Staking Our Claim in North Dakota

This week Tony and I had the opportunity to give a presentation at the North Dakota Bloggers and Writers Workshop, an annual event sponsored by the North Dakota Departments of Tourism and Commerce. We were assigned the topic “Passion with a Purpose,” and spoke about our adventures from the summer of 2012 when Tony, Gio and I embarked on a quest to discover as much of North Dakota as possible in one season.

Every single weekend that summer we loaded up our car, checked our handy state map and chose a new part of North Dakota to learn about. We called our project “Lost on the Prairie,” and blogged about our travels as we went along.

I’m a lifelong North Dakotan, a member of the fifth generation of North Dakotans in my family. Giovanni is the eldest member of the sixth generation, and my hope for this experience was that he would grow up knowing and loving North Dakota, so that one day he might choose to raise a seventh generation of North Dakotans.

On Monday we shared our story with a room full of North Dakota bloggers and writers, all with their own unique North Dakota stories. Beth Kaylor, host of the gorgeous food blog “Rhubarb and Venison,” was there, this time using her mad skills as a communicator to act as the moderator for a panel of talented writers. I first met Beth at last year’s conference, and have followed her blog ever since. Beth’s husband is an avid hunter and she features a wealth of stories and recipes centered around the wild game he brings home, in addition to a variety of other foods. Not only is she a talented writer, cook and photographer, but rumor has it she even knows how to prepare wild turkey, feathers and all.

One of Beth’s panelists was the charming and delightful Jenny Dewey Rohrich, also known as the Prairie Californian, who met her North Dakota sunflower farmer via Twitter. Jenny moved to Ashley, ND from Chico, California, married that farmer last fall and has never looked back. In October of last year, Jenny wrote an epic blog post titled “10 Ways Marrying a Farmer Will Change Your Life,” which went viral in hours and was even featured on the Huffington Post.

Also on the panel was the uber-talented Jessie Veeder, a writer and singer-songwriter who hails from her family’s ranch located on the edge of the badlands in Western North Dakota. Jessie hosts the blog “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch,” where she chronicles life in the state’s oil patch and all that this oil boom brings with it. We felt like we knew Jessie already through her weekly column in the Sunday Forum, but she’s even cooler and more lovely in person.

We made many great connections with other North Dakota writers, too, and I’ll be linking to their blogs on our North Dakota page soon so that you can discover and enjoy their work.

On Tuesday, Tony and I were invited to attend a luncheon at the North Dakota Travel and Tourism Conference in Fargo. We were surprised and honored to be called up on stage, along with Jessie Veeder, to receive the North Dakota Ambassador Award. This recognition means a great deal to us, almost a nod to let us know that yes, we can stake our claim as North Dakotans. We will display the license plate with pride, and look forward to using the beautiful piece of cookware from Davy Pottery in Burlington, North Dakota.

You have to understand that as a girl growing up in Fargo, with all my family living either in the city or out of state, I felt a stronger connection to the lakes country of Minnesota than I did to my own home state. I know there’s a perception that Fargoans have a general apathy toward the rest of the state but, after talking with other Fargoans and taking time to really reflect on this, I’ve come to believe that this separation is oftentimes purely circumstantial.

Unless our parents or grandparents lived west of Fargo, owned a farm or were once farmers, most Fargoans simply don’t have the same natural connection to the land that nearly everyone west of us does. All four of my grandparents lived in Fargo when I was growing up, so we never ventured west for holiday visits.

Being on North Dakota’s easternmost border, in such close proximity to Minneapolis as well as some of Minnesota’s best lake country doesn’t help our cause, either. Within forty minutes, Fargoans can head east and be at the lake, with our bare feet up on the deck or in a pair of waterskis. Within three and a half hours, just a little longer than it takes to get to Bismarck, we can be in downtown Minneapolis, or at the Mall of America. Let’s be honest: if you lived in Fargo, this would be probably be your reality, too.

I yearned for a big life, and had no intention of creating a future for myself in North Dakota. I went to college at the University of Alaska followed by a decade-long career working on cruise ships. I married a foreigner (he loves it when I call him that), who hailed from the thriving metropolis of Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

The vision I had for my adult life did not include the (once) sleepy burg of Fargo, or any other part of North Dakota. If anyone had told me twenty-five years ago that I would one day receive a North Dakota Ambassador award, I would have told them to get lost. I might even have used more colorful language.

But life is funny that way. My lost Italian fell in love not only with me, but also with my family and Fargo, and in 1996 he convinced me that we should buy a house here to enjoy during our two-month breaks from life at sea.

Once we opened our restaurant in 2000 and later welcomed our son in 2004, I had comfortably settled into the reality that North Dakota was our destiny. But I never expected that it would also become our passion.

