I recently came across this interview for Bon Appétit by the wonderful, Nina Elder, who's now an editor with Every Day with Rachael Ray. It was a fun exchange about easy cooking and my inspirations of food. It shares some of my favorite kitchen tips and gives you a few insights into my Lovely & Delicious point of view on living. The magazine changed directions before the interview was published, so I thought I'd give you the national exclusive right here.
When did you first start cooking?
My first memory of cooking was in 4th grade, though I am sure I started much earlier because I come from a family of great home cooks. I used my mama's Betty Crocker Kids Cookbook as an after-school companion while I waited for my parents to come home from work. I loved the art and science of cooking and viewed making recipes as experiments. My parents and grandparents always encouraged me and my culinary creations. It was a good creative outlet for me.
Who taught you to cook?
My grandmothers were always cooking for the family and our community – church, neighbors…anyone, really. I learned by watching them. My great-grandmother cooked Southern food for the small town in Southeastern Pennsylvania where my family is from. Every day, she would cook fried chicken, biscuits and coconut custard pies for lunch at her house. To me, it seemed the entire town knew Miss Zella and at least 10-15 people would be seated around her table all the time.
My grandmother, Clara, was a good cook, but she was an even better baker. She baked and decorated wedding cakes, Easter egg cakes and Halloween cupcakes for people in the community. While she made roses and daisies and other flowers from icing, she would have me right next to her with my own piping bag. She taught me how to make all kinds of frosting designs. It was a ton of fun and over time I created my own cakes that became hits with family and friends (this WAY before Food Network and shows like Ace of Cakes!).
Why do you like to cook?
I love to cook because it gives me a creative outlet. For me, after a long, challenging day, I escape in the kitchen and let go. More than that, though, I just love to share. And cooking allows me to do that. I love having people just stop over and sit at the table to enjoy some food. It brings me great joy and peace. I believe this is how we change the world.
What are your cooking inspirations (books, your travels, cookbooks, TV, magazines, etc.)?
I travel all over the world and love to experience everyday food from all cultures. But, it's really everyday people and my family and friends who inspire me. When they share a dish that they made show it to me because it was "just so good," that makes me smile. I have many cookbooks, but the ones I use over and over again are Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen, Sara Foster's Fresh Every Day and Susan Spungen's Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook.
Whom do you cook for (family, friends, etc.)?
I will cook for anyone, including myself. My grandparents always said, "there's always a plate at our table for you." I say the same thing.
Any tips on how to get good food on the table fast?
For me, food doesn't have to be perfect - it just has to taste good. I think it's OK to use jarred pestos, sauces and other prepared ingredients - as long as they are made from real, fresh ingredients. I rely on items like Bella Cucina's line of pestos and sauces to get fresh, simple meals together quickly.
What are your top three favorite foods?
That's easy… Root beer, mac n cheese and PIG.
It's a special day today. It's my mama's birthday! Everyone knows how much I love my mama - I am a proud Mama's Boy. I am very blessed to have such a strong, sweet, supportive, fun parent who every single day takes her job as a mother seriously – even now.
This morning, I found this photo of Mama sitting down at the family dinner table with me and her sister, who is the same age as I am. My Aunt Ellen and I were on summer vacation after finishing fourth grade and wanted to make a special meal for her. We pulled out Mama's big Betty Crocker Cookbook and after poring over the recipes settled on Steak Diane - I think because it sounded so fancy. We chose Twice Baked Potatoes, too. They involved several different cooking techniques: baking, mashing, "re-scooping" and baking again, which seemed like a big challenge for us two ambitious kids. Peas, which were frozen, fresh salad, that we chopped ourselves, and Crescent Rolls rounded out the meal.
This was the first "formal" dinner I had ever prepared. I remember being excited and anxious. I also recall feeling so grown up. I was doing what I really loved to do, even then. Mama was so patient with me and my aunt...and so complimentary. To this day, it is still the most lovely and delicious meal I have ever eaten. I now get that satisfied feeling whenever I cook a meal for my loved ones.
I appreciate my mom so much for nurturing my love of sharing food and connecting people especially through my early years. I treasure our time at the family table and look forward to sharing many more meals together. Happy Birthday Mama.
It was exactly six years ago today that my grandmother, Clara, passed away. I'm amazed at how much time has gone by since. While I miss her tremendously, I realize now how much she taught me, and how I share her lessons through my work and the people I connect with. It's beautiful.
