No Place Like Home

Katie Lee Joel may mingle with A-list celebrities at the hottest Hampton parties and red carpet events, but this Huntington native is stirring up a name for herself from the comfort of her own kitchen.


Published:

Photos courtesy of The Comfort Table by Katie Lee Joel (Simon and Schuster, 2008)

Whether in her Manhattan town house or at her Hamptons estate, Katie Lee Joel stays true to her West Virginia roots by hanging out in the place where she’s the most comfortable—the kitchen.

“I grew up in my grandma’s kitchen, and I learned to cook from her,” she says. “Then I worked in restaurants in college, but never really thought it would be a career.” While studying English and Journalism at Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, Katie spent a semester in Florence, Italy, at The British Institute. “We would learn about the art and architecture in class then we’d go out and see it,” she says. “It was an incredible experience, but it was also a really good opportunity for me to be exposed to a lot of different types of food that I’d never had before. And what I learned, aside from how good everything tasted, was that Italians use the freshest ingredients. There is such a focus on local and seasonal eating, which is the way I like to eat—and how I grew up eating. My family always had a garden and my grandpa and cousins had a farm, so we always had fresh produce.”

After college Katie headed to New York, where she started out as a fishmonger in the Hamptons. While she says the transition from Huntington to the Hamptons served as a “baby step” to Manhattan, it was still an adjustment. “When I worked as a fishmonger in a market, I’d say to people, ‘Hi! How are you?’ And they’d say, ‘I’m just looking.’ People here don’t just casually chat with strangers. And I had to adjust to that.”

On one fateful and unseasonably warm November day, Katie and a friend were at a rooftop bar in Manhattan, where she bumped into musician and rock-and-roll legend Billy Joel. When he invited them to dinner, Katie remembers, “I’d say it was love at first bite because we had such a good meal and we both love food, so that was what we bonded over.”

Katie says she gets back to the Mountain State to visit her family in Huntington a couple times a year. Billy Joel, now her husband, was surprised to find such good Italian food in West Virginia. “I took him to Jim’s Spaghetti House in Huntington, and they put our picture on the wall,” she says. “So whenever I go back, I always get a frozen Jim’s spaghetti sauce and a frozen Rocco’s lasagna to bring back with me. (Billy) loves Rocco’s lasagna.”

Katie likes to keep things cooking in her own kitchen. Some of her husband’s favorite recipes include the meatloaf (or “man loaf,” as Katie calls it, “because if you make it for a man, he’s destined to fall in love with you”), and her grandma’s recipe for peach cobbler (a dessert he’d never had before until Katie came along.

All of those years spent in her grandma’s kitchen, combined with her background in journalism, have since merged into a dream career as a columnist, television correspondent, and food critic. Katie says, “I realized I could combine my love of food with my love for writing. So what I really wanted to do was to be a food writer. I never really expected to do anything in television. I just dreamed of having a column someday. So it’s all been something that’s happened in the last few years. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams.”

Her column titled “Katie’s Kitchen,” which appears in Hamptons Magazine, eventually sparked the idea for a bigger dream as a cookbook author.

It’s easy to see where Katie’s love of food stems from in her new book, The Comfort Table, which features Southern classics that tend toward a lighter and healthier twist. Katie says that when she signed on to write it, she had her grandma mail her recipe box from West Virginia. “I looked through all of her old notes and found a lot of inspiration there,” she says. “I also found a lot of inspiration from my travels and being in the Hamptons where there is so much fresh produce available.”

The Comfort Table reflects Katie’s no-fuss culinary philosophy of keeping it simple and fresh—a philosophy she practices herself, even when entertaining guests in her own home. “I love to cook simple foods. I think that people kind of expect to have something fancy when they come over, and when I pull out fried chicken they’re like, ‘Ah, cool!’ And they kind of kick back and relax, and we all have a really good time.

“I like to shy away from doing ‘fancy’; I think people have much more fun when it’s easy. Even if I want to have a party where people get dressed up, like a cocktail party, I still serve simple food because that’s what people really want to eat,” she says.

One of her favorite guests is good friend and Southern culinary guru Paula Deen. “I love her! I call her my fairy godmother. There’s really nobody better.

“Actually, I talked to her last week and she was in West Virginia filming Good Morning America, and she told me, ‘You come from the most beautiful state.’ She couldn’t believe how pretty it was. She had such a good time and thought the people were so nice, and so I want to bring her back.”

Katie says Paula Deen has taught her to stay true to herself. “She’s always done what she thinks is right and what she believes in, and that’s the most important thing I’ve learned from her.”

Katie says that although she splits her time between the Hamptons and New York City, “West Virginia will always be home.”


Recipes:

Logan County Hamburgers

1 pound ground beef (85% lean)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 medium yellow onion, half grated, the other half thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 slices white bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
12 slices American cheese, optional

In a medium bowl, combine the beef, egg, grated onion, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Mix until combined. Form into thin patties.

Spread butter on one side of each slice of bread. Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the burgers about 3 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Drain the grease from the skillet.

In the same skillet, place six slices of bread, butter side down. Top each with a slice of cheese, if desired, some onions, and a burger. Top with remaining slices of cheese, if using, and bread, butter side up. Cook each sandwich until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side.

Serve with mustard, ketchup, pickles, or any other desired hamburger toppings.

Yield: 6 servings

Recipe from The Comfort Table, Katie Lee Joel

 

Mom’s Vegetable Soup

My mom is kind of a hippie health nut. To this day, even though I am fully grown and living on my own, she is always asking me if I’ve eaten my vegetables. During the cold weather months, it pleases her to know that I make her vegetable soup on a regular basis. Because the soup is filled with all sorts of veggies, and beans for protein, she knows that I am getting a healthy meal. Her recipe uses chicken stock, but if you are making the soup for a vegetarian, substitute vegetable broth. (Katie Lee Joel, The Comfort Table)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 medium carrots, chopped
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 medium turnip, peeled and chopped
1 pint fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes with juice, chopped
2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup frozen baby lima beans
1 (15-ounce) can great Northern or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a stock pot over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, and bay leaf and cook until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots, parsnips, turnip, and Brussels sprouts and continue cooking until the vegetables are just tender, about 5 more minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and the stock. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, simmer for 1 hour. Add the beans, salt, and pepper, and simmer for another 30 minutes.

Yield: 8 servings

Sausage and Lentil Stew

This just might be my favorite recipe. I am a huge fan of lentils and I love combining them with sausage. I find that using andouille sausage gives the stew an added layer of spicy flavor, but other sausages can be substituted. It is even better the next day. (Katie Lee Joel, The Comfort Table)

3 slices thick-cut bacon, diced (about 4 ounces)
1 large yellow onion, diced (about 1½ cups)
3 large carrots, diced (about 1¼ cups)
3 celery stalks, diced (about 1 cup)
2 bay leaves
8 ounces French lentils
1 pound andouille sausage, cut into ¼-inch-thick diagonal slices
2 cups fresh kale, coarsely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes with juice
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Asiago or Parmesan cheese, grated

In a large heavy pot, cook the bacon over medium heat until fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp, about 7 minutes. Remove the bacon pieces and drain on paper towels. Reserve for garnishing.

Add the onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaves to the bacon fat. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the vegetables, stirring frequently until very tender, about 15 minutes.

Stir in the lentils, sausage, and kale. Add the tomatoes, crushing the tomatoes with your fingers as you add them to the pot. Add the chicken stock, salt, and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 hour, covered, until lentils are tender. Stir and add more salt and pepper to taste, as desired.

Ladle into bowls and top with the reserved bacon bits and some grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

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