“Maybe try fluffing the napkin a little bit more,” says Nancy Hughes to the Mobile Bay photography team after seeing a shot of a Thanksgiving place setting in her dining room. She covers her mouth, and laughs her contagious and uproarious laugh, “Sorry! I promised myself I wouldn’t do that.”
She is right. With this adjustment, the photograph does look better.
This comes as no surprise. After all, Nancy is the author of 25 cookbooks and over 8,000 published recipes, all of which were developed and tested by Nancy and then professionally photographed at her home in Daphne. Her recipes are featured in top lifestyle magazines, in cookbooks and by nutritional organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Diabetic Association. Through the years, she has developed a keen eye for food styling and making sure each dish is flawlessly plated and every napkin perfectly ruffled.
In addition to creating recipes, she served as a consultant to large organizations and made TV and radio appearances where she empowered home cooks to make delicious, easy-to-prepare, healthy meals for their busy families.
A passion for working with food runs in the family. One of her three children is Will Hughes, head chef at Provision, a role he took in October of 2022. Will spent the past two decades as a culinary renaissance man, running successful restaurants, a popular food truck, owning catering businesses and travelling the world as private chef. Will found Provision a perfect fit and a welcome opportunity to return to the area full time. His new role also offered more opportunity to spend more time with his family. Time that is all the more precious as Nancy has recently discontinued her treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Yet many years before Will was helming one of Fairhope’s most beloved kitchens, Nancy was a busy mom trying, like many postpartum women, to lose the baby weight. She had no idea she would become a culinary powerhouse.
In the early 1980s, Hughes found herself frustrated by a one shake for breakfast, one shake for lunch diet. “They assured me I could do anything for 10 days,” she says. “By day six, I would have eaten a piece of wood! I knew there had to be a better way.”
After some experimentation with low-calorie eating and success on her weight loss journey, Nancy decided that she would write a cookbook. She admits that at the start of her journey she “only knew how to make about six dishes.” Despite this, she dove into the project. She found herself using every spare moment while her children napped or played to research nutrition and to craft recipes. Back then, there was no useful software, no nutritional labels on food packaging and certainly no internet to search calorie counts. She became an expert at rattling off even the most obscure nutritional information — “An eighth of a teaspoon of vanilla has two calories. Shall I continue?” she laughs. The work was tedious and time consuming. Then, there was experimenting with the food itself. “I started out with a 100-pound dog, but six years later he was 700 pounds. He got to try all my mistakes,” she laughs. And that’s how long it took. Six years after she started, she had her very first cookbook. “The Four Course, Four Hundred Calorie Cookbook” made its debut in 1991, and Hughes was off and running from there.
Hughes was invited to attend a food conference in San Antonio. At first, she balked at the idea. “I couldn’t afford to just leave my children for three days and go stay in some fancy hotel.” But with the encouragement of her husband, Greg, she decided to make the trip. There, she learned of the possibilities beyond just cookbooks. “There were magazines, food companies, health organizations. I met the editor of Cooking Light, American Heart, American Diabetes, Better Homes and Gardens, even Pillsbury,” she says. “By the time the conference was over, I was floating.”
While headed home, she had a layover in Houston. She used this precious time to furiously scribble her ideas. “I knew once I got off the plane the little ones would be there. I was writing, writing, writing. Then I looked up and saw there was no one at the gate but me. I went over to the boarding agent and asked what was going on, and they asked, ‘Are you Mrs. Hughes? We called your name three times, but you didn’t look up and we figured you were waiting for someone.’ The flight had left without me!”
Nancy threw herself into her work, putting in long hours, but she loved every minute of it. Her enthusiasm was not lost on Will. When he was working one of his first jobs, he would often leave early or come home late, seeing his mother hard at work. “I’ll see you and you look tired, but you always look happy,” he told her. “I don’t know what I want to do with my career, but I do know that I want to have that feeling.”
Will grew up watching his mother cook. “We got to try a lot of her experiments,” he says. He enjoyed helping in the kitchen from an early age, putting cranberries in the bowl and helping with the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving before going to celebrate at his grandmother’s house in Mobile. And later, despite, having a mom with a head full of recipes on command, he wanted to do his own experimenting in the kitchen. “My mom liked to follow recipes, but I wanted to just use them as a jumping off point,” says Will.
“He didn’t want me to tell him how to season things. He would stand in the kitchen and sniff all the spices and add a little of this and that. He concocted his own recipes, And what’s the harm in experimenting? If it doesn’t turn out, you can use it as an opportunity to look back and think about what you were trying to achieve and figure out how to do better next time. And then there is always the dog,” says Nancy.
After two years at Spring Hill College, Will’s enjoyment of cooking led him to culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. At one point, mother and son took a semester at Faulkner State College (now Coastal Community College) together. Despite the shared love of being in the kitchen, the pair have had quite different career paths, points out Nancy. “My world is the home cook, and his world is the commercial end. They are two totally unique paths, but both are needed. What Will truly inherited from me is his passion.”
