Virginia Willis Blog

10 Reasons Cooks Have to Give Thanks

10 reasons for a cook to give thanks on

Give Thanks

This Thanksgiving week I have been considering the abundant changes in my life and the many things for which I am thankful. I’ve traveled all over the country meeting people while on book tour; I’ve been fortunate enough to cook with some amazing people, as well as eat a lot of delicious food. I am thankful for my health, my family, my friends, and the incredible gift of loving what I do for a living. I love to cook and I love to write. The fact that I am able to do both as my profession, and see the world while doing it, fills me with gratitude each and every day. It’s also made me consider 10 reasons cooks have to give thanks this time of year.

In terms of a cook’s gratitude, there’s nothing that will get the heart of many cooks racing, this one included, than the anticipation of preparing a great meal. Thanksgiving is a very special time as the holiday is so intrinsically linked to the grand celebratory feast. It’s not solely about serving the meal for me. The shopping, planning, execution, and serving are woven together into one grand event. Ordering that special free-range bird and searching through a mountain of greens for the perfect crisp bundle are semi-religious acts.

I would like to share with you 10 reasons this cook has to give thanks this time of year. At the end is my recipe from Lighten Up, Y’all for Sweet Potato Gratin with Herb Crumble Topping. Safe travels and scrumptious eating everyone!

Bon Appetit, Y’all! 

PS Lighten Up, Y’all is 33% off at Amazon and Barnes & Noble! Order any of my books and shoot an email to with your mailing address.  I’ll be happy to send you a signed bookplate! 

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1. I’m very thankful for brining We’ve all suffered through tasteless dry white meat and rubbery dark meat. Brining to the rescue! Muscle fibers absorb liquid during the brining period. Moisture loss is inevitable when you cook any type of muscle fiber. The heat causes the coiled proteins in the fibers to unwind and then join together with one another, resulting in shrinkage and moisture loss. Normally meat loses about 30 percent of its weight during cooking. But if you soak your turkey in brine first, it reduces the moisture loss during cooking to as little as 15 percent.

For a very basic overnight (12 to 14 hour) brine dissolve 1 cup Diamond Brand Crystal Kosher Salt per gallon of cold water brine in a large stockpot, if storing in the refrigerator or an insulated cooler, if not. Two gallons of water will be sufficient for most birds; larger birds may require three gallons. Add the turkey and refrigerate for overnight. If using a cooler, add ice or freezer packs to keep the bird very cold. Also, salts are different! Remember that 1 cup Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt = 3/4 cup Morton’s Kosher Salt = 1/2 cup of table salt.

2. Most professional chefs have an instant read thermometer tucked in a jacket pocket. They are indispensable when cooking a large beast. The plastic pop-up timers found in many turkeys are terribly unreliable, often resulting in an overcooked bird. According to the USDA the internal temperature must reach a 180° deep in the thigh or 165° in the breast or stuffing. (For more Turkey 101 including brining, roasting, and carving, click here.)

3. I am eternally grateful throughout the year for my cast iron skillet, and especially at Thanksgiving. It’s my go-to pan for toasting nuts or baking the cornbread for the Cornbread Dressing.

4. Pecans According to the Georgia Pecan Commission, Georgia leads the nation in pecan production, averaging 88 million pounds each year. That is enough pecans to make 176 million pecan pies! What Thanksgiving dessert buffet would be complete without a Pecan Pie?

5. Brassicas I am oh-so thankful for kale, collards, turnip greens, and mustard greens that are nutritional powerhouses and familiar friends at the Southern Thanksgiving feast. Look for bright-colored, greens without brown spots, yellowing edges, or limp-looking leaves. Be thankful too for flavorful seasonings such as smoked turkey or ham hock for the meat eaters, and smoked salt or chipotle peppers for the vegetarians. Check out my recipe for Collard Greens on Down-Home Comfort on Food Network.

