Caterer Martha Hicks provides recipes for spring entertaining

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Photo by Ann Cipperly

By Ann Cipperly

As I arrived at the home of caterer Martha Hicks, azaleas and dogwoods were beginning to bloom, as well as her collection of herbs in pots. Old-fashioned mint is one of her special herbs, as she planted it with cuttings passed down in her family for a hundred years. Martha has been using herbs and other seasonings to create fabulous dishes for parties since the early 1980s, as one of Opelika’s most popular caterers.

Martha grew up in a rural area in Forest Home at The Oaks, located south of Montgomery. The Oaks, an 1850 home, was given to her great-grandfather, who was a doctor, so he could practice medicine in the small town.

The Oaks was passed down to her grandmother, who always had a bountiful garden. Martha spent a great deal of time with her grandmother and great aunts, who were wonderful cooks. The house had two kitchens, a wood burning stove and an electric stove.

Growing up, her parents had a kitchen in a wing of the house. Martha was involved in 4-H and received many ribbons for her yeast rolls and cookies.

After she graduated from Auburn University and married Lev, she continued her love of cooking. She began selling yeast rolls, and friends asked her to cook for their parties.

Martha knew to become a professional caterer, she would need a commercial kitchen, which she and Lev built in 1984 onto the back of their house. “Lev and my Daddy rescued the heart pine for the floor from a house in Butler County,” says Martha. “They installed the floor with square nails. After many moppings, it has a warm patina and is a treasured memory.”

When Lev went to work with her full time in 1985 to handle bookkeeping and organization, the business expanded. “He was also an excellent cook,” says Martha. “We would cook and entertain together, long before we catered.”

Her Southern Hospitality catering business bloomed when she prepared a brunch for 200 for Carolyn and Red Blount in Montgomery. “That probably changed my life,” says Martha. She catered not only Carolyn’s dinner parties, but also corporate events for Blount.

Eventually they operated the Montgomery Museum Café and had an exclusive on museum events for several years.

In 1999, Lev passed away with AML. Martha had to shift gears and acquire skills not needed before.

Martha and her staff continued to cater parties and weddings. Going to work is always different for her. She enjoys the challenge of hearing what a customer wants. “Some of the best ideas I ever had came from my customers,” she says.

When Martha is entertaining at home, she enjoys dining outdoors. She is sharing several of her most popular recipes for spring entertaining. While she enjoys entertaining in an informal style, she sets the table with pretty dishes and cloth napkins, both vintage and new.

She believes glasses and dishes do not have to match. She uses a variety of wine glasses. While they need to complement each other, each course may be served on different china patterns for an interesting blend.

For entertaining, Martha suggests planning your menu a week ahead and then grocery shopping a few days before the party. She prefers to serve a dessert that can be prepared ahead and frozen until needed. Most of the recipes are prepared ahead, leaving just a few details for last minute.

The Molten Chocolate Cakes can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated. Martha places them in the oven as guests are finishing dinner. They can be served plain or with fresh raspberries and whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

For a cocktail party, Martha will serve 6-7 hors d’oeuvres plus desserts. The Prissy Pecans and Rosemary Walnuts can be prepared a couple of weeks ahead and stored in tightly covered containers.

The toast cups will keep well in an airtight container at room temperature. These can be used for making the Mushroom Croustades or to fill with chicken salad or pimento cheese.

Look over Martha’s recipes and assemble a menu for a spring party. Whether it is a casual or elegant gathering, the food will be a hit.

Martha’s Southern Hospitality Catering will be one of the 17 catering businesses and restaurants featured at the 6th annual Taste of the Town Tuesday, April 24 from 6 p.m. until 8 p.n. at the Museum of East Alabama in downtown Opelika. Two wineries, Mama Mocha’s and Toomer’s lemonade will be providing beverages. Tickets are $25 and available at the museum or their website.

Ann Cipperly can be contacted at recipes@cipperly.com.

Recipes:

Nashville’s Food Company’s Hot Chicken Dip with Pita Chips
1 whole cooked chicken breast [I like to buy a roasted chicken and use the breast.]
1 lb. (two 8 oz. pkg.) softened cream cheese [It may require a bit more cream cheese to make it easier to dip.] 
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Curry powder to taste
1 to 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1/2 cup chopped green onions
Combine above ingredients. Make sure that it is easy to dip. Bake at 350 degrees until mixtures bubbles around the edges. Serve with pita chips. 

