‘Pioneer Woman’ brings the frontier to Pittsburgh

'Pioneer Woman' Ree Drummond and her family on the ranch/Photo courtesy of Ree Drummond

 

Ree Drummond wasn’t looking for celebrity when she sat down at the computer five years ago, created a blog on Blogger and started typing. Blessed with a few quiet hours free of children, she simply thought it might be fun to tell a few stories from the Oklahoma homefront — and as a cowboy wife and mother of four, she had some pretty good ones.

Eleven years before, she’d abandoned a plan to go to law school to marry the handsome rancher she’d met in a bar near her childhood home in a suburb north of Tulsa. And while the sprawling ranch on which her husband, Ladd, raises some 5,000 head of cattle had become home, she still sometimes felt like a fish out of water in the country, 20 miles from the nearest small town.

“It definitely was a transition,” recalls Ms. Drummond, chuckling about the unplanned rural life she’s shared with millions via her popular website The Pioneer Woman (thepioneerwoman.com). “In fact, that’s where the name came from. It was sort of tongue and cheek. Like, excuse me?”

Today, it might seem like any Tom, Dick or Harriet with an Internet connection and an urge to confess runs a personal blog. But back in 2006, Ms. Drummond — who at 4 p.m. on Monday will be signing copies of her new cookbook at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, her first visit to Pittsburgh — was very much on the frontier of the emerging medium.

Having briefly studied broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California, she was comfortable with an audience. So blogging, she says, “clicked” with her from the get-go.

Almost immediately, she had readers, lots of them, who delighted in her funny, self-deprecating posts on everything from homeschooling her children to wearing Pajama Pants to doing laundry and other household chores. The site, which includes sections on Entertainment, Home & Garden and Photography, also playfully explores the ins and outs of living on a working cattle ranch — “confessions” that allow readers — who wish they also could ditch the city rat race for the peace of the country — to dream of a life a little less hectic or ordinary.

Yet it wasn’t until Ms. Drummond started posting step-by-step cooking tutorials — how to cook a perfect steak, bake cornbread, layer a lasagna — that her site really took off. Something about the straightforwardness of her cooking, and the humor and patience with which the dimpled redhead went about it, struck an immediate chord. And the mouth-watering pictures she shot of the recipes weren’t too bad, either.

Maybe readers just liked the fact that unlike many food bloggers, Ms. Drummond didn’t take herself too seriously. As she puts it, “People know when the come to my site that they’re not going to get agitated. There’s no political subjects or debate. It’s a light, harmless place to stop by.”

A runaway hit on the blogosphere, Confessions of a Pioneer Woman took the top prize at the 2009 Bloggie awards, besting heavyweights such as the Huffington Post and PerezHilton.com. Eight months later, her first cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl” (William Morrow, $27.50), debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, followed by a top-selling children’s book about the family’s basset hound, Charlie, in 2011. Today, her site — it also won Bloggies for best weblog in 2010 and 2011 — gets almost 24 million page views per month, and more than 4 million unique visitors.

Naturally, producers for both the big and small screen have come knocking.

The movie rights to last year’s third book, “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels — A Love Story,” about her romance with Ladd, who she affectionately refers to in print as Marlboro Man, was optioned by Sony Pictures. (Reese Witherspoon is rumored to have signed on to star.) And in August, Ms. Drummond filmed her first season of “Pioneer Woman,” a cooking show on The Food Network, in her well-appointed guest house on the ranch.

“I know, it seems like it all happened so fast,” she says from the ranch near Pawhuska during a phone interview that started 10 minutes late because she was finishing up a project with her teenaged daughter. “But from my perspective, it’s been such a gradual thing, because one thing built to the next.”

Ms. Drummond admits it can get crazy, juggling so many different balls on a daily basis. Which is why every activity has to be put through the filter of, “Can I do this from home?”

But honestly, she kind of likes the chaos.

“I’m OK with going to bed at night with a hundred loose ends, because I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything done, because I can’t,” she says.

Besides, it’s not like she’s swamped with adoring fans anywhere but at book signings (Penguin Bookshop expects one of their biggest crowds this year, according to manager Kate Weiss-Duncan, so get there early). Internet notoriety is “a lot different” from mainstream notoriety, she insists.

