I like to think of Connie Blalock’s work as being that of a culinary historian of sorts. Her formal title is manager of event planning and marketing promotions for Alagasco, a job that includes encouraging Alabamans to cook with gas. And so, as she’s promoted home cooking, she’s built a collection of Alabama’s favorite recipes in the process.
Connie was once responsible for finding the recipes tucked in with gas bills, gathering them from Alabama’s home cooks and professional chefs. Customers love the recipes, she says: “Once, we tried to take those recipes out; we thought people didn’t use them. The phones rang off the hook!” She’s overseen ten Alagasco cookbooks that are statewide community cookbooks of sorts—the proceeds have even gone to benefit various Alabama charities, in the tradition of community cookbooks. She’s also put together cooking segments on Alabama TV stations featuring local chefs, and even Iron Chef-style cooking competitions.
When I visited Connie at her home in Bluff Park, I caught her on a Sunday afternoon making beef stroganoff for her family (she has four children and two grandchildren who stop by for meals). She pulled out the cookbooks she’s done; many of them are collections of the recipes gathered from Alabama’s chefs and home cooks, some through contests. One, titled Truly Southern: A Collection of Traditional and Regional Dishes, features recipes from well-known local chefs such as Clayton Sherrod, Franklin Biggs (who owned Homewood Gourmet until this year), and restaurateur George Sarris (owner of The Fish Market and Dodiyós). The recipes call for regional ingredients like Alabama shrimp, Apalachicola oysters, and Chilton County peaches. There are also recipes from home cooks, such as cheese straws made by a Mrs. Rosalie Reynolds, who used to deliver them, along with her chocolate chip cookies, to Energen’s stockholder meetings. There are three different recipes for barbecue sauce, and only a Southern cookbook would have a chapter titled “Pasta, Grits, and Eggs.”
Connie Blalock is a good home cook herself, and took to the kitchen when she was in second grade. She’s had no formal training, but says she would like to go to culinary school some day. “I’ve just learned from the school of hard knocks,” she says. As a home cook, she prefers Mediterranean flavors—her favorite ingredients include olive oil, lemons, and capers. “A little goes a long way,” she says. She also loves the grill, and jalapeños—so she shared this recipe that’s a personal favorite from one of Alagasco’s cookbooks.
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 1/2 of a pepper)
salt, to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon)
ground black pepper, to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon)
4 four-ounce salmon fillets
Preheat your grill or prepare coals for grill; use indirect heat, and keep the heat at 350-degrees or lower. Prepare cedar planks according to the package directions.
Place the olive oil, cilantro, garlic, and pumpkin seeds in a blender, and blend until completely smooth. Stir in the lime juice and minced jalapeño. Stir in salt and pepper to taste. Transfer cilantro pesto to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Brush each salmon fillet with additional olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and black pepper.
Place salmon fillets on planks, place on the grill and close the lid. Your grill will turn into a smoker. Cook until salmon reaches desired doneness. (Generally, allow 4-6 minutes for each 1/2-inch of thickness.) Remove salmon from the planks with a spatula. Using tongs, remove planks from the grill and plunge them into a bucket of cold water. (You may be able to reuse them; consult the package directions.)
Serve salmon fillets with cilantro pesto sauce.
Adapted from and used with permission from Alagasco.