Thursday, September 24, 2015

Virginia Willis goes from 'Basic to Brilliant, Y'all'

           I've got sweet potato grits on my mind today so I'm highlighting a recipe I discovered a few years ago in Virginia Willis' cookbook that blends Southern dishes with a French flare. Many readers will know Willis by her award-winning “Bon Appétit, Y’all,” and her 2011 cookbook, “Basic to Brilliant Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company,” is a “body of basic recipes that can stand on their own,” she writes, “but they can be transformed to brilliant by a short recipe, presentation tip, or technique — all accomplished without ‘dumbing down’ the basics to make the brilliant work, and without the overuse of expensive or hard-to-find ingredients.”
            Talk about my kind of book.
            The opening features “fundamental recipes” such as stocks, sauces, pie crusts and the like. Then readers move to “starters and nibbles,” with lovely ideas that run the gamut, such as Southern ratatouille, shrimp rillettes and pigs in a blanket bites. Other chapters include typical meals — soups and salads, fish and shellfish and beef, pork and lamb, gospel birds and game birds and vegetables. In Southern fashion there’s rice grits and potatoes, eggs and dairy, a section on daily bread with items honoring cornmeal and sweet potatoes and, of course, desserts.
            And the book is full of helpful hints, anecdotes and ways to turn the basic recipes into brilliant ones.
            Here’s a great example. This sweet potato grits recipe can be enhanced into a soufflelike spoonbread; the book offers both. I’ll include it here as grits and let you check out the book if you wish to know more. 

Sweet Potato Grits
2 cups water
2 cups low-fat or whole milk
1 cup stone-ground grits
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Direction: In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the water and milk and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Slowly add the grits, whisking constantly. Add the sweet potato. Season with salt and white pepper. Decrease the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes. Taste the grits and sweet potato to make sure both are cooked and tender. Add the ground ginger, cinnamon and butter. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and white pepper. Serve immediately.

            In other food news, Cheramie Sonnie reviews "A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen" by Dora Charles with Fran McCullough in today's Advocate. You can read it here.

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a food and travel writer living in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” She also writes Louisiana romances under the pen name of Cherie Claire, “A Cajun Dream” and “The Letter.” Write her at