All Posts By Virginia Willis

Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others.

Whole Roast Chicken with Lemon and Herbs — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, August 15th, 2014

Whole Roast Chicken with Lemon and HerbsA rotisserie chicken picked up on the way home from work in a mad dash into the grocery store spells convenience. It’s dinner on the table in a hurry. You can even get all-organic chickens with all-natural ingredients in some better markets. It’s good stuff. However, a home-cooked Whole Roast Chicken with Lemon and Herbs spells real down-home comfort. For all practical purposes, they are the same dish, same bird, same concept, but face it — it’s just not really the same thing. A bird in a bag is a heck of a lot better than a fast-food burger and fries, but it’s like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges — both fruit and round, but that’s about it.

There is little more that satisfies me personally than roast chicken. I love the mouthwatering aroma that fills the house, the sound of the sizzle of the juices in the pan when you open the door to baste the meat, the crackle of the golden-brown skin when the bird is carved. When I go to a world-class restaurant and I really want to see what the chef can do, I don’t order the sous vide signature dish christened with foam or the fancy-pants dish studded with truffles; I order simple, humble roast chicken.

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BBQ Shrimp Po’Boys — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, August 8th, 2014

BBQ Shrimp Po'BoysPo’ boys are iconic in coastal cuisine, especially in southern Louisiana and along the Gulf of Mexico. They’re a New Orleans classic said to have originated in the early twentieth century, the name originating from the hungry plea, “Give a po’ boy a sandwich?” The original po’ boys were hollowed-out loaves of French bread layered with meat, brown gravy and fried potatoes. You can still get roast beef po’ boys with “debris” gravy, a flavorful jus with bits and pieces of roast beef in it.

However, with the Gulf at New Orleans’ front door, seafood has a mighty hold on Creole and Cajun cuisine.

Since time began, folks with less have harvested from the river and seas, for free. We may think of seafood as expensive now, but if you live on a body of water, dinner just might be as close as a hook or a net and a little bit of patience. Seafood po’ boys include fried oysters, fried catfish, fried soft-shell crab and, yes, fried shrimp. Don’t even think about cranking up the deep fryer or even heating up the grill, because these BBQ Shrimp Po’ Boys are poached in a highly seasoned garlic and lemon-butter sauce.

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Georgia Peach Ice Cream with Tea Cake Cookies — Down-Home Comfort

by in In Season, Recipes, August 1st, 2014

Georgia Peach Ice Cream with Tea Cake CookiesThere are times in the South, round about August, that are oppressively hot. Not just a little hot, but take-your-breath-away hot. So hot that walking down the sidewalk feels a bit like walking in a rotisserie oven, with waves of undulating heat cooking up through the soles of your feet. So hot that shade gives no relief and the whispers of wind that blow through might as well be hot gusts escaping from the devil’s furnace.

Folks talk about how Southerners ought to be used to the heat, but there’s no really getting used to that kind of oppression. Many, many people now have air conditioning, and, if anything, we’re more susceptible to the ravages of baking in the Southern summer heat. However, when I was a little girl, my grandparents didn’t have central air conditioning. We’d sit on the porch at dusk after supper, or the adults would sit and rock while my sister, my cousins and I would play in the yard.

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Creamed Corn with Bacon — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, July 25th, 2014

Creamed Corn with BaconWhen I was a little girl, my grandfather had a large garden down by the Savannah River. It was situated between the river itself and a stand of trees. There was an old homestead, really an old, rundown fish shack with an ancient rusty pump for water. The soil was deep black, soft and fine-grained, a result of the years of silt washing downstream through the river basin. My sister and I would play alongside the garden or fish in the river while my grandfather worked in the field. There is something magical to me about a field of corn. Some varieties loom high, reaching into the blue summer sky. The rows are tight and the long, ribbonlike leaves blow in the wind, creating a seemingly impenetrable fortress.

I was scared to death of the cornfield when I was a child. And, truth be told, I’m not in a hurry to get into a patch of corn as an adult. My grandmother scared the mess out of me telling me not to go into the corn as a child. She’d admonish, “Don’t go in there; you might get on a snake.” For those of you that might chuckle at that fear, I only add that my home state of Georgia is also home to all five deadly poisonous snakes in North America, and that riverside gardens seem to be an especially hospitable habitat for them.

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Spiced Okra and Tomatoes — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, July 18th, 2014

Spiced Okra and TomatoesI am an okra missionary. I love okra. Okra lovers passionately love okra in all manners of being. Boiled, fried, steamed, grilled, broiled, pickled, raw, whole, sliced, julienned — you name it, okra lovers love okra. Those who hate it think it’s slimy, gooey and gummy. In my opinion, they haven’t met the right okra.

