Lighten Up! 11 Great Recipes for a Healthy Southern Summer Sunday, Jun 26 2011 

Last week I taught Southern Comfort Spa Style at Rancho la Puerta. The photo above is of me in the beautiful organic garden at La Cocina que Canta, “the kitchen that sings” with the bounty of the garden and of the land.

It’s a magnificent place and the cooking school is just amazing. The guests harvest vegetables from the gardens with the chefs and Salvatore, the head gardener, then we go inside and cook what we’ve just harvested. Believe it or not, there are people who have never seen potatoes in the ground or how they grow. And, most of these are educated, affluent people, but some still don’t know where their food originates. To help with this situation, Rancho la Puerta has recently hired Chef Denise Roa, here with me below, as executive chef and I just know she’s going to take the cooking school to soaring heights.

You know, I don’t have on a lick of make-up in that picture, but that doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s pretty scary for some women to consider that option. Not too long ago, it was, frankly, really, really scary for me to teach at a health spa. I had this vision of superstar model-type folks and lithe athletes gliding effortlessly from the pool to the weight room and then on to pilates and mountain hikes. I thought they would toast to life gleefully sipping potassium broth and snacking on air-popped popcorn. I thought I was the only one that would be so hungry at dinnertime it would make me want to gnaw my arm off. I thought I would feel just like I did in the locker room in 7th grade.

I have an internal gremlin of low self-esteem concerning my weight, which I mightily struggle with to keep silenced. I thought they would be beautiful and I would be fat. Why would those beautiful people want to listen to a fat chef?

Please notice I am using the word FAT, which is a lot, a whole hell of a lot different than “overweight.”

No surprise, I have had issues with my weight my whole, entire life. I’ve never, hardly ever, felt beautiful. I’ve felt fat. I remember the pain of being in 2nd grade and being at a sleep over and worrying that I was fat in comparison to my schoolmate, Martha. My best friend, Cyndi, was on the Junior Olympics swim team and I on the other hand, was the last one picked for kickball — that is when I was actually on the playground and not squirreled away in the library reading.

Genetics dictate that I am predisposed to being a little more on the thick side than not. My father was a boxer in the Navy and built like a barrel. I inherited his build. I am big-boned with broad shoulders, which if nothing else, gives me at least the illusion of an actual waist. Had I been a boy, I would have played offensive lineman. I am one sturdy, strong girl.

And, yes, heavier than what expert medical knowledge says I should be.

Last year, my lady-doctor told me “I was hosed” given my profession. Sigh. Well, that’s not fair or fun, is it? Her comment actually brought tears to my eyes.

“Hmm, perhaps I’ll take the prescription for happy pills?”

However, I don’t want that. I want better. I am in a really good place in my mind and in my heart and I want my body to be at the party, too.

Several months ago, for the first time in my life, a personal trainer told me it was better to be overweight and fit, as I am, than be at my “proper” weight and unfit.

Well, hello. Thank you. Those were some of the most amazing words ever spoken to me. It was an absolute revelation. Shred the meds prescription.

I’ll never be thin. I know that, and actually, I don’t really ever want to be thin. I’ve lived my whole life with me; I am not too sure I actually want to be someone else. I am becoming happier with me. I am starting to see myself as more than fat. I am strong, I am sturdy, and in that there is a form of beauty.

And, yes, I do want to be more healthful, continue this work I am doing, eat better, exercise more, and take better care of myself.

No, don’t get too excited, this isn’t the end of me eating pork chops. It’s just about me being better, more mindful. Or, at least trying.

The philosophy I am learning is Siempre Mejor, which means “always better.” It refers to a life strengthened by good health and life-long learning, which unleashes the willingness to change — for the better.

I’ve got a lot going on and want to be ready for it!

Check out the sizzle reel of the pilot for my proposed TV series Starting from Scratch. The concept of the series is to show folks where their food comes from — and I don’t mean the grocery store. I’ve got lots and lots of work to do and we’ll be meeting with networks over the next few months to sell it. I’ll keep you posted.

