Not What You Expected: Southern Foodways Alliance Monday, Oct 15 2012 

Southern Foodways

In keeping with our fall tradition, I’m heading over to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium this week. SFA is a great group and if you are a Southerner by birth or by frame of mind, you should be a member of this great group. I jokingly call it the Bourbon and Bacon Festival as there is not lack of either. Seriously, one year there were strips of Allen Benton’s bacon hanging from trees lining the entryway as hors d’ouevres. All that aside – it’s not just about the food. It’s more than what you might expect. Sure, there’s great food, but it’s also about fellowship and education. The Southern Foodways Alliance feeds my head, my heart, and my stomach.

The mission statement reads.”The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.

I strongly believe in these values as a Southerner. And, as a cook, in my opinion, everything about the whole entire world can be summarized by the food that goes into our mouths – politics, race, finance, agriculture, art, religion, education, and geography. Everything. It’s more than you might expect.

Last week I taught in Ohio and Indiana. All of the classes were sold out. Some people might not expect that, but Southern food is very popular across the country. Yet, as I travel, I often find myself explaining what Southern food actually is. People think all Southern food is unhealthy. People think all Southern food is fried. I didn’t grow up eating Bacon-Wrapped-Breaded-Deep-Fried-Macaroni and Cheese or Cheeseburgers served on Krispy Kreme or Red Velvet Pancakes with Cream Cheese Syrup.

Yes, I did grow up eating Fried Chicken. But, Southern food is more than fried chicken. Frankly, to define Southern food as fried chicken is one-dimensional. That’s like saying Japanese food is solely sushi, Italian food is no more than spaghetti and meatballs, and all French food is bathed in a buttery rich cream sauce. Assumptions are dangerous, often wrong, and the truth is more than you’d expect.

Real Southern Food

NY Times Atlanta Bureau Chief Kim Severson recently interviewed Paula Deen on Times Talk. I am asked about Paula almost as much as I am asked about working for Martha Stewart. Paula has been nice to me – I’ve been featured in her magazine and she’s had me on as a guest on her TV show. When she announced her diabetes to the world I did share with the NY Times that French chefs weren’t vilified for their use of butter. However, I also said I don’t think what Paula Deen shares with the world on Food Network defines Southern food — and I’d say that to her if she were sitting down right beside me. In fact, she very well might agree with me. She’s your cook, not your doctor, as she famously pointed out. I might only add that she’s entertainment.

I’ve lived and traveled all over the world. The South does not have a monopoly on rednecks or racism, but people assume that most Southerners are racist. I do think that the South somehow lives with this menace better, but then, I am not black and I do not face the prejudice an African American faces in our society. I only say that racism is part of our daily lives in the South. That’s part of our dialogue in SFA. Racism does exist and there are people that do judge people by the color of their skin, and there are people that do not. Geography has nothing to do with it and that’s not what most people think.

SFA is filled with like-minded Southerners that celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.

Frankly, SFA gives me hope. I appreciate the work done spreading the message of the rich, diverse cultural heritage of the South. The South of the SFA is perhaps not what most people expect, but it is just as real as what is assumed to be true. This is the South that I want the world to see, to believe in, and to understand. 

And then, ungloriously heaped on  the pile of rubbish that is American television is Honey Boo Boo, a reality series about a small-town Southern family airing on a network comically called The Learning Channel.

Maybe I’ll have a slug of bourbon and a couple of slices of bacon, after all.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

VA

PS: In the spirit of “not what you expected”, today I’m sharing a recipe for Roast Delicata Squash Rings that will appear in my next book, Lighten Up, Y’all: 150 COMFORT FOOD RECIPES FOR HEART AND SOUL. I turned in my proposal just this week! In it I will lighten America’s favorite Southern recipes to make them a better choice for good health, while keeping the traditional flavors intact.

Roast Delicata Squash Rings
Serves 2

These tasty treats are beyond delicious. I could eat them every night. The seeds crisp up for a perfectly nutty savory crunch.

1 Delicata squash
1 teaspoon canola oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 400° F. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick silicone baking sheet. Using a chef’s knife, very thinly slice the squash, seeds and all, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle over or brush with oil. ( I actually keep my canola oil in a spray bottle and 3 squirts is one teaspoon.) Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the oven and bake until the rings are tender and slightly charred, about 45 minutes. Serve warm.

