During the fall, VanHerzeele loves to make ‘comfort food’

Lisa Depies
Lee VanHerzeele takes a homemade pie out of the oven.

Lee VanHerzeele of Geneseo loves autumn and since that time of year is fast approaching,  she is getting all of her favorite fall recipes together. “I love to cook and my favorite time of year is fall when I can get into the kitchen and fix cool weather comfort food,” she said. “I like the cooler weather and the crisp days.”

Lee has resided in her current Geneseo home for 10 years, having moved there from Atkinson.

Born and raised on a farm near Henry, Lee says she has always loved to cook, since she was a youngster. “I come from a large family and my mother was really too busy to teach me about cooking, but I watched how she did it and taught myself,” she said.

As a teenager, Lee recalls she worked for a neighboring family one summer. “And they were big eaters,” she laughs. “I did all the work, the wife had a bad back so she couldn’t do much of the housework or cooking, so I did it all.”

The family lived about five miles from Lee’s home so she lived with them the entire summer. “I did all their meals, nothing out of a box, and I worked from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. I loved it,” she said.

“They were wonderful people.” Lee adds she also cooked for their hired man and took care of over 200 chickens on the farm.

“I got $3 a week and I thought that was great,” she recalls, adding by the end of the summer she had worked her way up to $10 a week. “I thought I did really well.”

That was during World War II, and Lee said she cooked a full breakfast for the family, along with a full dinner and full supper. “Sometimes the evening meal would be a little lighter meal,” she said, remembering meals of fried chicken, roasts, meatloaf or pork chops. “And we always had potatoes and gravy and vegetables with the meals,” she said.

Breakfast would always be bacon, eggs, toast, grapefruit and cereal. “Then I would make things like coffee cake or cookies for their morning and afternoon breaks,” she said. “That’s where I got my experience in cooking and cleaning and those are good memories for me.”

Lee has also always loved being outdoors and gardening. “I used to always have a big garden. I’m an outdoor person — always have been,” she said. “If I could find someplace I could put a garden in, I did.”

At one time, Lee and her late husband, John VanHerzeele, had two 60x90 foot gardens at their Atkinson home and planted every kind of vegetable. “We had all the regular vegetables in our garden — cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuce, onions — and we also planted different things, like okra and eggplant.” Lee adds one of her favorite vegetables is okra, but warns,

“You’ve got to ‘catch’ the okra at the right time because it can get old on you really quickly. I was just always glad to be able to be outdoors.”

Lee continued gardening until recently, planting such staples as tomatoes, lettuce, green pepper and onions. “But I finally had to give it up,” she said.

Canning and freezing her garden produce, Lee said she has always “put up” favorites like tomatoes, green beans and sweet corn and, because they had an orchard, she canned apples and froze cherries to be used in pies.

“I made my own apple pie filling and when you make a pie with the canned filling, it tastes just like you used fresh apples,” she said. “I always liked to can. I took after my mother I guess, she did a lot of canning.”

Lee’s family includes children, Judy and Roy VanOpdorp of Atkinson; Jerry Poff of Princeton; Kelly and Danny Callison of Geneseo and Randy and Pam Poff of Atkinson; seven grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren and “one on the way any time now.”

Proud of the fact that all her children are good cooks, Lee said they each have their specialty.

“Christmas has always been our time to get together, although it can be difficult finding the time to gather together,” Lee said. “For the holiday I’ve always done the turkey, dressing and pies and everyone brings something to add to the meal.” Requested pies for the holiday are almost always lemon meringue, pecan and chocolate. “I like to fix their favorite things,” she said.

According to Lee, she and her husband, John, enjoyed hunting and fishing. “I always liked to cook the wild game when we had it,” she said.

“We’ve been hunting in Colorado, and I just love it there. I would go up into the Colorado mountains with my gun and hunt, and we ate everything we hunted.” Lee said she got a deer one year and that was a thrill for her. “I love the mountains and I love Colorado,” she said. “The scenery is just beautiful and it is so peaceful.”

Lee has lots of fond memories of her hunting days. “I remember one time I got two squirrels, but when I took them home there as no one around to help clean them,” she laughs. “It took me two hours, but I got them cleaned. I had to learn how, but I got it done.” Lee adds it always made her feel special when her husband would tell her he never saw anyone who could make a good meal in half an hour like she could.

One of her favorite things to bake is homemade pie and Lee says if she goes to a potluck she will usually take a casserole and a homemade pie. “I had some apples that were getting old today, but I didn’t have enough for a pie so I mixed them with a couple of sliced pears and made an apple/pear pie,” she said. “I don’t use a recipe a lot. I make up my own recipes I guess.”

Lee has entered contests with her pies and, a few years ago, won first place in the Atkinson Heritage Days pie contest and auction, sponsored by the Atkinson Women’s Club and held during the village’s annual Heritage Days celebration. “I was so surprised when I won that contest. I entered an apricot pie. It was made with canned apricots,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled.”

Occasionally, Lee said she will mix fruit like she did with her apple/pear pie. “I’ve made peach/apricot pies because I think those flavors go well together,” she said, adding she likes to share her recipes, with one exception — her secret pie crust recipe.

“I make my homemade crust from a secret recipe,” she laughs. “I’ve told the kids I’m making a little recipe book, and I’m including all my favorite recipes and that pie crust recipe is in there. Someday they’ll have it, but right now it’s my secret.”

