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Main ingredient: A pioneer spirit

Wed., Oct. 7, 2009

Popular blogger mixes a little luck with lots of work

Ree Drummond likes to call herself an accidental country girl and she considers herself something of an accidental cook. But there’s nothing accidental about the success she’s built combining those two.

Drummond writes the Pioneer Woman blog and gets about 13 million page views a month, enough to spin off a cookbook: “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes From an Accidental Country Girl.” Although not due out until Oct. 27, it is currently at No. 1 on Amazon’s preorder list in the Cooking, Food & Wine category. Technorati ranks the Pioneer Woman on its list of the 100 most powerful and influential blogs in the world.

Each month, roughly 2 million women – and her readers are mostly women – flock to the blog to live vicariously as Drummond unspools her “how in the world did I end up here?” story of a would-be city girl who now finds herself a wife and mother of four living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. It is by turns hilarious, romantic, poignant – and always illustrated by a gasp-inducing number of photographs that verge on the erotic as she chronicles her kitchen’s goings-on. (A recent cake recipe used 53 photos – 53!)

The heart of Pioneer Woman is its food corner, the Pioneer Woman Cooks. There are canning instructions, and one perennially popular entry is a step-by-step “how to” on cooking a steak. And there are hundreds of recipes. Recipes, though, are almost beside the point.

This is one food blog that is as much about the lookin’ as the cookin’.

“I hear from readers, I know a lot of them love to look at the pictures. I’m not sure what that says about the rest of it,” Drummond jokes.

She never intended to live on a cattle ranch. Although Drummond was raised in Oklahoma, she fled just as soon as she could, heading for Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. “There was just something about Los Angeles. It was the biggest city I could think of to go. I couldn’t wait to get there,” she says.

And she didn’t waste a single moment. Within her first week there, she’d hit all the major theme parks and hiked up to the Hollywood sign. Once in L.A., she discovered sushi. And Thai. And authentic Mexican food. And had a stint as a vegetarian. She was a journalism major at first, and then switched to gerontology, of all things. After leaving college in 1991, she worked for a while in L.A. before moving back home to Oklahoma. It was supposed to be just a pit stop on the way to Chicago, where she hoped to attend law school.

“It never, ever occurred to me that I would wind up back in Oklahoma,” she says. “I was officially a city girl. In my wildest, wildest dreams my stay in Oklahoma wouldn’t be beyond three months.”

You see where this story is going, right?

She was having drinks with some old friends from high school during said pit stop when she locked eyes across a crowded room with an honest-to-goodness cowboy.

It actually took a few more weeks before the two had their first date. But within just 10 days, Drummond knew: It was goodbye, Chicago, and helllllooooooo, Marlboro Man. (That’s Drummond’s blog name for the man who would become her husband.)

Now, Drummond lives on a fourth-generation cattle ranch – one of the biggest in the state – that is about 40 miles from the spot where she grew up. And it seems that everywhere she turns, she sees another hungry mouth to feed, including four kids, her husband, ranch hands, more than 4,000 head of cattle, 2,000 wild horses and a clutch of cows that wander up on the back porch.

And audiences just gobble it all up, as smitten by the photos and recipes as they are with a glimpse into a much simpler life, and a fairy-tale love story that is tempered by the less romantic parts of ranch living – castrating calves and the bottomless pit of dirty laundry.

It’s not at all unusual for her blog postings to get hundreds of comments. If she sends forth a call for reader recipes, she gets thousands of entries.

And no one is as surprised as Drummond that people are reading.

After all, the blog started in May 2006 like so many other blogs do – as a place to post family photos and updates for far-flung relatives. She also began writing about her transition to country life, her recollections of L.A. and the challenges of home-schooling her four children, ages 5 to 12. “I had no idea that anyone would read it – anyone except for my mother.”

Then one day, she had a comment. “Any blogger knows that feeling, ‘A comment! Wow!’ ”

It wasn’t until nearly a year later that Drummond posted her first recipe, and that step-by-step guide to cooking a steak, and that’s when she realized she’d struck a chord with readers. The comments began pouring in, many from people who appreciated her unique step-by-step photography. (Drummond, 40, takes all her photos herself and says that it can add quite a bit of time to even the simplest of recipes.)

“I think a lot of people look at a recipe and think, ‘How do you do that?’ because not everyone knows how. I try to show them how,” she said. “Somewhere along the way cooking became something that was fancy, and it just left behind all those people who aren’t comfortable in the kitchen.”

