Flavor First: Cat Cora

article image
Photo courtesy of Cooking from the Hip by Cat Cora (Hougton Mifflin, 2007).
Pomegranate adds festive color and flavor to a traditional holiday entree.

Cat Cora took a break from filming the sixth season of the Food Network’s Iron Chef to speak with The Herb Companion. An acclaimed chef and author, Cora also is founder and president of Chefs for Humanity. In response to Hurricane Katrina, Chefs for Humanity (assisted by the Food Network) organized three 18-wheelers filled with salvaged food to provide nearly 5,000 meals a day to people living in shelters and to first responders.

In this Flavor First interview, Cora discusses why fresh and seasonal foods are best, why giving back is such a gratifying obligation, and why she can’t remember the food in her most memorable meal.

The Herb Companion: You grew up in a small Greek community in Jackson, Mississippi.  How has that shaped your philosophy about food?

Cat Cora: In Mississippi, everyone had gardens, and neighbors would share big bags of fresh vegetables. We always had plenty of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for salads. It was a way of life. And our Greek community had a lot of fig trees and citrus trees. Our traditional dishes featured fresh, seasonal ingredients, and that certainly shaped my philosophy about food.

HC: What role do herbs play in your cooking?

CC: I use fresh herbs every single day. …. Whether it’s chopped cilantro for fish tacos, or fresh oregano and dill for salad, I use herbs in every dish.

HC: What’s your favorite herb? Can you describe a dish that is transformed by adding this herb to it?

CC: That’s a difficult question. It’s really about mood, so I suppose I have a different favorite herb each day. Any dish can be transformed by adding an herb: cilantro with a fish taco, or dill in an apple and walnut salad.

In Cooking from the Hip, I write that if you don’t have oregano but you do have basil, use the basil. Use what you have that is fresh; don’t let it go to waste.

HC: Which Iron Chef would you most like to challenge? 

CC: I would challenge any of them this season. I’m in New York all month to film the sixth season of Iron Chef, during which we’ll offer some exhibition battles, so I’ll be going against Bobby Flay and Michael Symon. It’s a lot of fun.

It’s always exciting when they reveal the secret ingredient. For me, the more challenging, the better.

HC: You have been praised for your humanitarian efforts, most notably as founder and president of Chefs for Humanity. What is most gratifying to you about these efforts?

NEXT PAGE: Cat describes her most memorable meal and shares what dish she likes to prepare for her family and friends. Also, a recipe for pomegranate-glazed cornish game hens with wild rice and chestnut stuffing.

HC: You have been praised for your humanitarian efforts, most notably as founder and president of Chefs for Humanity. What is most gratifying to you about these efforts?

CC: Helping people is gratifying. I feel an obligation–and a desire–to help. I’m passionate about it. Chefs for Humanity did two fact-finding missions this year with the United Nations World Food Program, in Honduras and Nicaragua. Seeing such hunger is shocking and life-changing. And it motivates us to want to help.

HC: Can you describe your most memorable meal?

CC: My most memorable meal was lunch at Julia Child’s house. We spent the day with her, watching her film the Master Chef series, followed by lunch. She was so gracious and I feel lucky to have met her. I don’t remember what we ate that day (laughter)–I’m sure it was delicious–but I don’t have a memory of the food. Just being in her presence was so wonderful and memorable. 

HC: What’s the meal you love to prepare for family and friends?

CC: When I’m at home and it gets a little chilly outside in the spring and fall, I make a low-grade lamb shank that’s to die for. I add a little rémoulade on top and some Kaseri Greek sheep cheese. If it’s spring, I’ll add some fava beans. It’s amazing.

Linda Shockley, a writer based in New York City, spent the summer with friends sampling the City’s seafood markets, oyster bars and agua grills, before moving on to the chowders of autumn.

Pomegranate-Glazed Cornish Game Hens with Wild Rice and Chestnut Stuffing
Serves 4

This delicious poultry dish strikes the perfect flavor balance–tangy, sweet, savory. Serve it for a special holiday celebration or for an autumn evening meal.

•1 cup raw wild rice
•3 cups cold water
•1 teaspoon salt
•2/3 cup peeled, coarsely chopped chestnuts
•1 small finely chopped yellow onion
•2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
•1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh savory
•3 tablespoons finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
•Freshly ground black pepper
•4 Cornish game hens
•Kosher salt
•1 cup pomegranate juice (found in the juice  section of most produce aisles)
•¼ cup all-purpose flour
•2 to 3 cups chicken stock, homemade or store-bought, or water
•Pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)

Wild Rice and Chestnut Stuffing:

1. Rinse rice in cool water; drain. In a medium saucepan with a lid, combine rice, cold water and salt. Set pot over high heat and bring to a boil, stirring briefly.

NEXT PAGE: The next three steps on how to make the wild rice and chestnut stuffing as well as how to make the roasted game hens. Also, where to find Cat Cora’s book.

2. Immediately reduce heat to low and cover pot. Cook 45 to 55 minutes, or until all of the liquid has been absorbed.

3. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. While rice is cooking, spread chestnuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven for about 10 minutes.

4. In a large bowl, mix together cooked rice, chestnuts, onion and herbs. Set aside.

Roasted Game Hens:

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Pat game hens dry with a paper towel. Remove and discard innards. Lightly sprinkle cavity of each hen with salt and loosely fill with prepared stuffing, leaving a little space to allow rice to expand during roasting.

2. Rub skin of hens with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place hens–breast side down–on a rack set inside a roasting pan. Bake 15 minutes, then baste with pomegranate juice. Continue basting with juice every 15 to 20 minutes until hens are dark golden brown and juices run clear when hens are pierced at the thigh with a fork (total roasting time: 60 to 65 minutes). An instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone) should register 175 to 180 degrees. 

3. Remove birds from oven and transfer to platter. Cover with foil and let rest 10 to 15 minutes.

4. To make gravy: Place roasting pan with juices on stovetop over medium-low heat. Add about ½ cup of stock; stir, scraping up any roasted bits from pan bottom.

5. Sift flour into cooking juices and whisk well. Slowly whisk in another 1½ cups of remaining stock. Simmer until mixture is thick and smooth, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

6. To serve, place one hen on each plate, top with the gravy and garnish with pomegranate seeds, if desired.

This recipe adaptation is courtesy of Cooking from the Hip by Cat Cora (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

Where to Find:
• COOKING FROM THE HIP: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals by Cat Cora with Ann Krueger Spivack (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), is available at your local bookseller or at www.amazon.com.
• For the Iron Chef schedule, visit www.FoodNetwork.com.
• For videos, recipes and more, visit www.CatCoraCooks.com.
• To learn why “good guys still wear white hats,” visit www.ChefsforHumanity.org.

Mother Earth Living
Mother Earth Living
The ultimate guide to living the good life!