New cookbook offers ideas on what to bring for any occasion

A neighbor just had a baby. A church member is recovering from surgery. Your friend invited you to a potluck. Your boss extended you an invitation to her open house. If with each of these scenarios, your first thought is, “What can I bring?,” well, now there’s a book for that — a cookbook, that is.

“What Can I Bring? Southern Food for Any Occasion Life Serves Up” (Oxmoor House, $30) is a new cookbook by Elizabeth Heiskell, an entertaining guru who got her start as a caterer and has since developed a following with her Southern Living column and, more recently, as a contributor on NBC’s “Today” show. She visits Atlanta Thursday and Friday as part of a multi-city book tour.

Heiskell has long made food her prescription for helping people deal with everything from the joys of new life to the sorrows of sickness and death. The Mississippi native said that the book is a natural evolution, as it comes naturally from what she watched her mother and grandmother do during her childhood, and the cookery-with-a-purpose she practices in her adulthood. “You call us; we would bring food,” said Heiskell.

“What Can I Bring?” contains more than 100 recipes — a mix of Heiskell’s original creations, those of her mother and grandmother and ones from friends. “They are recipes I use every single day, all year long. These are my go-tos, the recipes people are constantly asking me to bring.”

Like a winter panzanella salad, pork tenderloin and a cake made with RC Cola, all three of which she will prepare for a cooking demonstration Thursday at the Cook’s Warehouse in Ansley Mall in Midtown. “If I had a dollar for every time I made this recipe,” Heiskell gushed of her pork tenderloin rendition.

The book is divided into nine chapters, categorized by occasions that include potlucks, births, sicknesses, road trips, tailgating, moving and other life moments.

With the holidays upon us, Heiskell had a variety of ideas for celebratory concoctions to whip up in the coming weeks. She deems her winter panzanella salad, prepared with root vegetables, a fine addition for the Thanksgiving table. “It’s a take on a summer panzanella, when you are missing the summer salad.” She noted its versatility as a side dish that “complements everything” and one that you can “dress up or down.” “Get fancy with shiitakes or dried mushrooms,” she suggested.

Headed to a potluck? For a wintertime wonder, she recommended her version of a classic vegetable soup. “It’s one that goes down with the ages,” Heiskell said.

For cocktail parties, Heiskell offers a three-ingredient dish called Bacon Bites. It features bacon slices rolled around breadsticks and coated in brown sugar. “No matter how many you make, you are always going to run out,” she said.

When it comes to hostess gifts, Heiskell suggested making something ahead of time — and that you can prepare in large batches. Marinated olives and rosemary cashews are two recipes from the cookbook that fit the bill.

Heiskell swears that the recipe in the book for fried chicken makes for a winner dinner. “It’s the best damn fried chicken there ever was,” she said. As Heiskell recounts in the cookbook, the recipe is attributed to Deloris Franklin, who began working for Heiskell when Heiskell’s second child was born. In hands-on tutorials, Franklin passed on to Heiskell a bit of fried chicken know-how: “Be patient. Trust yourself. It’s something you have to practice at. What is special about it: It’s so simple. Take the chicken. Dry it. Season the flour. You have to taste the flour and make sure it’s perfect,” she said of this prescription for the Southern specialty.

Heiskell concedes that some people don’t deem themselves great cooks. “That is why I put so many simple recipes in the book,” she said. “For someone who is sick: make white bean and kale soup — do it in a crockpot. You are doing nothing but dumping things into a bowl. It’s one of the most satisfying dishes. If you wanted to add more vegetables to it, you could,” she said, calling the dish more “framework” than “recipe.”

As we prepare to flip the calendar from 2017 to 2018, Heiskell had a definitive answer for what to bring for a New Year’s party. “You’re bringing bloody mary mix, a bottle of vodka and Advil. Throw it in a basket.”