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How much does Elizabeth Cook love seafood? So much that "I should have been a mermaid!" she declares in her Southern drawl at the Florida Seafood Kitchen restaurant in Nashville, where Elizabeth is getting ready to, well, cook!
Elizabeth, who recently released her debut album, Hey, Y'All, and frequently performs on the Grand Ole Opry, might as well be doing it here, since it's one of her favorite Music City spots. "I come in here a lot when I'm not on the road," she says.
"It reminds me of being home in Florida, where I grew up," she adds with a smile. "We would eat fresh seafood all the time. Both of my brothers are saltwater fishermen, and they would always bring home grouper, flounder and things like that. I could probably eat seafood three times a day."
Today, though, she's only having it for lunch -- but it's a whale of a meal! Owner Cliff Dyer is helping Elizabeth prepare the restaurant's signature dish, the Seafood Sampler, with generous portions of shrimp, scallops, grouper and sides of fries and hush puppies.
"I like to cook fish at home when I get the chance," she tells Cliff. "But nothing like this -- I'm sure I'll learn a lot."
Let the lessons begin! First, Cliff shows Elizabeth how to roll the seafood pieces in a special breading mix. After a couple of tries, Elizabeth is getting more on her rubber gloves than on the fish.
"I didn't do that too well, did I?" she asks sheepishly. "I might lose my job." Eventually, she gets the hang of it, distributing the breading much more evenly.
She also learns how to prepare a true Southern delicacy, hush puppies -- tiny balls of fried cornmeal. Elizabeth vigorously mixes meal, flour, eggs, onions and margarine together, rolls the mixture together and fries it up till golden brown.
Elizabeth's next step is a hot one -- dropping a basket full of fish into a deep fryer of boiling cooking oil. "Got to do this slowly, and real carefully," she says, steadying her hands. "Whoo, that's hot!"
The oil starts popping -- and Elizabeth gets hopping, quickly pulling away from the heat. "It wasn't horrible," she says, mopping her brow, "but I definitely had to get my hand away in time."
That calls for a short break and a tall beverage. Elizabeth cools off with an iced tea, and smiles as she thinks about her upcoming busy schedule.
"I'll be touring and writing a lot," says Elizabeth, who wrote every song but one on her album. "It could get hectic, but I'm ready for it."
She'll also continue her frequent stints on the Grand Ole Opry, where her pure, traditional style is a hit with fans.
"I've played there so many times, it feels like they've adopted me," says Elizabeth sweetly. "They have just been great."
And she's hoping that her fish platter will be just as delightful. Elizabeth is summoned back to the kitchen, where the finished product awaits.
"Wow! Look at that," she raves, eyeing the mountain of seafood, french fries and hush puppies. "It's beautiful. You don't think I can eat all this, do you? Well, just watch!"
But before chowing down, Elizabeth points to her plate, affects a thick Southern accent and mocks a classic TV commercial.
"It's shake and bake," she laughs. "And I helped!"
SOUTHERN STYLE HUSH PUPPIES
ÃÂ½ cup flour
2 tsp. Baking powder
ÃÂ½ tsp. salt
2 cups cornmeal
1 medium onion
ÃÂ¾ cup milk or buttermilk
Mix dry ingredients. Add onion, beaten egg and milk, stirring lightly. Drop a tbsp. of batter into hot oil. Fry till golden brown. Drain.