Kowalski’s culinary director shares her holiday favorites and explains her non-traditional meal

Rachael Perron dishes on her food journey and her family’s non-traditional holiday meal.
Rachael’s husband, Jerry, 13-year-old Anna, Rachael and 10-year-old Arthur Jordan, work together to prepare the Christmas pizza.

By the time the holidays roll around, Rachael Perron, White Bear Lake resident and culinary director at Kowalski’s, has been sampling stuffing and cranberry sauce for six months. So rather than plan another elaborate traditional holiday meal, she and her family have a Christmas dinner of homemade pizza and peppermint candy cane ice cream. Her non-traditional tradition came to be after a few career changes and one too many turkey dinners.

A Food Family

Growing up, Perron was surrounded by cooking and food. “I like to say I came from a food family,” she says. She was always in the kitchen cooking with her parents, who both worked full time and currently own a bakery. As the oldest child, some of the cooking responsibility fell to her and, she says, “I knew how to make a roux at age 9.”

Yes, food is in her blood. Yet when it came time to choose a career, Perron spent 12 years as an accountant. She made the choice after being the first in her mom’s family to go to college. “I was going to go to school and it was going to be something important to merit the occasion, so I studied business,” Perron says. She earned a degree in accounting at Butler University in Indiana, got her CPA, and became an accountant. “But then there came a time at which I needed to make a decision about ‘Am I going to be a partner at an accounting firm, or am I going to not?’ ” she says. After some deliberation and the realization that she didn’t love accounting quite as much as her colleagues did, she was given a new opportunity to think about what she wanted to do. “It was easy, it was food.”

Culinary Career

At that point in her career, Perron had a large network of people, knew how to run a business and knew how to cook, so she became a personal chef. “It was really quite a simple transition,” she says. She ran the business successfully for almost five years before a call from a friend informed her that the culinary director of Kowalski’s was retiring, and Perron should meet her. So Perron gave the director a call and they met at the offices. “I got there and didn’t realize … I was in an interview,” Perron says, and after some deliberation about leaving her successful personal chef business, she took the job.

“I do a little bit of everything,” she says of her work at Kowalski’s. From spending time in the kitchen to working on the company’s quarterly magazine to coordinating with department directors and store chefs, Perron is one busy gal. “There’s a lot of variety in what I do,” she says.

Supermarket Chef Showdown

Earlier in 2014, Perron was a contestant in the Food Marketing Institute’s Supermarket Chef Showdown in Chicago, a competition specifically for chefs who work in grocery stores. “Celebrity chefs, restaurant chefs are big, cookbook authors—they all get a lot of attention,” Perron says. But this competition brings the chefs behind the doors of your local grocer into the spotlight. She had entered in 2012 just for fun, but this year Perron took home the grand prize.

The competition is divided into five categories: healthy meals, family meals, ethnic meals, side dishes/mini meals and desserts. Perron competed in the healthy meals category and cooked up a Greek grain salad with dilled feta dressing, and won her category, which was thrilling enough. But then her colorful salad went up against the other categories, including the dessert, and won again. “It’s got a lot of different textures, different colors, different flavors … I think that’s ultimately what caught the judges’ eyes,” she says. Kowalski’s markets sold the salad in their deli before and after the competition, winning over the hearts and taste buds of local shoppers as well.

Non-Traditional Traditions

For Perron, like for many of us, the holidays are about family. “I would love to say that I love the food at the holidays, or the presents or the decorations, but that’s really not it,” she says. “Extra time at home with the kids, that’s what it really means.”

At this time of year, though, everyone is looking forward to holiday food—except maybe people in the food industry. “By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, I have eaten enough turkey for more than several Thanksgivings,” she says. “It’s like when you get to the end of summer … if I see another potato salad, I’m gonna be sick,” she says, laughing. So she started the whole “pizza thing” years ago as an alternative to a grand Christmas dinner and as a way for her kids to enjoy and take part in the day. Christmas Eve is a very traditional evening with her extended family, but on Christmas Day, they break out the ice cream machine and pizza toppings.

At the time, she was looking for something to do that would be fun for her two kids, one 2 years old and one a baby. “It was one of those things where we did it once, then we did it again, and now that’s our meal,” Perron says. For her kids, now 10 and 13, the meal is something they take an active part in, as they knead the pizza dough, set it by the fire to rise, add the toppings, then get to smash candy canes for the peppermint candy cane ice cream. Occasionally, Perron says, she’ll make cream puff pastries with the ice cream to class up the meal, and holiday cocktails like ginger margaritas for her and her husband.