Out and About
I’ll be at Thyme in Starkville, Mississippi on Sunday 10/21 from 12:30 to 2:30 for a Reception and Book-Signing. Also, on Sunday 11/18 I’ll be in Evans, Ga with a Tailgating Demo and Book-Signing. It’s free and open to the public. You can sign up for that event here.

PS. Please take a moment and like me on Facebook or follow on Twitter. And, if you send your information to me, I’ll do the same!

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

Cooking with Fat: Animal to Vegetable Thursday, Mar 1 2012 

Folks think of Southern food and envision Fried Chicken, Fried Green Tomatoes, Fried Catfish, and Fried Okra. There’s a suspicion that is not completely unfounded, that if something doesn’t move fast enough in a Southern kitchen it will soon find itself sizzling away to golden brown perfection in a cast iron skillet. However, that’s merely a one-dimensional view. The truth is that Southern food doesn’t have to be unhealthy or trapped in the past. And, frankly, some food that is portrayed in the media and on television isn’t actually real Southern cooking.

But, yes ma’am, there’s no doubt, we Southerners do love our fat. I’m not a hypocrite. I’m not pretending that we’re not known for things like Biscuits smothered in Tomato Gravy   and that  Bacon is pretty much regarded as a food group.

Fat enhances the taste, aroma, and texture of food. Fat makes food taste good. With the entire nation embracing Southern cooking it has brought attention to a regional American cuisine that’s not fearful of fat. Our bodies are hard-wired to like fat. There are some fats we actually can’t live without! In fact, our cell walls are built of fat. Fats play a crucial role in transporting nutrients throughout the body, healthy skin, good eyesight, to name just a few of their many benefits. Healthy fats can also help you lose weight.

The trouble is, most Americans, Southerners included, no – especially – generally eat too much fat and too much of the wrong kind of fat. Look at this map of obesity rates from the CDC. The red indicates a real problem.

Here’s a primer on fats so when you make the choice to enjoy fat – in matters of both indulgence and moderation – you’ll know what just what needs to sizzle in your skillet. (And before I lose you, there are some delicious recipes – including a cookie – for you at the end.) 

FAT FACTS: There is a well-established link between fat intake and the risk of heart disease and stroke. Diets rich in “bad fats” – saturated fat and trans fat – cause high blood cholesterol. But, all cholesterol is not the dirty word most folks think it is. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver that occurs naturally in all parts of the body. It is also present in the foods that we eat. Our bodies need cholesterol to build healthy cells, produce hormones, and help the brain, skin, and other organs to properly function. Once again, however, Americans tend to over do it. Too much cholesterol in your bloodstream can collect as plaque on vessel walls causing them to narrow. Over time this keeps blood from moving freely and can cause less blood and oxygen to reach your brain and heart. This can result in a heart attack or stroke. Eat this, don’t eat that. Low fat isn’t always good fat. Good – and bad – cholesterol? It can be pretty confusing, so it’s important to know your Fats Facts:

Unsaturated fats are found mainly in many fish, nuts, seeds and oils from plants. These fats may help lower your blood cholesterol level when you use them in place of saturated and trans fats. Food containing unsaturated fat include salmon, trout, herring, avocados, olives, walnuts and vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive, and sunflower. Omega 3 fatty acids are class of unsaturated fat. They are found in foods including walnuts, some fruits and vegetables, and coldwater fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sturgeon, and anchovies. Omega 3 promotes healthy blood circulation and helps reduce inflammation. The bottom line on unsaturated fats is that these are the ones you want to use the most.

Saturated fat is found mostly in foods from animals and some plants, including tropical oils such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil and cocoa butter. Too much saturated fat can raise cholesterol. The bottom line on saturated fat is that they should be used in moderation.

Trans fats or Trans-fatty acids are mainly found in processed hydrogenated oils such as margarine and shortening and processed foods made from processed oils. They are also found in lesser amounts in animal products such as beef, pork, lamb, butter, and milk. Some science indicates naturally occurring trans fats aren’t viewed as harmful as those that are from processed foods. Companies like using processed trans fats in their foods because they’re cheap. Stay away from processed foods with trans fats.

