Carla Hall of ‘The Chew’ visiting Giant Eagle Market District

Published Mar 28, 2014 at 12:57 pm (Updated Apr 7, 2014 at 1:10 pm)

Carla Hall follows one simple philosophy when it comes to cooking: “Cook with love.”

The author and co-host of ABC’s “The Chew” does just that in her newest cookbook, “Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World,” (out now) and will appear at both the Bethel Park and Robinson Market District stores April 5 to meet fans and share recipes from the book.

“Carla’s Comfort Foods,” a follow-up to her aptly titled first book, “Cooking with Love,” shares with readers the Southern comfort foods Hall grew up enjoying as a child in Nashville, Tenn. With her newest book, however, she puts the focus on spices to “show people, especially novice cooks, how easy it is to travel with spices.” She’s quick to point out that the recipes in the book are not authentic recipes, but rather her take on a cuisine based on spices and aromatic ingredients.

“My idea for this cookbook actually came during 2012 and the political climate being very polarizing and basically harping on everyone’s differences,” explained Hall. “I wanted to show through food how these people are very similar with just minor differences.”

The first dish Hall created was chicken with milk gravy – the cornerstone, she said, of the entire book. “Being from the South, if I take the milk out and add sour cream and paprika, I could be in Hungary. If I take the milk out and add bananas, tomatoes and serrano chilies, I could be in West Africa. If I take the milk out and add heavy cream, Dijon mustard and wine, I could be in France.” But the technique, she explained, is basically the same.

“The only thing that really changes, that makes the dish different, are the spices. I think that’s how we are as people. And the way for us to have healthy cultures is to honor differences and realize that we’re all very similar,” said Hall, whose go-to spices at home are chili flakes, cinnamon and lemon.

To assist with the exploration of spices, Hall has included a spice chart. “I want to encourage people to get to know another culture through spices, not frighten them away.” So, Hall considered spices that can be purchased at a regular grocery store. “Most people have five dishes that they make all the time, so if you have these five different dishes, you may be able to take a cuisine and the spices and change them a little bit to have more of a variety in your repertoire.”

While the recipes in “Carla’s Comfort Foods”– 130 to be exact – aren’t all healthy, Hall said her recipes tend to be lighter. “I don’t use a lot of oils. I think about doing recipes that people can do all the time,” she said, adding that a good portion of the cookbook focuses on vegetables. “What greater way to show the breath of spices than with vegetables. I like to encourage people to think about seasonal ingredients. When you go to the farmers’ market in the fall and you see butternut squash, you only know one way to do it. Now I give you three different ways.”

Each section of Hall’s book offers a brief description of a basic recipe, followed by some international variations. After explaining the difference between Italian and Chinese eggplant, Hall shares a recipe for Indian-inspired spiced eggplant stew with potatoes and tomatoes, then a recipe for Italian caponata, followed by Chinese hot and sour eggplant stir fry. The same type of ethnic-based variations can be found throughout the book.

One of Hall’s favorite recipes in “Carla’s Comfort Foods” is Calaloo, an Afro-Caribbean crab and coconut spinach stew, which she and co-author Genevieve Ko tweaked from the traditional version. She especially loves the chapter on pickles and preserves. “I love Chow-Chow Pickle because it reminds me of my grandmother and my great-aunt being together at the market and making the Chow-Chow.”

While Hall traces her love of cooking and food back to her family, she does not credit them with her culinary skills. “We had Sunday suppers, and I always loved good food. I was always the one running to the table … I just wasn’t in the kitchen when it was being made.”

A highlight of “Carla’s Comfort Foods” includes the personal stories sprinkled throughout, such as the feelings her “Granny’s” peach cobbler evoked in her each time she made it. And the time she walked to the store to purchase ingredients to make lasagna for her very first boyfriend and his family, not realizing just how far away the store was until she had to lug heavy grocery bags home past mooing cows.

“I try to really bring in those personal touches,” said Hall. “I want people to understand why I’m actually doing the recipe and that there’s a story behind it.” The story, she said, almost always comes before the recipe.

Hall’s story has taken many twists and turns. Forgoing her original dream to major in theater, she obtained an accounting degree from Howard University and worked at Price Waterhouse for two years. When Hall decided to chuck her accounting career to model in Paris, her family celebrated her decision. “They realized that I didn’t do theater, which is what I wanted, and instead went on the straight and narrow path of what I was expected to do,” she explained. “My mother realized I had something to fall back on.” Hall’s only desire, for herself and from her parents and elders in her family, was to be happy. “My mother said, ‘It’s your job to be happy. Go, find your happy.’”

It was while modeling in Paris that Hall’s thoughts on food and cooking took a turn.

“That was an ‘aha moment’ for me,” said Hall. “I was like, ‘Oh, so this is what happens in the kitchen when people are actually making the food,’ and actually connecting what happens to the food from the grocery store to the table.”

Hall said she never lost her palate for good food, her desire to eat good food, and what happened at the table during dinner. She returned to the U.S. and at age 30, enrolled in L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. After various stints in the culinary world, including forming her own catering company, she was selected as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where she ended the season as a runner-up. Hall was then chosen “Fan Favorite” during her stint on “Top Chef: All-Stars.”

“I’m really grateful to the ‘Top Chef’ franchise for my current success, because if it wasn’t for that show, I wouldn’t be here,” said Hall, adding that she learned a lot about herself during the competition, including her strengths, weaknesses and her tenaciousness. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.”

For it was that experience that led Hall to her current gig on “The Chew.”

“I get to sit around with my friends and eat and learn. That’s my job,” Hall said. “It’s such an amazing experience, and what I love is that we’re not so scripted, so people are resonating with the show because we’re ourselves.” Hall said with the influences around her, she now enjoys cooking at home again for her husband, Matthew, and stepson when he is come from college.

Hall has her hands in many pots – from her cookbooks to “The Chew” to her own line of cookies, Carla Hall Petite Cookies. She also hopes to one day do theater, participate in Ted Talks online, start her own line of frozen catered hors d’oeuvres and expand her baking line. But shockingly, Hall claims she is a “closet lazy person.”

“No one thinks I am, because I’m so busy, but I am lazy. It’s in my DNA. If I can cut minutes off of something, I will, but I guess it makes me efficient.” For now, however, Hall is content with her life. Her one wish would be for both of her grandmothers to know how much they’ve influenced her.

On April 5, Hall will be at the Bethel Park Market District at 11 a.m. and the Robinson Market District at 3 p.m. Her appearance is free to the public, but tickets are limited and available on a first come, first-served basis. Advance ticket registration is available online at marketdistrict.com.

To be entered in a random drawing for “Carla’s Comfort Foods,” like The Almanac’s Facebook page, facebook.com/SouthHillsAlmanac.

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