By Ann Cipperly
When I walked into an Atlanta shop recently for a cooking class on Vietnamese kitchen techniques, I was pleasantly surprised to find former Opelikan Nealey Dozier Thompson as the head chef. Over the years, I had heard wonderful things about Nealey in her career. Shortly after the fun cooking class, Nealey was recruited by the Cooks Warehouse to design teaching menus, create catalogues and work with Atlanta chefs.
Nealey was born in Opelika where she grew up and attended Lee-Scott Academy. Her parents, Cathy and Jim Dozier, had both attended Auburn University. They met when Jim was a Delta pilot, and Cathy was working as a flight attendant. After marrying, they remembered how much they loved this area. They decided to raise their children in Opelika instead of Atlanta.
Cathy is a good cook and enjoys entertaining. I have written about her love of cooking in this column and also years ago in another food column called Southern Gourmet.
Nealey’s favorite memory of her mother in the kitchen was when she made a wedding cake from scratch. She found a Martha Stewart recipe for a three-tiered cake with Italian buttercream. She piped dots all over it and placed pansies on top.
“It took over the entire refrigerator,” Nealey remembers. “Mom was so exhausted. She said she would never do it again.”
When she was growing up, Nealey was a picky eater. Her parents would take her out to dine, and she would order chicken fingers. She had no interest in cooking.
After graduating from Lee-Scott, she attended Appalachian State College in North Carolina but missed her parents and football. She came home her junior year to attend Auburn University.
While in college, she worked at Hamilton’s in Auburn. She began trying different dishes besides chicken fingers. She also enjoyed being in a restaurant.
After graduating from Auburn, she followed her older sisters, Tinsley and Deanna, to California. One sister lived in LA, while the other one resided in San Francisco.
Nealey went to work with a famous wedding planner, Yifat Oren, who plans weddings and parties for celebrities. She told Yifat that her mother taught her all about weddings. Later, Yifat said she hired Nealey because she had never met a southern girl and thought it would be cute to have her answering the phone, saying “y’all.”
Regardless of the reason, Nealey traveled with Yifat all over the country, assisting her with parties. “That is when I started doing the tastings for weddings,” she says. “I began meeting chefs and doing wine pairings. Then a light bulb went off, as I realized I just wanted to go to tastings all day.”
After working for the famous wedding planner for two years, Nealey knew she wanted to learn how to cook. She quit her job and attended the New School of Cooking in Los Angeles for a year.
While living in LA, she met her future husband, Walter Thompson, who had graduated from the University of Georgia with a major in theater. He was in LA pursing an acting career.
“We both went to a sports bar in LA that shows SEC games on Saturdays,” says Nealey. “It was 8 in the morning. I walked in wearing my orange and blue, and he was wearing red and black. We started going each week to watch games.”
Walter’s grandmother, aunt and uncle attended Auburn. She discovered her grandmother and his grandmother both grew up in Columbus, Ga., and knew each other.
“My Dad was so happy when I called to tell him I met someone from Georgia,” she remembers. “I think it gave him hope that one of his daughters would end up back in the South.”
After finishing culinary school, Nealey went to work for a cookbook author in LA, Amelia Saltsman, who has written three cookbooks and writes for the LA Times. She took Nealey to farmers markets to teach her how to shop and develop recipes. She showed Nealey how to have a food career that wasn’t at a restaurant.
Nealey started her blog Dixie Caviar. “The name is from my mother-in-law. The first time I met her, she served Dixie Caviar, her signature dish, which is a dip with blacked-eyed peas and corn. I wanted the name of my blog to be southern but sound upscale.”
She started creating southern casseroles from scratch without using canned soup, making her own béchamel and mushroom soup.
However, she lost the domain when she did not know her credit card had expired. While she is working to get it back, she has a website linked through Square Space.
Walter began finding more acting jobs in Atlanta and asked her to move with him. “It was a huge draw to see my parents” she says, “so we moved to Atlanta eight years ago.”
She did research to find the best chef in Atlanta to ask for a job. She was hired by chefs Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, who own Bacchanalia and Floataway Café, among other restaurants. Nealey decided to work in the front of the house at Floataway.
