Combining French and Southern cuisines just seemed natural to chef Jennifer Hill Booker, author of the new cookbook “Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent.”
Born in Oklahoma, Booker grew up with a passion for food and always knew she wanted to be a chef. She went to college and later the School of Culinary Arts at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology before she and her husband, an Army officer, moved to Europe. While there, she studied at the prestigious Cordon Bleu in Paris.
“I found, living in Europe and studying in Paris, that a lot of the foods the French use, we use the same things here in the South – and a lot of the same cooking methods,” said Booker, who now lives in Atlanta. “They marry very well.”
She used the skills she developed overseas to expand on what came from her heart.
“I’ve always loved cooking, and in my family food is a very big presence,” she said. “I’ve been carrying the recipes in my head and heart for most of my life.”
While in Europe, Booker started Your Resident Gourmet, a catering service for military families who lived on the base. She brought the business with her when she moved to Atlanta. In her cookbook, she mixes recipes she learned when she was a child with the recipes she learned in France.
Take, for example, her Winter Pumpkin Soup with its “elegant French influence.” Booker says it’s perfect for the fall, when “the crops turn over from cucumber and tomato to pumpkin and squash.”
Any type of pumpkin or squash can be used in the soup, which also contains hickory-smoked bacon, rosemary, garlic, chicken stock and heavy cream.
The pumpkin or squash should be roasted to “soften the vegetable and reinforce its natural sweetness.” Then, to complement the soft texture of the squash and heavy cream, Booker recommends adding parmesan croutons and bacon chips for “a nice crunch.”
To make the croutons, toss bread cubes, olive oil, cheese, chili flakes and black pepper in a bowl, spread the mixture on a sheet pan and bake until the bread cubes are golden brown.
Another fall favorite is Booker’s Hickory-Smoked Chicken Croquet.
“It’s white and dark meat and hickory-smoked bacon, and you can pair that with Cranberry Orange Relish,” she said.
And it’s a bit early, but she also recommends her Christmas Coconut Cake.
“It’s a traditional cake we make every Christmas,” Booker said, adding that it has been handed down in her family for generations.
The cake calls for vanilla extract, almond extract, confectioners’ sugar and, of course, coconut.
“The creamy white icing and grated coconut always remind me of fresh snow,” Booker writes in her cookbook.
Another great food for the fall is beans, she said.
“I love pinto beans, and Northern beans are a big favorite.”
She also recommends her Tomato and Okra Gravy, which she serves over white rice or buttermilk biscuits.
Booker writes in her book that when she was a child, she could never understand why her grandfather ate okra.
“I wondered how something as slimly as okra could give him such obvious pleasure,” she writes.
But years later, she grew to appreciate the dish.
To make the gravy, she combines onions, flour and chicken stock in a skillet. Once everything is thick and smooth, she adds tomatoes and okra, and then seasons with salt, pepper and cayenne.
Booker’s cookbook also includes an entire chapter on canning and preserving. “It’s a lost art,” she said.
“Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French accent” is available now.