6. Pomegranates signal the holiday season. The brilliant vermillion orbs are only available September through January. Pomegranates are often used as festive table decoration, but this cook knows better! Break them open and sprinkle the seeds, known as arils, on salads for garnish or add a spoonful to sparkling wine for a very festive Thanksgiving toast.

7. Celeriac or celery root is a tannish-brown root vegetable often topped off by a cluster of leafy green stems. (It’s not the root to a bunch of celery, but the plants are related and taste very similar.) The thick skin is still often dirty with the soil and must be washed before peeling. Once peeled, the creamy white interior may be used in a variety of ways. Its use is limitless and especially good when cooked with potatoes for a mixed mash, giving simple mashed potatoes a defining layer of flavor.

8. Who isn’t thankful for gravy? Drizzled over the Mashed Potatoes, sopped up with a warm flaky biscuit, or served on a sandwich the day after Thanksgiving.

9. Good gravy starts with good stock. Make a thick gelatin-rich stock with bony chicken wings combined with onions, carrots, celery, and a flavorful sachet of parley, bay, thyme and peppercorns. It’s full of flavor and will be a welcome addition to many Thanksgiving dishes.

 1o. Lastly, I am thankful for Sweet Potatoes. Good and good for you, sweet potatoes are a must-have on my Thanksgiving table. There are many colors, sizes, shapes, and flavors of sweet potatoes. What are often sold as yams are actually sweet potatoes. Botanically speaking, yams are tubers and members of the lily family. A tuber is essentially an underground stem. Sweet potatoes are roots and members of the morning glory family. Yams originated in Africa, and sweet potatoes are a New World plant.

Sweet Potato Gratin

Sweet Potato Gratin with Herb Crumble
Serves 8

Earthy, rich sweet potatoes are one of fall’s most delicious vegetables and pair wonderfully with pecans, one of fall’s most delicious nuts. You’ll be shocked when you take a bite of this dish. Everyone always assumes they will be hit with a rush of sugar, and yet this sweet potato dish is distinctively full-flavored and savory, a welcome departure from typical marshmallow-topped and bourbon-drenched sweet potato dishes. This recipe utilizes whole wheat pastry flour, which is more nutritionally dense than refined all-purpose flour but also is not as dense and heavy as regular whole wheat flour. Look for Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat pastry flour in well-stocked grocery stores. I know Thanksgiving can be tricky. No one wants to give up a favorite dish, but slip this one into the mix and it’s certain to become a family favorite.

If you want to take a serious shortcut for this dish, you can substitute one 29-ounce can of pumpkin puree or canned sweet potatoes. The herb-pecan topping tastes equally great with both.

3 large sweet potatoes
½ cup coarsely chopped pecans
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour, plus more for your hands
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for seasoning
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
3 tablespoons 2 percent milk
1 tablespoon pure olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. (This will help with cleanup.) Spray a 2-quart shallow baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

Using a fork, pierce the sweet potatoes in several places and place on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until fork-tender, about 50 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.

When the potatoes are almost tender, prepare the topping: In a small bowl, combine the chopped pecans, flour, Parmesan, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Add the milk, oil, and sage. Stir until well combined. Set aside.

When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes, discarding the skin. Place the pulp in large bowl. Add the brown sugar and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper. Smash the potatoes with a potato masher until chunky.

Transfer the sweet potatoes to the prepared baking dish. Lightly flour your hands and crumble the topping in small, cherry size pieces on top of the sweet potatoes. Transfer to the oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Order Lighten Up, Y’all and I’ll send you a signed bookplate! 

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If you are interested in having me speak to your company or hosting me for a cooking class or a book signing, let me know! Send an email to and we’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. All photos and content are copyright protected. Please do not use photos without prior written permission. If you wish to republish this recipe, please rewrite the recipe in your own words and link back to this recipe on Thanks so much.

Photography by Angie Mosier

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Living Well: Whole Grain Recipes

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Several weeks ago I was asked by Dr.Oz’s website to do a 7-day Vegan challenge. I approached it with a plan of eating as many minimally processed fruits, vegetables, and grains, as possible. I knew that bean, umami-rich vegetable, and toothsome whole grain recipes would the keys to my success.

