In her role as one of the co-hosts of the ABC food show The Chew, chef Carla Hall comes across as someone who would be a fun and quirky friend. You get the same feeling from her new cookbook, Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World.
The collection of 130 recipes, co-written with Genevieve Ko, takes the concept of comfort food and gives it an international twist. Many of the dishes are variations on Hall's favorite Southern recipes, such as her great-aunt Minnie's chicken and dumplings. There are good common-sense tips throughout and new facts to learn. (For example, tart under-ripe nectarines can be used to make chunky, savory chutney while juicy, ripe ones are better for sweet jam.)
Some pages offer personal remembrances of Hall's family history: "I grew up hearing stories of my great-grandparents' lives as slaves, my grandparents' struggles in the South, my parents' participation in the sit-ins. They've paved the way for me and fed me well along the way."
The book starts with an international spice chart, which serves as a guide to enhancing meals with flavors from around the globe. Listed are 18 types of cuisine, with suggestions on appropriate aromatics, herbs and spices, as well as other key ingredients you might want to have on hand.
There's a wide array of recipes here, including soups and salads, pickles and preserves, seafood, chicken, meat, casseroles and desserts. Hall - who will be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 13 - shines in her favorite food category, vegetables. She confesses that when she was little she hated vegetables, but eventually "came to realize that I didn't hate the vegetables themselves, but the way they were prepared."
The book's plant-based offerings include palak paneer and a hot-and-sour eggplant stir-fry. Her roasted green beans, with yellow onion, basil and lemon, make a sometimes boring green very appealing.
And Hall's creative approach to butternut squash yields a lovely tarte tatin, an upside-down "pretty dish that looks like it takes more effort than it really does."
Butternut Squash Tarte Tatin
From: Carla Hall
All-purpose flour, for rolling
1 round Carla's Crust (recipe below)
1 4¼-pound butternut squash, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeded, and cut into ¼ inch thick slices
1 medium yellow onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1½ tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, plus more for garnish
1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage leaves, plus more for garnish
Makes two 9 by 13-inch cobbler crusts or two 9-inch round pie crusts
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
1/3 cup cold water
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces
1. Chill the bowl and paddle attachment of a standing electric mixer until cold. In a small bowl, dissolve the sugar and salt in the water, and chill until cold.
2. In the chilled mixer bowl, combine the flour and butter and toss until the butter pieces are well coated. Mix with the paddle on low speed until the butter forms pea-size pieces. Add the water mixture all at once, increase the speed to medium, and beat just until the dough comes together.
3. Flatten the dough into two 1-inch-thick rectangles for cobbler crusts or two 1-inch-thick disks for pies. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 30 minutes or up to one day. (You can also freeze the dough for up to three months. Thaw in the refrigerator or at room temperature.)
Butternut Squash Tarte Tatin and assembly:
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. On a lightly floured surface and using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 10-inch round. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate.
3. In a large bowl, toss the butternut squash, onion, garlic, oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Divide between two rimmed baking sheets and spread out evenly.
4. Bake until the squash is lightly browned and still slightly firm to the touch, about 25 minutes. Cool the baking sheets slightly on wire racks. Turn the oven down to 375°F.
5. In a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the lemon juice and honey and stir until bubbly. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon zest, thyme, sage, and a pinch each of salt and pepper.
6. Layer the roasted squash over the honey in concentric circles, stacking the layers all the way to the top of the pan. Make the first layer extra pretty because the pan will be inverted and the bottom will be presented as the top. Center the pastry round on top, tucking the edges in loosely.
7. Bake until the crust is light golden brown, about 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then very carefully invert onto a platter. Garnish with lemon zest, thyme, and sage.
* Choose a platter with a diameter that's slightly larger than the skillet. It should be flat but have a slight rim to keep any juices in.
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* The easiest way to flip out a tarte tatin is to invert the platter over the skillet. Wearing oven mitts, use both hands to securely hold the skillet and the platter together, and swiftly flip them over. Carefully lower the whole thing onto your counter, then lift off the skillet. Be very careful! Don't burn yourself!
Reprinted with permission from Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World by Carla Hall with Genevieve Ko (Atria Books, publication date April 1, 2014.)