MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally, we turn to another great holiday tradition - comfort food. Whether you're spreading some Christmas cheer, ringing in the new year or rooting for your favorite team in a college bowl game, you know that really no celebration would be complete without it. For those of you who want tips on making your holiday spread, we've called on Pat Neely. He hosts the Food Network program, "Down Home With the Neelys" along with his wife Gina. They've just come out with a new cookbook. It's called "The Neelys' Celebration Cookbook." And Pat Neely is back with us now. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again. Happy holidays.
PAT NEELY: Happy holidays. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So recognizing that, you know, a celebration, comfort means different things to different people, in your mind, what makes for good celebration food? Is it the effort? Is it the presentations? Is it something that says this is special, not the everyday?
NEELY: You know, I think it's all of the above. And we're so proud of "The Neelys' Celebration Cookbook" because we have all these different holidays and events that we celebrate and we prepare dishes for. And I think that it's super important to try to be unique, but not be overwhelmed by the whole celebration. And that's what we try to bring out is the fact that, you want to have fun just as much as your guests. Start preparing your dishes early, and some of the dishes that I do like even for Thanksgiving...
MARTIN: Yeah, give us an example. Yeah, let's just go - let's just move on to Christmas. Like, give us a sense of some things that if you're still putting your menu together for Christmas and, of course, you got a million things going on - you've got, you know, presents to open and things - you don't want to be in the kitchen all day while everybody else is celebrating. So give us an idea...
MARTIN: ...Of maybe one or two things that would be nice to think about for that menu.
NEELY: Well, there are a couple of things. First of all, if you're going to do vegetables, you can always cut them, rinse them, put them in Ziploc bags the day before. A lot of times with collard greens, you might even cook those the day before. And so all you're doing is pulling them out and turning them on low on the stove on in the morning of. And let them warm extremely slow. If you're doing something like a turkey or ham or something like that or a big pot of stew or something like that, you can do that the day before.
And then I wrap it real tight, put it in the refrigerator. One thing - if you've got some meat that's going to be - I don't know - 5 pounds or more in weight, bring it out of the fridge, like, that morning. Let it start to come to room temperature, so by the time you preheat your oven at 250 or 200 degrees, it can take its time and warm slowly so that you're not re-cooking it.
MARTIN: Wonderful idea. OK, let's move on to New Year's now. Legend has it - and I think it's been proven to be true - that if you do not have some black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, that you're going to have a bad year. I think that's pretty well-established. Is it not? Isn't it a scientific fact?
NEELY: Well, and, I mean, they say that. But, you know, my years seem to go the same way, regardless of whether I had black-eyed peas or not. But it is a tradition, and we try to always have something with black-eyed peas on the menu.
MARTIN: And you're flipping the script a little bit in this cookbook. You've got a kind of a different twist on that. Can you tell us about that?
NEELY: Well, we - you know, I'm funny because I try to break some of the traditions. Like, one of the things that I'm planning to do this New Year's Eve is Cornish hens, and I'm deep frying them. And one of the key things about it is when you season it - and we come up with a great season that has cumin and chili powder and paprika and all of that in it - and as I always tell people - and I make fun of it - take that hen and pull her skirt up and season it.
And what that means is right above the breast, is - you have your skin. Just take your fingers and go right under the skin. And raise it up a little bit because you want the seasoning to get under there to penetrate so you have more flavor. But based on the fact that it's normally a little chilly, one of the things that I'm really crazy about is I do a beer-braised brisket chili, and it is absolutely incredible. And the thing I love about great chilies is the fact that you really want to do those, like, the day before because you put them in your big Dutch oven. You cook them. You let them simmer. And as we all know, chili and stews and soups are really a lot better the next day.
MARTIN: I see we're focused on the Pat grill master side of the equation. You're kind of gliding a little past Gina's recipes here. What's going on?
MARTIN: You know, she's going...
NEELY: Gina's not here.
MARTIN: You know, she's going to find out. So...
NEELY: Right. But I can't leave her out. You know, Gina is a collard green queen. And one of the dishes that she came up in this book on page 21 is the dirty rice collard greens bundles. And so we take our dirty rice. We take our collard greens. And of course we always tell people, when you're doing collard greens, rinse them several times, and make sure that you cut the stems out because they're just too bitter. And so we take those out. And I normally help her with those because we may have five or six bunches. And I'll help cut and trim them and take them out. And then we'll rinse them.
MARTIN: Good man.
NEELY: Then you drain your water...
MARTIN: You're a good man.
NEELY: ...And rinse them again.
MARTIN: You're a good man. Just word to other husbands, help with the greens. Help wash the greens.
NEELY: Well, listen, I do my best.
MARTIN: Keep peace in the home.
NEELY: Listen, if Gina's happy, everyone's happy.
MARTIN: Finally, Super Bowl's coming...
MARTIN: ...College bowl games is coming. I know you already talked about the chili. Anything else on the menu you want to point to?
NEELY: You know, I love wings. I mean, they're just automatically something that you expect to have at bowl games or Super Bowl parties. And we do the sweet and spicy grilled wing. And then you want something a little sweet. So, you know, we often have - you know, we do potato skins. You know, Super Bowl is supposed to be fun food. You don't have to have a complete meal. People are basically just nibbling. You got your jerseys on. You're getting a little dirty. So you got a lot of finger food and things of that nature. So we're really a little crazy about that. But the chili mac is something that'll warm up people if they're coming in from the cold and they want something a little bit more hardier.
MARTIN: OK. Pat Neely is a restaurateur. He's co-host of the Food Network show "Down Home With the Neely's," which he co-hosts with his wife Gina, who, even though she is not here, we're giving her a shout out.
MARTIN: That's it. Their latest cookbook is "The Neelys' Celebration Cookbook: Down-Home Meals for Every Occasion." And he was kind enough to join us from member station WKNO which is in Cordova, Tennessee. That's just outside of Memphis. Well, happy holidays to you and yours.
NEELY: Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year and a prosperous 2014.
MARTIN: All right, thanks so much.
NEELY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.