Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Looking for the “best of” places to dine in small towns & two recommendations April 10, 2018

Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

MY FIRST AND ONLY ATTEMPT ever to eat with chopsticks happened nearly two years ago at Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I tried to position my fingers like my son demonstrated, to clamp the slippery ramen noodles between thin sticks and then maneuver the food to my mouth. I failed.

 

A ramen dish at Sapporo Ramen, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

I was hungry. A spoon would work just fine, thank you.

I’ll admit, I haven’t had all that much exposure to ethnic foods. Choices are limited here in Greater Minnesota, the name tagged to any place outside the Twin Cities metro. Typical restaurant fare around here is standard American. Any ethnic restaurants are primarily Mexican.

 

One of my favorite burgers, the Strawberry Hill Burger, served at Fielder’s Choice in Northfield, Minnesota. The burger features peanut butter, strawberry jam, pepperjack cheese and bacon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I often wish we had more creative choices in dining. But the reality is that folks seem to like the usual burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, deep-fried fish, the occasional steak—familiar foods to Minnesotans.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Because of cost, I don’t dine out all that often. So when I do, I want something different, something I can’t prepare at home, something tasty and fresh and definitely something made from scratch. When I think about really good food that I’ve eaten at Minnesota restaurants, two places pop to mind—The Amboy Cottage Cafe and The Good Life Cafe.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Homemade blackberry pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Five years ago Randy and I ate at the Cottage Cafe in Amboy south of Mankato. We specifically stopped in this small town to dine in the 1928 cottage style former gas station. I’d read about the great homemade food. There I enjoyed the best salad ever—raspberry chicken—while Randy had spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Both were superb as was our shared slice of blackberry pie. I need to revisit this restaurant.

 

My Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side from The Good Life Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

Some 4.5 hours to the north in the tourist community of Park Rapids I found another hometown restaurant that served up one memorable dish. That would be The Good Life Cafe and the Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish. I loved the creamy, savory flavor of the hotdish (casserole to those of you not from Minnesota), so comforting and delicious on a cool and rainy September day.

How about you? What do you look for when dining out? Tell me about a favorite restaurant and/or meal. I’m especially interested in hearing about restaurants in small (Minnesota) towns.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Tell DeLores to bring lots of grape salad November 24, 2014

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Vintage plastic grapes on a vintage food tray, used here for illustration purposes only.

Vintage plastic grapes on a vintage food tray, used here for illustration purposes only.

ALRIGHT, MINNESOTANS, it’s time to tell the other side of the story, to balance the “I’ve never heard of Grape Salad” to the “I have and I prepare it for my family and they love it.”

Just a little background for those who are unaware: The New York Times recently published an article listing Thanksgiving dinner foods that best represent each state. Grape Salad was selected for Minnesota, evoking the wrath of many a native. Most of us have never heard of the salad and don’t consider it at all representative of our state.

But then along come several Minnesota Prairie Roots readers, including DeLores Johnson from Belview in my native Redwood County, MN., who have, indeed, heard of Grape Salad and prepared it.

The salad is so popular with DeLores’ extended family that they ask for it every Thanksgiving and Christmas. The request is the same each holiday: “Tell DeLores to bring lots of Grape Salad.”

She first made the salad about 10 years ago after discovering the recipe in a newspaper (but not the local The Redwood Falls Gazette). Having never heard of Grape Salad until then, DeLores thought it worth a try although she hesitated to reveal sour cream as one of the four ingredients.

But her family loved the salad. Her grandchildren even argue over who gets the last little bit in the bowl, claims DeLores. She doubles the recipe. It’s apparently that good.

DeLores terms Grape Salad as “delicious” and says people from all over have called her for the recipe. “I never knew it would be such a hit,” she says.

One year, when grapes were especially expensive, DeLores nearly didn’t prepare Grape Salad. But because she knew the kids would be disappointed, she bought what she needed and the grapes cost more than the meat.

No wonder she tells her grandkids Grape Salad is special because it’s made with lots of love.

So there you have it. That’s DeLores’ Grape Salad story and she’s sticking to it.

