The child of a soldier, Sunny Anderson grew up sampling foods of the world as her family was transferred from one Army post to another. But roots come through in the Food Network host's cooking. 'When you move from one state to the next, or one country to the next, you are always still trying to make something that tastes like home,' Anderson said.

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The child of a soldier, Sunny Anderson grew up sampling foods of the world as her family was transferred from one Army post to another. But roots come through in the Food Network host's cooking. 'When you move from one state to the next, or one country to the next, you are always still trying to make something that tastes like home,' Anderson said.

Anderson defies seasons, borders, labels

By Liz Balmaseda
Cox Newspapers

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A woman who carries the sun in her name never needs to pay homage to summer.

Yes, it’s sweltering. Yes, summer crops are abundant in her area’s markets. Yes, the food press clamors for heat-beating recipes that don’t require a stove or oven or much energy.

But Sunny Anderson shakes a cast iron skillet at all that. She cooks what she wants to cook when she wants to cook it. And, to be real, a little seasonal heat can’t keep a lover of good grub away from good grub. Think it’s too hot for T-bone steak and eggs? Then move along. Nothing to see here.

“I get it,” Anderson said in a telephone interview. “They want me to come in and ‘get us some summertime cooking.’ They want some gazpacho.

“But I gotta tell you: I can make a hot broccoli cream soup in the summer and enjoy it. I’m a nontraditionalist. I will make a wintertime meal in the summer. Right now, I have cranberries in my freezer. I can have Thanksgiving any night I want.”

The Food Network host and best-selling cookbook author has built her career on one real-deal dish after another. What connects these dishes is not the flavors of any particular region; the Oklahoma-born Anderson grew up as an Army brat, always sampling new foods and flavors as her family trotted the world. What connects her dishes is that they hit the spot.

Good home-cooking is good home-cooking across the world, she learned years ago. Today, her nonfussy cuisine is rooted in the global flavors of her childhood.

But don’t call her a foodie.

“I don’t like that term. It’s a little club-like. I’m lazy, I’m impatient, and I’m hungry and that’s why I cook,” Anderson said. “My cooking is a result of what happens in my kitchen when you’re just trying to eat. I like to do things that make sense, and I can make it taste good.”

Born to a family of good home cooks, she learned to cook by osmosis. She is reminded of this truth when she comes across TV segments on “how to get your kids into the kitchen.”

“In my family, it was ‘how to get your kids out of the kitchen.’ It was, ‘You sit and learn.’ There was no helping out. We were not allowed to help out,” Anderson said. “My mom sent me some old pictures recently and when I saw one of me as a kid at the stove, I thought, ‘That was an anomaly!’ My mom and dad cooked every single day. My mom did breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

But even when the available ingredients changed from country to country or region to region, there always was a sense of continuity at the family table, she said.

“When you move from one state to the next, or one country to the next, you are always still trying to make something that tastes like home,” said Anderson, whose debut cookbook, “Sunny’s Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, $14.99), is a New York Times best-seller. “You go to local ethnic markets and taste local foods and you make them your own. Some of our friends growing up were Vietnamese and Honduran and Korean and German. Germany is all over my cookbook.”

She arrived at her career in food after traveling a circuitous route. The daughter of an Army veteran grew up to be an Air Force radio broadcaster and later a New York City deejay at New York’s Hot 97 radio and lifestyle editor of “Hip-Hop Weekly.” She also started her own catering company, an effort that spun out of the home-cooked, family-style meals she’d make for friends.

Somewhere along the way, she caught Food Network’s eye and landed as a special guest on the “Emeril Live” show.

Now Anderson is a Food Network veteran, having hosted her own shows (“Cooking for Real” and “Home Made in America”). She’s currently co-stars on “The Kitchen” – which airs at 11 a.m. Saturdays on Food Network – along with Geoffrey Zakarian, Jeff Mauro, Katie Lee and Marcela Valladolid.

An easy-going citizen of today’s food celebrity universe, Anderson said she’s most at home in her own kitchen, where she cooks to the drone of TV news as her four rescue cats (Cheddar Cheese, Truffle Tycoon, Milky Mouth and Sea Salt) slink about.

