We all know that I don’t cook, but I really admire those who can. Charles Hunter III is a fabulous private chef here in Nashville who offers in-home catering and cooking classes, and also blogs about all things food at TheSaltedTable.com (follow him on Insta @TheSaltedTable). His enthusiasm is so infectious that I practically feel inspired to hit up the farmers market and whip up a from-scratch feast…what is this witchcraft?? Read on for Charles’ delightful musings on his grandmothers’ cooking, favorite cookbooks, and how to punch up our holiday menus. Thank you, Charles!
By this point in 2020, we’ve all spent more time cooking at home than ever before. What is your advice for those of us who are totally over our ovens? How do we get inspired to keep cooking?
Cooking and baking for me is a form of therapy. And even in the era of covid, I still turn to it as such. The seasons haven’t stopped changing and the farmers and local artisans still need our support. So I still make the occasional trip to the farmers market to see what the harvest has to offer. But if burnout has taken hold of you, which I truly understand, then I’d recommend trying recipes that don’t require you standing over a hot range or in front of a hot oven. A few things you can do: purchase already-cooked meats like roasted chickens, smoked fish, seitan, or tofu, or even order these items from your favorite restaurants. Only use the portion of the meat you need then freeze the rest in proper portion size so that you can thaw it as needed. For breakfast, consider overnight oats or yogurt. And keep fresh fruit, dried fruits, toasted and raw nuts or seeds, plus honey and maple syrup. These are all perfect toppings. If you like to keep raw vegetables on hand, shaved raw salads always do the trick if I want a satisfying meal that doesn’t require heat, but is still full of flavor. A combination of field greens, shaved carrots, celery, radishes, and apples with the addition of some dried fruit and a creamy dressing. You can make some really incredible meals with a little creativity and a well-stocked pantry.
On your social channels, you talk about your grandmother and her influence on your cooking. Will you share some of her best kitchen advice? We love any and all wisdom from a southern granny!
My grandmother and great-grandmother lived in a duplex; it was truly the best of both worlds. There weren’t many days when there wasn’t something different cooking on both ends of the house. They were intuitive cooks, and rarely used recipes. I still struggle with this, even as a recipe developer. It was typically “taste as you go” around my family’s kitchens. As far as kitchen advice goes, I’d say “use what you have on hand” was a mantra in my grandmothers’ kitchens. They were resourceful women, and made great meals with minimal ingredients. So if you look in the pantry to find canned black beans, tomato sauce, an onion and some vegetable or chicken broth, then you’re having chili for dinner. But you could also use Italian or Indian spices depending upon your own personal taste. Sometimes cooking feels intimidating because we don’t know how to use what we have on hand. If you master this practice, then you won’t be far from a great meal.
For those of us in the Nashville area, what are some of your favorite, local purveyors of produce and meat? Who should be our first stop at the farmers market?
Nashville is full of great small businesses providing top quality products, and you should make yourself familiar with all of them, but I’ll give you my shortlist. I’ve been a fan of Porter Road Butcher‘s meat products since we moved to Nashville. You will find me singing their praises on social media time and again. And they offer chicken, beef, pork, and lamb, and it’s all delicious! You can also find beautiful meat products from my friends at Bear Creek Farms and Ladies of the Lamb. Bloomsbury Farm has some of the most beautiful certified organic produce, and you will find them at most farmers markets throughout town, as well as local grocery stores like Produce Place and Whole Foods. I like to recommend a weekend stroll to the Franklin Farmers Market because you can literally go grocery shopping with the wide selection of vendors that they have. Be sure to stop by River Cottage Farm for eggs and pork, Beaverdam Creek for grits, Hatcher Family Dairy for chocolate milk and buttermilk, and Tavalin Tails for breakfast sausage or chorizo if they have it.
A lot of our readers are busy moms who just need to get dinner done FAST. What are some fall meal ideas that come together in a flash? Are there some pre-made ingredients – such as a sauce or marinade – that you recommend for easy cooking?
Autumn and winter are the perfect seasons to pull out the slow cooker and begin to organize your casserole recipes. We were no strangers to these meals growing up with two working parents. I recommend keeping jars or cans of your favorite red and green salsas, tomato sauces, and Asian mixes in the pantry that can be easily combined in a slow cooker with your family’s favorite meat. You can add chopped vegetables, especially if you have any that are going south. Simply add your spices, and canned/jarred sauces, set it and forget it, which is the beauty of slow cookers. And a similar practice can be adapted for casseroles: simply add a chopped meat of your own preference with rice, beans, or pasta, plus onions, chicken, or vegetable broth, along with cream, butter, and your favorite seasonings in a casserole dish. Then, halfway through cooking, you can add crumbled saltines, potato chips, or toasted breadcrumbs. If your family appreciates vegetables, then salads with a lot of ingredients were always a hit growing up. A big bowl of leafy greens topped with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, avocados, dried cranberries, potato stix, croutons, or whatever you have available. This is great because if you have kids, they can assist you with this. You only have to cook some meat to top it off, or your favorite tofu, seitan, or even roasted mushrooms or crispy eggplant.
