Justin Fox Burks
“I might never make traditional French onion soup again,” said culinary whiz Jennifer Chandler about her cream-based adaptation of the much-loved classic.
Earlier this summer, Jennifer Chandler asked me to write an endorsement for The Southern Pantry Cookbook: 105 Recipes Already Hiding in Your Kitchen, released nationwide Tuesday. Since I’m a big fan of Chandler’s, I was happy and flattered to comply. Here’s what I wrote:
“If Memphis had a goodwill ambassador of family cooking, Jennifer Chandler would wear the crown. Southern by birth but healthy by inclination, Chandler’s recipes reflect her talent and charm: They are personable, delicious, and destined to become longtime friends.”
I share my thoughts to encourage readers who need a little inspiration in the kitchen to meet Chandler at one of her upcoming book signings in East Memphis. The first is Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Babcock Gifts, and the second is Oct. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at The Booksellers at Laurelwood.
Along with signing books, Chandler most certainly will field questions, but I decided to get a jump on things with an email chat ahead of the signings. To entice you to keep reading, Chandler divulges a secret for great grits and shares her recipe for Pete’s Dirty Horse Mashed Potatoes.
Memphis Stew: While most cookbooks have a section devoted to stocking a pantry, I’ve never seen a cookbook built around that theme. Did you have a moment when the idea came to you?
Chandler: One day I was standing in front of my fridge thinking, “I have nothing in my kitchen to make for dinner.” I started digging around and realized I had all the ingredients for Shrimp and Grits. At that point, I gave myself a challenge to use some of those ingredients I already had in my kitchen. It totally changed my way of cooking weeknight meals, and I hope it will help my readers in the same way.
Memphis Stew: You have also expanded the traditional definition of pantry to include freezer and fridge. Does that speak to your love of vegetables?
Chandler: For me, the pantry includes all the food storage in my kitchen: cabinets, fridge, and freezer. And yes! I do love my veggies! I love bacon too much to ever be a vegetarian, but I do try to make veggies have a more prominent place on my plate.
Memphis Stew: I made Pete’s Dirty Horse Mashed Potatoes last night and thought they were fabulous. You credit a friend for the recipe. Are there other recipes in the book from friends and family?
Chandler: Throughout the book you will find recipes from friends and family. I always ask their permission before sharing. Sometimes the recipes are just like they gave them to me, and other times they are simplified a bit.
Memphis Stew: Along those lines, which recipe in the book do you cook most often for your family?
Chandler: I probably make Pa’s Herbed Chicken Parts about once a week because they are so easy and my kids love them. For special occasions, I always serve Grillades and Grits, just like my grandmother did.
Memphis Stew: Speaking of grits, mine never turn out very well. Any magic panacea you can offer to help me out?
Chandler: I guess my advice for grits would be don’t turn the heat up too high and don’t be afraid of the butter. If you are going to eat grits, don’t skimp on that key ingredient.
Memphis Stew: You also have a great looking recipe in your book for a cream-based onion soup. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten onion soup with a cream base. Where did that recipe come from?
Chandler: My husband loves French onion soup and kept suggesting that I include it in this book. The only problem is that my go-to recipe was already published in my second book, Simply Suppers. I had a friend one day tell me about a creamy Vidalia onion soup they had at a restaurant. It was the “ah ha” moment on how to get an onion soup in the book. And I have to admit, it turned out better than I ever imagined. I might never make traditional French onion soup again.
Memphis Stew: The dishes in your cookbooks always look so inviting. Can you tell me how you style the photographs?
Chandler: Luckily, my publisher agreed, and we have a photo with every recipe. I am super grateful to Babcock Gifts who lets me use pieces from their amazing collection. I wish I had 105 different plates and linens, but sadly I don’t.
Memphis Stew: Although cookbooks tell me I can whip up a meal in 30 minutes, I never manage it. Any tips?
Chandler: The key is to have a few in your repertoire that can be made quickly. Another trick is organization to use shortcuts. Rotisserie chickens, boxes of stock, and frozen pre-cut veggies can save lots of time. I was thrilled when I learned frozen veggies are frozen at their peak. This makes them a healthy and convenient alternative to fresh.
Memphis Stew: You talk about your grandmother’s influence in your book, but did any of the men in your life cook too? What about your mom?
Chandler: My dad is an excellent cook. In fact, he was my partner in our business Cheffie’s Market and More. I credit him with a lot of my passion for good food. He can be found in the kitchen every day and still makes many of the dishes that my grandmother in Louisiana made.
My mom is also a good cook. Her mom was from Alabama, so many of her dishes are more down-home. And speaking of men in my life, my husband Paul has become a great cook. I always joke that the best thing I ever did was to teach him how to cook, but it’s true. I love having him as a partner in the kitchen.
Pete’s Dirty Horse Mashed Potatoes (Serves 6 to 8)
My friend Pete Niedbala first made these potatoes for me over 15 years ago, and they have remained a favorite ever since. He calls them “dirty” since he leaves the skin on the potatoes and, bet you can guess this one when you read the ingredient list, the “horse” is from the horseradish that makes these potatoes sublime.
2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 ounces (1/2 block) cream cheese, diced
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup half-and-half
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large stockpot place the potatoes and enough cold water to cover the potatoes by 1 inch. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the potatoes are fork tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the potatoes. While the potatoes are still hot, mash the potatoes through a potato ricer or with a masher. Place the mashed potatoes back into the cooking pot.
Add the cream cheese, horseradish, 4 tablespoons of the butter, and half-and-half to the mashed potatoes and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the potato mixture to a 2 1/2-quart baking dish and top with thin slices of the remaining butter. Bake until the mixture is heated through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm.
Cooking Tip: The heat of the horseradish varies among brands. Three tablespoons gives the potatoes a nice flavor but let your personal preference dictate how much you use. Pete often puts as many as five tablespoons in his! If you’re not a fan of horseradish, just omit it for a delicious classic mashed potato dish.
Pantry Shortcut: Diced frozen potatoes or even store-bought mashed potatoes can be substituted. Just heat according to the package’s cooking instructions and mix in the cream cheese, horseradish, and butter as instructed above.
Do-Ahead: These potatoes can be prepared and then refrigerated prior to baking up to one day in advance. Just allow 10 to 15 minutes extra baking time.
The Southern Pantry Cookbook book signings: Oct. 18, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Babcock Gifts and Oct. 23, 6:30 p.m., The Booksellers at Laurelwood. Both stores are located in East Memphis.