“I am all about emailing people I don’t know,” she says. “I applied for The Kitchn website. While they did not have an opening, they did six months later.”
Then, she got a position with the Cooking Channel, as a writer, developing recipes and doing food photography for their website. She worked for different food brands developing recipes, which is her favorite thing to do.
Five years ago, she began working at Sur La Table. Almost two years ago, she was promoted to resident chef. She had five chefs to help her teach and a staff to clean up.
Now that Nealey is at the Cook’s Warehouse, a privately-owned group in Atlanta, she will be designing teaching menus, creating catalogue, working with Atlanta chefs.
Nealey credits her success to her parents. “My Dad had a career he loved flying planes. He always wanted us to have careers that we love and are interesting. My parents let us fail, make the wrong decisions and always guided us when we did.
“I knew I had to have a job that made me happy. I have a financial degree from Auburn, but I knew I did not want to sit at a desk all day. I had rather have the dream job and make less money.
“I love Opelika and Auburn,” Nealey adds. “There are many great things happening in Opelika. I am so happy to come home and see all that is happening. It was a great place to grow up.”
Cipperly can be contacted at email@example.com.
Esquites (Mexican Corn Salad)
Serves 4 to 6 as a side
2 Tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
4 cups fresh or thawed frozen corn kernels (from about 5 medium ears)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
3 Tbsp. crumbled Cotija cheese, plus more for garnish
2 Tbsp. mayonnaise or Mexican crema
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder
Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until toasted and golden brown, about 15 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Remove the skillet from the heat and allow the corn to cool for a few minutes.
Transfer the corn to a large bowl. Add cilantro, jalapeño, Cotija, mayonnaise, lime juice, and chili powder and stir to combine. Top with additional Cotija and serve warm or at room temperature.
Make ahead: The corn can be cooked up to a day in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature for about 15 minutes before assembling the salad.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Penne alla Vodka
Serves 4 to 6
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 medium sweet onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
3 to 4 cloves garlic, pressed in a garlic press or minced
28 oz. can diced tomatoes (I like chef’s cut)
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes, to taste
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 lb. (16 oz.) penne pasta
Parmesan cheese, for serving
Chopped parsley, for serving
Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add prosciutto and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium. Add onions and cook until softened and golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and garlic, stirring to combine, and sauté for 2 more minutes.
Stir tomatoes, red pepper flakes, sugar and salt into the onion mixture. Stir in the vodka and increase heat back to medium-high. Briskly simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the alcohol flavor has cooked off. Reduce heat to low and whisk in heavy cream.
While making the vodka sauce, bring a large stockpot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente according to package directions. Reserve 1/4 cup cooking water before draining.
Gently fold the cooked penne and reserved prosciutto into the vodka sauce and continue cooking on low heat for another couple of minutes. (I actually use a little less than one lb. of pasta because I like mine very saucy, but it is easier to just cook the lb. and add it to the sauce to taste.) Toss with a bit of pasta water if sauce is too thick.
Season with additional salt and red pepper flakes, if desired, and serve with fresh Parmesan and chopped parsley.
Weeknight White Chicken Chili
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced
1 (4 oz.) can fire-roasted green chiles (do not drain)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 cups (32 oz.) low-sodium chicken broth
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 (15 oz.) cans white beans, such as Great Northern or cannellini, drained and rinsed
2 cups fresh or frozen yellow corn kernels
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
6 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole or 2% milk
For serving (optional):
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 medium jalapeño, seeds removed and thinly sliced
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large heavy stock pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, celery, and bell pepper, and cook until very soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in the green chiles, garlic, cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper, and cook for 1 minute more.
Pour in chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the chicken breasts, reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, and simmer until the chicken is cooked through about, 10 to 12 minutes.
Transfer chicken breasts to a cutting board. Shred the meat with two forks, then return the chicken to the pot. Stir in the beans and corn, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until completely combined. The mixture will look like wet sand. Cook until the mixture begins to dry out and turn golden-brown, about 4 minutes.
