Monday, October 3, 2011

The Basic and Brilliant Virginia Willis

You will read countless words about Virginia Willis as an author and an authority on Southern cooking. The following words are about who Virginia Willis is.

To cook from Virginia’s books is a lot like really knowing her. Every bite of her food is just as wonderful as the last and the beauty of each dish is as equally delightful as the taste. What you see is what you get. She is the same joyous, charming woman in person as she is on stage or on screen. Her charismatic warmth is no public persona – it is truly who she is.

Virginia is one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever known. I’ve called her countless times for advice and not once has she ever said she was too busy or couldn’t help steer me in the right direction. She has listened to me cry, pepped me up in sticky times, and said, “Oh honey, I’m so happy for you,” in moments of my utmost joy. She is a friend like every woman needs.

Her relationship with her sweet mama says more about her soul than I can describe. As a mother to a daughter, I hope and pray that I can have that same relationship with my child when she is grown. I’ve watched Virginia hug her mama and hold on for a few seconds longer than expected. She loves that woman in an intense sense of the word. Not only are they mother and daughter, they are also beloved friends. Every mother should be so blessed.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve had the unique pleasure of cooking and tasting 5 of her recipes out of her brand new book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all. Each and every one was more than excellent (including the Arugula with Country Ham and Pecans below). They are recipes that I will cook again and again. I curled up with her beautiful cookbook and my coffee this morning. Even if Virginia had never donned an apron, she could have made a fine living as wordsmith.

Just like Virginia’s gracious personality, she’s offering a special treat for my readers during the next 2 weeks. Buy Basic to Brilliant, Yall, and get your very own personalized bookplate. How fun is that?

She can cook with the grace God, write like we all wish we could, and is a friend that I’m thankful to have in my life.

Arugula with Country Ham and Pecans
Serves 4 to 6

8 cups arugula, dandelion, or frisée (about 6 ounces)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon firmly packed light brown sugar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 thin slices country ham, cut into lardons (see sidebar)
1/2 onion, preferably Vidalia, thinly sliced
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup crumbled aged white Cheddar cheese(about 2 ounces)
1/4 cup chopped pecans

Place the greens in large bowl. Set aside. Stir together
the vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and pepper in small
bowl until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
Add the ham and cook, stirring occasionally, until
crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer
the ham to a plate lined with paper towels.

Add the onion to the skillet and cook over medium
heat, stirring frequently, until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes;
add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to
60 seconds. Add the vinegar mixture, then remove
from the heat. Working quickly, scrape the bottom of
the skillet with a wooden spoon to loosen any yummy
browned bits. Set aside to cool just slightly.

Pour the warm dressing over the reserved greens,
add the ham, and toss gently with tongs until the
arugula is slightly wilted. Taste and adjust for seasoning
with salt and pepper. Divide among chilled
serving plates. Sprinkle over the cheese and pecans.
Season with freshly ground black pepper and serve

Brilliant: Short Recipe

Crispy Deep-Fried Eggs
Green eggs and ham? How about Greens with Egg and Ham to take this Basic salad to Brilliant? 
Bring 4 large eggs to room temperature. Line a plate with paper towels and set aside. In a small, heavy saucepan, pour in about 1 1/2 cups peanut oil to fill half full. Heat over medium heat until it reads 350°F on a deep-fry thermometer. Working with 1 egg at a time, break the egg into a small ramekin, and then slowly and carefully slide it into the hot oil. It will spit and sizzle. Cook until the egg is crunchy on the outside and the yolk is still runny, about 1 1/2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, lift the egg out of the oil and transfer to the prepared plate. Season with finishing salt and freshly ground black pepper. Repeat with the remaining eggs. Serve immediately atop the wilted salad.  

Reprinted with permission from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Photo credit: Helene Dujardin © 2011

Copyright © 2011 Rebecca Lang Cooks, LLC. All rights reserved.