LET’S GET COOKING

Animal Fat The flavor of all animal fats is rich, savory, and, well, meaty. Lard is rendered fat produced from pigs, schmaltz is rendered fat from chickens, duck fat is the equivalent of liquid gold, suet is raw beef or mutton fat, and once it is rendered it is called tallow. (Rendering is a process of cooking that melts the fat and makes it fairly shelf stable.) Lard was the premier Southern fat of days gone by and biscuits and piecrusts made with lard are old-fashioned Southern classics. Potatoes fried in duck fat are simply otherworldly, and the secret to many a Jewish grandmother’s light-as-air matzo balls is schmaltz. Uses include frying, sautéing, and for use in baked goods. Alas, any thing that tastes this good should be enjoyed in moderation.

Butter Classic French cooking pretty much considers butter to be a food group. My view is on butter is that, if you’re going to eat it, you may as well eat the absolute best since the gourmet like French Echiré Butter has the same amount of calories as the cheap stuff. The great part is just a little butter will go a long way. Butter lends a smooth and creamy taste to foods and is silky on the mouth and tongue. Magical, exquisite, wonderful things happen when the milk solids in butter begin to brown. Butter can be used in medium temperature sautéing, sauces, and perhaps most famously, in baking.

Canola Oil Canola oil is among the healthiest of cooking oils. It’s high in Omega-3s, a class of unsaturated fat that helps promote healthy blood circulation and reduce inflammation. As a chef, I often use canola oil because it’s flavorless and allows the flavor of the food shine through. I look for Expeller Pressed Canola Oil canola oil, which is a chemical-free mechanical process that extracts the oil. Canola is a good all-purpose cooking oil and is excellent for sautéing, frying, and baking or for use in raw form in salad dressings, mayonnaise, and vinaigrettes. It’s hands down my favorite oil in the kitchen.

Olive Oil Olive oil is at the heart of all Mediterranean cooking. Extra virgin olive oil is cold-pressed and is the least refined of the olive oils. Depending on the olives, from which it was pressed, will have varying flavor and aroma. This oil is best for low to medium heat cooking due to its low smoke point. The finest Extra Virgin Olive Oil is best used without cooking at all and simply as a finishing touch on a dish. Pure olive oil is slightly more refined and has a higher smoke point. It is best for sautéing at medium heat. Both oils are flavorful and best used where the oil’s full flavor is intended as an integral part of the finished dish.

Peanut Oil If you’ve had a deep fried turkey at Thanksgiving, it’s likely it was fried in Peanut Oil or a peanut oil blend. Refined peanut oil has a very high smoke point. Smoke point is just what it sounds like – the point an oil will start to smoke and break down when placed over high heat. The higher the smoke point, the better it is for frying and high-heat cooking. Since peanut oil used for deep-frying you’ll often find 1 to 5 gallon jugs that are pretty heavy for shipping if buying online. Instead, look at local hardware stores or big box supercenters.

Safflower and Sunflower Oil Sunflower Oil and the related safflower oil are both used as cooking oils in cuisines over the world. Produced from related flowers, they are very versatile. Safflower oil is a favorite for salads because it doesn’t solidify when refrigerated and chilled. Both can be used in cold dressings and mayonnaise as well as high heat cooking and sautéing and are neutral enough for baking. These oils are heart healthy and fairly inexpensive.

Vegetable Oil Growing up, my grandmother had a small bottle of “salad oil” in her cupboard. That’s a pretty non-definitive term, much like the term Vegetable Oil. It’s a bit sneaky; for the most part vegetable oil is actually soybean oil with a few other plant-based oils blended in. The deal with vegetable oil is that it’s less expensive than pricier oils such as olive, sunflower, or safflower. Vegetable oil is widely available.

Thanks for reading! Please visit my website virginiawillis.com for more recipes and stories. You can also sign up for my newsletter and keep up with events and classes. And, I waste time have lots of fun with my iphone when I travel if you’d like to friend me on Facebook and Twitter.

Below are some recipes using oil including a basic vinaigrette that shares some tips on choosing oil for a dressing, my grandfather’s grilled chicken using peanut oil, and lastly, shortbread cookies made with butter.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS: Happy to announce Basic to Brilliant, Y’all was nominated for a Southern Independent Booksellers Award and that I am a new contributing editor for Southern Living!

