Rodgers enjoy entertaining guests all summer long

Jerilyn VanDeWoestyne
Linda Rodgers of Geneseo prepares to serve guests at her lake home at Oak Run near Galesburg.

Many area residents know and recognize Linda Rodgers of Geneseo as the “basket lady” due to her 25-year involvement with Longaberger Baskets

What some people might not  know is that Linda is an extremely talented cook and a gracious hostess who enjoys sharing her home with friends and family.

Linda and her husband, Jerry, reside in rural Geneseo and have a second home (a lake home) at Oak Run, near Galesburg. Linda spends most of the warm weather months at their lake home, a place Jerry goes to when he can get some time away from his farming operation.

They purchased the home several years ago and, about four years ago decided it was time to do some remodeling. “I didn’t have a dishwasher so I wanted to put that in and then one thing led to another — by the time we were done we had done some extensive remodeling,” she laughs. “It all began with the need for a dishwasher.”

The Rodgers’ take pride in and enjoy the almost constant weekend entertaining they do.

“There are very, very few weekends where there aren’t people here,” Linda said, adding that is one of the reasons she enjoys her home so much. “I love the fact that our children love to come here and bring their families and friends. It just warms my heart.”

Linda and Jerry have been married 37 years and have three children. Their son, Jay, is a dentist, and lives in Chicago with his wife, Jodie, and their three children, Drew, almost 3, and twins, Jack and Ava, almost 14 months; son Jon lives in San Francisco, Calif. where he is employed at Kone, and is planning a September wedding with his fiancée; and daughter, Lindsay lives in Chicago and is an event planner. “Lindsay comes almost every weekend and she is a phenomenal cook, a lot more adventurous than I am,” Linda said, adding all three of her children are very comfortable in the kitchen.

“Jay hosts a pie bake-off every year the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and then takes the pies to work the following day for his co-workers to enjoy. They love it. Most of them don’t cook much at all so they really enjoy homemade pie.”

The entertaining Linda and Jerry do is mostly on the weekends, but their guests might come on Thursday and stay until Monday, so when she plans meals, Linda needs to be prepared for a few days of cooking.

“We’ve served as many as 275 plates of food during a long weekend,” Linda laughs. “So I am really forced to be organized in my grocery shopping and menu planning. We have a little convenience store at Oak Run for the necessities, but I try to bring the majority of my groceries and supplies with me.”

Entertaining guests is something both Linda and Jerry enjoy doing and they have it down to a science. “We always serve buffet style. I have baskets for silverware, napkins, and condiments and when I’m ready to serve a meal, I just pull out the baskets and put them on the countertop along with the food and call everyone to dinner,” Linda said. “I know which baskets are for which items, and I use the same ones every time I serve a meal. I don’t have to wonder what I’m going to serve something in, it just comes naturally.”

Serving buffet style, however, doesn’t mean the meals are all identical. To give texture and eye-appeal to the food she is serving, Linda arranges the dishes at different levels and heights, not all on a flat surface.

The most Linda and Jerry have entertained for the weekend was 14 at one time. “They were overnight guests, and the rule here is the older guests get the beds,” Linda laughs. The Rodgers’ lake home has four bedrooms and three full baths. “So we can accommodate quite a few people comfortably.”

And with as much entertaining as they do, Linda is really enjoying her  renovated state-of-the-art kitchen.

The kitchen includes an induction stovetop along with warming drawers under the oven to keep dishes warm while the meal is being completed. Linda basically designed the kitchen herself. “I had a good idea of what I wanted to have in my kitchen and how I wanted it to look, and it turned out just the way I had envisioned it,” she said.

Since their son, Jon, will be married in September, the Rodgers’ hosted a bachelor party for him recently. Linda wasn’t in residence for that weekend, as she was attending a bachelorette party for her future daughter-in-law in Texas.

