April 11, 2017

Island Cooking: Breaking Bread with Irene


Irene Nolan, recently deceased editor and co-owner of the Island Free Press, was a woman of many talents and varied interests and her friendships reflected that.  

She was a very good cook and enjoyed food, and she loved to entertain.  Of her many friends, the closest enjoyed dining experiences together for many years, both in their homes and in local restaurants.

A special bond developed and deepened with the women with whom she worked on the Hatteras Island Cancer Foundation Board.  Together they volunteered seemingly endless hours to raise funds for island cancer patients, and much of their efforts involved food: publishing cookbooks, hosting dinners and barbecues, and dances with lavish buffets.  Their summer Big Rock Cookout at Village Marina is always a hugely attended outdoor event bringing together locals and tournament fishermen for the feast of their lives!

The group also socialized regularly at their “Girls' Nights.”  There were special dishes that she particularly enjoyed with them.  (These recipes, and memories in the words of those who shared them with her, are chronicled below.)

April is Kentucky Derby Month.  Irene came to Hatteras Island from Louisville and she always liked to celebrate the “Run for the Roses” with a traditional Derby Day Dinner.

She welcomed her guests with a refreshing Mint Julep, the Derby’s official drink, in a glass slick from all the crushed ice, sweetened with simple syrup, fragrant with fresh mint and rich with Kentucky bourbon.  Nothing says Derby Day more!  

She prepared the entire meal but did agree to accept mint from my herb garden.  Maybe because it was the large-leaf variety known as “Kentucky Colonel.”


1 1/2 parts Maker’s Mark Bourbon
Fresh mint
2 tablespoons simple syrup, muddled with mint
Splash of distilled water
Powdered sugar
Mint sprig for garnish


1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup distilled water

For simple syrup, add 1 cup granulated sugar to 1 cup distilled water in a saucepan.  Heat to dissolve sugar, stirring constantly so the sugar does not burn.  
Set aside to cool.

Mix together chilled simple syrup muddled (mashed, smashed, squished) with mint, bourbon and distilled water.

Fill glass with crushed ice and pour mixture over top.

Sprinkle top of ice with powdered sugar and garnish with a mint sprig.

The entree for this feast was roast beef, of course.  And “Irene definitely knew how to make a rare roast beef,” according to her friend, Sydnee Slaughter.
The word beef came up in every conversation I have had with her friends.  It was a favorite, and one of the best preparations is Crazy Johnny’s brisket.  She served it at her large gatherings and always when her family came for their summer visit.


Why cook it when you can order it from Johnny Conner and know it will be perfect?

Crazy Johnny explained to me that the brisket is a tough, chewy cut that requires a “long and slow” cooking process to extract its big flavor and eventual tenderness.  It also needs generous seasoning.  He coats the raw cut with loads of black pepper and doesn’t skimp on kosher salt.  In fact, he “salts it like you want to give someone a heart attack!”

No other seasonings allowed.

It goes on the grill at 200-250 degrees for 2 hours until it develops its “bark,” a tasty, crunchy exterior coating.  Maintaining the correct low temperature is important.  Hence, the gas grills.

The next step is what he calls a “Texas crunch.”  The brisket is sealed in aluminum foil in which it steams on the grill for another 3 hours, for a total of 5 hours of cooking time.

The last part of the process is equally important.  Open the packet very carefully so you don’t lose the luscious gravy that has accumulated in the bottom.

Remove the brisket to a cutting board and allow the meat to rest and retain its juices until cool and then slice against the grain.  Serve with its gravy, of course!

Her love of beef often gave another friend, Donna Peele, an excuse to do take out and bring it to Irene’s so they could enjoy it together.  “She really enjoyed the beef fajitas from Watermen’s Bar and Grill.  They have a 2 for 1 on Tuesdays so that was a great opportunity to spend time with her.  Just a couple of weeks ago, right after she passed away, I saw the Prime Rib on the marquee of the Sandbar and my first thought was, ‘Oh, I should stop and pick up the prime rib and surprise Irene for dinner.’  Hurt my feelings … she is missed!” 

But her taste buds weren’t limited to beef.

“Her ham biscuits were the best I’ve ever tasted, “ agreed both Sydnee and Sue McCarty Jones.  “She loved port wine cheese from Conner’s and the Cobb salad from Hatteras Sol, which I delivered often when she wasn’t feeling well.”

