Cat Cora knows how stressful cooking can be: As the only female Iron Chef on Iron Chef America, she's battled time and stiff competition inside the Food Network's Kitchen Stadium, and as co-founder of Chefs for Humanity, she's created meals for thousands in tents, using donated food items and makeshift equipment.
"On Iron Chef, every single chef who comes up to battle me is very formidable," says Cora. "I don't take any of them for granted. But once they start the clock, I just go into a mode that comes from years and years of cooking experience. I say to myself, this is just a Saturday night where you're cooking for 500 people and you have to get the food out. People always think I look so calm, and I am — it's a very Zen moment, where once the clock starts, I become one with the food."
Then Cora laughs and begins to detail the secret ingredients that are unveiled at the beginning of the show and around which the competing chefs must build a multi-course meal. "The hardest ingredients I've had to work with are secondary ingredients like potatoes or butter. It seems silly, but you have to make that ingredient stand out, which is much easier when you've got a protein. How can you make butter the star of a recipe?"
Proteins, as anyone who's watched the show knows, have their own set of problems. "One time, we had ostrich and ostrich eggs, which are about the size of a dozen chicken eggs," Cora recalls. "You can't crack those eggshells. You have to drill into 'em. So there I was power-tooling an ostrich egg, which isn't something I've done that often at home!"
Her voice softens as she recounts her Chefs for Humanity experiences, which sound equally daunting. "When the 2004 tsunami hit, I was talking to a lot of culinary professionals, and we realized there was no platform for chefs. Food and water are main, everyday staples, and even when a tragedy happens, people have to eat and drink," she says.
Forming the culinary equivalent of Doctors Without Borders was, Cora declares, "a no-brainer."
"During Katrina, we had 15 of the country's top chefs feeding 3,000 to 5,000 people a day, cooking in anything and everything we could use. We didn't have a lot of comfort, and it was extremely challenging. But we didn't stop, because we had people 24/7 who had to eat," she says.
This month, Cora is out promoting her second cookbook, Cooking from the Hip. Chock-full of colorful photos, user-friendly layouts, and ideas for corner-cutting pantry items (her Lemonade Cookies substitute a can of frozen lemonade concentrate for fresh-squeezed lemon pulp and taste just as good), the book bypasses typical chapter headings to divide recipes into sections titled Fast, Easy, Fun, Phenomenal, and Good To Know. Most of her fresh and mouthwateringly delicious fare has fewer than six ingredients.
"My chef colleagues and I have extensive culinary backgrounds, but the bottom line is that no matter how high-caliber a chef you are, you have to create a cookbook that people at home can use," Cora maintains, easily sidelining her Iron Chef ego. "We all have to appeal to that home cook, people who can't find or can't afford four-star ingredients like truffles and foie gras."
In Cooking from the Hip, Cora provides recipes for graceful but easy-to-fix entrées such as Thai Chicken Salad with Cabbage and Shiitake Duxelles Tea Sandwiches. She offers plenty of insider tips, ranging from how to choose the best-tasting mushrooms to the perfect way to cube a mango. "The kids are running through the kitchen, the doorbell is ringing, and the phone won't stop," she writes in her trademark down-to-earth manner. "These recipes let you step away for a minute and come back without worrying that you'll lose your place or compromise your results."
Citing her Jackson, Mississippi-based mother and grandmother, who specialized in Greek-meets-Southern cuisine, Cora explains: "They were great at revamping leftovers, and they instilled in me an appreciation for home cooks. Now that I've got a 3-year-old son of my own, I understand how to cross over from being a celebrated chef to a working mom."