I'll wager that most cooks would be very flattered if they were described this way: "One of the most elegant, best, authentic cooks I have ever met." That's high praise, indeed.

Those are the words of Kathy Squires of Mount Pleasant in suggesting her friend, Hala Imad, as a good home cook worthy of being profiled here. And Kathy is known as a fine cook herself.

Kathy writes, "Hala primarily cooks Lebanese and French and she's very good at it. Frequently during the holidays she will make a traditional Lebanese feast and invite several of her female friends and she has us invite friends we would like to introduce to one another. I have never experienced hospitality or cooking like that you can have at Hala's."

Let's waste no time, then.

Name: Hala Imad

Age: 46

Residence: Mount Pleasant

Occupation: French teacher, I work for ETS (Educational Testing Services), I write for the Toeic international French test.

Family: Spouse Ramzi Imad

Q. Describe some of the dishes in your cooking repertoire, things you really like to prepare.

A. I cook the Lebanese traditional cuisine, appetizers like hummus, baba ghannouj, tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves; main dishes like shawarma, stuffed squash and several slow-cooked stews that are typical of Lebanese everyday cooking. I do cook French dishes but mainly I bake French pastries and dessert.

Q. Where did you grow up and what were your early cooking/food influences?

A. I grew up in Lebanon on the Mediterranean. My influences are my mother's and my grandmother's cooking. Every day when we came back from school, my sisters and I, we would be served a home-cooked meal for dinner. Meals were always varied and changed with the seasons. Lots of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Sunday lunches were at my maternal grandmother's and they were very elaborate and would feed an army.

Q. Kathy also says we should ask you about your husband, so we're curious: What does he do?

A. Ramzi is an international regional director for EMD (Electro Motive Diesel); they are part of Caterpillar, (and) they are based outside of Chicago. He runs the Middle East, North Africa, the Gulf countries and parts of Africa. So basically he sells locomotives and he commutes internationally. Kathy calls him the train man.

Q. You also say you love to bake. Do you have any specialties?

A. Almost everybody requests my tarte aux poires frangipane (pear tart with an almond filling and an apricot cognac glaze). the macarons and the moelleux au chocolat (almost flourless chocolate cake made with dark chocolate) are very popular, too.

I also do caramel chocolate tart, apple tart, tartes aux fruits rouges, tarte au citron, creme caramel, baba au rhum, profiteroles, Mont Blanc (which is my New Year's Eve specialty), chocolate mousse, souffle au chocolat ...

Q. Hummus is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisine, but like many widely popular foods, everyone seems to have their own way of making it. What's yours?

A. I have to tell you a story about hummus. The first time my mom visits with me in the U.S. (we were living in N.J.), we go to the supermarket and she sees all these flavored hummus and she was horrified. There's only one recipe for hummus (boiled chick peas, tahineh, fresh lemon juice, crushed garlic, salt) and you top it with olive oil. You can top hummus if you want with sauteed pine nuts or sauteed spicy ground beef.

Q. What native dishes here are most appealing ... or not appealing ... to you?

A. I love she-crab soup and the local shrimp. I'm not a fan of grits, unlike my husband.

Q. If you could travel anywhere in the world and learn about a cuisine, where would you want to go and why?

A. It would be the south of France. It's a charming region and it's the Mediterranean. Amazing local produce and fresh fish and seafood.

Q. A favorite food indulgence:

A. My favorite food is when we go to Beirut and we go for a fish lunch. It's by the sea and most restaurants only serve the catch of the day. You get to pick your fish before either they deep fry it or grill it for you. It's the best.

Q. A celebrity chef I like and why:

A. Jean Georges Vongerichten. Whenever we are in NYC, we usually try one of his restaurants. I just love what he does.

Hala's recipesLemon Chicken (Poulet au Citron)

Ingredients

3.5 ounces dried raisins

4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 onions, thinly chopped

3 pounds chicken ( skinless breast and thighs)

Salt and pepper

1 garlic clove, pressed

1/4 cup brandy

Juice of 2 lemons

1 lemon peeled and thinly sliced

A big handful of pine nuts

1/2 cup cream (can use a little more to adjust the sauce)

White rice for serving

Directions

Soak the raisins in hot water.

In a big pot, melt butter with the oil and saute the onions until they start to color. Add chicken and salt and pepper to taste and saute chicken until it turns a nice golden color. Add garlic at the end but do not let it brown.

Add brandy, heat it and flambe. Then add lemon juice and lemon slices.

Add 2 or more tablespoons water and let cook covered for 30 minutes. Turn the chicken during the cooking.

Remove the chicken to your serving dish and keep it warm.

