Treat family to delectable dishes from local excellent cooks

Photo courtesy of AnnaLee Gardner AnnaLee Gardner of Opelika enjoys cooking for her husband, Aaron, and their two children, Lillian, a second grader, and Miles, 3. She has been teaching the children how to cook. AnnaLee is one of three cooks sharing recipes that children will enjoy.

By Ann Cipperly

Now that school has started, the slower pace of summer is over. It’s back to the rush of getting to school or virtual classes online, homework and to bed early. Cooking a tasty, nourishing meal that children will enjoy can be challenging. Three excellent cooks are sharing family favorite recipes for delicious dishes that children (and grandchildren) will especially relish.

AnnaLee Gardner of Opelika has been teaching her daughter, Lillian, to cook since she was 2 years old. Lillian now attends second grade and helps her mother in the kitchen. AnnaLee’s son, Miles, is 3 and learning to cook.

AnnaLee enjoys adapting and creating her own recipes. She is sharing three of their favorite recipes. Two of the recipes can be prepped and frozen for a quick meal later.

A former teacher, AnnaLee currently works part-time with Cordoba’s Landscaping Construction as the landscape maintenance manager. Her husband Aaron is employed at East Alabama Medical Center as a nurse anesthetist.

Amanda Wunderlich homeschools her five children, Emma, David, Ethan, Liya and Jack. She has had a love of cooking ever since she was young. Amanda has a degree in restaurant and hotel management from Auburn University and baked cakes for the original Gourmet Tiger for a few years. Her husband, Jared, is a pharmacist.

The children enjoy spaghetti and tacos so much that she makes them almost every week. She is sharing two recipes that they also enjoy, Bacon Corn Pasta and Sheet Pan Fajitas.

Amanda doesn’t make many casseroles since Liya is allergic to cheese. Skillet recipes are easier to adapt because she can take out some for Liya before adding dairy at the end.

Connie Collier Pearson is sharing recipes that have “stood the test of time” with her children and grandchildren. Connie’s husband, Dr. Steve Pearson, is semi-retired but still practices veterinary medicine two days a week in Hartselle. He is a 1972 graduate of Auburn veterinary school, while Connie graduated from Auburn in 1971, and two of their three children are Auburn graduates.

Generally, the Pearsons visit our area to attend Auburn football games and they have friends here. Connie graduated high school in the same class with Judy and Jere Colley of Opelika.

Connie and I met at a media event for travel writers in South Carolina. We discovered that along with travel writing we both have a love of cooking for our families. Since Connie has a big family with 14 grandchildren and number 15 is due in November. I felt she had plenty of special recipes children will enjoy, as will the entire family.  

Connie likes making casseroles and often uses convenient products. While she enjoys cooking, Connie anticipates sitting around the table for conversation with food being important but secondary to the interaction and sharing.

Before becoming a travel writer, Connie was a private piano teacher, a public-school music teacher, then a Southern Baptist missionary in Ecuador. She is now on her fourth career.

While both of us are grounded from traveling now, you can read about the places Connie has been on her blog (

Look over the following recipes and enhance meals this coming week with these dishes for wonderful suppers with your family.

Ann can be reached at

Bacon Corn Pasta

Amanda Wunderlich

Adapted from Cook’s Country

This recipe comes together quickly, and it is very adaptable. Many times I’ll add leftover chicken or shrimp at the end.

1 lb. campenelle or penne pasta

8 slices of bacon, chopped

12 oz. bag frozen corn, thawed

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1/3 cup grated Parmesan

Cooked chicken or shrimp, chopped, optional

Bring large pot of water to a boil and add the pasta and a tablespoon of salt to the water. Boil until the pasta is al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water before draining pasta and returning to the pot.

Meanwhile, cook chopped bacon in a skillet until crispy. Remove the bacon and reserve 2 Tbsp. of bacon fat in the skillet.

Add corn and 1 tsp. salt to the skillet with the bacon fat and sauté until bright yellow. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add cream, 1/4 cup basil, 1 tsp. pepper and simmer until slightly thickened.

Pour sauce over the pasta and add the parmesan, bacon, remaining 1/4 cup basil, and the reserved cooking water. Stir well until combined. Add chicken or shrimp if desired.

Sheet Pan Chicken Fajitas

Amanda Wunderlich

Adapted from Our Best Bites

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into strips

1 onion, sliced

2 bell peppers, sliced

3-4 Tbsp. olive or canola oil

2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. smoked paprika

1 1/2 tsp. cumin

1 1/2 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. oregano

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 lime

1 bunch cilantro, chopped


Toppings such as sour cream, cheese, guacamole

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a half sheet pan with nonstick spray. Mix the salt and all the spices together in a small bowl.

In a large bowl, place chicken, onion and bell peppers. Drizzle oil and sprinkle spices over the chicken mixture. Toss to coat evenly.

Spread the mixture on the sheet pan in an even layer and roast about 20 to 25 minutes or until chicken is done. Squeeze lime juice and sprinkle cilantro over everything. Serve with tortillas and toppings.

