Laura Cooper is ‘mom to many’ at unique center for children, youth

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Photo by Ann Cipperly

By Ann Cipperly

While Laura Cooper has a child of her own, she is also a “mom of many” as the executive director of the Lee County Youth Development Center (LCYDC) in Opelika. Laura has served in this position for 21 years at the center that has helped thousands of children and youth over the years. It is the only facility of its kind in the nation and maybe the world.

When Laura is home on weekends, she enjoys being in the kitchen, cooking for her husband, Arthur, and her grown son, Kyle, when he visits. She finds being in the kitchen and baking to be relaxing. The Sweet Potato Pound Cake is one of her favorite desserts to bake, and she will share with friends.

She enjoys looking at cookbooks and has found some of her favorite recipes in church cookbooks, especially one a friend gave her from a church in Harlem.

Meals are simple during the week as Arthur, who is sales manager for Lynch Chevrolet Cadillac, works long hours. He will help with breakfast on Sunday mornings.

Laura developed a love of cooking from her mother, who was a wonderful southern cook. “It was southern cuisine at its finest, and we didn’t know,” Laura said. “She had a garden and planned her meals with many fresh vegetables.”

The ninth of ten children, Laura grew up on a farm in south Alabama. Her father was a farmer and laborer, while her mother was a housewife. “They taught about treating people the way we wanted to be treated,” she said, “and a work ethic to understand that there is no free lunch, which is the core of who I am today.”

When Laura’s older siblings had children, she would babysit and dream of one day having a house full of of her own. Growing up, Laura also championed those who struggled to fit in or had the most problems, having a heart “for the least of these” at a young age.

She attended the University of Alabama, majoring in human development. A year after graduating, Laura and Arthur married. His family was in car sales, which brought them to Lee County in 1983. Laura later graduated from Auburn University with a master’s degree in community agency counseling.

LCYDC became a reality when Jane Walker learned that children were being taken to jail if there was no place else to go. She felt she had to do something about it, and enlisted the help of Cecil Moreman. After getting land donated, they campaigned to have a property tax passed, which was unprecedented. LCYDC opened in 1973.

Laura went to work at LCYDC as a case aide “homemaker” in 1983, offering direct services to families. She then became coordinator of the residential treatment facility in the mid-1980s.

When the position for executive director opened in 1999, Laura went directly to her mentor and co-founder of the center, Jane Walker, who supported her for the position.

Since Laura became the Executive Director, the center has experienced tremendous growth and is unique with a complete, wide spectrum of services from prevention to treatment and everything in between. The center serves over 6,000 at risk individuals annually.

Smothered Chicken

Recipe from the kitchen of Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Restaurant. She has been called the “Queen of Soul Food,” and this is one of her family’s signature recipes.

Two 3 ½ lb. frying chickens, each cut into 8 pieces

1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. salt, divided

1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided

2 cups plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, divided

1/2 cup vegetable oil for frying, plus more if needed

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

2 green peppers, cored, seeded, and coarsely chopped

2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped

Trim excess fat from the chicken pieces and sprinkle 1 tsp. of the salt and 1 tsp. of the pepper on them. Season 2 cups of flour with remaining 1 Tbsp. salt and 1 Tbsp. pepper.

Dredge chicken pieces in flour to coat all sides. Shake off any excess flour.

Heat oil in a deep heavy skillet (cast iron is perfect) over medium-high heat until edge of a chicken piece dipped into the oil gives off a lively sizzle. Add as many chicken pieces to skillet as will fit without touching.

Fry until pieces are browned on all sides, about 6 minutes total. Adjust heat as necessary to keep a lively sizzle without over browning. Remove fried chicken to paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining pieces, adding more oil, if needed.

Pour off all but 4 Tbsp. of drippings from skillet. Reduce heat to medium and add onions, peppers, and celery to skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and tender, about 10 minutes.

Move vegetables to one side of skillet and sprinkle remaining 2 Tbsp. flour over other side of skillet. Cook flour until golden brown, stirring constantly, taking care not to let the flour bum.

Slowly pour in two cups water and stir until the gravy is smooth.

Divide chicken between two heavy skillets with lids or place them all in a large Dutch oven. Top with gravy and vegetables and cover tightly.

Place over medium heat, bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, and cook about 15 minutes, or until vegetables are tender and chicken is cooked through. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary. Serve chicken with some of the gravy and vegetables over each piece. Pass extra gravy at the table. Serves four.

Roast Beef Tenderloin with Mushroom Ragout

2-lb. center-cut beef tenderloin roast

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

3 to 5 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 lb. mixed mushrooms, such as shiitake, cremini, or white button, trimmed and quartered

1/2 small onion, chopped

3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped

1/2 cup Madeira, vermouth, or white wine

1/3 cup heavy cream

Optional: Dijon or whole-grain mustard, cracked mixed peppercorns, or Herbs de Provence

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Pat beef dry and season all over with salt and a generous amount of pepper. Add the oil to skillet and heat until shimmering. Add 1 Tbsp. of butter and swirl to melt. Add beef and sear until mahogany brown on all sides, about 8 minutes total.

Transfer skillet to oven. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 125 degrees. for medium-rare, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile make ragout: Heat two Tbsp. of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and spread out evenly; increase heat to high. Let mushrooms cook, undisturbed, until browned, then shake the skillet to flip them over.