“We had 30 of Jon’s friends here, and we cooked a whole hog,” Jerry said. “It was fun and by the end of the weekend, we had consumed every bit of that pork.”

Linda enjoys cooking, but said she is not a gourmet cook. “I’m a basic farm cook. I grew up on a farm near Decatur, and my mother is an excellent cook,” she said, adding she is a home ec major, but said what she’s learned about cooking, she learned mostly from her mother.

“I haven’t made a souffle since college and one of the first meals I made for Jerry was when I was a junior in college. I fixed a white fish and cauliflower,” she laughs. “It was a completely white plate, no color. I’ve never repeated that meal.”

Since that time, presentation has become very important to Linda. “For 25 years now, since I started in the Longaberger business, I’ve thought about my baskets and what food would look good in what basket,” she said. “I do think about color on a plate.”

Linda introduced the Longaberger Basket collection to the area in 1984 and has been involved with the company since that time. She is currently the company’s National Sales Leader at the top level. Longaberger headquarters are in Dresden, Ohio, a town about the size of Atkinson. “I’ll be going to a convention there next week,” she said.

Linda remembers how her relationship with Longaberger began. “Jerry and his father were working on a tractor in the farm yard one summer day and I went out and told him I thought I wanted to sell ‘those baskets’ but I would need about $500 to get started,” she said. “He said that was OK, but he would charge interest for the loan — and that was going to be two rhubarb cream pies, his favorite dessert. I agreed and actually paid him back pretty quickly.” Linda said she has shared that story many times throughout the past 25 years.

At one time she was in charge of 3,000 Longaberger consultants from 49 states. Currently doing most of her work from her home office, Linda said Longaberger has been very good for her and her family. “Longaberger has been life changing for us. We certainly wouldn’t have a second home like we do and it put the kids through college,” she said, adding she’s made some of her best friends through Longaberger.

“When I started, I was just going to do it for a couple of months to get the baskets I wanted,” she laughs.

With all the entertaining she does, Linda finds it much easier if she keeps a list of her grocery needs and also of her menu plans. “Lindsay got me started with a spreadsheet-type of grocery list. She found it on Ina Garten’s (The Barefoot Contessa) Web site,” Linda said. “Lindsay is very organized, and she has inspired me to be more organized.”

With the grocery list, items are categorized into produce, meat, shelf, dairy, freezer and miscellaneous. “When  I run out of something I just put it on the shopping list under the correct category so when I go shopping I know where to begin and what I need,” Linda said, adding her daughter also reads reviews of recipes on line and lets her know when she finds a recipe she thinks her mother might like.

Linda keeps all her favorite recipes in a three-ring binder that is categorized. The binder, which includes a picture page of family photos on the front cover, also includes a “Family Week Meal Plan” and lists all the meals she will be serving, who will be their guests and what the guests will furnish for the meal.

“I’m not shy about letting people bring things,” she said. “I like to get people involved with meal prearation when we have guests. I think that’s a good way to connect. If we’re doing pizza, I like to have everyone do their favorite pizza with their favorite toppings.”

One of her favorite pizzas is made with homemade pesto, grilled chicken, green onions and

fresh mozzarella cheese. “When you serve it you sprinkle on fresh cilantro. That is a great pizza,” she said. “Or we might have turkey pepperoni pizza. The turkey pepperoni tastes just like regular pepperoni. It is very light but very good.”

Linda makes the homemade pesto from basil she grows in  her garden. “I also like to do sandwiches with the fresh pesto mixed with mayonnaise and then layered on buns with ham and slices of provolone cheese,” she said, adding the sandwiches are wrapped in foil and served picnic style for lunch when they take their pontoon boat out for the day.

Linda likes to “buddy” people up and maybe get two or three people to work together on a project like a pizza. “That’s a lot of fun and gets everyone involved in the kitchen,” she said.