Easy Pineapple Tacos

AnnaLee Gardner

1 to 1 1/2 lbs. ground beef

Taco seasoning of your choice (I use the mix below)

1 cup pineapple fruit cup with juice (I use the kids lunch cups)

Flour tortillas

Toppings: salsa, lime juice, sour cream

If you plan to use the taco seasoning listed below, be sure to salt and pepper your meat as you brown it. Cook through and drain the beef and add the seasoning mix.

Pour the container of pineapple in juice into meat mixture. If you are making more than 1 pound of meat, you may want to use 2 of the small pineapple cups. The juice will make the sauce with your seasoning. Allow to simmer for a few minutes.

Serve the meat mixture on flour tortillas with your salsa of choice (mango or pineapple salsas are good), lime juice, sour cream, salt and pepper to taste.

Taco Seasoning

2 tsp. chili powder

1 and 1/2 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. onion powder

Remember to season your meat with salt and pepper first. Mix this and sprinkle desired amount on meat. Add more chili powder for a kick.

Pepper Steak for Freezer or Cook Same Day

AnnaLee Gardner

2 lb. top round steak

1 bell pepper, seeded and sliced

1/4 cup reduced sodium soy sauce

1 Tbsp. garlic powder

2 tsp. onion powder

1/8-1/4 tsp. ginger (your preference)

1/8 cup sugar (only use 1 Tbsp. for keto)

1 can 14.5 oz. diced tomatoes

1/2 cup water

1 Tbsp. cornstarch (only use 1 tsp. for keto)

Ziplock freezer bag

Place steak in a gallon size freezer bag. In a measuring cup, mix soy, water and seasoning. Next whisk in sugar and cornstarch to mixture.

Pour marinade over steak in the Ziplock bag. Add tomatoes and sliced peppers to the bag. Press out air and seal.

To cook the same day, allow steak to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours if you can. I have cooked it immediately after mixing, but the marinade is better over time. If you are making freezer meals for later, label Ziplock bag and freeze. Cook entire bag in a slow cooker for 6 to 8 hours on low.

Serve over rice. If frozen, thaw overnight and cook as directed. I have also subbed chicken for the steak, and it’s good too!

Stromboli for Now or Freeze for Later

AnnaLee Gardner

8 oz.  ricotta cheese

Italian seasoning, to taste

Garlic powder, to taste

1 refrigerated pizza crust

Pizza toppings of choice

1 bag mozzarella shredded cheese or Italian mix cheese

Small pizza sauce for dipping

In a bowl, mix ricotta cheese and desired amount of Italian seasoning and garlic powder to taste.

On a large space or cutting board, line your work surface with non-stick foil. Press out pizza crust into a rectangle over the foiled workspace. Spread the crust with the ricotta mixture. Leave a 1/2 to 1-inch edge all around the crust.

Top ricotta with desired pizza toppings (we like pepperoni and olives), then top with most or all of the cheese. Fold the long edges to the center and press them together in the middle. pinch middle and both ends together.

You may bake then or wrap it in 2 layers of foil, label and freeze for later.

When I make these, I usually make two and freeze one for later. If frozen thaw overnight, unwrap foil and place on a baking sheet. Bake in the oven on 400 for 15 minutes, remove from the oven and brush with melted butter and sprinkle with 3 Tbsp.  Parmesan cheese. Bake for an additional 5 minutes.

Allow to cool for a few minutes and cut into slices and serve with marinara.

Note: I find when it is frozen sometimes the cook time will vary. I usually cook on 300 for 5 minutes and then bake at 350 and tent with tin foil if it gets too brown.

4-Ingredient Chocolate Chip Cookies

Connie Collier Pearson

This is a must have recipe if you are a member of the Grandmother Club. As a member of that esteemed club for almost 20 years, I always keep the ingredients handy. Not only are these happy treats to have ready when grands walk through the door, they are perfect when you have a few who want to join you in the kitchen and “help.” It is a no-fail recipe that is guaranteed to produce happy memories.

1 box cake mix – yellow, white, German chocolate, chocolate, almost any kind will do

2 eggs

½ cup vegetable oil

2 cups chocolate chips or white chocolate chips, or peanut butter chips or even M & M’s that match the season (red/white/blue for 4th of July, red/green for Christmas, brown/yellow/orange for fall, etc.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a cookie sheet.

Mix first three ingredients together until smooth, then fold in chocolate chips.

Drop by spoonful onto the cookie sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while the next batch bakes. Makes about 3 dozen.

Baked Italian Spaghetti

Connie Collier Pearson

This is a very economical way to serve a lot of people. I often double the recipe because I can always freeze the leftovers – if there are any.

For the grandkids, I would probably leave off the bell pepper and then just serve this with garlic bread and lots of napkins. They would be happy campers.

I take it to families at church, and I serve it frequently to guests.