“It’s hard to live where I live and get too lost in anything that’s going on,” she says. “If I’m noticed in town, it’s because I’m Alex and Paige’s mom.”

If anything, she has the same struggles as any working woman with children and a husband.

“We’re the nurturers and caregivers,” she says. “The thing I always have to work on is my family life and making sure that machine is running. That’s my most important role.”

That said, celebrity does come with a few perks. A quick tour of her Oklahoma home on Food Network’s website reveals a blond-wood kitchen most can only dream of: Along with two Bosch dishwashers and a ginormous Viking range and cooktop, it features long, continuous concrete countertops and a removable butcher block sink cover. Then again, she’s far from the average cook, with her blog generating an estimated $1 million in yearly ad revenue.

More relatable are her cookbooks, which feature the simple, family-style recipes you’d expect to see served on a ranch. Many are down-home family favorites passed down from both sides of the family, and she also serves up plenty of Tex-Mex dishes, as well as the occasional fancy dish for parties.

“If I lived alone, I would make a lot more foods with Asian flavors and fresh ginger and a lot of spice,” she says. “But my family loves Americanized dishes like lasagna and chicken Alfredo and vegetarian pastas. So I rock those dishes.”

She also loves braising meat and slow cooking in the oven, which helps explain her current love affair with short ribs.

For her latest cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier,” just released this week (William Morrow, $29.99), Ms. Drummond has upped the ante a bit, including recipes that are slightly more fancy and have a “bit of an edge to them” — Thai Chicken Pizza, Peach-Whiskey Chicken and Bananas Foster. What hasn’t changed is the format: the collection of soup, suppers, sides and sweets include her signature, easy-to-follow photographic instructions.

Accomplished cooks could argue some of the recipes aren’t recipes at all as much as good ideas put to paper. Her Tangy Tomato Brisket, for instance, calls for little more than mixing a bottle of ketchup or chili sauce with a package of dry onion soup mix, and a recipe for French Onion Soup was so simple that my teenaged daughter made it on her own while I was at work. But “gourmet” isn’t really the Pioneer Woman’s shtick.

Rather, her cookbooks appeal those who aren’t exactly where they want to be with cooking, and can benefit from seeing the process of how things are made.

“They give everyone confidence,” she says.

 

Ree Drummond will be at the Penguin Bookshop, 420 Beaver St., Sewickley, from 4 to 6 p.m. Mon., March 19, to sign copies of her latest cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier.” The store will start passing out complimentary signing tickets at 3:30 p.m., and books will be signed in the order in which you arrive at the store. For more information, call 412-741-3838 or visit penguinbookshop.com.


 

Barbecue Chicken and Pineapple Quesadillas

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Barbecue Chicken and Pineapple Quesadillas/Gretchen McKay

Maybe it’s because they’re twins, but both of my daughters picked this recipe as the one we just HAD to try. The family liked it so much, we ended up making it twice — first with fresh pineapple and then with canned pineapple chunks (equally delicious).

– Gretchen McKay

  • 1/2 pineapple
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to uniform thickness with a mallet or rolling pin
  • 1/3 cup barbecue sauce
  • 4 tablespoons butter, for frying
  • 8 small flour or corn tortillas
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced (I used jarred picked jalapenos)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
  • Sour cream, for serving
  • Pico de gallos or salsa, for serving

Soak 8 wooden skewers in water for at least an hour. Preheat grill.

Cut pineapple into 8 wedges. Cut off hard core and outer skin. Thread pieces of pineapple onto the skewers and grill over medium-high heat (I used an oven-top grill pan), turning once or twice during the grilling process. Remove pineapple from grill and slice into chunks. Set aside.

Salt and pepper the flattened chicken breasts, then grill over medium-high heat until done, about 4 minutes per side. Brush both sides generously with barbecue sauce. Remove from grill and slice thinly.

To assemble quesadillas: On top of 1 tortilla, place some chicken, some pineapple chunks, and some sliced jalapeno. Drizzle barbecue sauce over all the ingredients, then cover it all with grated cheese.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet. Top quesadilla with a second tortilla. Brown on one side, then carefully flip the quesadilla and brown the other side. Make sure all the cheese is melted! Repeat to make the rest of the quesadillas.