Whole grains are key part of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet. Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain or kernel: the bran, endosperm, and germ. Typically, the refining process removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm.Whole grains are high in fiber and have the highest protein-to-carbohydrate ratio. Protein, along with fiber, helps quell hunger and make us feel full. I knew that if my family was going to give up all animal products for the week, I needed to make sure we still felt satiated.

I realized over the course of the week that I can do without meat, but dairy is my weakness. I drink 2% milk in my coffee. Milk is the rich, creamy liquid from a cow. Flax, almond, quinoa, soy, rice, and coconut milk are not. (Before anyone gets frothed up and faux-milk flustered, the great thing about me not particularly liking vegan milk means there’s more for you.)

To be honest, being vegan felt a bit limiting, but it was also truly enlightening. I relish experimenting and trying new things with food. Kathy Hester’s incredible Oatmeal “Sausage” Crumbles made from steel-cut whole grain oats (as seen below) are definitely something I will make again. It was really cool to try steel-cut whole grain oats in a new way.

oatmeal "sausage" crumbles on

Always on the lookout for healthful inspiration and whole grain recipes, one of my absolute new favorite books is Simply Ancient Grains: Fresh and Flavorful Recipes for Living Well by Maria Speck. Maria’s first book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals was a beautiful, ground-breaking, award-winning cookbook. It’s very exciting to see her next culinary exploration into whole and ancient grains.

Some less-practiced cooks might worry that whole and ancient grains are too difficult and time-consuming to prepare. No worries. Maria’s Two-Step method of cooking grains, the technique of par-cooking the grains to speed things up, makes it easier to add whole grains to meals, especially for today’s time-strapped families. In Simply Ancient Grains, Maria has created easy and accessible ancient whole grain recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert that are both interesting and inspiring. I promise you this – Maria’s recipes will make you hungry; Maria’s recipes will make you want to cook.

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What are “ancient” grains? All whole grains in the larger sense are “ancient” — they all can trace their roots back to the beginnings of time. However, ancient grains are loosely defined as grains that are mostly unchanged over the last several hundred years and are largely intact, as opposed to grains that have been extensively modified and cross-bred in recent years. Ancient grains are becoming increasingly popular because they are a high plant-based protein and many are gluten-free, including quinoa, oats, and millet, the grains I am featuring in this post.

This post’s whole grain recipes include my recipe for BBQ Meatballs. Everyone loves a meatball! Even vegans make “meatballs” out of lentils! They are always a popular hors d’oeuvre at a party and can also be easily made ahead and reheated. Meatballs are present at everything from baby showers to SEC football tailgates all across the South. In this version I sub the super whole grain quinoa in place of the typical binder of breadcrumbs, leaner ground turkey for the traditional beef, and bake instead of fry. The results are lighter, healthier, and more nutritionally dense than most meatballs — and still absolutely delicious.

I am also sharing Maria’s recipe for Lemony Millet Pudding with Caramelized Grapes. It’s creamy, rich, and bright with flavor, a great example of the vibrant whole grain recipes in her beautiful book.

Bon Appétit Y’all!

Turkey Quinoa BBQ Meatballs on

The tasty photo above by Colby Shipwash from We met last week at the Type A Parent Blogger Conference in the Best Buy Suite. The attendees, including those from the Best Buy Blogger Network, loved them and thought their kids would, too. Sounds like a winner to me.

Barbecue Meatballs
Makes 32 to serve 8

2 tablespoons finely chopped sweet onion
1 pound ground turkey
½ cup cooked quinoa
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1½ cups homemade or best-quality BBQ Sauce

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Set an ovenproof rack on a rimmed baking sheet. Spray with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. Place 
the onions in a ramekin or microwave-safe bowl and microwave
 on medium power until soft and translucent, about 25 seconds. Set aside to cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the turkey, onion, quinoa, parsley, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine with a rubber spatula. (To taste and adjust for seasoning, simply cook a teaspoon or so of the mixture in the microwave.)

