Wade on Birmingham

Birmingham’s Best Eats: Our favorite home cooks


Connie Blalock, Paula Hunt Hughes

Connie Blalock, left, and Paula Hunt Hughes.
Photo by Shaun Chavis.

By Shaun Chavis

Good home cooks fill our tummies and make meals memorable. They serve as stewards of local cuisine and culture.

Birmingham's Best EatsNot only are these three women excellent home cooks, but they are also people who make an impact on foodways in Birmingham and across Alabama, creating food loved by many.

Connie Blalock compiles cookbooks for Alagasco, 10 so far, filled with recipes from Alabama chefs and amateurs. (Many recipes appear on inserts in the utility’s billing statements.) “Once, we tried to take those recipes out; we thought people didn’t use them,” she says. “The phones rang off the hook!” The Bluff Park resident uses jalapeños often in her cooking, as in Cedar-Plank Salmon with Cilantro Pesto (recipe below).

Paula Hunt Hughes loves baking cookies for friends. But she says her God-given passion is feeding Birmingham’s homeless. On Thursdays, she cooks enough meals at her South East Lake home to feed breakfast to 75 people in Linn Park downtown. (They love her sausage-cheese muffins, a recipe found on her food blog, Let’s Eat.) Later this year, she and her friend Lisa Latham plan to open Grace’s Kitchen, a pay-as-you-can restaurant. “We want to serve people with dignity and create a sense of community,” Hughes says.

Helen McEwen• For Helen McEwen, selling packaged grits and fresh eggs is the family business at McEwen and Sons. The company plans to sell locally raised grass-fed beef in Birmingham soon. “Alabama’s got to be able to feed itself,” said McEwen, an advocate of local food. At home in Wilsonville, her husband Frank grows the produce she uses not only for family meals but also her fabled dinner parties. Her secret? “Start impressive, end impressive!”

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Cedar Plank-Grilled Salmon with Cilantro Pesto
(adapted from an Alagasco recipe)

  • Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus time to prepare grill and planks
  • Cooking time: 8 to 12 minutes
  • Servings: 4


  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for salmon
  • 1 cup packed cilantro leaves and smaller stems
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup pepitas or pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted
  • Juice of 1/2 lime (or more to taste)
  • Minced jalapeño (to taste; start with half a pepper)
  • Salt, to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon)
  • Ground black pepper, to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon)
  • Four 4-ounce salmon filets


  • Cedar planks

Preheat grill; use indirect heat, keeping temperature at 350 degrees or lower. Prepare cedar planks according to the package directions.

Blend olive oil, cilantro, garlic and pumpkin seeds in a blender until completely smooth. Stir in lime juice and minced jalapeño. Stir in salt and pepper to taste. Transfer cilantro pesto to an airtight container; store in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Brush salmon filets with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place salmon on planks, place planks on grill and close lid, turning it into a smoker. Cook until salmon reaches desired doneness. (Generally, allow 4 to 6 minutes for each 1/2 inch of thickness.) Remove salmon from the planks with a spatula.

Using tongs, plunge planks into a bucket of cold water. (They could be re-used, but check package directions.)

Serve salmon filets with cilantro pesto sauce.

• • •

Who’s your favorite home cook, and why? Tell us in the comments below.

• • •

Shaun ChavisShaun Chavis (@shaunchavis) is the co-founder of Birmingham’s Foodie Book Club, and a food journalist whose work has appeared in “Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing,” eGullet and Friends Journal. In the fall, she will teach a course on food and literature at Samford University’s Samford After Sundown.

• • •

Hungry for more? Check out the menu of Birmingham’s Best Eats!

1 Yip for “Birmingham’s Best Eats: Our favorite home cooks”

  1. Tweets that mention Wade on Birmingham » Birmingham’s Best Eats: Our favorite home cooks -- Topsy.com
    Thursday, August 19, 2010, 7:07 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shaun Chavis, Food Revival. Food Revival said: Love!RT @ShaunChavis: Meet three home cooks who are making a difference in Birmingham. And Alabama. http://itswa.de/bbe-home-cooks #bhameats […]

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