Virginia Willis’ new cookbook opens with the bravest sentences I’ve seen anyone write about Southern food:
“I’m going to start things out talking about the F-word. No, not that F-word . . . I’m talking about the word ‘fat.’”
Then Willis – Southern-reared and French-trained, usually elegantly dressed with coiffed hair and bold lipstick – goes on to admit her own struggles:
“Fat is the ugly word that’s cruelly used in taunts on the playground or uttered in hushed whispers in junior high .... Fat is a nagging constant in an internal dialogue about self-worth. Fat is the word that makes fully competent adult men and women feel like a failure.”
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And that makes Willis’ new book, “Lighten Up, Y’All” (Ten Speed Press, $24.99), a little unusual in Southern cooking. Much of what is written about food around here is, in the words of chef Art Smith’s foreword, “all about butter and bacon fat, deep-frying anything that didn’t move fast enough to get away, and sugar, sugar and more sugar.”
While other books have tackled the issue of steering traditional food away from its stereotypes and back to the vegetable-forward cuisine it really is, what makes Willis’ book unusual to me is her willingness to get personal. She’s throwing open a closet many women would never open to the world.
It was scary, she admits.
“When I got my copy, I was traveling, and I read that introduction, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God – what have I done?’ But honestly, I decided a couple of years ago I had gotten too heavy. I had to get a hold of this.”
I know Willis through several food-writing circles. I’m also a fan of her earlier books, “Bon Appetit, Y’All,” and “Basic to Brilliant, Y’All.” Unlike so many books that mine the Southern pantry for stories of granny and fatback, Willis’ recipes are usually a little smarter than the rest. In “Basic to Brilliant,” her mustard-flavored mashed potatoes were a flavor revelation to me.
After starting out in her 20s as an apprentice to Nathalie Dupree, the doyenne of Southern cooking teachers, she followed Dupree’s advice and enrolled in L’Academie de Cuisine, a French culinary school in Maryland. That led her to France and the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Burgundy.
As an author and cooking teacher, she’s spent her career molding those two backgrounds, Southern and French, into imaginative food that celebrates both cultures. Neither world, however, is known to stint on the butter and cream.
A path like that will take a toll on a person. A few years ago, Willis, now 48, enrolled in Weight Watchers and lost 40 pounds over 2 1/2 years. No mean feat while you’re writing cookbooks, I can tell you from experience.
A lot of what she had to learn, she says, is how to balance the food she loves with the need to stay healthy enough to keep doing her job.
“More than anything, it’s never been about a number on the scale,” she says. “It’s been about feeling healthy and strong. I developed a different idea about how I wanted to do and be.”
She took aim at familiar, comforting recipes, looking for tricks that trim calories and fat while keeping flavor. She figured out, for instance, that with a particular squirt bottle, three squirts is a teaspoon of oil. She started using a silicone brush to spread that 1 teaspoon around the bottom of a skillet instead of pouring in a couple of glugs of oil that might equal 120 calories or more.
“If you take fat away, you have to put flavor somewhere. What I was trying to do was amp up the nutrition, get as many vegetables in as I could, and add the flavor. I never want anyone to taste a dish and think, ‘Oh, this tastes good for healthy.’ I want people to be like, ‘Oh, this tastes good.’”
Coming up with lighter, more healthful versions of classic recipes also gave her a chance to pull traditional foods away from the excesses of stereotype. Before she started writing the book, when she told people she’s a Southern cookbook writer, she’d hear, “Oh, Southern food is so unhealthy.”
“It got my ire up,” she says. “Paula Deen is not traditional Southern food. But what I realized was that I wasn’t being a good representative of it. So I had this opportunity to present that.”
Now that the book is out, she’s hearing confessions from readers at signings and classes.
“Women especially, we do a number on ourselves,” she says. She’s met women who struggle with bulimia. A body builder who had lost 75 pounds cried in one of her classes when she ate a little mayonnaise for the first time in seven years. Another woman told Willis she had been considering weight-loss surgery, but Willis had convinced her to give it one more try on her own.
