If you put an iconic Marco Island chef in front of 25 women who aren’t too shabby in the kitchen themselves, it’s likely that the ensuing cooking class will – as the relevant saying goes – kick it up a notch.

That was the case earlier this week when Chef Laura Owen of CJ’s on the Bay showed members of the Marco Island Woman’s Club how to turn ordinary-sounding dishes into decided haute cuisine.

Thus, mac ‘n cheese, spinach soufflé stuffed tomatoes, vinaigrette with salad, and a honey cake dessert took on a new quality and allure as the effervescent Owen captivated the club members with procedure and tips. And, a touch of mischievous fun.

“I’m available for questions at any time,” Owen said. “If you have a question, and I don’t know the answer, I’ll make something up.”

That was actually a relevant point, because throughout the 45 minute class, Owen suggested alternatives to her recipes. For the mac ‘n cheese, for example, her choice was Wisconsin cheddar. But, she said, Swiss gruyere would yield an even tastier and creamier dish.

Plus, she said, lobster chunks added to the mix just before baking would elevate the staple dish to something bordering on haute cuisine heaven.

Likewise, for the vinaigrette she suggested touches of flavored oils (walnut, truffle) to be mixed into the main ingredient of olive oil (along with Dijon mustard, vinegar and salt and pepper).

And, for the honey cake – which calls for some Tennessee honey whiskey blended with locally produced honey from – Owen said there’d be no harm substituting Cognac. This, provided it was the suggested 1/4 cupful, and not half a gallon as ventured in jest by one of the club members.

In between her cheerful banter, Owen passed on a couple of hints that even seasoned chefs might not realize. One was using the oven light instead of opening the door to check on progress. Another was avoiding the use of flavored oils for sautéing because of their low smoking points.

For those tempted by Owen’s upgraded mac ‘n cheese, here’s the procedure:

1 box elbow, Cavatappi or Rigatone pasta; 1/2c butter; 1/4c flour; 2tsp salt; 1 tsp dry mustard, ½ gallon whole milk and 3 cups grated cheese.

Method: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Warm milk in a saucepan. In a separate pan, melt the butter. Add flour and cook for 1 minute. Add dry mustard. Gradually whisk in warm milk. Bring to a simmer and add pasta. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add cheese, stir to incorporate. Pour into greased casserole dish, top with cheese and bake until brown and bubbly.

See the other recipes online at

The club has been in operation since 1966, having been formed specifically to help Islanders as well as an assortment of non-profit groups.

Awarding scholarships is a huge part of the club’s fundraising efforts, dating back to 1988, when a donation from member Signe Gleich enabled the formation of the MIWC Education Foundation. Another big boost came from the late Verne Cabooris, whose donation enabled the club to provide a $12,000 scholarship to one particularly deserving student. To date, according to club records, more than $300,000 has been awarded to Marco high school students.

Other beneficiaries of the club's efforts are founding the public library, supporting the Marco Island Health Care Center and Naples Community Hospital, founding a youth center that grew into the present Y, the Marco fire rescue foundation, the Shelter for Abused Women & Children of Collier County, Susan G. Komen initiative and Meals of Hope, Collier County.

An annual home tour and fashion show/luncheon are the biggest fundraisers hosted by the club.

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