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Setting Things Straight

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A friend of mine recently sent me a note that said that Anna and Kristina’s Grocery Bag, a show on Oprah’s OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network for those of you living under a rock) had reviewed my first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all.

I was thrilled! How cool. I had no idea.

The concept of the show is that Anna and Kristina conduct tests of cookbooks and kitchen products and judges their quality from the perspective of the average consumer.

Well, I got the stamp of approval so I was extra thrilled.

It’s nice they saw beyond the stereotype of Southern cooking to even give it a try.

One misperception about Southern cooking is that it is nothing more than fried chicken. Don’t get me wrong, I love fried chicken. I’d ask for fried chicken as my last meal, but Southern food is more than fried chicken.

You might remember a piece I wrote for Edible Communities called Five Things Cooking Has Taught Me About Life. Well, if I were to write it now, it might be Six Things.

6. Presumption can be a dangerous and destructive thing.

I am very invested in the perception of Southern food and where my work fits in the picture. This is my career. This is my life. This is my reputation. I’ve worked in the culinary world for nearly 20 years. It’s personal. I don’t want people having any misconceptions about me or my food.

If someone wants to judge me, then judge like Anna and Christina did – by looking past what things might “seem” to be.

Another misconception about Southern Food is that it is time-consuming. Well, that’s not true, either.

My dear friend and colleague, Rebacca Lang has a new book called Quick-Fix Southern: Homemade Hospitality in 30 Minutes or Less that knocks that incorrect presumption flat.

It’s a delightful book. I love the subtitle “homemade hospitality”. It’s so much better to focus on the positive, yes?

Rebecca is a contributing editor to Southern Living and can be seen on the nationally syndicated show Daytime. She’s fantastic. She’s one of Nathalie’s “little chickens”, too.

Rebecca and I share many sensibilities about food and cooking. She’s been a huge supporter to me and a dear friend. I’ll tell you the truth, one could easily presume she is sweet Southern belle that cares about monograms and her next lunch date. She’s much more complex with a wicked, wicked sense of humor, real cooking and writing talent, and a huge passion for Southern food. She’s more than Stir until Famous.

I think you’ll really enjoy meeting her and getting to know the real Rebecca, too. Here are her recipes for Dressed Up Oysters and Pecan Crusted Rack of Lamb. And, just for the hell of it, I’m sharing my Fried Chicken recipe, again, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

Dressed-Up Oysters
Makes 18 oysters

Oysters beds dot the coast of much of the South. Oysters are a big business and an even greater delicacy. Some people slurp them down raw, others cook them to perfection. You’ll need an oyster knife and an old kitchen towel or glove ready for prying open the shells.

6 ounces bacon, chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 1/2 dozen oysters on the halfshell
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Ice cream salt, for garnish

Move the oven rack to a position about 5 inches from the broiler. Preheat the broiler. In a small skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate, reserving about 1 tablespoon of drippings in the skillet.

Add the shallot to the skillet and cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add the vinegar and stir to release the browned bits from the skillet. Cook for 30 seconds.

Arrange the oysters on a rimmed baking sheet and broil for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the edges are curled. Spoon the shallot mixture over the oysters and sprinkle with bacon and parsley. Nestle the oyster shells in ice cream salt to serve.

Pecan-Crusted Racks of Lamb
Serves 6

Roasting time: 25 minutes

If the lamb racks don’t already have the ribs cleaned of meat and fat, ask your butcher to french the bones for you. I like to use sage, oregano, and thyme for the chopped herbs. Feel free to use whatever herbs you have on hand.

2 (1 1/2-pound) racks of lamb, frenched
1/2 cup pecan halves
2 cups loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh herbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/3 cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450˚F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the racks of lamb on the prepared baking sheet. The racks should be lying down with the bones curving toward the bottom of the pan.

Finely chop the pecans, mint leaves, and herbs. Place the pecans and minced herbs in a medium mixing bowl. Add the garlic, salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Stir in the olive oil.

Using half of the herb mixture for each rack, spread the mixture on top of the racks. Pat the herb mixture gently so as to coat the entire top side.

Bake at 450˚F for 25 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 130˚F for medium- rare. Let the lamb rest at least 5 minutes before carving. To carve, slice between each bone.

Meme’s Fried Chicken and Gravy
Serves 4 to 6

1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound (2 cups) solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, for frying, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup chicken stock or broth

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the flour in a shallow plate and season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Set aside. Line a baking sheet or large plate with brown paper bags or several layers of paper towels.

Heat the shortening in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until the temperature measures 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer.

Meanwhile, to fry the chicken, starting with the dark meat (since it takes longer to cook) and working one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, turning to coat. Shake to remove excess flour. Reserve any leftover seasoned flour for the gravy.

One piece at a time, slip the chicken into the hot fat without crowding; the fat should not quite cover the chicken. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature at 375°F. At this stage, a splatter guard (a wire cover laid over the pan) may prove useful to contain the hot grease. The guard lets the steam escape, while allowing the chicken to brown nicely.

Fry the pieces, turning them once or twice, until the coating is a rich, golden brown on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked all the way through and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh should register 170°F.) Remove the pieces and drain on the prepared baking sheet. (Do not hold the chicken in a warm oven; it will get soggy.)

To make the gravy, remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off most of the grease, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons and any browned bits.

Decrease the heat to very low. Add the butter and cook until foaming. Add 4 tablespoons of the reserved seasoned flour and stir to combine. Cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the stock. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the gravy is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add more stock or water to achieve the correct consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 2 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

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