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.

Fire it Up! 5 Smokin’ Hot Grilling Recipes for Memorial Day Thursday, May 26 2011 

I love to grill.

My first grill was a Weber that I actually put together myself. It was a pretty scary moment when I clicked the ignition. It all worked out and I didn’t blow myself to kingdom-come.

So, yes there you have it. I use a gas grill.

Quelle horreur.

I know that many purists shun gas, but I have to tell you, I love the ease and convenience. It makes grilling very easy and I’ll fire up the grill several times a week during the summer. Yes, I love the flavor of hardwood charcoal, but I love easy, too, especially on a school-night. Grilling keeps the heat out of the kitchen and often can make for easy clean-up. You got to be careful – it’s easy to fall in a rut and cook the same-old, same-old.

My friends and colleagues Dave Joachim and Andy Schloss have just written a great new book to help you get your grill on. No boring burgers and dreary dogs here.

These guys are all over it. There are 400 recipes for grilling everything. And, I do mean everything – Abalone to Zucchini. There’s veal, turkey, rabbit, seafood, you name it – they’ve got a great way to grill it. It’s a perfect addition to your repertoire for summer cooking and a great gift for grads and dads.

Check out their cool video, too.

Pretty neat.

So, for your grilling pleasure I’m adding a couple of my own grilling recipes. I’m sharing a recipe for Grilled Okra, yes, okra, and Grilled Tuscan Chicken to go along with their Grilled Beets, Grilled Oysters, and Pig Candy. What’s not to love about something called Pig Candy?

Check it out – you’ve got 5 great recipes for your weekend.

Happy Memorial Day. Be safe.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Grilled Okra
Serves 4 to 6

11/2 pounds okra, stems trimmed
1 tablespoon canola oil
Coarse salt and 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 all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes. Place the okra in a bowl and toss with canola oil and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the grill and cook until bright green and tender, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove from the grill and serve immediately.

Grilled Tuscan Chicken
Serves 4

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, removed from the stem and chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, removed from the stem and chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, removed from the stem and chopped
1/3 cup water
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup olive oil
1 whole chicken
Juice of 2 lemons

In a small saucepan, bring 1/3 cup water and rosemary, oregano and garlic to a boil; remove from heat, cover, and let steep 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender. Add oil; season with salt and pepper. Purée until smooth; let cool.

Remove back bone from chicken and separate breasts, thighs, drumsticks and wings. Combine chicken and rosemary oil in a re-sealable plastic bag, and turn to coat. Cover, and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

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 all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove chicken from marinade; place on grill, skin side down. Discard marinade. Cook, basting frequently with lemon juice and turning as needed to prevent burning, until cooked throughout, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve with grilled onion and lemon slices.

Fire it Up! Mixed Grilled Beets with Orange-Hazelnut Gremolata

Beets contain about 6 percent sugar. When the beets are boiled, the sugar dissolves in the cooking liquid and you’re left with earthy-tasting tubers. But grill them and the sugars concentrate and caramelize, transforming the beets into a sort of vegetable candy. In this recipe, their sweetness gets a complement of pungent herb relish. Gremolata is a classic Italian garnish for osso buco. Usually it’s made with garlic, pine nuts, lemon zest, and parsley. Ours is more fragrant; we swap tarragon for some of the parsley and hazelnuts for the pine nuts.

Makes 4 servings

4 multicolored beets, such as red, golden, and Chioggia (about 18 ounces total)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt, preferably smoked
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper, preferably smoked

Orange-Hazelnut Gremolata:
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 tablespoon packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 tablespoon packed fresh tarragon or mint leaves
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon blanched hazelnuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar

Light a grill for direct medium heat, about 400ºF. Scrub the beets well, then slice about 1/4 inch thick. Combine the oil, salt, and pepper in a shallow dish. Add the beets and coat well.

For the orange-hazelnut gremolata: Combine the garlic, parsley, mint, orange zest, hazelnuts, salt, pepper, and sugar in a minichopper or a small food processor. Pulse until finely chopped and granular in texture, but not pureed.

Brush the grill grate and coat with oil. Grill the beet slices directly over the heat until tender, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Arrange on a platter and top with the gremolata.

