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Deen of the kitchen

Down-home cook Paula Deen has a popular Food Network show, is newly married, and oh, did we mention that Hollywood is calling?

By MARY JANE PARK
Published September 8, 2004

[Photo: Food Network]
The Food Network’s Gordon Elliott discovered Paula Deen for the cable channel. His kitchen in New York is where her show, Paula’s Home Cooking, is filmed.

TAMPA - Her classes at Apron's cooking schools in Tampa and Sarasota Publix supermarkets sold out within a half hour. Well before 10:30 a.m., the scheduled start of her book signing, about 200 people waited in a line that extended into grocery aisles in the store at the Shoppes of Citrus Park.

"Hey, y'all," she said, greeting the crowd. "I'm Paula Deen. Y'all want some fried chicken and beer?"

Owner and proprietor of the Lady & Sons restaurant in Savannah, Ga., and host of Paula's Home Cooking on television's Food Network, Deen is a curvaceous 57-year-old whose hair has the luster of vintage sterling, eyes the deep blue of sapphires, voice the silky elision of her native Georgia.

"I love her," said Rose Mary Kasten of Tampa, who brought a lawn chair and was first to arrive for Deen's appearance, at 10 minutes before 8.

Kasten bought all three of Deen's books, The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook, The Lady & Sons, Too! and The Lady & Sons Just Desserts, which are filled with recipes Deen and her sons, Jamie and Bobby, use in their Savannah restaurant. There, residents, tourists and visiting celebrities queue up for platters laden with fried chicken, black pepper shrimp, greens, macaroni and cheese, pies and banana pudding.

If, say, you're Renee Zellweger, and you need to gain 20 pounds to star in the sequel to Bridget Jones's Diary, Lady & Sons is a good place to accomplish your goal.

Deen doesn't skimp on mayonnaise and butter, sugar and eggs, cheese and cream.

At Apron's, she prepared a seafood dip, tomato pie, crab cakes, one of her specialty "gooey cakes" and a marvel she calls Georgia Cracker Salad.

"It's unbelievable that saltine crackers can taste that good," she said, and not a soul in the room disagreed.

The self-effacing Deen told her audience: "I graduated magna cum laude from my grandmother's kitchen. (Her grandparents Irene and Johnny Paul "were in the restaurant and lodging business," she writes in the introduction to the desserts book.) "I never refer to myself as a chef. I'm a cook."

Neither of her sons has had formal restaurant training, she said.

She was 19 when her father died unexpectedly, at age 40. Four years later, her mother died, at age 44. By then, Deen was married, the mother of two toddlers and the caretaker for her 16-year-old brother, Earl W. "Bubba" Hiers Jr. She was 23.

In 1978, financial difficulties cost Deen and her husband their business and their home. She suffered years of agoraphobia and panic attacks. The marriage ended.

She had $200 left when she started the Bag Lady, a Savannah catering business. She made sandwiches and desserts and sent the boys out to sell them to downtown businesses. A few years later, she started the Lady & Sons, serving three meals a day, seven days a week in a motel restaurant. Later, it moved to Savannah's historic downtown.

She self-published the first cookbook. Two weeks after it came out, a Random House editor offered to publish and distribute the book nationwide. USA Today food and travel writer Jerry Shriver dropped in. He wrote that his meal at the Lady & Sons was his most memorable of 1999.

A friend who modeled for Victoria's Secret sent the Food Network's Gordon Elliott to the restaurant. He later invited Deen to appear on Door Knock Dinners.

"Gordon is a dear, dear man to me," Deen said. Shortly after 9/11, he pitched a program for her. "People out there are looking for this kind of comfort," she said he told the network. "We're all frightened to death."

"I was so flabbergasted that these people chose my humble food," Deen said.

Her 30-minute show is filmed in Elliott's home kitchen in Millbrook, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, and in Savannah. It airs at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays. Beginning Sept. 27, it will be broadcast twice daily, at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 and 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

"I'm a little scared," she said. "I'm going up against Oprah."

She is working on a fourth cookbook, Paula Deen's Living It Up With Friends, which will focus on celebratory dishes, "everything from a christening to a funeral." She and her brother plan to open Uncle Bubba's Oyster House on Wilmington Island near Savannah this fall. Its specialty will be "chargrilled oysters over an oak fire," she said.

In March, Deen married Michael Groover, a 48-year-old docking pilot she met while chasing her two Shih Tzus, Otis and Sam, through her neighborhood. The Food Network special, Paula Deen's Wedding, ranks among its highest-rated shows.

Deen and Groover had a brief wedding trip to St. Simons Island in Georgia, and she said she implored him to turn off his cell phone.

He didn't, and officials from Paramount Pictures rang with an offer for her to take a small role in Elizabethtown, a film being produced by Tom Cruise and directed by Cameron Crow.

"That (casting) call was out of the blue," Deen said. "I said, "Who in the hell is on crack? Do they know I'm not an actor?' And they told me, "You're farther along than you think you are.'

"I'm recommending that nobody get up and go get popcorn during the movie. Y'all 'll miss me."

Deen and Groover act like the newlyweds they are. He passed cookies through the waiting crowd, and she beamed as he sauteed vegetables during the cooking demonstration.

"We're a team, aren't we, baby?" she purred.

"I don't know how she makes it without me," he replied, a slow grin illuminating his face.