One of the wonderful things that Grandma taught me was to put a lot of love in food. Growing up, I marveled at how joyful she was when she cooked – even when I knew she was tired. There was rarely a day that she didn't have an apron tied around her waist, and the oven wasn't to 350°. She always had the radio or TV on. She would sing to tunes from her "boy" Frank Sinatra or cheer on her "boys," the Phillies. Her kitchen just radiated with love…and everyone love being in it.
Grandma had an extra large ceramic mixing bowl with a large pink stripe on it. It was reserved for special family recipes, like her Italian TaDaas or pizelle cookies. I always knew it was an extra good day when Grandma pulled out the big bowl from the pantry. I would be giddy with anticipation about what she would make. Grandma was not a precise cook. She would follow recipes, but she would add an extra pinch of this or a teaspoon-or-so of that. And it never mattered. Nearly everything she made turned out perfectly…and certainly tasted oh-so-good!
I now have Grandma's bowl. It's tucked away in my pantry just like it was in Grandma's. I pull it out to make special recipes just like Grandma did. While my cooking style is different than hers, I do like to improvise and add my own touches here and there. Cooking with Grandma's bowl makes me smile. Using it, I feel connected to her as if she's standing right there with me. Sometimes I hear her singing an "ole blue eyes" tune. And every single time I use the bowl, the dishes I make turn out just right…just as Grandma's did.
My sweet friends Kim Severson and Leslie Zweben and I decided to host a dinner to raise money for our church's new building fund. We had been looking to get together for dinner for several weeks and thought instead of going out, let's get in the kitchen and share a meal with our church and foodie friends.
Secretly I was giddy, because for most of my adult life I wanted to serve like the church ladies from my childhood did…the ones who cooked chicken and parsley potato suppers for the congregation from the United Methodist Fellowship Hall kitchen. I admired the way they lovingly prepared meals for the community alongside their lifelong friends and fellow churchgoers. So this dinner was my chance to do just that with people I loved and admired…and give to a church community that has shaped and supported my life for the past 10 years.
You can imagine what it might be like for three passionate, yet very busy, cooks to come together to make a meal for 16. But for Kim, Leslie and I, it just sort of flowed. Kim had her new CookFight book coming out in the fall, so pulling together the menu was fairly easy and fun. We started with grilled skirt steak and Kim's fresh salsa verde and then quickly added scalloped tomatoes, because in summer, tomatoes are just what you do for a sit-down family-style supper. (I later found out the tomaotes were inspired by a day Kim spent in the kitchen with Ina Garten).
In thinking about the intention of the dinner: to create a modern cook's version of a traditional church supper, I couldn't help but channel Sara Foster and the recipes she updated from her Memphis grandmother's collection in Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen. Classic angel biscuits with spicy watercress and tangy chevre came to mind…so did warm platters of field peas spooned with lemony-basil vinaigrette. We certainly needed a sweet to complete the evening and thought we couldn't have a church dinner without a handmade pie. So we chose the fried strawberry pies flavored with South Carolina peach moonshine from Kim's column in Garden & Gun. Personally, I had never fried pies before, so for me, it was both an experiment and a treat.
When the food community heard what we were doing, they quickly banded together to support us. It was wonderful. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, the most gentlemanly of gentleman farmers, shipped us long, lean strips of his flavorful grass fed beef and a boxful of extra large wings from his organic, free range chickens. Our friend Emily from Royal Rose Produce followed suit, sending the largest heads of frisée and radicchio I had ever seen, grown in the "salad bowl capital of the world" along the central coast of California.
Gina Hopkins and the amazingly talented teams at High Road Craft Ice Cream and Counter Culture Coffee provided the finishing touches for the meal. They sent yummy, peppery Pinot; creamy, locally churned buttermilk ice cream; and robust Fast Forward coffee beans. The generosity of these food friends was humbling and allowed us to craft an exceptional dinner while raising a generous amount of funds for our new church home.
The sold out supper brought together people of all backgrounds and faith. And the night was filled with good, lovingly prepared food and warm, caring fellowship – just like the church dinners from my past. The evening was both satisfying and soulful fur us...in the same way I imagine how the church ladies felt each time they washed their last dish and turned out the fellowship hall light.
"Who doesn't love a biscuit?" That's what I said when I first met Biscuit Boss John Craig, creator of the International Biscuit Festival. It made perfect sense to me that there was a festival dedicated to one of the most iconic Southern foods.
