Serenbe Style and Soul

with Marie Nygren



January 2015


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marie in garden with pudge

Years ago, our family dog was a standard poodle named Scarlett. When she was 9, our housekeeper, Pearl, said, “Scarlett seems to be gaining a little weight. You don’t think she’s pregnant, do you?”

Of course not, we said. She’s infertile; never even been in heat. But she surprised us all by having a tryst with a chow and giving birth to six puppies, two of whom survived, in December 1999. We gave one away and one of the housekeepers from the Inn took the other.

Shortly after that, Scarlett was hit by a car and died two weeks later. The day after she died, the housekeeper brought the puppy back, saying he was too much for her. And he spent the next 15 years by my side.

He was a fat little thing when he was born—so much so that one of Garnie’s friends said he looked like a little pudgeball. So we called him Pudge, though he grew to be a tall, thin dog. I called him a Poo-Chow: He had a poodle body and brain, but his tongue and tail were all chow.

Pudge was an old soul. Never acted like a puppy; never tore up a pair of shoes. People would bring him toys and he’d look at them like, what are these? You don’t think I’m a dog, do you? People would bring him dog biscuits and he’d just look at them sadly, hoping they’d soon figure out all he really wanted was bacon.

Pudge barely tolerated other dogs—he preferred to think he was the only one—but he loved adults. When we lived at the Inn, he’d go on hikes with guests or sit outside their door if he sensed they needed companionship. Then, when we moved into the community, he became my dog. When Steve and I would come home, he’d barely acknowledge Steve before running full-speed to greet me. I’ve had dogs all my life but never had the kind of connection that I did with Pudge.

People always said that, if they saw Pudge, they knew I was nearby. When I worked at the Inn, he’d go with me and stay on the back porch until I was ready to go, enjoying many scraps from the dishwashers while he waited. Pudge also enjoyed letting himself out for a walk around the neighborhood. Visitors would call to tell me they’d “found” my dog—I’d tell them he was fine and sure enough he’d walk himself home. Garnie would say, “Mom, there are leash laws at Serenbe!” But I’d say, “This is Pudge. These were his woods before they were anyone else’s.”

Late last week, Pudge let me know it was time for him to go. He was old, had a heart condition and his back legs couldn’t hold him anymore. So I put on some music, pulled out my mother’s star-shaped candlestick holders and lit some candles to help my faithful little star transition from this world to the next.

Continuing a Nygren family tradition, he died on a rainy day. Rain always plays a part in the most significant moments in our life, including the day Steve and I got married (outside), the birth of our first child and the day we found the farm that is now Serenbe. Pudge will always be a part of Serenbe, where he had an amazing life with someone who absolutely adored him.




January 2015

Back to Birmingham: Chris Hastings Loves Us Up Again

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SSS Chris Hastings collage

How far would you go for a great meal?

Some people prefer to stay in their culinary comfort zone and return to the same restaurants over and over. And some travel the world with an open mind and mouth, eating their way through new experiences.

I’m a little of both. I have my local favorites—places where everyone knows my name and order. But I also have no problem hopping in a car or on a plane in search of something delicious. And it’s not just about the food—it’s about the adventure.

So of course I was the first one to say yes when, at the end of chef Chris Hastings’ chefs series visit last fall, one of the participants suggested we take a road trip to his restaurant in Birmingham. No one wanted his class to end, so we planned an overnight trip to see him in his own element. Part of it was about the food, but it was also about spending more time in his presence. Chris is incredibly gracious, down to earth and is an absolute superstar at making people feel at ease around him.

Now this is not the first time I’ve made a pilgrimage to Hot and Hot Fish Club and it will likely not be the last. As he did when I took some friends to see him last spring and fall, Chris came out and told us he was going to “love us up.” And love us up he did.

That love came in the form of a beautiful beet salad, sautéed scallops with mushrooms, greens and Jerusalem artichoke sauce, pasta stuffed with foraged pine needles, roasted duck breast and cake with a funnel cake-like garnish.

We left full and of food but hungry for more of Chris. Good thing he has plans to open Ovenbird, a South American-influenced restaurants, this year.

Stay tuned for tales from future road trips. And in the meantime, tell me where your wanderlust has taken you, what you’ve eaten, what you’ve loved and why.

chris hastings in birmingham





January 2015

Lamb’s Brain Lasagna (Without The Lamb’s Brain)

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lasagne While catching up with a friend on the phone recently, she said she served lasagna instead of turkey for Thanksgiving. The next thing I knew, I was up and on my way to my recipe drawer—it was almost Pavlovian. I sifted through this and that until I put my hands on a recipe I cut off a box of imported pasta more than 30 years ago.

