Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series, which explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter).
In this installment, Carla Hall — co-host of "The Chew," former "Top Chef" finalist and author of “Cooking with Love” — shares her favorite Thanksgiving dishes. She mixes her Southern upbringing, classic French training and world travels to put a twist on the beloved traditional comfort foods.
HLN: What was your first Thanksgiving memory?
Carla Hall: I think one of the first Thanksgivings that I remember — and they were all at my Granny’s house — was when my great-grandmother was there. She seemed to be a million years old to me, but I’m pretty sure she was around 100 years old then. I remember getting there early, setting the table, and getting ready to have dinner. My Granny had all these plates: Whenever someone went to a different state, they’d bring her back a plate from it. And I remember there being so much food! We didn’t have the food on the table — it was in the kitchen and you had to walk your plate back to the table. Of course, my sister, my cousins and I were at the kids table (I was about 7 years old). And my Granny had these glasses that were orange and white. Of course, we couldn’t drink out of those, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I’m old enough to drink out of the adult glasses!’ Instead, we drank out of these jewel-toned tin cups that are considered retro now. The thing about those cups is they kept tea really cold, so Granny’s sweet tea was always really good.
HLN: What was the first dish you ever contributed to a Thanksgiving dinner?
CH: Oh, I didn’t cook back then. I helped set the table but not cook. I was a late bloomer. It wasn’t until I was about 25 that I really started cooking.
HLN: So when was the first time you cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner? What was it like?
CH: The first Thanksgiving I cooked was at my house in D.C. I had been working in the restaurant business by then, so I always worked Thanksgiving. This particular one I wasn’t working, so I decided to have this great dinner for my friends. My roommate and I invited people who didn’t have a place to go for the holidays and told them not to bring anything — we wanted to it all ourselves. We got some beautiful china at Macy’s, which we were planning on returning after the dinner (how embarrassing!). Our table, it wasn’t an old door but it might as well have been: A countertop on old saw horses. We had several courses and we went the non-traditional route. So we had a soup course and a salad course, but then we had a fish course. I made lentils with it; I didn’t want them to be mushy, and my girlfriend thought they weren’t done, so she called them “un-dente!” (laughs). We thought we were above a traditional dinner. And this one girl brought sweet potatoes with marshmallows — are you kidding me?! Now, I relish in tradition and am not too proud for it, but it was really funny back then.
HLN: What’s your favorite holiday dish to cook now? Is there one you absolutely love from your new book?
CH: My favorite one, bar none, is the dressing (which other people call stuffing). It’s cornbread dressing. I happen to love my cornbread — it’s actually gluten-free, but not fat-free. The reason I like it is it’s got all of those flavors and smells that remind me of the holidays when my Granny was cooking. It is just the cornerstone of the meal. This is also where you can decide whether you’re going the traditional route or adding stuff to it. One year, I added turkey sausage and cranberry to it and cranberry. And my family was like, ‘What is happening to the dressing?’ You know, we only have a couple of traditional meals a year, so there can be pushback when you mess with tradition.
HLN: But your book is all about putting a new twist on comfort foods. Can you share one recipe with us that can achieve that without getting too much pushback?
CH: When you explore with flavors, whether you want to add a Mediterranean or an Indian twist, take those particular herbs and spices, add some oil and put it under your turkey. You already know the technique for making the turkey, so take those aromatics and make them permeate through the turkey. People get very nervous about Thanksgiving because they want to impress their family, and everyone is looking forward to it. There’s a lot of pressure for it to be memorable. So if you take a dish that you already know and put a spin on it, you’re not starting from square one.