Photo Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images Entertainment
With her infectious laugh and irresistible style of comfort food cooking, Carla Hall has won millions of fans on Top Chef and now as co-host on daytime talk show The Chew. This month, she released her very first cookbook, Cooking with Love, which she describes as “a journal about my life through food” with lots of stories, recipes and cooking tips. Read on for an exclusive Q&A with Hall (with recipes!), then enter to win one of five signed copies of the book!
Congrats on your first cookbook! Tell us a little bit about Cooking with Love and what people can expect from the book.
Cooking With Love is a journal about my life through food. It's a lot of my favorite dishes that I grew up with, some of the dishes that I cooked when I was catering, and some of the things that I made on Top Chef. And it's a lot broader — when you think of "comfort food that hugs you" — because it's not just Southern food; it's all kinds of foods that make me feel good. People can expect straightforward recipes. There are no really unusual ingredients; it's just good, heartfelt food. Also I give catering tips, because sometimes when you're making food or a dish, it's all about preparations. My little tips can make it easier for you.
Out of all of the recipes, what are your top three favorites and why?
Wow, this is a hard question, because I like them all for different reasons. As people know, I love soup. I made soups a lot on Top Chef. My favorite would have to be the sweet potato and tomato bisque. This particular recipe I fell into when I was [working as a personal chef] in the Bahamas. I was sort of cleaning out the fridge and I had these sweet potatoes and tomatoes, and I was like, 'you know what, I'm gonna throw them in there.' And actually, the viscosity of the soup is amazing without cream — even though I put a little cream in it—and the sweet potatoes sort of round out the acidity of the tomatoes; so it's a perfect combo.
Another one of my favorites is the collard greens because it's sort of my comfort food. The collard greens are the things that I make when I'm in New York and I'm feeling homesick. I will put those together, and have some hot water cornbread on the side — yum! The hot water cornbread recipe isn't in the cookbook, but maybe I'll put it in a future cookbook.
Another favorite is the five-layer pound cake. It's my grandmother's recipe — the cake that my grandmother would make when all the grandkids were in college or had moved away. She would wrap it in tons of wax paper, plastic wrap, and a box, and send it to us. All of my friends would also be looking forward to that package!
Much of the book focuses on seasonal ingredients. What ingredients are you excited to cook with this fall, and what are you doing with them?
Yes, the book focuses on seasonal ingredients, because I love going to the market and I think people should take advantage of their local markets. But not only that — when you get seasonal ingredients, you get the best that the season has to offer, and the cost is a lot less than things that aren't in season. Some of the ingredients that I'm excited to cook with this fall are sweet potatoes, because I love them — I love them baked, boiled, roasted; I love them in pies. Side note: I love sweet potato pie much better than pumpkin pie. That said, I also love pumpkin, and I'm doing a lot of things with pumpkin. I'm actually using pumpkin in ways that I would use apples—in strudels, cakes, and mousses. I'm excited about pumpkin, and I'm pairing pumpkin with chocolate this season. Other things that I'm looking forward to — and every year I look forward to — are apples. All of the different varieties of apples. I just love apples! Yeah, that's it. Brussel sprouts will come later [laughs] — which I love.
You’re all about cooking with love, but for some people, cooking equals stress. How can we go about creating more love in the kitchen, and less anxiety?
Well, I think people get anxious because they don't have as much practice. Nine times out of 10, the things that people are the most relaxed doing are the things that they feel very comfortable with. So with cooking, if you cook more, you will be more relaxed and you will have less anxiety. For instance, for the holidays, if you're going to be making certain dishes, I would suggest that you practice those dishes first — at least two or three times — so you can be a lot more comfortable.
What’s your best advice for people who want to cook, but don’t know where to start?
You know, I oftentimes will tell people to start with soup, or maybe searing meat or chicken — something that they like, and something they don't mind practicing over and over. Maybe they wanna do a stew, maybe they wanna do a roast — whatever it is, they have to want to make this dish, and I think practice makes perfect. If people start with something that they like and they practice — like a stew or a pureed soup, something that doesn't require exact cutting skills — it's the perfect thing!
What’s your favorite super-fast weeknight dinner?
I love pasta. In my book, there's a recipe for Mama's Hamburger Help-Me! When we were growing up, my mother would make this all the time from a box. But I find that it's just as easy and fast to make this dish from scratch. You already have noodles and there's not a lot of chopping. You have an onion, tomatoes, cheese and a little bit of stock. It doesn't get better than that!
The holidays are coming up and that means lots of parties. What are your favorite easy appetizers for a crowd?
When I was catering I did a lot of displays, and one of the things that we did was called Breads and Spreads. We'd have different breads or crackers or maybe even the parmesan frico crackers, and we'd have all of these different spreads. Hummus is really easy, some kinds of a smoked trout dip (which is in the book) is easy. Just all kinds of dips and things you can prepare in bulk and then serve in different ways. You can serve them in vegetables, you can serve them in bread-bowls. They look good. You can make a vat of them, and then it doesn't take much work.
Anything that you can make a lot of, or anything that you can make in a one-sheet pan and then cut up into small pieces...cutting up polenta and putting pesto on top...cutting up foccaccia and putting anything on top...those are all really easy things, and things that you can prepare ahead.
What would be on the menu at your fantasy holiday dinner?
For a long time, I have wanted to make a fabulous turducken, but not in the traditional way. I want it in a way that's not so big, but really moist and delicious, with yummy gravy. And I'd want yeast rolls, some kind of yummy greens and a couple different cranberry dishes. That's what I would want at my dinner.
Recipes from Cooking with Love:
Butterscotch Mousse with Vanilla Salt
"I tinkered until I came up with a silky light mousse, which I paired with crunchy nuts. When I served the mousse in tuile cups at a catering event, everyone went crazy for them! This dessert is such a well-balanced blend of sweet and salty, crisp and creamy. And every component can be made ahead of time."
Chicken Pot Pie with Crust on the Bottom
"This was one of my favorites as a kid, one of the first meals I made on my own, and one that I’m constantly reinventing to make even better. It triggers so many happy food memories! The key to my version is having crust on the top and bottom — and getting that bottom crust browned and crisp before it gets soaked with sauce."