To serve, slice quesadillas into wedges. Serve with sour cream, pico de gallo and a wedge of grilled pinapple on top.

Serves 4.

– “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)


 

Roasted Cauliflower/Gretchen McKay

Roasted Cauliflower

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“Cauliflower is delicious raw, wonderful steamed . . . but miraculous roasted,” writes Ree Drummond in her latest cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier.” Having never tried the vegetable (“It looks like brains!” one child told me), my kids were skeptical. Then it came out of the oven and they gobbled up the entire bowl.

 

 

 

  • 1 cauliflower head, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Spread cauliflower on a large sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Toss cauliflower to coat evenly. Add salt and pepper.

Roast cauliflower for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown with some darker parts. Add bread crumbs to bowl. Pour in melted butter and toss to combine.

Place cauliflower in a medium baking dish, then mound the bread crumbs on top. Roast for 5 minutes, or until bread crumbs are golden brown on top.

Variations: Sprinkle with a little curry powder or cumin seeds before roasting. You also can add fresh herbs or grated cheese to the bread crumbs. Makes 4 servings.

– “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)


 

Coffee Cream Cake

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I substituted really strong brewed coffee for instant, which made for a lighter-colored cake.

– Gretchen McKay

For cake
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
  • 3 tablespoons instant coffee crystals
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk mixed with 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For creamy filling
  • 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
For coffee icing
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
  • 2 tablespoons instant coffee crystals
  • 4 tablespoons half-and-half
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly grease and flour 2 round 8- or 9-inch cake pans.

Coffee Cream Cake/Gretchen McKay

To make cake: Melt butter in a saucepan. Sprinkle in instant coffee and add boiling water. Let mixture bubble up for a few seconds, then turn off heat.

Add flour, sugar and salt to a large bowl. Pour hot butter/coffee mixture over the top and stir to combine.

Mix together buttermilk, eggs, baking soda and vanilla and pour into the bowl. Pour batter evenly into cake pans and bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until set. Remove pans from oven and allow cakes to cool inside the pans for 10 minutes, then invert the cake layers onto a work surface and allow to cool completely.

To make creamy filling: Add cream cheese to mixing bowl. Add powdered sugar and heavy cream. Beat until light and fluffy, then set aside.

To make coffee icing: Melt butter in saucepan and add instant coffee. Stir together, then add half-and-half and whisk to combine. Turn off heat. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Whisk well to make icing perfectly smooth, then let cool for 5 minutes.

When cake layers are completely cool, spread the creamy mixture on the bottom layer. Transfer to cake stand, then gently lay second layer on top. Drizzle coffee icing on top, allowing it to drip down the side. Swirl the icing around on the sides, then count how many seconds it takes you to cut a very enormous wedge and serve it to yourself. Makes a 2-layer cake.

– “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)


 

French Onion Soup

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Super easy, and super delicious. But you’re probably going to want to season it with a little salt before serving.

– Gretchen McKay

  • 4 large onions
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 4 cups low-sodium beef broth
  • 4 to 5 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Several thick slices French bread or baguette, drizzled with olive oil and toasted
  • 8 ounces Gruyere or Swiss cheese, sliced thick

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice onions in half from root to tip, then slice them up. Melt the butter in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onions, stir to coat, and then cook them, covered, for 20 minutes, or until translucent and soft. Place the pot into the oven with the lid slightly ajar.

Roast the onions for 1 hour, stirring twice to keep them from burning. (Some dark parts are fine.)

Return the pot to stovetop over medium heat and pour in the wine. Stir, scraping the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the wine reduces. Next, add chicken and beef broth, Worcestershire sauce and garlic.

Reduce heat to low and let soup simmer for 45 minutes.

To serve, turn on broiler. Ladle soup into ovenproof bowls. Place 1 or 2 pieces of toasted bread on top of soup, depending on size of bowl. Place a thick slice of cheese on top of each bowl, then place bowls on a cookie sheet and broil just long enough for the cheese to become melted, bubbly and slightly toasted on top.

Close your eyes. Savor the moment. Grab your spoon. Dig in!

Makes 8 servings.

– “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)

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