I’ve made the “Wood Grove-style” lasagna many times over the years and it is literally one of the best lasagnas I’ve ever put in my mouth. It calls for lamb’s brain—a step I’ve always skipped because I’ve never had access to lamb’s brain and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to boil and skin it. I also use ground venison instead of the ground beef. But just hearing her say the word “lasagna” inspired a craving for this dish that will not go away until I make it, eat it and tuck that little cardboard cut-out back in my recipe drawer where it belongs.

Lasagne, Wood Grove Style

  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stick, finely chopped
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • ¼ pound Parma ham, cut into small pieces
  • ¾ cup dried mushrooms, softened and chopped
  • 1 small lamb’s brain, boiled and skinned (optional)
  • Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
  • ½ glass white wine
  • 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese + more for sprinkling
  • ½ pound peeled tomatoes, put through a sieve
  • 1 pound lasagna noodles
  • 4 tablespoons butter + more for the pan
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups whole milk, heated

Make the béchamel: In a saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons butter and whisk in flour. Let cook on low for a few moments to rid of flour taste. Slowly whisk in warmed milk and stir over medium heat until thickened. Season to taste with salt and fresh grated nutmeg.

Sauté onion, carrot, celery in a skillet with melted butter. When soft, add ground beef or venison, ham, mushrooms and lamb’s brain (if using). Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Add ½ glass white wine, 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese and the tomatoes. Cook until sauce thickens, then let cool. Cook the lasagna noodles in the boiling water and drain. Butter the pan and add a layer of noodles, then sauce mixture, then béchamel sauce and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Repeat. Top with last layer of noodles and cheese. Place in a hot oven for about 10 minutes.



December 2014

Love Me Tender(loin)

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I always serve tenderloin at Christmas. People tell me they’re afraid to make one because the meat is expensive and they don’t want to ruin it, but it’s really so simple and incredibly elegant.

Here are seven steps to ensure success:

  1. Start with a really good tenderloin.
  2. If you don’t know how to trim it, have someone do it for you.
  3. Let it come up to room temperature before roasting.
  4. Rub the meat well with olive oil, freshly cracked black pepper, Kosher salt and some sort of seasoned salt. I love the earthy taste that porcini powder gives the crust.
  5. Roast the beef for 18-20 minutes, or until you the center is springy and flexible.
  6. Take it out and let it rest for at least 10 minutes.
  7. Serve it with horseradish cream. Don’t be tempted to use fresh horseradish. Use the prepared and mix it with heavy whipped cream, a little lemon juice and salt.
  8. Slice it with a very sharp knife and serve.

The beauty of the tenderloin is that it can be cooked ahead of time and left sitting in the kitchen while you sit and enjoy the holiday with family and friends.

Merry everything, everyone. May your buffet tables and hearts be full of good things.


Roast Tenderloin of Beef

  • 1 3-4 pound beef tenderloin
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Porcini mushroom powder (optional)
  • Olive oil

Make sure meat is close to room temperature before roasting.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place meat on a baking sheet. Pour olive oil on beef to coat entire tenderloin. Season with generous amount of salt and pepper, plus porcini powder, if using.

Place beef in oven and roast for 18-20 minutes or until 120 degrees in the center. If no thermometer, touch meat in center top area. Should be easily pressed.

Remove to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minute before slicing.

Note: Porcini powder can be found in some gourmet stores. If not, make your own by placing dried mushrooms in a Cuisinart with a steel blade and process until you have a ground powder.



December 2014

A Tale of Two Cities (and Two Hot Dogs!)

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carl_gallery_hotel_3A few weeks ago, I went to New York City for a meeting and met a group of girlfriends for dinner at The Carlyle. Built in 1930 and named for the British essayist Thomas Carlyle, the iconic Upper East Side hotel is a true Manhattan landmark. The Prince of Wales has stayed there. Diana herself stayed there. And what did I do there?

I ate hot dogs.


My friend Nancy is a regular in Bemelmans Bar, an art deco lounge where the ceiling is covered in 24-karat gold leaf. Looking down the list of snacks, I saw Osetra caviar, a charcuterie plate, steak tartar with toast points and mini hot dogs.

Five hot dogs. For $19.

I thought, really? Hot dogs at the Carlyle? Then I saw that they were made with Kobe beef and served on brioche buns with housemade relish. And so I had to have them.

They brought out one for each of us. They were bite-size and exquisite. Afterwards we went into the main restaurant and had everything from lobster thermidor to Grand Mariner soufflé, but nothing more fun and fabulous than those tiny hot dogs.