Add additional butter along sides of skillet as mushrooms cook if skillet seems dry. Continue to cook until nicely browned, about 5 minutes.

Add onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes.

Season mushrooms with 1/2 tsp. salt and some ground black pepper; add the thyme.

Pull skillet off heat and add Madeira. Return skillet to heat and scrape up any brown bits from bottom with a wooden spoon. Add heavy cream and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and keep warm.

When beef is ready, transfer to a cutting board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

Slice beef across grain crosswise. Arrange on a platter and serve with the mushroom ragout.

“Mommy’s” Pineapple Upside-Down Cake in a Skillet

Recipe from the kitchen of Myrna Sanders

Cake:

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. baking powder

¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter or margarine

1 ½ cups sugar

1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

Topping:

1/4 cup (½ stick) plus 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine

1 cup brown sugar

One 15-oz. can sweetened pineapple slices

One 6-oz. jar maraschino cherries, drained and stems removed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift flour and baking powder into a medium bowl and set aside. Cream together butter, sugar, vanilla, and eggs with an electric mixer. Add dry ingredients to wet, alternating with milk, and mix well after each addition.

For topping, melt butter or margarine in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and sprinkle brown sugar over butter. Arrange pineapple slices in pan, placing cherries in the center of each pineapple slice. Spoon batter into skillet.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until center is set. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a plate. Serve warm.

Sweet Potato Pound Cake with Coconut and Pecans

1 cup butter or margarine, softened

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

2½ cups cooked mashed sweet potatoes (about 2½ lb. sweet potatoes)

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

½ tsp. ground nutmeg

¼ tsp. salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup flaked coconut

1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter in a large bowl. Add sugar gradually, beating well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add sweet potatoes, beating well. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl. Add flour mixture to creamed mixture gradually, beating well after each addition. The batter will be stiff. Stir in vanilla, coconut, and pecans. Spoon batter into a well-greased 10-inch tube pan. Bake for I hour and 15 minutes or until the cake tests done when a wire cake tester is inserted in the middle, Cool cake in pan for 15 minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool completely.

Potato Salad

Recipe from the kitchen of Zana Billue. The secret to keeping the potatoes firm is to boil them the day before you prepare the potato salad.

3 lb. (6 to 8) red potatoes

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 green or red pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped

1 celery rib, chopped

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup Miracle Whip salad dressing

1/2 cup sweet relish

2 tsp. seasoned salt

1 tsp. kosher salt or celery salt

1/2 tsp. sugar

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes with their skins on in a large pot with just enough water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until tender. Remove from heat.

Place potatoes in a large bowl, cover with plastic, and place in refrigerator to cool. Peel potatoes and cut them into 1-inch cubes. Place potatoes back in the bowl. Add eggs, onions, green or red pepper, celery, mayonnaise, salad dressing, and relish. Stir until well combined. Add seasoned salt and kosher salt, sugar, nutmeg, and black pepper. Mix again until the seasonings are well distributed. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

1/2 cup parboiled rice

10-oz. pkg. frozen baby lima beans

Three 16-oz. cans black-eyed peas

1 medium red pepper, cored, seeded, and diced

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 tsp. sugar

3/4 tsp. salt

Prepare rice and lima beans according to package directions. Rinse and drain the black-eyed peas.

In a large bowl, combine pepper, parsley, lemon juice, oil, mustard, sugar, and salt. Add the rice, lima beans, and black-eyed peas and stir to combine. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving. Serves 4 to 6.

Hot Crab Dip

4-oz. (half of an 8 oz. pkg.) cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce

1/2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning or other seasoned salt

6 oz. fresh or canned lump crabmeat, drained

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place all ingredients except crab in a medium bowl and blend together with a spatula. Stir in crab. Turn dip into a 1-qt. dish. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until heated through. Serve with bread, crackers or fresh vegetables.

Southern Black-Eyed Pea Croquettes

2 cups day-old cooked black-eyed peas

1 large egg, beaten

1/2 medium onion, diced

Pinch of baking powder

Salt

Pepper

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed

Place peas in a large bowl and mash them to a paste. Add egg, onion, baking powder, salt and pepper to taste, and milk. Shape mixture into balls and flatten them.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add patties to skillet and fry to 5 minutes each side, or until crisp and browned. Remove to a large plate. Add more oil as needed and fry until all croquettes. Makes 8 to 10 croquettes.

Macaroni and Cheese

4 cups dried ziti pasta

10 oz. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

12-oz. can evaporated milk

2 large eggs

1 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. lemon pepper

2 tsp. seasoned salt

1 tsp. Cajun seasoning

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

2 Tbsp. butter or margarine, cut into small chunks

1 cup breadcrumbs, optional

2 tsp. paprika

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook ziti according to package directions and set aside.

Spread a layer of ziti over an 8-inch square baking pan. Follow with a layer of cheese. Repeat layering, ending with a layer of cheese.

Whisk together evaporated milk, eggs, onion powder, garlic powder, lemon pepper seasoning, seasoned salt, Cajun seasoning, nutmeg and mustard in a medium bowl. Pour mixture over macaroni and cheese.

Evenly distribute butter or margarine chunks on top. Sprinkle breadcrumbs and paprika over top. Cover with foil and bake for 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean. Remove foil and bake 5 minutes longer, or until golden brown.

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