Fire it Up! Pig Candy

A pig’s belly is striated with fat and thick slabs of lean meat, which run in ragged, parallel stripes. Think bacon and then think again. The layering is not unlike petit four pastry or ribbon candy—the perfect image for conjuring up this dementedly delicious piggy sweet meat. A slab of pork belly with its rind removed is soaked in a pineapple brine. (The rind is a layer of skin that helps the belly hold its shape for butchering, but becomes as tough as tanned leather during cooking.) Bromelain, a protein-digesting enzyme in fresh pineapple juice, helps to tenderize the lean meat of the belly. The brined belly is then grilled slowly with smoke over an indirect fire until it just about melts. Then it is cut into small squares, rolled in habanero-tinged cinnamon sugar, and quickly grilled to caramelize its surface. The result is a meaty, fatty, sugary, spicy mouth explosion. Garnish with curls of cooked onion, if desired.

Makes 4 servings

3 cups hardwood chips, such as hickory or fruitwood, soaked in water for 30 minutes

2 cups Pineapple Brine (recipe follows)
1 1/2 pounds pork belly with rind removed, about 2 inches thick
1 large onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground habanero or another chile pepper

Combine the brine and pork in a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag. Press out the air, seal the bag, and refrigerate for 12 hours or overnight.
Light a grill for indirect medium heat, about 325°F, with smoke. Because the pork belly will need to cook for about 2 hours, if you are using charcoal or wood, you might need to light additional coals or add more wood to replenish the fire.

Layer the onion slices over the bottom of a small roasting pan just large enough to hold the pork belly. Remove the pork belly from the brine and discard the remaining brine. Pat the pork belly dry and place on top of the onions.

Drain the wood chips and put in the grill. Place the pan on the grill grate away from the fire, cover the grill, and cook until the meat is fork-tender or an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the meat registers 180°F, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Remove the pan from the grill, transfer the pork to a cutting board, and let rest for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the onions if desired. Keep the fire going.

Mix the brown sugar, cinnamon, and chile pepper. Push through a strainer (to remove any lumps) onto a sheet of aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Cut the pork belly into four slices, about 1 inch thick. Cut each slice into four pieces, each approximately 1 by 1 by 2 inches. Roll the pork belly pieces in the brown sugar mixture, coating them evenly and thoroughly. Transfer to a plate or pan large enough to hold in a single layer.

Brush the grill grate and coat with oil. Grill the sugar-coated pork belly pieces directly over the fire until the meat is grill-marked and the sugar melts and bubbles, 10 to 15 seconds per side. Transfer to a platter and serve with toothpicks.

Pineapple Brine
Best with pork, chicken, turkey, shellfish, fish
Makes about 2 cups

1 1/2 cups pineapple juice
1/2 cup rum or vodka
2 tablespoons coarse salt
1 tablespoon smoked paprika

Mix everything together and use as directed in a recipe.

Fire it Up! Oysters Grilled with Roasted Garlic Butter and Romano

The International Association of Culinary Professionals holds an annual conference, and New Orleans was the site of the 2008 meeting. On Iberville Street, the Acme Oyster House is something of a tourist trap, but it’s justly famous its char-grilled oysters. After devouring several bar trays full, we went home and started experimenting. Grill-roasted garlic, parsley, and Romano cheese give the oysters some Italian aromas, but the Creole rub is pure New Orleans. Serve the oysters with lemon wedges for squeezing and French bread for sopping up the extra sauce. When shucking the oysters, make sure the shell edges are clean, with no bits of broken shell. Even a bit of crunch would ruin the creamy luxury of the warm oysters oozing with butter and cheese.

Makes 6 servings

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 teaspoons Creole Rub (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup Grill-Roasted Garlic (recipe follows), mashed
2 dozen large oysters, shucked
1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese
4 lemon wedges

Combine the butter, Creole rub, lemon juice, parsley, and mashed roasted garlic in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the butter is no longer foaming and has started to brown slightly, about 5 minutes.

Light the grill for direct medium heat, about 375ºF. Brush and oil the grill grate. Place the oysters directly on the grate and top each with about 2 teaspoons of the sauce and 1 tablespoon of the cheese. Grill until the oyster shells char and the cheese melts and browns around the edges, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove the oysters to a heat-proof platter or tray. Drizzle another teaspoon of the sauce over each oyster and serve hot with the lemon wedges for squeezing.