And, for the 4th of July weekend, My Southern Pantry debuts at the Williams Sonoma Artisan Market Series at Lenox Mall. If you are in Atlanta, please stop by from 10 am – 2 pm on Saturday, July 2nd.

At the bottom of this email you will find 5 healthful recipes for Southern summer cooking.

I’ve also got an article in this month’s Eating Well magazine with 6 more delicious and light Southern “de-lites”, including Chicken-on-a-Stick, Mama’s Potato Salad, and Brown Sugar Shortcakes!

That makes 11 total recipes in this blog post to play with and enjoy. Thanks for listening. Shoot me a note and let me know how you like the recipes.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!


Cornmeal-Crusted Grouper
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup whole wheat panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
1/2 cup white or yellow cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
4 to 6 (6-ounce) grouper fillets (about 3/4 inch thick)
2 tablespoons canola oil
Lemon wedges, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 500°F. Position an oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment paper.

Combine the breadcrumbs, cornmeal, cayenne, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper in a large shallow bowl and stir to mix. Place the beaten eggwhites in a 2nd shallow dish.

Season the fish with salt and pepper on both sides. Working with one fillet at a time, dip one side of the fish into the eggwhites, then press the same side into the crumbs. Transfer the fish to a plate.

In a large, heavy-bottomed, ovenproof skillet (preferably cast iron), heat the oil over high heat until hot, but not smoking. Fry the fillets until the undersides are golden brown, about 1 minute, turn and sear the other side. Remove and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Bake until the fish are just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately with lemon wedges.

Roasted Red Pepper Remoulade
Makes about 1 cup

1/2 package soft tofu, 6 ounces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 large roasted red pepper, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon capers
3 cornichons, diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In the jar of a blender combine the Silken tofu, mustard, vinegar, and water. Process until smooth. Add the chopped roasted peppers, capers, cornichons, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Pulse in the blender until the ingredients are blended, but still slightly chunky. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Green Beans Provençal
Serves 4 to 6

11/2 pounds haricots verts or other thin green beans, trimmed
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
2 tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped
15 kalamata olives, pitted and halved
2 to 3 tablespoons mixed chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley, tarragon, and basil)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the beans and cook until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well in a colander, then set the colander with beans in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the beans are submerged.

In the same pot, heat the oil over low heat. Add the garlic and heat until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Drain the beans, shaking off the excess water. Return the beans to the pot along with the tomatoes. Add the olives and herbs and toss to combine. Drizzle over the vinegar and toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or cold.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
Makes about 1 dozen

1 cup sweet potato, roasted and mashed (about ½ a large sweet potato)
1 cup whole wheat flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup grapeseed oil

Heat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment paper. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium size mixing bowl. Add the mashed sweet potato and oil.

Using your hands, mix the dough until it just comes together – do not overwork or the biscuits will be tough.

Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll the dough out to one inch thickness. Using a round, 1 ½ inch cookie cutter, cut out the biscuits. Gather together the excess scraps and roll out again to make more biscuits.

Transfer the biscuits onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each. Bake until the biscuits are lightly golden, about 10 minutes.

Blackberry Cobbler
Serves 8 to 10

This is a version of a cobbler both my mother and grandmother have made my whole life. Other fruits may be substituted, but peach has always been my favorite. Baking this in cast iron makes for beautiful presentation, the golden brown batter swells around the fruit, making this a delicious indulgence.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup canola oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
3/4 cup 2% milk
1/3 cup agave syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups (1 pint) blackberries
Frozen Yogurt, for serving
Mint, for garnish

Heat the oven to 350°F. Place the butter and oil in a 9 x l3-inch ovenproof serving dish or 10 1/2-inch cast iron skillet and transfer to the preheated oven to heat, 5 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Add the milk, agave syrup, and vanilla and stir to combine.

Remove the hot dish with the melted butter and oil from the oven. Add the butter oil mixture to the batter and stir to combine. Pour the batter into the hot pan. Spoon the black berries evenly over the batter. Return the pan to the oven and bake until brown and the batter has risen up and around the fruit, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Serve immediately with frozen yogurt and garnish with fresh mint.