Classic Shallot Vinaigrette
Makes about ½ cup

There’s been a whole lot of talk about culinary “apps” (as in smartphone applications, not starters or nibbles) and cooking by ratio, not by recipe. Vinaigrette is an excellent example of this premise. To make a proper vinaigrette, that is, one that is a perfect balance of smooth and creamy to acidic and tart, a certain ratio of ingredients must be followed: one part acid to three parts oil. The recipe emerges from the technique when the acid is sherry versus balsamic vinegar, or lemon juice versus a combination of white wine vinegar and champagne vinegar. One could also use apple cider, white wine, or red wine vinegar, each vinegar with a different flavor profile. The recipe continues to unfold when the oil is chosen. Is it a full-flavored vinaigrette for tomatoes and cold meats made with extra-virgin olive oil, a milder combination of corn and olive oil, or even milder still, with grapeseed or canola oil? The choice is yours!

2 large shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons oil

In a small bowl, whisk together the shallots, mustard, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Dede’s Grilled Chicken
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup peanut oil, plus more for the grate
2 tablespoons hot sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon coarse salt, plus more for seasoning the chicken
1 (4 to 5-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 lemons, sliced Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to High, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Combine the water, vinegar, peanut oil, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and salt in a squirt bottle. Set aside. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Apply some oil to the grill grate. Place the chicken on the grill, leaving plenty of space between each piece. Grill until seared, about 1 to 2 minutes per side for legs and thighs, and 3 or so minutes for breasts.

Move the chicken to medium-low heat or reduce the heat to medium; continue to grill, turning occasionally and squirting with the marinade, until the juices run clear when pierced, 12 to 18 minutes. Add lemons and grill until charred. Remove the pieces from the grill as they cook and transfer to a warm platter. Give them a final squirt of sauce for flavor and serve immediately with grilled lemons on the side.

Button Shortbread
Makes about 3 dozen

These are delicious, indulgent, and incredible. It’s basically just enough flour to hold the butter together. They are perfect along with ice cream or a cup of tea. And, since they are so very indulgent, it’s good to know they freeze exceptionally well in an airtight container.

2 cups all purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1⁄2 cup confectioners’ sugar, more for flattening the cookies
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick silicone baking sheets. Set aside. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside. In the bowl of a mixer using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and vanilla; beat until just combined.

Using a small ice cream scoop, portion the cookies about 2-inches apart on the prepared sheet pans. Dip a smooth glass in confectioners’ sugar. Press to flatten to about 1/4-inch thick. Using a wooden skewer, make 4 holes in the center of a cookie so that it resembles a button.

Transfer the cookie sheets to the refrigerator and chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Bake until the cookies are pale golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let cookies cool slightly on the cookie sheet then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 7 days.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Food pics by me.

Setting Things Straight Saturday, Jun 18 2011 

A friend of mine recently sent me a note that said that Anna and Kristina’s Grocery Bag, a show on Oprah’s OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network for those of you living under a rock) had reviewed my first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all.

I was thrilled! How cool. I had no idea.

The concept of the show is that Anna and Kristina conduct tests of cookbooks and kitchen products and judges their quality from the perspective of the average consumer.

Well, I got the stamp of approval so I was extra thrilled.

It’s nice they saw beyond the stereotype of Southern cooking to even give it a try.

One misperception about Southern cooking is that it is nothing more than fried chicken. Don’t get me wrong, I love fried chicken. I’d ask for fried chicken as my last meal, but Southern food is more than fried chicken.

You might remember a piece I wrote for Edible Communities called Five Things Cooking Has Taught Me About Life. Well, if I were to write it now, it might be Six Things.

6. Presumption can be a dangerous and destructive thing.

I am very invested in the perception of Southern food and where my work fits in the picture. This is my career. This is my life. This is my reputation. I’ve worked in the culinary world for nearly 20 years. It’s personal. I don’t want people having any misconceptions about me or my food.

If someone wants to judge me, then judge like Anna and Christina did – by looking past what things might “seem” to be.

Another misconception about Southern Food is that it is time-consuming. Well, that’s not true, either.

My dear friend and colleague, Rebacca Lang has a new book called Quick-Fix Southern: Homemade Hospitality in 30 Minutes or Less that knocks that incorrect presumption flat.

It’s a delightful book. I love the subtitle “homemade hospitality”. It’s so much better to focus on the positive, yes?

Rebecca is a contributing editor to Southern Living and can be seen on the nationally syndicated show Daytime. She’s fantastic. She’s one of Nathalie’s “little chickens”, too.

Rebecca and I share many sensibilities about food and cooking. She’s been a huge supporter to me and a dear friend. I’ll tell you the truth, one could easily presume she is sweet Southern belle that cares about monograms and her next lunch date. She’s much more complex with a wicked, wicked sense of humor, real cooking and writing talent, and a huge passion for Southern food. She’s more than Stir until Famous.