And what a festival it is. In just three short years, this biscuit bash has ballooned from 8,000 to nearly 20,000 biscuit believers. They congregate from all over – Kentucky, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama…and all parts of Tennessee – on Knoxville's Market Square to celebrate the Southern trifecta – soft flour, sweet milk and shortening. Now that's some biscuit love!
I had never been to Knoxville before, but I was anxious to get to the biscuit promised land and experience it for myself. More than 90 purveyors were participating, including the legendary Loveless Café, Nashville's fine dining Capitol Grille and Benton's Bacon & Hams, which in my and many other's opinion, is the best damn bacon known to man. This was definitely not an average Saturday outing…but I was ready.
Parked right at the intersection of the Farmer's Market and the beginnings of Biscuit Boulevard, I couldn't miss or resist the Cruze Farm Milk Bar truck. Colleen Cruze and her gingham-garbed milk maids entertained lines of giddy patrons while they peddled lime cardamom ice cream, sweet corn hoe cakes, and over-sized, oven-warm buttermilk biscuits slathered with tangy buttermilk butter. They literally stole my heart…and made my taste buds swoon.
Walking along Biscuit Boulevard, I was delighted to see kids of all ages. Moms, dads, grandmaws and granddaddies were smiling as they eagerly searched for the next freshly baked cathead. I, of course, dodged my way through the crowd, making a bee line for the small, scratch-made biscuits that country stars croon about from the Loveless Café. Dolloped with their sweet, cinnamon-y peach preserves, they make me want to put on my boots and two-step.
With Rodney Crowell and Keith Whitley tunes in my head, I danced my way to The Blackberry Farm Biscuit Brunch. The sold out, tented affair brought the best of Blackberry right to the heart of Biscuit Square. Crisp, white-shirted servers warmly greeted us and politely showed us to our bone china and silver-set tables. The centerpieces were quite playful with boxes of pimento cheese popcorn alongside fresh lime-tomato bloody marys and stacks of golden, fluffy biscuits with benne seeds. I was in heaven!
Then came the food. Chef Josh Feathers and proprietor Sam Beall crafted a comfort-like menu that featured warm, black peppered cheesecake made with their signature soft Brebis cheese, which is now a regular staple in my fridge. Slow-braised pork cheeks served over creamy Anson Mills grits with pickled ramps was the main course. I'm glad the plate was small, because the flavors were so warm and homey I could have eaten a bowlful of the grits and probably half the pig. The final sweet was a luscious, custardy pot de crème flecked with vanilla bean and topped with juicy bits of South Carolina strawberries. Yes, I ate the whole thing.
The Festival finished with biscuit doyennes Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart teaching tips and techniques from their tome, Southern Biscuits, on the Biscuit Bake-Off Stage. If you're going to learn how to make the perfect biscuit and its many variations, these are the ladies to learn from. They were soon followed by the quirky and competitive Miss and Mr. Biscuit Pageant where contestants vied for the top prize with big biscuit wigs, bouncy biscuit raps and ditties and eloquent biscuit monologues. One contender playfully milked the crowd with strategically placed biscuits on her apron and a "show me your biscuits" sign. It was hands-down hilarious!
So now I have been to the biscuit promised land…and I can say that I am one of the BiscuitFest believers. May 17, 2014 is already on my books. I will be back to Knoxville with all the other 20,000 biscuit buffs.
One thing for sure, Tasia Malakasis knows how to throw a party! So when she called to tell me she was doing a shoot for Country Living and asked, "Might you come to Elkmont?," I didn't hesitate to say yes.
I've come to love and know Tasia as she has built Belle Chevre into a premium artisanal goat cheese company over the past few years. It's been wonderful to watch…and we've had some good fun along the way. Tasia and I have done some magazine shoots together…and often cross paths at the Fancy Food Show. But, I had never been to the creamery where the Belle Chevre goat cheese magic happens. This shoot was my chance.
I flew into Huntsville that afternoon, amidst severe storms and threats of downpours, determined to make it for the first cocktail. After a few bumps and delays, I arrived just in time for the party caravan to the farm. As we approached the creamery, it was simple and a little rustic just as I imagined. Horses gently galloped in the distance, and the afternoon sun glinted over the grassy fields and still pond. It was the perfect backdrop for an early evening fete.
