WHEELER – Vicki Stephens said if there's one tip she could give to anyone who likes to cook, it would be to do as much prep work on the front end of a meal as possible.
"I'm not just talking about when you're cooking for a crowd or doing a holiday meal," Stephens said. "I'm talking about when I'm preparing a meal for just me and my husband."
If she's got a weeknight recipe that calls for pounded chicken breasts, she's going to do that the day before – anything to get ahead of the game.
"For holidays, I get all my recipes out to see what I need," she said. "If three recipes call for onions – say dressing, green bean casserole and baked beans – then I chop all the onions at one time and put them in bowls or bags in the refrigerator. It makes things so much easier."
Stephens, 64, was born and raised in Wheeler, the only child of the late Reba and Brownlee Glover. She and her husband, Butch, married the week she graduated from junior college. They have two children, Joseph and his wife, Dana; and Star and her husband, David Horton; and three grandchildren: Bonds, Isabella and Ellalee.
Stephens was a teaching assistant at Wheeler Head Start and Wheeler Elementary for a dozen years, and did some substitute teaching after that.
Now that she's retired, she relishes making breakfast for her three grands in the summer.
"They think breakfast means sausage and biscuits," she said. "Anytime there's a grandchild present, I cook breakfast."
When Stephens first married, it was important to her to get a meal on the table that was tasty. After she and Butch moved to Jackson, Tennessee for several years, she learned to make food that was good, but also pretty.
"Presentation became very important to me," she said. "And I branched out. I started watching cooking shows. That's when I learned to make things like omelets and chicken piccata – foods different from the Wheeler food I'd grown up on."
While Stephens often cooks for her family, she doesn't do Sunday dinner.
"My mother did, though," she said. "She got Alzheimer's, and the day she told me she could no longer cook Sunday lunch was worse than the day she died. I'd only ever known Sunday lunch at her house."
Stephens' favorite cookbook is one she's made herself, with the majority of the recipes handwritten. She also puts little notes on them, like "This was good" or "This freezes well" or "Served this at Christmas."
And when she makes those recipes, she doesn't want anyone underfoot.
"I can't stand for anybody to be in my kitchen when I cook," she said. "Just leave me alone with my music. On Oct. 1, I'll start playing Christmas music, and we'll play it until February."
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8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms
7 tablespoons butter, divided
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Marsala wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup shredded Mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 to 4 green onions, chopped
Cook mushrooms in 2 tablespoons butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 3 to 5 minutes or just until tender. Remove from heat; set aside.
Cut each chicken breast in half lengthwise. Place chicken between 2 sheets of heavy-duty plastic wrap; flatten to 1/8-inch thickness, using a meat mallet or rolling pin.
Dredge chicken in flour. Cook chicken in batches in 1 to 2 tablespoons butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until golden. Reserve pan drippings. Place chicken in a greased 9x13-inch baking dish.
Add wine and broth to skillet with the drippings. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in salt and pepper.
Pour sauce over chicken. Combine cheeses and green onions; sprinkle over chicken. Bake, uncovered, at 450 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes until cheese melts.
Note: You can substitute 1 large jar sliced mushrooms, drained, for the fresh mushrooms sauteed in butter.
STRAWBERRY BUTTERCREAM CAKE
1 box Duncan Hines white cake mix
1 (3-ounce) package strawberry gelatin
4 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh strawberries
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup self-rising flour
2 sticks butter
2 (32-ounce) package confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 cup finely chopped fresh strawberries
Whole strawberries, for garnish
For the cake, beat cake mix, strawberry gelatin, eggs, sugar, chopped strawberries, milk, oil and flour at low speed with an electric mixer for 1 minute. Scrape down sides, and beat at medium speed for 2 more minutes, stopping to scrape down sides, as needed.
Pour batter into 3 greased and floured 9-inch round cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 23 minutes, or until cakes spring back when pressed lightly with a finger. Let cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and cool completely.
For the icing, beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy, about 20 seconds. Add sugar and strawberries, beating at low speed until creamy. (Add more sugar if frosting is too thin, or add strawberries if too thick.) Spread the frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake. Garnish with whole strawberries. Serve immediately, or chill for up to 1 week.
