Now that fall is on its way, gardens are producing less. The vegetables still need tending to and what better way than to can them. That’s what Samantha “Sam” Ahrens is doing these days.

“Growing up, I helped a lot in the kitchen with my Mom while my brother helped my Dad with outside chores. Although when it came to gardening, all hands on deck were needed to help maintain it. When it came to canning time, I made multiple trips to the garden taking vegetables to the kitchen to be canned. I watched my Mom and she taught me a lot about canning and cooking. It only made me want to cook and can more as I got older. I still continue to can vegetables from our garden and really enjoy doing it!” smiles Sam.

Sam has one brother and 2 step-siblings. She spent a lot of time with her Mom and Dad growing up. Her family did a lot of outdoor things such as camping, boating and helping in the garden. She also played basketball and spent a lot of time with her grandparents on the farm. Sam now lives in rural Maquoketa. She works at Imagine the Possibilities in DeWitt, Iowa.

“I remember one time when I was cooking in the kitchen with Mom and accidentally spilled a whole bag of flour on the counter and floor! Mom wasn’t too happy, and it took forever to clean up,” laughed Sam.

Each Christmas Ahren’s family gets together, but it’s not your average Christmas meal. Each year is different, with the night full of games and family time. Holiday meals consist of one big meal with a lot of homemade foods.

“Sitting down together at the table as a family is very important to me. Meals are meant to be spent together with your family at the kitchen table. There is no TV or other devices at the table,” comments Sam.

Sam prefers cooking over baking because she likes to be more creative when cooking. She likes using different seasonings since they prefer spicy over sweetness. Sam likes to browse Pinterest, watching videos on social media. She also enjoys looking through old cookbooks.

“Food brings people together. No matter how simple or complex the recipe is, cooking is relaxing and fun! Start cooking and make those special memories with your family!” advises Sam.

Banana Bread

2-3 medium (7” to 7-7/8” long) very ripe bananas, peeled (about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups mashed)

1/3 cup butter, unsalted or salted, melted

½ tsp. baking soda

1 pinch salt

¾ cup sugar (1/2 cup if you would like it less sweet, 1 cup if more sweet)

1 large egg, beaten

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), and butter a 4x8-inch loaf pan.

In a mixing bowl, mash the ripe bananas with a fork until completely smooth. Stir the melted butter into the mashed bananas.

Mix in the baking soda and salt. Stir in the sugar, beaten egg and vanilla extract. Mix in the flour. Pour the batter into your prepared loaf pan. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), or until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. A few dry crumbs are okay; streaks of wet batter are not. If the outside of the loaf is browned, but the center is still wet, loosely tent the loaf with foil and continue baking until the loaf is fully baked.

Remove from oven and let cool in the pan for a few minutes. Then remove the banana bread from the pan and let cool completely before serving. Slice and serve. (A bread knife helps to make slices that aren’t crumbly).


Crock Pot Mac and Cheese

16 ounce package macaroni, cooked

4 Tbs. olive oil

2 cans (12 ounce each) evaporated milk

2 cups milk

2 tsps. salt

4 cups cheddar cheese

2 cups Velveeta cheese, cut into 1-inch squares

4 Tbs. butter, melted

Cook the macaroni to the box directions. Drain it and then put it into your crockpot along with the butter and olive oil.

Mix the butter and olive oil into the macaroni until it is melted. Pour in the evaporated milk and milk; then the rest of the ingredients. Stir well. Place the lid onto the crock pot and turn it on low. Let it cook for an hour, stir and then let it cook for another hour.


Guacamole Dip

3 large (or 6 small) ripe avocados

½ medium onion, finely chopped

2 Tbs. chopped cilantro

4-5 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped

Juice of 2 limes

Salt and pepper per taste

Mix all ingredients well. Refrigerate.


Pickle Roll Ups

8 ounces cream cheese or whipped cream cheese

16 pickle spears

16 slices of ham

Lay slice of ham on hard surface. Spread about 1 tablespoon of cream cheese over the slice of ham. Lay pickle directly in the center of ham slice and roll up. Slice into equal parts. Store in refrigerator.


