Country Fete at the Belle Chevre Creamery

One thing for sure, my friend, Tasia Malakasis, sure knows how to throw a party! So when she called me and asked, “Might you come to a ‘lil thang’ I’m having here in 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 party 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 made it just in time for the party caravan to the farm. As we arrived…just as I thought, the creamery was simple, yet beautiful. Horses gently galloped in the distance and the late afternoon sun shimmered over the field grass and the gentle still pond. It was the perfect backdrop for an early evening fete.

As I got out of the truck, the smell of roast 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, to which I gladly obliged. Tasia paired them with a lemon zest mignonette, which was a delightfully refreshing summer twist to one of my favorite seafoods. I’m definitely stealing that idea!

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 and their bass 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 night.

When Tasia calls again with another invite, I’ll definitely be on the next plane to ‘bama!

The New Cooper Family Reunion

Today, my mother and her siblings are hosting a family reunion for the Cooper side of the family. It’s being held at my grandparent’s home, which overlooks the 178-acre dairy farm my great-grandfather bought in the early 1900s. It’s been years since the family has gathered together, probably more than two decades at least, so there’s a lot of excitement and anticipation.

I woke up wondering what my great-grandmother Florence, Mommom Cooper as we called her, would think about all of this. She’d probably ‘p-shaw’ if she knew that several cousins would be meeting for the very first time. Mommom was the matriarch and used to host our reunions at the farm. She was the glue that held us all together. I think her signature super sweet Wyler’s lemonade and thin, extra crispy chocolate chip cookies helped.

To me and “us kids” growing up, the family reunion was like a vacation, or even Christmas. It was a day that we looked forward to for weeks in advance. And when the day came, nothing else mattered. We were up at sunrise, helping Mommom and my grandparents get ready while we waited for carloads of aunts, uncles and cousins to pile into the gravel lane.

Our family reunions were so much fun. We played yard darts and freeze tag. We climbed the farm’s old pine trees and rocked the rickety wooden swing my great-grandfather made until it almost toppled over. I loved hearing my Grandpa’s hardy laugh nearby as he drank Old Milwaukee with my uncles. It made me feel safe and at home. I think it did the other kids, too.

Of course there were lots of delicious, homemade dishes. My Nana would make her potato salad, which had the most precisely cubed potatoes and the perfect balance of mustard and mayo with the sharpness of her garden grown green onions. All it ever needed was a little sprinkle of Morton salt. There would be the requisite Jell-O salads with “fruit cup,” too. And plenty of grilled burgers and hot dogs with extra sweet pickle relish. My aunt Jan was a baker, so we had plates of cookies and often chocolate layer cake with whipped chocolate frosting that I sometimes couldn’t help but stick a finger or two into.

What I marveled at the most were the Tupperware containers, each with handwritten masking tape labels that the women in the family painstakingly scrawled their names on so they could properly get them home that night. They made for a colorful mix of harvest gold, avocado green and sky blue along the wooden, plastic covered picnic tables. And they had those fun lids with see-through cutouts in the shape of flower petals.

I loved those family gatherings. And I know that my mother and her brothers and sister did, too. I trust that today ignites those special family feelings from years past, and that the newly met cousins have as much fun as we recall. Here’s to Florence and the new Cooper family reunion.

Grandma’s Bowl of Love

It was exactly six years ago today that my grandmother, Clara, passed away. I’m amazed at how much time has gone by since that day. While I miss her, I realize now how much she taught me, and how I am sharing her lessons through my work and the people I connect with.

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 at least set to 350°. She always had the radio or TV on, too, and 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 there.

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 beautifully…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 Grandm

Chipotle Pumpkin Pie with Candied Ginger Double Crust

Serves 8

This recipe is a modern version of my Grandma Clara’s trademark extra thick crust. I follow her recipe, but give it a modern, elegant twist by adding candied ginger to the crust and chipotle to the pie filling. I like to serve it with bourbon cream. The pie is a huge hit every holiday. Grandma made her piecrust with shortening. I prefer the flavor of butter. This recipe was featured on the PBS special, Heirloom Meals Thanksgiving.

