The Southern cooking that I knew as a child is not the Southern cooking found in Virginia Willis’s two books, Bon Appetit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company. Nor, I suspect, are these books that true to the Southern cooking that Virginia grew up with, despite her constant references to Mama and Meme. Nevertheless, if she can improve on the recipes of Mama and Meme, making brownies from scratch, not a box, or using whipped cream instead of Cool Whip, then more power to Virginia. Virginia has been to cooking school in France, and has built a career in the food world. She has worked with such luminaries as Paula Deen and Martha Stewart (rather dubious credentials). Her Southern food is very Frenchified and fancified à la Martha Stewart; at least Virginia does not channel Paula Deen. In contrast, the Southern food that I knew was simple: corn on the cob fresh from the garden; fried chicken from a chicken whose neck my grandmother had wrung that morning; impeccably red, juicy, and flavorful tomatoes; beaten biscuits from the epicenter of beaten biscuit making; with store-bought ice cream for dessert.
Much of Southern cooking seems to be a strange amalgam of fresh foods and convenience food. After all, if you are out all day working in the garden, you don’t want to come back to the house and bake a cake from scratch, when a perfectly satisfactory cake can be made in a fraction of the time from a mix. (Or forget the cake; just pull the ice cream box out of the freezer.) Virginia does not go near convenience foods in her cookbooks, but her food is clearly the food of the leisure classes, as it is fairly time consuming.
I found myself liking the book Bon Appetit, Y’all despite myself. I disliked the title, I disliked the misrepresentation of Southern food, I tried to keep myself from disliking the author, but I liked the recipes. The four recipes I tried ranged from as good as can be to acceptable, with very good and good but flawed in between. There were also recipes that I may well try in the future, as well as recipes that I didn’t try only because they were too similar to food I already make and like. I have a question for Virginia about her recipes: Why do you keep recommending Vidalia onions in your cooked dishes? Is it just because you live in Atlanta? Sweet onions are for eating raw; when cooked they are no sweeter than regular onions, and because of their higher water content, tend to cook down to nothing.
“Roasted Beet Salad with Walnuts and Walnut Oil” (page 40) was a winner, although I have never seen anything remotely like this salad on a Southern table. Virginia roasts red beets (I used golden beets). She mixes the beets with shallots and walnuts, dresses them with a mustardy vinaigrette, made with olive oil and walnut oil, and serves them on a bed of flimsy lettuce, decorated with goat cheese. I omitted the lettuce, and used lots of goat cheese.
Virginia’s “Celeriac Slaw” (page 42) is celery rèmoulade for dummies. In this recipe, she mixes shredded celeriac with mayonnaise, mustard, capers, lemon, and herbs. I have been eying recipes for celery rèmoulade for some time, so this recipe seemed like an easy introduction. This was a tasty enough salad, but I found the texture of the shredded celeriac unappealing. Since I am not sure that a fancier recipe would take care of the texture problemn this recipe may be the alpha and omega of my celery rèmoulade experimentation.
I will forgive Virginia Willis all her culinary faults for bringing the recipe “Anne’s Twice-Baked Spinach Soufflés” (page 66) to my attention. The eponymous Anne is Anne Willan, Virginia’s teacher and idol. Spinach-stuffed soufflés are baked in individual ramekins, then turned out into a larger dish, covered in a cheesy white sauce, and baked again. I hesitate to call the products of this recipe soufflés; they do not rise much, and so do not fall much. But they have a lovely mushy texture, and a great flavor. [Go to the recipe.]
It’s hard to go wrong with a recipe entitled “Chocolate Pots de Crème” (page 255), which are simply chocolate flavored custards. In two respects, though, these chocolate pots were far from optimal. Virginia suggests covering the custard cups with foil when they bake in order to avoid a skin forming; I covered the cups but still got a skin. Not only would I have preferred no skin, but I like my custards silky smooth, and there was a certain grittiness to these; it seemed the chocolate melted into minuscule yet still detectable chunks. These two flaws, however, did not stop me from immensely enjoying these chocolate pots. I was amused by the introduction to this recipe. Virginia slips and lets the cat out of the bag when she reveals that Mama prefers Cool Whip to real whipped cream. At least my grandmother used Reddi-Wip instead of freshly whipped cream.
The conceit in Basic to Brilliant, Y’all is to present a basic version of a recipe, then to offer a variation to turn the basic recipe into a “brilliant” one None of the variations tempted me. In fact, few of the recipes tempted me. There were a lot of meat recipes, and a lot of plain food fancied up for no particular reason. I had the feeling that Virginia had used up all her good recipes in her first book. On the other hand, if I were flipping through this cookbook six months ago, or six months hence, I might find lots to interest me.