Shortly after I got home, I went to LaGrange, Georgia, for another meeting and spent a little time driving around the town beforehand. Right off the square was a place called Charlie Joseph’s that’d been there since 1920. The sign said they had “world’s best hot dogs,” which piqued my attention for two reasons:

  1. I’d just had what I thought was world’s best hot dog.
  2. I was starving.

photo 2The place is run by Joey Keeth, the grandson of Charlie Joseph himself. And according to the website, Joey is also a good man to call if you need tennis lessons or your tennis racket restrung.

The menu is basic: hot dogs, burgers, chicken salad sandwiches and sweet tea. I only had eyes for the chili slaw dog with relish, which is something I eat once every five years or so. It wasn’t made of Kobe beef—I don’t even want to think about what it was made of—but it was exactly what I wanted it to be.




December 2014

No Harm, No Fowl: Chefs Play Chicken at the Cluck Off

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At the 2012 Southern Chefs Potluck, Watershed chef Joe Truex and I started talking about chicken and rice and all the different takes on it around the world. It gave me an idea to create a chicken-and-rice competition between chefs for the 2013 Potluck auction, invite 20 people to eat and judge and call it a “cluck off.” I immediately texted Anne Quatrano to see if she’d participate and she texted yes right back.

Fast forward to the 2013 Potluck, where the Cluck Off went up for live auction as one of the chef experience packages. My daughter, Garnie, won it and Anne—who claimed she’d never agreed to participate—said, “Do you not feed your child, Marie?”

(Just another part of her dry sense of humor that very few people get to see.)

Now let’s fast forward again to a few weeks ago: It’s three days before the Cluck Off, I have no idea what I’m making and I’m starting to wonder if I was delusional when I came up with the idea.

I didn’t want to do something I’d done before and I knew Anne was going to show up and blow us out of the water. But at some point I stopped sweating bullets and started cooking.

Joe did baked chicken with red rice—simple, Southern and delicious. And of course Anne did exactly what I’d predicted: She came with Vietnamese chicken lettuce wraps with flash-fried rice and all kinds of condiments on the side, including housemade fish sauce, radishes, carrots, pickles, cilantro and lettuce she got from a farm in north Georgia. It was off-the-charts amazing.

I took boneless, skinless chicken thighs and marinated them in honey, bourbon, lemon, olive oil and Tabasco overnight, then roasted them in the oven for about 10 minutes. I peeled, chopped and roasted butternut squash with leeks. Sauteed collards with onion and combined everything over rice with some chopped peanuts and scallions on top.

It may look like a long list of ingredients and steps, but once you have all the elements in place, it comes together beautifully.

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Honey Bourbon Roasted Chicken Thighs with Collards, Butternut Squash and Rice

  • Serves 6
  • 12 chicken thighs, skinless
  • 12 strips bacon
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1 preserved lemon, minced
  • 6 dashes Tabasco
  • 6 cups collards, ribbed and julienned
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 cups butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 2 leeks, sliced
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 cups jasmine rice
  • 1/3 cup roasted peanuts, chopped
  • 1/2 cup scallions, sliced

Place chicken thighs in a ziploc bag. Mix the marinade ingredients in a bowl and pour into the bag. Place in refrigerator and marinate for at least 2 hours or over night.

Place rice, 4 cups water and 2 teaspoons salt in a pot. Bring to boil, then turn down to lowest heat, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Set aside with top on to retain heat.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place squash and leeks in a bowl. Toss with oil and season with salt. Put on baking sheet and place in oven and roast until tender.

Remove thighs from bag and drain. Wrap each thigh with a bacon strip and secure with toothpick. Place on baking sheet and cook along with squash. 15-20 minutes or until can easily pierce with fork.

Place both squash and thighs in warming drawer or low set oven when ready.

Heat a skillet or Dutch oven with olive oil and sauté collards until tender. Season with salt to taste.


On large platter, layer the rice, then collards, squash, chicken thighs. Garnish with peanuts and scallions.



December 2014

Joe Truex and the Grand Dame Gumbo

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One of the many fabulous recipes chef Joe Truex made during this visit to the Southern Chefs Series—the final one for 2014—was Gumbo Z’Herbes. Much like his gumbo, Joe has many layers. One might be tempted to put him in the country boy category, especially when he says things like …

Today is as bad as it gets at Serenbe. As good as that is, tomorrow is sure to be a little mo’ better.

View More: Joe is an extremely well read CIA graduate who went from one wildly popular Atlanta restaurant (Repast) to another (Watershed). He’s also a very humble, subtly funny man and a native of Louisiana, where you’re only as good as your last batch of gumbo.

