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Author shares soul food recipes, culture

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
Carla Hall’s new book, which explores her heritage, is her attempt to bring soul food to a wider audience.

Carla Hall’s intentions were clear when she started working on her third cookbook: She wanted to focus on the food of her native South. But it wasn’t until a “pivotal point” with okra and tomatoes that the D.C.-based chef and TV personality figured out how to put her vision on the page.

“There is a stewed okra dish that everybody in the South knows,” said Hall, who was born and raised in Nashville, Tenn. “I’m not a huge fan of okra, but I respect it as part of the ingredients and the culture.” She tried making a broth with canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and bay leaf, and roasting the okra separately, so the pods got crunchy, before dropping the vegetable into the aromatic liquid. “Immediately, the broth just permeated with this beautiful okra taste,” Hall marveled.

At that moment, Hall remembers, she said: “This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to take a classic dish and think about the way that we live now and have those same tastes, and food memories, but in a dish from today.”

But “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration” (Harper Wave), is much more than a cookbook that updates traditional recipes. It also seeks to educate home cooks across the country about, as the introduction states, “the true food of African-Americans.”

She and co-author Genevieve Ko did copious research.

While the term “soul food” didn’t come around until the mid-20th century, Hall writes, it “refers to the dishes of the Cotton Belt of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama that traveled out to the rest of the country during the Great Migration,” when millions of African-Americans left the rural South.

The tendency to disparage soul food as “poor people’s food” is one that Hall and many African-American food writers and chefs continue to challenge. “It’s a melding of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas,” said Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food” (The University of North Carolina Press, 2013). “Like many other cuisines, it’s a mix of the high and the low.”

That association dovetails with another myth Hall wants to dispel: that soul food is unhealthy. “When you hear nutritionists telling us what we need to eat,” Miller said, “they keep saying dark, leafy greens; sweet potatoes; more legumes; okra is now a super food. You know, more fish and chicken, less red meat – these are all the building blocks of soul food.”

Hall, 56, was an accountant and model before she moved into food, catering and later parlaying her breakout appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef” into a gig co-hosting the daily talk show “The Chew.” After it was canceled in May, she landed a regular cooking segment on its replacement, the third hour of “Good Morning America.”

With the book, Hall is trying to achieve what a crossover singer might. But, as she clarified, “The crossover that was in my head wasn’t like a hit that would cross over into a different culture; it was the crossover in terms of interest. The same way that we would all pick up an Italian book if we didn’t know about Italian food, or a Korean book, or Japanese, or Indian food – it’s to honor the culture in that way. … I’m just asking that you will honor our food.”

CARIBBEAN SMOTHERED CHICKEN WITH LIME AND CHILES

4 servings

4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 1½ pounds total)

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

“Smothering” in soul-food terms is coating a slow-cooked meat with a blanket of saucy aromatics that end up as gravy, like this Caribbean Smothered Chicken With Lime and Chiles.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

6 large sprigs thyme, plus fresh thyme leaves for serving

2 large onions, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 habanero chile, partially slit open

1 cup low-fat coconut milk

¼ cup water

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large lime, plus wedges for serving

½ teaspoon curry powder

Salt, pepper

Heat the oil in a large, shallow Dutch oven or deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the pan, skin sides down. Sear for about 5 minutes, turning them over once, until browned on both sides and some of their fat has rendered.

Push the thighs to one side of the pan, turning them skin sides up; add the thyme and onions to the other side of the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until they pick up some color.

Add the garlic, chile pepper and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute, then pour in the coconut milk and water. The browned skin on the thighs should remain above the level of liquid. Increase the heat to medium; once the liquid begins to boil, move the onion mixture around the chicken pieces, as needed. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Discard the thyme sprigs.

Uncover and stir in the lime juice. Cook for about 5 minutes, then stir in the curry powder and lime zest. Scatter some thyme leaves on top.

Serve with lime wedges.

PER SERVING: 320 calories, 38 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 180 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

SPEEDY BACON AND THREE-BEAN SKILLET STEW

6 servings

2 teaspoons canola oil

1 medium onion, cut into small dice

Serve Speedy Bacon and Three-Bean Skillet Stew plain with cornbread or as pictured here, with a gremolata-type accompaniment. The bacon gives this quick dish a long-simmered flavor.

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

4 ounces thick-cut bacon, each slice cut into ¼-inch batons (like lardons)

1 clove garlic, cut into thin slices

1 Scotch bonnet or habanero chile, seeded and minced

Three 15-ounce cans butter beans, small kidney beans or pinto beans, drained and rinsed

1¾ cups (15 ounces) low-sodium chicken broth

Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until softened, then push the onion to one side of the pan.

Scatter the bacon pieces on the other side; cook for about 5 minutes, until golden but not crisped. On the bacon side, stir in the garlic, chile pepper and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Cook for about 1 minute, then add the beans and broth. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes, so everything’s heated through.

Serve hot.

PER SERVING (stew only): 270 calories, 11 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

POURED CARAMEL CAKES

CAKE:

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) room-temperature unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, plus more for the pan

2 cups flour, plus more for the pan

Poured Caramel Cakes start with a yellow sheet cake typically brought to Southern gatherings and flavorful enough to serve plain. The caramel is silky soft and sticky, and pourable without being too runny.

¾ cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1¼ cups sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 large eggs, at room temperature

CARAMEL:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1¾ cups sugar

½ teaspoon salt

12 ounces evaporated milk

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use some butter and then flour to coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan or dish (Pyrex).

Combine the buttermilk and vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup.

Combine the 2 cups of flour, the sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer. Beat on low speed until well blended. Add the oil (low speed); once that is evenly distributed, add the butter a tablespoon at a time, beating until fully incorporated. The mixture will have the consistency of coarse sand.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On medium speed, gradually add the buttermilk mixture, beating to form a smooth batter.

Pour into the pan; bake (middle rack) for about 25 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack; let the cake cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the caramel: Place the butter in a deep saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter is half melted, add the sugar and salt. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is dark golden brown. It will look grainy and the fat will separate from the sugar, then come back together. Remove from the heat.

Carefully, gradually whisk in the evaporated milk; the caramel will initially bubble up. Use the spoon to dislodge any bits of sugar stuck to the bottom of the pan; keep whisking until all the sugar has dissolved.

Return to the stove top, over low heat. Cook for about 1 hour, whisking often, to create a smooth and creamy, richly colored caramel. Let cool, stirring occasionally.

Pour the barely warm caramel over the cooled cake (in its pan). Let the caramel set before serving.

PER SERVING (based on 20): 280 calories, 4 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 32 g sugar

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