Home cooking, Catherall style

When Tom Catherall was 15, he wanted to be an auto mechanic. But his mother signed him up for a culinary apprenticeship at the finest hotel in his hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

The first year, he says, he never saw the stove. “All I did was chop parsley and clean chickens.”

Fifty years later, the Atlanta chef owns 13 restaurants and has more than 1,000 employees on the payroll.

It is hard to visit a major shopping area and not see a Catherall restaurant — from Lenox Square’s Prime to Perimeter Mall’s Goldfish to Atlantic Station’s Strip. (And don’t forget Twist, Shout, Coast, Aja and the four locations of Noche, his Latin-inspired tapas concept.)

Today, the president of Here To Serve Restaurants (as his company is called) says he spends a lot of his time on quality control, making surprise stops around his empire to taste the food. But when he gets in the kitchen of his Buckhead home, he loves nothing more than to revisit his Anglo-Irish roots, whipping up the sort of earthy home cooking his late Irish mother served to her brood of 10.

We’re talking about hearty one-pot meals like his mother’s Irish Stew (a lamb-based dish that he tops with thin potato slices and finishes in the oven). Or her chicken soup, which seems ordinary enough at first glance but is in fact transformed by tangy cubes of rutabaga and nutty kernels of barley. Or the British classic Mince and Dumplings, which is essentially ground beef smothered in rich brown gravy and topped with biscuits.

Now 65, Catherall recently marked a half-century in food. To celebrate the milestone, we asked him to come up with an easy fall menu of the sort he might prepare at home with family. Catherall’s five children (from three marriages) are all grown up. But when they come over with friends, the house is full, he says, so he favors the food of his childhood memories over his fancy restaurant fare.

On a recent morning, Catherall and his brother, Ronnie — a sort of roving Here To Serve general manager currently perched at Shucks raw bar in Brookhaven — are in Tom Catherall’s gleaming white-marble kitchen. They are behaving like English blokes.

They tease about who’s older. (Though Tom is the oldest of the 10 Catherall sibs, it was Ronnie who grayed early.) They argue about when to put the potatoes in the soup. (Tom prefers to toss all the veggies in at the beginning; Ronnie likes to add the potatoes at the end, so they don’t cook to smithereens.)

Just two days before this cooking session, Tom Catherall was in surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee. His leg is still in bandages. But he’s not about to be sidelined.

Sporting shorts, sneakers and a long-sleeve white T-shirt — the kind of outfit he might wear at his second home at the Watercolor resort near Seaside, Fla. — Tom Catherall points to a beautifully patinaed pan and says he “borrowed” it from one of his restaurants. He just never bothered to return it. (Chef’s perk.)

Always eager to share his tricks, Catherall shows a visitor the proper way to chop an onion: Leave the root end on, so the vegetable won’t fall apart when cut. In a rush to weigh flour without adjusting the scale to account for a dish, he dumps it into a plastic grocery bag.

He may be a Certified Master Chef, but the man loves a short-cut.

For the Mince and Dumplings, makes the beef stock from Better than Bouillon concentrate. He thickens the ground-chuck concoction with Gravy Master, a bottled flavoring mix whose label declares it is “used by America’s top chefs.” (Why, yes. Yes it is. ) As Catherall shapes the dumplings in his palm, a question arises about how much dough to use.

Two tablespoons? A quarter cup? “Golf-ball size,” he says pithily.

When the brothers realize they forgot to make the traditional accompaniment of mashed potatoes, Ronnie runs to fetch a bag of spuds. “You can’t have Mince and Dumplings without mashed potatoes,” he snips. They are half-Irish lads, after all.

As the dishes are pulled from the oven, the brothers hand out bowls of everything for their guests to try. The Mince and Dumplings is burnished deeply with flavor and soul. An autumnal dessert of Gingerbread with Caramel Apples warms you up like a blazing fire.

Watching his visitors smack their lips and moan with pleasure, Catherall says this is why he’s still cooking after 50 years.

“It’s not about the money,” says the chef who wanted to be a mechanic but knew better than to disobey his mother. “I like making customers happy. It’s more personal than it is business with me.”

Intro for recipes

When Atlanta chef Tom Catherall cooks at home, he likes to make food that harks back to his mother’s kitchen in northeastern England. Here are three easy fall recipes that will feed a crowd.

Tom Catherall’s Mom’s Chicken Soup

Chef Tom Catherall grew up in England and attributes this soup to his Irish mother, who had 10 children and knew how to cook on a budget. Rutabagas give the soup zip, and the barley is warm and comforting. Catherall suggests serving the dish with crusty bread.

1 whole chicken

3 quarts chicken stock, preferably homemade

1/3 cup olive oil

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 rutabaga, peeled and diced

1 leek, peeled and chopped

1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 potatoes, peeled and chopped

3 ounces (about ¾ cup) all-purpose flour

1 cup barley, soaked overnight (may use Quick Barley)

Place the chicken and the chicken stock in a large soup kettle or stock pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer gently until the chicken is cooked completely through (about 25-35 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken). Remove chicken from stock and let it cool.