“It’s like Lucy in the (psychology) stand,” she says. “But you know, everyone has something. Someone thinks they’re too skinny, someone thinks they’re too tall. Everyone has something. We have to take responsibility, but part of it is that nagging self-doubt. Everyone has it.”
Willis at work
Virginia Willis will make two appearances in our area:
7 p.m. Thursday, Park Road Books: Book signing, 4139 Park Road.
1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, Earl Scruggs Center, 103 S. Lafayette St., Shelby: To open the new exhibit “Feast Here Tonight,” on the roots of Southern food and music, Willis will give a cooking demonstration from “Lighten Up, Y’All.” Tickets are $15. Register online at earlscruggscenter.org or call 704-487-6233. (She’s also head chef for a sold-out dinner Friday.)
A trick or two
Virginia Willis’ favorite tools for cooking lighter:
▪ Silicone brushes, to move a teaspoon’s worth of oil over the entire bottom of a pan.
▪ Ovenproof metal cooling racks. Available in packs at stores like Costco. She puts one in a sheet pan and roasts meat and vegetables on it. The circulating air around the food gets it crisp while allowing fat and oil to drain away.
▪ Nonstick silicone baking mats. She uses them to roast vegetables with less oil.
▪ Her grandmother’s cast-iron skillet. A well-seasoned skillet doesn’t need much oil. “Don’t think I don’t see the irony of cooking lightened-up Southern food in a 100-year-old skillet that’s likely fried an entire chicken house of hens.”
Broccoli and Cheese ‘Rice Grits’
From “Lighten Up, Y’All,” by Virginia Willis. Rice “grits” are broken grains of rice, a tradition in South Carolina. They take on a creamy, risotto-like texture. Willis used that idea to come up with a take on broccoli casserole that’s creamy without cream – or cream soup.
1 cup long-grain white or brown rice or jasmine brown rice
6 cups reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth or homemade chicken stock
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1 head broccoli, chopped into florets, stems peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Place the rice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulverize until broken, 3 to 5 minutes. (Rice is astoundingly sturdy.)
Bring the stock and 1 teaspoon salt to boil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the pulverized rice and bay leaf; bring back to a boil. Decrease heat to simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender, almost like creamy oatmeal or grits, about 20 minutes for white rice and 25 to 30 minutes for brown rice.
Add the broccoli stems and stir to combine. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the florets and stir to combine. Cook until the broccoli is tender, about 7 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and add the Parmesan, nutmeg and butter. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
Ladle into a warmed serving bowl and serve immediately.
Per serving: 206 calories, 5g fat, 31g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 11g protein.
Yield: 6 servings.
Vegetable Corn Bread
From “Lighten Up, Y’All.” Virginia Willis says the vegetables listed are just a suggestion; use whatever is in season. Just use 5 cups of chopped vegetables. If you use watery vegetables like squash or eggplant, cook them quickly first (microwaving will do) and drain off the liquid. You also need to use whole-grain, not self-rising, cornmeal.
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups yellow whole-grain cornmeal (sometimes call “nondegerminated”)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
6 fresh okra pods, stem ends trimmed, very thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 red onion, chopped
Cut and scraped kernels from about 2 ears of corn (about 1 cup)
1 banana pepper, thinly sliced into rings
1 jalapeno, thinly sliced into rings
1 small red chile, thinly sliced into rings
1/2 poblano chile, cored, seeded and chopped
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place the oil in a large cast-iron skillet or ovenproof baking dish and heat in the oven until the oil is piping hot, about 10 minutes.
Combine the cornmeal, salt and baking soda in a bowl. Add the okra, onion, corn, banana pepper and chiles and toss to coat. Set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine.
Remove the heated skillet from the oven and pour the hot oil into the batter. Stir to combine, then pour the batter into the hot skillet. Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Using a serrated knife, slice into wedges and serve warm.
Note: If you want it less spicy, remove the seeds from the chile pods before slicing.
Per serving: 208 calories, 6g fat, 33g carbohydrates, 6g fiber, 6g protein.
Yield: 8 servings.