Drain and press the water from the raisins. Add them to the pan juices with the pine nuts and the cream and with a wooden spoon scrape the bottom of the pot while simmering for few minutes. Pour sauce over chicken and serve with white rice.

Tarte aux Fraises (Strawberry Tart)

For pate brisee (shortcrust pastry):

11/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon superfine sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

3 tablespoons ice water

Directions

Sift together flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Add butter and rub with fingertips until you have fine crumbs.

Slowly add water, mixing until a crumbly dough begins to form. Knead dough a little bit but don't overwork it. Form dough into a ball. Place on plastic wrap and flatten it into a disk. Wrap it and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. (Can be done the night before.)

Remove dough from refrigerator and let sit for 10 minutes. Roll it out with a pin on a floured surface, large enough to fit a 91/2- or 10-inch tart pan. Butter the tart pan and line it with the dough. Prick the base with a fork. Place a sheet of foil over the shell and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake the shell at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, removing the foil for last 5 to 10 minutes.

For glace (glaze):

4 tablespoons strawberry jam

1 tablespoon brandy

Directions

Pass jam through a sieve. Add brandy and warm it over medium-low heat.

For creme patissiere:

1 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon 1 percent milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 egg yolks

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon Cointreau

2 quarts washed, dried and hulled fresh strawberries

Directions

Place the cornstarch and half the sugar in a saucepan with a thick bottom. Add the milk slowly while whisking. Add vanilla. While whisking, bring to a boil.

In another saucepan, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar for 3 minutes. Pour in the milk and cornstarch mixture in a thin stream, whisking continuously. Bring to a boil, continue whisking for few minutes. Remove from heat and immerse the saucepan in a ice-cold water bath.

Once the cream has cooled to 120 degrees, add the butter, turning quickly with a whisk. The butter should not be added when the cream is too hot, or the cream will be grainy and the butter will lose its fresh flavor. Add Cointreau.

To assemble the tart:

Brush bottom of tart shell with glaze. Fill with creme patissiere and place strawberries, top side down, in circular pattern over surface. Brush strawberries with remaining glaze.

Liberty bowl

Frances Butler of Johns Island asked for the recipe for the Pizza Soup served by the former Liberty Cafe, once a popular spot in the Avondale neighborhood west of the Ashley.

Owner David Allen shared the recipe with us in 2005. Here it is again:

Pizza Soup

Ingredients

1 pound hot Italian sausage

1/2 pound pepperoni, sliced and quartered

12 ounces processed American cheese, cubed or grated

12 ounces mild cheddar cheese, cubed or grated

4 ounces Romano or parmesan cheese, grated

2 tablespoons oregano

4 tablespoons basil

2 tablespoons thyme

4 big cloves garlic, minced

3 sticks butter

1 cup flour

3 quarts whole milk

8 ounces heavy cream

3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced

Directions

Crumble sausage and brown; do not drain. Set aside.

Make a roux with the butter and flour: Melt the butter in a pan over low heat, add flour a little at a time and continue to cook, whisking or stirring constantly to avoid scorching, until the roux turns a toasty blond.

In a separate pot, heat the milk to almost boiling, add the garlic and herbs, and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the roux and heavy cream, being careful not to boil mixture. Whisk in the cheeses and stir until the mixture is the consistency of a smooth sauce. Add sausage and pepperoni to the cream sauce. Heat it through, then add the tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste. Add more milk if needed to thin out.

Serve immediately.

For your sweetheart

Just in time for Valentine's Day, this recipe showed up in my email last week, courtesy of Charleston Grill. It's a Julia Child recipe for a rich chocolate mousse, recommended by the Grill's executive pastry chef, Emily Cookson.

Charleston Grill's sommelier, Rick Rubel, suggests pairing it with Marenco Brachetto d'Acqui Pineto 2012, described as a "frothy and lush" dessert wine.

Note: If you have concerns about salmonella contamination in raw eggs, use pasteurized eggs instead.

Easy, Decadent Chocolate Dessert

Ingredients

6 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

9 ounces chocolate

9 ounces butter

1/4 cup brewed coffee

6 egg whites

11/2 tablespoons sugar

Pinch of salt

Directions

Over a water bath, whisk yolks and 1 cup of sugar until warmed. Put on stand mixer and whip until pale yellow. Set the yolks aside. Melt butter and pour over chocolate. Whisk smooth, and then whisk in coffee.

Whip whites to a soft peak while slowly adding the remaining sugar and salt. Whisk the chocolate/butter mixture into the yolks and then fold in the whipped whites. Pour into serving container and let set overnight. Serve with whipped cream, fresh fruit or caramel.

Who's got the recipe?

We have a couple recipes in hand but will take more to answer Ann Spencer's request for dishes using fresh poblano peppers.