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By Case Dighero and Fran Free | Photos by Chadwick Turner

Local Flavors with Fran Free

A wellness guru shares recipes for healthy living

Fran can cook naturally


Spending an afternoon in the kitchen with health guru, entrepreneur, adjunct professor and avid DIY-er Frances Bernice Free (also known as Fran), one can’t help but take a second look at the opportunities we have to make our own community better, smarter and healthier. Because she wasn’t completely satisfied with the offerings on the shelf while pregnant with her first child in 2008, Fran founded Oh Baby Foods. Each flavor was a rich combination of fresh fruits, veggies and herbs. After feeding millions of babies and serving up Oh Baby in more than 1,000 retail stores around the U.S., Fran sold the brand in order to spend more time with family. Fran has a quick sense of humor, but she’s ultra-serious when it comes to edible altruism for not only her family but also her community. 

“Just as biodiversity is beneficial in an ecosystem, it is true for our gut,” Fran said. “We can fix and foster our microbiome by eating a diverse diet — lots of colors, up to 30 different fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and pulses per week — and consuming fermented foods and drinks. I’m currently brewing ginger and juniper berry kombucha, and fermenting yogurt simple and kimchi — all of which have more beneficial microbes than their store-bought counterparts; I aim to feel well and age well.” 


Fran graciously shared four delicious, healthy and mostly local recipes that wowed us with flavor and swagger: undoubtedly the best deviled egg I’ve ever had; a sundried tomato pesto that is transcendent paired with gluten-free pasta or simply devoured all by itself as a spread or condiment; a blast of energy with a delectable homemade granola bar; and her Ozarkian okonomiyaki, an ethereal pancake that is as fun to prepare as it is to say and eat!

Fran can cook locally


“Local” has been a buzzword for nearly a generation, a concept rooted in something important to people who make it part of their daily lives, and Fran’s perspective on the topic is as unique as her persona and culinary philosophies.

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“For me, ‘local’ comes down to our shared assets,” she said. “When we look around with an elemental lens and categorize assets, which are worth keeping in our portfolio? Is it clean water, trails that foster a lifelong love of fitness, stable urban streambanks, shops owned by our neighbors, fresh inspiring food, happy citizens, schools we’re proud of, historic buildings, visual and performance art, healthy jobs for all, solid mental health? We’re only as strong as our weakest link, and we really are in this together. So, find your local asset and support it so that we keep it.”


Fran can cook sustainably


Fran and her husband, Dennis Nelms, share a passion for living responsibly from the land in and around their home in Fayetteville. Fran takes time during our afternoon together in the kitchen to wrangle eggs from freely roaming chickens, trim fresh herbs from an early spring garden and pilfer carefully for canned pickles from the pantry.    


“Dennis and I dedicate an exorbitant amount of time to food: growing it, hunting it, cleaning it, preserving it, cooking it, eating it,” Fran said. “We’re all bound to get something right eventually. Ours is food, and we’re proud of that. Having worked in the natural products industry, I understand the appeal of convenience. But there is a balance, and there are direct connections between chronic health issues and diet. There’s just too much science out there to ignore; fresh food is good for you.” 


Fran can cook holistically


As important as healthy eating is to her own family, Fran recognizes the important ripple effect that rolls over the rest of her community. She strives to make Northwest Arkansas the next Blue Zone, a region of the world where people live longer, mostly due to diet. 


“Farming doesn’t make as much money as… just about anything else out there, but it’s one of the most vital professions that exist,” Fran said. “We have the right climate, soils and an ecosystem of problem-solving people, and I’m always on the lookout for the ones that can bring it all together. I wish to be a part of a more concerted effort to grow Northwest Arkansas smartly, artfully and healthfully.”


No doubt, Fran is walking the walk and talking the talk when it comes to holistic, natural living and eating — an inspiration to even the most excessive glutton, like me. Below, Fran shares some of her mouthwatering recipes:

Oven-Dried Cherry Tomato Pesto

Makes one pint


2 pints fresh cherry tomatoes (about 100 small tomatoes)

1 cup tightly packed basil leaves (about 2 ounces)

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil 

1/2 cup pine nuts (toast them for a deeper flavor)

1/2 cup parmesan cheese

3 garlic cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons lemon juice 


This recipe is inspired by my good friend Laura Kelly of Windberry Farm in Winslow. She has such an avidly creative food mind, which connects ingredients that surely no one else on earth has ever thought to combine. You can find her farm-fresh ingredients at the Winslow Farmers Market, Mockingbird Kitchen, The Farmer’s Table Cafe, Ozark Natural Foods and Harps Foods.

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Any cherry tomato will do in the recipe, but nostalgically, I grab fresh, vine-ripened Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. They’re a popular variety at local farmers markets and garden centers. 


Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Rinse, pat dry and slice each tomato in half. Toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil; sprinkle with salt and spread cut side up on a rack on two parchment-lined half-sheet pans. Roast for 3 hours, rotating the pans halfway through. The 100 tomatoes that you started with will reduce to a tightly packed 1 1/2 cups. You’re not looking for a crispy, crunchy, dehydrated tomato, but rather a chewy, sweet, condensed version of itself. If they’re too crispy, your finished pesto will have a crunch.


Add dried tomatoes, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, salt and lemon to a food processor, then pulse. Once combined, add basil and 1/2 cup olive oil. Pulse until well incorporated. Adjust salt, lemon and parmesan to taste. 


