That’s how restaurateur Carleen King grew up, and the folks who try what she cooks are by no means complaining.
“This is the best mac ’n’ cheese I’ve ever had,” Ty Orsag testifies, complete with superlatives like “spectacular” and “outstanding.” “It’s beyond comparison.”
The Upper St. Clair teenager has just finished sampling one of King’s dishes during her informative and taste bud-tempting “Roots of African-American Soul Food” program at Mt. Lebanon Public Library. Ty’s brother, Ian, agrees about the deliciousness of the rich, creamy pasta, and he’s equally complimentary of her presentation of a sweet Southern favorite:
“I’ve never really had yams before, but these were amazing.”
Yams, greens, corn, poultry and pork are among the staples of soul food, which has the tradition of making the most of what’s available at a reasonable cost to satisfy the appetite. And its preparation provides plenty of opportunity for togetherness.
“In a lot of families where there’s not a lot of money, you spend a lot of time with each other cooking,” King tells the program’s participants. “That’s how you connect, how you show love.”
And that’s what she experienced during her formative years, as her grandmothers and relatives, particularly on her father’s side – she “had a ton of brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews” – piqued her culinary interests, albeit in a roundabout manner.
“They would spend a lot of time in the kitchen together, the grown-ups,” she recalls. “And the kids had to go outside and play. We couldn’t be in the kitchen.”
Along with cooking, the kitchen full of adults took the opportunity to “spill the tea.” That was code for family gossip, and that’s what young Carleen wanted to hear.
“I was so nosey, and I was so nebby,” she admits. “So I figured out rather early that if stayed in the kitchen, and I was very quiet and acted like I didn’t know what they were saying, I got all of the ‘tea.’ So I did that for years. I became a very good cook at a very young age, just so I could get some ‘tea.’”
You can get some tea – the liquid kind, either hot or iced – at Carmi Family Restaurant, which King and her husband, Michael, have operated on the North Side for six years. But your primary focus as you peruse the menu will be on the list of hearty entrees.
“Everything is cooked to order,” Carleen explains, “so don’t expect anything to come out fast. Sometimes you have people come in asking, ‘Is my food ready?’ And I just want to look at them and say, ‘Well, how long does it take you to cook a chicken breast?’”
Cooking the dishes she’s presenting at the library program takes a good bit of baking, so King has brought finished versions of her mac ’n’ cheese and candied yams for participants to taste, plus the ingredients to make each of them from scratch and take home portions to enjoy with their own families.
“What we’re cubing here is Velveeta,” she says as knives slice the familiar yellow blocks. “No ancient cheese secrets there!”
She tells why she likes to include Kraft’s venerable processed product: “Sometimes you see people making macaroni and cheese, and they kind of melt it down and make a roux. If you have Velveeta, it really eliminates the need to do that.”
Another key is to use a variety of cheeses, “something sharp, something mild and something stretchy. Every bite should give you a slightly different flavor and texture,” King says. “And then when you get them all in your mouth together, it’s just like a jungle of fun.”
For her yams, orange juice adds a subtly distinctive taste, as do certain spices that are included in her recipe, at the preparer’s discretion.
“I’m not a big fan of cinnamon, so I’m kind of light on my cinnamon and nutmeg,” she explains. “If you like the cinnamon and nutmeg, then, please, by all means, do it up.”
And don’t fret if your taste buds would happen to rebel. Carleen King has been there. “I’ve made a lot of nasty food in my life,” she confesses, while advising would-be cooks: “You eat it. You try to change it, improve it, and you just keep practicing.”
That would seem to work especially well in a kitchen full of tea-spillers.
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Mac ’n’ Cheese
2 pounds macaroni noodles
1 pound Velveeta, cubed
1 pound sharp cheddar, shredded
1 pound Colby Jack
1 pound provolone
1/4 cup butter, cubed
2 cups evaporated milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1. Place cooked noodles in baking pan with cheeses. Slice butter throughout.
2. Whip together milk, eggs, salt and pepper. Pour milk mixture over noodle mixture.
3. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.
5 large yams
2 cups orange juice
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 stick of salted butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1. Peel yams and slice into one-inch “half moons.”
2. Place all ingredients in the pan with juice of 1/2 lemon and butter, sliced throughout. Cook at 350 degrees covered for 2 hours, or uncovered for 1 hour.