Mentioning the popular wedding special, Deen told the crowd, "It has just been a thrill to share that with y'all. I hope it offers hope to other girls my age."

Her favorite thing in the restaurant, she said, is "Michael, when he's there." Otherwise, "I eat fried chicken every day of my life. I have a fried chicken breast every day for lunch, and twice some days."

The couple's extended honeymoon, an Alaskan cruise, was delayed because of television and movie obligations and began after she completed her Apron's presentations Aug. 21.

"At 10 o'clock tonight," she told the Tampa class, "Michael and I officially begin our honeymoon. And we're going to work on getting pregnant. It may not happen, but we're going to work on it."

"Oh, honey," she told a man who inquired about the possibility of babies in the household. "I'm working with a cold oven."

- Mary Jane Park can be reached at 727 893-8267 or e-mail her at park@sptimes.com

Double Chocolate Gooey Butter Cakes

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted, plus 8 more tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted, plus additional butter, for greasing pan

1 (18.25-ounce) package chocolate cake mix

1 egg, plus 2 eggs

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

3 to 4 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 (16-ounce) box powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly grease a 13- by 9-inch baking pan.

In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, 1 egg, and 1 stick melted butter, and stir until well blended. Pat mixture into prepared pan and set aside.

In a stand mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the remaining 2 eggs and the cocoa powder. Lower the speed of the mixer and add the powdered sugar. Continue beating until ingredients are well mixed. Slowly add the remaining 1 stick of melted butter and the vanilla, continuing to beat the mixture until smooth. Stir in nuts with a rubber spatula. Spread filling over cake mixture in pan. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the cake; the center should still be a little gooey when finished baking.

Let cake partially cool on a wire rack before cutting into pieces.

Yield: 20 to 24 servings.

Nutritional information per servings (24): 311 calories, 18g fat (8g saturated), 4g protein, 36g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 219mg sodium.

Source: Paula Deen.

Georgia Cracker Salad

1 sleeve saltine crackers

1 large tomato, finely chopped

3 green onions, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups mayonnaise

1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped

Crush crackers. (Paula Deen crushes them into coarse crumbs by hand.) Mix all ingredients together and serve immediately. (At Apron's, the staff used an ice cream scoop to serve the mixture atop salad greens and plated it with cocktail pumpernickel slices.)

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutritional information per serving (without pumpernickel slices): 530 calories, 50g fat (7g saturated), 4g protein, 17g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 571mg sodium.

Source: Paula Deen.

Tomato Pie

4 tomatoes, peeled and sliced

8 to 10 fresh basil leaves, chopped

1/3 cup chopped green onion

One 9-inch prepared, deep-dish pie shell

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups grated mozzarella and Cheddar cheese (combined)

1 cup mayonnaise

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Salt tomatoes and drain well in a colander to avoid too much juice in the pie. Layer tomato slices, basil and onion in the prebaked pie shell. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix together grated cheeses and mayonnaise. Spread on top of tomatoes. Bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned.

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 511 calories, 45g fat (11g saturated), 9g protein, 20g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 525mg sodium.

Source: Paula Deen.

Crab Cakes

3 green onions, finely chopped

1/2 cup finely chopped bell pepper

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

4 1/2 teaspoons heavy cream

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup saltine cracker crumbs

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Dash of cayenne pepper

1 egg

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 pound crabmeat, picked free of shells

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Butter

Olive oil

Lemon Dill Sauce (see recipe)

Melt butter in a skillet and saute onion, garlic and green pepper until peppers are limp. Place in mixing bowl and add cream, mustard and cayenne pepper to sauteed vegetables; mix well. Add cracker crumbs, egg, parsley, mayonnaise and lemon juice and mix well. Gently fold in crabmeat. Form into patties and chill for 2 or more hours. Using equal amounts olive oil and butter, fry until golden brown.

Serve with Lemon Dill Sauce.

Yield: 4 crab cakes.

Nutritional information per crab cake fried in 1/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup butter without dill sauce: 513 calories, 43g fat (12g saturated), 26g protein, 7g carbohydrates, less than 1g fiber, 530mg sodium.

Source: Paula Deen.

Shore Is Good Seafood Dip

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium green bell pepper, diced

1 medium onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

Half of a 103/4-ounce can cream of shrimp soup (discard top half and use bottom half of the soup)

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 pound freshly grated Parmesan

1 6-ounce can crabmeat, picked free of any broken shells, drained

6 ounces shrimp, fresh or canned, drained

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the bell pepper, onion and celery, and saute for 2 minutes. In a bowl, combine the soup, mayonnaise, Parmesan, crabmeat, shrimp and pepper. Stir the sauteed vegetables into the seafood mixture and spoon this mixture into a lightly greased 8- by 11-inch casserole dish. Bake for 30 minutes.

Serve with toast points or crackers.

Makes 4 cups.

Nutritional information per 1/3 cup serving: 282 calories, 24g fat (6g saturated), 14g protein, 3g carbohydrates, less than 1g fiber, 602g sodium.

Source: Paula Deen.

Lemon Dill Sauce

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 small garlic clove, minced

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Refrigerate until chilled; the sauce will thicken as it chills.

Makes 11/2 cups.

Nutritional information per 1/4-cup serving: 286 calories, 31g fat (4g unsaturated), less than 1g protein, carbohydrates and fiber, 207mg sodium.

Source: Paula Deen.

[Last modified September 7, 2004, 10:07:30]

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