February 2010 Issue
Author, teacher and radio show host Marilyn Harris makes exceptional cuisine easy in the Queen City.
You can tell the people that don’t cook,” says Marilyn Harris, moving around her gourmet kitchen with ease one unseasonably warm late fall day in Cincinnati.
“They’re the ones who get white-tiled floors.”
Harris is definitely not one of those people — and not just because of the beige-colored tiles beneath her feet. In her second-floor kitchen overlooking her beautifully landscaped back yard in Clifton’s Gaslight District, a carrot-and-jalapeno soup bubbles away in a Le Creuset pot on a Thermador gas stove (complete with a restaurant-grade salamander for broiling). Harris deftly prepares the ingredients for yet another soup: this one a satisfying blend of roasted red peppers and tomatoes. When the peppers finish roasting in the oven, she seals them in a Ziploc bag just long enough for them to cool, allowing their charred skin to slide off effortlessly.
A bachelor of science in home economics (with a specialty in food and nutrition) from Mississippi University for Women, instruction at the famed Le Cordon Bleu’s London campus, cooking classes throughout France — Harris’ schooling has equipped her with enough culinary tricks to master any recipe. It’s this expertise, combined with an interest in making cooking accessible to everyone, that makes her so popular.
“Recipes,” says Harris, “are about sharing.”
Nicknamed “Cincinnati’s gastronomic guru” by Cincinnati Magazine
, the author, columnist, teacher and host of “Cooking with Marilyn” on radio station 55KRC (Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m.) has built a nearly 40-year career in the Queen City. Her motto? Flavor is the bottom line.
That explains the meticulous manner in which Harris prepares the red peppers (rather than simply buying them in a jar), or why the slivers of salmon that she offers as an appetizer are so delicious: She brought the fish all the way from Seattle’s Pike Street Market, chilled in her checked luggage.
However, while she advocates using fresh ingredients when available, she readily admits to making substitutions — and encourages others to do the same.
“I like whole tomatoes pureed,” says Harris, who uses a canned, plum version for her soup, since the fresh tomatoes of summer are a distant memory. “I think they taste better than the tomatoes you buy already diced.”
As a Cuisinart processes the tomatoes into manageable chunks, Harris mixes chicken stock in the can to make use of the tomato juice.
“I always make chicken broth in the wintertime,” she says, noting that she stores it in the freezer. “But people should know that they can use commercial, too. It’s fine.”
Whether it’s the finer points of roasting vegetables, or how to pick the best canned broth (“Some are just pure salt,” she says), Cincinnatians trust her culinary IQ.
“I grew up in a Southern household where food was by far the most important thing,” says Harris, who spent her childhood in Mississippi enjoying made-from-scratch cooking. “I was always hanging out in the kitchen.”
As a small child, she helped by setting the table, but soon graduated to cooking and baking with her mom.
Today, those Southern roots — combined with early training in New Orleans creating recipes, live food demos and some TV spots — make Harris well-suited to educate others on topics such as the differences between Cajun and Creole fare.
“Creole food is not hot, but it has a lot of flavor,” she says. “Cajun food has a lot of peppers in it [making it hot]. It has merged together now, but it shouldn’t have.”
When it’s time to puree the carrot-and-jalapeno soup, Harris submerges an immersion blender — one of her favorite gadgets — into the Le Creuset before whisking in cream and about a teaspoon of salt, measured in the palm of her hand.
Another must-have, her pastry brush, makes an appearance when it’s time to glaze some pita chips with olive oil before they are baked with a sprinkling of herbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Watching her at work, it’s difficult to imagine Harris maneuvering in anything other than this spacious kitchen, adorned with green-and-white checkered tiles handmade in an artisan kiln in northeast Ohio, and an island that features a Franke built-in double sink. The tiles also serve as a backsplash, and are finished with a durable, silicone glaze that gives them a glass-like appearance and makes cleanup easy. While the space was remodeled 12 years ago, the tiles over the stove still look new.
“And it’s not like I don’t cook,” she jokes.
But Harris has prepared food in far less attractive settings.
“One was about as big as nine of the tiles in this kitchen,” says Harris, recalling a tiny kitchen she occupied while living in Berlin about 20 years ago while her husband Edward was a guest professor at the University of West Berlin. “It still had a sink, dishwasher and drop-in stove, and it led out into a dining area, which helped.”
“But,” Harris continues, “you can do anything for a year.”
She’s come a long way. However, even professionals have their moments, as Harris proves when she burns three batches of pita chips before calling it quits.
To be fair, she’s distracted. Answering questions causes her to pause during lighting-speed prep work, which is aided by a ceramic Kyocera knife from Japan that never needs sharpening. While the third batch of chips is in the oven, she remembers that she needs parsley from the garden — and the final batch of pita overbakes.
As with most professional cooks, Harris’ love of food extends outside her custom-made kitchen windows, which overlook a garden that holds herbs and peppers, a heated seating area with glimpses of the western hills of Cincinnati — perfect for entertaining — and a Thermador grill and Traeger smoker.
Harris relaxes on one of her white-and-green French café chairs (special-ordered from Italy and a perfect complement to the Ohio-made tiles), sipping a Spanish white wine and sampling the roasted red pepper soup, which is finished with a dollop of savory whipped cream that froths into a cappuccino-like layer. She gazes pensively at her expansive yard.
“I’ve done a lot of fun things,” she says. “I’ve had a good time in the food world.”
Find the featured recipes and more in Live! From Marilyn’s Kitchen
or visit 55krc.com
to hear podcasts of her show.
Easy Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Courtesy of Marilyn Harris
3 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded (For this recipe, it’s best to
stick with fresh red peppers since they are available year-round and add to the soup’s flavor.)
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1. Puree the peppers and tomatoes in a blender.
2. Gently heat the garlic in the olive oil, taking care not to let it brown.
3. Stir in the puree and chicken stock and bring to a boil.
4. Whip the cream with the salt and hot pepper sauce.
5. Top each serving of hot soup with the whipped cream and sprinkle with parsley.
Carrot and Jalepeno Soup
Courtesy of Marilyn Harris
4 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced
2–3 jalapeno chiles, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (1/3 teaspoon dried)
1 bay leaf
5 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1. Melt the butter in a heavy pot.
2. Stir in the onion, carrots and jalapenos and saute, stirring over medium heat for 10 minutes.
3. Add thyme, bay leaf and chicken stock and bring to a boil.
4. Reduce heat to low and cook, partially covered, until carrots are very tender, about 25–30 minutes.
5. Puree in a blender or food processor, working in two batches if necessary, and return to a clean pot.
6. Whisk in the cream and salt to taste.
7. Reheat without boiling.
8. Serve hot, topped with the chopped cilantro.