Personal chef Callie Salls hosts feasts with foodie friends

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series in which we go into the kitchen and around the table with local people who cook from the heart with their friends and family.

When the weekend draws to a close, Callie Salls likes to gather her nearest and dearest around to celebrate another week well-lived. When she does this, the personal chef also toasts the week ahead, during which she will be sure that plenty of clients are well-fed, too.

But it's specifically at Sunday supper that Salls knows she can blend her favorite activities with like-minded souls.

"I've always been a social butterfly. So incorporating my passions of food, drink and entertaining into a night in with good friends is a match made in heaven," says Salls, who continues a tradition that started when she was growing up.

"My dad traveled a lot when I was a kid, so we would have a big Sunday meal together," Salls says. "It was good food, too, like grilled steaks or chicken, veggies, rice and salad."

A passion for food that resonates with balance inspires her cooking today, whether she's celebrating with her gourmet-driven girlfriends or putting together meals for clients.

"I tend to balance simple and familiar dishes with seasonal ingredients and a hint of luxury," she says. "Like fried chicken with pink peppercorn gravy and champagne, or espresso balsamic tiramisu with rosemary chantilly cream. I like for clients and diners to question my flavor combinations that I pair together before they actually take their first bite."

And so, her contemporary gatherings -- whether it's the anticipated Sunday feast or just an impromptu Tuesday-evening dinner -- star dishes like roasted winter vegetables; lasagna packed with rainbow chard, bacon and fresh mozzarella; and risotto studded with spring peas and leeks, meals she likes to finish with dessert elements you don't find frequently.

"When tart rhubarb is in season, I'm brainstorming, thinking that a free-form rhubarb tart would be good but perhaps too heavy to go with rich risotto. So I edit my rhubarb concept into a lighter buttermilk panna cotta with rhubarb jam. I then prepare a quick salad with bitter greens to round out the springtime menu," she says.

Though Salls, an Austin native who is only 26, found her way to a life in cuisine quickly, she was first inspired by conscientious cooking in her childhood home. Her mom avoided processed and fast foods, as well as sugary drinks. Meals were built around nutrition, focusing on freshness and simplicity.

As a student at TCU, Salls found herself dreaming about food and cooking, even as she earned her degree in journalism, advertising and public relations. Working in graphic design for a little while, Salls realized that her devotion to great food couldn't be ignored and that she had no choice but to change course. She enrolled in night classes at the Culinary School of Fort Worth, earning a degree and going right into restaurant work.

"I felt like if I didn't take the leap during such an obvious life transition -- soon after graduating college -- that I would never get the opportunity. I made the right decision."

She worked in the kitchen at Lili's Bistro on Magnolia Avenue for a year while tending to her blog, Linguine and Dirty Martinis. But the call to cook for private clients and teach cooking was too strong, and she branched out on her own.

Putting together meals and events for clients and teaching at the culinary school fill her busy days, but she finds time to also write for Fort Worth Foodie, a quarterly magazine published by Crystal Willars Vastine.

Vastine is one of a close group of food-loving friends who find time to gather as often as possible, not just to eat but to talk about food. It's not unusual, Vastine and Salls agree, for them to discuss the next meal even before they've finished the one in front of them.

"We will ask about each other's jobs and families, but then we're right into food -- what we're having for dinner, what we had at a restaurant," says Vastine, who loves sitting down to one of Salls' suppers. "Any chance to dig into Callie's food is good with me."

Because Salls' schedule stays packed with work, she finds herself able to cook for fun just a couple of times a month. She let us have a peek at the table she set a few nights ago with Vastine and two other foodie pals, Josie Villa-Singleton, who runs the blog Eat This Fort Worth, and Kari Crowe, a food (and wedding) photographer who runs Fork Meat Spoon.

For Sunday supper with friends, Salls made four easy goodies that anyone can do pretty quickly.

