Sample text for LaBelle cuisine : recipes to sing about / Patti LaBelle with Laura B. Randolph.

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Counter Introduction

From the time I was a little girl, I knew there were two things in this world I was born to do: sing and cook. I've spent my life developing my voice and my recipes and, to tell you the truth, I'm hard pressed to say where I'm happiest--in concert or in the kitchen; making music or making meals. Whether cooking or singing, I feel at ease, at peace, at one with the world.

While reminiscing for this book, I realized why cooking has always been such a labor of love for me. Because it's as much about friendship and fellowship as it is about food. Because, behind the whole process--the shopping, the planning, the preparing, the serving--cooking is really about love. Cooking is a way to show it, share it, serve it. Cooking is as much about nourishment for the soul as it is the stomach.

Especially the kind of cooking I grew up on. We're talking Southern, country cooking. Authentic, down-home, Southern country cooking is a generation-to-generation pass-it-down gift, and I have so many people in my family to thank for mine: my grandmothers, my mother, my father, my aunts Hattie Mae and Joshia Mae. I don't mean to brag, but the people in my family have always been some cooking folks. And that's no idle boast.

I know people think I'm kidding when I tell them I take my pans out on tour with me, but I am as serious as a heart attack. Not only do I take them with me, they're the first thing I pack. If you open my suitcase, you'll find three or four pans right beside my designer gowns. They're like my American Express card--I don't leave home without them.

If I have a really strong craving for something, or if I don't have the ingredients I want, I'll go grocery shopping after a show. Sometimes, if the show runs long and I don't want to go back to the hotel and change my clothes, I will go grocery shopping in my gown. It drives my bodyguard crazy. "Relax," I always tell him. "Nobody is going to bother me in the vegetable aisle."

People have the funniest reactions when they see me in the grocery store. Some stare, some scream, some run up and down the aisles. A lot of people just don't believe it's me. "Patti, that's not really you, is it?" I've been asked more times than I can count.

Once, I gave a mini concert in the seasoning aisle. Some of my die-hard fans, fans from way back in the sixties, spotted me searching for some sea salt. The next thing I knew, they were telling me about all the shows they'd come to over the years. We're talking dozens. They remembered concerts I had forgotten. "You all have been to almost as many shows as I have," I told them.

Of course, that they would come to see me all those times just touched my heart. So, when they asked me if I would please sing a little something, what could I do? My bodyguard didn't speak to me the whole way home.

I have so many more stories--and recipes--to share and they're all in this book. Some stories--like the flying biscuits--are hard to believe. Some stories--like the kindness of Laura Nyro--are hard to forget. But the recipes that go with them are all precious to me. And now they're my gift to you.

Say-My-Name Smothered Chicken and Gravy

There is only one person I know who can pluck a chicken as clean and as fast as my Grandmother Ellen. Chubby Checker. Before he became a famous recording star, Chubby worked at Henry Colt's, the poultry market near our house where my mother did her Saturday-morning grocery shopping.

Of course, he wasn't Chubby Checker back then. Dick Clark's wife had yet to change his name because she thought he was a cute version of Fats Domino. ("Fats" became "Chubby" and "Domino" turned into "Checker.")

When I met Chubby Checker, he was Ernest Evans, the cutest, pudgiest, fastest chicken-plucker in Philly. He was also a big part of the reason I loved grocery shopping with my mother, who was also called Chubby. Before Ernest went in the back of the store to clean and pluck your chicken, he would entertain you with jokes and songs and impersonations.

"I don't have time for that today," Chubby would tell Ernest when he would go on a little too long. "I'm making smothered chicken for dinner tonight, and I have to get home and get it started."

"No problem Mrs. Holte," Ernest would say and disappear in the back with our dinner. We could barely get over to the produce section before Ernest was back with the cleanest chicken I've ever seen. Next to Grandmother Ellen's, of course.

To this day, making smothered chicken takes me back to those Saturday-morning shopping sprees with Chubby and Chubby.

Hungry yet?

Makes 4 servings

One 3 1/2-pound chicken, rinsed and cut into 8 pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium celery ribs, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
3 cups chicken broth

Season the chicken with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Place the flour in a large bowl. Roll the chicken in the flour to coat, shaking off excess flour. Transfer 3 tablespoons of the flour to a medium bowl and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning halfway during cooking, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the oil from the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onions, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the reserved flour and stir well. Gradually stir in the broth and bring to a simmer.

Return the chicken to the skillet. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and shows no sign of pink when pierced at the bone, about 35 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a deep platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat and cook, stirring often, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Season the gravy with salt and pepper and pour over the chicken. Serve hot.

Aunt Hattie's Scrumptious Sweet Tater Bread

Like so many of my special recipes, my Aunt Hattie Mae gave me this one. It has only been in recent years that I've gotten into baking and, so much of what I know about it I learned from Aunt Hattie and Aunt Josh.

Aunt Hattie and Aunt Josh are some cooking Sisters themselves. In Georgia, the ancestral home of my father's family, their culinary skill is legendary. For years, Aunt Hattie and Aunt Josh cooked in private homes for wealthy White families. More than a few folks stopped speaking to each other after one family visited another for dinner and an awestruck diner tried to hire Auntie Hattie or Aunt Josh away.

Aunt Josh even cooked President Eisenhower his first soul food meal. He'd spent the night with the family she was working for and, the next morning, Aunt Josh rose with the sun and cooked him a soul food banquet: hogshead bacon, sausage scrapple, grits and redeye gravy, sweet potato waffles, and, of course, Grandmother Tempie's flying biscuits. Aunt Josh says President Eisenhower mopped his plate clean. Can't you just see the look on the face of the White House chef when Ike got back to Washington and asked him to whip up some grits and gravy!!?

Aunt Josh and Aunt Hattie are both fabulous cooks, and as much as I relish their food, the stories they have told me over the years about our family are what I love most. When you put Aunt Hattie's Scrumptious Sweet Tater Bread in the oven, invite a very old or very young relative to join you in the kitchen. While it's baking, listen to or pass on your own family's very special legends and lore. You'll be glad you did.

Makes 8 servings

2 medium orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon or 1/8 teaspoon lemon extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan, tapping out the excess flour.

Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the sweet potatoes and cook until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain, and rinse under cold water until easy to handle. Peel the sweet potatoes, place in a medium bowl, and mash well. Measure 1 cup mashed sweet potatoes, saving the remaining sweet potatoes for another purpose. In a large bowl, using a handheld electric mixer on high speed, beat the butter and sugar until combined, about 1 minute. One at a time, beat in the eggs. Beat in the sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, vanilla, and lemon zest. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat the flour mixture into the sweet potato mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Spread evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Invert onto the wire rack, turn right side up, and cool completely.

Best-Ever Banana Bread: Substitute 1 cup mashed ripe bananas for the mashed sweet potatoes. Reduce baking time to 1 hour.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Cookery, American