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A little Chattanooga cookin'

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn., has been a river town since the early 1800s. ``Today it's the largest inland port in the South and not a day goes by that you don't see tugboats pushing barges up or down the river.'' So says Helen Exum in a colorful, regional cookbook about her home city, ``Helen Exum's Cookbook (Chattanooga Free Press, $15.95). In it she weaves stories of life along the river with traditional recipes from people living in the countryside surrounding this lovely old Southern town.

The book is really a continuation of the writer's first work, ``The Chattanooga Cookbook,'' also a collection of profiles of people in her own hometown. It told of a bygone era when people sat on their front porches on Sunday afternoons and talked, enjoyed, and relaxed.

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But Chattanooga has changed its pace in the last 12 years.

``For over a hundred years life revolved around three meals a day,'' Mrs. Exum says. ``We fitted our activities around them.

``Then some things started to change. About half of all the women now work outside the home. People are interested in exercise and sporting events. There are more activities, clubs, classes, and cultural events. We often eat out. Everybody you know is busy.

``Now we decide the day's activities, then fit our meals around them. More people are eating in ones and twos. This means we plan food in a variety of ways.

``Sometimes we need something fast and easy -- fried rice, an omelet, stir-fried beef and broccoli. Other times we want a more dramatic meal for the weekend -- Cornish hens, homemade black bread, or an easy European-type apple tart with thin apple slices baked in rich custard.''

In her book, Mrs. Exum explains these new trends by way of stories about Chattanooga people. They tell of, among others, young, active, career people who are into new ways of eating -- enjoying new ethnic dishes as well as modern microwave meals, food processors, and smokers.

``In other regional cookbooks that I enjoy, I've always wondered what the people look like,'' says Mrs. Exum. ``I thought I would just put these people in my book.'' She has done that and it makes good reading.

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The people she chose represent types as well as trends. There are jogging couples. Women in politics. Young professional blacks headed for the top. Children cooking. Men cooking. She writes about some people because they have coped with individual crises and come out stronger.

Mrs. Exum herself was a homemaker with six children when she wrote her first book on Chattanooga people. Today, as vice-president of the Chattanooga News Free Press, her duties include the management of the features of the newspaper.

``Helen Exum's Cookbook'' is the kind of book to sit down and read on a peaceful summer day. Here are some recipes with comments from the author about each one.

Here is something for company when you need a dinner that's elegant but cheap. Serve Cornish game hens baked with buttered potatoes, carrots, spinach salad, and apple tart or sponge cake for dessert. Cornish Hen With Olives 4 Cornish hens or 4 chicken breasts Salt and freshly ground pepper 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 large onion, thinly sliced 2 garlic cloves, minced A tablespoon of flour 1 cup chicken broth 2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1/4 cup green olives, chopped

Pat Cornish hens or chicken dry and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Fold wings back and tie legs together. Heat olive oil in ovenproof casserole large enough to hold chicken. Brown chicken. Remove to plate.

Saut'e onion and garlic in oil about 5 minutes. Stir in flour. Add remaining ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir.

Place chicken in casserole, breast side up, and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 45 minutes. This is delicious served over pasta.

Joel and Ginny Anderson came from Miami to Chattanooga in a camper and fell in love with the place.

Ginny has gone back to college and their children are grown. This is an easy way Ginny bakes fish after classes all day at Cleveland State Community College. Andersons' Baked Fish 1 pound fish fillets 1 cup V-8 or tomato juice Italian seasoning to taste

Spray an ovenproof casserole dish with no-stick spray, or line with foil. Put fish fillets in the dish. Cover with juice. Sprinkle with seasoning.

Bake at 350 degrees F. 20 minutes or until fish is done.

Without a doubt, one of the great party givers in our family is my aunt, Kitty McDonald. Kitty claims she is not the greatest cook in the world. She uses easy ways to do things.

Kitty is a great planner. She does things ahead. Her standard greeting is a tall glass of lemonade for everyone after the long drive up from town. For a crowd she may order chicken from Pierce's restaurant in Dayton [Tenn.] and add her own green beans and squash casserole from her garden. Riverpoint Squash Casserole 2 pounds yellow crookneck squash 1/2 pound butter or margarine 1 large onion 1 large sweet green pepper 24 butter crackers, rolled into crumbs 1/2 pound mellow Cheddar cheese, grated 2 teaspoons seasoned salt 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 pint whipping cream 4 large eggs, well beaten 4 slices white bread, toasted, dry

Cook and mash squash. Braise onion and green pepper in 1/4 pound butter. Roll crackers into crumbs. Add to squash.

Combine onion and pepper mixture and cheese. Mix well. Add seasoned salt, sugar, and salt. Blend. Add cream, mix well, and taste for seasoning. Beat eggs well and add. Place mixture in 1 large or 2 small casseroles. Heat remaining butter, roll bread into crumbs, and combine. Sprinkle over casserole. Bake at 325 degrees F. 30 to 40 minutes.

Have you seen those European apple pies that have apple halves, thinly sliced but still in shape, fitted snugly all over the top of the pie and then glazed? I always figured you had to leave these up to fancy bakeries, until I found this really easy recipe. . . . After baking, you sprinkle the top with powdered sugar and run into the broiler to glaze. Easy Gourmet Tart 1 recipe pie pastry 2 egg yolks 2 tablespoons sugar 2 teaspoons cornstarch 3/4 cup cream 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 6 to 8 apples, peeled, cored, halved Sifted powdered sugar

Make pastry as for pie or use a prepared pie shell or individual shells. Chill before rolling out. Fold over double and roll out again. Repeat 2 more times. Line a greased tart pan with dough. Pierce with a fork in several places. Bake at 450 degrees F. 10 minutes.

Mix egg yolks and sugar in heavy saucepan or double boiler. Add cornstarch and cream and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Boil 1 minute. Pour into cool bowl to cool. Add vanilla. Spread custard over crust.

Place apple halves flat on cutting board and slice vertically into very thin slices. Arrange on custard layer, overlapping like shingles. The top of the tart should be solid with apple slices.

Bake in middle of oven heated to 375 degrees F. 20 to 25 minutes until apples are tender. Sift sugar over top of pie and put back into oven to caramelize sugar. Cool before serving.

My great-grandmother Lucy Cole lived in Trenton, Georgia, when I was a small child. On Sunday afternoons we would drive 20 miles to go see this jolly lady who loved to sit in a rocking chair with her family around her.

Her food was delicious and it was said she made the lightest hoe cakes in Dade County. She also made some of the lightest cakes.

Hers was the lightest sponge cake you could ever taste. The recipe was given to me by my Aunt Bentie Carroll. It is so simple it is modern. Mama Cole's Sponge Cake 8 eggs, separated 2 cups sugar 8 tablespoons boiling water 2 cups flour, sifted 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat whites until stiff and set aside. Beat yolks and sugar until light. Add boiling water 1 tablespoon at a time. Add flour and salt gently until well mixed. Blend in vanilla. Last of all, fold in egg whites. Pour into ungreased tube pan.

Run a knife through the batter to release air bubbles. Bake at 350 degrees F. about 45 minutes until no beads of moisture show on top and cake springs back when gently touched.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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