PANAMA CITY — More than 30 adults and 10 children gathered on a recent Thursday evening as the scents from Chef Jessica Bright’s appetizers filled the library meeting room.
“It’s hard to smell all these smells. The library staff was starving by closing time,” said Bettina Mead of the Bay County Public Library.
Bright, who prefers being referred to as a “food enthusiast and kitchen enabler,” began the Fresh Family Feast cooking series on Nov. 29 with appetizers and will continue tonight with soups and salads. The class Dec. 13 will focus on entrees, with a recipe for pork tenderloin, and she will finish the series Dec. 20 with desserts, including Buche de Noel (Yule Log).
“I prefer to call myself a kitchen enabler because it’s not about what I can do, but how I can help you make your life a little tastier,” said Bright, a trained chef, who also has become known as a radio and television personality. “I’m more of a song and dance chef, worked with local TV on morning cooking show segments, but most of what I do is being a mom.”
As bubbly and radiant as her name suggests, Bright relocated to the area with her family in August from Jacksonville. She quickly has tracked down local and seasonal harvests, planting roots at the St. Andrews Community Garden.
“We just got a plot in the community garden with lettuces, green onion, cilantro, radishes and peas … 10 things,” said Bright, who grew up on a small farm in southeastern North Carolina.
She encourages others to get cooking, and share meals at the table with family and friends.
“Meal time is so critical. It’s so much more than what we chew — consideration of others, to develop good manners. … It’s really about showing others we are concerned about their comfort and well being,” said Bright, who has two children, Max, 10, and Madeline, 5.
Wearing holiday colors, including a ruffled green sweater and red and white check apron, Bright prepared her recipe for Shrimp and Grits. She admitted she was not a fan of grits until she and her husband enjoyed a brunch at a French restaurant. Though the waiter would not share the recipe, he did let her in on a few key ingredients.
“I went home and made my own recipe,” she said. “I combined chicken stock, grits, Old Bay seasoning, sweet onion and garlic. In the slow cooker, the grits don’t get lumpy, just right.”
Add three shakes of Sriracha hot sauce, her favorite, for a little spice. “Offer it at a party with the grits out and everything out in bowls and guests can top their own. It’s trendy now to do martini glass appetizers. They look really nice and elegant.”
A scoop of warm and creamy grits, just enough, was served in an individual glass. I then sprinkled on each of the toppings — diced tomatoes, green onions, cooked crumbled bacon and shredded cheddar, which were in martini glasses on the table.
“You could do the same thing if you wanted to with mashed potatoes, with cubed steak and bleu cheese crumbles or mini salads,” she said. “Just take the same concept and apply it.”
The Poinsettia Cheese Torta is a festive addition to holiday parties with red, green and white layers. Bright used roasted red pepper puree purchased at the farmers market, though sundried tomatoes packed in oil could be used instead. A layer of fresh basil leaves from the community garden were arranged like petals, followed by alternating layers of the cheese mixture, basil pesto purchased from a market vendor and roasted red pepper pepper paste. The cheese was a mock boursin with a package of cream cheese, garlic, ricotta and herbs.
“Kale is so trendy right now, a great super food,” she said. “Add it instead or in addition to parsley. You can add lemon zest to give it a nice zing.”
The torta was served with an array of vegetables, including carrots peeled by a young volunteer, radishes, broccoli, cucumber, fresh tomato and pita triangles. The pita crisps were purchased from the farmers’ market, then cut in triangles, sprinkled with oil and her Almost Everything signature seasoning blend and baked.
“The seasoning goes well on almost everything, except desserts, including popcorn, scrambled eggs and sandwiches,” said Bright, who sells the seasoning at the St. Andrews Waterfront Market.
The pita triangles also made a great dipper for the Classic Hot Cheese Dip, which can be served in individual ramekins.The dip, my favorite appetizer, was deliciously rich and nutty with a wonderful texture from the chopped pecans. On her website, Bright offers alternative options, such as Hot Crab dip, Blue Walnut dip, Spinach onion, Kale dip and Artichoke dip.
And if you have any leftover cheese dip, which is doubtful, Bright suggests using it to stuff chicken breasts or put in tortillas.
Classic Hot Cheese Dip
2 cups diced sweet onion,
½ cup chopped green onions
1 cup mayonnaise
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
½ cup chopped pecans
Fresh parsley, optional garnish
Preheat oven to 350. Combine first six ingredients; pour into oven safe baking dish. Top with nuts and place in oven and bake for 30 minutes until bubbly and golden. Remove from oven; garnish with fresh parsley, if desired, and serve hot with crackers and fresh vegetables for dipping.
You can find more of Jessica Bright’s recipes and photos on her website, ChefJessicaBright.com.
HOLIDAY COOKING SERIES
What: Jessica Bright teaches attendees how to prepare fresh dishes with local ingredients; presented by the Bay County Public Library and Waterfront Markets Inc.
When: 6-7 p.m. Dec. 13 (entrees) and Dec. 20 (desserts)
Where: Library Meeting Room at the Bay County Public Library
Admission: Free; open to all ages
Reservations required: (850) 522-2120, 763-7359 or WaterfrontMarkets.org
Details: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org, ChefJessicaBright.com, Facebook.com/FollowChefJessica, Pinterest.com/ChefJessicaB
‘Field to Feast’
If you love Jessica Bright’s idea of a Fresh Family Feast, don’t miss the Bay County Public Library’s BooksALIVE Festival of Reading from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 2 at the FSU-Panama City campus. The presentation of the cookbook “Field to Feast,” by Pam Brandon, Katie Farmand and Heather McPherson celebrates Florida farmers, chefs and artisans. The event is free. Details: 522-2120 or Nwrls.com.