For some, “comfort food” has a more global bent — not mac ‘n’ cheese, but moussaka. Nevertheless, home-cooked dishes are something everyone relates to.
Carla Hall, chef and co-host of The Chew, may be known for her Southern comfort foods, but she gives signature dishes an international context in her new book, Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World.
Hall shares her how-to for basics like roasts, potatoes, cookies and cobblers, but offers more sophisticated variations on the staples. PB&J is upgraded with spiced plum jam, and chicken soup goes tropical with a squeeze of lime. No more food ruts!
With her stories of high-school jaunts abroad, influences from childhood neighbors and twists on her grandmother’s classic recipes, Hall makes venturing into a new cuisine quite easy: Persian jeweled rice, Brazilian coconut fish stew, Hungarian poppy-seed pork tenderloin, or Spanish quince corn cakes are a cinch with just a spin of the spice rack.
While we’re pining for some spare time to dig into her tahdig and tea cookies, below are our three biggest takeaways.
1. Spices are the Passport to Global Flavor
Simply swapping out one herb or seasoning for a new one from another part of the world will revolutionize the same old standbys. For instance, cumin, chile and cinnamon give a burger instant Middle Eastern flair. Hall organizes it all in her book’s fun international spice chart so you can stock the pantry for African, Greek, Mexican or Moroccan fare — and there’s need to trek to a souk to find any of her suggestions.
2. We’re All Connected by Food
Creamy cheese grits in Memphis, parmigiano-reggiano polenta in Milan. To-may-to, to-mah-to. Both are based on cornmeal, which means they’re basically the same, Hall says. If you’re in a Southern brunch rut, switch it up and put an Italian spin on it. Instead of serving it as a starter, try tomato soup as a main course or at the end of the meal. It’ll seem très continental.
3. Peas Are Your Friend
So is spinach, squash, cauliflower and corn! Hall says even veggie-haters can be converted into produce-lovers with the right preparation, whether it’s pickled, pureed, made into a pudding. Her tips: Look for the freshest produce, rinse and dry well, cook evenly, and season according to your tastes.
While the book is packed with delicious-looking recipes, the dish we’re most excited to try first is Hall’s Hot and Sour Eggplant Stir-Fry, a colorful Chinese-inspired dish which she called “ticky-boo” (her term for dishes that cook super fast.) Try the recipe at home and let us know what you think!
Hot and Sour Eggplant Stir-fry
5 small, stripy eggplants or Chinese or Japanese eggplants, trimmed, cut in eighths lengthwise, then cut in halves crosswise
3 quarts warm water
2 serrano chiles, stemmed and minced, with seeds
1 tbsp. sugar
1½ tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. canola oil
2 scallions (green onions), trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tbsp. sliced fresh basil leaves
1. Sprinkle the eggplant pieces with 1 tablespoon salt, then immerse in the warm water in a large bowl. Let stand while you prepare the other ingredients.
2. In a small bowl, stir the chiles, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, and cornstarch until the sugar dissolves.
3. Drain the eggplant very well and press dry between paper towels. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until very hot. Add 1 tbsp. of the oil, then add half of the eggplant. Cook, tossing and stirring, until browned and just tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining oil and eggplant, and then return the ﬁrst batch of eggplant to the wok.
4. Add the scallions and the chile mixture. Cook, tossing and stirring, for 2 minutes. Toss in the basil and serve immediately.
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