To form the meatballs, using a 1-ounce ice cream scoop or a tablespoon measure, scoop out the meat mixture and roll into a ball about the size of a walnut. Place onto the prepared rack. Repeat until all the meat mixture is used up. Transfer to the oven and cook until firm and the temperature reads 165°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. (These can be made ahead up to this point and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)

Using a spatula, transfer the meatballs to a medium ovenproof baking dish. Pour over the barbecue sauce and shake the pan a bit to roll and coat the meatballs in the sauce.

Serve immediately or return to the oven and cook until the sauce is bubbly, about 10 minutes. Serve with toothpicks or skewers.

Barbecue Meatballs
Calories 155 
Fat 8 g 
Carbs 12 g Fiber .5 g Protein 11 g

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Lemony Millet Pudding with Caramelized Grapes

1 cup water
1⁄2 cup millet
2⁄3 cup whole or low-fat milk
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of fine sea salt

3⁄4 cup dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio, or apple juice
1⁄4 cup honey
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
2 cups halved seedless grapes, preferably red or purple (about 10 ounces), plus about 1⁄4 cup (2 ounces) for garnish
3 whole cloves or a pinch of ground cloves
1 (4 by 1⁄2-inch) strip lemon zest, white pith removed
1 1⁄2 cups whole milk Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons limoncello or apple juice, or more as needed
1 1⁄2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, plus a little more for garnish

To prepare the millet, add the water and the millet to a small heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed, 18 to 20 minutes. Stir in the milk, vanilla, and salt. Return to a simmer, cover, and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes more. Remove from the heat and let sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Uncover and allow to cool for about 25 minutes.

While the millet is cooling, make the pudding. Add the wine, honey, sugar, grapes, cloves, and the zest strip to a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium- high heat, stirring gently a few times for the sugars to dissolve, then cook at a lively simmer for about 2 minutes to just soften the grapes.

Gently tip the grapes into a sieve, placed over a medium bowl to retain the liquid. Return the liquid, including the cloves and the zest, to the pot and bring to a boil. Cook at a vigorous simmer, adjusting the heat as needed, until the syrup starts to caramelize and turns a deep amber color, 7 to 9 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for about 15 minutes.

To finish the pudding, be sure that both the millet and the syrup are not more than slightly warm to the touch. Remove the zest strip and the cloves from the syrup (you will have about 1⁄2 cup); set aside 2 tablespoons of the syrup for garnish. Add the remaining syrup, the yogurt, limoncello, and grated zest to a medium bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Fluff the millet with a fork and stir it into the yogurt mixture. Gently stir in the grapes as well. Divide the dessert between six bowls and chill, covered with plastic wrap, for 2 hours to allow the flavors to mingle.

When ready to serve, garnish each bowl with a few grape halves. Spoon a bit of the reserved syrup on top (stir in a teaspoon of boiling water to loosen it if needed) and garnish with a bit of lemon zest.

Reprinted with permission from Simply Ancient Grains by Maria Speck, copyright (c) 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. 2015. 


Lighten Up, Y’all is 30% off on and! 

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If you are interested in hosting me for a cooking class or a book signing, let me know! Send an email to and we’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. All photos and content are copyright protected. Please do not use photos without prior written permission. If you wish to republish this recipe, please rewrite the recipe in your own words and link back to this recipe on Thanks so much.

Quinoa photograph by Angie Mosier
BBQ Meatball photograph by Colby Shipwash
Millet Pudding photograph by Erin Kunkel

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Eat Right for Your Sight on National Kale Day!

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Eat Right for Your Sight on National Kale Day!

A year or so ago I helped edit a cookbook called Eat Right for Your Sight for the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Macular Degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss, affecting more than 10 million Americans – more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. It was a fascinating project and increased my awareness of this incurable disease.

