Thank you to the Wall Street Journal for including me for their “In My Kitchen” series. “Crafty Cook Natalie Chanin” by Charlotte Druckman (who was a pleasure to work with).
Here you have the full interview (with a small disclaimer) and the recipes for the full menu we cooked that day:
“I GOT MY NICKNAME from biscuits,” said Natalie “Alabama” Chanin, the force behind the handcrafted clothing and housewares company Alabama Chanin, based in Florence, Ala. She earned the moniker a dozen years ago after baking her signature buttery discs for a group of hungry strangers while on vacation in Venezuela. “They called it ‘pan de Alabama’ [Alabama bread] and they’d call me that, too,” she said. That same generous spirit is one of the defining principles of her business practice—she recently introduced a line of table linens at a more accessible price point than the rest of her wares, and she makes it a point to employ local seamstresses and pay them a living wage.
At her 1940s modified ranch, she throws everything from birthday parties for her 6-year-old daughter’s stuffed animals to impromptu dinners for friends, such as food stylist and photographer Angie Mosier, radio producer Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters and Alice Waters.** Ms. Chanin cites Ms. Waters as a source of inspiration, especially when it comes to hosting, and recalled a story she read about the chef. “When she started cooking, she always had an extra place for Elijah,” Ms. Chanin said, “a place at the table in case someone showed up.” Welcome to Ms. Chanin’s world, where the pot’s always full, the table stylishly set and the door wide open.
I learned to cook from my grandmothers and my mother. Both of my grandmothers made every meal that ever hit the table.
We make biscuits. It’s one of the few things my daughter will eat. There are always biscuits in the house, or we’re about to make some. My biscuit recipe has evolved over time. In the South, they say don’t roll it or knead too much, but I’ve found if you roll the dough really thin and fold it and then roll it really thin and fold it again, like a croissant, it works so well. That goes against the Southern tradition of only touching it six times before you cut them out. It’s still exactly like a biscuit, but you get those layers of butter inside of it, so it gets fluffier and just flakes apart.
I cook in big batches. I make a lot of soups and casseroles. Everyone loves my chili. I make a homemade chili powder. I think it makes all the difference.
I have strong thoughts on how Southern food is defined. Southerners didn’t always have lard or eat big barbecues every year—they ate a whole pig once a year. The heaviness has been overblown and become a cliché. There’s a lot more subtlety and depth that a lot of great Southern chefs have been showing.
I’ve been collecting dishes and glassware for years. I find pieces at the thrift store. I’ve never been the one who found the prizewinning thing that could be sold for $50,000 the next day. I always choose things I like.
If it’s a special occasion, I’ll get out my grandmother’s china. I have these beautiful striped plates—they were made in the 1960s, in America. I think they’re those free plates you’d get when you bought enough groceries. One of them has a pattern from Homer Laughlin, one of the few mass ceramics producers left in the United States. It’s a miracle that they’re still producing.
I also have a little bit of a fetish for silver. I don’t own a lot of it, but my mother gave me her sterling flatware once I was old enough and had a house. It’s called Young Love. It was Oneida heirloom sterling. I started collecting more of the Oneida pieces—it was what people registered for in the 1950s and ’60s. I’ve been buying up the Melbourne pattern as well, and I mix them together. They have nothing in common, but it’s OK.
We eat out so much. It’s something I enjoy. I lived in Europe for 10 years, and I love to go out with friends and have a dinner that can go on for hours. But when I was a kid, there were only a couple of restaurants in the community, so it was really rare—we’d eat out maybe once every two months.
I have a very diverse taste in music. Different days and different weather call for different sounds. I love contemporary folk, drum and bass, cello, piano and sometimes, I am not ashamed to admit, my 6-year-old and I dance to Justin Bieber while making biscuits.
Right now, I’m most excited about Jack Rudy tonic water and any meal my son, Zach, cooks for me. He just opened a catering company called Magpie + RUTH, named after my daughter Maggie and his lovely partner, Ashley Ruth, and their 6-week-old baby, Stella Ruth.
We use cloth napkins at every meal. I have things we [Alabama Chanin] designed and some napkins I designed with my daughter for the Fourth of July last year; they have stars and stripes. It’s all mixed up.
Originally, I wanted to make documentaries, so I would always say I was a documentarian posing as a fashion designer. Now, what I really want to do, at least some of the time, is have a restaurant, so now I say I’m a chef posing as a fashion designer.
I have an outdoor table on my patio, and we’ve had some amazing, beautiful dinners around that table. Most of them weren’t planned parties—it just happened that someone was in town and someone else came by and we were hungry, so we threw some vegetables on the grill and found stuff in the garden to use for drinks.
