Rich in folklore and history, the cooking of the American South embodies all the glamour, grit, and heartbreak of Southern culture: the sad cruelty of slavery’s influence; the joie de vivre of wealthy, well-bred landed aristocracy; the romance of moonlight and magnolia; the sun-washed wholesomeness of family memories; a note or two of twisted Southern Gothic; fierce attachment to the land; and recently, a prideful sense of place, with chefs boldly championing local, artisanal, and heirloom products and vegetables.
-Introduction to Bon Appétit Y’all, Virginia Willis
I’m still in awe/hypnosis from a so very enjoyable cooking class at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill with Virginia Willis. From the second I walked into the cooking school kitchen and saw a small jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise (a true Southern favorite) at everyone’s table, I knew I had selected the perfect class to attend with my mom.
Virginia is promoting her new, beautifully written and heartfelt, soul-pouring collection of recipes, Bon Appétit, Y’all. As she is classically French trained, but Georgia and Louisiana raised, her cooking blends technique, sophistication, skill and honesty to the ingredient from French cooking with the traditional recipes of a Southern upbringing. She draws inspiration equally from her training at L’Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne and cooking alongside her mother and grandmother Meme. She vividly recalls shelling butter beans while sitting on the kitchen counter, bare feet in the sink. Among the delightful recipes in her book you’ll find Pimento Cheese in Cherry Tomatoes, Vidalia Onion Quiche, Chicken Saltimbocca with Country Ham, Meme’s Old Fashioned Butter Beans and Meme’s Pound Cake. I can’t wait to get crackin’.
But the menu from tonight follows.
La Varenne Gougères: a pastry dough treat from Burgundy, usually used to make profiteroles and éclairs, given a savory treatment with Gruyère cheese. Usually served with an apéritif.
These airy little bites are more than fine plain, but Virginia offered suggestions for adding bacon (!) or walnuts/raisins to the inside of the pastry. My mom even remembers making these before with a mini scoop of chicken salad inside. What’s best, these pastries are durable and able to be made ahead of time to be stored or frozen. Just warm before serving.
The cheese puffs paired with a 2004 Binner Riesling (medium dry with an acidity to balance the cheese).
Pepper-crusted Beef with Cognac and Golden Raisins: Virginia seared the pepper-coated filet mignon on two sides, resisting the urge to turn the beef before it was ready. Turn the beef after 3-5 minutes when the meat has cooked enough to unstick itself from the pan. She explained that this very tender cut of beef, with little fat and marbling, and not much flavor, should be served rare. But also because of its inherently mild flavor, the cut works nicely with rich sauces.
Enter the cognac-raisin pan sauce. This was entertaining to watch as the warming cognac flared up in big flames off the gas stove top. Bourbon could also be used, though Virginia said, “I’d just assume have bourbon in a glass.” My kind of girl!
Celeriac Puree: The title of this dish is somewhat misleading at first read. It is in fact a Yukon gold potato and celery root puree. Rutabaga, turnips or similar root veggies could be substituted for the celeriac. The potatoes, milk and butter give this dish a silky smooth texture, while the addition of the celery root adds a subtle bitter celery flavor. The finished puree was seasoned with coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper, which I learned is traditionally used in white sauces and foods in French cooking for a more refined presentation.
Tangle of Bitter Greens: I was truly surprised how much I enjoyed this kale dish. Kale, in the same family as collards, turnip and mustard greens, is a hearty, leafy veggie. Its bright color indicates high nutrional content, however, it’s not uncommon in the South to cook the hell out of greens and then smother them with hot sauce. Which I love. Virginia did a simple, fast preparation that required quick chopping to a chiffonade (like rolling up a cigar, and slicing the leaves into thin ribbons or “tangles”) and making a garlic paste (crushing the garlic, using salt as an abrasive and a knife like a painter’s palette knife to smush the garlic into a consistency that will spread evenly through the greens). Tossed into a hot skillet with canola oil, and these greens require only a few minutes to brighten in color until they’re ready.
The filet, celeric-potato puree and kale were served with a 2007 La Croix Peyrassol (a rich cabernet from Southern France). The flavors and textures on the plate melded together so wonderfully: bitter greens in the leafy ribbon texture, smooth buttery potatoes with a tinge of celeriac bite, ever so tender beef, spiced with pepper, a zing of cognac and sweet plump raisins.
Chocolate Pots de Crème: What’s the best way to end a slam-dunk meal? A sexy French chocolate pudding. Virginia used 65% semi-sweet chocolate, and discouraged using anything sweeter considering the amount of sugar going into the pudding. A touch of vanilla extract heightens the chocolate flavor, and a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream on top adds a smooth finish without competing with the chocolate’s sweetness. Some other flavors she suggested adding: instant coffee for a mocha flavor, or chilis for spice! That’s caliente. This dessert was heavenly rich, cool and smooth.
During the class, Virginia recounted many stories, both funny and dear. Funny: the time she sliced off the tip of her thumb and iced it while her French mentor poured them each a glass of cognac. Dear: Recalling the interior panels of her grandmother’s kitchen cabinets, lined with recipe cards and handwritten notes on the cabinets themselves.
But what Virginia Willis really touched on was something every chef, home cook and food-lover alike has observed: Cooking is powerful because it reaches all of our senses, and our senses tap into out most vivid memories. The smell of pasta water will forever remind me of my apartment and roommates in Florence. The taste of homemade meatloaf and a July tomato will forever remind me of my grandparents. The sound of a food processor will remind me of Mom’s homemade chicken salad and pimento cheese. When we eat and when we cook, we’re not just consuming a meal, we consume our history.
I highly recommend Bon Appétit, Y’all, y’all. The recipes will make you drool, and Virginia’s storytelling will make you laugh and cry. The pictures—styled beautifully by Virginia herself (heck, she was Martha Stewart’s kitchen director, she knows a thing or two about perfection)—show off the quality of the recipes, just begging to be prepared. She is a lovely, generous chef and a pleasure to meet. She recently filmed an appearance on Paula Deen’s show (I’m assuming Paula’s Party), so be on the lookout for that. And she is set to film her own television pilot soon! Looking forward to more good things.