I’ve been cooking as a professional for a little more than fifteen years, but my passion actually started when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter in my grandmother’s country kitchen.
I called her Meme, and she was the light of my life. The kitchen never really changed much. There never was enough space for everything. The overhead light hummed. My grandmother’s recipes were posted on the inside of the cabinet, some written in her old-fashioned, loopy, spidery penmanship directly on the wood.
My grandmother and I spent hours together in that kitchen. There are photos of me as young as three years old standing on a stool “helping.” As dinner cooked, we’d roll out the biscuits, and she’d let me make a handprint with the scraps of dough. The tiny fingers on my biscuit would cook very dark in the heat of the oven, taking on a slightly bitter, almost nutty taste. I know that’s where my love for cooking took root, working at her side on her linoleum countertop, in the gentle breeze of the oscillating fan.
Oh, my grandmother could cook. Her pound cake was legendary. She’d wake in the early morning before the heat of the day and prepare fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned butter beans, creamed corn, okra, and tomatoes.
Many of the vegetables were grown in my grandfather’s garden. My grandfather Dede was a patient man. She would call outdoors and make the man take his shirt off so she could wash it. That never made a lick of sense to me. He’d mumble quietly under his breath “Lawd, have mercy,” but he would have moved a mountain range for her.
The very last time I saw my grandmother was on Mother’s Day in 2000. She had a sore throat, went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer. She was 91 and conceded defeat when she heard that ugly word. When I returned to that simple country kitchen, our tables were turned, and I cooked for her. There’s still hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. I often wish I could be in the kitchen with her, smelling her chicken frying just one more time.
My mother, Virginia, known as Jenny, grew up in Columbia County, Georgia. She returned there almost twenty-five years ago and now lives less than a mile from the house where she was raised. When asked where I am from, I generally reply, “My family is from Evans, Georgia.” I haven’t lived there since I was three years old, and I’ve lived dozens of places since. However, home is far more complex than a mailing address. My deep roots in the South and family history continually help me define my journey, what I will be, and where I will go.
My maternal grandparents, Sam and Louise Baston, bought fifty acres near Evans, Georgia, in 1938. She was the lady and he was the tall, handsome, strapping country boy with dark hair and crystal clear blue eyes. He swept her off her feet, they fell in love, and scandalously, they eloped. (I feel compelled at this point to point out for my grandmother’s honor that their first child was not born shortly thereafter.) Together they made a family, helped start a community, built a church, and most importantly, left a long-lasting legacy of what home really is.
I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents. Dede always seemed to be working outdoors. There are photos of me as a toddler, chubby legs covered in dirt from tagging along behind him in the garden. He, my sister, and I would pick berries in the woods and bring them to Meme to make Sweet Biscuits with Stewed Blackberries (page 235) or some form of cobbler. I remember being in the steamy kitchen with my apron-clad grandmother, before central heat and air was installed, listening to her cook, and taking in every last sight and scent. The gentle burbling of Meme’s Chicken and Rice (page 214) in the cast-iron Dutch oven; the sweet, sticky cake batter licked from the spatula; the gentle hum of the electric mixer beating the icing for Dede’s Burnt Caramel Cake (page 253) and the pitched whistle of the pressure cooker emitting the meaty smell of bacon and green beans fresh from the garden are the tastes, smells, and sounds of my childhood.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t hang out in the Dairy Queen parking lot with the other kids on Friday nights. I stayed at home in the kitchen with Mama. My parents divorced the summer between my junior and senior year. That same summer, the school I attended closed. I was sixteen, and it was hard. Mama and I leaned on each other, and it was then that our “grown-up” friendship really started as we spent time in the kitchen together. Instead of attending my senior year of high school, I started college. Mama never let on she was worried. She believed in me, and if she had any hesitation about her sheltered, bookish daughter starting college at sixteen, she never said a word.
After a great start, I sputtered a bit and got lost. I realized the one constant, the one place I always sought, whether a scared teenager leaving Mama, or in a flat in London, or in Athens, Georgia, at my college commune-of-sorts, or as a lonely university grad in Charleston, South Carolina, the one place that had been my constant home was the kitchen. That realization started me on my way.
