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Cooking by inspired instinct

By Staff | Mar 3, 2017

ELLA LEWERKE prepared this soup quickly and easily in her kitchen.

MASON CITY – It was when Ella Lewerke started school that she learned to speak English. While she was a native-born American citizen, her parents had immigrated from Holland and spoke Dutch in their home.

Ella Lewerke said in her first-grade class were classmates who only spoke German and Czech.

But this did not take place in a city located on a U.S. coast, but in tiny Hayfield, in Hancock County, northwest of Garner.

Her teacher was Miss Earp, whose job it was to teach English to these students.

“We all loved her so much,” said Ella Lewerke of this teacher who passed away 10 years ago.

ELLA LEWERKE chicken soup is almost ready to serve.

It was during her junior year in high school when Lewerke’s interest in cooking began.

“We learned cooking techniques and recipes,” she said.

A pineapple upside down cake was one of her first achievements for her family.

“Stuff was pretty bland back then,” she said.

Lewerke’s cooking method today relies on her instincts and inspiration.

ELLA LEWERKE said she is passionate about decorating and prepares her dining table for the next meal as soon as one is finished, changing it according to the season or holiday.

“I’m an adventurous cook. I cook by inspiration a lot,” she said.

That does make it difficult when someone asks for a recipe.

“I should write that down,” Lewerke said, “but I don’t. “I don’t cook the same thing twice.”

Two of her favorite recipes that she is proud of are the sweetheart cookies and coq au vin.

Quiche and soups are other favorites, she said.

For more than 45 years, Lewerke has prepared a Sunday noon meal for family and friends who show up. There can be 15 or more at a meal.

“I never know how many will show up,” she said. “Everybody is welcome.

“If there are leftovers, I eat that.”

Decorating is one of her passions and has been for 40 years.

She keeps her dining room table continually decorated for a meal every day of the week, changing it according to the season or holiday.

In high school, Lewerke said she marched in the band and was the band queen at the Mason City Band Festival her senior year.

Lewerke’s high school class had the distinction of being the largest to graduate from Hayfield High School – 11 strong.

After high school she attended Waldorf Junior College, in Forest City, for a year, but quit to return to help her father.

“My dad needed me on the farm,” she said.

Growing up on the family farm, Lewerke said her first choice was to be outside instead of inside with her mother.

“I cultivated by myself,” said Ella Lewerke.

The garden played an important part on the farm providing it with onions, carrots, cabbage and mainly potatoes. They traded the produce for groceries at Hutchinson’s Grocery Store in Britt.

“We never had to pay for groceries,” she said.

Lewerke lives in Mason City o where she moved, having worked at several jobs.

For 27 years she rehabilitated orphaned and injured wildlife including hawks, squirrels, cranes, cardinals, owls, fawns and mink.

“I had four or five different kinds at one time.”

She had to learn the schedule of each animal as part of its care. She credits being raised on a farm for instilling her love of animals.

“I could spend hours sitting on the feed bunk with the cows. I was with the animals or on the tractor. Farm life never left me.”

Lewerke retired from working for the Cerro Gordo County Conservation Board where she worked as office manager at the Lime Creek Nature Center for 11 years.

At 71, she received a phone call from Hy-Vee in Mason City saying they had a job for her handing out samples on Thursdays and Fridays.

“I absolutely love it,” Lewerke said, who turned 80 Thursday.

Lewerke sings solos for families in need of a soloist for a funeral.

Chicken soup

2 12-ounce cans of chunk chicken

1 cup salsa, medium

1 cup frozen corn

2 14-ounce cans great northern beans, rinsed and drained

12 ounces pepper jack cheese

1 cup of water

Mix in Dutch oven, let the flavors blend, make sure the cheese is melted. Best if made a day ahead.

Ella’s scotcheroos

Using a standard scotcheroo recipe, instead of white Karo syrup, use dark.

Replace the white sugar with brown sugar.

Substitute milk chocolate with dark chocolate and butterscotch chips.

Ole ballen

Drop balls of bread dough mixed with raisins in hot oil and deep fry.

Roll in sugar.


For a layered look, use a straight-sided glass bowl. Ella Lewerke’s favorite is chocolate raspberry.

Start with chocolate cake or chocolate brownie, then layer crumbled cake or brownie and pour raspberry schnapps over it.

Next is a layer of chocolate pudding followed by a layer of whipped cream, then a layer of chocolate mousse (mixes can be used).

Add another layer of whipped cream on top of raspberries placed around the edge, then another layer of brownie with the raspberry schnapps’, another layer of chocolate mousse or pudding, followed by a layer of whipped cream.

Place raspberries around the edge.

Put a mound of cake or brownie in the center with a dab of whip cream to hold a raspberry. Add a mint leaf for color.

Coq a vin

One 750-milliliter bottle red wine. (Lewerke uses a cabernet)

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced Spanish onions

1 cup chopped celery

8 sprigs fresh thyme

6 cloves garlic

2 bay leaves

6 chicken thighs

2 cups button mushrooms, cleaned and cut in half

2 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons canola oil

8 ounces thick bacon, cut into 1/2-inch lardons

2 cups frozen pearl onions, thawed (they can be left to thaw overnight during prep)

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

Buttered egg noodles, for serving

1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped

In a large resealable container, combine the red wine, carrots, onions, celery, thyme, garlic and bay leaves. Add the chicken thighs, seal the container and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the mushrooms with the olive oil on a baking sheet and roast until brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside.

Drain the chicken and vegetables thoroughly in a colander, reserving the wine mixture. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel (reserve the vegetables and aromatics).

Season the chicken with salt and pepper and transfer to a clean bowl. Add the flour and toss until thoroughly coated.

In a large Dutch oven, heat the canola oil over medium-low heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring often, until caramelized and the bacon has released its fat, 5 to 8 minutes. Set the lardons aside.

Turn the heat up to medium high and shake the excess flour off the chicken. Brown the chicken on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove the chicken and set aside.

Add the pearl onions and drained vegetables and aromatics to the same pot and cook over medium heat until caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the reserved red wine mixture and cook until reduced by half, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer.

Season with salt and pepper. Return the chicken to the pot and cover.

Transfer to the oven and cook until the chicken is tender and the sauce has thickened, 30 to 40 minutes.

If necessary, finish the dish on the stove by simmering it uncovered to reduce the mixture further, depending on how thick you’d like the sauce.

Serve with buttered egg noodles on the side and chopped parsley.

Garnish with the reserved lardons and mushrooms.

Sweetheart cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups oats (quick or old fashioned)

1 tablespoon grated lemon rind (about 2 large lemons)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves

Powdered sugar

In medium bowl combine flour, oats, lemon rind, baking soda and salt; mix well.

In large bowl beat butter and sugar with electric mixer until creamy. Add egg and vanilla; continue beating until light and fluffy.

Stir in oat mixture; mix well. Cover and chill at least 1 hour.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Divide dough into quarters; working with one quarter at a time, keeping remaining dough refrigerated.

Roll dough on lightly floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut with floured 2 1/2 inch, heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Use a 1-inch, heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut out holes in half of the hearts. Reroll and cut scraps. Arrange cookies one-inch apart on ungreased baking sheets and bake 8 to 10 minutes until light golden brown.

Cool completely on wire rack.

To assemble cookies, spread 1 teaspoon preserves in the center of each solid cookie. Lightly sprinkle the cookies with the cutouts with powdered sugar. Place sugar-covered cookie- sugar side up – on top of the cookies with preserves.

Serve cookies within one day or freeze cookies for longer storage.

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