In addition to accessible recipes, Drummond uses readily available pantry ingredients – due to the fact that the nearest major grocery store is about a 90-minute round-trip drive and that includes a five-mile stretch of gravel road. A few times a year – woo-hoo! – Drummond drives the two hours to Tulsa to shop at a Sam’s Club.

She posts several times a week, and her style – easy-going, self-effacing and filled with observational details – makes readers feel like they just stopped by for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie.

The blog itself seems to echo country living. The photo presentation illustrates it best. Most blogs rely on photo galleries that practically challenge readers to Click! Click! Click! and race by captions like they are an afterthought.

On the Pioneer Woman, a blog posting typically starts with a topic du jour and is followed up with photos and brief observations and interjections that serve as captions. The effect invites readers to sit back, and lazily scroll through the photos, devouring and savoring each morsel as they go.

This success aside, Drummond always comes across like regular folk. She recently posted about cleaning out her closet of clothes, and took loving photos of what was clearly designer label fare. But there could be no begrudging the woman who wrote openly about no longer being able to fit into that clothing, and how cap sleeves are not exactly her friend anymore.

Drummond would not discuss revenue from her site, except to say that her family makes its living from ranching, not blogging. Fans might be interested to know that many of Drummond’s contest giveaways – like those big shiny KitchenAid mixers and food processors – are purchased out of her own pocket. “I give a big chunk of my revenue back in prizes. I don’t give it all back, for sure, but I wouldn’t have an audience if they weren’t reading my site, and this is my way of showing them how much I appreciate them.”

Her cookbook, which includes new recipes and old favorites, as well as her trademark step-by-step photography, is a natural extension of the blog. Just as Drummond never thought she’d end up back in the country, she also never imagined that she would be writing a cookbook.

“I think that’s really the moral of all this. You can go ahead and feel free to make all the plans you want in life, but who knows where you’ll really be in 15 or 20 years. I look around and I don’t recognize anything about my life.”

Chicken-Fried Steak

Adapted from “The Pioneer Woman Cooks” by Ree Drummond.

3 pounds cube steak

2 eggs

3 cups milk, divided, more as needed

21/3 cups flour, divided, more as needed

2 teaspoons seasoned salt

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, more if you can handle it

1 teaspoon black pepper, plus extra for seasoning the steaks and gravy

Salt

Canola or vegetable oil for frying

Begin with an assembly line of dishes for the meat, egg and milk mixture, and flour mixture.

Pound the cube steaks until extremely tender (if already pounded, pound a little more to make sure they’re sufficiently tender), and cut the steaks into smaller pieces if they are larger than 5 to 6 inches in diameter (this will make them easier to bread and fry). Place the prepared steaks in the first dish.

Beat the eggs and 1 cup milk in the second dish with a fork.

In the third dish, combine 2 cups flour with the seasoned salt, paprika, cayenne and black pepper.

Lightly season a piece of meat with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Then, dip the meat into the milk and egg mixture on each side to coat. Place the meat on the seasoned flour, turning to evenly coat both sides. Dip the meat in the milk and egg mixture once more to coat, then the flour mixture once more to coat completely. Place the prepared steak onto a rack on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining steaks.

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottom skillet, heat one-third cup oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is sufficiently heated (I drop a few sprinkles of flour, if it sizzles, it’s ready!), fry 2 to 3 pieces of meat at a time (be careful not to crowd). Cook on one side until the edges start to look golden brown, about 2 1/2 minutes, then flip over and fry until the other side is golden, another 2 to 3 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed.

Remove the steaks to a paper-towel-lined plate and keep warm. Repeat until all the meat is fried, adding a little extra oil if needed. Set the steaks aside in a warm place while you make the gravy.

To make the gravy, pour the grease from the skillet into a heat-proof bowl. Without cleaning the pan, return it to the stove over medium-low heat. Add one-fourth cup of the grease back to the pan, discarding any remaining grease.

Sprinkle one-third cup flour evenly over the grease. Using a whisk, mix the flour with the grease, creating a golden brown paste, or “roux.” You want the roux to attain a deep, rich color. If the paste seems more oily than pasty, sprinkle in additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, until the right consistency is achieved.

When the roux is golden-brown, whisk in 2 cups milk, then wait for the gravy to come to a slow boil. The gravy will thicken gradually, but if it seems too thick at first, add a little milk as needed, whisking to combine. The total cooking process should take 4 to 5 minutes. Add additional salt and pepper as desired, tasting to ensure that it’s seasoned adequately. Under-seasoned gravy is one of life’s great sacrileges.