With a cook (and future cook) in the kitchen, Thanksgiving while Will was growing up was a special time with an emphasis on tradition. Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread dressing and oyster stuffing — “that’s from the North” notes Nancy — sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce graced Will’s grandmother’s table. In later years, the family started a tradition of going to Will’s paternal grandmother’s house out in the country. With 40 family members, Nancy got a much-appreciated reprieve from the kitchen. “It was nice to take a break and relax. We would shoot skeet and have a big bonfire,” she recalls.
While the two might have unique career pathways within the food industry, mother and son both have gravitated towards making life easy for busy families and allowing them to sit together to enjoy a hot meal. Nancy through her healthy recipes for busy families; Will, a father of three himself, through Provision’s grab-and-go family meals. Today, Will prepares many of these familiar family recipes at Provision for Thanksgiving, allowing locals and their visitors to try a taste of the Hughes’ family classics. And while Nancy has retired from her career and the chaos that goes along with it, she still has a flair for throwing herself into the excitement. “I’m so looking forward to this weekend,” she says, as the photo shoot wraps up. “All the grandkids are coming over and I have already claimed the middle seat on the couch.”
(Scroll for the Hughes family’s Thanksgiving recipes.)
Hughes’ Family Recipes
First Picture:Baked Brie en Croûte with Honey, Dried Cherries, Pecans & Rosemary, Pork Loin with Figs, Red Onions and Rosemary, Conecuh, Sweet Potato, Brussels Sprouts Hash
Second Picture:Creamy Spinach and Artichoke Bake, Smoked Gouda Smashed Potatoes, Savory Fig and Wild Rice Dressing , Oyster Casserole
Third Picture: Flourless Chocolate Torte
Baked Brie en Croûte with Honey, Dried Cherries, Pecans & Rosemary
1 tablespoon of flour
2 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed (Will uses Pepperidge Farm)
1 16-ounce brie cheese round (about 6 inches in diameter)
2 tablespoons honey
1⁄3 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped
1⁄4 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Optional fresh fruit and crackers for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour the work surface and roll each pastry sheet out to a 12-inch square. Trim the corners of each sheet to form two circles. Set the scraps aside; you’ll use those later for decorations. Put one of the pastry rounds on the prepared baking sheet.
2. Cut off the top rind of the cheese and place the Brie on top of the pastry, rind side down. Drizzle the top of the cheese with the honey, and then top with the dried
cherries, pecans and rosemary. Brush the exposed edges of the pastry with the egg mixture. Cover the brie with the other pastry circle, pressing against the sides of the cheese and the bottom pastry to form a tight seal. Using a pizza cutter, cut off the excess dough, leaving a generous 1-inch border. Crimp the edges firmly with a fork to seal. Brush the pastry with the egg mixture. Set aside.
3. Using a pizza cutter or cookie cutter, cut out eight leaves (about 2-inches long and 1-inch wide) from the scraps. Use a knife to draw ribs on the leaves, pressing down but not cutting all the way through. Roll or cut a strip of pastry in the shape of a vine and gently press it into the crust. Place the leaves on along the vine, pressing them gently into the crust. Brush the vine and leaves with the egg mixture.
4. Place brie in a cast iron skillet or oven-proof pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown. Let stand for 45 minutes before serving with fruit and crackers of choice.
Pork Loin with Figs, Red Onions and Rosemary
8 dried mission figs, sliced or chopped
1⁄4 cup dry sherry or apple cider vinegar
1⁄2 cup olive or avocado oil, divided
5-pound pork loin
3 rosemary sprigs
1 large red onion, sliced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
Salt and pepper, to taste
1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium saucepan, add figs, vinegar and just enough water to cover the figs. Heat mixture to boiling and remove from heat. Set aside.
2. In an oven-proof skillet (cast iron is excellent), heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook on all sides until outside of meat is seared.
3. Pour figs and the juices over the pork. Add remaining oil to the pan. Place 2 rosemary sprigs over the pork and place in oven. Cook for 25 minutes then check the internal temperature of the pork.
When it reaches 165
degrees, remove pork from the pan and transfer to a plate. Tent pork loosely with aluminum foil. (If you enclose the meat too tightly in the foil, it may continue to cook and will over-cook, releasing much of the juices that keep the meat tender.)
4. Add onion and garlic to the fig mixture and meat drippings in the pan. Add the third rosemary sprig to the pan. Place the pan back in the oven. Cook an additional 10 minutes or until red onions are beginning to caramelize, stirring occasionally. Return the pork to the pan for another 5 minutes in the oven to help keep it warm and to soak in the flavors of the onion mixture.