At present, Macular Degeneration is caused by the deterioration of the central portion of the retina, the inside back layer of the eye that records the images we see and sends them via the optic nerve from the eye to the brain. The retina’s central portion, known as the macula, is responsible for focusing central vision in the eye, and it controls our ability to read, drive a car, recognize faces or colors, and see objects in fine detail.

It wasn’t just your mother telling you to eat carrots for better vision! People have known for centuries that certain foods can be good for your eyesight, including 16th Century Spanish explorers who carried chili peppers on voyages to help with night vision. Your mom and the explorers were smart: those chili peppers contained beta-carotene, vitamins C, E and B6, and folic acid, and the carrots had carotenoids and antioxidants. A diet rich in these nutrients may reduce the risk of developing macular degeneration and slow the progression of the disease in those already diagnosed.

While Eat Right for Your Sight targets those who are particularly concerned with maintaining eye health or slowing macular degeneration, it is a great cookbook filled with delicious recipes for everyone. Each recipe includes comprehensive nutrition information, and they have been carefully crafted to act like medicine, but not taste like it! With the variety and creative food combinations, it is perfect for food enthusiasts as well as those who simply want a healthier diet.

In the spirit of National Kale Day, I want to share my recipe for Kale Omelet from my book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, and this warming, satisfying recipe for White Bean Soup with Kale from Eat Right for your Sight.

Bon Appétit Y’all! 
Virginia Willis

PS Speaking of a healthier diet — Lighten Up, Y’all is on sale on Amazon for only $16.66!

Kale Omelet on


Kale Omelet 

Serves 6 to 8

3 slices thick bacon, cut into lardons or 2 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
5 cups hearty greens (such as kale, chard, or mustard greens), cleaned, tough stems removed, and chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons water
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (2 ounces)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¾ cup ricotta cheese (6 ounces)
1 tablespoon canola oil

Heat the oven to 350°F. Line a plate with paper towels. Heat a large nonstick ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp and brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to the prepared plate; set aside.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the drippings (reserve the excess fat for another use or dispose). Alternately, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the skillet over high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, 4 to 6 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low, add half the greens, and toss until they begin to wilt, about 1 minute. Add the remaining greens and season with salt and pepper. Add the water. Toss to coat. Decrease the heat to low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are wilted and tender, about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the greens to a large bowl, leaving any cooking liquid behind.

Rinse and dry the skillet. To the greens, add the eggs, ¼ cup of the grated cheese, the reserved bacon, and red pepper flakes. Stir to combine. Fold in the ricotta. Season with salt and pepper.

Return the now-clean skillet to the stovetop over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil and rotate the skillet to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is shimmering, pour in the egg mixture and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Cook over medium-low heat until the omelet is barely set at the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup grated cheese over the eggs.

Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until set, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and, using a butter knife or long spatula, loosen the omelet from the sides of the skillet. Give the skillet a shake and slide the omelet out onto a clean cutting board. (Don’t use a knife in the nonstick skillet!) Using a serrated knife, slice into wedges and serve immediately.

Brilliant: Presentation
Baked in a Sourdough Boule

Your brunch guests will certainly think this is Brilliant.  Heat the oven to 350°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment paper.Slice off the top of an 8-inch round sourdough or firm white loaf; remove the bread in chunks, leaving a shell.Reserve the bread for another use. Prepare the filling. Instead of returning the egg and kale mixture to the skillet, transfer the mixture to the prepared boule. Top with remaining ¼ cup grated cheese. Bake until the eggs are set, 45 to 50 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly. Present on a wooden cutting board with a serrated knife. Serve immediately or at room temperature.


eat right for your sight white bean soup with kale

White Bean Soup with Kale
Serves 4-6

Kale turns an ordinary white bean soup into a lutein and zeaxanthin powerhouse. (As a rule, the darker the green, the higher the lutein.) As an alternative, add 6 to 8 ounces of chopped smoked sausage, such as Andouille or chorizo, for a meatier dish with a kick.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped carrot
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme
8 cups reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups dry navy or great Northern beans, soaked overnight
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cups chopped kale leaves, tough stems removed

Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion, carrot, and celery for 7 to 10 minutes, or until softened. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 minute. Add the thyme and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the broth, beans, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 11/2 hours, or until the beans are tender, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.