Sweet potatoes are one of those foods that I wish I liked more. Thus I keep trying sweet potato recipes, and every now and then find a good one. However, Virginia’s “Oven-Roasted Sweet Potato and Green Bean Salad” (page 58) will not make it into the permanent repertoire. To make this salad, you toss sweet potatoes, a red onion, and green beans with olive oil and roast, then mix the cooked vegetables with honey, lemon juice, and parsley. I approve of the simplicity of this recipe, and the salad was actually quite beautiful, but it is a salad that sweet potato lovers will like much more than the rest of us.
Virginia’s “Wild Mushroom Soup” (page 205) is one of the simplest avatars of mushroom soup that I have seen. The soup consists of dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated, and lots of fresh mushrooms, puréed in broth. For additional flavor there’s an onion and a bouquet garni (which I omitted, not from principle, but because I just forgot). You can stir in some heavy cream at the end, or, if you want to be brilliant, top with “Herbed Whipped Crème Fraiche”. As can be deduced from the picture, I just opted for the cream. [Go to the recipe.]
“Meme’s Yellow Squash Casserole” (page 180) was very underwhelming. I dislike yellow squash, but I had recently made a yellow squash casserole that wasn’t bad, so I was curious to see what Meme and Virginia could do with this dish. They use a combination of yellow squash and zucchini (instead of their three yellow and two green, I used two yellow and three green), bake it in a cheese-enriched custard topped with crumbs. Virginia specifies cheddar cheese; I would not be surprised of Meme had used American cheese. There wasn’t much taste to this dish. On the good side, there was only a hint of the yellow squash taste I dislike, but on the bad side, the yellow squash was not adequately masked by the cheese. For the “brilliant” variation, Virginia grills the squash before incorporating it into the casserole, which seems like way too much trouble for a very doubtful taste payoff.
Let me note that I intensely dislike the gratuitous use of “y’all”. “You all” is the plural of the pronoun “you”. The term is also properly used when addressing a single individual as a representative of a larger entity. For example, one may ask a clerk in a store, “Do you all have any origami paper?” Use of “y’all” as an interjection, as a sign that the speaker (or writer) is trying to conjure up plantation days is, at best, just stupid.
Adapted from Virginia Willis, Bon Appetit, Y’all
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach
1 shallot, chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup flour
1½ cups milk, warmed
1 cup half and half
7 eggs (5 yolks and 7 whites)
2 tablespoons mustard
3 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated
Preheat the oven to 400º. Butter lots of ramekins; Virginia says to use six 8-ounce ramekins; I use 12 to 13 smaller ones. Thaw and drain the spinach, then squeeze to extract more moisture.
Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet. Cooke the shallot for a few minutes, add the garlic and cook a few more minutes. Add the spinach, cook yet a little more, then remove from the heat.
Melt the butter in a heavy pan. Stir in the flour. Add the warm milk, a bit at a time, stirring until smooth after each addition. When all the milk is incorporated and the sauce is thickened, grate in some nutmeg, and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove one third of the sauce to a small saucepan; mix this third with the half and half and set aside. Add the spinach to the remaining two thirds of the sauce.
Separate the eggs; you will need 5 yolks and 7 whites. The other two yolks can be used for something else. Beat the yolks, then add a little bit of the spinach sauce to the egg yolks. Add the egg yolks back to the spinach sauce, and mix all together. Whip the egg whites until stiff. Add a little of the spinach sauce to the whites, then fold all the whites into all the spinach sauce. Divide this soufflé base between the buttered ramekins. Put the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes, until brown (but not too brown) on top. Remove from the oven, and let the soufflés cool slightly.
When the ramekins have cooled down enough to handle, turn out the soufflés into a baking dish. Some will inevitably stick; just scrape it out. Add about half the cheese to the reserved sauce and heat. When the cheese melts, pout this sauce over the soufflés, then top with the rest of the grated cheese. Bake for another ten minutes or so, until the cheese on top is melted and everything is hot. The dish can be prepared and baked later quite successfully; ideally, have the dish at room temperature before sticking it back in the oven. The soufflés will still be good if kept warm on a hot plate, and make great leftovers.
Adapted from Virginia Willis, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons butter
2 pounds mixed mushrooms, chopped
3 cups vegetable broth
¾ cup cream
Pour the boiling water over the porcini mushrooms; let them sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a soup pot, add the onion and cook until the onion is limp and starting to brown. Add the fresh mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms are also limp. Add the broth. Remove the porcini mushrooms from the mushroom water, chop coarsely, and add to the pot. Strain the mushroom water into the soup pot. Add about one teaspoon of salt at this point. Cook the soup for about 30 minutes. Purée using your immersion blender or otherwise. Taste for salt, grind in lots of pepper, and add the cream.