I think you’ll really enjoy meeting her and getting to know the real Rebecca, too. Here are her recipes for Dressed Up Oysters and Pecan Crusted Rack of Lamb. And, just for the hell of it, I’m sharing my Fried Chicken recipe, again, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all
VA

Dressed-Up Oysters
Makes 18 oysters

Oysters beds dot the coast of much of the South. Oysters are a big business and an even greater delicacy. Some people slurp them down raw, others cook them to perfection. You’ll need an oyster knife and an old kitchen towel or glove ready for prying open the shells.

6 ounces bacon, chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 1/2 dozen oysters on the halfshell
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Ice cream salt, for garnish

Move the oven rack to a position about 5 inches from the broiler. Preheat the broiler. In a small skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate, reserving about 1 tablespoon of drippings in the skillet.

Add the shallot to the skillet and cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add the vinegar and stir to release the browned bits from the skillet. Cook for 30 seconds.

Arrange the oysters on a rimmed baking sheet and broil for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the edges are curled. Spoon the shallot mixture over the oysters and sprinkle with bacon and parsley. Nestle the oyster shells in ice cream salt to serve.

Pecan-Crusted Racks of Lamb
Serves 6

Roasting time: 25 minutes

If the lamb racks don’t already have the ribs cleaned of meat and fat, ask your butcher to french the bones for you. I like to use sage, oregano, and thyme for the chopped herbs. Feel free to use whatever herbs you have on hand.

2 (1 1/2-pound) racks of lamb, frenched
1/2 cup pecan halves
2 cups loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh herbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/3 cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450˚F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the racks of lamb on the prepared baking sheet. The racks should be lying down with the bones curving toward the bottom of the pan.

Finely chop the pecans, mint leaves, and herbs. Place the pecans and minced herbs in a medium mixing bowl. Add the garlic, salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Stir in the olive oil.

Using half of the herb mixture for each rack, spread the mixture on top of the racks. Pat the herb mixture gently so as to coat the entire top side.

Bake at 450˚F for 25 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 130˚F for medium- rare. Let the lamb rest at least 5 minutes before carving. To carve, slice between each bone.

Meme’s Fried Chicken and Gravy
Serves 4 to 6

1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound (2 cups) solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, for frying, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup chicken stock or broth

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the flour in a shallow plate and season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Set aside. Line a baking sheet or large plate with brown paper bags or several layers of paper towels.

Heat the shortening in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until the temperature measures 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer.

Meanwhile, to fry the chicken, starting with the dark meat (since it takes longer to cook) and working one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, turning to coat. Shake to remove excess flour. Reserve any leftover seasoned flour for the gravy.

One piece at a time, slip the chicken into the hot fat without crowding; the fat should not quite cover the chicken. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature at 375°F. At this stage, a splatter guard (a wire cover laid over the pan) may prove useful to contain the hot grease. The guard lets the steam escape, while allowing the chicken to brown nicely.

Fry the pieces, turning them once or twice, until the coating is a rich, golden brown on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked all the way through and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh should register 170°F.) Remove the pieces and drain on the prepared baking sheet. (Do not hold the chicken in a warm oven; it will get soggy.)

To make the gravy, remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off most of the grease, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons and any browned bits.

Decrease the heat to very low. Add the butter and cook until foaming. Add 4 tablespoons of the reserved seasoned flour and stir to combine. Cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the stock. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the gravy is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add more stock or water to achieve the correct consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Bon Appétit, Y’all in Paris! Fried Chicken, Grits & Greens, and Biscuits Friday, Mar 4 2011 

Bon Appétit, Y'all!

I’m in Paris at the Paris Cookbook Fair — and, that would be Paris, France, not Paris, Texas! It’s been crazy. I’ve been interviewed by Japanese television and there are so many different cultures represented I feel like I am at some sort of culinary United Nations.

Yesterday I did a demonstration in the International Kitchen — and I got all sorts of Southern on everyone. I prepared Fried Chicken topped with Country Ham, Grits and Greens, and finished things off with Buttermilk Biscuits!

It’s been so amazing. I am thrilled to be here. First thing yesterday morning I went to purchase my ingredients. I was practically skipping. Then, I went into the kitchen and got to work.There were some students from Le Cordon Bleu helping me. Made me smile to think about what those young students may have ahead of them. I remember how excited I was to be in France cooking for the first time. And, you know what, I was just that happy all over again.