HERE’S THE RECIPE for Grape Salad, direct from DeLores:

Red or green seedless grapes (DeLores emphasizes seedless; one year she bought the wrong grapes and spent a lot of time cutting grapes in half to remove seeds.)
1 cup brown sugar
8 ounces sour cream
8 ounces Cool Whip

Mix the dressing and then add the grapes. Enjoy.

TIPS: For Christmas, DeLores sometimes buys red and green grapes to make a more colorful holiday salad. Grape Salad can be prepared a day in advance, refrigerated and stirred just prior to serving.

FACT:  When DeLores was growing up, the only grapes she had available to her were wild grapes like those used to make jelly.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Soup, salad & sandwiches at St. John’s March 12, 2014

SUNLIGHT FILTERS through the fellowship hall windows on an early Sunday afternoon in March. Outside the 40-degree temps feel balmy after a brutally cold and snowy Minnesota winter.

St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault.

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, Minnesota.

I’ve left my coat in the van, drawing my sweater tight around me as I pause to photograph St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, before hurrying inside. The strong wind has a bite to it.

Salad options.

Salad options.

Inside, I grab a shiny silver tray, select a salad from choices on ice, pinch lettuce into a bowl and add toppings before placing the tray on a table to photograph the salad selections. While I do so, a teen ladles a generous scoop of Ranch dressing atop my lettuce salad.

Lynn, right, tends the potato soup in this duo scene of kitchen and fellowship hall.

Lynn, right, tends the potato soup in this duo scene, divided by a wall, of kitchen and fellowship hall.

Next, I move toward the kitchen serving window to consider the soup offerings—chicken noodle, potato bacon and bean. All homemade. I start with potato. Lynn fills my bowl.

Kim and Keith serve diners.

Kim and Keith serve diners.

Juggling camera and tray, I move down the line to the sandwiches. Kim and Keith are ladling soup, too, and refilling the sandwich tray.

Sandwich choices from ham to sausage to open face.

Sandwich choices from ham to sausage to open face.

I choose an open face sandwich topped with a mix of meat and chopped pickles.

My husband and I settle onto folding chairs at a table nearest the kitchen. I want easy access to photograph the scene, the moments that define this first of three Sunday Lenten soup luncheons at St. John’s.

I’ve been here before, often enough that parishioners welcome me into this country church east of Faribault just off Minnesota State Highway 60 along Jacobs Avenue.

My first tray of food.

My first tray of food.

I know the routine, too. Gather my food and then transfer bowls and sandwich onto a paper placemat so the trays are ready for the next diners.

Key food preparer Craig, carrying a coffee pot, right, says 60 -70 diners were served at Sunday's luncheon.

Key food preparer, organizer, church organist and co-youth leader, Craig, carrying a coffee pot, right, says 60 -70 diners were served at Sunday’s luncheon.

There’s something about familiarity and dining in the company of the faithful, the din of conversation and the clack of kitchen noises, that comforts as much as a hearty homemade soup.

Mandarin orange dessert awaits diners.

Mandarin orange dessert plated for delivery to diners.

For two evenings and a day prior, Craig and his mother, 88-year-old Elsie, and their neighbor, Lynn, have labored, preparing the three soups, the nine salads and the mandarin orange dessert. Parents of Youth Fellowship members brought the sandwiches.

This is a labor of love and of service—the chopping of onions, the soaking of beans, the dicing of ham, the mixing of homemade dumplings (by the octogenarian)…

Brandon dries dishes. The Youth Fellowship sponsors the soup and salad luncheons.

Brandon dries dishes. The Youth Fellowship sponsors the soup and salad luncheons.

In the kitchen, 13-year-old Brandon dries dishes beside his mother and Elsie. Others tend the soup, sandwiches, salad and dessert. Youth hustle to bring and refill beverages, to clear tables, to deliver dessert. Craig rushes to refill coffee pots and cups.

Bibles, florals and candles  decorated tables.

Bibles, florals and candles decorate tables.

