Cooking as Fast as I Can

A Chef's Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness

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About The Book

“Affecting….as warm and comforting as a home-cooked meal” (People), a no-holds-barred memoir on Southern life, Greek heritage, same sex marriage—and the meals that have shaped her memories—from the Food Network star and first female winner of Iron Chef, Cat Cora.

Before she became a renowned chef and Food Network star, Cat Cora was just a girl from Jackson, Mississippi, where days were slow and every meal was made from scratch. By the age of fifteen, Cora was writing the business plan for her first restaurant. Her love of cooking started in her Greek home, where fresh feta and home-cured olives graced the table. Cat spent her days internalizing the dishes that would form the cornerstone of her cooking philosophy—from crispy fried chicken and honey-drenched biscuits to spanakopita. But outside the kitchen, Cat’s life was volatile.

In Cooking as Fast as I Can, Cat Cora reveals the experiences that shaped her life—from early childhood sexual abuse to the realities of life as lesbian in the deep South. She chronicles how she found her passion in the kitchen and went on to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and apprentice under Michelin star chefs in France. After her big break as a co-host with Rocco Di Spirito on the Food Network’s Melting Pot, Cat broke barriers by becoming the first-ever female contestant on Iron Chef.

By turns epic and intimate, Cat writes movingly about how she found courage and redemption in the dark truths of her past and about how she found solace in the kitchen and work, how her passion for cooking helped her to overcome hardships and ultimately find happiness at home and became a wife and a mother to four boys. Above all, this is “a disarmingly candid look at the highs, lows, and true grit of a culinary star” (Kirkus Reviews).

Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Cooking as Fast as I Can includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. We hope these questions will enrich your reading group’s conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Cooking as Fast as I Can is the poignant, intimate portrait of celebrity chef Cat Cora’s rise to culinary fame. Cora’s story is one of passion and resilience. Petite in her tall adopted family, gay in the closeted South, an American in Michelin-starred French restaurants, a southerner in New York City kitchens, a woman in the cutthroat, macho culinary world, and the first female Iron Chef, Cora refused to be defined as an outsider. She forged her career through struggle and hard work. She writes with tenderness about the meals that shaped her memories and about finding courage and redemption in the dark truths of her past—and learning how to forgive. Ultimately, Cora found solace in the kitchen and in work, and her passion for cooking has helped her find happiness as a chef, a wife, and a mother of four boys.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Consider the opening quote from Mark Twain: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” How is this a fitting epigraph for the book? How does Cora grapple with forgiveness as an adult? Does the violence of the word “crushed” strike an appropriate emotional chord?

2. Cora opens the book with the powerful line “I spent the first week of my life at the Mississippi Children’s Home, waiting to be adopted” (p. 1). How does the theme of adoption, as an act of taking on something new or different, resonate throughout the book?

3. Cora’s earliest memories are strongly tied to the meals, foods, and flavors. Consider the interplay between sense and memory in your own life. Are your earliest memories informed most by taste, smell, sight, sound, or touch?

4. Cora describes the experience of sexual abuse as one that divided her life “neatly into before and after” (p. 9). In what ways did Cora’s early childhood trauma affect her coming-of-age? In what ways did she refuse to let it define her?

5. As a child, Cora was strongly influenced by both her Greek heritage and her southern upbringing. Later those two influences would inform her unique style of cooking. How can our cultural inheritance shape our careers? Our creative aspirations? To what degree is our coming-of-age a process of assimilating and rejecting the traditions of our parents?

6. Were you surprised by Cora’s family’s reaction to her coming out? How did their support affect her self-perception?

7. The coming-out process for Cora happened in a relatively inhospitable climate. How has our country’s perception of homosexuality and same-sex relationships evolved since Cora was a teen?

8. What did you make of Cora’s bodybuilding pursuit? Did it feel like a natural extension of her personality? Was she seeking out a community? A safe outlet to channel her sexuality?

9. Consider Cora’s up-and-down relationship with Hannah. How did that relationship compare to her eventual relationship with her wife, Jennifer? What is universal about the evolution of Cora’s relationships?

10. “I worshipped Julia Child,” Cora writes on page 79. How are the two celebrity chefs similar?

11. Inspired by her encounter with Julia Child, Cora applies to the Culinary Institute. Did you perceive this decision as a risk? Think about a “sink-or-swim” moment in your own life. What emotions were guiding you?

12. Compare Cora’s journey to those of other women who broke through the glass ceiling. What traits do these women share? How is Cora’s journey unique?

13. How does Cora both inhabit and shatter the mold of “celebrity chef”? How has your perception of her changed now that you’re familiar with her story?

14. What part of Cora’s story did you find the most inspiring?

Enhance Your Book Club

Try Cat Cora’s favorite appetizer and drink recipes to make your next book club more delicious.

Bruschetta with Three Toppings

Ingredients

1 baguette (cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (plus extra to drizzle on the bread)

1 garlic clove (cut in half)

8 large ripe tomatoes

20 fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoons feta cheese (crumbled)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup Kalamata olives (coarsely chopped)

1 teaspoon fresh oregano (coarsely chopped)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper (freshly ground)

7 ounces roasted sweet red pepper strips (drained and coarsely chopped)

2 teaspoons capers (drained)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons Asiago cheese (shaved; more if desired)

Instructions

1. Bruschetta: To give the bread slices maximum flavor, toast them on the grill. Lightly brush both sides of each slice with olive oil and grill for a minute on each side. Use tongs to turn them, and make sure the bread doesn’t get too dark. (You can also toast them in the oven. Preheat to 425ºF and brush the slices with olive oil. Arrange the slices on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, turning once, until crisp and light brown.)

