To Food Network chef Sunny Anderson, comfort food is not just about flavors. It’s more about the feelings that those flavors generate — special feelings for friends, memories and celebrations.
She digs into both in her first cookbook, “Sunny’s Kitchen: Easy Food for Real Life” (Clarkson Potter, $22.50), just out this week. For the host of the cooking series “Cooking for Real,” the cookbook is the realization of a dream she’s had since she was a teenager.
“If it turns out that this is my one and only book when I’m 80 years old, it will be a good snapshot of what’s important to me,” she says.
With a new Food Network cooking show due to air this fall, the details of which are still “top secret,” she says, Anderson is busy with a whirlwind — 16 appearances in 11 days — book tour that includes two stops at Pittsburgh-area Market District stores this weekend and ends with a visit to the Marine Corps base at Fort Bragg, N.C.
She still has a soft spot in her heart for the military, which involved a large part of her upbringing and early part of her career. Her dad was in the Army, so she and her parents lived at Army bases in the United States and in Europe, from Germany to Boiling Springs, Pa., where her father was stationed at Carlisle Barracks and she attended Mechanicsburg Middle School.
At age 18, she enlisted in the Air Force and served in Seoul, South Korea, where she was trained to work as a military radio host and news reporter. After her tour of duty, she had jobs as radio hosts at stations in New Orleans, Montgomery, Ala., Detroit and New York, where she resides today in Brooklyn. She also had a catering business and cooked for friends and recording artists before being asked by Food Network to co-host specials and, eventually, host her own show.
Anderson says her recipes speak to the everyday cook, offering easy and affordable options for everybody — from Mexican and Italian dishes to barbecue, Creole cooking, German and Korean specialties.
“I love it all,” she says.
Besides her favorite takes on sandwiches, soups, salads, main dishes, sides, desserts and drinks, she also provides some common-sense cooking tips, such as:
• Using wonton wrappers as a great shortcut to homemade ravioli.
• Substituting corn tortillas for almond slivers to obtain similar and nutty flavor in a pesto recipe for those with nut allergies.
• Making your own pumpkin pie spice blend by starting with cinnamon and adding a little ground allspice, ginger and nutmeg to taste.
She attributes her cooking style, which she calls “good classic American food with a twist,” to a variety of unique recipes she developed — recipes that feature a peanut-butter-and-jelly glaze for chicken wings; a grilled-cheese sandwich that foregoes the traditional American cheese for pepper jack; a Creamy Crab Succotash that turns a Southern side dish into a main course; and Pumpkin Pecan Pie French Toast topped with warm butterscotch syrup.
She credits her parents and grandmother for teaching her the fine points of cooking.
“The cool thing about my mom is that she was a mom’s mom, who made breakfast, lunch and dinner for us every day,” Anderson says.
Her Grandma Williams, of Fayetteville, N.C., always has a cake on her counter and big hugs and words of wisdom for her granddaughter, says the chef, who asked her grandma to share some thoughts and family memories in the foreword of her book. She wrote, in part: “It makes us feel good that Sunny’s cooking. It’s a career like working in a beauty shop — just like someone is always gonna be getting their hair done, someone is always gonna need to eat.”
Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
Easy Beef and Ginger Lettuce Wraps
2 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil
1 pound ground beef chuck (20 percent fat)
2-inch piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and finely grated
2 green onions, chopped (white and green parts)
2 cloves garlic, grated on a rasp or finely minced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
¼ cup hoisin sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 head Boston, bibb, or other butterhead lettuce, leaves separated, cleaned and dried
¼ cup chopped, salted peanuts, for garnish
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the beef, and cook until browned, for about 10 minutes. Stir in the ginger, green onions, garlic, soy sauce, crushed red pepper and hoisin sauce. Cook to heat all of the ingredients, for about 4 minutes, then taste and season with a pinch of salt, if needed, and a few grinds of black pepper. Remove the pan from the heat.
Prepare several sets of double-layer lettuce leaves. Scoop a heaping spoonful of filling into the recessed center of each double-ply lettuce cup. Sprinkle with peanuts and eat by folding in half like a taco or wrapping loosely like a burrito. Serve warm.
Serves 4 to 6.
Pumpkin-Pecan Pie French To ast With Butterscotch Syrup
For the batter:
4 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
2 teaspoons pumpkin-pie spice
½ cup pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon firmly packed light-brown sugar
For the coating:
3 cups cornflakes, crushed
1½ cups finely chopped pecans
For the syrup:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup butterscotch liqueur
¼ cup pecan liqueur
1 cup grade A maple syrup
For the French toast:
8 slices stale Texas toast, 1½ inches thick
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for frying
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
To prepare the batter: In a shallow dish, whisk together the eggs, milk, pumpkin-pie spice, pumpkin puree and sugars.
To prepare the coating: In another shallow dish, combine the corn flakes, pecans and a pinch of salt.
To prepare the syrup: In a small pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the butterscotch and pecan liqueurs and bring to a simmer, then add the maple syrup and stir. Taste the syrup and season with a tiny pinch of salt. Keep warm over low heat.
To prepare the French toast: Place the bread slices in the egg dish and soak on each side until well coated and soaked through, but not soggy. Immediately place the bread in the coating and press down on both sides and the edges to coat. Repeat with the remaining slices, place on a parchment-lined plate, and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, melt 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet or griddle over medium heat. Remove the bread slices from the refrigerator and cook until golden, turning once, for 5 to 7 minutes per batch. Add 1 more tablespoon of butter and oil for each batch, if needed.
Serve warm with the butterscotch syrup. Refrigerate any remaining syrup in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
Makes 8 slices
Tip: If you want to make your own pumpkin-pie-spice blend, start with cinnamon, then add a little ground allspice, ginger and nutmeg until you like your personal blend.
Pan-Fried Tom atillos With Sweet and Spicy Cream Sauce
For the sauce:
½ cup sour cream
½ cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons hot sauce (Anderson likes Cholula)
For the fried tomatillos:
6 tomatillos, sliced ½ inch thick
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup plain bread crumbs
1 cup fine-milled cornmeal (such as Indian Head)
8 to 10 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves gently chopped
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
Vegetable or peanut oil
To prepare the sauce: In a medium bowl, mix the sour cream, yogurt, honey and hot sauce. Taste and season with a pinch of salt, if needed. Refrigerate while making the tomatillos.
Line up the tomatillo slices on a plate and season both sides with a pinch of salt; let rest for 10 minutes. Pat both sides dry with a paper towel.
To prepare the tomatillos: Put the flour and a pinch of salt in a shallow dish. Pour the buttermilk into a second shallow dish. In a third shallow dish, combine the bread crumbs, cornmeal, thyme, garlic powder, chili powder and a pinch of salt. Stir with a fork. Coat the tomatillo slices first with the flour and then shake off the excess. Dip in the buttermilk, then press both sides into the bread-crumb mixture. Transfer to a plate as you complete the rest.
In a large straight-side pan, coat the bottom of the pan with oil. Heat over medium-high heat until the oil begins to swirl. Add the coated tomatillo slices in one layer and fry on one side until a peek beneath reveals a golden crust, then flip and fry the other side, for 4 to 6 minutes total. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Serve warm with the sauce.
Serves 4 to 6.
Tips: Make a sandwich with the fried tomatillos, pepper jack or provolone cheese, and mixed baby greens on toasted bread. Use the sauce as a spread. Leftover sauce doubles as a great vegetable dip or a dressing for a cucumber or fruit salad.