There’s a cookbook my grandmother gave me for my 13th birthday, “Kim’s Cookbook For Young People.” I still cook out of this cookbook—it has the best tea cake recipe. It’s sugar cookies, actually, but we make them as tea cakes. I still have it in my kitchen. My daughter uses it now. It has an inscription that reads “To Natalie on her 13th birthday from Grandmother Smith.”
Last summer, I used a lot of Frank Stitt’s books. I love Virginia Willis’s “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all” because it can’t always be brilliant. I went through a cake phase, so I have a lot of cake books. I’m not a baker, but I want to learn. The Southern Foodways Alliance did a beautiful community cookbook. I love the stories in it, and the recipes are cookable.
When I joined the diving team as a 12-year-old, someone said: “Don’t look, just jump.” It has stood me in good stead all of these years and through a lifetime of adventures.
I love to tie up my newest favorite cookbook or a vintage find with a set of our tea towels—a gift that is even better when delivered with an appetizer or dessert from the cookbook. I keep a stock of both at my house because you just never know when the phone will ring and you will head out the door for the next great meal.
A traditional southern party will quite often feature pork, whether in the form of pulled pork sandwiches, slow-cooked ribs, or smoked pork butt. This pork dish may be a little more formal than those options, but it is actually very easy to prepare and delicious served with Field Peas, Pear Chutney, and my Savory Pepper Biscuits.
ROASTED PORK LOIN
5 lbs pork loin
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 sprigs rosemary
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Marinate pork loin overnight in extra virgin olive oil, peeled garlic and rosemary sprigs. Heavily season the pork with salt and pepper, leaving a thorough coating. Pan sear all sides of the pork loin until golden brown. Finish in the oven at 350 degrees until the meat reaches your desired temperature (about 12-15 minutes for medium). Let rest for 5 minutes, then slice to serve.
Field peas are a late summer staple in my house. There are hundreds of varieties and they all taste good. Our family tradition is to serve the cooked peas with chutney or a spicy chow chow.
2 cups shelled fresh peas
3 cups water
3 figs, quartered
1/2 medium sized onion, sliced thinly
Vegetable and herb sachet*
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash peas and combine with all the ingredients. Simmer over medium to low heat until the peas are cooked through but still firm. Serve hot with pear chutney.
*To make a vegetable and herb sachet, simply wrap chopped carrots and celery in cheesecloth with rosemary, garlic, bay leaves, or any additional herbs you choose. Tie the sachet securely with cooking twine and add to the pot.
We have pears coming in by the bushel-full at the moment, but chutney can be made with an array of ingredients. Try apples, apricots, pears, or any fruit and spices you have readily available in your community. I like to use hard, fresh pears for this recipe. Chutney is delicious when made fresh, but is also delicious when canned for the winter. This spicy version is perfectly paired with vegetables or meats. This recipe makes about 4 pints—definitely enough to “put-up” some for the winter.
3 pounds pears
2 cups organic apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Peel the pears and remove the core and stems. Dice into approximately1/2-inch pieces. Finely chop the onion and figs. Place the vinegar and brown sugar into a 5-quart pot and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir while adding the remaining ingredients. Reduce the heat, simmering the mixture until it thickens—about 2 hours.
Serve hot and can your leftovers.
SAVORY PEPPER BISCUITS
Biscuits are a staple in our home. Sweet or savory, we are trying out new varieties each week. The recipe below is a recipe was made by my son, Zach, who just opened his own catering company. These biscuits use hoop cheese, which is a traditional farm cheese. It is formed in large wheels (hoops) and covered with red wax. If you don’t live in an area where hoop cheese is available, you can substitute cheddar, though, I don’t think any other cheese is quite as flavorful as hoop. Be careful, it spoils quickly.
The addition of pepper gives these biscuits a hint of spice, and the cheese rounds out the flavor to make the perfect dinner biscuit.
3 cups self-rising flour
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup hoop cheese
2 Tbsp cracked pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the butter into 2 cups of flour using a pastry cutter. Add buttermilk, stirring until the mixture sticks together but is moist. Fold the cheese into the mixture and season with cracked pepper. If dough is dry, you can add more buttermilk.
Turn the dough out onto a clean surface covered with 1 cup flour. (I use a tea towel underneath my dough for easy clean up.) Knead the dough lightly until it holds together. Flatten and roll the dough out with a rolling pin, fold in half, then roll it out again. Repeat 6-8 times. Cut your biscuits using a cookie cutter of any shape. (Don’t forget to use your remaining dough to make round, hand-shaped “cat head” biscuits – as we call them in my house. They’re always everyone’s favorite.) Place biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Top with butter and serve.
**A small disclaimer… while I have shared (most delicious) food and drink with Alice Waters, Marsha Guerrero, and Davia Nelson, I have (unfortunately) not hosted them for dinner at my home. Something I would like to remedy one day soon. Official invitation: ladies, I will set a place for you every meal until you find your way to Alabama.