My first job cooking was on a TV cooking show with Nathalie Dupree. I learned to make Sally Lunn Bread (page 227) and enjoyed the infinite pleasure of feeling crust tearing beneath my bite to reveal the moist, yeasty crumb inside. I attended culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda and was taught to make earthy, fragrant soups. I tasted delicate, clear consommés that belied the complexity within. I discovered an infinite world of sauces beyond the familiar gravy, and learned about reductions, seasoning, and balance. I remember my first taste of the slick, iron-rich demi-glace and the brittle, bony minerality of court-bouillon.
Shortly thereafter I moved to France. I was supposed to be at La Varenne in Burgundy with Anne Willan for three months and was there for nearly three years. At La Varenne I felt like I actually tasted the warm, grassiness of butter for the first time. I explored cheeses I had never known—some heady and thick with animal aroma, others delicate, pure suspensions of fresh, sweet milk. The vegetables from the garden reminded me of home: voluptuous tomatoes bursting with savory flavor; sweet, tender squash; and musky, honeyed melon fully ripened by the hot summer sun.
My kitchen home grew increasingly larger; I felt I’d been given keys to the culinary
castle. Learning through the French emphasis on basic, fundamental techniques, I tasted and saw food as I had never seen it before. I also began to realize how important those years of learning by Meme’s and Mama’s sides had been.
Returning stateside, I was the TV kitchen director for Bobby Flay, then Martha Stewart. With Epicurious
television I ate freshly caught grilled octopus on an Aeolian beach, the fire spitting steam and seawater. I made pungent, eye-watering moutarde au vin
in Dijon, and pressed deliciously biting olive oil with a media heiress in Sonoma. During my extended time in Europe, while traveling in the United States and abroad, and while living in New York, I was exposed to brilliant food, simple to complex creations—made in people’s homes, through my work, or prepared in restaurants by some of the world’s most celebrated chefs.
Then, on 9/11, I was trapped in Manhattan as the towers burned. People were huddled around cars with doors and windows open at every street corner, listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the cerulean blue sky, and then they were gone. Just gone. In the economic aftermath, I lost my job with Epicurious
. Months later, walking down the West Side Highway with tears streaming down my cheeks, the sounds of sirens still permeating the air, I realized I wanted to go home after nearly ten years away from the South.
Like many expatriates, I returned home with a better sense of place than I would have ever had if I had never left. In my travels, I had built upon what my grandmother and mother had taught me, a solid repertoire of basic fundamental techniques. My eyes had been wondrously opened to just how brilliant the world of food—and home—could be. I continue my journey, still building my collection of stories with every bite, every word, every scent.
I’ve always devoured books and still do. Words are magic to me. What I hope to share with you is a collection of recipes and recollections that you will devour, that you will find magical. I am offering a body of basic recipes that can stand on their own, but they can be transformed to brilliant by a short recipe, presentation tip, or technique—all accomplished without “dumbing down” the basic to make the brilliant work, and without the overuse of expensive or hard-to-find ingredients. I like to think of the Basic recipes as what you might prepare on a weeknight for supper with family, a simple recipe I might teach in a cooking class. The Brilliant versions are more chef inspired, something to prepare for dinner guests on the weekend, something I might prepare for you if you were a guest in my home, the culinary version of the fine Southern tradition of dressing up for company. I believe in letting the goodness of the food shine through—refined Southern cuisine.
This is what home means to me—talking for hours with my mother, fresh garden vegetables, pulling the wishbone with my sister just like we did when we were young, and sharing sweet kitchen memories. Around the world and home again. Welcome, once again, to my Southern kitchen. Pull up a chair. Fundamental Recipes
Fundamental recipes are the cornerstone of cooking by technique, not simply cooking by a recipe. Julia Child supposedly once said, “If you understand the technique, you don’t need a recipe.” Outfitted with a foundation of solid techniques and fundamental recipes, a cook can accomplish many things. Now, most of us aren’t going to grow up and become Julia Child, but what she said is true. A recipe should be a guide, not a ball and chain.