Sydnee also remembers, “We fought over Beth Bailey’s canned fresh tuna and fried chicken at our annual Girls’ Christmas Party that Irene always hosted.”

Beth Bailey makes a Squash Casserole that Irene often requested.  It is truly a southern delicacy and Beth is a true southern cook.  Beth once told me of her love for North Carolina country food and this recipe epitomizes that style.  

“Irene loved this dish and asked me to make it for her often when her family would come down or she had company for dinner.  She finally learned to make it for herself.  I wish I could still make it for her now.”


12 large yellow squash
1 large sweet onion, diced
2 slices of bacon cooked and fat rendered (save)
Crumble the cooked bacon
2 slices of bacon cut into tiny slices
1 overflowing cup of grated extra sharp cheese
1/2 sleeve crushed saltine crackers
1/2 stick salted butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sugar, optional

Put the rendered bacon grease into a large cast iron skillet along with the diced onion.  Sautè until the onion is clear.

Wash and prepare the squash and slice into rings.  Put into the skillet and cover.  Cook until all the squash is tender, stirring frequently.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Sugar is optional.

At this point the squash is ready to eat as is and will be delicious.  However, I just take it one step further.

Pour cooked squash into a bowl.  Add the grated cheese, crushed crackers, and crumbled bacon and 1/2 stick of butter.  Mix well and pour into a 7 x 11 casserole dish.

Dot the dish with the raw bacon pieces and bake on 350 until bacon is brown and crispy.

You may mix the yellow squash with zucchini and it will be delicious.

Another Hatteras friend, Judy Banks, shares her love of Pamlico Sound shrimp and other local seafood.

“Irene always had fresh Pamlico Sound brown shrimp in her freezer.  When C.A. was alive, I don’t doubt he might have caught them himself, headed and put them up in the freezer they had in the garage of their home in Brigand’s Bay.”  

“After Hurricane Isabel, I can remember Beth Bailey and I being transported in Steve’s work boat and dropped off at Irene’s home on a canal, dirty clothes in tow.  Since Hatteras village didn’t have water until a few weeks after the storm, we were required to transport ourselves and our dirty undies over Isabel’s Inlet to find kind friends and neighbors east of the inlet who had water and washers.  I remember Beth and I sitting in her living room listening to the hum of the washer and dryer and talking about how Irene was saving the shrimp she had stored in her freezer.  I used to prepare this salad when the girls got together.  It feeds many.”


1 1/2 pounds Pamlico Sound brown shrimp, cooked
16 ounce box spaghetti
16 ounce bottle Kraft Zesty Italian Dressing (I like Robusto)
1 package Good Seasons dry Italian Dressing mix
1 1/2 tablespoons Cavender’s Greek Seasoning
2 cups broccoli florets
2 Roma tomatoes, diced (about a cup and a half)
1 zucchini, diced
4 green onions, diced (about a half cup)
6 tubes of string cheese, sliced (I use Wisconsin)
Heart of Palm, sliced, optional
1 large can of small ripe olives
Craisins dried cranberries infused with pomegranate
1 red pepper, diced, optional

Put the noodles on to cook.  While pasta is cooking, slice and dice the veggies and put in a 4 - quart bowl with a fitted lid.

Add the cooked pasta.

Add the entire bottle of Kraft Italian Dressing and the Good Season dry mix.  Mix all together with your hands.

Cook the shrimp.  My friend Beth of Risky Business Seafood says the key to cooking shrimp is NOT overcooking.

Bring plenty of water to a rolling boil.  Put shrimp into the water and wait until the shrimp floats naturally to the top.  Take off the burner and drain shrimp in a colander.  Immediately put cold water on the shrimp to stop the cooking process.  It comes out to about 2 cups of peeled shrimp

I do not use any seasoning in the shrimp since so much is in the salad.  Peel the shrimp and add to the bowl of pasta.

Mix everything with your hands.  Add 1/2 tablespoon of Greek seasoning to the top.  Attach the lid and turn the bowl over.  Place in the refrigerator for 2-4 hours.

Called a “natural cook” by her friends, Donna Peele doesn’t use recipes and her dishes never taste exactly the same.  An example is her signature Hot Pepper Jelly.