I observe it all, from tabletop bible centerpieces opened to Psalms to the dainty floral pattern on church china to the stool I’ve seen Elsie use in the kitchen every time I’ve been here. She’s always in the kitchen.

The hardworking team.

The hardworking team.

This congregation works together, feeding diners like me who appreciate their efforts and the taste of great homemade food as much as this rural setting and fellowship.

Inside the church kitchen, that's Elsie standing next to her stool.

Inside the church kitchen, 88-year-old Elsie works next to her stool.

Once I’ve finished my first bowl of potato soup, I get a new bowl and a scoop of bean soup, followed by a second helping of potato. I pass on the third soup; I’m not a fan of either chicken soup or of dumplings.

As I finish my dessert, Kim and Keith join my husband and me to rest for a bit and eat lunch. We talk about kids and the horrible long winter and vehicles in ditches and the couple’s continually snow blown driveway and such. It’s a comfortable conversation.

Elsie, 88, enjoys a bowl of bean soup.

Elsie, 88, sits in the kitchen and enjoys a bowl of bean soup at the end of the luncheon.

Before we leave, I pop into the kitchen again and catch Elsie finally sitting down with a bowl of bean soup.

#

FYI: If you’re interested in attending St. John’s next two soup luncheons, here are details:

The church is located at

The church is located at 19086 Jacobs Avenue, rural Faribault.

These will be your salad options.

These will be your salad options.

On the way out the door, study the Germanfest photos on the bulletin board:

St. John's UCC Germanfest is another must-attend annual event in September. Great food, entertainment, bingo, quilt show and more.

St. John’s UCC Germanfest is another must-attend annual event in September. Great food, entertainment, bingo, quilt show and more define this ethnic gathering.

And then purchase a jar of St. John’s famous homemade apple jelly or butter:

Beautiful and savory St. John's apple jelly.

Beautiful and savory St. John’s apple jelly.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grassroots dining: Church dinners are the best March 28, 2011

GIVEN A CHOICE of eating at a church dinner or dining at a restaurant, I’ll choose the holy place. I appreciate the good home cooking and fellowship that comprise church dinners.

So Sunday my husband and I headed to St. John’s United Church of Christ in Wheeling Township, about a 15-minute drive from Faribault, for a Lenten Soup Luncheon.

 

St. John's United Church of Christ is northeast of Faribault about two miles off State Highway 60 on Rice County Road 24 near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

As soon as I stepped inside the fellowship hall attached to the old stone church and saw the spread, I regretted that I’d snacked on a doughnut at my church only an hour earlier.

This luncheon offered soups, salads, sandwiches and bars. A regular smorgasbord with nine salad and three soup options and, well, I didn’t count the varieties of bars but suffice to say any chocolate lover would have been happy.

 

Some of the bars offered for dessert. I tried the bar with the marshmallow topping on the back left.

Salads like tuna pasta, tangy rhubarb squares and 3-bean, and the spinach-strawberry I chose, awaited diners who could select plated salads and/or build their own.

 

Even the salad bar sign grabbed my attention. How cute and eye-catching and kitschy.

The plated and build-your-own salad bar fills two tables in the dining hall.

A few of the salad bar choices, including a tangy rhubarb square on the right in this photo.

After I’d selected my salad and placed it on a fancy silver tray, I headed to the kitchen where cooks were ladling potato-bacon chowder, hamburger vegetable soup and chicken noodle with dumpling soup from large roasting pans into hefty bowls.

 

The busy-as-a-beehive kitchen crew at St. John's United Church of Christ.

Volunteers were ready with roasters full of soups in the kitchen.

I started with the potato and eventually sampled the other two. The creamy and savory potato was my hands-down favorite, although I also appreciated the spicy kick to the hamburger veggie. I’ve never been big on chicken noodle soup or dumplings. The chicken soup is served at every Lenten Soup Luncheon the church hosts. Oyster stew and chili will be the other featured soups at the last luncheon from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

 

The Lenten Soup Luncheon sign posted by the kitchen. The final luncheon is from 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

A diner's tray (not mine) that includes a bowl of chicken noodle soup with dumplings.

