When Katie Lee Joel was growing up in the small town of Milton, West Virginia, every evening centered around dinner – and most of the meal’s ingredients never originated very far from the table.

Before “eating local” was the trend du jour, it was a part of life for Joel’s family. While her mother went to work, Joel and her grandmother spent most of their days in the kitchen, preparing vegetables from her grandfather’s garden and meat from pigs or cows raised on nearby family farms. “Everyone shared food and it was really a community sense of eating,” says Joel, 26. “People are finding now that it’s the best way to eat – better for your own body and the environment.”

Now Joel, who is married to singer Billy Joel and known for her own right for hosting the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef and as a judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, has written her first cookbook, The Comfort Table. The book mixes southern favorites from her childhood like fried green tomatoes, chicken and dumplings, and pulled pork bar-b-que with contemporary dishes like roasted carrot and ginger soup and Dijon and pistachio-crusted lamb. 

While the focus is on comfort food and entertaining, Joel reminds readers throughout the book to buy seasonal ingredients and to shop at local farmers’ markets. While comfort food may not be synonymous with low-calorie eating, the recipes include lots of nutritious, fresh ingredients prepared in healthy ways.

“She’s not into diet food or fat-free food,” says one of Joel’s close friends, Marcy Blum, an event planner. “Often if you are eating well you are going to be denying yourself. But this book is very luscious. It’s got fabulous things. It is not diet food, but it is still healthful. It’s a conscious way of eating."

In fact, Joel calls the philosophy behind her book “conscious consumption."

"The book is all about comfort food,” she says. “But to be truly comforted by your food, you need to be aware of where it comes from and how it was raised.” Joel says she eats local food because transporting ingredients takes a toll on the environment, and she likes to support small farmers. Not to mention, fresh, local food is tastier and healthier than un-eco grub.

Many of the recipes that are in Joel’s book feature ingredients that are favorites from her grandfather’s garden such as the asparagus in her green pesto pasta salad. “He had this incredible asparagus bush. It takes a long time to build up an asparagus crop to get it to be good, and his was great,” Joel says. Grandfather’s sweet corn also makes an appearance in dishes like her scallop-corn chowder, cornflake-crusted halibut with tomato-avocado-corn relish, and sesame corn sauté.

Another seasonal dish comes from her stepfather, Jim, who goes morel mushroom hunting every spring during rainy season. Joel says he is secretive about his hunting spots for the rare mushrooms, but did offer his recipe for fresh morels with apples and egg noodles.

As for Joel, her favorite things to grow in her Long Island home garden are tomatoes. She’s also planning on experimenting with a three-foot square patch of soil behind her West Village townhouse in New York City. “I want to see what New York City tomatoes are like,” she says.

“Maybe they will be pollution affected – strange hybrid tomatoes. Hopefully, they will be good. There is nothing better than picking a tomato off the vine, and slicing it up with salt and pepper, olive oil, and fresh herbs."

Growing up, Joel’s grandfather would grow extra green beans and tomatoes to can for the winter. Her grandmother got a second stove to put outside on the screened-in porch so her house wouldn’t be so hot during the canning season. “There was a big pressure cooker. We’d be stringing beans for hours,” Joel recalls. “It gave everyone a chance to come together and talk. It was just fun – we’d always have a good time."

Although Joel makes and cans her own homemade berry preserves every year, it’s been a couple of years since she canned vegetables. It’s something she’d like to do more of, and is thinking about having a canning party with her friends.

While it’s difficult to picture a rock star’s wife canning veggies over a hot stove, Blum says that Lee breaks the mold, and is incredibly mindful of what she eats and the ingredients that go into it. “She’s very focused on cooking methodology and what’s going into things,” Blum said. “We talk about it a lot."

Blum adds that Joel’s natural beauty is a great promotion for eating better.

“You look at her and think, ‘What the hell is she eating that her hair and her skin look like that?’ Even if it’s subliminal, you are reminded that you are what you eat."

Joel would be delighted if her message of eating healthy, local meals becomes more and more popular.

“I never want to come off as preaching this – it is up to people what they want to do,” Joel says. “But I’d be pleased if someone read the book and wanted to shop that way. I hope I can have an impact on readers, and that most of all, they are inspired to make recipes to enjoy with family and friends."

From The Comfort Table:

Fried Green Tomatoes

Yields: 4 to 6 servings

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons onion powder

1½ teaspoons garlic powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 cup buttermilk

½ cup vegetable oil

4 large green tomatoes (like beefsteak, Big Boy, or Celebrity), sliced 1/2-inch thick

Rémoulade (recipe follows)

1. In a medium shallow bowl, mix the cornmeal, flour, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Fill a small, shallow bowl with buttermilk. Place the bowls next to each other and next to the stove.

2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat. The oil should be hot but not smoking.

3. Dip the tomatoes in buttermilk and dredge in the cornmeal mixture. Fry the tomatoes, in batches if necessary, until the crust is golden brown and crunchy, 4 to 5 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Transfer tomatoes to a serving plate and dollop with rémoulade, or pass the rémoulade alongside.

Rémoulade

Yields: 1¼ cups

1 cup mayonnaise

3 tablespoons ketchup

1 scallion, thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1½ teaspoons dry mustard (like Coleman’s)

1 teaspoon hot sauce (like Tabasco), or to taste

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix the mayo, ketchup, scallion, vinegar, mustard, hot sauce, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Transfer to a serving bowl. Extra rémoulade can be saved in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to one week.

Green Pesto Pasta Salad

Yields: 6 to 8 servings

1 pound bowtie pasta, fusilli, penne, or any short pasta

1 loosely packed cup baby spinach

2 packed cups fresh basil leaves

2 garlic cloves

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¼ cup pine nuts

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups assorted green vegetables (peas, asparagus tips, broccoli, green beans), blanched

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.

2. Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the spinach, basil, garlic, nutmeg, and pine nuts. Process until finely chopped. With the motor running, slowly pour in the olive oil until combined. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the Parmesan, salt, and pepper.

3. Add the blanched vegetables and pesto to the pasta. Stir until well combined. Garnish with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Story by Gina Pace. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008