Posts Tagged: aryn henning nichols

The Potluck: Main Courses


Taking a Midwest Tradition Local

Story and photos by Aryn Henning Nichols • Photo/Food Assistant Thea Satrom • Originally published in the Summer 2015 Inspire(d)

Getting together with friends is the stuff of summer.

Getting together with friends, eating food grown by friends, is the stuff of a Driftless summer.

When you live in a place like the Driftless Region, you sometimes forget that you’re even eating local…you’re just serving up the produce grown by farmers up the road! They might even be sitting across the table from you – ‘cause this is the Midwest, people. We’re friendly. And we like to potluck.

In case this is your first day in the Midwest, a potluck is “a gathering of people where each person or group of people contributes a dish of food to be shared among the larger gathered group.”

It’s a beautiful thing not just because it’s a great format for a party, but also because sometimes summertime livin’ isn’t so easy; it’s busy. Make it a little simpler by having your friends make all the food. Okay…you still have to make one dish, but that’s a lot better than a whole meal.

What goes into planning a potluck? Just an email, text message, or phone call with a loose “you do a main course, I’ll do veggie, they’ll bring dessert” sort of thing. Take it a step further and challenge potluck-goers to use local produce in their dishes. Buying locally is good for your environment, economy, and – most importantly – yourself. And shopping in season at your area farmers markets and food co-ops is also way more affordable than you’d think!

We put together our own potluck of local foods for this issue – from local shrimp (yep!) to bacon-wrapped dates to a beet and apple salad to cheese curd caprese skewers, we’ve got you covered. For this post, we’re featuring main courses – sometimes you just want to bring something a little heartier, especially as weather starts to turn chillier in the fall!

In a pinch and don’t have time to actually cook something? That’s totally okay too! We looked to the bulk section of our local co-op for a few ideas…chocolate-covered ginger, anyone? Goes great with a mint julep, we think!

Make it a potluck-y summer, friends, and enjoy!



Marinated Grilled Shrimp

Did you know there’s local shrimp now? There’s a new farm north of Fayette called Shrimptastic and also a farm in Ridgeway called Sherlock Shrimp. It works like this: You head to the farm, they harvest your shrimp fresh, you bring them home and cook ‘em. Pretty cool! (P.S. the above photo was taken before local shrimp was available, so it’s actually from the freezer section of the Oneota Co-op. The local shrimp is WAY bigger!)

2 cloves garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
2 T chopped fresh basil
1/2 tsp salt
Juice from half a lime
Juice from half a lemon
1 lb fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

In a large plastic bag, mix the marinade.  Add shrimp and coat evenly. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Preheat grill for medium heat. Thread shrimp onto skewers, piercing once near the tail once near the head. Discard marinade.
Cook shrimp on preheated grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until opaque.

Head over to for a how-to on peeling & deveining shrimp


Pesto Pasta Salad with Local Sausage 

1 lb package of pasta (we used campanelle, but also love penne or other hardy pastas)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 package (4) local sausage (we used chicken, but any sausage would work great), grilled and sliced.
2 cups arugula
1/4 cup goat cheese
1/2 cup pesto (see recipe below)

Cook pasta according to package directions. We always undercook a bit, because mushy pasta is no good! In a large bowl (or just use the same pot you made the pasta in), combine pasta, red pepper, and chicken sausage. Add in 1/2 to 1 cup of pesto…whatever your taste preferences are. Gently stir in arugula leaves and top with goat cheese. Great served warm or cold!

Walnut Pesto

1/2 C walnuts
2 cloves garlic
3 cups packed basil leaves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 freshly ground black pepper
1/3 C olive oil (or more if needed)
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese
1-2 tsp lemon juice

Place basil, walnuts, garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil in food processor.

Blend until thoroughly combined. Add Parmesan and blend 5-10 seconds more. Splash in lemon juice to taste. Add additional salt to taste, if needed. For storing, a layer of olive oil on top keeps the pesto from browning. It also freezes great, so double the batch to get a little summer freshness when winter hits!


Science, You’re Super: Fireflies!


By Aryn Henning Nichols • Photo by Radim Schreiber
Originally published in the Summer 2014 Inspire(d)

You know what’s super magical? Light-up bums.

I’m talking fireflies, of course! A field or dark forest flooded with those little flickering butts is some seriously super science. It’s one of my favorite things about summer. But have you ever wondered how they do it? Or why?

