Nothin' Fancy, Y'all
Chef Virginia Willis puts a modern twist on Southern cooking
In honor of Father’s Day, I want it noted that my dad was (and still is) a rock star of a cook. Family meals at his table bubbled over with yummy noises and boisterous conversation. But he kept weeknight suppers simple. When we wanted something more upscale, my little brother Ted would prepare “French Cuisine.” This consisted of several Pepperidge Farm cookies, artistically arranged on a nice plate. “French” meant “Fancy.” Of course, there are occasions that call for fancy. But most of us need ideas for meals we can pull together between helping with homework and drawing a bath.
In her inspiring 2011 book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, Virginia Willis tells stories that remind us that these meals matter, too. We tie memories to food all the time — not just at the big events. In Basic to Brilliant, Willis recalls visiting her critically burned sister in the hospital on a mission to badger her into building her strength by eating. Her love for the green beans that saved her sister’s life shows in a recipe that pairs them with peaches lusciously seared in butter. In 2008’s Bon Appetit, Y’all, a summer afternoon’s haul of wild blackberries gets her Meme’s treatment in a crusty cobbler, as easy to put together as it is to eat.
Though Willis roots her dishes in her Southern upbringing, her technique arises from her training in, yes, French cuisine. But there’s nothing fussy about her approach. Au contraire! In a recent interview, she rejected media cliches about Southern food. “Fried chicken and barbecue are only part of the picture. And fried chicken used to be only for Sunday!”
Asked how parents can teach kids to love making and eating good food, she says, “Put down that Gameboy; get the kids in the kitchen, thinking about their food.” Should we visit a local orchard? She laughs. “A 13-year old does not want to be out there in that heat!” Instead, start with basics at the farmer’s market. “Step A,” she says, “this is a blueberry; it grows on a bush. They’re in season in June and July, real people plant and harvest them, and they taste better if they’re coming from nearby.” In fact, she says, most kids don’t know that “there’s something coming out of the earth 12 months a year here in the South.”
To start gathering the family for memorable, healthy meals, Willis said, “take baby steps. No one is born knowing how to cook.” Set aside at least a half-hour for meal preparation, and “incorporate small things — it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Pound a chicken breast thin and sauté it. It’s quick, and tastes better than food precooked four states away.” Once you’re done, enjoy it with your family. You’ve made Southern Cuisine.
Green Beans with Buttery Peaches
Adapted from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all
1 ½ lb. green beans, ends trimmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 peaches, pitted and sliced
salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed through a press or minced fine
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Make an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line a plate with paper towels.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat and add the beans, cooking about 3 minutes, until crisp-tender. Drain in a colander, then submerge beans (in the colander, if possible) in ice water until chilled. Remove beans to prepared plate.
In the same pot, heat butter and oil over medium-high heat till shimmering. Add peaches and season with salt and pepper. Cook, turning once, till browned on both sides, about 4 minutes, depending on the peaches’ tenderness. Add garlic and fennel seeds, cook till fragrant, less than a minute. Add beans and toss to coat. Taste for salt and pepper; serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Meme’s Blackberry Cobbler
Adapted from Bon Appetit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 cups fresh blackberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°. In the oven, melt butter in a large cast-iron skillet or baking dish, 5-7 minutes.
Lightly mash berries in a bowl, adding a bit of sugar if tart. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add sugar, milk, and vanilla, then stir to blend. Remove skillet from oven and add melted butter to batter; stir to combine. Pour batter into skillet, then add blackberries and their juice to the center of the batter.
Bake until golden brown (a toothpick or skewer inserted in the center should come out clean), about 1 hour. Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.