Fine food and friends
The recipe for being a gourmet cook, according to Carroll Stoner, is confidence and the best ingredients you can find. Make a truly memorable meal by combining it with good friends, she said.
As travel and entertaining editor for Meredith Corp.’s Traditional Home magazine, Stoner visits people and places around the world, sampling fine food along the way. She has created her own definition of gourmet food from her experiences.
“To me, gourmet food is really well-prepared food made of the best ingredients available,” she said. “I think it often has an ethnic influence, and that French food and Chinese food are the two most interesting food groups in the world. If you know food, you like French food, and if you know food, you like Chinese food.”
Often, Stoner will try to replicate some of the dishes from her trips when she returns home. Some recipes are more challenging than others, she said.
“Mostly, I cook from my mind and my memory, and I re-create recipes all the time,” she said. “The most difficult time I ever had reproducing a recipe was a wild mushroom sauce that I had in Palm Beach. It had about five different kinds of wild mushrooms with a lot of thyme and a little bit of cream. It took me almost a year to get it right, but I stuck to it and finally got it.”
But she knows her limitations, too. “I certainly eat things that I could never hope to replicate, and that’s one reason for eating out,” she said. “The chefs not only have a staff of people to prepare the food, but they have access to ingredients that we don’t have.”
Stoner enjoys cooking all kinds of food, including Italian, French and even Scandanavian. She said she “cooks in about five languages.”
Asian food is one of her favorites, partly, she said, because of all the time she spent in Chinatown when she lived in Chicago. Although her travels have influenced what she cooks, her interest in cooking goes back to childhood.
“My dad was a fabulous cook and my mother was a terrific baker,” she said. “We used to cook and bake together and have a good time. The kitchen was always the center of our home, and it still is today in my own.”
Stoner likes to bring other people into her kitchen regularly. When she entertains, she calls it “having friends in.” Although she might have the dinner table set in advance, her cooking style and get-togethers are largely free-flowing, she said.
“I’m a creative cook who likes to cook spontaneously,” Stoner said. “I buy what looks good to me and build my menu around that. I don’t think I was ever worried about recipes. I think it’s all about confidence, and I’ve always been a hugely confident cook.”
She is so confident in her cooking that she often prepares meals for eight to 20 friends, and she chooses her menus based on her preferences. One of her specialties is roast chicken and vegetables with bagna cauda sauce. She is also known for creating a meal around barbecued duck she purchases from a local Asian market. Whatever she’s in the mood for, it can all be found locally, she said.
“You can buy wonderful Italian ingredients here, and we have an Asian food store and even a Russian food store,” she said. “The Metro Market and the farmers market in the summer are great places to find quality ingredients.”
When guests come over for dinner, everyone plays a role, which breaks the ice right away. “We usually start in the kitchen, and the first person to arrive usually gets to light the candles,” she said. “I will give people a tool for a task, and we work and talk at the same time.”
Sometimes, Stoner’s husband, Bob Bergazin, handles dessert by making mini chocolate malts and strawberry shakes in his old-fashioned malt machine. They both feel that entertaining is about generosity, mastery and getting people you enjoy together for an evening, she said.
“I think it’s the biggest compliment to invite people into your home,” Stoner said. “I think having people over for dinner and connecting with them around the table is the best part of the good life. I don’t think that it’s ever food that makes the party. The food helps, but it’s the company that makes the evening.”