Abell likes to cook with ingredients grown on the farm

Jerilyn VanDeWoestyne
Nancy Abell shows baked goods she recently made in the kitchen of her rural Geneseo home.

Nancy Abell admits she and her family were “green” before it was a popular thing to do for the environment.

“I’ve always had a big garden, but growing up my mother always did too so I just thought that was what everyone did,” Nancy said. “We have a lot of fruit trees,and I make and can all my own pie filling.”

The Abells have red, yellow and black raspberries, blueberries, apricots, peaches, cherries and strawberries on their rural Geneseo property. “I just can’t let an apple or a peach go to waste,” she said. “The only thing I freeze are my berries, everything else is canned.”

Nancy said she recently made homemade applesauce with the last bushel of apples from last fall. “We had fresh apples almost through January and that’s a good feeling,” she said. “Doing things like this is just the way I was raised. I can go downstairs any time and get whatever I need to make a meal, from home canned tomatoes to peach pie filling.

“We could probably live here six months and not have to go grocery shopping except for staples like eggs, flour and sugar. We have all our fruits, vegetables and meat.”

Nancy makes and cans her own homemade pie filling, including peach, apple, apricot, cherry, and blueberry. “This last summer, I canned about 30 quarts of each kind of fruit filling,” she said. “I just love to do it.”

Nancy and her husband, Roger,  have four children, Crystal, who is in her last month of dental hygiene training; Sarah, a junior at Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing; Clint, who is currently in the Navy, and Hayley, a junior at Geneseo High School.

“It’s a busy life, but we love it,” she said.

One of Nancy’s favorite times is when her children bring their friends home to visit. “Clint is in the Navy, and last Thanksgiving he brought several of his friends home for the holiday. They weren’t able to make it to their homes so he brought them here and we had a wonderful time,” she said.

“They were from California, Texas, and all over and some had never had homemade pie.”

By the time they left the Abells’ home, however, they knew all about home cooked meals. “We had Thanksgiving dinner here for family, and I fixed 60 pounds of turkey, 25 pounds of potatoes and made 10 pies,” Nancy said, adding she had three roasters going with the turkey and had an entire table filled with pie.

“Then I made four more pies the day after Thanksgiving because there was

none left.”

Because she was making the pies in such quantity, Nancy said she revised some of her recipes and made the pies in sheet cake pans and cut them into squares. “I started making the pies in sheet cake pans because when I’m baking for a crowd it just seems easier,” she said. “For Thanksgiving I made mincemeat, apple, peach, pumpkin, cherry, blueberry, and pecan pie. And we also had a cake.”

According to Nancy, as soon as she knows her kids are coming home, she starts baking cookies. “Baking is really my favorite thing to do and chocolate chip cookies are the most asked for cookie around here,” she said. “I love it when the kids bring their friends home. They know this is their home too. I always tell them the kitchen is always open. It’s not about material things, it’s about friends and family.”

When her son and his friends left after the Thanksgiving holiday, she sent 20 dozen homemade cookies with them.

Since the Abells are farmers, Nancy said they are in the fields in the spring and fall. “I drive the tractor or the truck to the elevator, and I help however I can,” she said. “When we’re in the field, I fix all the lunches in the morning for all of us and each one has their own cooler to take with them.”

The field lunches usually include egg salad, tuna salad or roast beef salad sandwiches, homemade cookies, pie squares or bars and some cheese. “I always make sure we have a big lunch, and we each carry it with us,” Nancy said.

Growing up on a dairy farm Nancy said she has always loved cooking. “My sister and I fixed the evening meal while we were growing up. My mother helped outside on the farm so we did the meals,” she said. “We had a phone in the milk barn so if we needed anything or had any questions, we could always call her.”

Nancy started cooking meals for the family age 7. “We did everything that needed to be done. We baked brownies and cakes and we did the whole meal. Mother always had the meal planned, and then we prepared it.”

Nancy remembers helping butcher ducks and geese in the fall. “Mother took orders for the ducks and geese and we also had an incubator for hatching eggs,” she said, adding when her own children were younger she thought they needed to know the same thing so she purchased an incubator at Farm & Fleet and they hatched eggs.

“We also grow and sell sweet corn. Roger does all the picking and the kids bag it and sell it on Chicago Street in town,” Nancy said. “We start about 5 a.m. picking. We’ve done that for years. The kids learned at a very early age how to make change.”

Every August, Nancy and her family go to their timber and cut down about four trees for their winter heating supply. “We cut the trees up and stack the wood outside the door, then we use our wood burner all winter. We haven’t used the furnace more than a month in 27 years,” she laughs.

“We start the wood burner at 7 a.m. and turn it off at 7 p.m. We do turn the furnace on occasionally just to see if it still works, but that’s about it.”

Nancy has a gas stove rather than electric, so if the power goes off she can still cook. And she has a clothes dryer that hasn’t been used more than five times in 27 years. “I  hang all my clothes outdoors, year-round,” she said, adding the clothes freeze dry on the clothesline and then are brought in and hung up. “They actually dry really quickly after I bring them in the house. It’s just something I’ve always done.”