Church dinners are all about food and fellowship. I scored an invitation to visit a farm with a robotic milking operation while visiting with church members at my table.

Of course, no church dinner is complete without bread, so diners were offered an array of sandwiches. I inquired about the ground concoction on an open-faced sandwich, was told it was bologna and pickles, paused, thought, and picked it up. And you know, for someone who doesn’t really care for bologna, I liked the spread.

 

Plenty of sandwich choices like ham, tuna and, yes, even ground bologna and pickles were offered.

Except for lutefisk, I’ve never tasted a church dinner I didn’t like.

I notice and appreciate details like the lovely floral dishware. My husband and I learned that once you carry your food to your table on the fancy silver tray, you're supposed to take your plates and bowls off the tray and servers will pick it up for others to use. We even had big, hefty soup spoons for eating our soups. Now that impressed me.

 

There's no specific cost for the St. John's Lenten Soup Luncheon, which benefits the youth fellowship group, helping members finance mission trips and more. Cost for the meal is whatever you choose to donate. Just drop your money in the bucket before picking up a fancy silver tray at the salad bar.

FYI: Click here for more information about St. John’s United Church of Christ, 19086 Jacobs Avenue, located near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, rural Faribault. Watch for a future post featuring photos of the church interior and exterior.

PLEASE SUBMIT A COMMENT and tell me about a church dinner you enjoy and why.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Tasteless strawberries and wilting lettuce March 10, 2011

I LOVE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES.

But I don’t always love the quality of the fruits and vegetables I find in the grocery store. In my opinion, they are often sub-par.

Because I live in Minnesota, I am not all that educated about fresh fruits and vegetables. Our cold climate and short growing season limit our native selections. We rely on “imports” from Florida and California and other much warmer places.

That said, I have no idea when growers pick oranges or strawberries or fill in the blank here. How mature, or immature, is the fruit?

Are oranges, like bananas, harvested when they are green? How about strawberries? Muskmelon? Is all fruit plucked before it’s ripened?

I raise that question because I bought a pound of Florida strawberries the other day that looked oddly, unnaturally overripe. Yet, I didn’t see any telltale mold. My husband theorized that they were “picked green and gassed.”

Is fruit really “gassed,” and what does that mean?

 

A few of the Florida strawberries from the pound I purchased.

The strawberries were rather tasteless, but added a jolt of color to my lettuce salad. If you live in Minnesota or any other cold climate, you’ll understand the need for a jolt of color this time of year. (It’s been a long, cold and snowy winter.)

That brings me to the lettuce. I doled out $2.99 for a bunch of Romaine lettuce at the same time I bought the strawberries. Normally I would pass on Romaine priced so exorbitantly high or even consider substituting iceberg lettuce (which I quit buying years ago because I prefer whole wheat to Wonder bread).

I was willing, though, to pay the $3. I wanted, needed, a Romaine salad. Unfortunately, the selection was not good. Small bunches. Wilted leaves and leaves edged with black. I chose the best and hoped I wasn’t throwing away my money.

 

I had already peeled off several layers of lettuce leaves before I took this photo. What are those brownish spots?

Well, I threw away about three salads worth of lettuce as I peeled off the layers of leaves to reveal what I term “rust.” I have no idea what the brown spots are inside lettuce leaves, nor do I know why leaves are sometimes tipped with black. I just know that I can’t eat it.

This frustrates me.

How many times have you purchased bad lettuce or fresh fruit that ends up in the garbage? I bet you’ve all tasted “baseball” hard peaches or pears and nectarines that never ripen and are as crunchy and dry as cardboard. One bite and in the trash they go.

So why are fruits and vegetables like this?

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS on the quality of today’s fresh fruits and vegetables? I’d like to hear your insights and your experiences.

 

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce made a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing.

FYI: Amablu Gorgonzola cheese is made at Faribault Dairy in Faribault, Minnesota, where it is aged in sandstone caves along the Straight River. This is home to America’s first blue cheese plant, dating back to 1936. The award-winning cheeses produced in my community are among my favorite cheeses.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling