In the South, food fixes everything, says Beaufort caterer and cookbook author Debbi Covington.
Ice cream can cheer up a friend. A casserole of macaroni and cheese can comfort a grieving family. And when it's time to celebrate, there's always homemade cake.
Covington recently released her second cookbook, "Celebrate Everything! Delicious Menus for Festive Gatherings and Easy Entertaining."
The new cookbook is divided into chapters of Covington's personal celebrations, such as "Southern Nights," "Love" and "Summer Suppers ... Carolina Style."
Although the book features Southern foods, Covington limited her recipes to just two fried dishes: pickles and oysters.
"The trick is making food taste good without being fried," she said.
Covington will sign copies of her cookbook from 5:30 to 7 p.m. July 12 at the Verdier House in Beaufort.
Each recipe was prepared by Covington in her home and photographed by Paul Nurnberg of Beaufort. Nurnberg, a vegetarian, inspired Covington to modify some of her recipes, which are also in the book. Friends and family whose photographs appear in the more than 200-page book were invited in groups of eight to 10 to sample the fare of the day during the eight months she spent cooking the recipes.
Covington's interest in food began as a child watching her mother bake cakes and roll out dumplings and drop them into a big pot of boiling chicken broth.
During her teen years, she took over her mom's weekly tradition of baking a cake or cookies every Saturday. By the time she was studying marketing, management and advertising at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, N.C., Covington was entertaining her friends with fondue parties.
"I have always liked to cook, and it evolved into a business," she said. "I am doing what my mother went to school to do." Her mother, from whom she got many of her recipes, studied home economics in college. After becoming pregnant with Covington, she became a stay-at-home mom to care for her and her brother.
Now 48, Covington moved to the area more than 20 years ago after marrying a Beaufort resident. She got her start catering in June 1997, when she cooked salmon mousse and chicken skewered on rosemary for a 70th birthday party for a member of First Presbyterian Church of Beaufort, where she was working as the church secretary.
The event brought many offers to cater at other events. After eight years of catering part time on her own and working full time at the church, she left the church job in 2005 to begin her full-time catering business, Catering by Debbi Covington.
This fall she will be the new chef at the Wednesday night suppers at The Parish Church of St. Helena. She also continues to cater weddings and other social events.
As her business has expanded, Covington's cooking style has changed. With increased access to a greater variety of ingredients, she said her cooking has changed significantly since beginning as a part-time caterer.
"My tastes have changed as well," said Covington, who was raised on fried chicken and Parker's barbecue in Wilson.
New seasonings and the increased availability of exotic ingredients also inspired Covington to try new recipes.
"Back then I didn't even know what fennel was. I had never heard of lemongrass, and now I have it growing in the backyard," she said. She also has discovered different varieties of fresh herbs.
"There was no Mexican restaurant in Beaufort, and I couldn't even find chipotle," Covington said.
She said she loves to experiment with new ingredients to create different tastes and some of those are reflected in her cookbook, but many recipes stay true to her Southern roots.
The book does not offer catering recipes, which she uses to feed sometimes hundreds of people. Instead it offers recipes that can be made ahead to allow hosts time to enjoy their guests.
"Really the point is just to be able to have fun," Covington said.
One of those make-ahead recipes is her Beaufort Tomato Tart, a light summer dish that makes good use of locally harvested tomatoes. Another is her favorite dish -- Crunchy Fennel Salad with Grapes, Dates, Olives and Almonds -- which combines many flavors she would never have tried before.
"I've always liked to cook," Covington said. "It just evolved into a business."
Makes: 6 servings
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
2 cups red seedless grapes, sliced in half
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and quartered lengthwise
12 dates, sliced thinly lengthwise
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
4 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, shaved
Whisk lemon juice, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper together. Slowly whisk in olive oil to form an emulsion. Set aside. Combine the fennel, grapes, olives and dates. Drizzle with the vinaigrette. Just before serving, mix in the almonds and cheese.
Tomato pie is a family favorite and is especially good during the summer months when local tomatoes are at their peak, Covington said. This recipe from Covington's first cookbook offers a twist on the original classic.
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
1 (17.3 ounce) package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed in the refrigerator overnight
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 to 3 large ripe tomatoes, sliced
Dried sweet basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 green onions, chopped
1 egg, beaten
Unfold puff pastry and place on two lightly greased baking sheets. Score the edges of the pastry with a sharp knife, leaving a 1/2-inch border, being careful not to cut through. Combine mayonnaise and cheese in a small bowl, mixing well to combine. Spread half of the mixture evenly on each sheet of puff pastry up to the scored edge. Layer tomato slices evenly over cheese mixture. Sprinkle with dried basil, salt, pepper and green onions. Lightly brush edges of pastry with beaten egg.
Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 25 minutes or until pastry is puffed and golden.