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, Thanks so much.


My Feisty Sister, Green Beans, and The Best Birthday, Ever. Thursday, Jul 22 2010 

It’s my younger sister’s birthday this weekend and I am going home to see her and mama. Some of y’all may remember about mama moving and selling our family home last Christmas. It’s hard to imagine, but I’ve only been home one time since the holidays. I’ve had a block about it – I can be exceptionally good at putting emotions in boxes and putting them on the shelf. I actually really didn’t realize it until the last time I went home, and driving there I realized I hadn’t been to Mama’s but once. I knew exactly what my crafty mind had been up to…. Of course, I have seen Mama and Jona, but with all the travel, it’s been fairly easy to avoid.

This weekend though? This weekend I am going home to see my sister. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

I love my sister. She means the absolute world to me. She is my heart, my shoulder to cry on, and my biggest cheerleader.

Now, I love her, but we are like night and day. Two more different women could hardly exist. Mama is going to kill me, but I’ve always said that she must have a medical abnormality and have two wombs, because there is no way that my sister and I came out of the same one. And, low and behold this week, a woman in Utah was diagnosed with the condition. Not kidding. Check it out.

We are really different. We used to fight like cats and dogs. She was a biter when she was a little girl and damn, she was feisty. When she was in junior high she was one of the popular girls. I was very much a social outcast nerd and member of the drama club, debate team, and always had my head in a book. She would pass me on the school campus and not speak to me. She was that cool. That, of course, infuriated me, but she ran track and I could never catch her.

She is smart, wicked smart, with math. I have to use my iPhone or count on my fingers for pretty much anything over 2 digits. She balances her checkbook to the dime. I, um, don’t. She sees that I am book smart, but doesn’t think I have a lick of common sense. (We argue of course, on that, too.) I love to travel and essentially left home at the age of 16. She’s a homebody and hates to fly. Clearly, I am an adventurous eater and love to go out to dinner, She’s a meat and potatoes kind of girl. She can’t stand to go out to eat and grumbles at me when I put herbs in the food, suspiciously eyes herbed potatoes and asks, “Did you mess that up by putting any pine needles (aka rosemary) in there?”

This is the look I get when I’ve done something stupid. She’s really going to love I shared this one. You may think that wasn’t very fair of me, but honestly, she makes me so mad sometimes I can’t breathe. You know how it is with sisters.

A couple of years ago Mama called in the middle of the night. She was crying, I think. Honestly, I can’t really remember. She called to tell me Jona had been burned in a house fire. She was at the hospital in the burn unit. I needed to come home first thing in the morning. She was alive, but had 3rd degree burns over 20% of her body. I remember going back to bed and of course, poorly doing the math, “Ok, she’s 5’8” so 20% is a little more than a foot.” I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. (I would have gotten That Look.)

We drove home the next day, straight to the hospital, no, the burn unit. There’s a mighty big difference, believe me. It’s ICU to the nth degree. I remember sobbing, shaking, leaning against the wall outside the door trying to get the booties over my shoes, the mask over my face, the surgical gown over my clothes to enter her room. All the protective covering was necessary to protect her from germs. It became rapidly crystal clear that my math was very, very wrong. I couldn’t see for crying.

I couldn’t breathe.

Over the next few days she underwent a series of debridements, an incredibly painful surgical procedure in which the damaged skin and tissue is removed. Once cleaned, her wounds were covered and protected by cadaver skin. The donor skin helps prevent infection, reduce pain, and would maintain her body temperature until she was well enough for skin grafts from her own skin. She was unconscious and on morphine. There were tubes and machines, and more tubes and machines to help her breathe.

We were fortunate in that her burns were on her leg and arm, her face and head were not injured. Mama and I were only allowed to see her twice a day. We were always waiting at the door as soon as door would open with all the other families.

You know when things are so absurd, life is so topsy turvy that everyone goes into survival mode? I remember one afternoon, she and I laughed so hard we were crying because I had looked in the mirror and I had been crying so much that the bags below my eyes were actually hanging over my face mask. My feisty sister was still practically at death’s door and she was laughing at my puffy eyes.