First off, fireflies – or lightning bugs (whichever you prefer) – are neither flies nor bugs. They’re beetles. But lightning beetle just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? (1)

These little beetles produce a chemical reaction inside their bodies called bioluminescence, which allows them to light up. Inside their light organs, oxygen combines with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and the chemical luciferin – all while the bioluminescent enzyme luciferase is present. This produces light. (2)

And it’s not just any light. An average electric light bulb gives off 90 percent of its energy as heat, and only 10 percent as light. If fireflies produced that much heat when they lit up, they’d probably not live through it (giving new meaning to “fire”flies). Luckily, fireflies are amazingly efficient light-producers. During bioluminescence, a hundred percent of the energy goes into making light. (1)

The firefly controls the beginning and end of the chemical reaction, and thus the start and stop of its light emission, through oxygen. Insects do not have lungs, but instead transport oxygen from outside the body to the interior cells through a complex series of successively smaller tubes known as tracheoles. When the firefly wants to light up, it adds oxygen to the other chemicals needed to produce light. When there’s no oxygen available, the light goes out. (2)

They appear to light up for a variety of reasons: to communicate their distastefulness to predators, to help identify certain types of species, or, more commonly, to attract members of the opposite sex. Yes, fireflies get right to the point in their short two-to-three-week lifespan. Studies have also shown that some female fireflies like males with high flash rates and/or increased flash intensity. Ooh la la! (2)

Unfortunately for some sad folks in a few sad regions, not all fireflies flash. Fireflies that inhabit the western areas of North America don’t use light signals to communicate. Because of this, many people inaccurately believe that they don’t exist west of the Rockies, since flashing populations are rarely seen there.

But for some lucky folks in a few lucky regions, fireflies synchronize their flashes! It’s rare – in the US, you can see this phenomenon (usually during a two-week window in late spring) at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee – but amazing to see. Thousands of fireflies will light up at the same time, over and over, in what’s called simultaneous bioluminescence! Not coincidentally, thousands of people come from all over to witness this amazing show each year. (3)

And now, final interesting firefly fact: Firefly luciferase is also useful in medical research! It can be used as markers to detect blood clots or to tag cells and genes, and to monitor hydrogen peroxide levels in living organisms (hydrogen peroxide is believed to play a role in the progression of some diseases, like cancer and diabetes). Scientists can now use a synthetic form of luciferase – fortunately – as we’d all like to keep those little bums flashing for many years to come. (1)




Aryn Henning Nichols has watched, chased, or caught fireflies every summer of her life. She may also have squished and smeared a few, and feels more than a little guilty about it, especially after writing this Science, You’re Super! Sorry, fireflies. Never again!


Radim Schreiber, born in the Czech Republic, is an artist/photographer and cinematographer. His passion for photography began while photographing insects during his college years in Iowa. After completing his BFA at Maharishi University of Management, he started working for The Sky Factory, LLC in Fairfield, Iowa, as a nature photographer, cinematographer, and digital artist. Radim has won multiple national and international photography competitions, including the Smithsonian Magazine Photography contest. Radim’s latest project is photographing the bioluminescent glow of fireflies.


Adoption: These Red Threads that Bind Us


By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2011 Inspire(d)
All Photos Courtesy of the Jensen Family

Families are bound together – whether it’s by the blood that flows through our veins or the tangled threads of fate. Sometimes it’s both.

Decorah’s Dave and Jane Jensen began creating their family “traditionally” with the birth of their first daughter, Erica, in 1989. In the six years following, three more beautiful baby girls – Dana, Kari, and Kiersten – were brought into the world. And while most would consider this a large family already, the Jensens felt their clan wasn’t quite complete.

“We didn’t think we needed to produce another human being for this earth,” Jane says. “But adoption – it was something we always wanted to do.”

They began to research different adoption agencies, and sent away for information from Holt International, an agency that has been finding orphaned children permanent families for more than five decades. Then, that very week, they saw a notice in the newspaper: Holt International was coming to Decorah to educate and inform the community about their mission and how adoption works.

unnamed-1It was the first of many twists of fate that have led Dave and Jane to the eight children they’ve adopted since 2002.

“Each of these adoptions – they’ve opened up so many doors,” Jane says, amazement in her voice. “In China they’re called ‘Red Threads’.”

The “red thread of destiny” is a Chinese legend that says there’s a god who ties a red thread around the ankles of two people, binding them together forever, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. Although commonly tying male and females together as soul mates, the phase may be applied to any two people.

For the Jensens, it was a look on their future child’s face, the amazing chance that they were the only ones writing to adopt a certain orphan, or a “spoken for” child suddenly being “available,” that made them certain a higher force was at work.

“Once we traveled to China and became personally aware of the plight of the orphan, those sweet innocent children left behind, who all deserve their own family to love them, we were changed forever. There was no turning back,” Jane says. “We knew God had a plan for our family from that first moment we met Claire.”

Claire, now 10 years old, was adopted from the Fujian Province when she was just 11 months. The experience was one of excitement and surrealism for the Jensens.

janewbaby“I remember when we found out we got her,” Jane says. “We were getting ready to go to Christmas at Luther and got the email from the agency. Everyone gathered around the computer and just screamed! We couldn’t believe it!”

Within six weeks Dave, Jane, and Erica were on a plane to China. They traveled with several other families that were also adopting, and they all stayed in the same hotel, waiting for the new children about to come into their lives.

“They told us to stay in the hotel room,” Dave says. “Then they call you on the phone and say, ‘The babies are on the way.’ You know they’re gonna hand you this baby, so of course, everyone came running out of their rooms. Kids were screaming, laughing…”

“Then they hand you this beautiful child,” Jane continues. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m so glad we did this.’ It’s just as miraculous as birth – you know this is the child you’re supposed to have.”

