Irene Watson, Publishing Editor of Reader Views, is pleased to have as our guest, Valerie Hart, author of “The Bounty of Central Florida.”
Hi Valerie, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.
Irene: Valerie, why do you feel “The Bounty of Central Florida” was an important book for you to write? What objectives did you have?
Valerie: Regional cookbooks have flooded the market. Southwestern, Northwestern, Cuban, Caribbean, Cajun and combinations of these including America’s innovation called Fusion that incorporates Asian with any of the others highlight regions and the new creative chefs who are incorporating the fresh ingredients of the areas.
When we moved from Miami to Central Florida 15 years ago, the cuisine changed drastically. Aside from local Italian eateries that featured heavy tomato-based Sicilian cookery, and a smattering of Mexican catering to the migrant workers in this citrus area, mama-papa restaurants north of Orlando served up a unique cuisine of their very own. This was based on their roots of southern America with a rustic edge of accessible fish and game simply grilled or fried and accompanied by fruits and vegetables freshly plucked from the trees and earth.
Every spring-fed lake yields bass. The larger lakes are inundated with alligators and tilapia. The St. John’s brackish river is rich with blue crab and shrimp, and its tributaries are filled with redfish, bass and snook. The wood ducks seem to exist solely for the pleasure of the pan, and, just a bit south in Osceola County, wild turkeys and venison breed bundantly for the happy hunters. And, as in the rest of the south, barbecue reigns supreme with Central Florida’s own renditions of sweet, spicy and mustard based sauces slathered over slow smoked gigantic pork ribs.
My objective, as food writer for The Daily Commercial, was to make people aware of the bounty of the area.
Irene: What challenges did you have while writing this book and how did you overcome them?
Valerie: The challenges were delightful. My many trips up the St. John’s River with the antique boaters brought me into direct contact with the people who live and derive their livelihood from the creeks of the intercostals waterways. My membership and association with the NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation) not only taught me how to fry a whole turkey, but instilled respect for this dedicated group of conservationists who teach women survival in the wilderness as responsible gun control to children.
The most difficult challenge, however, was writing the book while being faced with Monday’s deadline of writing my Thursday’s newspaper column and teaching cooking at the shelter for the homeless. There just wasn’t time to do it all, and I was spending more and more hours creating recipes late
at night and opening my computer to record them before the sun came up.
Irene: Are the recipes your own creation? Have some of them been passed down through the family to you?
Valerie: The recipes are my own, derived from my sense of taste and smell and desire to create. My background of education in France, (later, Cordon Bleu courses after I had begun to teach cooking in Miami), and our 30 year business in Italy, where we had an apartment in Florence and traveled extensively through northern Italy, brought me into contact with a multitude
of country chefs and “nonnas” (Italian grandmothers) in home kitchens who shared “secrets” passed down through the generations.
Irene: How did you get into cooking? Did you cook as a child? Where did you learn to cook? Do you have any funny stories while learning to cook that you can relate to?
Valerie: I would love to say that I learned to cook from my Mother and Grandmother but, fortunately, this is not true. My Mother and Grandmother had absolutely no talent in the kitchen, probably because they always cook to do it for them. The only foods my Mother knew how to cook were roast beef, turkey and broiled lamb chops. Those were the days when all the fat was left on to singe into a crust. We not only ate the top fat on the beef and between the bones of the chops; we relished it. And, the trick was to eat the turkey and beef before the gravy poured over it congealed into a hard, white mass.
We had a German cook for many years. My parents traveled extensively, leaving me in her care. The kitchen was a sensual wonderland of chocolate and pastry cream and veal that she delicately dipped into beaten eggs and then into homemade bread crumbs before frying to a golden brown delicacy she called Wiener Schnitzel that she served with fried potatoes and buttery noodles. Elizabeth never used an electric mixer, but beat butter and sugar and egg whites by hand to make her 6 layer German Doboschtorte, rich chocolate Viennese Sachartorte and Hungarian Caramel Cake. She was my first culinary mentor, and her recipes appear in my first cookbook, The New
Irene: I note in your bio you aspired to be an opera singer but ended up in the food writing career and then in a cooking career. Are there times that you would like to turn back the pages and pursue a career as a singer?
Valerie: Sometimes, although my life would have been very different. I shall forever remember studying under the great André Bogé on the stage of the Paris Grand Opéra. I obviously did not have enough ambition, or perhaps realized I did not have the voice destined for greatness.
Irene: Do you have a favorite recipe from this book? Why?
Valerie: Guests and family who dine with us usually request that I prepare the Key Lime Cheesecake or Flourless Individual Chocolate Soufflés for dessert. My duckling is the children’s favorite and I will offer 2-3 sauce variations for their pleasure. I really love the Butternut Squash Soup and
refreshing Strawberry Salad. I make dozens of Mushroom Roll hors d’oeuvre and dessert Profiteroles to freeze for unexpected company and, because our lime trees are so prolific, you will always find a frozen Lime Pie.
Irene: This is a second cookbook for you. Your first was The New Tradition Cookbook which was published in 1988. What did you learn after writing the first one that you changed in your second book, The Bounty of Central Florida?
Valerie: My first cookbook was written as a result of my years as the food writer for the newspaper on Miami Beach and the luncheon restaurant I had for 15 years at my husband’s wholesale furniture showroom, Imports for the Trade. The restaurant was my test kitchen. We did not sell the food but, rather, offered it to designers and their clients as one would in one’s home. The buffet that changed daily became so popular that people lined up around the block. We served over 100 people each day in the restaurant we built within the showroom with bricks from the old Union Station in Chicago that had been torn down.
Although most of the format of the first book was based on American cooking and my rendition of French and Italian cooking, the marvelous ethnicity of Miami Beach allowed me to discover recipes for Matzo Balls, Gefülte Fish, Stuffed Cabbage, Brisket of Beef and Potato Pancakes that I featured in the newspaper during the Jewish holidays. I would go down to what has become the “in” area now known as “SoBe” which, during the late ’60s and ’70s was still populated solely by the elderly Jewish. I would approach the ladies who were shopping. Each one had a different recipe for the same dish, and each thought hers was the best. I would then go home and experiment and test and test again until the combination of ingredients was to my liking. Then I would write my food column.
The common denominator of the two books is my belief that people like to read about exquisite cuisine but want to cook and eat basic food.
Irene: What are you hoping comes out of this cookbook experience for you? Are you planning on writing another one?
Valerie: I do not know if I will ever write another cookbook, but I have so many recipes that do not appear in the first two that I am tempted. Anyone who cooks knows that there is always a new and different method of preparation to please the palate. There is never a last chapter to cooking.
Irene: Thank you Valerie. Is there anything else that you would like to add about your cookbook or your experience?
Valerie: I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to express myself. This is the first time I have been asked these questions and the interview has been most enjoyable.