With my Greek and German roots, I can’t really claim any expertise on Southern food. Yet, I’ve always had a soft spot for the cuisine. And maybe that’s not all too surprising given my lifelong obsession with comforting grains. I could spoon into a bowl of freshly milled corn grits all day long—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the allure of biscuits, piping hot from the oven, has been so strong for years that I’ve created my own whole-grain version. This summer, my olive oil biscuits with cracked pepper and honey glaze were transformed by the incredibly talented blogger Sarah Kiefer into breathtaking sour cherry shortcakes. Read about them here.
More recently, Southern cooking which, how shall I put it, can gravitate towards heaviness, has been overhauled by many a great chef. My wonderful colleague Virginia Willis, a French-trained chef and acclaimed cookbook author, is out with her new Lighten Up, Y’all—classic Southern recipes made healthy & wholesome. And it’s wonderful!
I love this book because only someone who was raised in the South will be able to transform familiar and popular dishes without diminishing their appeal. I want all my food to taste good rather than healthy. And Virginia delivers. Say hello to lightened-up pimiento cheese, cornmeal-crusted chicken bites, and her modern take on bacon-wilted greens with warm pecan-crusted goat cheese. I will happily dig into her sassy slaw plus her new soul Creole dirty rice, not to forget stovetop apple pie. In this post, I share Virginia’s vegetable cornbread because it reminds me of the corn pies we make in the northwestern Greek region of Epirus. Ours are chockfull with greens that traditionally were harvested wild. So packing an all-American corn bread with vegetables seems only natural.
Southern cooking is trending so I’m listing a few more cookbooks by colleagues and friends you might want to check out for your holiday gift giving. All good stuff!
—Soon I will write about Beans & Field Peas by my colleague and friend Sandra A. Gutierrez, prolific food writer and expert on Latin cuisine. Her Drunken Beans, simmered in beer for hours, are the winter food of my dreams.
—The wonderful Nancie McDermott is also out with a brand-new cookbook, titled Southern Soups & Stews. You can read more about her culinary passions that are spanning the globe, from Asia to the American South, here.
If you want to dig deeper, be sure to check out the books by Nathalie Dupree, the doyenne of Southern cooking, who has been inducted into the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America this year. I especially recommend Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, as well as the beautiful Southern Biscuits, both co-authored with the lovely Cynthia Graubart. If I could take one cooking class right now, it would be one by Nathalie who is an inspiration in so many ways. Nathalie’s accomplishments are legendary in the food community, and if you don’t know her yet start here.
Virginia Willis’ Vegetable Corn Bread
While Virginia’s cornbread is classic summer fare, it can be beautifully adapted to all seasons. In fact, right now I think it would make a glorious no-stress addition to your Thanksgiving table. Nicely textured, with nuggets of corn and chunks of okra, and just the right kick of heat. Virginia says you can use up to five cups of vegetables and replace spicy chiles with chopped zucchini, yellow squash, or eggplant if you like. If you use these more watery vegetables, she recommends you “par cook them first to remove some of the moisture (this could be as simple as zapping in the microwave and draining off the excess water)”. Also, if you don’t have buttermilk on hand, she recommends to just add 1 teaspoon of distilled white or apple cider vinegar per 1 cup of 2% milk ,and wait a few seconds—you are ready to go!
I made a few minor changes to Virginia’s recipe, simply because I worked with what I had on hand. I used 1 cup frozen corn kernels as well as I cup frozen okra, sliced 1/2-inch, which worked beautifully. My cornmeal from Bob’s Red Mill was medium grind which contributed nice texture, and I enjoyed adding a few of my own pickled chile rings and some fresh Greek oregano I found lingering in the garden.
This cornbread was perfect with feta and olives—always on my Greek table—and a glass of wine. Hope you try it!
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups yellow whole-grain cornmeal (250 g), not self-rising or degerminated
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
6 fresh okra pods, stem ends trimmed, very thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 red onion, chopped
Cut and scraped kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn, cut from the cob (about 1 cup)
1 banana pepper, thinly sliced into rings
1 jalapeño chile, thinly sliced into rings
1 small red chile, such as bird’s eye or Thai, thinly sliced into rings
1/2 poblano chile, cored, seeded, and chopped
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Place the oil in a large cast-iron skillet or ovenproof baking dish and heat in the oven until the oil is piping hot, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. Add the okra, onion, corn, banana pepper, and chiles and toss to coat. Set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine.
Remove the heated skillet from the oven and pour the hot oil into the batter. Stir to combine, and then pour the batter back into the hot skillet. Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Using a serrated knife, slice into wedges and serve warm.
Reprinted with permission from Lighten Up Y’All by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.