Story by Tracy Nicholson
Photography by Dan Francis Photography

Recently, Midwest Nest donated an educational evening in the kitchen to the Pray for Gray benefit which took place this fall. Four guests were promised a behind-the-scenes seat at the table and auctioned off to the highest bidder – board member, Tom Shirek. Shirek had placed a handsome bid with the intent to send his wife, Sally Shirek, a Pray for Gray committee member, on a fabulous girl’s night out. To give the group an unforgettable experience, we called on four of the most talented at-home chefs we knew and two of the most giving hosts, Jim and Vonda Leiner. All graciously gathered and donated their time to display their skills in the Leiner’s beautiful kitchen. You’re invited to see inside their autumn-inspired evening, with four delectable courses – served up in style.

Be our Guest:
Thrilled with her husband’s gift, Sally Shirek wasted no time gathering her three friends,
Shannon Aannerud, Janessa Morrow and Allison Faller, to join in the food shoot fun. This VIP gathering began their foodie adventure in Leiner’s picturesque backyard, then headed inside for a behind-the-scenes tasting of four fall-inspired courses.

The Chefs
You might recognize our featured chefs, they grace our pages many times a year. Each at-home chef offers our readers an in-depth, but down-to-earth education in family favorites, comfort food, cocktails, desserts and specialty dishes they’ve recreated from their worldly travels. Our sincere thanks to hosts and chefs, Jim and Vonda Leiner, food blogger and at-home chef, Shayla Knutson of Sweetly Simple Life, our resident cheesemonger/”Culinary Masterson” (Jesse Masterson), and last but never least, our favorite family of world travelers and cuisine contributors, Laneil Skaff, along with her daughter Julie Stoe and daughter-in-law Christine Skaff.

Savoring the Season
This is the third time we’ve shot at the Leiner home and there’s no question we’d beg them to host again. In fact, the Leiners have become known for their gracious hosting, regularly entertaining on behalf of many different fundraising dinners. This is one couple who we consider experts in creating and capturing the perfect seasonal ambiance. Guests at each dinner enjoy a backyard riverside oasis, inviting ambiance and impressive tablescapes.21
One of the coziest features in the home is their authentic woodfire pizza oven from Italy. Jim Leiner is a long-time cabinet builder for Wood Specialists in Fargo. He installed the woodfire oven, crafted their beautiful cabinetry and created the stone surround. With the oven’s interior temps reaching around 800 degrees, fall is the perfect time to fire it up.

“It is all of the wonderful people we know and have gotten to know, gathering for causes and celebrations that are filled with so many stories and wonderful memories; that is what makes our house a home,” said Vonda Leiner. “Of course, it’s always fun to design and come up with new ideas to create an environment that makes people feel special, warm and cozy.”

Course #1: Jim & Vonda Leiner

Woodfire-Roasted Fennel with Prosciutto Pizza
Brush pizza dough with olive oil.
Top with fontina cheese, roasted fennel slices, prosciutto and red pepper flakes.
After baking, sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds, sea salt and balsamic vinegar glaze.

Woodfire-Roasted Harvest Butternut Squash Pizza
Spread chipotle oil on pizza dough.
Top with caramelized onion, butternut squash, mozzarella cheese, thin apple slices, chopped bacon and a sprinkle of blue cheese.
Garnish with sage and walnuts.

Tips: The Leiners use a basic dough recipe, but you can purchase dough or make your own. If you don’t have access to a woodfire pizza oven, you can also use a pizza stone in the oven at 450-500 degrees.“Jim and I have been blessed by the support of our community, as well as family and friends when dealing with our own health challenges. We love having the opportunity to help and give back when we can, by opening our home for others to enjoy.”
Vonda Leiner, Homeowner & Midwest Nest Cuisine Contributor

Course #2: Jesse Masterson
Kale & Brussel Sprout Salad + Fig Balsamic DressingIngredients:2 – Tbs. of olive oil

1 – Bundle of Kale, chopped

2 – C. of Brussel Sprouts, shredded

1 – Apple (sliced or balled – using a melon baller)

1 – Carrot, shredded

2 – Slices of bread

1 – C. walnuts



White cheddar cheese, sliced or shredded

Brie cheese, sliced

Fig Balsamic Dressing:

1/3 – C. of olive oil

1/4 – C. balsamic vinegar

3 – Tbs. of fig preserves

Preheat oven to 425°

1. In a large salad bowl massage kale with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. This helps make the kale not so bitter. Toss Brussel sprouts in with kale.