Fried Wontons with Salmon Mousse and Capers
Wontons:
Cut wontons into fourths.
Heat about one-inch of oil to 350. Fry on each side for 15-20 seconds. Drain and sprinkle with sea salt.
Smoked Salmon Mousse:
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 oz. smoked salmon, pureed
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. minced dill
1 tsp. horseradish
Capers
Combine above ingredients except capers in a food processor.
Assemble:
The mousse and wontons can be prepared several days in advance. Store the mousse in the refrigerator, and let it come to room temperature or it will be too firm to press through a bag with a decorator tip.
When ready to serves, pipe the mousse in a decorative rosette on the wonton and garnish with a caper or two.

Mushroom Croustades
From the Junior League of Palo Alto, Calif.
The toast cups will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for a month.
Toast Cups:
Slices of white loaf bread (such as Pepperidge Farm)
Butter, melted
Lightly flatten slices of loaf bread; cut in 3-inch rounds. Mash the rounds, gently, into small muffin tins. Brush with melted butted.
Bake at 275 until lightly browned and crisp.
Note: These are also good to fill with chicken salad or pimento cheese, as well as to serve with dips.
Mushroom Filling:
The filling can be made two days in advanced or frozen for up to a month.
1/2 lb. mushrooms, finely chopped
4 Tbsp. chopped green onions 
3 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
1 cup heavy cream
½ tsp. lemon juice
Salt to taste
Tiny dash of cayenne pepper, optional
Sauté mushrooms and green onions in butter. Sprinkle flour over them and add cream. Stir and cook until thickened.
Remove from heat add lemon juice, salt and a tiny amount of cayenne pepper to taste, if desired.
Fill the toast cups with mushroom mixture and sprinkle Parmesan cheese and fresh chives on top. Bake at 350 approximately 10 minutes. Makes 24. 

Old-Fashioned Toasted Pecans
Heat oven to 250. Toast pecans with a small amount of butter and salt, stirring often, until fragrant and lightly browned. 

Prissy Pecans
2 cups pecan halves
5 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. sugar
3 tsp. sherry
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups pecan halves
Salt
Melt butter and combine with other ingredients. Combine with pecans. Salt to taste. Roast at 275 until most of butter is absorbed and the pecans are fragrant.
Let pecans sit on a brown paper sack to soak up excess butter.

Rosemary Walnuts
6 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. fresh or dried rosemary, chopped
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 cups walnut halves
Melt butter and seasoning together. Toss with walnuts. Bake at 275 degrees until brown.

Black Skillet Olives
You can serve these from your kitchen island, with toothpicks, as a snack for your guests while you finish preparing dinner. The aroma of rosemary is heavenly!
Drain an assortment of olives that have pits. Heat extra virgin olive oil, about 1/4 inch, in a black skillet. Add fresh, chopped rosemary and sauté. Add olives and heat through.

Molten Chocolate Cakes
These can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated. Remove from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Bake shortly before serving.
1 sticks butter
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate
3 oz. semisweet chocolate
2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. flour
Preheat oven to 425. Butter and lightly flour 4 six oz. ramekins. Tap out excess flour.
Melt butter and chocolate slowly in a microwave. Let cool a little.
Beat eggs, yolks, sugar, salt and vanilla until thickened and pale yellow. Whisk part of the chocolate into egg mixture. Combine chocolate, egg mixture, and flour. Spoon batter into prepared ramekins.
Bake for 12-13 minutes. Let cool in ramekins for 1 minute. Invert on individual dessert plates; serve immediately.
Note:
A raspberry puree, fresh raspberries and whipped cream or vanilla ice cream complement the molten cakes perfectly.