Gradually whisk in a little bit of the milk until smooth, then whisk in the remainder until smooth. Pour into the chili and stir until completely incorporated and smooth. Bring to a boil, then cook, stirring frequently until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
Serve topped with sour cream, scallions, and cheese, if desired.
Storage: Leftovers will keep for up to 4 days stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.
Zesty Tortellini Salad
Serves 6 to 8
2 (9 oz.) packages cheese tortellini 1 cup very thinly sliced red onions (or Vidalias) 1 medium red bell pepper, diced 4 oz. Genoa salami, sliced into thin strips 1/3 cup good-quality red wine vinegar 2 Tbsp. good-quality olive oil Squeeze of lemon juice 1 heaping Tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the tortellini. Drain and run briefly under cool water to cool the tortellini down.
While the tortellini are cooking, soak red onions in a small bowl of ice water for 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
In a large bowl, combine the cooked tortellini, drained onions, bell pepper, and salami. Whisk together red wine vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, then toss with pasta until combined. Taste and season with additional vinegar, salt, and pepper if necessary. Stir in chopped parsley just before serving.
This recipe can be made up to 2 days in advance. Add chopped parsley and a few more splashes of red wine vinegar and olive oil before serving, to taste.
Cheesy Chicken and Mushroom Lasagna
Serves 8 to 10
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1 lb. baby bella mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
1 small onion, diced
2 to 3 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups cooked and shredded chicken (equivalent of 1 rotisserie chicken)
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
4 cups warmed milk, preferably whole milk
1 cup chicken stock
2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 tsp. dry mustard powder, plus more to taste
1 tsp. dry sherry or marsala (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan, divided
16 lasagna noodles (from a 1 lb. box)
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a large, rectangular casserole dish or lasagna pan. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, melt 2 Tbsp. of butter on medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they start sweating liquid, about 4 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Continue cooking, stirring often, until onions are translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil; continue cooking until most of the liquid has evaporated out. Transfer the mushroom mixture to a separate bowl along with the shredded chicken.
To make the béchamel (white sauce), add the remaining 4 Tbsp. of butter to the pot and melt over medium heat. Stir in the flour until thick paste forms; continue cooking to remove the “raw” taste, about 1 minute.
Pour in the milk and chicken stock and cook, whisking often until the mixture is thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Whisk in the salt, mustard powder, sherry, and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper, followed by 1/4 cup grated Parmesan.
While the béchamel is thickening, prepare noodles. Add the noodles to boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 7 to 8 minutes. Drain and arrange on a lightly greased sheet pan to prevent sticking.
Fold the chicken and mushroom mixture into the béchamel. Taste and adjust seasoning. (Be liberal with salt and pepper.) In a separate bowl, combine mozzarella, Gruyere, remaining 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Spread 1 cup of the chicken mixture into the bottom of the prepared baking dish.
Arrange 4 noodles on top of the chicken, overlapping if necessary. Spread about 1 cup of chicken mixture over the noodles followed by 1 cup of cheese. Repeat layers, ending with the remaining cheese on top.
Bake, uncovered, until the lasagna is hot and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
The lasagna can be assembled and refrigerated up to 24 hours in advance; just add 15 minutes to the cooking time when ready to bake.
It can also be frozen for up to three months; wrap the lasagna pan in foil and freeze until solid. To cook, bake the frozen lasagna, covered, for 1 hour and 15 minutes, and then uncover and bake another 30 to 45 minutes until cooked through.
French Silk Pie
Serves 10 to 12
1 (9-inch) pie crust, cooked and cooled
4 oz. good-quality bittersweet chocolate
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. espresso powder (optional)
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 1/2 sticks (6 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large organic or free-range eggs, pasteurized if desired
Additional whipped cream, for topping
Heat the chocolate in a microwave on medium power (about 45-90 seconds) or over the stovetop on medium-low until melted. Whisk in the vanilla and espresso powder, if using, and set aside to cool.
In a medium bowl beat the heavy cream with an electric mixer on high speed until stiff peaks form, 2-3 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed for one minute. Add the sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. Add the cooled chocolate to the butter-sugar mixture and beat until incorporated. Add 2 eggs and beat on medium speed for three minutes. Add the remaining egg and beat for another three minutes until the mixture is silky and smooth.