1 large (15 oz.) can tomato sauce

1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste

1 lb. lean ground beef

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pkg. dry spaghetti sauce mix (deepens the flavors)

3 cup water

1 large bell pepper, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

8 oz. thin spaghetti

2 ½ – 3 cups cheddar cheese, grated

In a large skillet or pot, brown ground beef, chopped onion and chopped bell pepper. Add remaining ingredients except spaghetti and cheese. Simmer slowly for 2 hours, adding more water when necessary. Cook spaghetti until tender. Drain and rinse.

Coat a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish, with non-stick spray, then spread the spaghetti on the bottom. Top with sauce, then with grated cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees until it is bubbly and the cheese is melted. It will take much less time to bake if you put it in the oven just after you finish the other steps. If you prepare it the day before, take it out of the refrigerator in time to come to room temperature. Then bake about 25 to 30 minutes. Serves 7-8 people.

Easy Chicken Pot Pie

Connie Collier Pearson

This recipe was given to me by a fellow teacher. I fix this when I am tired and just want something comforting and easy. With this and a quick salad, we are set. If you use canned chicken, you can always have the ingredients in your pantry.

1 can Veg-All, drained

1 can cream of mushroom soup

1 can chicken broth

2 chicken breasts, cooked and chopped (or use 1 or 2 cans of chicken)

Mix those 4 ingredients together and pour into a greased 13 x 9-inch casserole dish.

Then, mix:

1 cup Bisquick

2/3 stick butter, melted

1 cup milk

Pour over the chicken mixture and bake at 375 degrees for about an hour, or until bubbly and brown on top.

Hungry Jack Casserole

Connie Collier Pearson

This is great for hungry children and teenagers. Try doubling this recipe (everything except the biscuits) and use a 9 by 13-inch dish.

Our daughters now serve this often in their own homes, and it is a big hit with the Cousins Camp crew every year. It is a hit to take to new moms or friends having a crisis.

1 lb. ground beef

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. salt

16 oz. can pork and beans, not drained

1 Tbsp. onion, minced

¾ cup barbecue sauce

1 can flaky biscuits (probably was originally Hungry Jack biscuits.)

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Brown meat; drain. Stir in sugar, salt, beans, onion and barbecue sauce and pour into a casserole dish. Cut biscuits in half. Place cut side down around edge of casserole. Sprinkle with cheese.

Bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until brown. Serves about 4.

Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

Connie Collier Pearson

I always try to keep the ingredients for this cake on hand. It is great for grandkids and taking to friends who need a pick-me-up.  For my daughter, who is a chocoholic, I smear on a can of prepared chocolate frosting after it cools, rather than merely dusting it with confectioner’s sugar.

1 box yellow cake mix

1 (3.9 oz.) instant chocolate pudding mix

1 (8 oz.) container sour cream

½ cup vegetable oil

½ cup water

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt pan or spray with non-stick spray.

In a large bowl, put cake mix, pudding mix, sour cream, oil, water, and eggs and beat at low speed for about 30 seconds. Increase speed and mix for another 3 minutes. Fold in the chocolate chips and pour into prepared Bundt pan.

Bake about 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove cake onto a wire rake to cool completely, about 1 hour. Lightly dust (or thickly dust) with confectioner’s sugar. Serves 12.

Tasty Layered Salad

Connie Collier Pearson

I always get compliments on this salad. Once I served it to some neighbors, and the husband asked for a plastic carry-out bowl to take with him for his lunch the next day. That felt like high praise.

1 small head lettuce, chopped

10 oz. pkg. frozen green peas

1 head cauliflower, chopped

½ lb. bacon, fried crisp and crumbled (go ahead and fry more if you would like – it is hard to have too much    bacon)

1 envelope Good Seasons dry Italian dressing mix

1 ½ cups to 2 cups mayonnaise

2-3 cups cheddar cheese, grated

Layer ingredients in a large salad bowl in the order listed, spreading the mayonnaise to “seal” the salad.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate overnight.

Toss just before serving.

Note: Connie sprinkles the dry Italian dressing mix over the lettuce, peas, cauliflower and bacon, then covers with the mayonnaise and cheese. You can mix the dry dressing mix and mayonnaise together, but Connie feels the vegetables have more of the flavor with it sprinkled over them

My Mother’s Special Orange Congealed Salad

Connie Collier Pearson

This recipe brings back beautiful memories of loving times at my mother’s table. I hope you will enjoy it too.

2 small boxes orange Jell-O (or 1 lemon and 1 orange)

1 ½ cups hot water

1 ½ cups cold water

1 small can crushed pineapple, drain and reserve juice

3 bananas, chopped

1 cup miniature marshmallows.

Mix hot water and Jell-O, let cool for a few minutes. Add cold water, pineapple, bananas and marshmallows. Pour into a casserole dish and place in refrigerator to congeal. When it has congealed, make this next layer.

Reserved pineapple juice

½ cup sugar

2 Tbsp. flour

1 well-beaten egg

Cook until thick in a double boiler. Let cool, then spread over Jell-O.

Top Layer

Whipped cream or 9 oz. Cool Whip

2 cups grated mild cheddar cheese, grated

Spread whipped cream or 8 oz. Cool Whip on top of cooked layer and spread generously with mild cheddar cheese (about 2 cups). Refrigerate.


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