As I got out of the truck, the smell of roasted lamb wafted through the air. My stomach began to grumble. Chef David Bancroft was perched under a large oak tree, carefully turning the Will Harris mutton and bathing it in Back Forty Brew with fresh rosemary (mmmm…). Peach moonshine cocktails with fresh basil greeted us as we walked to our tables. And large sheets of Apalachicola oysters on ice just begged to be eaten. Tasia paired them with a lemon zest mignonette, which was a refreshing summer twist to one of my favorite seafoods.
As the sun drew down, the string lights surrounding our tables started to glow. All the mamas and kiddos settled in, and we laughed and giggled our stuffed bellies off to a few good Southern jokes. A local string band propped themselves up on a few bails of hay and began to croon and pluck tunes, which made my feet start to tap. After a few twirls on the dance floor, and a few nips of bourbon, it was time to call it a wrap.
When Tasia calls with another invite, you can bet I'm on the next plane to Belle Chevre and 'bama.
One of my favorite pie recipes from Sara Foster of the much-beloved market-cafes, Foster's Market in Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, is her Molasses-Bourbon Pecan Pie. I like it because adding molasses to a mostly traditional Southern pecan pie reminds me of the flavor-rich shoo-fly pies from my childhood. The bourbon is a not-so-subtle Southern twist, which is perfect for my holidays in Georgia. Here is the recipe excerpted from Sara's great book, Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen (Random House 2011). We shot it for the Thanksgiving issue for Better Homes & Gardens, too. Make sure to use Georgia pecans (hometown plug).
"I substitute molasses for corn syrup in this version of classic pecan pie. The filling is every bit as sticky as you'd expect, and the molasses and bourbon add a deep, almost smoky flavor," Sara says. If you prefer a milder molasses flavor, swap in light corn syrup for half the molasses.
- 1 cup molasses
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 large eggs, beaten
- 3 T bourbon (optional)
- 2 T unsalted butter, melted
- 1 T pure vanilla extract
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 2 cups pecan halves
- 1 9-inch Everyday Piecrust, see recipe below*
Preheat oven to 350°F. For filling, in a large bowl stir together molasses, sugar, eggs, bourbon, butter, vanilla and salt. Evenly spread pecans in unbaked pie shell. Pour filling over pecans.
Place pie on center rack of oven, with a foil-lined baking sheet on the rack below to catch any filling that bubbles over. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until firm around the edges and slightly loose in the center. Cool pie on wire rack several hours.
This recipe makes enough for two single-crust pies.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 T sugar 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 8 T cold unsalted butter (1 stick)
- ¼ cup vegetable shortening
- 3 T ice water
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 2 t white distilled vinegar
In a large bowl combine flour, sugar and salt. Using a pastry blender and working quickly to prevent butter from melting into flour, cut in butter and shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
In a small bowl combine ice water, beaten egg and vinegar; stir to mix. With a fork, mix egg mixture into flour mixture just until dough clumps together and is moist enough to pat together; do not overmix. If dough is dry and crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, just until dough comes together. Dough should not be wet or sticky.
Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface. With lightly floured hands, form dough in a ball. Divide dough in half; shape each half in a flat disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 3 days.
For basic pie shell, let dough stand at room temperature 10 minutes. On lightly floured surface, roll dough with dusted rolling pin to ¼- to ½-inch thickness. Fold dough in half or gently roll onto rolling pin; lift and transfer to pie tin. Lightly press dough onto bottom and sides of tin. Trim dough to 1 1⁄2 inches beyond edges of tin. Roll dough under to form a rim; crimp with fingers or tines of fork. Prick bottom crust two or three times with a fork. Wrap with plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 3 days.
To prebake, preheat oven to 425°F. Line chilled pastry with double thickness of foil. Bake 8 minutes. Remove foil and bake 6 to 8 minutes more or until golden. Cool. Make ahead, prepare and refrigerate up to 3 days ahead, or freeze pastry up to 3 months. Shells can be baked up to 3 days ahead, then stored, covered, at room temperature.
Last week, my Nana announced she would no longer be canning tomatoes from her garden. It took me a minute, but I quickly realized that this would be the first time in my 40 years that I would not have canned tomatoes at my year-round disposal. Gasp! Nana's tomatoes are my secret weapon in the kitchen. I pull them out when I make my cinnamon-scented osso buco, my quick and healthy Autumn Soup, and my slow-stewed pink barbecue beans with pumpkin. They also make my Chesapeake Muddled Mary's kick some cocktail ass.