During our nearly ten years at sea, Tony and I were lucky enough to visit all seven continents and see the world in a way few people get to. As a small-ship Cruise Director, I was even luckier because my job description included fun duties like driving zodiacs and accompanying expedition adventures to explore some of the more remote parts of the world like Antarctica, Svalbard and the Amazon. To say that we’ve had some amazing travel experiences would be an understatement.

But the summer we spent as a family traveling around, learning about, and getting lost on the prairie of North Dakota was one of the very best travel experiences of our lives. We gained an even deeper appreciation for North Dakota life, especially outside of Fargo, out there on that wide open prairie where life has its own set of challenges and blessings.

We reconnected with our history, visiting my grandmother’s hometown of Danzig, long gone now but the old grain elevators are still there to mark the spot.

We crossed all four state lines, visited countless small towns, drove down dozens of gravel roads (a first for Tony) and made many new friends along the way.

We enjoyed unique experiences like being able to pet a real live bison, feed milk bottles to hungry little calves, and go horseback riding (another first for Tony).

We were able to attend a Native American Powwow, be in two countries at the same time, and take in the Americana 4th of July celebrations in both Bismarck and Mandan.

We also drove down the Enchanted Highway, toured a brick-making plant, visited a Benedictine Abbey, played golf in the heart of North Dakota’s Badlands, and attended our first rodeo, to name just a few of our favorite North Dakota experiences.

We thought that once the summer was over, our quest to discover North Dakota would end and we would move on to a new family project. But I don’t think we’ll ever tire of getting lost on the prairie. There are so many places we still have to visit, so many people to meet, so many stories to tell.

This summer we’re going to do it again, this time with an emphasis on food and its place in our state – where it comes from, how it gets to our markets and tables, what it means to be a farmer, or as Tony says, “the rock stars of the world.”

We’d also like to discover some of North Dakota’s best foods – we’re already familiar with the amazing pie at the Tower City Cafe, but we hear that the famous Juneberry Pie at Lund’s Landing is pretty good, too. We know that Wishek, ND is known for its sausage, but who makes the best kuchen? The best burger? The best honey? Who has the best food truck out there on the Bakken?

We’ll be launching a feature on the blog soon to highlight our Lost on the Prairie 2014 adventures, and are planning our summer itinerary as I write. We would love to include your stories.

There has never been a better time to be a North Dakotan, and I’m so glad that my lost Italian helped me find my way home.


Superbowl Party Foods

This Sunday, not only will Punxatawney Phil determine how much longer we have to endure this realm of the never ending, deja-vu-Groundhog-Day-esque Arctic winter, but a little thing called the Superbowl is also happening. Which means that it’s time to party!

We could go on and on about football, Peyton Manning, Denver, Seattle, and even Omaha (huh?), but since I’m not really up on any of that we’re going to cut to the chase and give you a list of our top recipes for Superbowl Sunday. (It’s not that I don’t like football, but Tony, a.k.a. “The Lost Italian” – although lately I’ve taken to just calling him “Lost” – is a Dolphins fan, so I am never aware of what’s happening with the winning teams.)

Also, be sure to check out our Party Dip Recipes section for a ton of great recipes from last fall’s recipe contest in search of the Perfect Party Dip.

Cranberries Gone Wild Dip – This was the winner of our fall party dip recipe contest, and was ever-present on the holiday party circuit. Fresh cranberries are now out of season, but frozen will also work. Serve this with a lime margarita and lime tortilla chips to make it extra festive!

Hot Beef Taco Dip – This hearty ground beef dip is full of the classic taco flavors and will help keep you warm and happy throughout the game.

Jalapeno Popper Dip – It’s hard to believe, but this party dip tastes exactly like a jalapeno popper, and is almost embarrassingly delicious.

Cincinnati Chili – We serve this regional specialty 4-way or 5-way over spaghetti or Coney style over hot dogs, but it’s so good you can even eat it on a spoon.

Italian Sausage, Peppers & Onion “Sangwich” – Serve it up like they did in Tony’s old Toronto neighborhood. In Fargo, we like to use Mexican Bolillo rolls or Portuguese hard rolls for this sandwich, er, sangwich.

Gio’s Meatballs – Keep these Italian-style meatballs warm in a crock pot and serve with our Easy Tomato Sauce over spaghetti or in sandwich form on ciabatta rolls or a French baguette. Easy to make and mild in seasoning, this is a great recipe for kids to make and eat!

Blackened Sirloin with Horseradish Cream Sauce – Super easy to make, this sirloin is served chilled and can be prepared well in advance. Every time we serve this we get asked for the recipe – and the horseradish cream sauce is so good you’ll find yourself looking for reasons to make it. (It’s also great with bison, roast tenderloin, grilled sirloin roast, potatoes, on a spoon…you get the idea.)