Partially purée the soup with an immersion blender or transfer half the soup to a blender or food processor and purée before adding back to the stockpot. Add the kale and cook for 5 minutes. Season to taste. Ladle into warm bowls and serve immediately.

Nutritional Profile
Serving size: 1 cup
Calories: 357
Protein: 17 g
Fiber: 19 g
Fat: 7 g
Saturated fat: 1 g
Sodium: 847 mg
Vitamin A: 14,721 IU
Vitamin C: 71 mg
Vitamin E: 2 IU
Zinc: 3 mg
Beta-carotene: 8,165 μg
Lutein and zeaxanthin: 21,329 μg

Credit line: Recipe from Eat Right for Your Sight: Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration, copyright © American Macular Degeneration Foundation, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.


Order Lighten Up, Y’all and I’ll send you a signed bookplate!

Lighten Up, Y'all on

If you are interested in hosting me for a cooking class or a book signing, let me know! Send an email to and we’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. All photos and content are copyright protected. Please do not use photos without prior written permission. If you wish to republish this recipe, please rewrite the recipe in your own words and link back to this recipe on Thanks so much.

Photography by Virginia Willis

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My Day in NYC on 9-11

NYC on 9-11

This picture of my sister was taken in August, just a few weeks before the horrible tragedy in 2001. In 2010, when I wrote my original post, I had not written a word about 9-11. It all stayed bottled up for a long while. Today, this anniversary, I do what I do every year. I call my friend Claire and tell her I love her. Her home was my refuge that tragic day. And, I reach out to my friend and colleague, Faye. She was my mouth and ears to the world. Somehow she could reach me via cell when no one else could, so she called my family for me to let them know I was okay. 

I reworked this piece just a bit, but, I think, at least for a while, this will remain my blog post for 9-11. 

NYC on 9-11

I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning.

I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy.

We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living.

Sadly, somehow I have always constantly, somewhat obsessively, wondered about the socio-economics of garbage. It used to drive me absolutely mad, how much sheer waste people used to carelessly throw on the ground.

So, I walked that morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant cerulean blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty, dented cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.

I remember walking mad.

Can you imagine? Walking mad? Letting filth, garbage, other people’s refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this?

It turns out that my disgust and  irritation actually saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower.

I know this.

I walked this walk every day —  most often amazed, looking skyward at those tall twin towers across the river directly in my sight. They were a compass point. The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute of the deadly attack in the days and weeks to come.

I know that I was walking exactly at that exact time.

I didn’t see one of the most horrific things in history because I was looking down at garbage.

Often I would take the PATH from Jersey City to the WTC and then change on the subway to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.

I’ve thought about that quite a bit in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC. I could have been right in the middle of it.

By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station on 40th Street the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower.

I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet.

Once in the office it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the pentagon was hit, then the White House.

I was the producer for Epicurious on the Discovery Channel hosted my chef Michael Lomonaco. We didn’t know where he was.

I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay.

But, I was in Times Square and which actually didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Time Square might likely be dead center next.

So, we walked down 25 floors of the winding darkened stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It somehow seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.

The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lock-down.

I knew I couldn’t get home.

So, I started walking southeast from Midtown. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. It gave me chills. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying.

At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone.

Just gone.

As I walked South, soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking further south, then east. I finally arrived at my friend’s apartment on 5th Street on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I took my shoes off and waited on the stoop. I remember now that my shoes were new and my feet were blistered. At the time it seemed unimportant and now, I am not certain.

My cell couldn’t call out, it was silent, but somehow my friend and colleague Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay. She called home. She called, she called, she called. She called home for me.

My friend finally arrived home. We quietly walked up the stairs. We then watched the news, silently weeping, watching the horror, the live images, the flying shreds of paper, the grey dust, the people — the absence of survivors, of people — trying, all the while, to keep the children occupied in the other room.