2. Toss walnuts in one tablespoon of olive oil and add a dash of paprika, cinnamon and cumin. Using a cookie sheet, bake the walnuts in preheated oven for 10 minutes.

3. Prepare the fig balsamic dressing. Whisk ingredients together.

4. Prepare the Brie and white cheddar grilled cheese. Once done, cut the grilled cheese into small cubes. Don’t cut them too small or they’ll fall apart.

5. Top the kale and sprouts with carrots, apple, walnuts, grilled cheese croutons and salad dressing.25, 26, 19
“I was able to find most of the ingredients at the Red River Market in Downtown Fargo. On the weekends from July through October, this is a great place to find fresh and local produce, floral, handmade goods and dishes from locally-owned restaurants. Make sure to check out their upcoming schedule of events at”
Jesse Masterson, Midwest Nest Cuisine Contributor

Course #3: Laneil Skaff, Julie Stoe, Christine Skaff
Pepita Chicken + Oven-Roasted Fall Squash with Brown Sugar Glaze
Chicken in Pumpkin Seed Tomatillo Sauce


Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
½ – Pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and halved (Cashwise, 4907 Timber Pkwy S, Fargo)

½ – Medium white onion, roughly chopped

3 – Tablespoons avocado or vegetable oil, divided

1 ½ – Pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and halved

2 – tsp. ground cumin, divided

2 – tsp. Mexican oregano, divided

1/3 – C. green pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

1 – Large garlic clove, peeled and chopped

2 – C. Low sodium chicken broth

1/3 – C. Crema Mexicana or sour cream w/a splash of milk or cream

1 – C. Loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish lime wedges, for serving

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

1. Roast tomatillos and onions: In a medium bowl, combine tomatillos and onion and toss with oil to coat. Transfer to a baking sheet and lightly season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes or until tomatillos and onions are dark and crispy on the edges.

2. Season chicken generously with salt, pepper, and one teaspoon each of cumin and oregano; set aside.

3. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, add one Tablespoon of oil. Toast the pumpkin seeds in the hot oil, stirring continuously, until they have expanded and begin to pop; 1-2 minutes. Carefully remove one Tablespoon of the toasted pumpkin seeds, lightly season with salt and set aside for garnish.

4. Add garlic and jalapeno to the pan and sauté until aromatic, about one minute. Add remaining teaspoons of cumin and oregano, roasted tomatillos, onion, ½ teaspoon of salt, and chicken broth; bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes.
5. Remove saucepan from heat, add cilantro, then pour into a blender and puree until smooth. Tip: Take the center knob out of the blender and place a paper towel over the hole – otherwise, you will have a hot explosion on your hands!
6. Once pureed smooth, pour back in pan, add cream (or sour cream) and reheat over medium-low heat. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

To pan roast the chicken: With a large heavy skillet, over medium-high heat – add remaining oil. When oil is simmering, place thighs (or your preference) presentation side down in the pan. DO NOT move them around. Cook until evenly browned, about five minutes. Carefully turn thighs over and finish cooking; by either placing cover on and turning heat down to medium-low or finish in oven. Roast until the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees, or about eight minutes.

To serve:  Spoon ¼-inch of sauce into warmed shallow serving dish. Arrange pieces of roasted chicken on top of the sauce. Drizzle sauce over chicken until well coated and garnish with pumpkin seeds and cilantro. Serve with lime wedges and extra sauce on the side.

