times in the week I was in Rome. Three times … three completely different versions … all amazing!

Let me introduce you to my new friends: gelato, chocolate salami, and ciambelline al vino.

Gelato is ice cream. It is not exactly the same as the ice cream I buy in the grocery store, just as grocery store ice cream is different from the ice cream I make at home. What I loved about gelato in Rome:

  1. Flavors: pistachio, chestnut, hazelnut, coffee, pomegranate, chocolate, dark chocolate, biscotti, mint, speculoos (ginger/cinnamon shortbread), lemon …
  2. Combinations: you can combine 2, 3 or even 4 flavors
  3. Location: you can’t walk one block without passing a Gelateria

LESSON: Be careful when choosing a Gelateria. If you look at the gelato display and you see colors not known to nature or big, billowy mounds of “gelato”, keep going. The best advice we received was to think about banana gelato: what color is an actual banana? Not the peel … the banana. Well made banana gelato should be almost white, not neon yellow.

I’m going to miss you, speculoos gelato!

Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

Chocolate Salami sounds like an oxymoron or an evil trick but it is not. Imagine fudge, with nuts, dried fruit, and even cookie bits, rolled into a log, dusted with powdered sugar, and tied with kitchen string to look like a salami. It is then sliced for serving with whipped cream and, if you’re lucky, drizzled with more chocolate. This picture conveys how decadent this dessert is but to get the full effect, check out this website with the recipe that I will be trying in the near future!

Ciambelline al Vino, or sweet wine pretzels, grabbed my attention (and heart) when presented to us as part of our dessert with Giuseppe (mentioned previously in the take away/doggie bag incident). Beautiful, doughnut shaped cookies sprinkled with sugar were passed around and, luckily, before I could try to take an enthusiastic bite, I was warned that these are very hard and meant to be … wait for it … dunked in your wine! Not only are they made from wine, they are to be eaten with wine!

What could be wrong with that?

Apparently, for a number of the members of my family, it is the addition of anise seed. I am not a big fan of the flavor of anise (or anything close to black licorice) but it did not bother me one bit in these cookies. It was not something that they would choose to have again. But the beauty of trying these things and liking at least part of it is that you can adjust the recipe. Instead of anise, perhaps I will use cardamom … or nutmeg … or allspice.

LESSONIf you are going to try to make a cookie that is meant to be dunked in your wine, make sure you make it small enough to fit inside the glass!



Speaking of glasses … raise yours and say “salute” (sah-loot-teh). The equivalent of our “cheers” but  I love it because it translates to English as “health”. A glass of wine, a wish of good health, and time with simple food, good company, and in a comfortable place …

… my Italian picnic!

Farm Crawl 2017

Farm Crawl 2017

Whether you consider it a “crawl” from farm to farm because of all the gravel roads and traffic, or a “crawl” because that’s all you can do at the end of the tour, it doesn’t matter. A beautiful fall day spent touring farms showcasing Iowa agriculture, arts, people and food is a good day.

I had heard of a “Pub Crawl” before (we won’t get into that here) but never a “Farm Crawl” … and I grew up on a farm. When I saw an announcement at one of the stands at the Downtown Farmers’ Market for this event, I had to ask.

And then I had to go.

The tour included seven farms, in a loop, about an hour SE of Des Moines, near Knoxville.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but when I pulled off one of the main roads onto my first stretch of gravel and saw the pretty countryside, creek beds, and fields, I was hooked. It was a perfect, fall day in Iowa and, by that, I mean cool and rainy, followed by warm and sunny, and low winds. Everyone here knows that a fall day in Iowa without snow is good weather.

Coyote Run Farm

My first stop was at Coyote Run Farm just outside of Melcher-Dallas where I was greeted with an invitation to help myself to some homemade Vegetable Beef Borscht Soup (recipe), cookies and drinks … for free! Stomach full, I walked around the farm to see the horses and chickens, high tunnel and garden, and their rehabilitated barn.


I left the farm with my hands full of tiny potatoes, 3 types of garlic, a few heirloom tomatoes, and a jar of local honey. Hmmm … how many more stops did they say there were?

