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Cook of the Month Shandra Spicer refines her own style

As the middle of five siblings, Shandra Spicer grew up watching her mother cook for their family of seven.

Besides things like bacon and eggs for the kids, Sandra Roberson took care of the black bass, perch and catfish her husband Willie Roberson Sr. brought home from fishing excursions.

“Dad would bring it home and she would fillet it and fry it up for us,” said Spicer, The Buffalo News’ November Cook of the Month. “I just recall always watching her cook.”

Spicer remembers the day her mother got stuck at work and asked her, at 11 or 12 years old, to make a pot of chili for dinner. “I hated chili, but I followed her directions,” said Spicer.

Looking back, she might have missed a step or two. “It was still disgusting and nasty,” Spicer said with a laugh. She didn’t rinse the canned kidney beans, maybe, or season the pot well, and the idea of tomato sauce in chili seemed weird.

“It wasn’t connecting,” said Spicer. “But from that point on, I was determined that whether or not I liked something, I was going to learn how to make it well.”

Her father was a “meat and potatoes man,” Spicer said. “He liked what he liked, and he didn’t want you experimenting with his food. So I didn’t experiment a lot growing up. I perfected the art of cooking in the Roberson household: How my dad wanted his food cooked, and how the family liked it.”

Spicer would go on to achieve much. She graduated from Sweet Home High School, Class of 1998. With her father and mother, she started S&W Contracting, a commercial general contracting company she runs today.

In 2001, she married Najeeb Spicer. Once in her own house, she was free to follow her cooking instincts.

“When I got married, I’d say [to Najeeb], ‘What do you want for dinner?’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Then I realized I was free to do whatever I wanted to do.”

Today, Spicer cooks about 90 percent of the meals for her family of four, including son Ethan, 9, and daughter Ellie, 8.

When her siblings come back to town, they usually eat dinner at Shandra’s house. That’s when she pulls out recipes like her fried chicken, spicy baked beans, Southern-style greens and sweet potato souffle, whose sugary, rich character is meant to mimic “sweet potato pie without the crust.”

There’s “nothing healthy about any of this. I won’t lie,” Spicer said. You could use smoked turkey meat as opposed to salt pork in the greens recipe, but she only cooks these Southern menus three or four times a year.

This is special occasion food, she warned. Besides the sugar and cream in the potatoes, the greens are a lot of work. “It is so much prep work, the cleaning and everything,” she said. “People can buy greens cut and cleaned, but I just like to do it.”

Shandra’s Gluten Free “Sweet Tooth” Sweet Potatoes

3 or 4 large sweet potatoes or yams

2 sticks (16 tablespoons) butter, diced

2 eggs

2 cups brown sugar, packed

1 cup white granulated sugar

2½ cups heavy cream (see Cook’s Note)

1 lemon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon allspice

1½ tablespoons cinnamon

3 tablespoons vanilla extract

½ teaspoon coarsely ground sea salt

Peel sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks, and rinse.

Place in large pot and cover with cold water. Place on stove; add salt. Boil until tender, approximately 30 minutes.

Drain potatoes into a colander. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Add diced sticks of butter to hot pot used to boil potatoes.

Return potatoes to pot, along with brown and white sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and vanilla extract.

In a separate container, beat eggs with 1 cup cream, then add to potatoes along with the remainder of the cream.

Cut lemon in half and squeeze the juice of both halves into potatoes.

Use a potato masher to combine ingredients. (Consistency will be thick and chunky.)

Pour mixture into a bowl. Using a whisk or hand mixer, mix potatoes for about 60-90 seconds, until desired consistency is reached.

Pour mixture into a casserole dish. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 60-90 minutes, or until firm.

Remove from oven and let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or room temperature. For added flavor, top with whipped cream.

Cook’s Note: Whole milk or evaporated milk can be used in place of heavy cream. Extend cooking time to give the thinner consistency mixture time to set. For additional flavor and crunch, add glazed crushed pecans or walnuts the last 15 minutes of cooking. Serves approximately 12-18.

Shandra’s Southern Style Greens and Cabbage

8 bundles of a variety of greens, including kale, collard, mustard, dandelion, or turnip greens

1 large head of cabbage (about 4 pounds)

2 packages of smoked meat (turkey legs or ham hocks), 1ø-2 pounds

1 12-ounce package of dry salt pork

2 large Spanish onions, sliced or chopped

1.75 ounces (one container) dry chopped onions

4 ounces pickled banana pepper rings, with juice

2 tablespoons red crushed pepper flakes (see Cook’s Note)

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons onion power

2 tablespoons black pepper

1 tablespoon ground cayenne pepper (see Cook’s Note)

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¾ cup white distilled vinegar

Separate bundles of greens, place in sink with warm water, soak and sort greens to clean, discarding stem ends.

While sorting greens, add water to 20-quart pot until approximately one-third full.

Place smoked meat, salt pork, onions, banana pepper rings, dry seasonings and vinegar in pot with water, and bring to a boil. Continue boiling with lid on for one hour.

As meat and seasonings are cooking, begin chopping greens and cabbage into large, fork-sized pieces.

After meat has cooked one hour, begin adding greens and cabbage to the boiling pot, alternating between cabbage and greens, stirring in between. Continue cooking on medium to medium high heat for 1½ to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Dish is done when greens are dark in color and tender. Serves approximately 15-20

Cook’s Note: Adjust heat level up or down to taste; these measurements will result in a moderately spicy dish. For more flavor and heat, serve with your favorite hot sauce.