Chef’s Table: Carla Hall of ‘The Chew’
Welcome to Chef’s Table, where JET nurtures your inner foodie by featuring your favorite chefs, dining trends, cookbooks. This week, Chef Carla Hall of ABC’s The Chew shares the inspiration behind her new book, Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World, her love of spices and offers sage advice for those of us who are cheftestants in our own minds.
JET: You didn’t start out wanting to be a chef. When did you first fall in love with food?
Carla Hall: I went through a couple of career changes. I wanted to major in theater, then I decided to major in accounting to become a CPA and I realized I hated it. My father and mother would say:“It’s your job to be happy.” So I quit. I would do the fashion shows at Howard [University], where I went to college, so I continued to model. I met these girls who were going to Paris to model and went there to figure [my life] out. I didn’t want to be a model, but it was a bridge in between what I didn’t want to do and what I wanted to do. I ended up bonding over brunches with the other models and it was through the socialization of food that I began to love it. I ended up buying cookbooks and that was the start of my career.
JET: You’re not only a chef for one-fourth of The Chew, but also a business owner. How difficult is it to balance all of the aspects of your culinary career?
CH: It’s hard. It’s funny you ask that now because I’m doing my book tour and I’m doing a couple of demos. I’m in San Francisco now preparing to do a presentation for my book release. I’m also looking at the bank account for my cooking company at the same time. I have to make sure things are okay there. I have a very supportive husband. He’s here with me now. I try to have a routine. Even while I’m traveling, I have a morning routine where I can take of myself. It’s my time. It’s a struggle, but you need people around you to help you juggle.
JET: Where did the inspiration for Carla’s Comfort Foods come about?
CH: During 2012, I was examining the political climate. I noticed how politicians weren’t able to come together, create, move forward and compromise. So I thought to myself, “How can I use food to show, as people, we’re all similar and how spices [from various countries] should be celebrated?” The first set of recipes I came up with involved fried chicken with milk gravy which is from the South. But instead of milk, you put in sour cream and paprika and you’ll be in Hungary. You can take off the milk, add tomatoes and fruits and you’ll be in West Africa. You can take out the milk and add heavy cream, dry mustard, tarragon and white wine, you’ll be in France. But, at the end of the day, all of these are smothered chicken. The spices are just different.
JET: What’s your process behind creating a recipe?
CH: Well first, I like to think about what I like to eat. With this particular book, I started in the South and went up from there. I’m from Nashville, so I started with chicken and dumplings, smothered chicken and creamed spinach. I wanted to see if different cultures had a similar dish or how can I use spices as the ingredients that others wouldn’t think about. Another way is I would look at my favorite vegetable and change the spices to make it more international. For instance, I have a roasted butternut squash, but I have a butternut squash that I use as a French dish that typically has apples in it. But, really it was about exploring spices.
JET: What is your go-to spice?
Carla: I love vibrant fruit, so I would have to say lemon. But the spice changes the dish, so I can’t say it would be cumin. I love cinnamon and cumin, but to put that in every dish when it’s not in every cuisine, I wouldn’t do it. I gravitate toward dishes that have those in there. You’ll find cinnamon in Greek, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. If it’s a dish I like, I tend to gravitate toward that spice.
JET: As Americans, we’re known for not being as experimental with unfamiliar foods. How does your book help erase that stereotype?
CH: I say that I have a very American palate, so the book is very approachable to Americans. There are some pungent flavors that we tend not to like in American food, so the recipes are approachable in that way. The ingredients are things we’re familiar with and can put together in terms of vegetables. Green beans and butternut squash are vegetables we recognize. Adding spice combinations makes them more approachable. Also, the world is getting so much smaller because of the Internet and cooking shows. We learn more about food than we have in the past, so there are a lot of things people are familiar with. The book makes them more comfortable in trying these combinations at home.
JET: What is the must-try recipe in your book?
CH: You have to do the calaloo recipe, which is an Afro-Caribbean dish. Even though I changed it slightly from a traditional calaloo, it was one of the recipes that was a surprise to me on how much I enjoyed it. It’s one of my favorite recipes in the book. It’s somewhat refined. I use bacon and king crab legs instead of saltfish. My brother-in-law is from Liberia and he would make calaloo. He would use palm oil and saltfish which has a very strong taste. Typically, Americans don’t like it, so I decided to use the bacon and evened it out with the shellfish.
JET: What’s some advice you have for novice cooks?
CH: Start out small and focus on the technique more so than the taste. Salt and pepper is enough. A little salt and pepper can go a long way when you know the technique. You can make good fried chicken with salt and pepper, but your oil has to be at the right temperature. You have to cook it through. Also, taste your food and use your sense of smell. That’s a major thing. I don’t think people realize how much power they have in their taste buds to understand what they like and don’t like. If you don’t like bitter and the recipe calls for bitter greens, it’s not that you didn’t do the recipe correctly, you just didn’t like it.
Check out Carla’s recipe for Spicy-Sweet Chicken Stew from West Africa below. If you try it out, upload a picture to Instagram with the hashtag: #JETchefstable.
Spicy-Sweet Chicken Stew
My ancestors are from Nigeria and my brother-in-law is from Liberia. If there’s one key lesson I’ve taken from him and my extended family, it’s that the triumvirate of tomatoes, green peppers, and onions is the foundation of West African cooking. In this quick stew, I start with a whole chicken, including the bones, which add such big flavor that you can simply use water to create a tasty sauce. If you want, you can use chicken stock instead for a super-rich stew. I love the sweetness of tomatoes, banana, and mango with the fruity heat and spice of habanero chile in this hearty one-dish dinner.
1 habanero chile
One 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil, for frying
One 3-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces (2 wings, 2 breasts, 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs)
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
3 1/2 cups water
1 ripe banana, peeled
1 ripe mango, peeled and pitted
1. Cut a small slit in the chile. This will prevent the seeds from spilling into the stew and making it incredibly hot. Set it aside. Empty the can of tomatoes into a large bowl. Gently squeeze the tomatoes with your hands to crush them into large chunks. Set the tomatoes aside.
2. Fill a large Dutch oven or flameproof casserole with oil to a depth of 1/8 inch, and heat it over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. The oil should dimple and have wavy lines. Season the chicken generously with salt and add it to the hot oil, skin side down, spacing the pieces apart. Don’t crowd the pan; work in batches if you have to.
3. Reduce the heat to medium. When the skin is dark golden brown, turn the pieces over. Continue cooking until the bottom is dark golden brown. Transfer the chicken to a plate.
4. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of black pepper to the skillet. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is nice and soft, about 7 minutes.
5. Stir in the bay leaves, thyme, and habanero chile. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the water and tomatoes. Heat to a boil, then adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer.
6. Nestle the chicken pieces in the sauce, skin side up, and add any accumulated juices from the plate. The sauce shouldn’t cover the skin. Partially cover the pan and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. If some pieces are done before others, remove them first and place them on a plate.
7. While the chicken cooks, puree the banana and mango in a food processor or blender until smooth. Stir the mixture into the sauce when the chicken is done.
8. Remove and discard the chile and bay leaves from the stew, and serve hot. Serve with Perfect Baked Rice (page 71)—lots of it if you make the stew extra spicy.
Carlas’ Tips: This is definitely one of those stews that gets better as it sits. The heat and sweet flavors really develop and balance each other.
Some Like It Hot: Cut a larger slit in the chile or, if you can take it, cut the whole thing in half to make this dish spicier.