We were in shock and disbelief.

Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I didn’t care about what might happen to me. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. My friend didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to go home.

We kissed, we cried, and cell phone dead, I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a movie set. New York City, but without the people.

No more sirens. No more noise. No radios. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. No people. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.

It was incredibly dreamlike and surreal.

I walked North through Union Square where only two lonely candles flickered, the beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.

The 14th station was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, also closed, so onward to 33rd.

Finally, success.

The cavernous station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop.

Everyone was muted and paralyzed  in fear and shock.

We crossed under the river to Hoboken because my regular station was destroyed and closed. Standing on the platform as we pulled into the station, I saw evacuees from lower Manhattan, covered in soot and ash, now clothed in garbage bags.

Garbage bags.


Tell your loved ones that you love them.
Peace be with you.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. All photos and content are copyright protected. Please do not use photos without prior written permission. If you wish to republish this recipe, please rewrite the recipe in your own words and link back to this recipe on Thanks so much.

Photography of Jona Willis by Virginia Willis

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Save the Flavors: Easy Summer Ratatouille

Easy Summer Ratatouille on

Easy Summer Ratatouille

A recent evening’s garden harvest rewarded me with the ingredients for a vibrant, tasty, and easy summer ratatouille — as well as the realization that the garden has suffered a bit from all of our recent travel. Much of the broccoli is flowering and the collard green leaves have grown large and tough. The chili peppers have had a bit too much competition with the weeds, yet there are a couple of scraggly volunteer cherry tomato plants that will likely continue to perpetuate until the end of time. The summer squash are doing sub-par, which thankfully means they are producing amounts that we can keep up with! I do get extreme garden guilt when I see our little patch choked with weeds. As a cook, there’s nothing more satisfying to me than harvesting from the garden and walking immediately into the kitchen to prepare it. The vegetables sing and easy summer ratatouille is the perfect way to save the flavors of the season.

Easy Summer Ratatouille on

One vegetable that’s done rather well despite neglect is eggplant. This year we planted six different varieties of eggplant, including this Little Finger Eggplant, seen above and the purple striped eggplant below. I adore eggplant. At a typical grocery store, shoppers have grown accustomed to finding one or two different types of eggplant: Italian, which is the large smooth, black bell-shaped and sometimes, maybe, depending on the store, there also might be small display of long, skinny violet-hued Asian eggplant. Why is there such a difference of what’s in our gardens and what’s available at a typical grocery store?

Easy Summer Ratatouille on

How is it that typical grocery stores have everything all at once, and small, specialized co-ops only contain what’s in season? It’s pretty simple. Essentially, the post WWII approach to food and agriculture has been that size, durability for shipping, and appearance are far valued over flavor and seasonality. Modern agriculture has effectively narrowed the varieties of fruits and vegetables available for purchase to most people, and the result is that consumers and cooks have often forgotten that there are multiple varieties of individual vegetables. Folks are limited because they  rarely know any different, and we all don’t have the ability to have a garden, growing and cooking our own food. The availability of certain vegetables is reflected in  this Endangerment Meter.


Imagine the produce department at the grocery store and consider the tomato section. Regardless of the time of year, very often there’s an installation of perfectly red, perfectly round globes of tomatoes and stacks of ready-to-eat pint containers of grape or cherry. Now, think about the farmer’s markets in the summer where there are all sorts of different kinds of tomatoes with exotic names like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Brandywine, and Arkansas Traveler. Those tomatoes don’t find their way very often into the grocery store. According to Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit,  “For the past 50 years tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield.” Those exotic heirloom tomatoes aren’t durable enough for shipping and don’t produce high enough yields to make sense for large-scale farming.