Cooking up some Grits

Kale and collards are no where to be found, so I used arugula for the greens. Seemed to make sense and they tasted great. Silly me forgot My Southern Pantry cornmeal and grits, but the jambon de montaigne was pretty close to Allen Benton’s unsmoked country ham!

Patty Cake, Patty cake

The ingredients are a little different. I didn’t tote any White Lily over and I used a fermented milk instead of the delicious buttermilk from Johnston Family Farm.

Poulet Frite avec Jambon Montaigne (Fried Chicken topped with Country Ham)

The truth of the matter is that simple country cooking is pretty much simple country cooking all over the world. We served samples and the response was great. I was floating on cloud 9!

Happy Chef Grrl

I wasn’t the only one happy yesterday. The awards were last night. Congratulations to Denise Vivaldo, Dorie Greenspan, and all the other winners!

Here are the recipes from my demo. I’m posting pictures all week so follow me on Facebook, too!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Fried Chicken Breasts with Country Ham
Serves 4 to 6

4 to 6 (8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
16 to 24 tarragon leaves, plus more for garnish
8 to 12 paper-thin slices country ham, prosciutto, or Serrano ham (about 6 to 8 ounces total)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more if needed
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
Coarse salt

To prepare the cutlets, place a chicken breast between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and pound to slightly over 1/4 inch thick. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Place 4 fresh sage leaves on each cutlet; top with 1 or 2 slices of ham and press lightly to adhere. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate to set, at least 10 minutes.

Place the flour in a shallow dish and season with pepper (no salt is necessary because of the salty ham). To cook the cutlets, heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Working with 2 pieces at a time, dredge both sides of the chicken in flour, then shake off the excess flour—the chicken should be lightly dusted. Without crowding, add 2 pieces of chicken to the skillet, ham side down first, and saute for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a warm platter and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Repeat with the remaining chicken, adding more oil if necessary.

To make the sauce, pour off any excess oil from the skillet. Return the skillet to the heat. Add the wine and Marsala and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, scraping up any browned bits. Add the stock and increase the heat to high. Cook until the sauce is reduced and slightly thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, and serve.

Grits & Greens
Serves 4 to 6

You could simply stir the raw arugula into the greens, but it is more flavorful to take just a few moments and saute the greens with the garlic.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, grated
2 cups whole milk
2 cups water
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup stone-ground or coarse-ground grits
Tangle of Winter Greens (see below)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 3 ounces)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until transparent, about 2 minutes.
Add the milk, water, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Whisk in the grits, decrease the heat to low, and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the cooked Tangle of Greens, butter, cheese, parsley, and chives. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Tangle of Winter Greens
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
3 medium cloves garlic, mashed into a paste (see sidebar)
1 16 ounce box arugula
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper 

In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and greens; season with salt and pepper. Cook until the greens are bright green and slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes about 20 biscuits

2 cups  White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour , or cake flour (not self-rising), more for rolling out
1 tablespoon  baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 tablespoons  (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
3/4 to 1 cup  buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 500°F. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk, and gently mix until just combined.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat 8 or so times. (It’s not yeast bread; you want to just barely activate the gluten, not overwork it.) Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out 1/2 inch thick. Cut out rounds of dough with a 1 1/2-inch round cutter dipped in flour; press the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked.

Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet about 1-inch apart. Bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool just slightly. Serve warm.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Fried Chicken: A Love Story Monday, May 4 2009 

Virginia and Meme

Fried Chicken: A Love Story
By Virginia Willis

I’ve been cooking as a professional for a little over 15 years, but my passion actually started when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter in my grandmother’s country kitchen. I called her Meme and she was the light of my life. My mother now lives in her home, the simple country house my grandfather hand-built over 60 years ago. The kitchen hasn’t really changed much. There never has been enough space for everything. The light still hums. Her recipes still are posted on the inside of the cabinet, some written directly on the wood. Her worn wooden-handled turning fork still hangs from the cabinet and her skillets and pans still hang on nails behind the door propped open with the same antique solid cast iron pressing iron.

She and I spent hours together in the kitchen. There are photos of me as young as 3 years old standing on a stool “helping”. I remember we’d roll out the biscuits and she’d let me make a handprint with the scraps of dough. The tiny fingers on my handprint biscuit would cook very dark in the heat of the oven, taking on a slightly bitter almost nutty taste. I know that’s where my love for cooking took root, working at her side on her linoleum countertop in the gentle breeze of the oscillating fan.