Linda said one of her flaws is overstocking her pantry and refrigerator. “I probably overbuy. In fact Jerry says we need inventory control,” she laughs. “We have three refrigerators here — one in the garage, one in the basement and one in the kitchen — so it’s sometimes difficult to remember what is where.”

If a guest asks what they can bring to a meal, Linda might tell them to bring one lunch and one breakfast. “That helps a lot when we’re entertaining for a weekend and when the guests arrive they just put the groceries away in any one of the refrigerators,” she said. “If I make entertaining too difficult, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I do and it wouldn’t be fun. I’m all about making people happy. I want to be a gracious hostess.”

There are a couple of items, Linda said she almost always has on hand in her refrigerator and freezer. “I always, always have a batch of Bran Bucket of Muffins in the refrigerator. Each bucket makes 58 muffins, and I’m on my fourth bucket of it this summer,” she said. “You make the recipe for muffins and keep it in a gallon container and then when you want to make muffins, whether just a couple or for a large group, you just scoop the batter out with an ice cream scoop and fill muffin tins, then bake them. Very easy and very handy, and the batter will keep in the refrigerator for at least six weeks.”

The other item Linda likes to keep on hand in the freezer is fruit slush made with frozen orange juice, bananas and fruit. “That is another item that lasts a long time. You just take it out and defrost it enough for it to be slushy and you can serve it for breakfast with the fresh muffins,” she said.

Another popular breakfast menu, and one they do at least once a weekend, is bacon and eggs on the grill. Jerry mans the grill and does the scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet on a side burner of his grill then  places the bacon right on the grill, watching it closely. “While Jerry is doing the bacon and eggs on the deck, I will stand in the kitchen fixing English muffins in the toaster,” Linda said.

One of their favorite sources for meat, especially pork, is Weber’s Meats in Geneseo. “We especially love Weber’s bacon. It has such a good flavor, and the last time Jon was home he filled his suitcase with bratwurst patties to take home with him,” Linda laughs.

“We also enjoy casual dining. One day we might put some Weber’s BBQ pork in the crockpot

and go out on the boat. That makes a wonderful meal to come home to at the end of the day and I might save a little of the pork out and make a really good barbecue pork pizza the next night. That makes a simple and very good meal.”

Since they have yellow delicious apples at their Geneseo farm, every year Linda makes homemade applesauce and homemade apple pies. “Last year we had a bumper crop of apples and I made 23 Dutch apple pies and then put them in the freezer,” she said. “I also made lots of applesauce and the grandkids love it.”

To a big pot of peeled apples, Linda might add maybe a half cup of sugar, a little vanilla extract (the secret ingredient) and some red hot candies. “I always add a little vanilla to my applesauce and also to my apple pie filling. It’s just something my mother always did and it gives the apples a great flavor,” she said. “The twins especially gobbled that applesauce down so you’d better believe I’ll be making it again for them.”

The applesauce freezes very well and, according to Linda, the red hot candies give it a good flavor and a very pretty, rosy color.

Besides cooking, Linda enjoys flower arranging, photography and sewing. “As a home ec major, sewing was my main interest,” she said. “In fact I did all the window treatments and pillows at the lake house.”

Her biggest passion, however, is gift wrapping. “I absolutely love gift wrapping. I want gifts to be special,” she said. “I have enough ribbon to probably stretch around the world three times over,” she laughs. “I have a craft room with all the gift wrapping necessities. I just love to wrap gifts.”

For the holidays, Linda does a lot of cooking and baking. “I like to do yeast rolls and Christmas morning we always have cinnamon rolls. Christmas Eve we do quesadillas. I have a quesadilla maker and that’s another meal people can just make themselves the way they want it,” Linda said, adding she does a lot of decorating for the Christmas holiday. “Christmas dinner is the one  meal I don’t serve buffet style. I have a sit down dinner and use my good china.”