Sicilian Arancini Balls – These little, fried golden orbs are filled with risotto, green peas and ground beef, and they are heavenly when served with our Easy Tomato Sauce for dipping.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Crostini – We can all use a mid-winter splash of summer, and this Italian tri-colored appetizer does the trick. Forza Azzurri! (I know, I know, that only works for FUTBOL, not football, but I’m justItalian-by-Marriage after all…)

Easy Vinaigrette Potato Salad – Easy to make and always a crowd pleaser, this simple salad consists of Yukon Gold potatoes, green onions, cider vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper.

Honey Gorgonzola Hearts of Romaine Salad – We love to showcase North Dakota whenever we can, and this salad is the perfect way to do it since ND is the #1 producer of honey in the nation! We also know a thing or two about football…

Basil Pesto Pasta Salad – This colorful, delicious pasta salad can be made in advance and served at room temperature. And it makes me happy to see flowers again, since I’m pretty sure this winter is never ending. Did I already say that or am I having deja vu?

Tiramisu – Because every party deserves a little Italian “pick me up.” Need we say more? (Phil, if you promise not to see your shadow on Sunday, I’ll save some tiramisu for you.)

Buttermilk Brownies – Skip the peppermint extract and festive candy cane topping for this occasion and enjoy the wonderful deliciousness of these moist and airy brownies with their incredible cooked chocolate frosting.

We hope you find this list fun, festive and helpful. We would love to know what’s on YOUR menu this Superbowl Sunday, so be sure to leave your answer in the Comments section below.

Cooking Video: Cream of Parsnip Soup

This week on North Dakota Today, Tony shares his recipe for one of our favorite winter foods: Cream of Parsnip Soup. I wrote about this soup in our weekly column a year ago, and I’ve included that post for your reading pleasure here again today.

Click HERE or on the photo below to watch Tony’s demonstration, and let us know if have any questions!

Below is the full content of our column which appeared in the Wednesday, December 12, 2012 edition of “The Forum” To view the recipe click HERE.

While we don’t often think of winter as a season of fresh produce, there are some wonderful options that spring to life this time of year. Root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes have a long storage period, are an excellent source of nutrients and minerals, and can be enjoyed throughout the season. This week we’re going to share our passion for an often-overlooked and, in our opinion, underrated root vegetable: the parsnip.

“In my opinion, the parsnip has great diversity and is the tastiest root vegetable,” Tony says. “You can serve a parsnip puree instead of mashed potatoes. Or roast some parsnips in the oven to jazz up a salad. But whatever you do, keep the preparation simple and allow its flavors to be fully appreciated.”

Years ago Tony and I hosted a pre-opera dinner party for eight of our friends. I was on the board of directors at the time, and I was hoping to cultivate more supporters for the Fargo-Moorhead Opera. We had never done anything like this before, and I wanted to dazzle our guests with our food and hospitality. Everything had to perfect.

On the day of the event, Tony told me that he had changed the soup for the evening to Cream of Parsnip. At the time I wasn’t very familiar with parsnips. To say that I was skeptical about this change is an understatement. In fact, we actually argued about it. I wanted the menu to reflect foods of luxury – the main course was a duo of beef tenderloin and sea bass, after all – and in my mind, lobster bisque was the only option. The paltry parsnip was simply not up to the task.

But Tony was adamant, and I was surprised by his zealous defense of the parsnip.

“Trust me,” he said. “Everyone expects lobster bisque at a dinner like this. We need to keep it simple and focus on what’s in season. Let the food surprise our guests, and we will exceed their expectations.”

I relented, but remained a skeptic. Our guests arrived, and we cruised through the first course. The soup was up next, and I held my breath as we served the Cream of Parsnip Soup. Several of our guests commented that they had never tried parsnips in a soup before. I sat and waited for their reaction as they tasted the soup. At first, no one said anything – they were too busy eating. So I took a spoonful myself, and was immediately converted.

The parsnip soup was heavenly. Warm and comforting, the parsnip embraced me with its subtle sweetness and nutty flavor. There were tones of butterscotch, and a hint of spice, too. And, with its pretty ivory color and velvety smooth texture, the soup was naturally elegant.

True to Tony’s word, our guests were positively gushing with praise, almost giddy in the excitement of this new discovery. The Cream of Parsnip was the hit of the evening, and several of our guests continue to support the Fargo Moorhead Opera to this day.

After nineteen years of marriage, I have learned to admit when I’m wrong about something. Tony was right about the parsnip, and I’m happy to eat crow on this one. As long as it’s served with parsnip soup.

