By Keysha Drexel
Elizabeth Faught said the heart of her Vestavia Hills home is her kitchen.
It’s where she spends most of her time and where friends and family gather to celebrate, relax and enjoy each other’s company over Elizabeth’s latest dishes.
And as the leaves start to fall from the trees and the weather cools, Elizabeth’s kitchen becomes a warm and delicious refuge from long weeks and busy days.
“It’s so comforting to turn on the oven, warm up the house and put together a nice meal for your family and friends,” she said. “It’s what I love to do.”
Elizabeth has lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years and her in-laws live just up the street, so her kitchen is often a beehive of activity when the holiday entertaining season approaches.
“I think we eat out about twice a year–once on our anniversary and once on my birthday,” she said. “We have friends over almost every Friday night, and then the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we have a big turkey fry for all the neighbors on our street.
“There’s always something happening in my kitchen.”
That means Elizabeth has become a pro at putting together dinner parties, large and small, and chances are, she’s already got her next menu planned.
“I love to entertain and we do a lot of it year-round, and it can get pretty hectic around the holidays,” she said. “But the key is planning–it’s all about planning.”
Elizabeth said planning meals for family and friends is something she enjoys and finds therapeutic.
“I guess I just love being in the kitchen and being creative. Every Sunday night, I start thinking about what’s going on during the week and I start planning my menus then,” she said.
On most Mondays and Thursdays, Elizabeth starts preparing her evening meals in the early afternoon.
“Sometimes, when we’re juggling school and work and extracurricular activities, I will whip up something in 30 minutes or less, but I really love those times when I get to start cooking early and my girls are sitting in the kitchen doing their homework while I cook and talk to them,” she said.
Elizabeth and her husband, Jon, are the parents of three girls. Caroline, 20, is a junior at UAB and plays on the tennis team. Catherine, 15, is a dancer and counting down the days until her 16th birthday. The couple’s youngest daughter, Julia Ann, is 12 and a budding artist.
Elizabeth describes her entertaining style as comfortable and casual, with food that focuses on simple, fresh, high-quality ingredients.
“I’m not a formal person,” she said. “I’m very laid-back when I entertain. People come and sit at the kitchen counter and talk to me while I cook, and it’s great.”
That casual philosophy also extends to how Elizabeth sets her table, she said.
“I like to light a few candles and keep my tablescape pretty simple, too. I’ll mix in seasonal items, but my goal is to have a table where everyone feels comfortable and they’re not trying to look through some huge centerpiece to talk to each other,” she said.
Elizabeth works at the Cook Store in Mountain Brook and for the last several years has been collecting pieces of Earthborn Pottery made by Homewood native Tena Payne.
She said she loves that Tena’s pottery blends function and form.
“I think that’s why I love Tena’s work so much and use it so much it my home. The pieces are really more like works of art that you can use, that are functional and beautiful at the same time,” she said.
Elizabeth said she uses Tena’s pottery because it can go straight from the oven to the table to the dishwasher and fits her attitude of keeping things simple when entertaining and cooking.
“I think in the 22 years I’ve been married, I used my wedding china about two times. I love my china, but using it all the time–that’s just not who I am,” she said.
Elizabeth said whether she’s making dinner for her family or entertaining guests in her home, her keys to success are the same.
“I really focus on quality, fresh ingredients and not too many ingredients in each dish,” she said. “The simpler the better.”
Elizabeth grows basil, chives, oregano and thyme just steps away from her kitchen in the backyard. She also uses rosemary from a rosemary hedge in her front yard that was inspired by a family trip to Ireland.
“About six or seven years ago, we went to Ireland, and while we were in Dublin, we saw these incredible hedges of rosemary. They were so huge and beautiful and the smell was just amazing,” she said. “I knew I had to have one in my yard when I got back home.”
She also tries to buy local food and support local farmers by picking up fresh produce at farmers’ markets such as Pepper Place.
“There’s nothing better than having fresh ingredients to use in your dishes,” she said. “It makes all the difference.”
Elizabeth said she likes to watch cooking shows on television and is constantly looking up recipes online, in cookbooks and collecting them from friends and neighbors.
“I can remember being young and poring over cookbooks the way some girls would look at magazines,” she said.
One of her most cherished possessions, Elizabeth said, is a spiral notebook filled with pages and pages of handwritten recipes that her husband’s grandmother gave her as a wedding gift.
“It’s like a glimpse of her life to see these handwritten recipes and all of her notes,” she said. “I was so touched when she gave it to me when we were first married. And my husband loves that I know how to cook his grandma’s favorite recipes.”
Elizabeth said she plans to hand the notebook down to her daughters someday.
“It means so much to me, and I will always remember when she gave me that notebook and we were living in a little one-bedroom apartment and I was teaching myself to cook her recipes,” she said.
Elizabeth said her husband often likes to cook with her and is always looking up recipes on his iPad.
While Elizabeth loves a good recipe, she said she is not afraid to make each recipe her own by adding or exchanging ingredients.
“I like to change things up from the recipes I collect,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll substitute one ingredient called for with something that I already have that I think will work well or be interesting. You can’t be afraid to experiment.”
While Elizabeth said she’s a cook, she’s quick to point out that baking is not her forte.
“I can’t bake. I mean, I’m not absolutely horrible at it, but I just don’t enjoy it,” she said.
Elizabeth said she thinks baking requires a lot more patience and precision and doesn’t allow for as much improvisation.
“When you’re baking, you have to follow that recipe to the letter, and I think that is what makes it hard for me–I can’t experiment and change things up too much while baking,” she said.