1 (3-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flaked coconut
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts
1 pound white or chocolate-flavored confectioners' coating
In a small mixing bowl, stir together cream cheese, confectioners' sugar and vanilla until well combined. Stir in coconut and nuts. Chill 1 hour. Shape into 1-inch rounds or ovals.
In a saucepan over low heat melt confectioners' coating; dip coconut balls in melted coating. Cover and store in a cool dry place. Makes about 24.
7 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup sweet Marsala wine, plus 2 tablespoons
8 ounces mascarpone, softened to room temperature*
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup brewed espresso coffee
1 ounce dark chocolate
1/4 cup rum
1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
Cream together egg yolks and sugar in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Add 1/3 cup of the Marsala and continue to whisk until mixture is thick and doubled in volume. Remove from heat. Stir in the mascarpone until completely blended.
In a chilled bowl, whip the heavy cream to soft peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the mascarpone mixture, to lighten.
In a small saucepan, combine espresso, chocolate, rum, vanilla, and remaining 2 tablespoons Marsala. Heat gently, and stir to dissolve the chocolate. Chill the mixture to cool it down, about 15 minutes. Quickly dip each ladyfinger in the chilled coffee mixture and arrange in a single layer on a 9x13-inch glass baking pan. Do not soak the cookies or they will become too moist. Spread 1/2 the mascarpone cream evenly with a spatula on top of the dipped ladyfingers. Repeat with a second layer of dipped ladyfingers and remaining mascarpone cream. Sprinkle top with cocoa powder. Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.
Note: If you can't find mascarpone: Combine 8 ounces full-fat cream cheese 1/4 cup heavy cream and 2 tablespoons full-fat sour cream.
HERBED GOAT CHEESE SANDWICHES
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
10 1/2 ounces mild goat cheese, room temperature
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
5 to 6 tablespoons milk
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf 7-grain bread, thinly sliced, or sliced white bread
1 seedless cucumber
Place the cream cheese, goat cheese, garlic, thyme, parsley, 5 tablespoons milk, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl and beat on medium speed until well combined. If spread is too thick, add another tablespoon of milk.
Spread each slice of bread with the goat cheese spread. Slice the cucumber, peeled or not, into thin rounds and arrange on half of the bread slices. Top with the remaining bread and press slightly. Cut into desired shapes, halves, thirds or triangles (you may want to trim the crust). You can make ahead, but cover tightly with plastic wrap before refrigerating.
CINNAMON RAISIN SANDWICHES
1 (8-ounce) block cream cheese, softened
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, well-drained
5 to 6 packets Sweet 'n Low
1 loaf cinnamon raisin bread
Cream together the cream cheese, pineapple and sweetener. Spread on slices of bread. Wrap tightly and store in an airtight container, and refrigerate at least 24 hours, but 2 to 3 days is better. Cut each sandwich into 2 or 4 pieces while very cold.
1/2 to 3/4 cup sour cream
1/3 teaspoon marjoram
1 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper
Garlic salt and seasoning salt
1 cup green seedless grapes or 1 can pineapple tidbits, drained
2 whole roasted chickens, deboned and shredded
1 package frozen peas
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
4 to 5 tablespoons chopped green onions, white and green parts
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, minced
The day before you’re ready to serve, combine sour cream and spices. Mix well and refrigerate overnight.
The next day combine the sour cream mixture with the grapes or pineapple, chicken, peas, celery, raisins, almonds, green onions and garlic. Serves 10.
SALTED MAPLE BACON TRUFFLES
1 stick butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon maple extract
1/2 cup finely chopped cooked bacon
2 to 3 cups chocolate chips
1/3 cup very finely chopped cooked bacon
For the truffles, in a large bowl, cream butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add in flour, condensed milk, maple extract and bacon. Stir until well combined. Using a small cookie scoop (about 1 tablespoon), scoop dough onto a cookie sheet covered with plastic wrap or parchment paper. Freeze balls for about 20 to 30 minutes to firm up.
When dough is chilled, melt chocolate in a microwave-safe dish or on top of the stove. Do not overheat. Dip each ball into the melted chocolate, shaking off any excess. Quickly sprinkle a pinch of the finely chopped bacon and a smaller pinch of sea salt onto the top of each truffle before the chocolate solidifies.