To say it was delicious is an understatement. To say it had a few ingredients is also an understatement. Mustard greens, collard greens, turnips, watercress, beet tops, carrot tops, lettuce, cabbage … and then the meats. Dear God, the meats! There was a pound each of smoked sausage, smoked ham, boneless brisket and hot tasso, that deliciously spicy Creole pork shoulder.

Joe’s recipe is an adaptation of a gumbo made by Leah Chase, one of the grand dames of New Orleans cooking and longtime executive chef of Dookey Chase’s Restaurant in the Tremé. Before our wedding in 1983, Steve’s friends kidnapped and blindfolded him, then flew him to New Orleans for the night. They had dinner at Dookey Chase’s—one of many legendary things that happened that evening, I’m sure.

Gumbo Z’Herbes

  • Serves 8 generously
  • 1 bunch mustard greens
  • 1 bunch collard greens
  • 1 bunch turnips
  • 1 bunch watercress
  • 1 bunch beet tops
  • 1 bunch carrot tops
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • ½ head lettuce
  • ½ head cabbage
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, mashed and chopped
  • Water (2-3 quarts)
  • 1 pound smoked sausage
  • 1 pound smoked ham
  • 1 pound boneless brisket
  • 1 pound hot tasso
  • 5 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoons thyme leaves
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon filé powder
  • Steamed rice

Clean all vegetables, making sure to pick up bad leaves and rinse away all grit. Place all vegetables, onions and garlic in a large pot and cover with water. Boil for 30 minutes.

While this is boiling, cut all sausages and meats into bite-size pieces and set aside. Keep tasso pieces separate.

Strain vegetables after boiling and reserve liquid. Place all meats, except tasso, and 2 cups of reserved liquid (save the rest) in a 12-quart stockpot. Steam over high fire for 15 minutes.

While steaming other meats, place the tasso in a skillet over a high fire and stem until tasso is rendered (all grease cooked out), about 10 minutes. Remove the tasso and set aside, keeping the grease in the skillet.

All vegetables must be pureed. This can be done in a food processor or by hand in a meat grinder.

Heat the skillet of tasso grease over a high fire and stir in the flour. Cook this roux for 5 minutes or until floor is cooked (it does not have to brown). Pour roux over meat mixture; stir well. Add vegetables and the remaining two quarts of reserved liquid. Let simmer over a low fire for 20 minutes. Add tasso, thyme, salt and cayenne; stir well.

Simmer for 40 minutes. Add filé powder, stir will and remove from fire. Serve over steamed rice.



November 2014

Thanksgiving Traditions, Nygren-Style

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Serenbe Harvest -0077Thanksgiving in the Nygren family is a little less traditional than you might think. When the girls were little and their schools closed for the holiday, we’d take family trips to places like Disney World and Mexico. And when they got older, the whole family pitched in to make Thanksgiving dinner at The Farmhouse a success, often waiting until the end of the night to eat the last few shreds of turkey and dressing.

But we were together, doing what we all do best: Creating an atmosphere where people can enjoy good food … and each other.

That’s the thing about family—we’re together, even when we’re apart. This year, my daughter Kara will spend Thanksgiving with her fiancé, Micah. That’s right, I said “fiancé.” Kara is officially engaged and we will have the first Nygren wedding next fall.

I’m grateful every year for the girls, my family and Serenbe, but this year I’m especially grateful for Micah. I could not have picked a more amazing person to be my daughter’s husband or my son-in-law.

IMG_0926What makes Thanksgiving special isn’t the turkey or the dressing or the buttery crust under your pumpkin pie. It’s the people around the table. The people on the phone. The people sitting next to you on that beach or bench in the middle of Epcot.

When the stars and plans align and we are all around the same table again, I plan to make this arugula salad full of roasted pears, pecans, cheddar cheese and an incredibly easy white balsamic vinaigrette. And we’ll eat and talk and laugh and my heart will be full of love and gratitude. Whether it’s November 27th, December 13th or January 27th, that’s Thanksgiving to me.

Arugula with Roasted Pears, Pecans, Cheddar Cheese and White Balsamic Vinaigrette

Serves 6-8

  • 8 cups arugula, washed
  • Roasted pears, recipe follows
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted
  • 4-6 oz sharp white cheddar, shaved into thin strips with vegetable peeler

White balsamic vinaigrette, recipe follows

  • Roasted pears:
  • 4 firm Bartlett Pears, cored and cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons honey

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place baking sheet in oven to heat. Combine butter and honey in bowl. Add pears and toss to coat.