Pie Crust
•    2½ cups White Lily flour (or any All Purpose flour)
•    1 teaspoon salt
•    2 T sugar
•    1½ sticks unsalted butter (cold and cut into small cubes)
•    ½ cup shortening
•    6-8 T ice water
•    1/3 cup chopped candied ginger

Mix together flour, salt and sugar. Cut in butter and shortening until it’s coarse. Add cold water and form ball of dough. Put in fridge until cold. Roll out dough until just larger than the pie plate and 1/3” for the thick crust. Form crust in pie plate and press in ginger bits.

Pie Filling
•    2 cups pumpkin
•    2 cups milk or cream
•    1 cup brown or granulated sugar (pack brown sugar in cup)
•    2 eggs, gently beaten
•    1 teaspoon salt
•    ½ teaspoon ginger
•    ½ teaspoon allspice
•    2 teaspoon cinnamon
•    ½ teaspoon chipotle powder
•    1/3 cup pumpkin blossom honey (or other honey) to glaze the baked pie

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 475°.

Mix pumpkin, milk, sugar, beaten eggs, salt and spices for two minutes. Pour into deep dish pie plate. Place in the 475° oven for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 400° and bake 45 minutes or until firm. Keep an eye on the crust – you may want to cover the crust with tin foil to prevent from burning.

After the pie is cooled. Glaze the pie by pouring the honey in the center of the pie. Then tilt the pie, letting the honey run to the inside edge of the crust. Turn until the entire top of the pie is coated with honey.

Watch me make this pie on PBS “Heirloom Meals: Thanksgiving.”

Parmesan-Thyme Sliced Sweet Potatoes

Serves 4

Sweet potatoes are healthy carbs, and I like to make them for dinner with chicken or pork. I like them savory-style, though. I created this dish one day after I spilled some parmesan on my roasted sweet potato – I loved the slightly salty taste with the sweetness.

•    4 medium-sized sweet potatoes, sliced ¼” thick (skin-on)
•    4 count olive oil
•    ½ bunch fresh thyme – removed from stems
•    1 c microplaned parmesan
•    ¾ T kosher salt
•    For a little kick, a pinch or two of cayenne

Parmesan Thyme Sweet Potatoes

Preheat oven to 350°. Add the potatoes to a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the salt, olive oil and fresh thyme. Toss to coat. Place in a 9”x13” baking dish. Bake for 40-50 minutes until tender with fork. Add the cheese and bake a 5 more minutes until melted and golden. Let rest 5 minutes and serve.

For fun presentation, sometimes I bake this in a 10” terracotta saucer that has been seasoned and cured in the oven. It adds interest to a dinner party, and it costs only $4.99!

Gram’s Banana Split Dessert

It’s a bittersweet morning. My mother called to tell me that my (great) Gram passed away. Gram was one month and one day shy of her 100th birthday. My first thought was, “Oh com’n, Gram…couldn’t you have just held on a little bit more?!” I know…it’s quite selfish, but how many people can say they’ve lived to be 100? I think it’s cool, and I wanted Gram to do that. The truth is, though, she was frail and had not been able to eat or drink for a few days. Her body was simply winding down. I bet she was just tired after traveling this earth for nearly 100 years. I would be.

GramsBananSplitDesert

As I thought about Gram, many memories flashed through my mind. She was quite the pioneer…and a fiercely independent woman in her own gentle way. She was a single mother in the 1940s and ‘50s. She traveled to far places like the Canary Islands and Egypt in the ‘60s. She was as a loving, safe haven for my mother when she got pregnant with me in the early ‘70s and for my uncle when he came out in the early ‘80s. And, she worked as an AVON lady well into her 80s. What a woman! The thing that I marveled most about her is that she accomplished all of this while flourishing in a small, conservative Pennsylvania town.

Family photos comfort me, and today I wanted to find some that jogged my memory of Gram. I pulled a picture box off the shelf, hoping to scurry up a few. As I thumbed through stacks of pictures, I found a Banana Split Dessert recipe with Gram’s beautifully crooked handwriting. My heart warmed…and then I chuckled. The recipe was written on an AVON card. It was “so Gram.” She sold AVON for decades, and you could find it in all corners of her house! I am convinced she was one of the oldest working AVON ladies in the country by the time she retired, which was not too long ago.

