Carla Hall brings comfort food to Pittsburgh

Carla Hall -- caterer, cookbook author, television personality on ABC's "The Chew," former model and contender on "Top Chef," season 5 -- wanted to be in the theater growing up. Instead she became a CPA. How did that go?

"Well, you can see how that worked out," she said, taking a break from taping. "I was miserable. My mom and grandmother told me, 'It's your job to be happy.'" That seems to have been the end to the accounting career, and after modeling in Paris and London, she fell in love with food. She came home to the kitchen.

We were sitting in the bleachers of "The Chew," the show she co-hosts. She had changed into knit puppy slippers. (You would, too, if you had been wearing the blue-suede pumps my friend and I admired earlier, making her even taller and slimmer.) I guess she can resist munching on these sweet little cookies she gave us, produced by her company, Carla's Alchemy.

There we were, audience guests in a TV studio. Before the show started, a jovial tattooed wrangler schooled us in the arts of clapping, laughing -- loud and soft -- oohing, singing along to rock tunes and hooting. On cue. (I blame this on Emeril.)

We broke for the commercials. At half-time we had to get up and dance. I may be a bad sport, and a reluctant serial clapper, but the rest of the audience was compliant and jolly. Ms. Hall was a most genial host. She danced with two audience members, one a small boy. And she got the best lines.

The theme for that day's show, to be broadcast in June, is steak. The hosts were bubbly and convivial. Everyone: Michael Symon, Michael Lomanaco, the guy who used to be on "What Not To Wear" (Clinton Kelly) and Ms. Hall, tall and rangy, agreed that steak is sexy.

According to Ms. Hall, steak says [to your date or spouse], "I love you, and I'm paying money for you to be here." You don't doubt her.

She has a new book out, "Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World." This weekend, she's bringing her sassy and charming self to Pittsburgh to feed us her Spicy Chicken. At 11 a.m. on Saturday, she'll be at the Bethel Park Market District Store, and at 3 p.m., at the Robinson Market District Store. (Attendees are asked to bring non-perishable food items for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.)

Ms. Hall wrote this book, her second, to promote harmony, or, as she put it, "because of political polarization." She wanted to show that the dishes we all love have so many similarities. "Just a different set of spices," she said. "We celebrate these dishes. They show our differences and our uniqueness."

She continued: You take a classic Southern dish, fried chicken with milk gravy. You can change its ethnicity by altering just a few ingredients. Swap out the milk and use coconut milk instead, add a jalapeno. Or make the dish French by preparing a pan sauce with Dijon mustard and cream. That comfort food, like your Thai or your French or your Southern grandmother made it.

What can one expect from her recipes? Most are pretty easy to make using ingredients that are readily available.

"When people buy your cookbook they buy into your palate, and I love tart," she said. "I love lemon!" But she gives permission to put "your own spin on it" as she says. "To make it your own dish."

I tried two recipes in the book, and both were winners: Spiced Roasted Cauliflower and Black Bean Picadillo. I didn't use the lime wedges she called for in the cauliflower -- I thought it was plenty sassy already, perfect, really. The picadillo can be served on its own, or over brown rice, though she often uses it as a filling for her baked empanadas made with a "super-easy" cream-cheese dough. You roll it out, cut it into rounds and freeze those until you want to fill them and bake, she instructed.

I was most intrigued by the chapter on corn desserts. Inspired by her love of corn and the fact that it's a global grain, she's compiled some sweet treats. There's Pure Corn Pudding made with fresh kernels, sugar and a little cinnamon; Quince Corn Cake, a batter of cornmeal and bits of membrillo (a solid quince jelly); and Coconut Tapioca Pudding with coconut milk and fresh corn, which she makes for her husband, Matthew.

As she writes in the book's introduction: "Something as simple as a great dish shows how we're all really very similar. I love seeing -- and tasting --how home-cooked food works in uniting people, and I hope you will, too."

Black Bean Picadillo

Carla Hall makes this meatless picadillo with black beans and golden raisins. "The key is to find a really great chile powder that's ground from whole chiles. Check the labels to watch out for added seasonings -- You want the pure thing, she writes. She uses this to fill her Black Bean Empanadas. We loved it over brown rice, and I think it would be delicious on polenta as well. I added a diced red bell pepper because there was one in the fridge.

1/2 cup golden raisins

2/3 cup hot water

1 tablespoon canola oil

1½ cups diced yellow onion

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground Mexican chiles, such as ancho

2 tablespoons tomato paste

15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar, Monterey jack or a blend

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

In a small bowl, cover the raisins with the hot water. Let soak.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion just starts to turn translucent, about 3 minutes. Add ground chiles and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.

Stir in beans, corn and raisins with their soaking liquid. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 5 minutes.

If serving alone or with tortillas or rice, top with the cheese and the cilantro if using. Makes 4 servings (3 cups) over rice or with tortillas.

-- Adapted from "Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World" by Carla Hall with Genevieve Ko (Atria, 2014, $29.99)

Spiced Roasted Cauliflower

Carla Hall writes: "The butter adds richness, and the oil helps the browning. This blend delivers the fragrant flavors of the spices, making it ideal for any roasted vegetables." Garam masala can be found in the spice sections of most markets or at Penzys in the Strip District.

1 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons canola oil

Kosher salt

1 large (2½-pound) cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets

Lime wedges (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Oil a rimmed baking sheet.

Combine garam masala, cumin, coriander and cayenne in small, heavy skillet. Toast over medium-high heat, shaking skillet occasionally, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add the butter, oil and ½ teaspoon salt (recipe called for 1 teaspoon, up to you). Stir until butter melts.

Toss cauliflower with spiced butter on prepared baking sheet until well coated. Spread out in single layer and roast until tender and browned, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and lime juice, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World" by Carla Hall with Genevieve Ko (Atria, 2014, $29.99)

Salmon Teriyaki

"You want easy? I got your easy. The simple sauce simmers while the fish broils, then glazes the salmon at the end," writes Carla Hall. "Teriyaki is a balance between salty, sweet, and tanginess." Serve this with steamed short-grain white rice and asparagus or broccoli.

1/4 cup packed light- or dark-brown sugar

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon rice vinegar

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

1 garlic clove, smashed

4 6-ounce center-cut salmon fillets

Set the broiler rack 6 inches from the heat source. Preheat broiler to high. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

In a small saucepan, bring brown sugar, water, soy sauce, vinegar, ginger and garlic to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer and cook for 10 minutes, until thickened. Discard ginger and garlic.

Place salmon on baking sheet and broil until just opaque on the surface, about 5 minutes. Remove from broiler, and spoon a thin layer of sauce all over fish. Broil until just opaque on top but still translucent in the center, about 3 more minutes. The sauce should be browned and bubbling.

Transfer to serving plates and spoon remaining sauce over.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "Carla's Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World" by Carla Hall with Genevieve Ko (Atria, 2014, $29.99)

Miriam Rubin: and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


Hot Topic