By Ginna Parsons
HOLLY SPRINGS – Maia Miller has come a long way in the culinary world since she wed some 34 years ago.
“I didn’t cook much when I first got married,” she said. “I know Mark was worried. But now, it’s my therapy.”
Indeed, today Miller is in the kitchen every day, preparing food for a party, for friends or for the evening meal.
“Last night, I made country fried steak and gravy, tomatoes and cucumbers, lima beans, squash casserole, potatoes and chocolate cobbler,” said Miller, 54. “I guess I felt like I had to cook every vegetable I could find.”
Miller is a sixth-grade teacher at New Albany Middle School, so during the school year, meals are much simpler. She and Mark usually have something like catfish or salmon with roasted vegetables.
“But when I’m out of school, I really enjoy my home cooking,” she said. “In the summer when the vegetables are fresh, I just can’t pass them up.”
Miller, the youngest of three girls born to Joyce and Bob Walker, was born and raised in Vicksburg. She and Mark met at Ole Miss, married in 1980 and moved to Holly Springs. They have two children and one new grandchild.
“I didn’t cook much at home when I was young but my sisters and I grew up helping my parents get ready for bridge parties,” she said. “We’d get out the linens and the silver and serve the guests and then it was time for us to go to bed.”
After she married, she started trying recipes from Southern Living magazine.
“I’d try new dishes out on Mark,” she said. “I hate to call him a critic. Let’s say he was a willing tester.”
Now, she tries new recipes on fellow teachers.
“The sixth-grade teaching team are my samplers,” she said. “They love everything.”
One of Miller’s favorite dishes used to be crab cakes, but when she discovered she had a shellfish allergy, she had to change tack.
“I started making catfish cakes,” she said. “I just needed something to take the place of the crab. And I don’t think there’s anything better than Comeback Sauce.”
One thing that makes meal preparation easier for Miller is her freezer, which is stocked – and stacked – with packages of cooked chicken.
“When there’s a sale on chicken breasts, I may buy 15 or 20 packs,” she said. “I boil them in good chicken stock and then I pull the meat off the bone and put it in the freezer in 4-cup packages. I may put 70 cups of cooked chicken in my freezer in one day. When I come home, I can make a chicken casserole or poppyseed chicken or if there’s been a death, I can come home and put something together in no time to deliver.”
The one thing Miller is sure to make in the summertime is her crustless tomato sandwich with special mayonnaise.
“I grew up in Vicksburg,” she said, “and you can’t hardly live there with all the bridge clubs and supper clubs and social clubs and not learn how to make a good tomato sandwich.”
Ro-Tel Tomato Tarts
1 can Ro-tel tomatoes, drained
1 cup mayonnaise
1 (3-ounce) package real bacon bits
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
3 packages mini-phyllo shells
Combine tomatoes, mayonnaise, bacon and cheese. Fill shells and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes.
1⁄2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1⁄2 cup chopped pecans
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1⁄2 pound thick-sliced bacon
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil and place a wire rack on top.
Combine sugar and pecans in a food processor and process until pecans are finely ground. Add salt and both peppers and pulse to combine. Add syrup and pulse.
Cut bacon in thirds and place on wire rack. Top each with some of the sugar mixture (use it all). Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until very browned but not burned. (If you don’t cook it long enough, the bacon won’t be crisp.) Cool on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve at room temp.
Mississippi Catfish Cakes
6 tablespoons butter
3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 pound Mississippi farm-raised catfish fillets, poached
11⁄2 cups finely chopped bell peppers (use a mix of colors)
1⁄2 cup finely chopped green onions
1⁄2 teaspoon Tabasco
11⁄2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
Panko bread crumbs for coating
Butter for pan frying
Melt butter, add flour and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, while roux bubbles. Add milk slowly, stirring until cream sauce is thick. Add salt, pepper and dry mustard.
Flake poached catfish into a bowl and add cream sauce. Add bell peppers, onions, Tabasco and seasoned bread crumbs and mix well. Using a small scoop or spoon, make small catfish cakes. Coat them in Panko. Place cakes in a heavy skillet with some melted butter. Sprinkle with seasoned salt and sauté until brown. Serve with Comeback Sauce.
1 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise
3 tablespoons chili sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
1⁄2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon horseradish
Combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate until ready to use. Good on catfish cakes, salads, chicken, saltines and just about anything else!
Tomato Sandwich Mayonnaise
1 large white onion
1 quart Hellman’s mayonnaise
Fresh lemon juice
Using a microplane or small grater, grate white onion. Combine onion and its juice and mayonnaise. Add lemon juice to taste. Refrigerate for a day or two before using. Serve on tomato sandwiches.