Chef’s Corner: Debra Ilves enjoys playing with recipes in the kitchen

9:04 am | July 30, 2012

Elizabethton resident Debra Ilves said she doesn’t consider herself particularly creative, but she does like to play and experiment in the kitchen when she’s cooking.

Photo by Danny Davis
Debra Ilves holds a bowl of Sema’s Eggplant Salad, a Russian dish that wins fans whenever she makes it.

A recent Monday found her preparing dishes — a Russian salad made from eggplant and a light dessert named Angel’s Feathers — for a monthly potluck hosted by a women’s group at First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton.

Photo by Danny Davis
Debra Ilves serves up portions of a dessert, Angel Feathers, which she acquired from one of her mother’s recipe cards dating back to 1945.

She and her husband, Jüri, moved to Elizabethton in 2002 from Columbus, Ohio.

“We came down for a vacation,” Debra said. They also visited with the intent of making a home in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.

“I didn’t want to keep living in flat Ohio,” she explained.

“I was born and raised in Ohio, and lived there until I was 55,” she said.

Jüri designed their home, which features cathedral ceilings and a large stone central fireplace. He is of Estonian heritage and his wife explained that the surname Ilves translates as “lynx.”

When the couple first moved to their property in Stoney Creek they resided in a small cabin while working on the construction of their home. They still have the cabin, which they rent out by the day, week or even longer. They refer to the structure as their “Cabin on Twin Pine Lane.”

When one of their daughters came to help them for two weeks during the construction of their home, the couple shared the cabin with their daughter and four cats.

“We had a ball,” Debra said.

The couple met through a bridge club, although they later gave up playing bridge and took up square dancing. In addition, they also enjoy camping. They are the parents of three children, Amanda, Virginia and Doug. They also have seven grandchildren, including two recent additions to the family. Their children and grandchildren still reside in Ohio.

Debra said she has always loved to cook. “I grew up helping in the kitchen,” she said.

Her mother, Wanna, worked full time, so she and her brother, David, took turns preparing family dinners until their grandmother, Katherine, moved in with the family.

“I leaned a lot by helping, watching and doing,” she said.

There are two things she regrets not learning from her grandmother.

“She knew how to can, and I didn’t take the time to learn,” Debra said. “I also wish I could make beautiful pie crusts like she did.”

At Christmas, Debra and Jüri enjoy making traditional Estonian cookies. One of their favorites is called a Moravian Animal Cookie and is made from a molasses dough.

When cooking, she likes to play with different recipes, adding ingredients and changing them to suit her own tastes.

“If I make potato salad, it will be made different ways seven out of 10 times,” she noted.

Debra said that being from Columbus, Ohio, meant that she and her husband were exposed to an ethnically diverse population thanks in part to Ohio State University. “You learned to eat a lot of different things,” she said.

Jüri was educated in nuclear physics but worked for 35 years in civil engineering. He also worked in some far-flung locations around the globe.

“A Greek company that valued experience hired him to work for three years in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia after he lost his job here,” Debra said.

Debra has worked as a massage therapist for the past 20 years. Before that, she had worked with alcoholic counseling, but the work was stressful.

She has enjoyed her career switch.

“It’s been wonderful, and I can see amazing results,” Debra said.

The name of her massage therapy business is “A Knead in Time.”

The couple used to garden more than they do now, but they still grow some herbs, such as oregano, basil and dill.

“Estonian cooking uses a lot of dill,” she said.

Estonian cuisine also uses cardamom, especially in desserts.

Although cardamom is more associated with Indian cuisine, Jüri noted that Estonia and Sweden have embraced the spice in their cuisines.

In the summer, they enjoy making Greek salad using fresh tomatoes and a lot of their home-grown basil and oregano.

While Debra’s the main cook, Jüri is the bread-maker in the family, and he also grills.

The couple has a bread machine, and he makes a bread they both enjoy for its good crust and soft interior.

He has tried to make croissants, but hasn’t mastered them.

His wife said the croissants taste great, but they never look like croissants.

Jüri also does all the grilling on an infra-red grill.

“He grills almost everything,” Debra said.

They grill a lot of fish, but he has also grilled ribs, pork and beef roasts and vegetables such as zucchini.

Debra has mastered many dishes from her husband’s native Estonia.

Jüri said his favorite is an Estonian-style potato salad that features potatoes, apples, pickles, beets and various meats.

“The meats can range from pork and spicy sausage to dried or smoked fish,” Debra explained.

The potato salad also features a very hot mustard and sour cream.

When serving the potato salad to guests, they include the fish on the side and let each guest decide whether to add some fish to the potato salad.

Debra enjoys making different dishes for the potlucks held by her women’s group at First Presbyterian Church. “We’re all a group of really fabulous cooks,” she added.

The potlucks also give her a chance to entertain her penchant for playing and experimenting in the kitchen.

Her recipe for eggplant salad is actually a Russian dish. “The eggplant is shredded and everything is cooked like a ratatouille,” she said.

The dessert is a simple but light and refreshing sweet called Angel’s Feathers. “All cooks like to play with recipes,” she said, noting that instead of a regular graham cracker crust she often gives this dessert something extra by using chocolate-flavored graham crackers as a substitute ingredient.


Sema’s Eggplant Salad 

l shredded eggplant

l shredded green pepper

l shredded red pepper

l shredded onion

l shredded carrot


In addition, mix in 5 tablespoons olive oil, little water, 2-3 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Layer all in pan and cook on stovetop on low heat for 2-1/2 hours.

Will keep for a week or longer.

NOTE: Debra said the above represents the original recipe, but that she likes to add 2 tablespoons cider apple vinegar and a little more sugar to taste. “I almost always double it since it takes such a long time to cook and you can easily freeze it,” she added.


Angel Feathers 

This recipe belonged to Debra’s mother. According to her mother’s recipe card, the recipe dates back to Dec. 19, 1945.


1/3 cup sugar

2 eggs, separated

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon Knox gelatin dissolved in 1/2 cup cold water

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 pint of cream

Cook sugar, egg yolks and milk to a custard, cool slightly and then add dissolved gelatin and vanilla. Cool completely and then add 1/2 pint of cream whipped, then fold in the 2 egg whites, beaten stiff.


10 whole graham crackers

4 tablespoons of butter

4 teaspoons of brown sugar

Mix 10 whole graham crackers (all four sections) ground fine, 4 tablespoons melted butter and 4 teaspoons of brown sugar. Firmly press half of this mixture into a 7 x 10 pan — or slightly bigger. Pour in the custard filling and cover with the remaining crumbs.

Refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

NOTE: Back when the recipe was written there were no chocolate graham crackers. Debra said she substituted the chocolate and found she really liked it. “You may use vanilla pudding in place of the custard and add the dissolved gelatin and vanilla to that and then the whipped cream and some egg whites, but I never thought that tasted as good,” she said. “It is heavier than the cooked custard makes it. This is a wonderful light summer dessert.”



This week’s column was written by Bryan Stevens, assistant editor of the Elizabethton STAR.


To submit your own recipes or suggest a person for “Chef’s Corner,” email or call 297-9077.

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