Pizza Dough Makes two crusts

  • ½ tsp. sugar dissolved in 1 cup warm water (110°-115° F)
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowls
  • 2 ½ cups flour, divided, plus extra for kneading

Pour sugar water into the bowl of an electric mixer. Sprinkle yeast evenly over the surface of the water; let stand until foamy (about 5 min.). Whisk in salt, oil and about half of the flour; stir until smooth. Place bowl on mixer stand fitted with a dough hook. Add the remaining flour a little at a time; knead with dough hook until a stiff dough forms, then about 2 min. more until dough is smooth. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface; knead by hand until completely smooth and elastic (about 2 min.). Cut dough in half; place the dough balls in two large bowls greased with olive oil. Cover bowls with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in volume (about 1 hour). Punch down the dough balls and knead until smooth. Place on a lightly floured surface and cover loosely with plastic wrap for 10 minutes until ready to use.

Serves 6

  • 1 recipe pizza dough
  • Flour
  • Cornmeal
  • Kowalski’s pizza sauce or homemade pizzaiola sauce (see recipe), to taste
  • Toppings: sliced pepperoni, ground pork sausage (cooked), green olives and sliced pepperoncini
  • 10 oz. Kowalski’s fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
  • Freshly grated Kowalski’s Parmesan cheese, to taste
  • Kowalski’s California sea salt and whole black peppercorns, freshly ground and crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
  • Fresh Italian parsley and/or basil, chopped, to taste

On a generously floured surface, roll out each ball of dough into a circle about 16 inches across; begin in the center of each ball, working outward to the edges, turning dough to prevent sticking. Brush or tap excess flour from dough. Sprinkle a pizza peel with cornmeal (or use the back of a cookie sheet). Place dough on peel; arrange a sparse amount of sauce, toppings and cheese evenly over pizza, taking care not to overload it. Hold peel over a preheated pizza stone on the center rack of a preheated 500° oven. Tip peel so that the pizza starts to slide onto the stone, with the edge of the pizza touching the far edge of the stone. Using a single quick motion, pull pizza peel out from under pizza. Bake 8-10 min. until cheese is brown and bubbly. Remove from oven and let stand 1-2 min. before slicing. Garnish with Parmesan, salt, pepper, pepper flakes and herb(s) before serving.

Pizzaiola Sauce
Makes about 2 cups

  • ¼ cup Kowalski’s extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. fennel seeds
  • ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 30 oz. petite diced tomatoes, drained
  • Kosher salt and Kowalski’s coarse-ground black pepper, to taste

Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium heat; add garlic, oregano, fennel and red pepper. Cook 1 min. until fragrant. Add tomatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; simmer until thick (about 10 min.). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ginger Margaritas
Makes 2

  • 1 cup chilled ginger simple syrup (see recipe)
  • 4 oz. tequila
  • 2 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 2 oz. Cointreau

Put ginger simple syrup and remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake; pour into a margarita glass over ice.

Ginger Simple Syrup

Makes about 1 cup

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 oz. fresh ginger, peeled, thinly sliced

Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add ginger; bring to a simmer. Remove from heat; let steep 30 min. Strain syrup; discard ginger. Chill thoroughly in refrigerator before using. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use, up to 3 weeks.

Peppermint Candy Cane Ice Cream
Serves 4

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 cups cold heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. pure peppermint extract
  • ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • Red food coloring
  • ¾ cup crushed peppermint candy canes

In small saucepan, combine milk and sugar over medium heat, stirring constantly just until sugar is completely dissolved; remove from heat and cool completely. Stir in cream, peppermint and vanilla extract, and enough food coloring to turn the mixture a faint pink; refrigerate 2 hrs. Pour into ice cream maker; freeze according to manufacturer’s directions, adding candy during last 5 min. of mixing. Scoop into airtight storage container; freeze until firm.

Cream Puffs
Serves 6

  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 eggs

In a medium saucepan, heat water, butter and salt to a rolling boil; mix in flour until mixture forms a ball. Remove from heat; cool 5 min. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until smooth. Drop 6 evenly sized mounds 2 inches apart on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 400° oven until puffed and golden-brown (35-40 min.). Carefully remove from baking sheet; cool completely on a wire rack. Cut off tops; remove soft dough from inside of both halves. Fill bottom half of each puff with peppermint candy cane ice cream; replace tops, dust with powdered sugar and drizzle with chocolate sauce, if desired. Serve immediately.