HANNIBAL, Mo. — Marisa Ellison doesn’t have to go far to find fresh ingredients for family meals.
A backyard garden and two other gardens not far away keep her well supplied.
“This time of year it’s so wonderful to go and pick tomatoes and broccoli, cucumbers, green peppers, cantaloupe, corn,” the Hannibal woman said. “We freeze it all. We can it all. We try to eat as healthy as possible off of things we have grown ourselves or harvested ourselves.”
It’s a philosophy Ellison and her husband Rick have followed for years — and it grew in importance after her cancer diagnosis in February 2020 and a recurrence in 2021. Now cancer-free, Ellison says she’s blessed to still be spending time in the kitchen and sharing the finished product with family and friends.
“I love to cook for other people,” Ellison said.
People might have doubts about Hot Pineapple Cheese Salad, an old family recipe, but “everybody who tries it loves it,” Ellison said. “It’s not a very healthy treat but yummy.”
Fresh blackberries turn into creamy gelato in another family favorite. “It’s a nice little dessert you don’t have to bake. It’s fast and easy,” she said. “My grandson loves it.”
Strawberries star in a cobbler first baked by her mother-in-law. “The best way to eat that, to me, is warmed up with milk,” Ellison said. “If you love strawberries, it is delicious.”
Strawberries also feature in the beloved Pretzel Salad recipe supplied by a former school teacher and golf coach in Maysville, Mo., Ellison’s hometown, and the kids, along with Rick, love Grandma’s Zucchini Bread, a favorite way to use the garden produce.
Zucchini or tomato slices also turn into treats topped with fresh-from-the-garden basil and mozzarella cheese. Bake to warm the veggies and cheese, then broil briefly to brown the cheese. “They’re delicious. They’re very good for you,” she said.
Tomato season finds her husband making plenty of the Best Fresh Tomato Salsa to serve with homemade tortilla chips. “We also can it, but it’s so much better fresh,” Ellison said.
The couple, who often cook together, prefer simple ingredients and meals. They use their smoker a lot and enjoy campfire breakfasts especially with family — the couple have five kids and three grandkids between them.
“I’m not a complex cook. If I don’t have the ingredients or have never heard of it, I’m probably not going to make it,” she said. “I’m all about does it taste good. Did we use what we had?”
Cooking, and baking, came naturally to Ellison, who juggles time in the kitchen with working as the Northeast District communications manager for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
“My mom always cooked. Both my grandmothers cooked. I was their helper,” she said.
Just don’t expect her to follow the recipe every time because she likes to add a creative touch.
“I’m definitely a do-your-own-thing kind of person,” she said. “I’m always trying to make it healthier. I’ll definitely improvise.”
The Best Fresh Tomato Salsa
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
¼ cup minced fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
4 teaspoons fresh jalapeno pepper (or 2 dried jalapenos)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients together, and refrigerate. Salsa gets better after sitting in the fridge for a day.
Hot Pineapple Cheese Salad
1 medium-size can pineapple tidbits and enough water added to juice to make 1 cup
Mix juice and water, sugar, cornstarch and egg in saucepan. Stir and cook until thick. Remove from heat. Add cheese. Let set for a few minutes. Add pineapple. Top with marshmallows. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes or until marshmallows are nice and brown.
Mix together. Spread into a 9×13-inch cake pan. Bake at 400 degrees for eight minutes. Cool.
1 (six-ounce) package strawberry gelatin
10 ounces frozen strawberries
Combine cream cheese and sugar; fold in Cool Whip. Spread over cooled pretzel mixture. Prepare gelatin using boiling water. Stir gelatin mixture into frozen strawberries. Pour over cream cheese layer. Refrigerate until firm.
Grandma’s Zucchini Bread
½ teaspoon baking powder
Combine eggs, oil, sugar, zucchini and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and nuts. Pour batter into two greased loaf pans. Bake at 325 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes.
1 pound blackberries (about 2 cups)
½ cup heavy cream or plain yogurt
Mix blackberries and sugar in food processor until thoroughly blended. Then add water, and blend well again. Taste for sweetness. Press mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a metal bowl, leaving solids in strainer. Set aside.
If using cream, whip it in another bowl until it thickens slightly (to the consistency of buttermilk). Whisk cream or yogurt gently into the fruit mixture, combining thoroughly. Taste — the fruit flavor should shine through. Add more sugar if not sweet enough; however, it’s best to add sugar while mixture is still in the food processor and be spun around again. Cover bowl, and chill for at least one hour.
Pour into container of ice cream maker and freeze, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
2 pounds fresh strawberries, stemmed and quartered.
1 ½ cups sugar, divided, plus extra for topping
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup butter, melted and cooled
Vanilla ice cream, optional
In a medium bowl, toss the strawberries with ½ cup sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice.
In another bowl, combine 1 cup sugar with flour, baking powder, salt, milk and vanilla. Slowly whisk in the melted butter.
Pour the batter into a greased 8×11-inch baking dish. Top with strawberries. Do not stir.
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown on the edges.
Serve immediately, with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream as desired.