Fold the chilled whipped cream into the chocolate filling until no visible white streaks remain. Pour the filling into the prepared pie crust and smooth with an offset spatula. Refrigerate for a minimum of two hours, but preferably overnight. Decorate the pie with freshly whipped cream or dollop a spoonful onto each slice.
Chicken Pot Pie with Biscuit Topping
For the filling
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large leek, chopped
1 cup chopped onions, small dice
1 cup chopped carrots, small dice
1 1/2 cups green beans, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
4 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups hot chicken stock, preferably reserved from cooked chicken
1 cup whole milk, warmed
2 tsp. dry sherry
1 tsp. sugar
3 cups cooked, shredded chicken (see note)
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For the topping
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups whole or 2% milk
Preheat oven to 425°F.
For the filling, heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy pot on medium heat. Add leeks, onions, and carrots and sauté until the vegetables are tender, about 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the green beans in a pot of salted boiling water until tender and bright green, about 5-7 minutes (see note). Drain the beans and set aside. Transfer the sautéed vegetables to the same bowl as the green beans, season with salt, and set aside.
Melt the butter in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the flour and cook until a thick paste forms. Continue stirring for a minute or so. Add the chicken stock and milk and cook, whisking constantly until thickened, about 3-5 minutes.
Stir in the sherry, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Fold in the vegetables and cooked chicken into the cream sauce. Season generously with salt and pepper. (Seriously, don’t go light on the salt here, but taste as you go.)
Pour the filling into a 2- to 3-quart greased casserole dish. Arrange the boiled egg slices over the top.
For the topping, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the melted butter and milk and whisk until combined. (Just a warning, the batter will seem fairly runny. That’s okay.) Pour the batter evenly over the casserole dish.
Bake the pot pie for 45 minutes, until the biscuit topping is light golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
I poached 4 lbs. of bone-in chicken thighs with aromatics–carrots, celery, onions–until cooked through. I shredded the chicken and used the stock for the pot pie. (I also added the remaining bones and extra chicken back to the pot with more water to make additional stock for using later.)
For extra flavor, blanch the green beans in the reserved stock from poaching the chicken instead of boiling water.
Pasta Salad with Gouda, Red Peppers and Artichoke Hearts
Serves 8 to 12
For the dressing:
1/2 cup mayonnaise or plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, pressed
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 heaping Tbsp. adobo sauce form canned chipotles
2 tsp. honey
1 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
For the pasta salad:
1 lb. (16 oz.) gigli or penne pasta, cooked al dente (See Recipe Notes)
1 (12 oz.) jar fire-roasted red peppers, rinsed and chopped (1 heaping cup)
1 (6 oz.) jar artichoke hearts, rinsed and chopped (heaping 1/2 cup)
3/4 lb. (12 oz.) smoked gouda, cubed (See Recipe Notes)
Fresh herbs, such as basil or Italian parsley, roughly chopped
For the dressing, combine mayonnaise, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, adobo sauce, honey, and salt in a small bowl, and whisk thoroughly. Season generously with black pepper.
For the pasta salad, toss the cooked noodles, peppers, artichokes, and gouda together in a large bowl. Pour the dressing over the top and mix to combine. Allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving, or cover and refrigerate overnight (allow 30 minutes to warm to room temperature before serving). Taste and adjust any seasonings, if necessary.
Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain, shaking to remove excess water. Drizzle with a few Tbsp. of olive oil and toss to coat. Spread noodles on a sheet pan and transfer to refrigerator to cool.
Smoked gouda can be purchased from the deli/meat department of a well-stocked grocery store.
Southern-Style Pickled Shrimp
Serves 6 to 8
1 Vidalia or sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup capers with their juices
3/4 tsp. celery seeds
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
Splash of Tabasco sauce, to taste
1 1/2 lbs. (41/50 count) peeled and cooked shrimp
In a large bowl, combine the onions, lemon, cider vinegar, canola oil, capers, celery seeds, sugar, salt, and Tabasco. Add the shrimp and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve chilled. Keeps for at least a week.