A few years ago Linda started a new tradition with her children. “Every Christmas, I pick out a certain cookbook and give each of them the same cookbook. Last year I gave them Ina Garten’s latest cookbook,” she said. “I include a page of pictures in the front of the book, of family happenings from the past year and then a paragraph doing a kind of year-in-review. I hope they will be able to keep those cookbooks for their kids to enjoy. I got the idea from a friend and I’ve done it for the past three or four years.”

Linda does have a cookbook collection that she likes to look through, but says she especially loves the recipes she has collected from family and friends.

Some of her favorite kitchen items are her Pampered Chef chopper and her food processor. “The secret to using the food processor is to keep it handy and easy to get to,” Linda said, adding her most used kitchen item would undoubtedly be the rubber spatulas she uses following every meal. “My grandmother always said ‘A woman can throw away more with a spoon than a man can bring in with a shovel’ and I’ve always remembered that. The spatulas are great for getting the last bit of food out of any container.

“I do collect kitchen gadgets. I could just stand in Crate and Barrel in Chicago and look around for hours.”

Linda and Jerry are members of Grace United Methodist Church in Geneseo and attend services at a church just down the street when they are at their lake home. Their faith is a very important part of their lives and they feel very close to members of the congregations of both churches.

“This is a very close community here at Oak Run. I get together with neighbors for bike rides and walks and each June a few of us get together to make homemade strawberry jam in my kitchen,” Linda said. “I love the fact that my kitchen is so conducive to lots of people working together,” she said. “This year we did 109 jars of the jam. We all love it.”

The group also gathers each November to make holiday cookies and candy.

“My favorite thing about cooking is pleasing people, in all aspects. I want my guests to feel special. I love my lake home and I love to share it,” she said. “Eating is just a natural by-product of entertaining.”

Linda Rogers shares some of her favorite recipes.

Rhubarb cream pie

Linda Rodgers

4 C. fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1-1/2 C. sugar

3 T. flour

2 eggs

1/2 C. milk

Mix the flour with the sugar, then add to the rhubarb.

Stir the beaten eggs into the milk, then add to the sugared rhubarb. Pour into an unbaked 9 inch pie shell.

Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the center of the pie “sets”.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Note: “This is one of Jerry’s favorite springtime desserts.”

Press (no mess) pie crust

Linda Rodgers

1-1/2 C. flour

1/2 t. salt

1-1/2 t. sugar

Mix the first three ingredients with a fork. In a measuring cup make an emulsion of the next two ingredients by beating with a fork.

1/2 C. vegetable oil

3 T. milk

Pour the emulsion over the dry ingredients and toss until all of the flour is moistened.

Press into the pie plate with your fingers.

For a soft, pudding pie, bake crust at 425 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Otherwise use as you would a raw pie pastry.

Note: “It’s magic. Mix and bake in the pie plate!”

Lindsay’s southwest salad

Linda Rodgers

chopped Romaine lettuce

red onion

red pepper, chopped

corn (we use frozen...thaw first)

black beans, rinsed

fresh cilantro

grilled chicken breast, sliced

avocado

shredded cheddar cheese, optional

Dressing:

Lite Ranch dressing

salsa

Mix the salsa and Ranch dressing to taste. Start with two parts salsa to one part Ranch dressing, which keeps calories to a minimum.

Note: “When we serve this for a crowd we generally mix the first six ingredients in a large bowl, then offer the avocado and chicken and dressing on the side, which keeps the salad fairly fresh for leftovers the next day. Sometimes we crush baked tortilla chips to add a little extra crunch.”

Bran bucket of muffins

Linda Rodgers

1-15 oz. pkg Raisin Bran cereal

5 C. flour

3 C. sugar

5 t. baking soda

2 t. salt

1 C. oil

4 beaten eggs

1 qt. buttermilk

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, then stir in the wet ingredients.

Refrigerate in a gallon container. Don’t stir again.

It keeps for at least six weeks.

Use an ice cream scoop to fill the muffin tins.

Bake at 400 degrees for 18 minutes.

Makes 58 muffins.