Ten Things: A cooking hack that will change your life.

The holidays are busy. Heck, we know every day is busy, what with costumes to make or mend, swordplay and archery to practice, serfs (aka children) to wrangle. What’s a Renaissance woman (or man, we’re not sexist) to do? Get sharp in the kitchen, that’s what. Kristen Johnston, staff writer, archeress extraordinaire, Renaissance Festival vendor, wife, and mom of two small ones shares some of her favorite meal prep tricks for busy, everyday eating.

Have you ever been to an event and had an amazing dish? Perchance you assumed, as it melted in your mouth, that the person who prepared it was an accomplished cook. Perhaps feelings of defeat and desire crept in… “if only I could be a great cook.” Or maybe you just don’t have the time. It takes so much time and commitment, not to mention, specialized ingredients. It feels hopeless! Well, here’s your hack! Learn to make ten things and make them well. Have your recipes ready to guard or hand out because before long folks will be asking you for the recipe! Choose ten things for your arsenal that you enjoy eating and making. Stock those ingredients and the rest is cake. The following are my current ten things, they evolve, my all-time most asked for recipe and a bonus recipe for the most versatile dressing ever. 

1. Baked Brunch Apples

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut the tops off of large apples (1 per person). Foil a baking sheet and place the apples, cut side up, on the baking sheet (a glass baking dish works as well). Place 2 bacon strips per apple on another foiled baking sheet. Bake apples and bacon in the oven until apples are soft and bacon is crisp. About 30 minutes for the apples and 15 minutes for the bacon. Once apples and bacon are removed, top each apple with grated cheddar cheese, 2 slices of bacon, each cut in half and more cheese to top. Put back in the oven on broil until cheese on top is golden brown. Serve for breakfast or brunch. 

2. Caprese Skewers / Salad

In a serving bowl, combine halved cherry tomatoes, mozzarella cheese pearls, fresh julienned basil and top with balsamic reduction and fresh cracked black pepper. For fanciness, put them on skewers. 

3. Salmon Dip

Combine 1, 6 oz package of smoked salmon, cut up, 1 package of cream cheese, ¼ cup sour cream, fresh dill, 3 tablespoons of capers and fresh cracked black pepper. Mix well, serve with your favorite crackers. 

4. Deviled Eggs

Boil and peel 1 dozen eggs, half eggs and separate the yolk from the white. Combine the yolk with mustard, mayonnaise (about 1/3 C each), caper or pickle juice, chopped dill pickles or dill relish, salt and pepper and mix well. Spoon or squeeze the mixture from the cut corner of a plastic storage bag into the arranged, halved whites.  Top with a dusting of smoked paprika. (smoked paprika is life)

5. Chili (Northern)

5 Cups of water, 1 Tbsp Better than Bullion Beef, 1 oz baking chocolate, unsweetened, 1, 6 oz cans of tomato paste, 1, 28 oz can of stewed, diced tomatoes

1 Tbsp chili powder, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp garlic powder, 1 Tbsp cumin, 1 tsp allspice, 1 tsp ground cloves, Red pepper flakes for heat (desired amount)

1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp salt (optional), 1 Tbsp brown sugar, 2 lbs ground beef

Brown beef in large pot, remove beef from pot and set aside

1 Tbsp Apple cider vinegar, In same pot, combine 5 cups of water and bullion on stove, medium heat

Add in the tomato paste and chocolate, whisk to break up

Add chili powder, cinnamon, garlic powder, cumin, allspice, cloves, red pepper flakes, black pepper, salt, brown sugar and vinegar. Mix well

Add canned tomatoes, Break the beef up into fine pieces and add to pot, stir

Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium/low, Cook, uncovered for about an hour at a simmer, stirring occasionally, chili will thicken. If it is too thin, cook longer. 

Serve with shredded cheddar cheese, saltine crackers, fresh onions and sour cream. 

6. Cherry Pepper Bombs

Drain and clean the seeds from two jars of cherry peppers. Stuff with goat cheese, wrap in thin bacon (just enough to go around pepper once) and skewer with a tooth pick. Place on a foiled baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees until bacon is crisp. Enjoy!

7. Cheesy Fish Dip

Combine equal parts cream cheese (I usually use 1 block) and mayonnaise with ¾ of 1, 8oz bag of cheddar cheese and cooked fish (After I filet a fish, I save the carcass, bake it and use the scraps for this recipe. Filets are fine as well. About 1 C of fish total) Mix in seasoning of your choice, I use Everglades Seasoning and fresh parsley. Spread in a baking dish and top with remaining ¼ bag of cheese. Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, finish with a light broil to brown the cheese on top. Serve with your favorite crackers. 