Oh, she could cook. Her pound cake was legendary. She’d wake in the early morning before the heat of the day and prepare fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned butterbeans, creamed corn, okra and tomatoes. Fried chicken would be my hands-down choice for my last supper if I were “on the way to the chair”. Meme knew how much I loved it and spoiled me. When I lived far away and flew home to visit, it didn’t matter what time of the day or night I arrived—2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.—she would be at the stove frying chicken to welcome me home. I was undeniably spoiled absolutely, positively rotten.

She was not the first bit shy about pretty much acknowledging me as a favorite grandchild. My cousin Gene was the male counterpart. He and I seemingly could do no wrong. However, she and my sister were oil and water, far too much alike to ever get along. She wasn’t exactly a twinkling eyed docile grandmother. She was formidable – a veritable force of nature. Before I was born, I was told she got tired of driving into town to go to church. Not going to church wasn’t an option. So, she had my grandfather donate the land and build a little country church.

My grandfather adored her and called her his better half. She would literally make the man take his shirt off so she could wash it. That never made a lick of sense to me. She would start on something and wouldn’t stop until her will was met. He’d mumble quietly under his breath, “Lawd, have mercy” but he would have moved a mountain range for her. My grandfather with his blue eyes twinkling said he always got the “last word”, and they were, “Yes, beloved.”

For as long as I can remember, they had a motor home, a camper. They drove as far South as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the far end of the Alaska Highway. I was able to take several long trips with them when I was young. She had an even smaller kitchen, but she would still fry me chicken and we would stop at farmstands for fresh produce. Dede and I would hike and walk in the woods often bringing her buckets of wild berries and she would make cobbler.

Once the three of us drove north, through Detroit into Canada, east to Nova Scotia, and caught the ferry to Newfoundland. Not a small trip. To familiarize you with the roads of Newfoundland, imagine a squiggly horseshoe starting on one end of the island that zigzags and meanders to the other side. We were about halfway across the island when Meme looked at my Grandfather and said, “Sam, pull over in that gas station and turn around, I’m ready to go home.” He did, and we did.

The very last time I saw my grandmother was on Mother’s Day nine years ago. She had a sore throat, went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer. She was 91 and quickly conceded defeat when she heard that ugly word. I thought my heart would break. I never knew anything could hurt so badly – I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was living in New York and would fly home at least every other weekend to see her. When I returned to that simple country kitchen, our tables were turned, and I cooked for her. It was not fried chicken that I prepared, but soft, rich custards and creamy desserts that she loved.

The very cruel irony is that the cause of death listed on Meme’s death certificate is actually starvation, not cancer. The tumor prevented her from swallowing. A feeding tube would have been an inviolate injustice. Nine years later and there’s still hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. To this day, the smell of chicken frying reaches into my soul. I often wish I could show her a copy of my cookbook and I so wish I could be in the kitchen with her just one more time.

Happy Mother’s Day, Meme.
Love you still.

Meme’s Fried Chicken and Gravy
Serves 4 to 6

1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup chicken stock or broth

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the flour in a shallow plate and season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Set aside. Line a baking sheet or large plate with brown paper bags or several layers of paper towels.

Heat the oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until the temperature measures 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer.

Meanwhile, to fry the chicken, starting with the dark meat (since it takes longer to cook) and working one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, turning to coat. Shake to remove excess flour. Reserve any leftover seasoned flour for the gravy.

One piece at a time, slip the chicken into the hot fat without crowding; the fat should not quite cover the chicken. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature at 375°F. At this stage, a splatter guard (a wire cover laid over the pan) may prove useful to contain the hot grease. The guard lets the steam escape, while allowing the chicken to brown nicely.

Fry the pieces, turning them once or twice, until the coating is a rich, golden brown on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked all the way through and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh should register 170°F.) Remove the pieces and drain on the prepared baking sheet. (Do not hold the chicken in a warm oven; it will get soggy.)

To make the gravy, remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off most of the grease, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons and any browned bits.

Decrease the heat to very low. Add the butter and cook until foaming. Add 4 tablespoons of the reserved seasoned flour and stir to combine. Cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the stock. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the gravy is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add more stock or water to achieve the correct consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

PHOTO CREDIT: TERRY ALLEN

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