“I make a pretty wicked Hot Pepper Jelly or more commonly known as Aunt Donna’s Pepper Jelly (everyone always knows it is hot!).  This usually is one of the first jellies to sell out at the Hatteras Christmas Bazaar and is also one of the most requested Christmas gifts from friends and family.  Irene loved the jelly and would always say she was going to hide it.  I have never shared the recipe before so this is certainly revealing major secrets”


As you can see this is not really a recipe but makes a great jelly every time!

Green food coloring
Liquid pectin
Bunches of pepper (any type except green bell peppers)
Whatever type Red & White would give away after a mandatory evacuation
Whatever type friends would give me throughout the summer that I threw in the freezer.  If I have to resort to store bought, I generally would pack a plastic bag of jalapenos with a few habaneros thrown in, as well as a handful or two of cayenne.

Generally, the peppers are easier to work with if they are frozen.  Cut off the stems and remove seeds from about 1/2 of them (depending upon time).

Coarsely chop with food processor.

Bring the sugar and vinegar to a boil in a large pot, stirring often or you will have  crystalized sugar glass.  Slow the boil for about 5 minutes then add the chopped peppers - at least a couple of cups or so.

Slowly stir  for at least a couple of minutes.  Watch the pot because sometimes you will get an exploding boil and make a huge mess.

Add green food coloring - several drops.  I have tried yellow and red coloring but prefer the green.  Now add the liquid pectin and cook another couple of minutes, stirring all the time.

Meanwhile you have sterilized the jars and lids and they are ready to go.

Fill the jelly jars and be careful not to slop down the side of the jar as this will make a sticky mess.  Place lids and then immerse in boiling water for about 5 minutes.  Pull the jars out of the water and let rest on counter until cooled.  You should hear the jars sealing as they cool.

To finish off a meal, Irene liked nothing better than Donna Barnett’s homemade chocolate cake.  Donna began a tradition of baking it for her every year on her birthday and it is now known as Irene’s Birthday Cake.

Donna is a creative cook and Irene always looked forward to tasting anything she prepared.   This cake is a prime example of her kitchen skills.


Solid vegetable shortening for greasing the pans
Flour for dusting the pans
1 package plain Devil’s Food cake mix
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil, such as canola, corn, safflower, soybean, or sunflower
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350.  Generously grease two 9-inch round cake pans with vegetable shortening, then dust with flour.  Shake out the excess flour.  Set the pans aside.

Place the cake mix, cocoa powder, buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl.  Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 1 minute.

Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes more, scraping the sides down again, if needed.  The batter should look well blended.

Divide the batter between the 2 prepared pans, smoothing it out with the rubber spatula.  Place the pans in the oven side by side.  Bake the cakes until they spring back when lightly pressed with your finger and just start to pull away from the sides of the pan, 28-30 minutes.

Remove the pans from the oven and place them on wire racks to cool for 10 minutes.

Run a dinner knife around the edge of each layer and invert each onto a rack, then invert them again onto another rack so the cakes are right side up.

Cool completely, 30 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the frosting.


1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

Place the cream cheese and butter in a large mixing bowl.  Blend with an electric mixer on low speed until combined, 30 seconds.  Stop the machine.

Add the cocoa powder, extract, and confectioners’ sugar and blend with the mixer on low speed until the ingredients are moistened, 30 seconds.  Increase the speed to medium and beat until the frosting is fluffy, 2 minutes more.

Use at once to frost the cake.

Place 1 cake layer, right side up on a serving platter.  Spread the top with frosting.  Place the second layer on top of the first layer and frost the top and sides of the cake with clean, smooth strokes.

On a personal note, I had a rich food experience with Irene beyond breaking bread together.  

She gave me a start writing feature stories for her previous paper and brought me along when she and Donna started the Island Free Press.  It was very flattering to learn that she got her start in features.  She was supportive of me, gave me assignments that stretched me, and I learned more from her than I knew I had to learn!

When she decided to introduce a food column I was very excited when she offered it to me.  We had great fun with it as she always wanted to sample the topics of my stories so it was never simply a matter of editing and publishing them.

I am pleased to honor her with these memories of her generous friendships and all she shared with all of us.

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