Place the warm meat on a plate and drizzle over the gravy as desired. Serve this to a hungry cowboy and you’ve earned an admirer for life.

Yield: 6 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 604 calories, 59 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 25 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 183 milligrams cholesterol, 650 milligrams sodium.

Cheese Grits

Adapted from “The Pioneer Woman Cooks” by Ree Drummond. Although the recipe suggests using sharp cheddar, she mentions you can “use whatever variety of cheese you like: cheddar, Pepper Jack, Mexican cotija. Even goat cheese (chevre) is sublime in grits.”

9 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt, more if desired

2 cups uncooked quick or regular grits

4 eggs

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, cut into tablespoons

3 cups grated cheese, preferably sharp cheddar, more if desired

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, more if desired

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan, combine the water and salt over medium heat. As soon as the water comes to a boil, stir in the grits.

Cover the pan and finish cooking according to the directions on the package. Remove from heat when the grits are cooked.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Stir a couple of spoonfuls of the grits into the eggs and quickly whisk together to temper the eggs. Immediately stir in the rest of the grits until fully incorporated.

Add the butter and stir until it is melted and incorporated, then stir in the cheese until melted and combined. Stir in the garlic and cayenne. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt or cayenne if necessary. You could also add more cheese if you think that will bring happiness to your life, but keep in mind that cheese increases the salt and fat content, as well as the number of calories.

Pour the grits into a well-buttered 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish. Bake until the grits are hot and bubbly, about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for 10 minutes before serving. The grits will become firmer as they cool.

Yield: 12 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 341 calories; 12 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 23 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 131 milligrams cholesterol; 301 milligrams sodium.

Homemade Ranch with Iceberg Wedge

Adapted from “The Pioneer Woman Cooks” by Ree Drummond.

¼ teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 to 1/2 cup milk or buttermilk, depending on how thick you want the dressing

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, more to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, more to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, more to taste

1/2 teaspoon distilled white vinegar, more to taste

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon paprika, more to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper, more to taste

Dash of hot sauce, optional

2 heads iceberg lettuce

In a large bowl, sprinkle the salt over the garlic. Mash the garlic and salt together with a fork or pestle to form a paste. The finer the better, as the garlic is very strong in the finished dressing.

Whisk in the mayonnaise, sour cream, milk, parsley, chives, dill, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, paprika, pepper and hot sauce if using. Taste and adjust the seasonings and flavorings as desired. Make the ranch dressing all yours – add in more of what you like. This makes about 2 cups dressing.

Chill the dressing for at least 2 hours before serving. Thin with milk if desired.

Wash and dry the lettuce and cut into wedges. Arrange the wedges on a platter and drizzle the ranch dressing over the top. Be generous with the dressing since it needs to reach all the lettuce in the wedge. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 248 calories, 2 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 24 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 24 milligrams cholesterol, 224 milligrams sodium.

Oatmeal Crispies

Adapted from “The Pioneer Woman Cooks” by Ree Drummond. Drummond writes, “I usually keep 3 or 4 rolls of dough in my freezer at all times. These cookies go fast.”

½ cup pecan halves

1 cup shortening

1 cup packed dark or light brown sugar

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

3 cups rolled oats

Finely chop the pecans, using a rocking motion with the knife. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl using an electric mixer, beat together the shortening and sugars until combined.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat together the eggs and vanilla.

Add the egg mixture to the sugar-shortening mixture and beat thoroughly to combine.

In a separate medium bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking soda, stirring to combine.

Add the flour mixture to the egg-sugar mixture and stir until combined, then stir in the oats and pecans until incorporated.

Divide the dough into fourths. Place each quarter on a sheet of waxed paper and roll into a log 1 1/2 inches in diameter, wrapping the waxed paper tightly around the log.

Chill the logs until ready to use, up to 1 week. (The rolls may be frozen up to 3 months.)

When you’re ready to bake the cookies, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap the dough from the waxed paper and slice into rounds approximately one-half-inch thick. If the dough is frozen, there is no need to thaw; just increase the baking time by 1 or 2 minutes.

Place the rounds on a cookie sheet and bake until light golden brown, about 10 minutes. Using a spatula, remove the cookies from the sheet immediately. Cool the cookies on a rack.

Yield: 4 to 5 dozen cookies

Approximate nutrition for each of 5 dozen cookies: 92 calories, 1 gram protein, 12 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber, 5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 63 milligrams sodium.



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