Know-How
Shucking Oysters
To make shucking easier, freeze the oysters for 20 minutes to numb their muscles. Press a strong, dull knife between the hinged ends of the shells to pop the shells apart. Run the knife along the inside of the top shell to cut the meat from the shell, and then remove the top shell. Run the knife under the oyster to detach it from the bottom shell, but leave the oyster nestled in the shell. The liquor from fresh oysters should be clear. Cloudiness indicates an older bivalve whose tissues have begun to break down.

Creole Rub
Best with pork, chicken, turkey, shellfish, fish
Makes about 1/3 cup

1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon sugar

Mix everything together. Store in a tightly closed container for up to 1 month.

Grill-Roasted Garlic
Good with anything except sweets
Makes about 1/4 cup

1 small garlic bulb
1 teaspoon olive oil

Light a grill for direct medium heat, about 375ºF. Cut the pointed end off the garlic bulb, exposing most of the cloves. Put the garlic bulb, cut side up, on a 6-inch square of aluminum foil, drizzle with the olive oil, and wrap the foil around the garlic to enclose it. Grill directly over the heat until the cloves are soft, about 30 minutes.

Unwrap the garlic bulb and let cool. Cut the entire bulb in half through its equator, then squeeze the garlic from the skin and mash with a fork. Wrap tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

beet, pig candy, and oyster photos are by Alison Miksch
okra and chicken recipes are by Virginia Willis

Andrew Schloss and David Joachim, Fire It Up: More Than 400 Recipes for Grilling Everything, Chronicle Books (2011) Reprinted with permission of Chronicle Books.

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.

Scratch that Summer Itch: BBQ for Memorial Day Friday, May 28 2010 

I am absolutely itching for summer to start.

Ready for it.
Want it.

It’s buzzing in my brain like a hungry mosquito zeroing in for a feast on a naked expanse of skin.

Warm weather, sunshine, and swimming.
Porches, fishing, and laying on the grass by the river.

In celebration, I’ve made some changes to my website and added a few new pieces to virginiawillis.com. I’ve added a new homepage for the summer. While you are there check out my events and and I hope you enjoy my little homage to blackberries and a little something I wrote for Taste of the South about growing up picking them with my grandfather, Dede.

Picking Swiss chard - you didn't think I was going to share naked expanse of skin, did you?

And, like always, it’s the food. I love summer food. Okra. I’ve had a hankering for okra for a few weeks already! Lady peas and butterbeans. Tomatoes. Summer Squash. Corn. Ah, fresh sweet corn.

Garrison Keillor is rumored to have said, “Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.”

Ok, well, consider the source. I mean, I think he’s genius and dearly love Prairie Home Companion, but, um… Well, then you know, fresh sweet corn is really good. Simple. Uncomplicated. Satisfying.

I’ll let you ponder that for a bit…..

Ok, getting back on track, summer does mean grilling.

I love to grill throughout the year, but in the summer it’s just practical to keep the heat out of the kitchen. Burgers and brats are brilliant, steaks and seafood are stupendous, but perhaps my absolute fave? The cheap and cheerful pedestrian chicken.

Chicken can be absolutely sublime on the grill. Smoky and charred, yet tender and juicy.

It can also be drier than chalk and just about as tasty, too. The trick is if you pierce the meat with the tip of a knife and the juices run clear, it’s done. If the juices run pink? It’s underdone. If there are no juices? …… Ahem.

One technique that can help prevent dry, tasteless chicken is brining. Brining poultry will produces moist and tender results. Muscle fibers absorb liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier at the start of cooking, it ends up juicier in the end. I like to think of this as a cup that is filled “over the rim.”

Moisture loss is inevitable when you cook any type of muscle fiber. The heat causes the coiled proteins in the fibers to unwind and then join together with one another, resulting in shrinkage and moisture loss. Meat loses about 30 percent of its weight during cooking, but with brining and the cup is “filled over the rim” it reduces the moisture loss during cooking to as little as 15 percent.

