“Cooking and sharing food and fellowship is just natural for me, ” says Debra Blackburn. “My grandmother, Ella Hill, instilled in me the ‘food equals love’ concept through all the years of Sunday dinners and family gatherings. So it’s my way of pampering people.”
Creating that comfortable and welcome feeling is Debra’s forte. “My friends all know that I usually greet the first guest with wet hair, no makeup and bare feet, ” says the relaxed and seasoned hostess. She believes, and justly so, that good friends don’t care; they are just happy to be together. “My friends also know that when they come to my house, they are going to get a job, whether it is filling glasses with ice or making sure that I don’t burn the bread, ” she says with a laugh.
Debra hosts frequent, festive parties for anywhere from eight to 80 or more guests. One recent fabulous soiree was in celebration of her dear friend Gayle Alexander on her 50th birthday. Fifty girlfriends got together for sunset and supper at the Blackburns’ Montrose home, which overlooks Mobile Bay. For a special touch, Debra created a painting for Gayle, and used it as the artwork for the party invitation.
“The amazing thing about Debra is that she makes it all look effortless, ” Gayle says. “Her food appears to be simple, but it’s not; there’s a lot of love, care and attention given to the food — and to her guests.
“You don’t ever see anyone at one of Debra’s parties standing around with no one to talk to. She doesn’t let that happen. She makes connections between people, brings people together. That is truly a gift, and that’s what everybody loves about her.”
the hostess with the mostest
Debra shares some of her tried-and-true tips.
• Be ready to serve the meal about 30 minutes after the guests arrive.
• Help partygoers get to know each other. When making introductions, tell fun facts about each person to help them draw connections.
• Ask for help in the kitchen or with other party-related tasks. People tend to feel more comfortable if they have a purpose.
• Don’t cook everything yourself. The three cakes for Gayle’s party came from favorite local bakeries — a caramel cake from Punta Clara Kitchen, a lemon curd cake from Delish’s Desserts, and a carrot cake from Pollman’s Bake Shop.
Gayline’s Lemon Vodka Tea Refresher
Since the sixth grade, Debra’s nickname for her friend Gayle has been “Gayline.” Debra served this spiked tea for Gayle’s soiree. She says it refreshes body and soul in our Gulf Coast summertime.
1 quart fresh brewed tea, sweetened to taste
1 cup Limoncello lemon liqueur
1 cup vodka
1 – 2 lemons, sliced
fresh mint, if desired
lemon slices, to garnish
Pour first 5 ingredients in a pretty, clear pitcher. Add a few ice cubes (no more that 1/2 cup), and stir to create condensation on pitcher, but not to dilute. To serve, fill glasses with ice. Pour tea mix into glasses and garnish with a lemon slice. Serves approximately 8 – 10.
Debra’s “Secret” Iced Tea
Debra likes to serve this tea as a lively, nonalcoholic alternative. Her secret: add Fresca.
1 quart strong (concentrated) freshly brewed tea
1/4 cup fresh grapefruit or lemon juice
1 (2-liter) bottle Fresca, chilled
long strips of grapefruit or lemon peel, if desired
Combine tea and juice. Fill tall glasses with ice. Pour half full with tea. Top with Fresca. Garnish with a long, twisted strip of grapefruit or lemon peel, running from the drink over the side of the glass. Serves approximately 8 – 10.
Creamy, Crunchy, Cold Curried Crab
This curried crab may be served in cups of butter lettuce as a salad, or stuffed into a whole tomato “blossom” for a light lunch. It also easily appeases hungry guests as an appetizer.
1 pound fresh jumbo lump crab, gently rinsed, drained and carefully checked for shells
1/2 cup homemade or best
1/4 cup light sour cream (not fat-free)
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
kosher salt and freshly ground
pepper, to taste
2 stalks celery (each cut into 3 strips, then finely sliced)
1/2 large Vidalia onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 – 4 tablespoons finely chopped dill or flat-leaf Italian parsley
2 – 4 tablespoons capers, drained
tart shells or crackers
1. Place prepared crab in a bowl. Cut lemon in half and squeeze over the crab (through fingers or strainer to catch seeds). Set crab aside.
2. In a separate bowl, thoroughly combine all other ingredients (except crackers).
3. Pour “dressing” over crab and mix very gently, keeping lumps intact as much as possible. Chill well to let flavors meld.
4. Serve in tart shells or with crackers. Serves 8 – 10.
Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
This crowd pleaser is one of Debra’s favorite starters to serve guests.
