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!
VA



GREAT RECIPES FOR A HEALTHY SOUTHERN SUMMER



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, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

PHOTO CREDIT FOR MY SOUTHERN PANTRY PHOTO – CHRIS HORNADAY.