Here’s a recipe to start your summer. Grilled Chicken with Mama’s BBQ Sauce. The trick is to cook the chicken almost all the way through before you start to brush it with the sauce, otherwise the sauce will burn.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Grilled Chicken with Mama’s BBQ Sauce
Serves 4 to 6

In the heat of the summer, there’s nothing better for keeping the heat out of the kitchen than firing up the grill. Dede would make his barbecued chicken on the Fourth of July, using a potent vinegar bath on grilled chicken that produced a pungent, meaty odor, sending out billowing clouds of steam and smoke as the chicken cooked on the grill. 

1 gallon cold water
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 whole chicken, cut into 6-8 pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for the grill
Mama’s Barbecue Sauce, warmed

Combine the water, salt, and brown sugar in a large plastic container and stir to dissolve. Add the chicken; cover and refrigerate to marinate for 4 to 6 hours.

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.

Meanwhile, remove the chicken from the marinade and rinse under cool running water. Pat dry with paper towels, season with pepper, and set aside.

Season the chicken with 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, until the juices run clear when pierced, 12 to 18 minutes.

During the last 5 to 7 minutes of cooking, brush the chicken with Mama’s BBQ Sauce.

Remove the pieces from the grill as they cook and transfer to a warm platter. Give them a final brush of sauce for flavor and serve immediately with additional sauce on the side.

Mama’s Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 6 1/2 cups

There has seldom been a time in my life when a mason jar of this sauce wasn’t in a corner of my mother or grandmother’s refrigerator. The truth of the matter is, once you have had homemade you will go off the store-bought kind for good.

Make a batch, then separate out a cup or so for brushing on the chicken. Don’t dip your brush in the big pot then dab on half-cooked chicken to serve that same sauce on the side. Eew. That’s just bad food safety and asking for a tummy-ache.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, very finely chopped
2 1/2 cups ketchup
2 cups apple cider or distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
Coarse salt

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat; add the onions and simmer until soft and melted, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, brown sugar, lemon juice, and pepper.

Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to low, and simmer until the flavors have smoothed and mellowed, at least 10 and up to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will last for months.

Hotter than Georgia Asphalt Tuesday, Jun 23 2009 

 

Yummy Brown Bits of Goodness

Spit Roasted Chicken

Ever heard the expression “hotter than Georgia asphalt?” Now, that’s hot. Cause let me tell you, black top asphalt cooking all day in the summer sun is pretty ding dang hot. Summer has officially started and it’s a sizzling 95 degrees at Mama’s house. The take your breathe away when you walk outside kind of heat. It always amuses me when people say it’s so hot because it’s humid in Georgia. Well, it’s hot because it’s 95 degrees! And, it’s early y’all. Triple digits for months are just around the corner.

For many years, my grandparents did not have air-conditioning. Can you imagine? We’re so spoiled now. Meme would stay up late the night before or wake up very early in the morning and work in the cool, quiet hours of the hot summer. The humming of the fan was often her only company before the house started stirring and the cousins started piling out of bunks and cots.

In the heat of the summer, there’s nothing better for keeping the heat out of the kitchen than firing up the grill. My grandfather used a potent vinegar bath on grilled chicken that produced a pungent, meaty odor, sending out billowing clouds of steam and smoke as the chicken cooked. I like to make a batch of the marinade and keep it in the refrigerator in the spritz bottle. It works well with pork chops, too.

The birds in the photo are spatchcocked and threaded on a spit. Spatchcocking is a technique used with small birds like Cornish hens, quail, or even small chickens by removing their backbone and spreading them open so that they are fairly flat. Besides making an intriguing presentation and simple to carve, a spatchcocked bird requires less time cooking, so the breast meat is more likely to be moist and tender.

To spatchcock a bird, place the bird on a clean cutting board, breast side down. Using poultry shears, make a lengthwise cut on both sides of the backbone from neck to tail. Remove the backbone and save it for stock. Open the bird like a book. Proceed with the recipe. For an especially flat bird, place the bird on a baking sheet, top with a second baking sheet and weigh it down with a brick or several large cans of tomatoes for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

Dede’s Barbecued 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
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. 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.

VIRGINIA WILLIS CULINARY PRODUCTIONS, LLC © 2009

Adapted from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.

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