Only sisters could laugh at a time such as that.

One morning early on, when our grief and worry were still overriding any desire to eat, a group of ladies came to the hospital and set up lunch. The volunteer explained that several of the local churches provided lunch and supper for the families of patients. Pimento cheese sandwiches and individual slices of pound cake were hand-wrapped in waxed paper and homemade yeast rolls were delivered while still warm, shiny with butter. There were hunks of meaty pot roast bathed in dark brown gravy and a comforting combination of tender chicken and dumplings. The food was amazing. Not the first bite of fast food. Not the first bucket of chicken or box of burgers. It was real and restorative, as much for the delicious taste as the real caring and kindness. It was without a doubt the most rewarding, healing love I have ever felt from absolute strangers.

Jona, however, wouldn’t eat. The doctors wouldn’t perform skin grafts until she was consuming a certain amount of calories. The burn unit was so full, they needed the bed, so they sent her home. Yes, you read that right. They bandaged her up, gave us instructions on wound care and sent her home.

I went into high gear cooking, trying to feed her. I cook in a crisis. She couldn’t die, she just couldn’t die. She had to eat. Every day without the skin grafts was dangerous. She was practically comatose from the heavy-duty narcotics and medication. I tried to feed her. She fought me, of course, feisty and mad as hell. She was nauseous and didn’t want to eat. I shoved green beans in her mouth, furious at her, crying. I was so mad I could hardly breathe. We yelled and screamed at each other. She was nauseous and got sick. She hated me. It was an awful, messy scene.

Two days later she’d eaten enough so we took her back to the hospital for her skin grafts. Skin grafting is a procedure where they remove healthy skin from another part of the body to attach to the wounded area, essentially creating additional third degree burns. These surgeries lasted for several days and then eventually we took her home again, for good.

She had to undergo months and months of physical therapy and wear special burn garments for over a year. Now, you can hardly tell. She generally wears long sleeves and a suntan is out of the question. She says sometimes the scars hurt and ache, but for the most part you’d never know. A couple of years ago she helped arrange for supplies for the families and victims of the Imperial Sugar fire and explosion. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud, humbled, and amazed in my whole life.

We still argue and fight. Always will, I imagine. But, now, when my feisty sister makes me so mad I can’t breathe. I do breathe. I take a full breath as I thank G*d she is here on this earth to make me mad. And, you know why I am going home for her birthday? Because she’s having one and as long as she has one, that’s the best birthday ever.

Here are a couple of recipes, Mama’s Macaroni Salad is one of her favorites. We both love it, and, of course, fight over the last bowl. Then, just because I can, and I can’t wait to hear her complain about it, I am also including a recipe for Green Beans.

I love you, Jona.


And, if you would like, please click on the links to tearn more about and donate to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center and Southeastern Firefighter’s Burn Foundation.

Mama’s Macaroni Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1 (16-ounce) box elbow macaroni
3 stalks celery, very finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and shredded
1 Vidalia onion, very finely chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise, or to taste, preferably Duke’s
1 cup mild cheddar cheese, shredded, for serving
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season with salt and add macaroni. Cook macaroni until tender, about 10 minutes or according to package instructions. Drain well, then transfer to a large bowl to cool.

Once the macaroni is cooled, add the celery, carrots, onion and mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator until cold, at least 2 hours. Tastes and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Add cheese just before serving.

Green Beans with Buttery Peaches
Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespooon canola or grapeseed oil
4 peaches, pitted and sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste
1 teaspoon fennel seed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line a plate with paper towels.

To cook the beans, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the beans and cook until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well in a colander, then set the colander with beans in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the beans are submerged. Once chilled, remove the beans to the prepared plate.

In the same pot, heat the butter and oil over medium heat until shimmering and foamy. Add the sliced peaches and season with salt and pepper. Cook, until browned on both sides, turning once, about 4 minutes, depending on the tenderness of the peaches. Add the garlic and fennel seeds; cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the reserved green beans and toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature.

Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC 2010

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

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