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.

Down-Home Comfort — Fresh Easter Ham with Roasted Sweet Potatoes

by in Holidays, Recipes, April 18th, 2014

Fresh ham is nothing like the boozy bourbon-soaked and smoked holiday ham or the candy-sweet spiral wonder. It’s essentially a pork roast with a bone — a rather big pork roast with a bone — but a pork roast nonetheless. It’s simply the upper hind leg of a pig, not processed or cured using salt or brine, nor smoked as most hams are. Fresh ham tastes like a really moist pork loin or center-cut pork chops. And, when prepared and roasted properly, a fresh ham is capped by an exquisite, burnished-gold piece of crispy skin. It’s the perfect marriage of a bone-in pork chop and cracklin’ pork belly. Fresh ham means down-home comfort, especially when served with roasted sweet potatoes.

How did serving ham for Easter become a custom? Mediterranean celebrations, including the Jewish Passover, traditionally call for lamb at spring feasts. However, in northern Europe, pigs were the primary protein and ham was often served instead for special meals. Pigs were slaughtered in the fall and the meat was salted, smoked and cured over the winter. The resulting hams were ready to eat in the spring. At the point when refrigeration became widely available and curing hams wasn’t a necessity, someone came up with the grand idea of cooking fresh ham. I am glad they did.

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Old-Fashioned Banana Pudding — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, April 11th, 2014

Banana pudding is the epitome of old-fashioned country cooking. Yet it’s based on the English dessert called trifle made of layered cake, custard and fruit, often served in a special footed glass serving dish. There are no fancy dishes used for banana pudding. The iconic banana pudding receptacle is a square-shaped Pyrex glass baking dish. Practically every “meat-and-three”-serving restaurant, old-school cafeteria and BBQ joint across the South has a shallow aluminum pan or Pyrex dish of silky banana pudding on its cold line ready to serve up. Nothing fancy, no ordeals — just easy and delicious. Read more

Gulf Coast Crab Cakes — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, April 4th, 2014

Gulf Coast Crab CakesThe Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico are riddled with numerous shallow muddy inlets of brackish water, the perfect home for blue crabs. Blue Crabs are found abundantly in rivers, inlets and bayous and are one of the most popular of the more than 4,500 species of crabs found worldwide. Cracking steamed crabs is an eating sport of sorts; the eater has to really dive in to reap the rewards. There might be a bit too much work for it to be considered comfort food. Cheesy, warm crab dip moves in the right direction, but crispy on the outside, tender on the inside crab cake? That, my friends, is pure down-home comfort.

The best crab cakes contain ingredients that enhance the flavor of the crab yet don’t compete with it, like raw red peppers that are usually added simply for color but do little to improve the flavor of the dish. Crab cakes are best when they are left alone to be crab cakes, not crab-and-breading cakes, or worse, breading-and-crab cakes. You need just enough of a binder to hold them together.

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Country-Fried Steak — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, March 28th, 2014

Country-Fried Steak

Country-fried steak is called chicken-fried steak in Texas and pan-fried steak, cube steak or smothered steak in other regions; but frankly, once you taste this dish of down-home comfort, you’re not going to care what it’s called. This is pure meat and potatoes — simple country cooking that is as basic as basic can be.

When considering classic comfort food dishes, it’s often a bit of a mystery where they came from and how they became so exalted. Although it’s not a great feat of culinary genius to consider breading meat and frying it in a skillet, the dish does enjoy uber-celebrity status in Texas. This may be due to the German settlements in the Hill Country near Austin. If you think about it, chicken-fried steak is just a Texas two-step away from das schnitzel.

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Classic Pound Cake — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, March 21st, 2014

There’s nostalgia associated with comfort food. Comfort food is food that is simple, solid and reminds us of childhood. Buttery, rich pound cake might very well be the ultimate down-home comfort dessert. It’s the cake that consoles as well as celebrates. It’s the all-purpose cake that’s perfect for birthdays, baby showers, funerals and everything in between. Pound cake is the slice of cake served with gossip and coffee to the neighbor down the street as well as for a baby’s first birthday. It’s the solid understudy waiting patiently under the cake dome, ready to step in at a moment’s notice. Read more

Creole Crawfish Etouffee — Down-Home Comfort

by in View All Posts, March 14th, 2014

“First, you make a roux” is the start of many Creole and Cajun recipes. Roux is a cooked mixture of fat (butter) and starch (flour) used to thicken many sauces in classic French cooking. A Creole roux is not the classic French butter-flour mixture, but usually a combination of oil, such as peanut, and flour. Unlike a French roux, which can be white to pale golden, Cajun roux are typically the color of peanut butter, at the very least, and progress to a deep, dark brown. This process can take 45 minutes or so of constant stirring. It is dangerous stuff. If any splatters on you, it will be perfectly clear why this fiery, sticky combination of oil and flour is often referred to as “Cajun napalm!” Read more

Savannah-Style Irish Potato Soup — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, March 7th, 2014

Baked or boiled, simmered or stewed, potatoes are the ultimate in down-home comfort. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that potatoes are often paired with creamy butter, gooey cheese or crispy bacon.) There’s actually a biological reason behind us wanting to feast on spuds. Our body’s favorite fuel is carbohydrates and potatoes are loaded with carbs. When we’re blue or feeling poorly, our bodies yearn for our favorite fuel. Once eaten, carbohydrates break down into smaller sugars that are absorbed and used as energy, fueling muscle contractions. Any extra eventually gets stored in the body as fat. Read more

Country Ham with Stone-Ground Grits — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, February 28th, 2014

Country hams have long been a Southern staple and one old-time recipe is country ham served on a bed of creamy grits topped with redeye gravy. Redeye gravy is not gravy, nor is it red. It is made from coffee — or Coca-Cola — that is simply poured into the skillet to loosen the salty brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Food lore has two possible explanations for its unusual moniker: The first is that the county ham steak usually has a small round bone in the center (the femur) that resembles an eye. The second is that redeye refers to the caffeine in the coffee, making the dish a rousing breakfast.

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Buttermilk Biscuits with Sausage Gravy — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, February 21st, 2014

Buttermilk Biscuits with Sausage GravyAs an avid biscuit maker, I enjoy eating and baking many forms of biscuits. There are fluffy, light, flaky biscuits; tender, soft, cakelike biscuits; massive country-style biscuits called catheads; and delicate tea biscuits meant for ladies’ luncheons.

I’m asked quite a bit about biscuits. Random folks hear my accent and ask about Southern biscuits. People reach out on Twitter and Facebook. I also get at least a couple of emails a week asking how to make biscuits.

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Chocolate Meringue Pie — Down-Home Comfort

by in Recipes, View All Posts, February 14th, 2014

Chocolate Meringue Pie

There was a diner that we would occasionally visit when I was a little girl. It was otherworldly. The fluorescent lights were bright and the restaurant was loud with the clanking of pots and pans, music on the jukebox and the chatter of the customers. I remember the waitresses with bouffants bustling about in their pink uniforms, the red, shiny vinyl booths and Formica tabletops, and the weathered men with worn baseball caps hunched over their coffee cups at the counter. What I remember the most, however, was the gleaming pie display case. It was vividly illuminated from the inside and the desserts were featured on constantly rotating, pristine white shelves, giving a 360 degree view of the tantalizing contents. This polished stainless-steel refrigerator was an absolute shrine to pie. It was truly memorable. Read more