Virginia Willis gives Southern food a brilliant makeover in her new cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company. I caught up with Virginia via email to chat about her new cookbook.
What was your inspiration for writing this cookbook?
First, I’ve always loved to cook. There are photos of me at 3 years old standing on a chair making biscuits with my grandmother. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world. I’ve also lived and worked in NYC, D.C. and France, and worked with or dined at the restaurants of some of the finest chefs in the world. My work experiences with Bobby Flay, Michael Lomonaco and Martha Stewart were incredibly educational. Everything I eat seems to be inspiration for my cooking and food writing. In that time away from the South, I also grew to actually appreciate the South even more. Like many expatriates, I returned home with a better sense of place than I would have had if I had never left. In my travels, I built upon what my grandmother and mother had taught me, a solid repertoire of basic fundamental techniques. My eyes had been wondrously opened to just how brilliant the world of food — and home — could be.
How do you fuse your Southern background with French cooking techniques?
It wasn’t really a choice or a decision, it’s just the way I cook. I am Southern and love the food and culture of the South. However, I am French-trained and understand the techniques and tricks of the trade in the kitchen. I call my style of food and cooking “Refined Southern Cuisine.” I want to share with the world that Southern food is more than fried chicken and cornbread. We have a 10 month growing season – we’ve been eating seasonal and local for generations. And, Southern food doesn’t have to be trapped in the past – it’s a vibrant, dynamic cuisine. I don’t forget the past, but I also don’t ignore the future. The bottom line is that my Southern heritage and French training make for really good food.
What recipes from the cookbook would you recommend for the Thanksgiving table?
I am very, very proud of the Winter Green and Butternut Squash Gratin. I’ve been teaching that recipe for a few years and it’s been incorporated into various friends’ Thanksgiving menus. And, you know that’s a hard nut to crack because everyone has their favorite dish for Thanksgiving; it’s one of my favorites. On the sweet side, I love Mama’s Pecan Tassies. That’s a seasonal tradition because November is the time for pecan harvest.
Tell us about the “brilliant” notes for each recipe.
I strived not to dumb the basic down just to make the “brilliant” concept work. It was important to me that if a reader never tried any of the brilliant suggestions that they would enjoy the basic recipe. It was equally important not to share a brilliant suggestion that was as simple as drizzling over truffle oil or frying things in duck fat — or a laundry list-style recipe that calls for a huge amount more of time and effort. Each “brilliant” note is a short recipe, a doable technique, or simple presentation that elevates the basic dish to be more chef-inspired. I have to tell you, I am thrilled with the results and think you will be, too.
Here are a few recipes from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all to get you started:
- Winter Greens and Butternut Squash Gratin – Here’s Virginia’s side dish pick for a Thanksgiving feast. Try it on the big day, or anytime this fall.
- Brined Roast Turkey Breast with Herb Pan Gravy – For a flavorful, moist turkey try soaking it in a brine before roasting.
- High Cotton Brunswick Stew – This is a classic Southern stew, perfect for cool evenings and fall get-togethers.
We’re giving away one copy of Basic to Brilliant, Y’all! All you have to do to enter is leave a comment telling us your favorite Thanksgiving side dish.
You must include your email address in the “Email” field when submitting your comment so we can communicate back with you if you’re a winner. (But do not post your email address into the actual body of the comment.) We’re giving two copies away to one very lucky, randomly selected commenter.
You may only comment once to be considered, and you don’t have to purchase anything to win; a purchase will not increase your chances of winning. Odds depend on total number of entries. Void where prohibited. Only open to legal residents of the 50 U.S. states, D.C. or Puerto Rico, and you must be at least 18 years of age to win. All entries (comments) must be entered between 5:30 p.m. ET on November 9th and 5:00 p.m. ET on November 11th. Subject to full Official Rules. By leaving a comment on the blog, you acknowledge your acceptance to the Official Rules. ARV of prize: $35.00. Sponsor: Scripps Networks, LLC, d/b/a/ Cooking Channel, 75 9th Ave., New York, NY 10011.
So, tell us, what’s your favorite Thanksgiving side dish?