Gram made a lot of cakes and desserts in my short 40 years. Here’s a Lovely & Delicious one to share. Peace and love, y’all. Thanks for the good thoughts and prayers. Love the ones you’re with.

Special thanks to my L&D Facebook friend, @MikeStock, who transcribed Gram’s handwriting while I was with my family for Gram’s memorial. Gotta love how Facebook brings people together. Thanks, Mike!
Gram’s Banana Split Dessert
Serves 15

Ingredients
•    2c graham cracker crumbs
•    ½ c butter melted
•    ½ c butter
•    2c powdered sugar (sifted)
•    2 eggs
•    5 bananas
•    1 15½ oz. can crushed pineapple, well drained
•    1 8 oz. container frozen whipped dessert topping (thawed)
•    ½ c chopped nuts (optional)
•    semi-sweet chocolate, shredded
•    maraschino cherries

Directions

In a mixing bowl toss together the graham cracker crumbs and the melted 1/2
c butter. Press the crumb mixture onto the bottom of a 13x9x2” baking pan. In a small mixer bowl, beat remaining ½ c butter for about 30 seconds until softened.
Add powdered sugar; beat till fluffy. Beat in eggs. Spread egg mixture over crumb mixture. Slice bananas lengthwise into halves and arrange over the egg mixture. Spoon pineapple over bananas. Spread with dessert topping. Sprinkle with chocolate and nuts if desired. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving. Cut into squares to serve.
Top each square with a cherry. Cover and chill to store.

Interview with Bon Appetit

I recently came across this interview for Bon Appetit 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 also 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. Enjoy!

Bon Apetite Interview

1. When did you first start cooking?

My first memory of cooking was in 4th grade, though I am sure it was much earlier – I came from a family of great home cooks. I used the Betty Crocker Kids Cookbook as an after-school companion while I waited for my parents to come home. I loved the art and science of cooking and viewed making recipes like experiments. My parents and grandparents always encouraged me and my culinary creations.

2. Who taught you to cook?

My grandmothers were always cooking food for the family and for our community – church and neighbors…anyone, really. I learned by watching them. My great-grandmother cooked Southern-style for the small town of Oxford, PA I grew up in. Every day, she would cook fried chicken, biscuits and coconut custard pies for dinner at her house at 11:30 a.m. The entire town knew Miss Zella and was invited to sit down and have lunch at her house. She always seemed to have 10-20 people!  My grandmother, Clara, was a good cook, but an even better baker. She had a cake baking and decorating business on the side. While she would make masterpieces with roses and daisies and other flowers from icing, she would have me right next to her with my own piping bag and she would teach me how to make different designs. It was a ton of fun…and over time I created my own cake masterpieces that were incredible hits with family and friends (and this was WAY before Food Network and shows like Ace of Cakes!).

3. 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 have a blast. More than that, though, I just love to share. And cooking allows me to do that. I love having people just stop over and share some food. It brings me great joy and peace. It’s my small way of changing the world for good.

4. What are your cooking inspirations (books, your travels, cookbooks, TV, magazines, etc.)

I travel all over the world and love to experience every day food from all cultures. But, it’s really every day people and my family and friends who inspire me. When they share a dish that they actually remembered and had to share – 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.

5. Whom do you cook for? (family, friends, etc.)

I will cook for anyone, including myself. My grandparents always said to anyone and everyone, “there’s always a plate at our table for you.” I say the same thing.

6. Any tips on how to get good food on the table fast?

For me, food doesn’t have to be perfect…and 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. I like that, too, because then it provides me the opportunity to give a guest a special little gift if they liked something I made with a jar. It also encourages them to get in the kitchen on their own.

Summer Fancy Food Show 2012 – What’s New, Kids?

I jetted up to the Summer Fancy Food Show to see the hot new food products for this coming holiday season. It’s always a fun food adventure that I have come to love each year. The Food Show attracts all the buyers from major retailers, like Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s, as well as the editors of top magazines, such as Better Homes & Gardens and Real Simple. It is the largest specialty food trade show in the U.S. and a really big deal for all the food exhibitors.