Looking ahead to November and December, how do we punch up our holiday menus? Every family has go-to recipes for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, etc., but what’s the best way to infuse some whimsy and keep it interesting?
I recommend being creative with the ingredients that you know your family already loves, and then thinking of a way to cross-utilize some of those in your holiday favorites. I’d suggest adding roasted garlic to the macaroni and cheese or dressing this year, or make a pear compote to accompany the cranberry sauce. You could try changing up the seasoning on your turkey, lamb, or ham, and also try a different brine or cooking method. In addition to onions, add some sauteed fennel to your stuffing or dressing recipe. You could change the baking lineup, and include cinnamon rolls filled with pumpkin butter, make an apple pie with chai spices, or maybe some sweet potato cupcakes with a bourbon buttercream. I also suggest having a holiday-inspired mocktail for family members who aren’t drinking for whatever reason.
Tell us more about The Salted Table and how you’ve “pivoted” in this bizarre year. Are you still doing in-home catering and cooking classes? What about your meal delivery services?
It is indeed a strange year for my business model. We are an in-home caterer, so trying to navigate the waters of the coronavirus has not been easy. When I realized that this wasn’t going to be letting up anytime soon, I pivoted to doing meal deliveries and meal prep for clients, as well as making it available to the public via social media. We are slowly returning to cooking for smaller gatherings, with masks in tow, and I’m continuing to explore what this business model looks like in the future. I don’t think I or anyone in the culinary industry could’ve predicted having to reconstruct the way we operate. It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience.
What are three ingredients that you think are totally underappreciated, and three that are totally overused?
I wish that people would use dill, ginger, and green onions more often. I don’t feel like I see these ingredients in clients’ fridges very often, nor do I see them used in savory recipes online very often. These three items pack a lot of flavor, and will make dishes more delicious if used properly. Three ingredients that are overused would have to be garlic, onions, and butter. This is going to receive some backlash I know, but hear me out. I have clients who don’t eat onions or garlic in their food, and it took me a solid three months to actually wrap my head around it, but I like to think that I have a grip on it–and they seem to enjoy everything. I myself was shocked to see how delicious meals could be without our beloved onions and garlic, but it can be done! I grew up in the South and around my family’s kitchen, it was butter, butter, and more butter. This is still common everywhere I look, and while butter is delicious, we don’t need it as much as we think. And I say that because olive oil, coconut oil, and ghee exists. Not to mention, fried foods in coconut oil are delicious, and the coconut flavor is very subtle. Just trust me on this!
After 9/11, we saw “comfort food” take off in a big way. People were yearning for anything that felt homey and soothing. Do you think the covid crisis will spark any comparable food trend?
I think coronavirus did this in a big way at the beginning because we became homebodies against our wills, so we started cooking, baking, and exploring our kitchens a lot more. And I think whatever new cooking habits were started will definitely stick with people, especially if this were to happen again. So I think we will continue to see people embrace the bread baking, which is one of the ultimate comfort foods in my opinion. Give me some fresh bread, butter, flaky salt, and honey – I’m a happy man. And I hope that this moment in time gave people new confidence that they didn’t have prior to the pandemic, and I hope they continue to explore their kitchens outside of a major shift in society.
What cookbooks should everyone have in their kitchens?
The cookbooks I’m currently loving are:
- Six Seasons, Joshua McFadden
- Vegetable Kingdom, Bryant Terry
- The First Mess, Laura Wright
- This Is Camino, Russell Moore & Allison Hopelain
- The Vanilla Bean Baking Book, Sarah Kieffer
- Season, Nik Sharma
- Cannelle et Vanille, Aran Goyoaga
- 100 Recipes, America’s Test Kitchen
- The Flavor Bible, Andrew Dornenburg & Karen Page
These cookbooks will supply some solid recipes that you’ll want to make over and over again, not even realizing that you’re becoming a better cook due to their presence in your kitchen. They will also inspire you to use some of those spices that might not make it into the regular rotation.
Be honest: what “unsophisticated” foods do you secretly love? Kraft singles on a burger or grilled cheese? Funfetti cupcakes from the box? Twinkies? We all have at least one!
Ha! Most chefs I know have no shame about what everyone else refers to as “guilty pleasures.” I love some American cheese on a smash burger, Betty Crocker’s boxed chocolate walnut brownies, Gushers, Little Debbie Fudge Rounds nuked in the microwave with a cold glass of milk. I could go on! Chefs are around gourmet food all the time and we turn to the comfort foods from our childhoods in our downtime, more oft than not. At least my chef friends do.