What thrills her most about food these days is the local produce she finds at the farmers market.

“I’m playing a lot with zucchini. I load up on eggplant. There’s this new vegetable called BrusselKale (a hybrid of Brussels sprouts and red kale) that just makes so much sense if you like bitter. I love bitter,” she said.

It’s a good day when she has time to spend in her home kitchen.

“I have to make time to cook,” she said. “I can’t eat other people’s food for more than two or three days.”

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MAIN DISH

Rosemary T-bone Steaks

For the steaks

4 T-bone steaks, 1 1/2 inches thick

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon liquid smoke (hickory or mesquite)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 sprigs fresh rosemary, cut in half

For the rosemary butter

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 garlic cloves, smashed

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

To season the steaks, arrange them in a dish, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper on each side, sprinkle evenly with liquid smoke and drizzle with the oil. Nestle the rosemary beneath the steaks and let them rest on the counter at room temperature for 2 hours, turning them halfway through to infuse both sides with the rosemary.

To make the rosemary butter, combine the butter and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir to dissolve the salt, then add the garlic and rosemary. Continue cooking over low heat until the butter is fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the garlic and rosemary.

Preheat a grill or grill pan to high heat. Remove the steaks from the dish, discard the rosemary and place the steaks on the grill. Cook for about 5 minutes on both sides for medium rare. Remove from the grill, and allow to rest under loosely fitted aluminum foil for 10 minutes before serving.

Yields 4 servings.

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SIDE DISH

Sweet And Spicy Sausage Patties

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed with a knife or mortar and pestle

1/4 teaspoon Hungarian or hot paprika

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tightly packed light brown sugar

1 pound ground beef chuck (80 percent meat, 20 percent fat)

1 teaspoon olive oil

To prepare the seasoning, combine the onion powder, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, fennel seed, paprika, salt, pepper and brown sugar in a small bowl.

Break the beef into chunks and put in a large bowl. Sprinkle the seasoning mixture evenly over the top, then with your hands, gently mix the beef until the seasoning is evenly distributed.

Portion the beef into 8 servings and roll gently into balls. Place each ball between 2 sheets of parchment paper. Using a rolling pin, flatten the balls into 1/8-inch patties. Refrigerate between the sheets of parchment for at least 2 hours.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Peel the parchment away from the sausage (you may need to use a dull knife) and cook the patties in batches. Sear on one side until caramelized and golden on the bottom, about 2 minutes, then flip to cook just 1 minute more.

Yields 8 servings.

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SIDE DISH

Cheesy Vacation Potatoes

For the potatoes

3 russet potatoes, unpeeled, sliced 1/8-inch thick

Peanut or vegetable oil

Kosher salt

For the pico de gallo

2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped

2 scallions, finely minced (white and green parts)

1 teaspoon hot sauce

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the casserole

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 cup shredded cheddar/Monterey Jack blend

1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Mexican crema, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put the potato slices in a large bowl with ice water to cover and soak for 30 minutes, stirring a bit. Transfer the potatoes to a colander and rinse until the water runs clear. Pour the potato slices onto a clean kitchen towel or several layers of paper towels and pat as dry as possible.

In a large straight-sided pan or a stockpot over medium-high heat, pour oil 1 inch deep. Fry the potato slices in batches, flipping halfway through, until golden and crisp, about 3 minutes on each side. They should be stiff and crispy on the outside, but fleshy inside. Transfer each batch to a paper towel-lined plate and immediately season with a sprinkle of salt.

To prepare the pico de gallo, toss the tomatoes, scallions, hot sauce, lime juice, cumin, cayenne pepper and a pinch of salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.

Butter the bottom of a pie pan or an 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Using half the potatoes, layer the slices in a circular pattern, beginning at the outside of the pan and moving toward the center, with the slices slightly overlapping. Cover the entire bottom this way. Then evenly sprinkle half the cheddar/Monterey Jack blend over the potato layer. On top of that, sprinkle half the pico de gallo, then half the mozzarella. Repeat the layers, ending with the mozzarella cheese.

Bake until the cheese is melted and golden on the edges, about 18 minutes. Cut into slices and serve warm with a dollop of Mexican crema.

Yields 4 to 6 servings.