Toasted bread with almond-thyme pesto served as the appetizer and side dish. Rainbow chard and bacon lasagna with fresh mozzarella (a client favorite) was the entree that each of the friends vowed to make at home, soon. Roasted winter vegetable salad brought loads of color and nutrition to the table, and layered Nutella brownies with toasted hazelnuts drew happy sighs.

To make this Sunday supper with little fuss, Salls recommends doing as many things ahead as possible, such as the pesto, vegetable prep, lasagna assembly and brownie baking. That way, you have ample time to revel in your chill evening with family and friends, and you have a Sunday to savor.

Layered Nutella brownies with toasted hazelnuts

1 cup hazelnuts

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter

7 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 eggs, room temperature

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line hazelnuts evenly on a baking sheet and toast for about 5 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside to cool and coarsely chop. Reduce oven to 325 degrees while preparing brownie batter.

2. Line 13-by-9-by-2-inch metal baking pan with foil, leaving a long overhang. Place butter in a large, heavy saucepan. Add both chocolates and stir over low heat until smooth. Remove from heat. Whisk in sugar, vanilla and salt, then eggs, 1 at a time. Fold in flour until just combined. Spread in prepared pan.

3. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 25 minutes. Place pan on rack and cool completely.

4. After brownies have cooled, spread Nutella evenly on brownies, spreading to edges, and top with chopped hazelnuts. Refrigerate 2-3 hours until Nutella glaze has hardened. Using the foil as an aid, transfer the brownie cake to a work surface and cut it into squares.

Nutritional analysis per brownie: 335 calories, 21 grams fat, 36 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 61 milligrams cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 54 percent of calories from fat.

-- Callie Salls

Rainbow chard and bacon lasagna with fresh mozzarella

6 slices hickory-smoked bacon

1/2 cup shallots, sliced thin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 bunches rainbow chard, trimmed and cut crosswise in 1/2-inch pieces

2 cups jarred marinara sauce

1 pound whole-milk ricotta

Juice and zest of 1 large lemon

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced

Salt and fresh-cracked pepper, to taste

6 no-boil lasagna sheets

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut in 1/4-inch-wide slices

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease an 8-by-8-inch casserole dish. In a large saute pan, cook bacon over medium-high heat until crisp. Set aside on paper towels to cool and reserve bacon grease in pan.

2. While grease is still hot, add shallots, salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Saute about 3-5 minutes, until softened and lightly caramelized. Add rainbow chard in two additions, and saute until wilted down, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in marinara sauce and let mixture cool.

3. Meanwhile, combine ricotta, lemon, rosemary, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Coarsely chop reserved bacon.

4. To assemble lasagna, coat bottom of pan with a small amount of rainbow chard mixture. Add two lasagna sheets to evenly cover mixture. Layer a third of the rainbow chard mixture followed by half of the ricotta mixture, then crumbled bacon, mozzarella slices, 2 more lasagna sheets, the next third of the rainbow chard mixture, the remaining ricotta, remaining lasagna sheets and the remaining rainbow chard mixture. Finish with shredded mozzarella.

5. Bake on a lipped sheet pan to prevent spillover for about 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling. Let cool 30 minutes before slicing and serving.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6: 892 calories, 35 grams fat, 99 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams protein, 111 milligrams cholesterol, 1,031 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 36 percent of calories from fat.

Toasted Italian bread with almond-thyme pesto

1/2 cup blanched almonds

8 sprigs fresh thyme

1/4 cup Italian parsley

1/4 cup shredded Parmesan

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Fresh-cracked pepper, to taste

1 loaf toasted Italian bread

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line almonds evenly on a baking sheet and toast for 5-7 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside to cool.

2. Combine herbs, Parmesan, honey and salt in a food processor and pulse evenly. Slowly stream in oil until a bright green paste develops. Season with fresh-cracked pepper, and serve spooned atop slices of bread.

Nutritional analysis per 2 tablespoons pesto: 129 calories, 13 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 1 milligram cholesterol, 118 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 90 percent of calories from fat.