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Sippin’ on Southern Comfort

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This week I was in Athens, GA taking classes at the University of Georgia Food Sciences Department.The weather today was glorious. The leaves have all changed and the colors are vibrant. It’s just chilly enough to feel like fall. Campus looks quite different. I attended UGA, but let’s put it this way, it’s been quite a while since I was there.  And, I was a history major and the liberal arts are located on the older part of campus so, I wasn’t on “Ag Hill” all that often. Nonetheless, there was something very familiar about being at the school. It touched something in my memory walking the campus and the streets of Athens. I was taken back and there was some small piece of me that felt like things hadn’t changed. It was completely different and yet comfortable at the same time.

That period of time is such an amazing time for a young adult. It’s filled with excitement and fraught with challenges. In your late teen years and early twenties there is such a feeling of invincibility. Ironically, it is at the time that you are perhaps the most vulnerable as an adult, until perhaps very old age.

I can say without a doubt I most certainly didn’t make all the right decisions — and some of those wrong decisions involved the Southern Comfort in the bottle.

Mama will wholeheartedly agree about my decision making. Once I called her as I was freaking out about finding a grey hair. I was 18. (I’ve been working on the silver mane for a while.)

“Mama!! I found a grey hair,” I shrieked.

She didn’t skip a beat and drawled, “It’s all those bad checks you’ve been writing.”

Some of my better decisions involved friendships. While in Athens I stayed with my friend Rebecca Lang, a fellow food writer and cookbook author. We’re both “little chickens” of Nathalie Dupree and have been friends for over 10 years. We share an adult friendship that is immeasurable to me.

I also had dinner with one of my best friends from college, who still lives in the area and had lunch with another dear college friend. My college friends and I have maintained contact for nearly 25 years. The best part is I feel like I can pick up with them without batting an eye. There’s no “Big Chill” mentality – we’ve never grown apart enough to have to rediscover each other again. We truly love each other. There’s no pretense or pretending. It’s just open, honest, emotion. They’ve truly seen me at my worst and at my best as I have them. Things have changed, sure. We’ve all loved and lost. Our parents are older and some have passed. Some have children and others do not. We’ve all grown in different ways and have wildly different priorities. And yet, the immediacy of that enveloping emotion comes from complete acceptance. That is what defines real real comfort.

There’s a new cookbook out called Southern Comfort by Alison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing. It’s a lovely book. The design and photography are stunning. Alison and Slade share a new take on the recipes they grew up with — so, the recipes have changed, but are still recognizable and true to what matters. It’s fresh and innovative, and yet very grounded in classic Southern cuisine. True comfort is understanding that things can change, yet still be the same — and things can remain the same, yet still change.

I hope you enjoy sippin’ on some of these delicious soups for your Southern comfort.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

White Bean, Chicken, and Kale Soup
Serves 8

This soup is immeasurably better when made with really good chicken stock. My cooking philosophy is that the fewer the ingredients in a recipe the better those ingredients need to be. Having said that, if you need to use a boxed stock, then use a box!

2 cups dried cannellini beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 quarts reduced fat low sodium chicken broth or homemade chicken stock
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
1 pound boneless skinless chicken, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups chopped kale
1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the beans in a large bowl. Remove any stones and discard. Add cold water to cover by several inches. Soak overnight or 8 hours. Or, for a quick soak, wash and sort the beans. Place in a large stockpot and add water to cover, about 3 quarts. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Remove from the heat and let soak for 1 hour. Drain soaked or quick-soaked beans, discarding the water.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the drained beans, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and continue to cook until the beans are tender, 1 to 2 hours. Add the canned tomato, chicken, kale, and aleppo pepper. Return to a boil then reduce the heat to simmer. Cook until the chicken and kale are  cooked, an additional 5 to 7 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed bowls and serve immediately.

Southern Comfort Black-Eyed Pea and Barley Broth
Serves 4

To salt or not to salt? According to the Bean Growers Association, dry beans cook faster when salt is added because salt helps break down the cell walls. So, the notion of salt slowing down the cooking process is a myth! Older beans can take a very long time to cook and fresher dried beans take less time. Buy dried peas and beans from a store with high turnover and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

1/2 cup (4 ounces) black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
1/2 cup barley
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup shiitake mushroom caps, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/4 cup finely diced carrots
1/4 cup finely diced shallots
1/4 cup finely diced celery
6 cups mushroom stock
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 cup thinly sliced green onions, white and green parts, for garnish

In a small saucepan over high heat, bring 
4 cups of water to a boil. Add the black-eyed peas and bring to a simmer. Cook, skimming off the scum that forms on the surface as needed, until tender, about 30 minutes. Strain the peas and reserve.

In a small saucepan over high heat, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add the barley and bring to a simmer. Cook the barley until tender, about 20 minutes. Strain the cooked barley in a colander under cold water and rinse well. Reserve until needed.

In a large saucepan over high heat, heat the olive oil to the smoking point. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until they are nicely brown and fragrant, about 
1 minute. Add the carrots, shallots, and celery and sauté for another minute. Add the stock, soy sauce, salt, pepper, peas, and barley and cook over a slow simmer to let the flavors develop, about 10 minutes. Finish the soup with the sliced green onions and serve.

Reprinted with permission from Southern Comfort: A New Take on the Recipes We Grew Up With by Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photo credit: Ed Anderson © 2012

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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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