I couldn’t have been more in awe had I been granted an audience by royalty. Then again, I was in the presence of culinary queens. The occasion was the launch of Serenbe’s Southern Chef Series, with Nathalie Dupree teaching an intimate group. A cookbook author, James Beard winner and TV host (some 300 of her shows have aired on PBS, The Learning Channel and Food Network), this gastronomic icon was there to share her insights on “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.”
But any foodie will tell you that even the best chef requires a skillful assistant. And who better to step up to the plate than Marie Nygren? Not only is she the proprietress of The Farmhouse at the Inn at Serenbe; as it turns out, the two have been friends for 27 years—dating back to the time when Marie’s mother, Margaret Lupo of Mary Mac’s tea room, was a guest on one of Nathalie’s shows.
Watching the two of them is equal parts education and entertainment. Working side-by-side, Marie seamlessly picks up the preparation of a dish where Nathalie leaves off. And Nathalie is just as likely to ﬁnish a sentence that Marie has started. In short, it’s so much more than your run-of-the-mill cooking class. It’s more like a private party, where laughter and fond memories are just as important as recipes and techniques.
On this particular day, no less than four dishes were part of the lesson plan—a vegetable salad, an onion tart, an arugula salad and, for dessert, a chocolate snowball. First up was the vegetable salad, made quite simply with celery and kalamata olives. Nathalie was quick to point out that “so many people don’t understand what a good vegetable salad is—and this is delicious.” She was right. The ﬂavors infused into this dish took two basic ingredients to an entirely new level.
The arugula salad, too, further proved Nathalie’s point that “using everything for ﬂavor is the basis of good cooking.” When making this salad ahead of time, she advises, “put dried fruits, like cherries, and things like sliced pears in the vinegar you’ll be using to make the salad dressing. When you’re ready to serve, take out the solids with a slotted spoon and use the remaining vinegar to dress the salad. The dressing will have all that ‘goodness’ in it. Any time you can keep every bit of ﬂavor, rather than throwing any of it away, that makes everything better.”
But it was the caramelized onions being sautéed on the stove that ﬁlled the kitchen with savory aromas, making my mouth water from the moment I walked through the door. Once cooked to the perfect shade of dark brown, Nathalie used them to assemble an onion tart in keeping with the day’s theme—simple but scrumptious. “There’s no reason you can’t use a store-bought pie crust,” she says, characteristically using every opportunity to share a tip, trick or technique. “And sprinkle the tart with whatever cheese you have in the house—goat cheese, gruyere or parmesan reggianno is nice. Then top it with chopped kalamata olives and a few herbs.”
For the grand ﬁnale, Nathalie and Marie whipped up a chocolate snowball—an impressive-looking dessert. “This is a great put-it-together-at-the-last-minute dish,” says Nathalie, exuding anyone-can-do-this conﬁdence. “You just melt chocolate with sugar and water, add butter and eggs, then throw it in a Pyrex bowl lined with aluminum foil and bake for half an hour. Then refrigerate it so it solidiﬁes and decorate it with whipping cream.”
“Everyone should have a couple of chocolate snowballs in the freezer,” she adds. “Then, if someone calls and says they’re coming over, you’ve got all this!”
Any cook that has learned at the hand of Nathalie Dupree and Marie Nygren has “all this,” too.