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Back at it: The heart and soul of Georgia Cafe

She had me at Pineapple Coconut Cake -- and I didn't even know special it was.

Brenda McRae-Harwood, at her new permanent spot in the Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda; that's chef Jose Noyola in the background, warming up side dish samples. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

Brenda McRae-Harwood, founder of the now-closed Georgia Cafe at the Howard Inn near Howard University, is back in town and cooking much of the same health-conscious Southern food whose praises former Post food critic Phyllis Richman sang 18 years ago. The chef was offering samples of that cake and some Thanksgiving side dishes on Saturday at her new permanent spot in the Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda.

For eight months, Harwood has been catering and selling in different spots at the market on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, under the banner of Nanna Sara's Kitchen -- what she calls "enlightened food with soul." Nanna Sara was her mother-in-law, who recently passed away and had been a formidable cook in Accomack County. After Howard University closed the hotel and cafe in 1995, Harwood and her son, Derek Owens, built up a successful catering business on Eighth Street (about where Town is now), hired by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Whitney Houston, Bill Cosby, BET and the National Council of Negro Women.

She had retired and moved to Miami, but after a year there she decided to return to what she loves to do and where she had loved to do it. "Florida just wasn't for me," Harwood says.

Sweet potato tarts, made with agave nectar instead of sugar. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

And so she has reunited with former Georgia Cafe chef Jose Noyola. Together, they have reworked some recipes to stay true to an "enlightened" theme. The bright-tasting sweet potato filling in their sweet potato tarts contains less butter than when the tarts were made at the cafe, and the sugar has been replaced with agave nectar, for example. Noyola began working with Harwood at age 18; the Guatemalan native learned to cook Southern at the elbow of an old Georgia Cafe cook named Sophie. Harwood says his lamb chops are "to die for."

On Dec. 8, 1991, Richman wrote of Georgia Cafe's vegetables, "meant to comfort your soul," and its "falling-apart-tender short ribs with gravy you'd want to pour over your rice." Harwood has long been a proponent of cooking with what's in season, and cooking with less sugar and fat -- and is especially sensitive to the needs of diabetics. They tend now to use stock rather than butter or oil when starting vegetables that go into a soup or stuffing. The Georgia Cafe pound cake once hailed as a "dessert that takes no prisoner" has been updated with less butter and sugar, but tastes full-tilt -- as does Nayola's herbed mac and cheese, which was so table-slapping good it had me wondering how it could possibly be less bad for you, dietwise. The long-cooked greens were tender and well seasoned, without meat.

Nanna Sara's Kitchen is taking orders for Thanksgiving desserts and for full holiday meals for four that start at $79; contact her here. Better yet: Stop by and see her at the market; she's warm and friendly -- and you won't leave hungry.

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  October 26, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs , To Market, To Market  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, farmers markets  
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Next: Gourmet: We'll always have Thanksgiving

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