This deliciousness can be stored in airtight 1/2-pint glass jars in the freezer for months and enjoyed as a remembrance of bright summer days during the winter doldrums. Pesto can be folded into pasta, layered onto pizza or proudly displayed on a grazing board. 

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Savvy Seedy Energy Bars

Makes 8 squares


1/2 cup honey 

1/4 cup sunflower seed butter

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 cup rolled oats

1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

2 tablespoons sunflower seeds

2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

1 tablespoon chia seeds

1/2 cup dried fruit


As I’m training for my first half-marathon, I quickly tired of the prepackaged energy gels, and instead, I opt for these Savvy Seedy Energy Bars and a homemade electrolyte replenisher of ginger, maple syrup, vinegar, lemon and salt (also known as switchel). I adapted this bar recipe from

Combine honey, sunflower seed butter, vanilla, salt and turmeric in a saucepan. Bring to boil, then simmer for 5 minutes, whisking occasionally.


In a separate bowl, mix remaining ingredients. Add wet mixture to dry mixture, stirring well to ensure all ingredients are covered and incorporated. Transfer to parchment-lined 5-by-9-inch container. Wet fingers to press into corners and flatten surface. Chill in fridge for about an hour before cutting into squares. This is the perfect pre-run snack or after-school pick-me-up. 

Gently Deviled Eggs

Makes two dozen halves


12 eggs

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons mayo 

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard 

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg 

1 teaspoon dry dill weed

Salt to taste

Toppings (scallions, Aleppo pepper, Zaatar, sliced olives, herb sprigs, lemon zest)

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Before we crack into the recipe, I feel the need to defend a deviled egg’s place in a “healthy living” magazine edition. Eggs contain all nine essential amino acids, dietary cholesterol, vitamins A, D and B12, antioxidants, and tons of micronutrients. Fresh pasture-raised eggs have double the amount of vitamin E and omega-3’s as conventionally raised eggs. Besides health benefits, they come with egg-cellent social advantages. All yolking aside, bring these to a party, and you’ll get invited to the next one.


Pour 8 cups cool water (or enough to cover single layer of eggs by 1 inch), 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar into a large pot on the stovetop. Once the water is boiling, gently add eggs one at a time with a large slotted spoon and turn heat down to gentle simmer. Set timer for 13 minutes. When the timer goes off, gently place the eggs into an ice bath for 10 minutes. 


Gently tap all sides of the egg on the countertop and peel under gently running water. 


(That gentle process is the secret to a perfectly peeled egg every time — even if they go straight from the hen nest to the kitchen.)


Pat each egg dry, slice in half length-wise and remove yolks. Add yolks and all other remaining ingredients into a high-speed blender and blend until smooth. Add a small amount of cold water if needed to get a silky consistency. Adjust to taste. Transfer yolk mixture to a plastic zippered bag and zip it up. You can pause here for up to 24 hours if needed and even transport like this to be finished at the very last moment. Cut a corner out of the bag and pipe mixture into hard-boiled egg whites. Get crazy with the toppings. Wow the people. 

Ozarkian Okonomiyaki

Makes four pancakes


This recipe arose out of necessity. Each spring and fall, I used to plant more cabbage than we could possibly eat. I would give away cabbages to neighbors, ferment some and serve a ridiculous amount of cabbage stir fry to my family. Then, a friend suggested this one glorious word to me: okonomiyaki. Our lives changed at that moment, and we have been enjoying these photogenic, savory cabbage pancakes ever since. The kids decorate their own and eat every bite.

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For the pancake:

1 cup gluten-free flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup kombu dashi (or mushroom broth) 

4 eggs

1/2 cup toasted gluten-free bread crumbs (or 1/4 cup panko)

1/2 small head minced green cabbage (about 7 cups) 

2 tablespoons high-heat neutral oil for griddle or pan


For the toppings:

Okonomiyaki sauce

Kewpie mayo

Finely slivered nori sheet

Black sesame seeds

White sesame seeds 


Pickled ginger

Bonito flakes 


I prep most of the components from scratch, like kombu dashi, kimchi and okonomiyaki sauce, but you don’t have to. Most can be found in local grocery stores that carry natural and organic foods.  If you’re feeling particularly cultural, you could substitute nagaimo yam for 1/4 teaspoon of the baking powder in the batter. 


Mix flour, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Add dashi (and nagaimo if using), then mix well. This is your base batter, and it needs to rest an hour, or even overnight, in the fridge. 


Get the griddle hot. Stir the eggs into your batter, followed by the bread crumbs (or panko), then the cabbage. Mix well. 


Cover the griddle with 1/2 tablespoon of the oil. Spoon 1/4 of your mixture onto the griddle. Using spatulas, shape it into a 6-inch disk and let it cook until it is golden and can hold together when you flip it. Boldly flip it and continue cooking until the other side is golden. (P.S. You can also begin this part of the adventure by placing meat or mushrooms on the griddle before spooning the batter on top of it.)


Move it to a plate, and repeat for the other three portions. Now, you’re ready for the real magic. 


Just get crazy with the toppings. Use squeeze bottles to make it gorgeous, sprinkle sesame seeds and dancing bonito flakes. Toss on slices of scallions and nori. Add a dollop of kimchi and pickled ginger. The possibilities really are endless. Okonomiyaki translates to “grilled as you like it.”


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