CLICK HERE for the Cream of Parsnip Soup RECIPE

Heavenly Angel Food Cake…From Scratch

Don’t tell anyone, but today is Tony’s birthday. Tony is very (very) low-key about birthdays so let’s just keep this between you and me. Still, I’m going to bake him a cake, because it’s his birthday and I love birthdays.

Ever since I’ve known him, Tony has mused that he was sent to me as an angel. In our twenty-year marriage there have been days that have definitely put that theory to the test, but we’re still married – to each other – so who knows? If Tony really is an angel, then there’s only one dessert that can rise to this occasion: Angel Food Cake.

Most people shy away from making angel food cake from scratch, wrongly believing that they are not up to the task. Sifting flour and separating egg whites might be a little fussy, but I find that angel food cake is much easier to make than sponge cake. You just need the right equipment, a little advance preparation, and patience.

Before getting started, carefully review the recipe and prepare all of your ingredients and equipment. For this recipe, you will need a ten-inch tube pan, four inches deep, with a removable base. It is possible to make angel food cake without this special pan, but if you’re going to take the time to make it from scratch, it’s worth the investment (about $12 to $15 dollars).

If you need to buy a pan, look for one that is aluminum versus non-stick. Angel food is a foam cake which receives most of its body from egg whites, and it needs to be able to climb up the walls of the pan. I have used both, and my grandmother’s old aluminum pan produces a much higher cake than my non-stick version. Your pan should also have little legs which swing out from the side so that once you remove the cake from the oven the pan can stand upside down until completely cool. (The feet from my grandmother’s pan have worn off over the ages, so I use my non-stick pan as a base to invert it over.)

After testing several different recipes over the years, my favorite is from the classic Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook. I have my grandmother’s copy from 1950, and the recipe differs from the one currently available on the Betty Crocker website, which I have not made.

Betty doesn’t call for superfine sugar in her recipe, but she does refer to angel food cake as “light as air…fluffy as a cloud,” and I think superfine sugar makes all the difference. I make my own (per celebrity-chef Alton Brown’s advice) by blending the sugar in a food processor for two minutes. Not only is this cheaper than buying pre-made superfine sugar, but I think it’s better in quality, too.

Egg whites are the main ingredient in angel food cake, and they won’t whip properly if there is any bit of yolk mixed in. As the sugar is being processed, separate the egg whites, one at a time, into a small bowl. Check to make sure there is no yolk, or shell, in the white before pouring into a measuring cup.

Sifting is the next step before combining the ingredients together, and you can use a sifter or a mesh sieve to mix the (sifted) cake flour and sugar together, three times. Don’t skip this step, as the sifting will give the cake air and help it rise better.

To serve, we keep it simple with real whipped cream and fresh berries. While not difficult to make, angel food cake is a labor of love. If you use these tips and follow the recipe’s instructions, the result should be a heavenly dessert for the angel in your life. Happy Birthday, Tony!

UPDATE: We had a terrific response to this article, with several questions being asked repeatedly by our readers. We posted our replies in a new blog post called “Angel Food Update,” which you can find by clicking HERE.

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Angel Food Cake
Gently adapted from the 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook

1 cup sifted SOFTASILK cake flour
7/8 cups granulated sugar (200 grams), processed for 2 minutes until superfine
1 ½ cups egg whites (10 to 12 large or extra large eggs)
1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon almond extract
¾ cups granulated sugar (160 grams), processed for 2 minutes until superfine

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Set out, but do not grease, a 10” tube pan, 4” deep.

Sift the cup of cake flour first, then sift it, three times, with 7/8 cups (200 grams) of the superfine sugar. Set aside.

Measure into a large mixing bowl the egg whites, cream of tartar, salt, vanilla and almond extract. Beat with a wire whip on high until foamy, then gradually add the ¾ cups of superfine sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time.

Continue beating until the meringue holds stiff, straight peaks when the wire whip is pulled up. Sift the flour-sugar mixture, 3 tablespoons at a time, over the meringue. Use a rubber spatula to cut and fold the flour in gently, until it disappears each time.

Carefully push with rubber scraper into deep tube pan, and even up surface of batter. Pull a table knife gently through the batter, in widening circles, to break any air bubbles.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until cake is golden brown and no imprint remains when finger lightly touches top of cake. Immediately invert the cake and let hang until cold, or overnight.

To remove from pan, use a serrated or very sharp knife and gently scrape along the sides, and then the base. Serve with real whipped cream and fresh berries.

Sarah’s Tips:

  • Any amount of egg yolk will prevent the whites from whipping. To prevent this from happening, separate the egg whites first into a small bowl before adding to the measuring cup, and discard any that have yolk in them.
  • Save the yolks to use in another recipe.
  • Room-temperature egg whites will whip better than cold ones.