The robin-egg blue cookbook with a rust-red spine sat on my side table of a similar hue tempting me for an entire day before I had an evening to devote to thumbing its crisp pages. The book begged for an extended reading session on the porch in the cool autumn air with a dewy glass of muscadine wine in hand. The cookbook: “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all,” the latest from Southern chef Virginia Willis.
Reading the introduction by Willis transported me back to my own childhood. I was lost in her reveries of cooking with her grandmother, romping in her grandfather’s garden and developing an adult bond with her mother in the kitchen.
Similarly, I was smitten with the gorgeous photographs by Helene Dujardin (also known as blogger Tartlette). Nostalgic images of Mason jars, antique butter churns, cast-iron skillets and hand-stitched linens mingle with those picturing the book’s recipes on whitewashed wooden tables and textured fabrics.
The book’s recipes reflect Willis’ Southern roots and her French culinary training, featuring items such as Southern ratatouille. Willis presents a number of “basic” recipes that she says she would teach in a cooking class.The cookbook also offers a “brilliant” technique to elevate each of the basic recipes. The brilliant techniques may appeal to a broad range of abilities. For those new to the kitchen, they include dipping the nut brittle in chocolate or inserting a skewer into fudge for a fudge pop. Those with more experience behind a stove could try the duck skin cracklings, savory calas (Creole rice fritters) or buerre monté (butter-water emulsion).
Beautiful book in hand, I headed to the kitchen to try a few of these recipes. One night we sampled the N’awlins-style BBQ shrimp. I tried the brilliant version by cooking the shrimp in a buerre monté. The lightly seasoned herby shrimp drew the majority of their flavor from the rich butter. Eating the leftovers the next day, I noticed the flavors melded and intensified overnight.
With the shrimp, we tried the okra cornmeal cakes. These pan-fried cornbread-like rounds even appealed to my children. The okra doesn’t offer much flavor, but provides some variation in texture and color. The brilliant version suggests you make a Napoleon with the cakes, layering them with goat cheese or ricotta in between. These cornmeal cakes make a great canvas for adding favorite ingredients to make them pop. Pickled okra cornmeal cake perhaps?
I also tested a few more recipes, the most notable of which was the sweet potato grits. I was both drawn to and apprehensive about them. I have a soft spot for grits but the addition of a sweet ingredient to this strictly savory (at least in my family) dish made me curious. In fact, the mere thought evoked memories of my college days in New York when friends asked if I put jelly in my grits (what?!?).
In “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all,” Willis adds ginger and cinnamon to the sweet potato grits. I resisted the urge to omit these ingredients. After a long cooking process using the heirloom grits from Willis’ My Southern Pantry collection, I tasted the sweet potato grits. My husband was intrigued, but I think this Southern girl still isn’t quite ready for even a hint of sweetness in her grits. I might try the sweet potato grits again, making them completely savory by cooking them in chicken broth and adding sage and parmesan. But you might like the ginger-cinnamon version if you have a less traditional approach to grits.
I’ll surely try many more of the recipes in the book, as I will treasure its beautiful photographs, lovely stories and play on Southern recipes. The burnt caramel cake is next on my list to try. The photograph bears a striking resemblance to a cake my grandmother made for every Sunday supper, birthday and holiday.
For another look at “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all” and for some sample recipes from the book, take a look at this article.
–by Jenny Turknett, Food & More blog