Traditionally, the show is held at the Javits Center in New York, but this year it was hosted in D.C. I had never been to the Washington Convention Center, so I was intrigued by the new venue. As soon as I hit the floor, I knew it was going to be a different show. It had a different vibe from year’s past, and I was so looking forward to the new food finds.

What I stumbled onto was a lot of fun. There were some really fresh, inventive, quality products. Here’s a run down of what I found to be particularly Lovely & Delicious. Most of these are available in grocery stores or in specialty markets or will be found in gift guides later this year.

  • Luna & Larry’s Organic Coconut Bliss Ginger Cookie Caramel is made with coconut milk and sweetened with agave. It is my hands-down favorite product of the show. It reminded me of my great-grandmother’s ginger snaps with a twist of her caramels – but in a modern, “today” way.
  • Nye’s Cream Sandwiches are handmade by a great couple in Wilmington, NC. Great packaging, great flavor. Coconut Chocolate was my favorite flavor.
  • GoGo Squeez launched a new flavor of applesauce, Apple Cherry. It’s good, wholesome food for kids and families – on-the-”go,” of course.
  • Seth Greenberg’s Authentic New York Brownie Crunch. Who’d a thunk turning brownies into chips or bark would work? But it does…
  • The New York Times likes First Field Jersey Ketchup…and so do I. It’s a little thin in consistency, but has really good flavor. (just say no to corn syrup)
  • Gary Poppins Caramel Cheddar is a classic Chicago treat. They had me at the packaging. I fell in L&D love immediately. So much so, I couldn’t make myself tear the bag open, at least at first. This is a refreshed brand that you will see mainstream very soon.
  • Here’s a surprise: Falafel…as a chip! Falafel, lentils and hummus chips were quite popular. I liked the flavor of these Flamous Chips, and think they’re a lot of fun. Made from folks in L.A. (…but of course!).
  • Lowcountry Produce is a perennial favorite, but their soups are just oh-so-good. Especially their fresh Peach Gazpacho and Garden Vegetable.
  • I had never heard of Peppadews, but I’m glad I have now. They’re from South Africa and are a sweet and just-tart alternative to cherry peppers. Perfect for sandwiches and salads…or a fun cocktail.
  • J-Burger’s J-Chili. This brand brought back the “Manwich” dinner memories from when I was 8. Lots of great flavor, and fun. They’re making sloppy joes good and gourmet.
  • A drink of probiotics? Yes, please! The Siggi’s brand has been out a bit, but I hadn’t had the pleasure. Their blueberry and strawberry “drinkable” probiotics were delightfully L&D.
  • Ayala’s Lavender Mint Herbal Water is the shizzzz-NET! Great growing brand. Clean, crisp and pure tasting…refreshing.
  • I had heard of Field Trip Natural Beef Jerky, but I hadn’t tasted it. I loved the brand, the packaging, the presentation…and the jerky. Really good quality stuff. It makes beef jerky cool (and good). Bobby Flay agrees.
  • HannahMax Cinnamon Sugar Cookie Chips are clever, fun and tasty. After one bite, I quickly declared these Lovely & Delicious. They’re perfect for portion control and calorie counting, if that matters. Go ahead and crunch!
  • Our dear friend, Bonnie Shershow, created a delightful line of all natural fruit jams called Bonnie’s Jams. For this holiday, she has created a cute trio of Raspberry Line, Peach Ginger and Black & Blue jams in cute, little half jars. Put them on your gift list this year for sure.
  • Chronicle Books is brilliant at brand marketing in food specialty. Their Cheese Papers ROCK! Now you can protect cheese in style…or just give cheese with its own gift wrap.
  • Chapel Hill now has its own toffee with Southern peeee-cans replete with Tar Heel blue, called Chapel Hill Toffee. Created by a family with their mama’s longtime recipe.
  • When kids are involved in making their food, they are most likely to eat it. Here are two fun Mozzarella Cheese and Butter Making Kits from Roaring Brook Dairy that any family would enjoy. How many people really know how to churn butter these days, right?
  • High Road Craft Ice Cream is just genius. I had a moment on the show floor when I tasted the Brown Butter Praline. I announced to everyone that I wanted to slather it all over my body. It’s. THAT. GOOD!
  • Here’s a trend in packaging…bottling in bourbon bottles. I liked the playfulness of the Rufus Teague barbecue sauce. The hotter version is my L&D fave.

