January 24, 2012 / 10:08 AM / 7 years ago

World Chefs: Willis shows the lighter side of Southern food

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Most people equate fried food with U.S. Southern cooking, but Virginia Willis says there is much more to the regional cuisine than many people may think.

Chef Virginia Willis poses in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Angie Mosier

In her third cookbook “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all,” the 44-year-old chef shows that most Southern dishes are lighter than how they are depicted on television and that basic recipes could easily be elevated when combined with classic techniques and sophisticated ingredients.

The Georgia native spoke to Reuters about the variety of Southern cooking, the impact of fast food on American obesity rates and the importance of fresh foods and good ingredients.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about Southern food?

A: “It’s all about butter and fat and it’s not. It’s complicated. The United States in general has an obesity problem. The South has the highest rate of obesity in an obese nation. But that doesn’t come from typical Southern cooking. That (obesity), like in the rest of the country, comes from fast food, convenience food, processed food and packaged food. I’ve grown up eating home-cooking food and that’s been a slippage away from that. Someone sees a stick of butter is deep fried and they think all Southern food is like that and it’s not.”

Q: So there is this diversity to Southern cuisine?

A: “I want to present to people that Southern food is more than just fried chicken and overcooked greens. There can be refinement to these recipes. (Celebrity cook) Paula Deen is wonderful, and she is very nice lady. Her cooking is not necessarily typical of all Southern cuisine either. We have a 10-month growing season in the South, and we have been eating regionally, locally and seasonally for a very long time. Part of that comes from practicality. The South has been a poor area with many economically depressed areas since its inception. It has less industries. They have always been growing their gardens and buying from their local farmers or harvesting from the woods or the fields, or catching fish or hunting.

Q: How does “Basic to Brilliant” present your point of view?

A: “What I’m striving to do with the book is for people to understand that my style of food is to do as little to the food as possible. Basically not mess it up. Buy good, fresh ingredients and don’t overcomplicate things. There is a simplicity there that everyone around me has taught me. The ‘basic’ recipes are those I think that people can do on a week night and the brilliant are something they could do when they have a bit more time during the weekend.”

Q: What is the most frequent question you are asked?

A: “If there is anything, it’s about cooking things long enough, whether that’s searing meat for a stew so you could get that brown crust or cooking a cobbler and letting the dough get fully browned. There is a tendency in American recipes that things are slightly under-baked. And there are these wonderful things that happen when butter gets browned. It’s magic. It tastes good. It smells good.”

Brined Roast Turkey Breast with Herb Pan Gravy

(Serves 6 to 8)

1 cup kosher salt

1 cup sugar

1-1/2 gallons water

1 whole bone-in, skin-on turkey breast (6 to 7 pounds)

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 teaspoon very finely chopped fresh sage

1 teaspoon very finely chopped fresh thyme

Freshly ground black pepper

3 celery stalks, chopped

3 carrots, cut into chunks

3 onions, preferably Vidalia, quartered

2-1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if needed

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Coarse salt

1. Dissolve the kosher salt and sugar in the water in large, clean bucket or stockpot. Set the turkey breast in the brine, making sure it is submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to overnight.

2. Remove the turkey breast from the brine. Pat dry and set aside. Place the butter in a bowl; add the sage and thyme. Season the butter well with pepper and stir to combine. Set aside.

3. Twenty minutes before roasting, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the turkey on a clean work surface. Using a chef’s knife, remove the remaining portion of the neck and reserve it for the stock and gravy. Remove the wishbone to make carving easier; set it aside with the neck for the gravy. With your hand, carefully release the skin on both breasts to form two pockets. Rub the seasoned butter under the released skin. If there is any extra butter, massage it on the outside of the skin.

4. Put the celery, carrots, and onions in a large roasting pan. Pour 1/2 cup of the chicken stock into the pan bottom to prevent the drippings from burning. Place the prepared turkey, skin side up, on top of the vegetables. Place the pan in the oven with the wide neck end toward the rear of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan back to front. Roast for 15 minutes more, until skin turns golden.

5. Decrease the oven temperature to 325 degree Fahrenheit and continue to roast, rotating the pan once more about halfway through the cooking, until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast registers 160 to 165 degree Fahrenheit, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the turkey breast to a cutting board, preferably with a moat. Cover the turkey loosely with aluminum foil.

6. Pour the remaining 2 cups chicken stock into a saucepan. Add the reserved neck and wishbone and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to simmer. Place the roasting pan over medium-high heat. Add the flour to the pan drippings and stir until well combined. Strain the warmed stock over the flour-vegetable combination and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to simmer and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Strain the mixture into a saucepan, pressing on the vegetables to get every drop and all the flavor. Check and make sure the sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon; if not, continue simmering the sauce until the correct consistency is achieved. (If it’s too thick, add a little water or additional stock.)

7. Carve the turkey breast and plate on a warm platter. Add any juices that run into the moat to the gravy. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper and serve with the gravy on the side.

Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney

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