For example, something as simple as using a bouquet garni is a technique. A bouquet garni is a sachet of aromatics, often tied in cheesecloth for easy removal, added to a stew, soup, or sauce to contribute and enhance flavor. Traditionally in French cooking it is made of a few sprigs of parsley, thyme, a bay leaf, and peppercorns. It’s a simple, innocuous, but important layering of flavor. Take that same concept and tailor it to the recipe and bells start to go off. With a Latin-inspired soup, try using cilantro and coriander seeds instead of parsley and peppercorns. With an Asian-inspired dish, try using star anise or a cinnamon stick instead of bay leaves and thyme.
Subtle layering of flavor is what transforms good food to great food. When I was in culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine, one of my textbooks, and an indispensable guide in the years since, was Le Répertoire de la Cuisine
. It’s a basic guide to the cuisine of Antoine Escoffier, a premier chef in the late 1800s and early 1900s, perhaps the most important leader in the development of modern French cuisine. Much of Escoffier’s technique was based on that of Antoine Carême, impressively referred to as the “chef of kings and the king of chefs.” Prominent in the early nineteenth century, Carême was the very first celebrity chef and was famous for elaborate pièces montées
of pastry and spun sugar, and cooked for both the czar of Russia and the Rothschilds, possibly the wealthiest family in the world at that time. His recipe for vol-au-vent—made with cocks’ combs and testicles, lamb sweetbreads and brains, calves’ udders and truffles—has stood the test of time (see page 107). Ahem. Think Martha Stewart meets Tony Bourdain, with a dash of Elizabeth Falkner and Andrew Zimmern.
Escoffier modernized, codified, and organized Carême’s haute cuisine, forming the basis for much modern French cooking and the foundation of western foodways. Le Répertoire
is a thin, unassuming book whose appearance obscures the treasure inside. It claims more than seven thousand recipes, but it’s not a recipe book in the traditional sense with a list of ingredients, measurements, and cooking times. A “recipe” might be only one or two sentences. The recipe for Sauce Maltaise reads “Hollandaise sauce with zest and juice of blood oranges.” C’est tout
. That’s it. Le Répertoire
assumes the reader and cook knows the fundamentals, the basic techniques. My experiences at both L’Academie de Cuisine and La Varenne were all about learning these fundamentals. Peering over her spectacles, Anne Willan, the director of La Varenne, once wisely told me, “Learn the scales before you play the music. Cooking is about creativity, but it’s important to acquire discipline first.”
Here are a few harmonious notes to get you started. Chicken Stock
Makes about 10 cups
I am often asked about the difference between stock and broth. Many of the chicken, beef, and vegetable stock products available in the grocery store are labeled “broth,” which is at odds with the definition of many chefs. Chefs view broth as liquid in which meat, fish, or vegetables have been cooked when the goal is also to consume the meat, fish, or vegetables.
Stock, on the other hand, is the liquid in which meat, fish, bones, or vegetables are simmered for a relatively long period. All the flavor, taste, and texture are cooked out of the ingredients, which are then discarded. The remaining liquid is then used as a base for preparing soup, gravy, or sauces.
Chicken feet make an absolutely excellent gelatinous chicken stock. Generally, you can find chicken feet in Asian markets and grocery stores.
2 pounds chicken wings, bones, or well-washed feet
14 cups water
3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
3 onions, preferably Vidalia, coarsely chopped
3 carrots, scrubbed and coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
2 sprigs thyme
4 to 6 whole black peppercorns
In a large soup pot, combine the chicken, water, celery, onions, carrots, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, and peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 11/2 hours, skimming the foam off the top as it rises. Strain through a colander, reserving the stock and discarding the chicken and vegetables. (Some people think this is wasteful and insist the chicken be picked off the bone and used for chicken salad. My response is that all the flavor is in the stock. If you want tasteless, mushy chicken salad, then go right ahead.)
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 months. Before using, skim off and discard any fat that has risen to the surface.
Excerpted from Basic to Brilliant, Y'all by Virginia Willis; Foreword by Anne Willan. Copyright © 2011 by Virginia Willis; Foreword by Anne Willan. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.