Put pieces on heated pan, making sure each slice is flat on surface. Place in oven and roast for 10 minutes until browned. Flip slices and roast another 5- 10 until golden brown. Remove and let cool.

  • Vinaigrette :
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine vinegar, honey and salt. Whisk in oil until combined.

To assemble:

Place arugula in a bowl. Toss greens with vinagrette. Place greens on plates. Top with roasted pears, then cheese slices and pecan pieces.



November 2014

Legwork and Hand Pies: The 14th Annual Afternoon in the Country

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An Afternoon in the CountryAt the first Afternoon in the Country, a benefit for the Atlanta chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International held annually at Serenbe, a grassroots team of volunteers assembled old wooden folding tables from a church and made directional signs out of #10 cans, lumber and nails to guide 150 people to their seats.

Fourteen years later, it is a sold out event with people coming to Serenbe a few Sundays ago to sample food from 60 chefs, plus wine, beer, liquor and coffee vendors. There was a silent auction and cake raffle. And it was all held under five tents with massive electrical that took the better part of a week to set up.

Though the surroundings have upped their game a bit, the feel of Afternoon in the Country is the same as it was 14 years ago. This is no parking lot food festival—it’s held on the green grounds on The Inn with gorgeous fall trees all around and the smells of the season in the air. It was the kind of day when you’re just in love with everyone and everything. And people can’t get enough: It is the most successful Les Dames fundraiser in the United States.

This is the first year I didn’t do a dish, which left me free to socialize and sample other chefs’ dishes. Chef Steven Satterfield did a lovely chicken stew with White Oak Pastures chicken and Anson Mills polenta. Kevin Gillespie was up all night cooking a pig, which he pulled and put on a homemade bun with coleslaw. And Anne Quatrano did all kinds of hand pies—some sweet, some savory, all delicious.



November 2014

Steve’s Bowl

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When Thaddeus Barton moved to Serenbe to take over the kitchen at The Farmhouse, he brought his fiancé Lane Hajack with him. Lane is a very talented chef in her own right, having studied the culinary arts at the Art Institute in Chicago and worked in kitchens from Chicago and Martha’s Vineyard to Manhattan—so we snapped her up and put her in charge of the kitchen at The Blue Eyed Daisy.

What I love most about Lane is her enthusiasm. She jumped right in and figured out the flow, as well as the little details of the day. It wasn’t long before she realized that, every morning, Steve would bring a bowl of red rice into the Daisy and ask them to top it with poached eggs and jalapenos.

The red rice was suggested by Steve’s accupressurist as a natural cholesterol reducer and alternative to prescription drugs. So every morning he’d cook the rice here, take it across the street, get his eggs, eat it and inevitably leave our bowl in their stack of dirty dishes.

“Lots of people in the community would order ‘Steve’s Breakfast,’ even though it wasn’t on the menu, and didn’t realize he would add red rice and other elements to the dish,” Lane says. “So when the breakfast menu was set to change, I thought we should make a dish that was composed of all the elements of Steve’s breakfast, and eliminate his need to supplement the dish!”

Now that Lane has added “Steve’s Bowl” to the menu, Steve leaves the house each morning empty-handed, knowing a big bowl of red rice topped with two poached eggs (or egg whites), guacamole, pico de gallo and cojita cheese is just a few steps away.

It is delicious, a huge seller and the reason all my bowls are back in the cabinet where they belong.

Steve’s Bowl

  • Serves 4
  • Pico de Gallo:
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, seeds removed & small diced
  • 2 tablespoons minced onion
  • 1 clove minced farlic
  • ½ jalapeño, seeds removed and minced
  • ½ lime, juiced
  • Salt to taste

Mix all ingredients. This part is best if assembled a few hours before serving.

  • Avocado Mash:
  • 2 ripe avocados
  • ½ lime, juiced
  • Salt to taste

Mash with a fork until creamy yet still chunky.

  • Other ingredients:
  • 8 eggs, soft poached
  • 2 cups cooked Bhutanese red rice (follow package instructions)
  • 1 head romaine, chopped
  • 1 bunch of cilantro, leaves picked
  • 1 cup pickled jalapeños (store bought or home made)
  • 1 cup crumbled cotija cheese
  • Olive oil

To Assemble:  

Toss the pico de gallo with a small handful of romaine per person (this is not a salad so no need to offer a ton of lettuce).  This mixture goes on the bottom of the bowl, making sure each bowl gets enough pico de gallo.  On top of that, your warm red rice, then your perfectly poached eggs.  This is garnished with a heaping spoonful of avocado spread, a sprinkle of crumbled cotija cheese, a few pickled jalapeno and some fresh leaves of cilantro.