5. Remove from oven and slice tenderloin. Serve with the onion and fig mixture poured over the top.
Conecuh, Sweet Potato, Brussels Sprouts Hash
12 ounces Conecuh sausage, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound large brussels sprouts, quartered*
1 medium-sized sweet potato, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
1 large yellow onion, cut into 8 wedges
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme
1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
1⁄2 teaspoon onion powder
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a large-rimmed baking sheet with cooking oil. Add cut sausages, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and onions to the sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil and season with all seasonings. Stir until everything
is well combined.
2. Spread ingredients evenly on the pan which will ensure roasting and not steaming. Bake for 15 minutes. Stir and continue to bake for 15 minutes more, or until veggies are tender. Remove from oven and serve.
* If your brussels sprouts are large, cut them in half.
Smoked Gouda Smashed Potatoes
2 1/2 pounds red potatoes (about 5 large red potatoes)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 cup shredded smoked gouda cheese
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
optional garnishes: butter, chopped parsley and chopped chives
1. Cut potatoes into evenly sized pieces and place them in a large pot. Cover potatoes with cold water, add a generous pinch of salt and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Once boiling, cook 10-15 more minutes until potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork. Drain potatoes and set them aside.
2. Return the empty pot to the stove over low heat. Add butter and half-and-half and cook until butter is melted and mixture has reached a low simmer. Turn off the heat. Return cooked potatoes to pot and mash lightly with a potato masher. Mash through any large lumps but try to handle the potatoes as little as possible so they don’t get gummy. Add shredded smoked gouda cheese, salt and fresh ground pepper. Stir to fold the cheese into the potatoes, then let it sit for a minute or two to let the cheese melt. Stir again to mix everything thoroughly.
Garnish with additional butter and fresh chopped parsley or chives and serve immediately.
Savory Fig and Wild Rice Dressing
Adapted from Nancy’s recipe for the Valley Fig Board. This recipe was designed to be a nutritious option for people with diabetes.
1 cup uncooked long grain wild rice
1 cup dried figs, stemmed and choppe
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery (approximately 2 medium stalks)
2 large red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups chopped walnuts
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
Black pepper to taste
1. Cook rice according to package directions. Remove from heat. Stir in the fig, making sure they are submerged. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.
2. Heat a Dutch oven or stock pot over medium-high heat. Add one tablespoon of oil, onions and celery. Cook 5-6 minutes or until onions are beginning to richly brown, stirring occasionally. Add bell peppers and cook for 5 minutes until peppers are tender, stirring frequently. Remove the pot from heat.
3. Add the rice mixture, walnuts, salt, black pepper and remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pot and stir well to combine. Serve warm.
2 pints oysters with their liquor
5 sleeves saltines crackers, coarsely crushed
1 cup room temperature butter, cubed
1 1⁄2 cups whole milk or heavy cream
1 teaspoon pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drain the oysters in a fine mesh sieve to remove any oyster shell bits, reserving 1/2 cup of oyster liquor.
2. In a large bowl, combine the crushed saltines and butter. Spread 1/3 of the cracker mixture into the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish, and then top with half of the oysters, cutting larger oysters in half. Sprinkle with pepper. Repeat these steps.
3. Combine the milk or cream and oyster liquor. Pour the liquid mixture over top the casserole. Top with the remaining crackers. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes uncovered, or until the top is golden and edges are bubbly. Let stand 12-15 minutes before serving.
Creamy Spinach and Artichoke Bake
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onion
2 12-ounce packages chopped spinach, thawed
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 teaspoon celery salt
3/4 teaspoon garlic salt
6 ounces Velveeta Mexican cheese
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1 14-ounce can quartered artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
Salt to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook 4-5 minutes, until translucent, stirring frequently. Add remaining ingredients and cook until cheese has melted, stirring frequently.
2. Place in a 13 x 9 inch baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes, or until bubbly.
3. Remove from the oven and let stand 10 minutes. Add salt to taste. Stir in additional milk if a creamier texture is desired.
Flourless Chocolate Torte
9 ounces good quality dark chocolate (65% or higher), finely chopped
9 ounces unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
7 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract a few tablespoons rum, bourbon or whiskey, optional
Powdered sugar, berries, and sweetened whipped cream
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease and line
a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Grease again.
2. Warm the chocolate and butter together in a double boiler or in a microwave-safe bowl, until the chocolate is almost completely melted. Remove from heat and stir until smooth and totally melted. Stir in the sugar, then let cool for a few minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, fully combining between each addition. Continue to stir until the batter becomes thick and glossy. Stir in the extracts and any optional boozy
addition you desire.
3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 30-35 minutes, until the torte jiggles slightly in the middle and is not completely set. Begin checking at the 30-minute mark to ensure the torte does not overbake. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then unmold. Dust with powdered sugar. Cut into wedges and serve alone or with whipped cream and berries.