Food & Drink

Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, on Casseroles and Cooking for an Empty Nest

The Food Network favorite dishes about her new cookbook, seventies cuisine, and downsizing from dutch oven to saucepan

A portrait of a woman standing outside and wearing a black top

Photo: Ashley Alexander

Ree Drummond.

Food Network star and Oklahoma resident Ree Drummond recently released her new cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinner’s Ready!, which features 112 no-fuss recipes perfect for busy folks who don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen. Drummond spoke with Garden & Gun about the inspirations behind the book—and shared three recipes: Pickle Chicken Bites with Heavenly Maple Mustard, Rosemary Garlic Butter Bath Biscuits, and White Beans and Greens. She also broke down her approaches to feeding a crowd versus a party of one.

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Your show and new cookbook both feature numerous recipes influenced by the seventies, an era with a questionable culinary repertoire. How do you breathe new life into dishes like the ’70s Seafood Casserole?

I think for those of us—Gen X especially—who grew up in the seventies and eighties, the dishes our moms and grandmothers made back then hold a special place in our memories. We appreciate where food has gone and is going, but we also hold space for those old casseroles and creations that maybe wouldn’t pass muster with younger generations today. I occasionally bring them back here and there on my show, and when it’s something like a seafood casserole (with real seafood) or a seven-can soup, the result truly is delicious—even though the casserole is topped with potato chips and the soup is made from nothing but cans. Now, I draw the line on the seventies-era recipes that combine Vienna sausages with Jell-O, or other very unappetizing combos! The end result still has to be somewhat appealing to me. And my entire generation grew up seeing crushed potato chips on top of a simmering, bubbly casserole. 

You’re obviously a pro at feeding a crowd. Now that your kids are grown and not at home as much, have you had to adjust to cooking for a smaller number of people?

Oh, absolutely! This was a big adjustment for me, particularly when the last of our boys left for college. They were football players, so when they were suddenly gone, I couldn’t get it through my head that I didn’t have to buy family packs of chicken thighs and ground beef. It took a good three to four months for it to click, and now our day-to-day cooking is so calm and mangeable. I can use medium saucepans instead of seven-quart dutch ovens. [My husband Ladd] and I can split one rib-eye steak. A recipe of my ranch dressing lasts for a good ten days. It’s nice!

Do you have any tips for those struggling to cook for one or two? Can the recipes in your new book be scaled up or down?

All of my recipes are very easily halved, and many of them can also be frozen if made in the original quantity. In terms of folks struggling to adjust to cooking for one or two people, I think what clicked for me is envisioning the vessels I’d cook things in! As mentioned above, my whole cooking life was geared for huge stock pots, massive skillets, two or three sheet pans. Once I got comfortable subbing in good ol’ saucepans, smaller saute pans, and quarter (and even eighth!) sheet pans, the food quantities fell into place. If you use a big skillet, it’s natural to feel like you have to cover all the surface area. So think about the smaller vessels, and work backward from there. 

Also, when it comes to cooking for one, the freezer is your friend. Have plenty of freezer containers, plastic wrap, zipper bags on hand, and freeze what you don’t use or eat—both the raw ingredients and the finished dish. I’ve got a great little treasure chest of food in my freezer from the times I cooked more than Ladd and I could eat. 

On the other side of the spectrum, any tips for entertaining and feeding a crowd?

Make things ahead of time! When I have people over, I try hard to pick dishes I can make earlier in the day, and/or prep the day before. If it’s a sizable crowd, I work backward and see what I can prep three days ahead, then two days, then the day before. Even if it’s taking a stack of plates out of the cabinet and setting them on the table, that eliminates yet another step for the day of the party. 

Also, take it easy on yourself! When people come over to your house, they aren’t looking for perfection or to be wowed. They are looking for friendship and fellowship, and if you are smiling and enjoying yourself (as opposed to stressing and worrying) you will have created a memory for them. 

What’s a great hostess gift?

I love taking a little breakfast basket for the morning after the party. Grab a basket or pretty bowl, fill it with homemade scones (those are always good the next day), a jar of jam, a bag of coffee, a pretty dish towel. Your hostess will appreciate being able to wake up and have something to serve the family.

Could you tell us a bit about the three recipes we’re sharing? (Pickle Chicken Bites with Heavenly Maple Mustard; Rosemary Garlic Butter Bath Biscuits; White Beans and Greens)

The chicken bites are my at-home version of Chick-fil-A’s chicken nuggets. The pickle juice works magic on the chicken. And the maple mustard is a play on honey mustard; the flavor is complex and lovely.

The butter bath biscuits are ridiculous! It’s the method of dumping a quick biscuit dough (made with self-rising flour) into a pan of melted butter, and they just sort of bake and rise in the butter bath. They are a great “dinner roll,” or you can leave out the garlic and rosemary and enjoy them with butter and jelly for breakfast.

White beans and greens are just delicious. Not heavy, lots of elements that are good for you, but it really feels like you’re eating a dish that’s taken hours to make. I love eating this with the butter bath biscuits, by the way! A winning combo. 

Rapid fire: 

Pancakes or waffles? Impossible choice!

Favorite season in Oklahoma: Spring, around late April or early May. It is green like Ireland. 

One thing people need to know about Pawhuska, Oklahoma: We are always excited to see visitors! Everyone is always welcome. Pawhuska is quiet on Sundays; folks go to church and rest. Monday through Saturday is seriously fun! 

Shows you’re binge-watching: Ladd and I watched Suits and enjoyed it. We just watched a new World War II series on Netflix, and I think we’re about to go back to Game of Thrones for a third time. I missed a few things. 

Favorite cookbook (besides your own): Oh, too many to count! I really love my friends’ cookbooks: Gaby Dalkin, Maria Lichty, Deb Perelman, Joy Wilson; I feel like I’m hanging with them when I make their recipes. In terms of a cookbook I really used, Barefoot Contessa Family Style was an old favorite when the kids were little. I wrote her a fan letter at the time, because her recipes worked so well. 

Kitchen tool you couldn’t live without: Good knife. Fish spatula (which I use for everything but fish!). Wooden spoon. Flat whisk (for gravy).

Favorite flower: Dahlia. I grew them once and fell madly in love. I’m trying again this spring.

Bourbon or tequila? Tequila with lime and Topo Chico. 

Steak or seafood? Steak! 

Eggs: scrambled or fried? Fried 100 percent. I have to experience the yolk. 

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