by Virginia Willis in Recipes, September 12th, 2014
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 15th, 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 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 18th, 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.
by Virginia Willis in In Season, Recipes, July 11th, 2014
I 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.
by Virginia Willis in In Season, Recipes, July 4th, 2014
Tomatoes, 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.
by Virginia Willis in In Season, Recipes, June 27th, 2014
I 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.)
Succotash 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.