She admits she thinks her neighbors sometimes think she’s crazy. “I call it conservative — some call it cheap,” she laughs.

The growing season begins for Nancy and her family in May with morel mushroom hunting. “My husband, my son and I all like to hunt mushrooms and we all have our own special spots to hunt,” she said. “I clean them, bread them and fry them half way in butter. Then I put them in freezer containers and pour the butter they were cooked in over them.”

When she takes the mushrooms out of the freezer, Nancy said she just puts them in a skillet and finishes cooking them. “Last year, I put about 40 pounds of the mushrooms in the freezer,” she said. “To bread them, I just roll them in beaten egg and then in cracker crumbs and lay them in the skillet.”

Nancy also helps her father with his bee hives. “I started my own hives about 10 years ago, but the last couple of years have been hard on the bee population, and we lost all of our bees,” she said, adding her father has six hives. “The kids always help. One girl cuts the beeswax away and one spins the honey. We get a lot of good quality honey.”

Nancy said she hopes to get more bees this year. “You can get stung pretty easily, but we have all the hats and gloves and protective gear,” she said.

Nancy works full-time at Walgreen’s in Geneseo and said she does a lot of cooking, baking, freezing and canning at night. “It’s not hard work for me because I love it,” she said.

Meals at the Abells consist of meat, potatoes, vegetable, and salad, just like the kind of meals she remembers preparing when she was growing up. “We’re not ‘eat out’ people. We would just rather stay home,” Nancy said, adding the last time they ate a meal out was on their 15th wedding anniversary, which was well  over a decade ago.

“Once a month, we grab a pizza in town but we just don’t like to eat out. I always feel that anything you can get at a restaurant, you can do at home.”

Friday night is always hamburger night and Sunday night is homemade pizza. “Otherwise our meals are things like meatloaf, pork chops, deer steak, deer roast, or chili,” she said. “Roger is a big hamburger eater, so I do a lot of casseroles.”

With meatloaf, Nancy said she would probably serve sweet corn, mashed potatoes and gravy and there is always dessert.

“I bake every other day, that’s just something I’ve always done,” she said, adding she can put a huge meal together for lots of people in maybe four or five hours. “Today I made cinnamon rolls, then made some of the dough into dinner rolls, and I also made a coconut cream pie for later.”

When she hosts a family gathering, Nancy likes to do the entire meal herself, no matter how many are at the dinner table. “I never ask anyone to bring anything because I really enjoy doing it all,” she said. “I do the meat, salads, potatoes, vegetable and it’s usually pies for dessert. I like to cook, but I absolutely love to bake.”

Nancy uses butter in all her cooking and baking. “I don’t have anything but butter in the house,” she said, adding she likes the flavor and texture of butter.

Several years ago Nancy took a cake decorating class from Virginia Humbert at the high school. “I decorated special occasion cakes for people at one time, but now I mainly do it for my kids birthdays,” she said. “I still do it every once in a while for something special, and I have all the tips

and tubes I need.”

Nancy likes the challenge of baking, especially trying new yeast bread recipes. “I use a little wheat gluten in all my breads,” she said. “It makes it rise better and it stays fresh longer.”

She advises cooks to not be afraid to try something new. “If you have a cake that flops then make it into another dessert,” she said. “Maybe cut it up and make it into a trifle with whipped cream.

Nothing ever goes to waste around here. If you have leftover vegetables, make a casserole.”

Nancy Abell shares some of her favorite recipes.

Pie crust

Nancy Abell

3 C. flour

3 T. sugar

1 t. salt

1-1/2 C. Crisco or lard

Mix and add:

1 egg

2 T. vinegar

4 T. water

Makes two crusts.

Dump salad

Nancy Abell

2 pkg. (3 oz.) instant vanilla pudding

1 can fruit cocktail

1 can Mandarin oranges

1 container Cool Whip

Do not drain fruit. Mix together and serve.

Rhubarb jam

Nancy Abell

5 C. rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces

4 C. sugar

3/4 C. water

1-21 oz. can blueberry pie filling (or 2 C. fresh blueberries thickened and sweetened)

2-3 oz. pkg. raspberry Jell-O

Combine rhubarb, sugar and water.

Boil uncovered for three minutes.

Stir in blueberry pie filling. Boil six minutes, stirring constantly.

Stir in Jell-O. Boil three minutes, stirring constantly.

Ladle into jars or freezer containers leaving 1/2 inch at top.

Seal and let set three hours.

Can be kept in refrigerants for three weeks, or freeze.

Pie filling

Nancy Abell

1-1/2 C. sugar

1/4 C. water

1 T. butter

1/4 t. cinnamon

Put above in saucepan on stove. Boil.

Add 5 C. sliced apples and cook two minutes.

Have ready 1/4 C. water and 1/4 C. cornstarch.

Add to apples. Cook until thickening is clear.

Makes one quart.