by Virginia Willis in Recipes, Restaurants, September 26th, 2014
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, September 19th, 2014
It’s a rite of passage to go to one of America’s great steakhouses. Dark knotty, wide wood; warm, well-polished brass; and banquettes upholstered in worn, creased leather set the stage. When partnered with excellent food and excellent service, it’s an all-American experience. Our attraction to the scent of meat cooking on fire is basic; the wafting smoke seems to awaken some sort of primordial urge buried deep in the recesses of our carnivorous brains. There’s not much heartier and more satisfying in terms of comfort food than a meaty, perfectly charred steak topped with mushrooms and served with a baked potato and creamed spinach. This is how the West was won — or at least west Wall Street.
Life occasionally calls for a thick, juicy steak. Those special times might be celebrating something such as a big promotion, a graduation or an anniversary. The celebrations often come with a big price tag, too. Down-home comfort steakhouse-style is a real cause for celebration, because you can do it in the comfort of your own home. No rude waiters, no dings in the car due to the careless teenager in valet and no eye-popping bill that costs as much as a house payment.
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, September 12th, 2014
Scalloped Potatoes. Potatoes au Gratin. Potato Cheese Casserole. Potato Cheese Bake. Many names describe this mouthwatering, golden-brown, bubbly dish of down-home comfort.
I have a friend who is a personal chef in Atlanta. She told me that she once described a possible menu dish to her customer as a casserole and her customer responded with a slightly disdainful, haughty voice, “Oh, no, our family doesn’t eat casseroles.” Duly noted, my wise friend observed. A few weeks later she thought she’d try again. She described pretty much the same dish, but this time as a gratin. The same customer replied in that same disdainful voice, “No, that’s too far too fancy, our family doesn’t eat gratins.” My friend knew her stumbling block was the language, the description, the perception, because she knew she meant the same recipe. So, going up to bat for a third time, a few weeks later still, she described the dish as a “bake.” It worked. “Oh, yes,” the customer happily replied, “that sounds lovely.”
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, September 5th, 2014
What? Biscuits and Chocolate Gravy. That sounds like something a devious 6-year-old would make up, doesn’t it? Tender, buttery biscuits enrobed in dark, rich rivulets of creamy, chocolate gravy. Yes, it may sound very Willy Wonka-inspired, but Biscuits and Chocolate Gravy is actually a very old-school traditional breakfast of the Upland South.
People talk about Southern food as if it’s one cuisine, when in actuality it has many variations and subtleties, often region by region. The South can be subdivided into two principal larger areas: the Upper South and the Lower, or Deep, South. The Upper, or Upland, South is the northern border of what we define as the South in the United States. It runs from Virginia and North Carolina westward through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, dipping into the northern realms of Alabama and Georgia. The Upland South doesn’t conform neatly to state lines, but instead is influenced by the terrain, history and culture. It’s the landscape of a diverse society and what could generally be defined as Appalachia, an area at once both incredibly poor and culturally rich.
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, August 29th, 2014
Corn has been part of the American kitchen since Colonial days, as it was a hardy crop, relatively easy to grow and resistant to insects. It was a staple of the Native American diet long before the first settlers arrived and quickly became part of the settlers’ diet. It had a long harvest that extended over a longer period of time than wheat and was cultivated extensively from New England to Georgia. There’s also a long history of corn in the hills and valleys of Appalachia, as corn was better suited to the mountainous terrain than wheat or barley. Corn was eaten fresh in the summer and dried into meal for the winter months. Practicality guided it to find its way in some form, sweet or savory, into breakfast, lunch and dinner.
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, August 22nd, 2014
When I was a child my grandfather would sometimes barbecue a whole hog to mark the end of summer. He was a honest-to-goodness country boy and knew what he was doing with a pig and a pit. The huge beast was split and slowly cooked on a metal grate set over a pit of gray cement blocks above glowing embers. My grandfather would make a basting mop out of a bent pecan branch and white cotton rags, patiently basting the pig with a potent broth of vinegar and salt, letting heat and smoke slowly transform that pig into our Labor Day feast. My sister, the cousins and I would run around in the nearby yard, begging to stir the coals or add split pieces of oak, absolutely anything to be near this unusual scene that utterly transfixed us. To this day, I can close my eyes and hear the sizzle of the fat as it dripped on the white-hot coals.
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, August 15th, 2014
I am just old enough to remember Bill Cosby as the Jell-O pudding man. Those joyful ads were effective! He would be seated at a kid-size table in a kid-size chair, nearly always in a colorful, crazy sweater, with his knees jutting up as he cavorted with what seemed to me to be very, very lucky children. He was like the ultimate dad or friendly uncle, smiling and enjoying smooth and creamy pudding with a group of smiling, happy kids. I wanted to be one of those happy kids; I wanted a cup of that chocolate pudding.
I didn’t grow up eating that premade cup of pudding he was promoting, which may be part of the reason I had such a hankering for it. It wasn’t that we were uber-elite about homemade foods only. In my family, the cakes and pies were always made from scratch, but in terms of convenience desserts, my family was actually more inclined to the ruby-colored, fruit-flavored gelatin versions. My grandfather called it “nervous pudding,” since it wiggled and jiggled.
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, August 8th, 2014
A 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.
by Virginia Willis in In Season, Recipes, August 1st, 2014
Po’ 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.
by Virginia Willis in Recipes, July 25th, 2014
There 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.
When 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.