I learned how to make this at a cooking school; it’s easy to make, but it has really interesting, warm flavors that mix a bit of Mexican with a bit of fall. The tomatillos grow in a husk and have a denser texture with a little bite to it. The pepitas (green pumpkin seeds) give the dish a hint of fall without screaming pumpkin. It’s great served with plain rice, jasmine rice or a simple risotto. I prefer to use chicken thighs because they’re so moist and flavorful. You can even double the chicken and still only make one recipe of sauce. The sauce can be made up to two days ahead of time. If you have leftover sauce, try it on cheese quesadillas, steak, fajitas or fish tacos.”  Laneil Skaff, Midwest Nest Cuisine Contributor


Brown Sugar Glazed Fall Squash


Variety of fall squash – Laneil used acorn and buttercup


Salt and pepper

2- Tbs. Honey

1 – Tbs. Butter

2 – Tbs. Brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees


1. Wash squash and slice in half – top to bottom. Dig out middle seeds, then slice  ¼ to ½-inch slices. Place on foil-covered sheet pan.

2. Melt butter, using a pastry brush, brush each piece generously with butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3. Place in oven and bake for five minutes.
4. While squash is baking, make glaze. In a saucepan over medium heat, place honey, butter and brown sugar in pan and cook until brown sugar is melted.

5. Take squash out of oven and brush with glaze. Return to oven and bake for five to seven more minutes or until tender and glaze has caramelized.
(Time will vary depending on thickness of squash.)

Dessert Course: Shayla Knutson of Sweetly Simple Life
Pumpkin Crème Brûlée
4 – C. Heavy cream
8 – Egg yolks
1 – C. Sugar
1 – C. Pumpkin
1 – tsp. Vanilla
1 – tsp. Cinnamon
½ – tsp. Ginger
¼ – tsp. Cloves
¼ – tsp. Nutmeg (freshly ground)
6 – Mini pumpkins or six, 4-ounce ramekins

Preheat oven to 300 degrees
1. In a small saucepan, heat whipping cream and spices over medium heat, just until bubbly. Remove from heat; set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, combine egg yolks, sugar, pumpkin and salt. Beat with a whisk or mixer just until combined. Slowly whisk the hot whipping cream into the egg mixture.
3. Use a small serrated knife to cut off the top half-inch of the baby pumpkins. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds. Place the pumpkins in a roasting pan.
4. Divide custard mixture evenly among the pumpkins or ramekins. Place roasting pan on oven rack. Pour enough boiling water into the roasting pan to reach halfway up the sides of the pumpkins or ramekins. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until center appears nearly set when gently shaken.
5. Carefully remove pan from oven. Remove pumpkins or ramekins from water; cool on a wire rack. Cover and chill for at least two hours or up to 24 hours. Before serving, let custards stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.
6. Pour a thin, even layer of sugar over the refrigerated custards, ignite the torch, and use slow, sweeping motions. The sugar will melt slowly at first and then caramelize.

“This is a normal creme brulee, but I added pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices for a seasonal touch. Expect your creme brulee to be less firm than usual. You can use regular ramekins, but I thought the presentation would be more festive to serve it in carved-out, mini pumpkins. I would suggest preparing this recipe a day ahead of time. Also, cook time will vary with pumpkins versus ramekins; due to the moisture, plan for a longer bake time with pumpkins.”
Shayla Knutson, Sweetly Simple Life & Midwest Nest Cuisine Contributor
Follow on Facebook or Instagram @sweetlysimplelife

“Thank you to all the local chef’s involved for the wonderful meal, and especially Jim and Vonda for hosting the beautiful evening and delicious food. Thank you to Midwest Nest for the donation of the food shoot package for the Pray for Gray Gala and all of the generosities in this community. My friends and I had a great time and will forever cherish the memories together!” Sally Shirek


About Pray for Gray
Pray for Gray was founded by Julie Fletcher and is currently the only North Dakota 501(c)3 nonprofit brain tumor organization. The organization’s goal is to educate and raise awareness of brain tumors, to help meet the needs of other brain tumor patients and their families. Through their annual events, they strive to raise funds for new research and patient survival. Pray for Gray proceeds go to help area brain tumor survivors and their families, as well as brain tumor research programs.For more information regarding Pray for Gray, contact:
Pray for Gray Foundation
PO Box 446
Fargo, ND 58107