8. Millionaire Bars

-This is a good one.  I have won awards with this. 


  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup sugar


  • 1 cans sweetened condensed milk


  • 1 bag of milk or semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • ½ tsp light corn syrup
  • ¼ C butter
  1. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add in flour mixture. Press into an 8 x 8″ baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes, until lightly golden brown.
  2. Remove label from can of sweetened condensed milk. Place it in a stock pot full of water on the stove at a boil for 3 hours. Make sure the water remains covering the milk can at all times. When it is done, remove can carefully and set aside to cool. After it is cooled, open the can and spread the now caramelized condensed milk over the shortbread layer. 
  3. Heat butter and corn syrup in a small saucepan until melted. Remove from heat, add in chocolate and stir. After it is completely melted, pour over the caramel layer.
  4. Allow to completely cool and cut into bars. 

9. Healthy Country Green Beans

Steam green beans and cut them into 1 inch long pieces. Chop ½ of a large red onion into small pieces. Toast slivered almonds in the oven by spreading them on a foiled baking sheet and broiling them on low for about 5 mins or until the oils are released. Fry a few pieces of bacon or prosciutto in a pan on the stove, chop.  In a large serving bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of good mustard, ¼ cup of good olive oil and ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar, mix. Add the chopped red onion, mix again. Add the green beans, stir. Top with toasted almonds and bacon/prosciutto. (This is a great side dish to a meal or for a pot luck as it doesn’t have to be hot to serve) 

And now for the grand finale, my grandmother’s (mostly) Monkey Bread! My most asked for recipe! This is a savory side dish and is not what is often referred to today as Monkey Bread which is a sweet pull apart bread. This dish can be served at any time of the day with any meal or on its own with merit. I once refused to make this for a year because people asked for it at every event! Side note, if you don’t have a bundt pan handy, make one. Use a tower of foil or a tin can that you have cut the ends off of and drained the contents from to create the needed heat distribution. It must be in a bundt pan situation otherwise the middle will not cook. 

10. Monkey Bread 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut each biscuit from three cans of biscuits into 4 pieces with scissors and place in large bowl. Sautee 1 C chopped onion and two cloves of minced garlic with 2 sticks of butter on stove and add that to the biscuits.  Add chopped green, red and yellow bell peppers, about 1/3 cup each. Add 1 C shredded or grated parmesan cheese.  Add one jar of Bacos. Mix. Put into bundt pan and bake in oven for 30 minutes. When it is done, take it out of pan and wrap in foil. Enjoy!

Bonus: Wasabi Vinaigrette Dressing

Mix 1 tablespoon of wasabi with ¼ cup of good olive oil, ¼ cup of rice wine vinegar and 1/8 cup soy sauce. Enjoy! Put it over greens, grilled steak or my favorite, seared Ahi Tuna over greens. (Original Credit: Brian Knoop, but his is better than mine)

I hope this hack helps you as much as it has helped me. Please adjust for food allergies and religious or lifestyle choices before trying the above recipes or preparing recipes for others. My list of 10 Things is constantly evolving as I come across new and delicious recipes so feel free to change it up seasonally or replace recipes. If 10 Things feels overwhelming, start with one and as you come across new recipes, add them until you get to 10. Life and cooking are to be enjoyed and a quick edit of your cooking habits can help eliminate stress and add joy. Here’s your hack!

Photo by fotografierende on Pexels.com

For all our foodies, we suggest a glance at this post, The Path to Heaven Passes Through a Teapot, from our October issue. A hot cuppa would be a perfect accompaniment to Kris’s Baked Brunch Apples.

The Path to Heaven passes through a teapot

Kristen Johnston is a professional archer and lifetime performer. She began her training in dance at the age of two and pursued a career in classical ballet. After completing her BFA and MPA, her interests turned back towards archery. Training with the mantra “Do whatever it takes and start now.” has led her to two world titles, multiple national titles and numerous state, regional and local titles in longbow, recurve and Asiatic. She has been named an Archery Influencer and has been featured on programs such as The Push Archery and Quickshots. Preforming The Longbow Show and sharing the joy of traditional archery with others is her passion. Kris is honored to captain the professional shooting team “Trad Tour”.  She owns a traditional archery shop with her husband, is the mother to two children and is a Level 2 USA Archery Certified Instructor. 

Holiday Shopping: Supporting Faire and Festival Artisans

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A writer and storyteller by trade, throughout the course of my career, I have led with curiosity. Much like Alice, I love the opportunity to ask questions and look at situations through different lenses. It’s a great way to find unexpected solutions or new ideas.

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