In separate large pot or stock pan, heat olive oil on medium-high heat. Add carrots, celery, rutabaga, leek, onion and potatoes. Saute until the vegetables are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add flour to make a roux, and stir well to incorporate and cook slightly, about 2-3 minutes. (You want more of a white roux than brown.) Pour the chicken stock into the pot slowly. Add barley and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. (You may add more water or stock to taste.)

While the soup is cooking, remove the skin and bones from the chicken. Shred or chop the chicken into bite-size pieces. When the vegetables are ready, add the chicken and heat through (about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings. Makes: 6 servings.

Per serving: 493 calories (percent of calories from fat, 33), 44 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber, 22 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 45 milligrams cholesterol, 295 milligrams sodium.

Mince and Dumplings

Catherall says this rib-sticking one-dish meal is traditionally served with mashed potatoes. Carb watchers might want to opt for a green salad or vegetable instead. You could also add peas or mushrooms to the beef-and-gravy mixture.

For the mince:

1½ pounds ground chuck

1 large onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

2 ounces (a scant half-cup) flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 quart beef stock (Catherall uses Better Than Bouillon concentrate)

1 teaspoon Gravy Master

For the dumplings:

1¼ pounds (about 4½ cups) White Lily self-rising flour

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small cubes

¼ cup Crisco shortening

1 egg

¾ cup buttermilk (plus more as needed to moisten the dough)

½ teaspoon salt

To make the mince: Place the ground chuck, onions and carrots in a heavy pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Stir regularly until the beef is cooked through, about 10-12 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add flour, salt and black pepper, and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring continuously. Add beef stock and Gravy Master. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the beef from sticking. Pour the ground-beef mixture into a large baking dish.

To make the dumplings: Heat the oven to 370 degrees. Place flour, butter and Crisco in a large mixing bowl. Work the fat into the flour, using your fingers, a pastry cutter or two forks, until it is thoroughly incorporated. Whisk the egg and the buttermilk in a small bowl. Form a well in the center of the flour mixture, slowly pour the liquid in, and stir to form dough. If the mixture is too dry, add more buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time. Don’t over wet; the dough should just stick together when pressed with your fingers.

To assemble the dish: Using your hands, roll dough into golf-ball size dumplings. (They don’t need to be perfectly smooth.) Place dumplings on top of the ground-chuck mixture. Bake until the dumplings are brown, about 30-40 minutes. Makes: 8 servings

Per serving: 654 calories (percent of calories from fat, 45), 25 grams protein, 63 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 32 grams fat (14 grams saturated), 107 milligrams cholesterol, 2,340 milligrams sodium.

Gingerbread with Caramel Apples

Perfect for fall, this delicious dessert is prepared a bit like an upside-down cake, with a layer of caramel and fruit held together by gingerbread. The cake — or “sponge,” as Catherall calls it — is made with molasses and spices, which renders it a lovely rich brown. The molasses mixture and the caramel layer may be prepared in advance.

For the caramel apples:

1 stick unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan

5 ounces maple syrup

3 ounces light corn syrup

1 cup light-brown sugar, packed

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced thin

For the gingerbread:

1½ cups boiling water

1 cup molasses

1 teaspoon baking soda

2½ cups cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

½ teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

To make the caramel apples: Generously grease an extra-large casserole dish or deep 8-by-13 baking pan. (Be sure to use a large, deep dish, or two smaller dishes, as this makes a very generous amount. You can also make the dessert in individual ramekins.)

Place butter, maple syrup, corn syrup and brown sugar in a medium-size, heavy-bottomed sauce pan or over medium heat. Stir until the butter is dissolved and the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, 2-3 minutes. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and pour into baking dish.

Place the sliced apples on top of the caramel mixture and set aside.

To make the gingerbread: Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix boiling water, molasses and baking soda in a large boil. (Note: The mixture will fizz.) Cover and chill for about 30 minutes, or until ready to bake the gingerbread.

Sift the cake flour, baking powder, salt, granulated sugar, ginger, cinnamon and cloves into a large bowl.

Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and brown sugar, until the mixture is fully incorporated, about 5 minutes. Add egg and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the sifted dry ingredients and the molasses mixture by the cup full, beginning with the dry ingredients and alternating with the wet. Scrape down the side of the bowl and mix until the batter is smooth, about 5 minutes. Pour the batter over the apples and caramel.

Bake until the mixture has just crusted over on top, about 30 to 40 minutes. (The batter may still be a little soft and jiggly at the center.) Scoop into bowls and serve warm. Makes: 8 servings

Per serving: 716 calories (percent of calories from fat, 30), 4 grams protein, 125 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 24 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 89 milligrams cholesterol, 650 milligrams sodium.

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