Lee said her favorite dessert is pie and she says her pies are probably her specialty. “When people like what I do that makes me feel like I’m here for a reason,” she said.

Besides cooking, Lee’s hobbies include sewing and doing crafts, music and reading. “I love to read and I’ve read over 150 books already this year. I get them at the library,” she said.

For about five years, when Lee was in her 20s, she had a country music band where she played the guitar and sang, she had two lead guitars, one bass and a steel guitar in the band.

“I’ve visited with Sonny James and I remember seeing Brenda Lee when she was about 9 years old,” she remembers, adding she still enjoys country music. “I’ve had so many experiences in my life I sometimes say I could write a book about it all!”

If she had to pick a favorite meal, Lee laughs that it would probably be pork and beans over cottage cheese. “People can’t believe it, but that is one of my favorite things. And it is great,” she said.

She also likes meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, noting if she makes a meatloaf she has something for several meals. “Then I can have a meatloaf sandwich with the mashed potatoes and gravy,” she said.

Admitting she likes to keep recipes as simple as possible, Lee said she makes meatloaf with just hamburger, chopped onion (“Sometimes I add onion, sometimes I don’t.”), egg, cracker crumbs and ketchup. “I like to keep things simple,” she said.

Tuna noodle casserole is one of her favorite casseroles and to make it Lee first cooks noodles, then adds peas, tuna, and a can of cream of mushroom soup along with some milk to get the right consistency. “I put it in a casserole dish and cover it with crushed butter cracker crumbs then bake it until it’s done,” she said.

Lee admits she is a “big” fan of garlic. “I use garlic in everything,” she said. “I often laugh that if I could put garlic on ice cream I would.”

Garlic is one of the key ingredients in her homemade spaghetti sauce, another recipe she says is very simple to prepare. “I just brown hamburger with onion and garlic (of course), salt and pepper. Then I add a can of tomato soup and a can of diced or crushed tomatoes and let it simmer for a while,” she said. “The secret ingredient in my spaghetti sauce is to add just a little sugar. That is the secret to good spaghetti sauce. It takes away the acidity of the tomatoes.”

Lee adds the house smells so good when you’re cooking something that has to simmer for a while.

“I don’t mind cooking just for myself,” she said, adding she has a small crockpot that she uses for that purpose. “I might put a layer of potatoes, green beans and carrots in the bottom of the crockpot and covering it with a slice of ham,” she said. “Or I might put a chicken breast in the crockpot and cover it with cream of chicken soup and maybe some frozen vegetables. I put the crockpot on high for four hours and my meal is ready.”

Lee has an electric quesadilla maker that she uses in a variety of ways. “The other day I put a tortilla in it, then spread some peanut butter and honey on top and added some sliced bananas,” she said. “You just heat it up and then it’s done. If I’m not very hungry that is just enough for a nice meal.”

Lee said she usually uses butter in her cooking for the flavor it adds. “I usually put pats of butter on my pie filling before I put on the top crust,” she said.

Getting a tasty meal on the table is much more important to Lee than the presentation. “The food has to taste good, that’s what matters the most to me.”

Lee VanHerzeele shares some of her favorite fall recipes.

Quick no-bake stuffed peppers

Lee VanHerzeele

4-6 large green peppers

1 lb. ground beef

1-8 oz. can tomato sauce

2/3 C. grated cheddar cheese

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 t. garlic salt

1 C. instant rice, cooked

Cut peppers in half and remove stems, seeds and membrane.

Boil peppers in pot of waer 15 minutes or until fork tender. Set aside.

Cook meat until done, drain off grease. Stir in tomato sauce, cheese, seasonings and rice. Simmer and stir until cheese has melted and mixture is hot.

Spoon into hot cooked peppers.

Put four to six halves in pie plate. Cover with foil, put in gallon freezer bags and freeze.

Heat and serve after freezing.

Creamy sweet potato pie

Lee VanHerzeele

1 can (15 oz.) sweet potatoes, drained and mashed

1-1/2 C. milk (2%)

1 pkg. (4 oz.) vanilla pudding, not instant

2 T. sugar

1/2 t. cinnamon

1/4 t. ginger

1/4 t. nutmeg

Combine pudding, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, milk and sweet potatoes in saucepan.

Cook, stirring, to full boil.

Remove from heat. Cool five minutes, stirring once or twice.

Pour in baked pie shell. When completely cool, add whipped cream topping and sprinkle with crushed nut meats of choice (optional).

Sauerkraut salad

Lee VanHerzeele

1 can Franks sauerkraut, drained

1/2 C. diced green pepper

1/2 C. diced red pepper

1 C. diced celery

1/2 C. chopped onion


1 C. sugar

2 T. cooking oil

1/4 C. white vinegar

Mix with salad and chill.

Note: “I usually rinse sauerkraut with a little water if too salty. Drain. This salad will keep in refrigerator for days and still be delicious.”

Fried turtle

Lee VanHerzeele

Heat oil (to cover bottom of skillet) on high until hot.

Dip turtle into flour seasoned with salt and pepper.

Brown turtle on both sides.

Transfer turtle to a roaster with small amount of water added.

Steam for about three hours on low.

Season with a little garlic, salt and herbs (optional).