1 (16-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
5 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive or sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons tahini
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup chopped roasted red pepper (fresh or jarred)
salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste
olive oil and paprika, to garnish
parsley, sesame seeds and red pepper strips, if desired, for an additional festive garnishwhole grain crackers or pita chips
1. Put all ingredients, except garnish, in a food processor or blender and combine until smooth. Add a little more oil, tahini or lemon juice to create desired texture.
2. Spoon into a serving dish. Drizzle with olive oil and dust with paprika.
3. To garnish, sprinkle finely chopped parsley around the perimeter; scatter a few sesame seeds on top and place two or three strips of roasted red pepper in the center. Serve with whole grain crackers or pita chips. Serves 8 – 10.
Point Clear Porch Salad
Debra says this salad is a summer staple. It’s based on the salad her grandmother, “Miss Ella” Hill, served every Sunday dinner on the dining porch of her Point Clear home.
4 large, ripe tomatoes, sliced
2 large Vidalia (or other sweet) onions, peeled and sliced
2 cucumbers, sliced but not peeled
Nannie’s Worcestershire Dressing, recipe below
freshly ground black pepper
fresh basil, optional but fabulous
1. In a large bowl, layer half the tomato, half the onion, and half the cucumber. Repeat. Pour Worcestershire dressing over all and let refrigerate until serving time (up to several hours).
2. To serve, sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and add fresh, torn basil over the top or over individual servings. Garnish with a pretty cluster of fresh basil. Serves 8 – 10.
Nannie’s Worcestershire Dressing
Debra keeps this divine dressing on hand all summer to splash on slices of homegrown tomatoes.
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup salad oil
2 – 4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1. Pour vinegar and seasonings into a pretty bottle.
2. Shake lightly, then add oil and 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce. Shake and taste. Add more Worcestershire to taste. Refrigerate. Makes about 2 cups.
Farmers’ Market Summer Succotash
When the vegetables are fresh from the grower or the garden, they don’t need much cooking time. This sauté makes the most of summer’s bounty.
2 tablespoons butter
3 cups freshly scraped white corn kernels (preferably Silver Queen or King)
3 cups freshly shelled butter beans
3 cups sliced fresh okra (from small, tender pods)
1 bunch green onions, sliced
(use white and green)
freshly ground pepper
1. Combine olive oil and butter in a large, flat sauté pan over medium heat.
2. When hot, add corn. Cook 1 – 2 minutes, shaking pan and scraping bottom with a flat wooden utensil or spatula.
3. Add butter beans. Sprinkle sugar over all and cook for another couple of minutes.
4. Add okra and green onions; cook for another minute or so. (Okra should still be crisp.)
5. Remove from heat, and add red pepper and parsley. Sprinkle with kosher salt and black pepper. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves approximately 8 – 10.
Honey Pecan Fried Chicken
This is a tasty twist on a classic Southern dish. For a sizable crowd or if you are simply in a pinch, serve the sauce over your favorite store-bought chicken tenders. Debra likes Best of the Bay winner Danny’s Fried Chicken, in Fairhope.
4 cups buttermilk
10 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin (about 1/2-inch thick)
2 1/2 cups flour with 2 tablespoons
baking powder mixed in (or use self-rising flour)
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh or dried thyme
Honey Pecan Sauce, recipe below
vegetable or peanut oil
fresh thyme, to garnish
1. Pour buttermilk over chicken and refrigerate for an hour.
2. Mix flour with seasonings in a flat container or on waxed paper.
3. Lift chicken pieces out of buttermilk and dredge in flour mixture. Set aside at room temperature for 20 minutes.
4. Prepare Honey Pecan Sauce.
5. Meanwhile, pour oil into a black iron skillet, 1/2 to 1 inch deep. Heat oil to 375 degrees.
6. Add chicken in batches and fry until golden — about 5 – 7 minutes per side. Drain on a wire rack and move to platter or plates.
7. Ladle the Honey Pecan Sauce over the chicken.
8. Liberally sprinkle fresh thyme leaves over chicken and garnish with stems of fresh thyme. Serves 8 – 10.
Honey Pecan Sauce
2 cups butter (not margarine)
1 cup honey (use local honey, if possible)
1 cup chopped toasted pecans
1. Melt butter in a small, heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir in honey and bring to a boil.
2. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes, adding pecans near the end of that time.