Six …


Trojan Iron Works

As I pulled up to the next stop, I realized it was the parking lot of a church, filled with so many kids! And the kids weren’t just participating, they were running the show! Trojan Iron Works, I would find out, is a student-run business at Pleasantville High School making custom metal signs. They paired up with the school’s FFA chapter and provided live music and games for the younger kids including calf roping, cheese and cracker “welding”, germination necklaces, and face painting. Again … for free. They also had a concession stand, were selling beef jerky and granola made by the Home Economics class, and were taking orders for pork and beef raised at the Pleasantville FFA Teaching Farm.

I’m sure they were present, but I didn’t see a cell phone in the hands of a single kid or student.


Heading to my car with my beef jerky, it didn’t even dawn on me that I didn’t take a single picture of the metal projects. Click on the link above to see lots of pictures of the students at work and of their art. 

White Breast Pottery and Weaving

As I get out of my car at White Breast Pottery & Weaving, I see this …

… and I hear this …


… which leads me to this …


… along with a basket weaver/maker, a group of 4-Hers selling concessions and baked goods for their club, and a rug weaving demonstration.

It just wasn’t possible for this 4-H girl to pass by the concession stand, so a hot dog in one hand and a beautiful woven rug in the other, I move on down the road toward the apples.

Schneider Orchard

Apple picking, giant slingshot apple shooting, a tree house (complete with suspended bridge and slide … sadly, no adults allowed), wagon rides, apples, and a menu of sweet treats that’s worth the long line kept Schneider Orchard buzzing with activity. (That’s a pollination joke, folks.)

Apple pie for me, and peach for my guy at home, plus a bag of Jonathan apples (my favorite baking apples), and one or two caramels rolled in pecans.

What? It’s not like I bought the fudge too!

Oh, but I wanted to!

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get full (stomach AND car)!

Blue Gate Farm

The next stop was home to the reason I was even on this tour, Blue Gate Farm. It was at their stand at the farmers’ market that I found out about the Farm Crawl. Having stopped many times before, I noticed the sign advertising the event and asked Jill about it. Her enthusiasm for the opportunity to show people their property and practices in naturally grown gardening was contagious.

I arrived too late in the day to get one of “Aunt Louise’s Cinnamon Rolls” but I was not too late to get a tour from Jill. Rotation practices, high tunnel extended seasons, 1950’s era planters and cultivators, the rabbits, alpacas, bees, and, of course, the land itself, were described with passion and pride.

Knoxville’s own Peace Tree Brewing Company was present and a “cold one” sounded really good right about then. Unfortunately, but understandably, they were sampling root beer and selling their beer (at room temperature, not cold). That “cold one” would just have to wait until I got home.

Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch

What would a Farm Crawl be without a stop at a pumpkin patch? Linus would be most content in this one. With 145 different varieties of pumpkins and gourds, your every decorating, carving, and baking need was covered. And, if feeling a little full from the other stops, the maze of giant round hay bales might just help you make room for the BBQ concessions.

Can you find the people in the maze?

Also included in this stop was a sawmill demonstration … huge tree trunks being positioned and trimmed to fit through a machine that cut them into boards … and wine sampling from Nearwood Winery. Again, I was too late to sample most of their wines. One must be very strategic in planning your tour stops … or understanding … that works too!

Crooked Gap Farm

My greatest disappointment in this whole tour? That I missed out on my very last stop … Crooked Gap Farm. I had been looking forward to this one for their hand-crafted soaps made from products of their farm (or as local as possible) and their cattle, pigs, and lambs. I was driving away from the pumpkin patch, looking for the next turn on the loop, and before I knew it, I missed it.

My only defense is exhaustion. It had been six hours since I left on my foodventure. I had absorbed as much information and consumed enough food in an effort to support the farms and organizations as I could and I was tired.

I think they’ll forgive me. As long as I start on their end of the loop next year!


How’s that for some beautiful souvenirs?

Are you like me and disappointed you didn’t know about this years ago? At least now you can make plans for next year:

  1. Follow Farm Crawl on Facebook so you don’t miss out on next year’s event.
  2. Mark your calendars in advance … this event is held the first Sunday in October.
  3. Don’t wash your car … enjoy the drive.
  4. Bring cash. Some places take credit cards and some don’t. There is no admission fee for any of the farms on this day.
  5. Bring the kids … it’s an education that feels like a vacation.
  6. Practice your parallel parking …