Ghirardelli Sinful Chocolate Truffles
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
16 oz. chocolate [I have used half bittersweet and half semisweet. The recipe calls for all bittersweet, which I like, but some people prefer a bit sweeter.]
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup Ghirardelli unsweetened cocoa
In a small saucepan, bring cream to a simmer. Remove from the heat and stir in chocolate and butter.
In a medium sized skillet, bring 1/2 inch of water to a slow simmer. Set the saucepan in the skillet over low heat. [I usually use a microwave for the melting. It can be tricky.] Stir mixture just until chocolate has completely melted. Remove from heat.
Pour chocolate mixture into a shallow bowl. 
Cool, cover, and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours. [Can be refrigerated longer, but usually must sit on counter to soften enough to roll into balls. I often do this.]
Pour cocoa into a pie pan. Dip melon ball utensil into a glass of warm water and quickly scrape across the surface of the chilled truffle mixture to form a rough 1-inch ball. [I roll briefly between my palms, which have been dusted with cocoa.) Roll into cocoa. 
Store in a container with waxed paper in the bottom and wax paper separating each layer. Use a container with a tight top. Refrigerate up to 2 weeks, or freeze up to 3 months.

Avocado and Roasted Corn Salsa
1 medium can corn kernels
Olive oil to roast corn
2-3 large avocados [medium dice]
1 large tomato
3 cups good quality commercial salsa
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2-3 Tbsp. diced red onion
1 tsp. or more fresh jalapeno to taste
1 tsp. minced garlic
3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
Salt to taste
Preheat oven 450. On a baking sheet, toss corn with enough olive oil to cover. Roast, stirring often, for about 8 minutes or until golden. Let cool. Combine with the other ingredients, except for the avocado.
This keeps well in the refrigerator. I do not dice or add the avocado until I am ready to serve the salsa.
 
Orzo Salad with Lemon and Lime Vinaigrette
This is a refreshing dressing for a variety of green salads, but particularly delicious with orzo salad. 
Vinaigrette:
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Grate some lemon zest before you juice the lemon.
2 Tbsp. lime juice
1 tsp. minced onion or you may use green onions or minced purple onion in the salad
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil 
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped mint 
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine first 5 ingredients and blend in a food processor. Add oil, slowly.
Stir in parsley and mint. 
Orzo Salad:
1 box orzo, cooked about 7-8 minutes, al dente.
2 carrots, small cube
1 cup red and orange pepper cubes
Green onions or 1/4 cup diced red onion
Sliced black olives
1 pkg. petite frozen English peas
Feta cheese, optional 
Fresh mint, optional 
I like to add some halved grape tomatoes, that have been salted and peppered, right before serving.
Combine salad ingredients. Add vinaigrette to taste.

Marinated Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Yeast Rolls and Horseradish Mustard Sauce
1 cup red wine
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup canola oil
Chopped garlic
Chopped fresh rosemary
Black pepper
Combine ingredients. Marinate pork tenderloin for three or four hours. Grill pork on medium heat, turning for about 20 to 30 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes before slicing. Can grill ahead and reheat.
Serve with Horseradish Mustard Sauce and yeast rolls.
Horseradish Mustard Sauce
Mayonnaise
Horseradish
Grainy Mustard
Combine ingredients to taste.
Ina Garten’s Roasted Shrimp Salad
Roast Shrimp:
2 1/2 lb. shrimp, 26-31 count, peeled and deveined
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Toss shrimp with olive oil and put in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Salt and pepper to taste. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 6-8 minutes. Turn over once. Let rest on the baking sheet 3 minutes.
Salad Dressing:
1 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. orange zest
4 Tbsp. orange juice
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
¼ cup minced fresh dill
2 Tbsp. drained capers
2 Tbsp. diced red onion 
Sauce: all the salad dressing ingredients together. Mix shrimp and sauce together. This can sit at room temperature for 30 minutes and served or chilled over night.

Sara Russell’s Cottage Cheese Yeast Rolls
One of Tuskegee’s finest cooks
2 pkgs. active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
2 cups cottage cheese
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs, slightly beaten
4 1/2 cups sifted, all-purpose flour
Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. Heat cottage cheese until lukewarm. Stir cottage cheese and remaining ingredients, except flour, into the yeast mixture.
Gradually add enough flour to make a soft dough. Place into a greased bowl and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down and then turn dough onto a floured surface. Roll about 1/4 inch thick and cut and fold into Parker house rolls.
Let rise again.
Bake at 350 for approximately 20 minutes. Brush the golden brown rolls with butter and serve.

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