And the Winner is… 2012 James Beard Awards

My boys won! Woo hoo! I’m soooo excited! Chefs Hugh Acheson, Chris Hastings and Linton Hopkins won James Beard Awards this year. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Being in New York City for the James Beard Awards is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s the one time where my loves of great food and glitz come together.

Admittedly, heading into the Beard Awards, I was super exhausted. This spring has been very busy filled with lots of travel. I arrived in LaGuardia on the heels of a Country Living shoot. It was a whirlwind day-before, so I was worn out, but knowing I would soon be among my favorite people got my adrenalin pumping. After a quick fashion change, I Subway-ed up to Gotham Hall for the Beard Journalism Awards, ready for a momentously fun evening.

The first ceremony is a little more subdued than the red carpet chef awards on Monday night. But this year, being in the gorgeously Romanesque Gotham Hall, there was an added an air of sophistication. It helped, too, that Martha Teichner, lead correspondent of my all-time favorite TV show, CBS Sunday Morning, was the co-host along with Michael Symon of The Chew.

Suddenly, I was in a sea of the who’s who of food:  Adam Rapoport, Ted Lee, Ina Garten, Amanda Hesser, Ted Allen, Francis Lam, Pam Krauss, Nathalie Dupree and my dear friend, Nancy Wall Hopkins. What fun! It was great catching up…and wondering who would walk away this year’s winners. I love collecting cookbooks…and producing them, too…so for me, it’s always great fun when the names are called.

This year was even more fun. The very first name announced was Hugh Acheson, whose A New Turn in the South won for Best American Cooking cookbook. I beamed with pride as it was Hugh’s first cookbook and it is especially well-crafted and well-told, particularly since it’s a Southern cookbook and Hugh is originally from Ottawa. I also was proud that Atlanta was represented; our food community has come a long way to become a force in the national food scene. Other fave winners were Michael Ruhlman for Ruhlman’s Twenty, a fab book from perennial winner Chronicle Books, Molly Stevens for her gorgeously detailed All About Roasting, and Gabrielle Hamilton for her ‘can’t put it down’ memoir, Blood Bones & Butter. A triumphant Ted Allen also won for best host of Chopped, which I often watch late at night and imagine what it would be like to compete and win.

The fun continued well through the weekend, leading up to the Gala at Avery Fisher Hall. Approaching Lincoln Center is quite a spectacle of the chef glitterati. Among the bright lights along the red carpet we ran into Marcus Samuelson, Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, Cat Cora and Atlanta’s own Alton Brown.

I quickly settled into my velvet crush seat, anxious to find out who would prevail as the best chefs of the year. This year, I knew many of the nominees, which interestingly made me quite tense. As I read through the program, I zeroed in on Best Chef Southeast and Best Chef South. Hugh Acheson and Linton Hopkins were up for Southeast and Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt were vying for South. All of them are quite talented and have been nominated several times, but I thought surely this would be their year. After all, Hugh just completed judging on Top Chef and Chris won Iron Chef over Bobby Flay.

When the winners were announced, I felt a great sense of humility. Hugh and Linton tied in a rare moment of James Beard history. It was quite special seeing two of Georgia’s leading chefs being lauded for raising the bar both for themselves and Southern cuisine. When I heard Chris’ name called, I chuckled and stomped my feet. “Hot damn! He finally won.”

The ceremony attendees spilled out en masse onto the Hall mezzanine, after naming Daniel Humm Chef of the Year. After nearly three hours of awards, it was time for foie gras and champagne! The party continued well into the next morning, hopping from Bar Boulud to Gramercy Tavern…and then finishing at Eleven Madison Park. I retired well before the sun came up, but went to sleep quite content. I’m proud of my boys. Well done, chefs!