Someone’s in the Kitchen with Sarah: Laura Nettles

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Laura Nettles rarely finds herself alone in the kitchen, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

The Woodleaf woman doesn’t view cooking as a solitary act.

For her, it’s a place to share stories and laugh.

When her son, Henry, joins her he needs a step stool to reach the counter. After the 4-year-old scales the two stairs, he finds himself the perfect height to mix ingredients together in a bowl.

His bright blue eyes light up as he sees his creation take shape simply by stirring.

After a while, he gets bored and leaves the kitchen to find a toy, but he always comes back.

“He wants to help,” Nettles said. “It’s great for him because he’s learning how to cook things and he’s learning how to use recipes, so when he gets older he can cook for himself.

“We get time together too and that’s fun.”

Sometimes Nettles’ kitchen partner is older than her. With her mom and dad right across the street, she often finds herself cooking alongside one of them.

Her father, Ed, is the primary chef, but her mom, Vickie, is a baker.

Growing up, Ed arrived home first most days, so he ended up cooking so that a meal would be ready at a reasonable time and the family could sit down together.

“It’s always been fun watching him cook and getting to cook with him,” she said. “It was one of those daddy-daughter type things.

“I’m not big into chainsaws and stuff like a guy would be, so it’s nice to have something that we can do together.”

Nettles said her interest in cooking piqued when she took a food and nutrition class her sophomore year of high school.

“We were graded on cooking, so we learned different recipes and all of the appropriate techniques,” she said. “It was just a lot of fun, so after I took that class I started cooking a lot more at home with dad.”

After her freshman year at UNC-Charlotte, Nettles decided to start cooking on her own.

“That first year you’re on a meal plan, so you don’t really get to cook, you eat in the cafeteria,” she said. “After a year of that you’re pretty sick of it.”

At first, she cooked occasionally at her apartment.

“Eventually, it just became a practice,” she said.

These days, Nettles cooks dinner six nights a week.

“I also do lunch,” she said. “Sometimes, I’ll just do sandwiches, but I might cook quesadillas or a pizza.”

When Henry was born, Nettles decided to leave her job as a teacher at Woodleaf Elementary to be a stay at home mother.

But she didn’t give up her love of the classroom.

She currently home schools her 18-year-old sister-in-law, Carol Nettles, and 16-year-old Brianna Lookabill.

With another baby on the way in July, Nettles plans to home school Henry as well.

Nettles cooked up a Southern feast — homemade biscuits, cube steak, deviled eggs and banana pudding — the day I visited her home. She was kind enough to pick meal items that didn’t have cheese because she read I don’t like it.

We started with the biscuits, which were actually far simpler to make than I expected.

Nettles does most of her cooking without a measuring cup, simply eyeballing each ingredient and adding more as needed.

Her advice was to start with less and add because if you begin with too much of one thing your biscuits will be botched from the get-go.

I will admit I’m not sure I could make these biscuits on my own. I’d probably have to watch Nettles do it three or four more times before I could even attempt it. I’m an avid recipe user and I don’t do well with guesstimating.

I thought it was interesting that after they were ready to go in the oven, she just cut pieces, rolled them into a ball and flattened them slightly onto the baking pan rather than using a rolling pin and cutter. This seemed much easier than what I’ve seen in the past.

After we popped the biscuits into the oven, we got started on the cube steak.

Nettles explained that she used to add the spices directly to the meat, but it was a bit overwhelming, so her husband suggested pouring them into the olive oil.

That seemed to be the perfect compromise.

When we sat down to eat lunch, I noticed that the flavors were strong, but no where near overpowering.

We worked on the deviled eggs last.

Nettles had a unique final touch I had never seen before — she sprinkled paprika on top of the filled eggs.

Nettles cracked out her good china for our lunch together.

She explained that instead of asking for new china when she and husband, John, got married they simply found a pattern they liked at a thrift store and bought it.

That decision meant they could register for more practical items like kitchen appliances and gadgets for cooking quicker and easier.

There was rarely a quiet moment during our lunch, with Nettles chatting and Carol and Brianna chiming in occasionally.

One of my favorite things about this series is getting to sit around a table and share a meal with new friends.

Warm banana pudding

When we were finished, Nettles offered to make banana pudding and since it’s one of my favorite desserts I couldn’t turn her down.

We started off by peeling and cutting up some bananas and lining a large bowl with vanilla wafers.

Nettles made her own pudding instead of using something store bought.

After dumping the pudding into the bowl, she whipped up meringue, which she said is the most difficult part of the recipe.

With the meringue added to the top, we popped the dish into the over for a while.

When it was done she served it to us right out of the oven.

It was the first time I had ever tried banana pudding that wasn’t chilled and it was delicious. That is the way to eat banana pudding — too bad I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

Nettles said since she cooks so much, she’s constantly seeking out new recipes.

“I’m not afraid to try new stuff, but it has to be something that I can tweak,” she said. “If you have to do it a certain way every time or it’s not going to turn out, I don’t tend to make it.

“It’s got to be kind of simple and something I would enjoy doing.”

Nettles finds recipes in cookbooks, magazines and newspapers.

“It’s really just wherever I find them,” she said.

Recipes with exotic ingredients tend to be a turnoff for Nettles.

“If the ingredients aren’t easy to find, I don’t tend to make it,” she said. “I try to pick stuff with readily available ingredients and things that I think the kids would eat.”

Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.