2. When the slices are golden brown, hold each warm slice (protecting your fingers with a clean dish towel) and rub the cut side of the garlic clove completely over the bread, front and back. The heat will “melt” the garlic, flavoring the bread perfectly. Top with any of the three toppings suggested below, or come up with your own.

Tomato Basil Topping: Cut the tomatoes into small chunks. Cut the basil leaves into a chiffonade by stacking 4 to 5 leaves, rolling them like a cigar, and then cutting them into fine strips. This will give you small, fine ribbons of basil. Spoon a good helping of tomatoes onto the bruschetta. (Don’t be stingy.) Sprinkle generously with basil chiffonade. Add a light pinch of salt and drizzle with olive oil. Serve immediately.

Kalamata Olive and Feta Cheese Topping: Combine feta cheese, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, red pepper flakes, olives, oregano, and 1/2 teaspoon olive oil in a small bowl. I like to spread the mixture in a thin coating on the bread, but you can add as much as you like. You can use it as a base and add whatever else you like: chunks of fresh tomato, cucumber cubes, or sautéed mushrooms.

Sweet Peppers with Asiago Cheese Topping: In a small bowl, combine sweet red pepper strips, capers, 3 tablespoons fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and 2 tablespoons Asiago cheese. Spread on bruschetta. Sprinkle each bruschetta with a few shavings of cheese.

Greek-Style Nachos

Ingredients

1/2 cup roasted red peppers

1 teaspoon garlic (minced)

1 pinch kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano (minced)

1 1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

12 ounces pita chips

2 cups pepper jack cheese (shredded)

8 ounces mild feta cheese (crumbled)

1/2 cup green Greek olives (pitted and sliced)

1/4 cup Kalamata olives (pitted and sliced)

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes (quartered)

1/2 cup nonfat Greek-style yogurt

Instructions

1. Roasted Red Pepper Salsa: Medium-dice the red peppers and mix in a bowl with the garlic, salt, and oregano. Stir in the olive oil. Taste; add more salt if necessary. Chill the mixture in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

2. Nachos: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Take the roasted red pepper salsa out of the fridge and set it aside. Spread the pita chips in a single layer on a baking sheet or a large heatproof platter. Sprinkle both cheeses evenly over the chips. Bake the chips until the cheese is just melted, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the chips from the oven and scatter olives and cherry tomato quarters over the top. Spoon some of the roasted red pepper salsa on the nachos and then dab on small dollops of Greek yogurt. Place the remaining salsa into a bowl, and serve the nachos right away with the remaining salsa on the side for folks to dip.

Twist It: Make the salsa into a smooth, creamy sauce in your food processor. Just add the roasted red peppers, garlic, salt, and oregano to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until ingredients are pureed. You don’t need to mince the garlic and oregano; just chop them roughly and let the processor do the work. (If your food processor is larger than a 1-quart model, you may need to double the salsa recipe; serve any leftover salsa with eggs the next day.) With the motor running, pour in the olive oil until the mixture is completely smooth. Scrape the purée into a small bowl and mix in the yogurt until blended. Taste and add more salt if necessary. This gives you a creamy, bright-red sauce that’s a complete flavor blast. As soon as you pull the warm nachos from the oven, drizzle this sauce over the top in a lattice pattern.

Kota Kapama (Chicken Stewed in Garlic and Cinnamon)

Ingredients

1 chicken (2 1/2–3 pounds, cut into 8 serving pieces)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

5 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups yellow onions (coarsely chopped)

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 cups water

1/2 cup mizithra cheese (grated)

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

Instructions

1. Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels so they don’t spatter in the pan. Mix the cinnamon, salt, and pepper together in a small bowl and rub the chicken pieces on all sides with the mixture. Mince three of the garlic cloves and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large, deep, nonaluminum skillet over high heat. A 12-inch skillet with sides about 3 inches high will allow you to brown all the chicken pieces at once. If you don’t have a large-enough skillet, brown the chicken in two batches, using 1 tablespoon of oil for each batch. Don’t crowd the pieces in the pan or the chicken will steam rather than brown.

3. Add the chicken to the skillet and brown for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, shifting the pieces with a metal spatula so they don’t stick to the skillet. When the pieces are nicely browned on all sides, remove from the pan and set aside.

4. Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the onions and minced garlic. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until the onions have softened and are a rich golden brown. Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula or spoon to deglaze, loosening any browned bits.

5. When the wine has evaporated, add the water, tomato paste, and remaining two whole garlic cloves. Return the chicken to the pan. The liquid should cover about three-quarters of the chicken. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet with a lid, and simmer for about 1 hour, or until the chicken is tender and thoroughly cooked. (If the sauce becomes too thick, thin it with a little more water.) Taste and adjust the seasoning.

I like to serve this with my family’s homemade buttered noodles, but it’s also great over rice, orzo, or macaroni. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the top of each serving.

Ouzo Pomegranate Martini

Ingredients

4 ounces pomegranate juice

4 ounces pineapple juice

2 ounces ouzo

2 ounces vodka

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

Ice

2 lime slices, for garnish

Instructions

1. In a martini shaker, combine all ingredients with 1/2 cup of ice. Shake well and strain into two chilled martini glasses rimmed with sugar. Garnish each glass with a lime wedge.
About The Author

Cat Cora grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked in New York City before travelling overseas to apprentice in Europe with world-renowned French chefs Georges Blanc and Roger Vergé. She settled in Napa Valley in her first job as a chef. After The Food Network discovered her in 1999, she went on to become the first female Iron Chef for the Network. She is the founder of the charitable organization Chefs for Humanity, a grassroots organization that mobilizes chefs to lend their skills to communities in need, and she has built a brand that includes two food lines, cookware a shoe line, cookbooks and restaurants, in Orlando, Costa Mesa, Houston, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Singapore. She lives in Santa Barbara.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Scribner (July 2016)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476766157

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