Elizabeth said her youngest daughter, Julia Ann, loves to bake and really enjoys spending time working with her mother in the kitchen.
“She’s the only one of my girls who has really shown an interest in cooking. She loves to bake, so she must get that from someone other than me,” she said.
Another thing Elizabeth doesn’t like about baking is its potential for messiness.
“I’m kind of a neat freak, and baking can quickly turn into a kitchen nightmare,” she said. “I was baking a cake with Julia Ann and flour ended up going all over the kitchen. I’m talking, I was scooping flour off the counter by the handful. It was everywhere. I almost had a panic attack,” she said, laughing.
Elizabeth said one of her earliest attempts to go solo in the kitchen is probably the reason she has an aversion to making a mess while cooking.
While Elizabeth was a student at UAB, she and her best friend decided to cook dinner for their boyfriends at Elizabeth’s mother’s house.
“And here we go back to baking–we were making a lemon souffle with fresh raspberry sauce,” she said. “I should have known it had disaster written all over it.”
When she put the raspberries in the blender to make the sauce, Elizabeth said, she forgot to put the top back on the blender.
“It was crazy, just horrible. My mother had white cabinets, a white ceiling and there were raspberries all over the place,” she said. “I think if you go in her house today, there’s probably still a spot or two of raspberries somewhere on that ceiling.”
But even as a novice cook, Elizabeth said she knew enough to have a contingency plan.
“Luckily, we started cooking in the early afternoon and had plenty of time to clean up the kitchen and come up with another dessert before our boyfriends arrived for dinner,” she said.
Elizabeth said the key to pulling off a last-minute dinner party is to use what you have on hand and try to make dishes that are simple and savory.
“Most people have garlic and extra virgin olive oil and some kind of cheese on hand in their kitchens, so making something like the green beans I make is a snap. The same thing goes for the mustard-glazed pork tenderloin that’s always a hit in my house–it’s just a few ingredients that most people already have,” she said.
That no-fuss philosophy extends to how Elizabeth prepares her dishes.
Elizabeth said she is always called on to make mashed potatoes when she has holiday meals at her house. Even though one of her favorite recipes calls for whipping the potatoes with an electric mixer, Elizabeth said she makes the recipe her own by using a handheld potato masher by Smood that she’s had for years.
“It works like a charm, and it’s much easier to clean up than a mixer,” she said. “I don’t like to get my food processor out either. It’s too much trouble to clean it up afterwards. I also use herb scissors, which have eight blades, because they’re fast, chop perfectly, are great for quick prep and easy to clean.”
Elizabeth said her best advice for stress-free entertaining is to follow her philosophy of knowing what you’re cooking and when.
“Not only can you plan ahead, but a lot of times, you can make dishes ahead of time,” she said. “For example, you can make a cake a few days before a party, the main entree the night before and put the salad together the day of the event.”
That way, Elizabeth said, you are able to enjoy the evening with your guests.
“The absolute worst thing is to be running around trying to finish everything a couple of hours before your guests arrive,” she said. “The goal is to be relaxed by the time your guests arrive and have everything in place.”
Here are a few of Elizabeth’s favorite dishes to prepare during the fall entertaining season:
Cream Cheese Mashed Potatoes
5 pounds baking potatoes
2 (3-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 (8-ounce) container sour cream
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons onion salt
Garnish: paprika or chopped fresh parsley
Peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Cook in a medium saucepan in boiling water to cover 15 to 20 minutes or until tender; drain and place into a large mixing bowl.
Add cream cheese and next 4 ingredients; beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy (do not overbeat). Spoon into a lightly greased 13×9-inch or 3-quart baking dish.
Bake, covered, at 325 degrees for 50 minutes or until thoroughly heated; garnish, if desired.
Yield: 10 servings
Note: Unbaked mashed potatoes may be chilled up to 2 days. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes and bake as directed.
Steamed Green Beans with Cracked Pepper and Feta
1 1/2 lbs. green beans
1 T. unsalted butter
3 T. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 oz. feta, crumbled, about 1/2 c.
2 T. fresh chives, chopped
Cook green beans in boiling salted water 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain and plunge into ice water to stop cooking process; drain.
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil. Sauté green beans and garlic for 5 minutes. Add sea salt and pepper. Sprinkle feta and chives on top. Serve warm, immediately.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Cottage Living Magazine, Nov. 2005
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups sugar
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup grated lemon zest (6 to 8 large lemons)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8 1/2 x 4 1/4 x 2 1/2 inch loaf pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
Cream butter and 2 cups sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Mixing at medium speed, add eggs, one at a time, and lemon zest.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, buttermilk and vanilla. Add flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to butter and sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Divide batter evenly between pans, smooth tops and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.
Combine 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 cup lemon juice in a small saucepan, and cook over low heat until sugar dissolves.
When cakes are done, let them cool 10 minutes. Invert them onto a rack set over a tray and spoon lemon syrup over cakes. Let cakes cool completely.
For glaze, combine confectioners’ sugar and remaining 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a whisk until smooth. Pour over top of cakes and allow glaze to drizzle down the sides.
Yield: 2 loaf cakes (or one Bundt cake)
Adapted from “Barefoot Contessa Parties!”
Frozen Cranberry Salad
This is an easy do-ahead salad to serve with turkey or chicken. It always brings compliments!
1 (16 ounce) can whole berry cranberry sauce
1 (8 1/4 ounce) can crushed unsweetened pineapple, drained
1 (8 ounce) carton sour cream
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Mix all ingredients together and freeze in an 8×8 pan. To serve, let stand about 15 minutes and cut into squares. Serve on a bed of lettuce.
Millymac Jenkins Shackelford