Okra is perhaps most famous as a common ingredient in the classic Louisiana dish, gumbo. (Okra helps thicken Creole gumbo; the other choice for thickening gumbo is file, or sassafras powder.) It has a long history in Louisiana, as it was popular with the French colonists and thrives in the moist heat.

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Summer Tomato Pie — Down-Home Comfort

by in In Season, Recipes, July 11th, 2014

Summer Tomato PieTomatoes, eggplant and peppers are members of the nightshade family. There’s something a bit sexy about those nightshades; maybe it’s the deadly yet beautiful part …. Tomatoes are, in fact, a fruit, but their affinity for other savory ingredients means that they are usually classed as a vegetable. Fruit or vegetable, they are a rock-solid part of summer down-home comfort.

Fresh tomatoes are only ever good in summer. There is nothing as wonderful as the full flavor of a garden-ripe tomato — and there is nothing as sad and disappointing as the insipid, lifeless flavor of a tennis ball-like tomato held in cold storage and shipped in a case from the other side of the world. I don’t eat those atrocities and strongly suggest that you don’t either. So, when it’s tomato season, I vigorously support eating those glorious ripe ones as often as possible.

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Old-Fashioned Peach Cobbler — Down-Home Comfort

by in In Season, Recipes, July 4th, 2014

Old-Fashioned Peach CobblerI grew up in Macon County, Georgia. Central and South Georgia are well known for their peach crops in the summer. Summer means peach pie, peach jelly, pickled peaches, peach ice cream and peach cobbler. Macon County is adjacent to Peach County, home of “The Big Peach,” a 75-foot-tall peach mounted on a 100-foot-tall pole — a gigantic totem that makes it pretty clear that peaches are serious business in Georgia. So is July, as the temperatures often soar into the triple digits with a humidity that makes life a lot more comfortable when experienced at a slower pace.

Where do you think the expression “easy as pie” originated? Many cooks are scared of making pie — they don’t think it’s easy! Everyone loves pie, but making it can be intimidating. Even perfectly useful kitchen folk are rendered helpless when pie is mentioned. That’s where the cobbler saves the day. The really great part about a cobbler is that it can be made ahead and is equally delicious served warm, chilled or at room temperature. (Don’t limit yourself to only peaches for this simple and spectacular dessert. Other fruits include blueberry, blackberry, plum, cherry and apricot, depending on what is ripe in your part of the country.)

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Summer Succotash — Down-Home Comfort

by in In Season, Recipes, June 27th, 2014

Summer SuccotashSuccotash is essentially an all-American stir-fry. Succotash has many variants and adaptations, but by definition, nearly all contain corn and beans. Fresh vegetables are what make this recipe so special, so I gently suggest not to bother with this recipe unless you can make it with peak-of-summer produce. All the ingredients are diced about the same size, resulting in a stellar vegetable medley. I promise you will be rewarded! The key to succotash is that simple ingredients are combined with a minimum of fuss, and the results are a colorful and crisp burst of down-home comfort.

Choosing the vegetables is important. When faced with a mountain of corn at the grocery store, farmers market or produce stand, look for the silk at the top of the ear to be very dark brown, almost black. It is not unusual to see people peeling back the husks in search of ears with perfect rows of kernels. Just take a peek to make sure the ear is full and free of worm. Try to purchase corn still in the husk and keep it on until ready to cook, to keep the corn moist and sweet.

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Grilled Apple Cider Chicken — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, June 20th, 2014

I actually put together my very first grill myself. It took all day and a good deal of patience and persistence. It was a pretty scary moment when I twisted the control on the tank and clicked the ignition. It all worked out and I didn’t blow myself to kingdom come. 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, and steaks and seafood are stupendous, but my absolute favorite is cheap and cheerful chicken. Read more

Cheesy Summer Squash Casserole — Down-Home Comfort

by in In Season, Recipes, June 13th, 2014

At its simplest, squash casserole consists of thinly sliced tender summer squash and a cheese sauce to bind it all together, perhaps with a smattering of crispy, buttery crumbs strewn on the top for crunch. But, as with many favorite dishes, there are a whole lot of opinions about which recipe is the absolute best. Variations include those with homemade white sauce, those with sauces made with familiar red-and-white cans of cream of fill-in-the-blank soup, decadent heavy cream and cheese-laden versions crowned with smashed sleeves of crackers and pats of butter, and mayonnaise-cream cheese dump-and-stir versions. The truth is, nearly all are foolproof, crowd-pleasing favorites, because nothing, absolutely nothing, spells Down-Home Comfort like a casserole. Read more

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