One on One with Carla Hall

[ 0 ] June 12, 2014 |

Not too long ago, I had the awesome pleasure of attending a sit-down chat with others of the general public for the fabulous Carla Hall who spoke with Pati Jinich of Pati’s Mexican Table at the Sixth & I Synagogue in NW D.C. to discuss her new cookbook, Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World. For those of you who watch Top Chef religiously, you already know exactly who she is. For those of who you don’t know, go Google quickly! She’s “culinarily” (yes, I just made up this word) amazing, is one of the co-hosts on ABC’s The Chew, and owns her own artisanal cookie company.

via Simon & Schuster 2014

(c) Altria 2014

Her cookbook features her own take on international comfort foods so while it may not be considered, traditional in the sense of the country that it comes from, it can definitely be traditional for you. All you have to do is add your own flair. Who’ll know the difference, right? Naturally, I snatched up the cookbook which can be found online and in stores. I also had the pleasure of picking her brain a bit regarding her take on things, so read below and take a peek:

Carla’s Comfort Foods is your second cookbook out (congratulations!!). What brought on the idea to create a cookbook that takes comfort food to a new level by combining your own spin of things with some international flair?

The idea came to me in 2012, which was an election year. We, the constituents, were being bombarded by campaign attack ads and bickering back and forth amongst the parties. Any difference between two or more candidates were being polarized as “wrong”, and I was reminded of how dysfunctional our political parties were. I started to ask myself how I could show, through food, that we, as people, are a lot more alike than we are different.


How much of the book’s creating process was inspired by your heritage and background?

Being from the South, Nashville, Tennessee, my food perspective and memories start there. When thinking of recipes to include in this cookbook, I thought about the ones I grew up on first, and then from there, I thought about how other cultures may do a similar dish with different spices or similar ingredients. For instance, the first dish I thought of, which is quintessential Southern, is the smothered chicken. The sauce that “smothers” just about any dish is basically a milk gravy. If you add sausage to that milk gravy and put it over biscuits, you’ve got biscuits ‘n gravy. But let’s say you take out the milk and you add sour cream and paprika, you could be in Hungary. Or you take out the milk and you add tomatoes, habanero peppers and bananas, you could be in West Africa. Or, take it a step further, and instead of the milk you add heavy cream, dijon mustard, white wine and tarragon you could be in France. At the end of the day, these are all smothered chicken dishes to me. Call it what you want, but to me and my Southern upbringing, it’s a smothered chicken dish.


Comfort food can sometimes lean towards being a little unhealthy. While I’m a true lover of it and a firm believer of eating whatever I want with moderation, I’m trying to eat healthier nowadays. Would this be an ideal cookbook for me to have?

I think there’s a misconception about all comfort food being unhealthy. Adding cheese and fat is not the be-all and end-all of comfort food. For me comfort food starts with a food memory. It’s about linking the food to the people you had that dish with. When you start with fresh seasonal ingredients and add various herbs and spices, you could be well on your way to a comfort dish somewhere in the world. In this book I explore the combination of spices used in various cuisines. I dedicate an entire chapter to vegetables. For each vegetable, I hopscotch around the world showing three different cuisines.


Are there any specific recipes that really stood out to you during the making of the cookbook? 

The Afro Caribbean Calaloo (Crab and Coconut Spinach Stew) is one of my favorites. I think this is the stew that I took many liberties in making, so it may not be a favorite for a traditionalist. I basically took the basic flavors of a Calaloo and refined it for my American palate. Instead of salt fish, I used bacon and king crab legs. Instead of calaloo I used spinach, which is a common substitute. And instead of serving it chunky, I pureed the spinach, okra and coconut base and served the bacon bits and crab on top. For added zing, I often top the soup with a drizzle of lemon oil. When I first tasted this soup with my co-author, Genevieve Ko, I looked at her and just started giggling. I knew in my heart that we were on the right track with this book. If nothing else, I was having fun.


Describe your all-time favorite meal:

I actually have very simple wishes when it comes to my favorite meal. For the longest time I said it was a cheeseburger with onion rings, french fries and lemonade, and then I would go into minute detail as to how that burger would have to be prepared and with what ingredients. That still holds true on some level. However, I think I would go for a traditional SouthernThanksgiving dinner without the turkey. I absolutely LOVE sides. I would have Southern greens, candied sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, cornbread dressing, gravy, yeast rolls, and cranberry sauce. Is this what you meant when you said comfort food isn’t healthy? LOL


If you could go anywhere in the world, sit down with a native family for dinner and enjoy their version of comfort food, where would you go and why?

Hands down, I would go to India. This trip is on my bucket list, and I envision the matriarch of the family cooking the food that all her kids crave, even the ones who are professional cooks. I’ve heard many stories of big time Indian chefs craving their mothers food no matter how much their own food is craved by their customers. I want to be in the kitchen while they’re making naan and dosas, spice blends and curries and samosas.


Do you have a favorite comfort food memory? If so, what is it?

I remember traveling a lot one season, after Top Chef. I was doing lots of appearances around the country, and I had been missing home and my husband, Matthew. Matthew is usually the one who cooks at home (because I cook at the office.) This particular Sunday he had made meatloaf with mashed potatoes and buttered peas. To this very day, I’m not sure if he even realizes why that meal was so special. That was a dinner that my mother often made for my sister and I growing up. She wasn’t the best cook, but she could throw down on some meatloaf, mashed taters and buttered peas (she used country crock.) After being away from home, this was the best present EVER. I pushed a spoonful of peas into my mashed potatoes like my mom had done, and kept eating until my stomach was hurting. I was a happy camper.


Everyone has a different definition of what comfort food means to them and what it evokes. What does comfort food mean to you?

When I think of comfort food, I immediately think of food that has some emotional attachment. Food that connects people in your life to a happy place. The food that was created in the home kitchen made by the people closest to you, by the people who loved you. Everyone didn’t get to have this experience, so when I cook for people this is where I start. This is what I want to give them – a food memory that says I care.

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Category: Cookbooks, cultural cooking, Food.Fun.Stuff., Publicity

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