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My good friend Virginia Willis is a lot like the title of her brand new book: Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company. Virginia is basic, as in down-to-earth, real, practical and good; and she is also brilliant, as in creative, intelligent, accomplished, and inspiring. In this book, her second, she provides us with an extraordinary repertoire of recipes for snacks, feasts, picnics, beach trips, romantic suppers, family reunions — each and every excuse for a food-graced gathering can be deliciously handled by anyone in possession of this superb cookbook. Virginia sets us up with a library of knowledge about cooking, both for everyday and for company, drawn from  the hearty and gracious Georgia cooking of her childhood, and the classic French culinary expertise she gained during her years studying and then working in France at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne. Particularly interesting are her chapter introductions, ranging from a thoughtful discourse on the economics, ethics, and people behind the meat we put on our tables, to a meditation on rice culture and the goodness of grits, and a valentine to vegetables, the latter with delicious detours into life on the set in the many television studios where Virginia worked as Kitchen Director for folks like Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree. Her introductions fascinate, educate and captivate me, but they never take me too far away from the food. Don’t you want to get in the kitchen and make Mama’s Sausage Swirls; Chicken Breasts with Tarragon Veloute; Beef Daube Provencal; Pinto Beans with Side Meat; Chateau du Fey Cherry Clafoutis; and Dede’s Burnt Caramel Cake? I know I do, and with Virginia’s clear, inviting voice flowing off the page, I know I can do so, even the ones for dishes I’ve never tried to cook, and thought could only come from the hands of bona fide chefs. You need to invite Virginia Willis into your kitchen, and this book allows you to do just that. You can learn more about her at her website:

I broke in my brand new copy, which I was thrilled to receive from Virginia’s publisher, Ten Speed Press, with a dish my father adored, and one I had to come around to as a grown up: Brussels sprouts. “Of course you don’t like them if the only way you’ve ever had them was cooked to stinky mush!” Virginia notes on page 195 of the Vegetable chapter in Basic to Brilliant, Y’all. She cooks them with bacon, onions, and apples, a dandy little chorus for the beautiful tiny cabbages I’ve learned to adore. Virginia calls for Granny Smith apple, but I like a sweeter apple such as a gala or a fuji myself.

Virginia Willis’s Sautéed Brussels Sprouts With Apples and Bacon

1 pound Brussels sprouts, cut in half (or peeled according to directions below)

2 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into lardons

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch dice

Leaves from 2 sprigs thyme, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add Brussels sprouts and cook until bright green and just tender, about 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

In a skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium, add the onion, and sauté until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the apple and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apple is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add the Brussels sprouts and toss to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the parsley and toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Transfer to a warmed serving platter and serve immediately.

To make it brilliant: Cut about ¼ inch off the stem end of each sprout and begin peeling off the leaves. When difficult to peel further, trim off another ¼ inch and continue removing leaves. Repeat to peel all leaves from the sprouts; discard the tiny cores. Follow the basic recipe above, but no need to blanch the sprouts. Add the leaves to the onion and apple. Sauté until the leaves are bright green and slightly wilted but still crunchy, about 3 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6

Copyright Virginia Willis @2011. Published by Ten Speed Press. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of ten cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
  1. Pat Reply

    I’m confused at many people’s disdain of brussels sprouts. Every time I’ve had them (at restaurants of course), they’ve been very tasty but I’m sure that has everything to do with the bacon and/or butter they use :). I’ve never tried cooking them at home but now that I have a recipe I will! Thanks for sharing, Nancie.

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Bacon and butter do stack the deck, don’t they? But my father loved them no matter how they were prepared, and nowadays I do, too. Love how they grow, on those big stalks. I cut them in half lengthwise and blanched them for a crudites platterfor the last CHOP NC meeting, and they were such a hit. Bright green, a lil’ bit of crunch; but the red curry mayo dip did not hurt their popularity one bit.

  2. Jamie Reply

    I have heard so much about Virginia and so many fantastic things about this book that I am dying to get my hands on a copy. She’ll be at the Paris Cookbook Fair in March which I hope to get to and I’d love to finally meet her! (Won’t you be there???). And my brother taught me how to make Brussel Sprouts and I fell in love with them!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      My guess? I would bet lots of money on it: You will love her. She is an amazing, brilliant, inspiring, funny, insightful, generous soul and I predict instant connection. Loved her first book, and this new one is just as fine and worthy. And marvelous photos, really giving a sense of home and love and place, and deliciousness of course.

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