Bagel Dip

2 cups sour cream

2 cups mayonnaise

6 ounces chipped beef, (1 package) roughly chopped

1 ½ tsps. Accent seasoning

1 tsp. dried dill weed, plus more for garnish, optional

½ tsp. garlic powder

½ tsp. onion powder

6 bagels, cut into pieces for dipping

In a large bowl, combine sour cream, mayonnaise, chipped beef, Accent seasoning, dill weed, garlic powder and onion powder. Use a spatula to thoroughly mix everything together. If desired, hold out about 1 tablespoon of chipped beef for decorating the top of the dip. Serve immediately with bagels for dipping. If desired, garnish with a little extra chopped beef and dill weed for presentation.


Honey Garlic Chicken Thighs/Breasts

6 chicken thighs, bone in or out, with or without skin

Salt and pepper to season

2 tsps garlic powder

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1/3 cup honey

¼ cup water (or chicken broth)

2 Tbs. rice wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar, or any white vinegar)

1 Tbs.  soy sauce

Season chicken with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Set aside.

Heat a pan or skillet over medium-high heat; sear chicken thigh fillets or breast fillets on both sides until golden and cooked through.

For Bone-in Thighs:

Reduce heat after searing on both sides, cover skillet with a lid and continue cooking until the chicken is cooked through, while turning every 5 minutes until done. Drain most of the excess oil from the pan, leaving about 2 tablespoons of pan juice for added flavor for sauce.

For Sauce:

When chicken is done and cooked through, arrange chicken skin-side up in the pan (if cooking with skin); add the garlic between the chicken and fry until fragrant (about 30 seconds). Add the honey, water, vinegar and soy sauce. Increase heat to medium-high and continue to cook until the sauce reduces down and thickens slightly (about 3-4 minutes).


Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole

2 pounds frozen hash browns, cubed

16-ounce container of sour cream

2 cups shredded cheese (I use Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar)

1 can (10 ½ ounce) cream of chicken soup

1 tsp. kosher salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

2 Tbs. minced onion

¾ cup melted butter, divided

2 cups Corn Flakes, crushed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine frozen hash browns, sour cream, soup, salt, pepper, onion and ½ cup of the melted butter. Mix until thoroughly combined. Pour into a 9x13 baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine remaining ¼ cup melted butter with crushed corn flakes. Sprinkle over top of casserole.

Cover dish with foil and bake for about 60 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 5-10 minutes to add some crunch to the topping.


Rotel Dip

1 pound ground beef

1 can (10 ounce) of Rotel tomatoes

1 box of Velveeta cheese (16 ounce) – if you don’t have Velveeta cheese, you can substitute any type of processed cheese

Brown the ground beef in a large pot on medium heat. Once browned, add the whole can of Rotel tomatoes. Stir well and add the Velveeta cheese. I usually cut the Velveeta cheese into chunks first, so it melts faster, creating that gorgeous liquid gold queso dip we all know and love.

Serve warm along with your favorite dipping foods.


Fruit Pizza

1 roll (16.5 ounce) refrigerated Sugar Cookie Dough

1 package (8 ounce) cream cheese, softened

1/3 cup sugar

½ tsp. vanilla

2 Kiwifruit, peeled halved lengthwise and sliced

1 cup fresh strawberries, halved or quartered

1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

½ cup apple jelly

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 12-inch pizza pan with cooking spray. Break up cookie dough in pan; press dough evenly in bottom of pan to within ½ inch of edge. Bake 16 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on cooking rack, about 30 minutes. In a small bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and vanilla with electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy. Spread mixture over cooled crust. Arrange fruit over cream cheese. Stir jelly until smooth; spoon or brush over fruit. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour. To serve, cut into wedges or squares. Cover and refrigerate any remaining pizza.


Italian Tomato Cucumber Salad

2 medium cucumbers, sliced

1 large tomato, cut into wedges

1 small red onion, cut into thin strips

¼ cup Italian salad dressing or salad dressing of your choice

In a large bowl, combine the vegetables. Add dressing, toss to coat.