Since then, they’ve adopted five more children from China, and two (twins) from Ethiopia. Their ages at the time of adoption ranged from 11 months to three years, although for many – probably most – orphans, there’s no real certainty on age or birthdates.

“A lot of orphans are just left somewhere for someone to find them,” Dave says. “Supermarkets, hospitals, the side of the road – Matthew’s unique because he was left at a hospital with a letter from his birth father.”

The letter gives details on Matthew’s birth – his father was a migrant worker with no money, but he tried to take care of him. He kept him by his side for a year, until he realized he could no longer manage it.

Matthew had clubfeet that needed attention. In fact, all of the children the Jensens have adopted except one have had special medical needs. With their new family they were able to get the medical treatment necessary to happily continue their lives.

The Jensens – always Jane, sometimes other members of the family as well – have traveled to China several times now, and Ethiopia once, the summer of 2010. Kari and Dana – then 18 and 19 – joined Jane on the Africa trip. It was very different from China, she says. There was so much poverty, yet the people were so nice, open, and happy. Similarly, though, the orphanages were full.

Africa“The big problem in Ethiopian orphanages is that usually either one or both of the parents have died of AIDS,” Dave says. “People say, ‘You can’t change the world.’ But once you experience the situation there, you’re changed. You’re never the same.”

“You want to adopt them all,” Jane adds. Dave finishes the thought on both their minds, “You realize the children left behind are just like our children we’ve brought home. Every one is special and all they need is a family to love them and to give them a chance.   People have so many excuses about why they can’t adopt as well. But you must be willing to take that leap of faith.”

It’s hard to not want adopt every orphan out there. Not only are there young children with special medical needs, there are the older kids who are much less likely to find a permanent family. And at age 14 – at least in China – orphans “age out”: they are no longer eligible for adoption. It’s heartbreaking to look through photos online – posted through organizations like Love Without Boundaries and Ordinary Hero – and know that a good portion of those children will live their entire young lives in an orphanage.

It’s obvious it gets to the Jensens. But will they adopt more?

Dave and Jane’s eyes meet. “The timing’s not right,” Jane says, with a look on her face that says she’d love to adopt a hundred more at least. And while Dave appears to agree with the timing, it doesn’t look like he’d need much convincing to bring home Jensen number eight. “We never say never any more.”

unnamed-3“People say, ‘These kids are so lucky,’” he says. “But we’re the ones who are lucky.”

Jane agrees. The rewards of adoption are many; the challenges few. “Everyone just transitioned so seamlessly. And everyone always has someone to play with. It’s kind of the more the merrier!” she says with a laugh. “It’s just like they’ve always been here.”

This more the merrier attitude lends a certain amount of excitement to the household, but everyone seems to enjoy – or at least adapt – to it.

“It’s good entertainment,” says Erica. Then Dave jokes, “The volume has definitely intensified. And there’s more food – massive grocery store bills.”

Yes, with a household of 14, meals are an adventure. The question Jane is most often asked is: how do you feed everyone?

“Just like every family, you can’t please everyone,” she says. “We just make it work.”

If that means the house doesn’t always get picked up, so be it. And if it means they have to drive on a vacation instead of flying, that’s okay too.

unnamed-4“We’ve lost every kid at some point during different trips,” Jane says, laughing. “We’re like, ‘We got her all the way from China, and now we’ve lost her!’”

“So we said, ‘Fine. Next time we’re gonna drive,” Dave goes on. “So we did. To Florida. The floor was this deep in wrappers, food, and underwear,” he says, gesturing to about a foot above the ground.

It was for that trip that they got the big family Sprinter that hauls the crew around. When they go out to dinner, people always want to hear more about their family, their story. Indeed, it is amazing. They embrace what they call the chaos, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Most things in life that are worth doing and worth having require sacrifice and hard work and we can’t think of anything we would rather be doing!” Jane says. “We are truly the lucky ones!”


Aryn Henning Nichols has been inspired over and over again as she was writing this story. From a family of six, two of Aryn’s siblings are adopted as well. She hopes someday she, too, can provide a home to a child in need.

Thinking about adoption?
“My advice: Look into it. Go to an adoption meeting. It’s been the best thing we’ve done,” Dave says. Interested in learning more? Check out these Jensen-recommended adoption and orphanage websites:

The Jensen Family Timeline:
Erica – 25
Dana – 23
Kari – 22
Kiersten – 20
Claire  – 14 years old   from Fujian China  Adopted at 11 mos old in Jan. 2002
David – 13 years old from Guangxi China   Adopted at 22 mos in Jan. 2004
Matthew – 12 years old from Xinjiang China  Adopted at 33 mos in August 2005
Amy – 10 years old from Guangdong China  Adopted at 20 months in August 2006
Luke – 9 years old from Jiangsu China Adopted at 24 months in March 2008
Asmere and Abbeke 8 years old from Ethiopia adopted in August 2010
Jay – 5 years old, adopted from China.

The Jensen family totals 14 people. Their rural Decorah home has seven bedrooms. And there are still 147 million orphans in the world.