It’s no mystery why chef Carla Hall was voted “Fan Favorite” during her turn on Bravo TV’s Top Chef All-Starsin 2011. She’s the perfect party guest: Not only has she, as they say, “never met a stranger,” but you know she’d come bearing something tasty. When she’s not in the kitchen, the Nashville, Tenn.-born Carla is lighting up daytime TV screens as a host on ABC’s The Chew, the talk show-cooking show mashup also starring chefs Mario Batali and Michael Symon, nutrition expert Daphne Oz (daughter of Dr. Mehmet Oz), and style expert Clinton Kelly. As if her calendar isn’t already crammed enough, Carla is busy promoting her first cookbook, Cooking With Love, released just this month. We got the download from Carla on how she keeps it healthy at Thanksgiving (her mother and sister have high cholesterol), her tips for managing stress in the kitchen, and more.
Spry: Your philosophy is “cooking with love.” People tend to associate that with comfort foods or junk foods. Can cooking healthfully be “cooking with love” too?
Carla: I call what I do comforting food instead of comfort food. Comforting food can be something very nutritious and healthy. It can be from another part of the world. It could be Indian, Thai or Korean food. It’s whatever makes your heart smile.
Spry: You’re from the South, which is notorious for its heavy dishes. Do you still cook traditional Southern food?
Carla: We have to remember that our lifestyle is so different from the way our ancestors lived. They were cooking more and had their own gardens so the food wasn’t processed the way it is now. I’ve made little changes—for instance, I cook my greens for maybe 30 minutes, not four hours, so they retain some of the nutrients. I saute them in olive oil and just a tiny bit of fatback for the flavor.
Spry: People get so overwhelmed when cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Any advice for reducing stress in the kitchen?
Carla: Before you even think about the menu, cover your stove with only as many pots as it can hold. Then, do the same with casserole dishes and baking pans in your oven. This is your space—it’s not going to change. So if you plan a dinner that has to all be in the oven, you’re already behind the eight ball. Balance things that are roasted or boiled with room temperature and cold dishes. Don’t rule out the microwave for reheating. Also, do some of your prep ahead. If you’re doing green beans or carrots, blanch them and put them into resealable bags, so that the day of, they’re already par-cooked.
Spry:How can people who are trying to eat lighter—or who have specific dietary needs—still enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner?
Carla: I say no to nothing and yes to moderation: I never eat until I just can’t move. That said, I also don’t want to have all of these really heavy dishes. Having some kind of a raw salad on the table adds a little freshness. I love side dishes: That’s where you can fit in some of the diet restraints—vegan, or vegetarian or diabetic. For instance, last year, I made dressing in muffin tins so I could customize it. The base was the same cornbread dressing recipe—but my sister didn’t want any sausage in hers, so I made one with just vegetables. And I had one with turkey sausage, and one with pork sausage and mushrooms.
Spry: Do you do anything to lighten up desserts?
Carla: We always have fruit. Roasted fruit is not only really simple and quick, but it’s also a way to lighten things up. You just have to decide to have a lighter dessert. Because I can’t lighten my grandmother’s pound cake; it just wouldn’t be the same.
Spry: What’s it like doing The Chew? Who are some of your favorite guests?
Carla: The guests I’ve loved most are the ones that are really just letting their guard down, and will catch whatever fun we throw their way. A big standout was Hugh Jackman. And Katie Couric: She was fantastic. Jimmy Fallon—hilarious! Of course he would be.
Spry: How do you stay fit around all that food?
Carla: Starting The Chew, we all gained weight. If you go back to beginning shows, everybody was asking me “What’s up with you? You’re eating like you haven’t eaten in days.” And I was. People were talking, and I was still eating. So now, I just take little bites. I run when I can, and I love rollerblading. When I’m in New York, if I am going somewhere that’s just 10 or 20 blocks away, I walk. When I go to the grocery store, I carry my groceries—if I bought it, I have to carry it back.