I also realized that I had never learned how to can tomatoes myself. How could I of all people not know how to do this? So, I quickly told Nana to pick a date, and I would come to the farm so she could teach me. The idea excited me…and made me a little nervous. This was a life moment…a rite of passage, and I wanted to be on my culinary game.
When I arrived at Nana's the next week, she had a big cardboard box filled with large, summer ripened Big Boys. They were gorgeous. She also had the canning accoutrements laid out perfectly over the formica counters ready to go: the 32 ounce Ball jars, which I would guess have been in the family for 20 or more years, and their matching sealable lids; my great-grandmother's chipped, white enamel dishpan that's probably seen 50 years worth of tomato and other vegetable peels; Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, Nana's must-have; two not-so-sharp peeling knives; and a copper-bottomed steel pot large enough for boiling seven or so jars.
Before we started, Nana pulled a book from her cupboard. I had never seen it before. It was titled the Freezing & Canning Cookbook: Prize Recipes from the Farms of America Food Editors of Farm Journal. The book was obviously quite old and splattered and stained from year's of use. As she cracked it open with her gentle, work-worn hands, my jaw dropped. Out fell decades' worth of notes painstakingly recording everything Nana has ever canned. The notes went something like this: October 1, 1975 - 26 quarts tomatoes, 48 quarts tomato juice, 64 jars grape jelly, 11 pints applesauce. I was astonished. To her, it was just a simple journal, but to me, it was years of family history beautifully archived in an heirloom cookbook. My heart burst with joy, and I tingled all over. This day of canning was sacred…a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Soon, water was boiling and tomatoes were ready to be scalded. Just a quick three minutes, Nana instructed. "We want to peel them, not cook," she said. Batch after batch, we loaded my great-grandmother's enamel pan with the juicy, just-cooked fruits, quickly coring and skinning them. Honestly, it was hard not to take a bite, but I was more enthralled by each and every canning step that Nana so patiently shared. I didn't want to miss a tip or trick.
After an hour or so, several jars were lined up along the counter, filled with halved and quartered tomatoes and covered with their sweet juice. Nana grabbed her butter knife and ran it along the inside of each jar, prodding and poking to release any remaining air bubbles. "They'll explode," she cautioned. We added a final teaspoon of Diamond salt to the top, screwed on the wide mouth lids, and in racks of seven, carefully lowered them into the steaming, black porcelain canner. In 20 minutes, our "put-up" masterpieces would be complete.
As I placed the slightly cool tomato jars on the counter, I marveled at their simplistic beauty. They were gorgeous. I was proud of our canning accomplishment, but more grateful for the time with Nana. I took a deep breath and gently sighed as my weary feet sank into the linoleum floor. What a day! Happy and content, I looked up and saw the pottery artwork I made in the fourth grade hanging over the still-warm stove. It was imprinted, "Nana's Kitchen." I grinned at the sign and nodded my head, realizing just how many life lessons I have learned right here in my Nana's kitchen.
I've seen a lot of magical sunsets in my lifetime, like the vast, Zambian sun dropping over Victoria Falls and the purple-pink striped Costa Rican globe falling beneath the Pacific. But there's something about the sunsets of Alys Beach that I find quite enchanting.
I ventured down to Alys and the communities of 30-A a year ago with a buddy for a much-needed winter getaway. I had never been to the powdery white beaches of the Florida Panhandle before, but had read the accolades from Conde Nast. After working intensely for a long stretch, I longed to dip my toes in some warm, toasty sand and hear seagulls chirp to the sound of crashing waves. We arrived late that night, so I couldn't rush down the boardwalk right away, but when the next day awoke, heading to the beach was a top priority.
We quickly found a spot along the gentle Gulf shore. I plunked my beach chair down and dug my heels deeply in the sand. It felt soooo good! I looked up and marveled at the brightness of the sun, particularly as it bounced off Alys' shocking white, Cycladic-like homes. It reminded me of walking amongst the sacred churches of Santorini along the bright blue Aegean Sea. Now I understood why this sea spot ranked among the world's top 10.
Surprisingly, as we headed back to our house late that afternoon, we bumped into friends who lived at Alys. I remarked about how impressed I was by the day's light. They invited us to meet on the beach at dusk to catch what they called a spectacular show. With a bottle of bubbles, we rolled up our pant legs and went off to gaze at the setting sun. The bright white sky quickly turned to a gorgeous deep orange and golden dark amber. With the last rays of the day about to fade, we gratefully raised our sparkling flutes to say good night. I have since returned to Alys for those sunsets…and a few bubbles, too.