Now, cast your eyes towards the apple section. As consumers, we’re still accustomed to seeing different kinds of apples. Even in the smallest little po-dunk market there are often many different kinds of apples: Granny Smith, Red Delicious, MacIntosh, and sometimes a few more. In the fall the gourmet markets and more robust grocery stores will offer Honey Crisp, Gala, and Fuji. Our hyper-local, ultra-seasonal co-op offers up a wide and varied selection of obscure heirloom apples such as Ananas Reinette, Sheep’s Nose, and Maiden’s Blush from local farms in the fall.

Easy Southern Ratatouille on

Easy Summer Ratatouille

Save the Flavors

As a chef and cookbook author who specializes in creating recipes for home cooks, I want more people to have more accessibility to flavor, more variety, and fewer limitations. I want vegetables that are “scarce” to move up the meter to “abundant.” I want to save the flavors in a real and meaningful way.

How can we change this? In my home garden, we very often use the Seeds of Change online catalogue, other heirloom specialty seed companies, and seek out heirloom seedlings at our local nursery. The seeds from Seeds of Change are organic, non-GMO, heirloom or traditional varieties, and the mission of the company is to preserve biodiversity and promote sustainable agriculture. This simple mission very effectively promotes vegetables with flavor.

What can you do? How can you save the flavors? We’ve got to eat it to save it; we’ve got to increase demand.

Modern agriculture listens to money — think about how many more organic fruits and vegetables are available in comparison to only 5 years ago. It’s because the public demanded it and created a market. The best way to save endangered species is to eat them!

I’m not alone; click here to check out my friend and colleague Hugh Acheson‘s video (along with another friend, Atlanta Eats Radio Host Mara Davis) promoting Endangered Eats.

This week I am sharing a recipe for Easy Summer Ratatouille, perfect for this time of year, and a great way to save the flavors of summer in your freezer.  It’s a bright and flavorful melange of fresh-from-the-garden flavor and a welcome bit of summer sunshine in the cooler months. You’ll notice I’m suggesting a total weight for most of the vegetables so you can mix and match the variety you are able to use.

I would also like to suggest that you consider what you can do to save the flavors.  Thanks so much for reading and watching. Take part; seek out unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables. Eat seasonally and make sure to tag your heirloom vegetable dishes with the hashtag #SavetheFlavors

Bon Appétit Y’all! 


Easy Summer Ratatouille on

Easy Summer Ratatouille


Easy Summer Ratatouille

Serves 6 to 8

The French have ratatouille; the Sicilians, caponata; the Basque, pipérade; Indians, chutney; and Southerners have relish. All nationalities have a way to preserve and save the flavors of summer. Freeze this ratatouille in airtight containers for up to six months to serve later as an appetizer, side dish, or main dish.

Chopped kale and collard greens aren’t normally an ingredient in ratatouille, but I love the nod to the food of my people, the increased flavor, and best of all, the addition pumps up the nutritional density.

2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 pounds eggplant,  cut into ¾-inch cubes
2 pounds green and yellow summer squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup water
1-2 large sweet peppers, such as red bell, banana, or Hungarian Wax, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 heirloom tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped, or 2 cups cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh winter greens, such as kale or collard greens
½ cup finely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar

Heat the oil a large, heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Stir in the eggplant: season generously with salt and pepper. Stir fry until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the water and squash; cover, and simmer, stirring once, until the vegetables are beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the peppers; simmer, covered, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and chopped greens;  bring to a boil.

Decrease the heat to medium-low. Partially cover; simmer, stirring often, until the vegetables are just tender, about 8 to 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat.

Just before serving, stir in the basil and splash with vinegar. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. Or, freeze in airtight containers for up to 6 months.

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Seeds of Change and their Save the Flavors campaignAll opinions are 100% mine. 


Order Lighten Up, Y’all and I’ll send you a signed bookplate!

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If you are interested in hosting me for a cooking class or a book signing, let me know! Send an email to and we’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. All photos and content are copyright protected. Please do not use photos without prior written permission. If you wish to republish this recipe, please rewrite the recipe in your own words and link back to this recipe on Thanks so much.

Photography by Virginia Willis

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings?

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Copyright © 2015 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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