Virginia Willis, French-trained chef at Anne Willan’s La Varenne, is the author of several outstanding cookbooks that merge Southern cooking with French sensibilities (the excellent “Bon Appetit, Y’all” and the follow-up “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all”). In her latest, “Lighten Up, Y’all,” Willis tackles the misconception that Southern comfort food classics like pimiento cheese, mac and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken, and biscuits and gravy are relegated to a dietician’s worst nightmare.
Southern cuisine relies on a bounty of fresh produce which can sometimes be hidden under added fats or oils (collard greens, I’m looking at you!), but that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in any nutritional value whatsoever. Virginia has given these staples a healthier makeover by swapping out full-fat products for lower-fat ones, including applesauce for oil in baked goods, and by substituting a portion of 2% Greek Yogurt (I use 0% Fage) in place of mayo. The best part is that your guests won’t be able to taste the difference; there’s no sense of deprivation or strange textures from using fat-free products (which she doesn’t recommend).
Many iconic Southern classics have been given the makeover treatment, including cheese grits, dirty rice, smothered chicken and gravy, and coleslaw. In some cases, recipes are given a French or international treatment (miso-glazed catfish with edamame, rack of lamb with pecan mint dipping sauce). Every recipe includes nutritional info, making it great for those who actively track calories, fat, sugar and carbs. Gorgeous photos tempt you to make every recipe in the book.
I recently had the chance to take a “Lighten Up, Y’all” class with Virginia, where we made several recipes from the book including the crab and celery remoulade wraps, makeover broccoli mac and cheese, cider-braised pork loin with apple thyme jus, pan roasted asparagus & mushrooms, buttermilk biscuits, and Claire’s cream cheese swirl brownies with vanilla cream. She was a most gracious and humorous hostess who exuded Southern charm, and these recipes are sure to be a hit at your next dinner or party.
“Lighten Up, Y’all” should belong in everyone’s kitchen; it’s not a “diet” book by any means, but a way to enjoy seasonal vegetables to their fullest without added fat, and to try new produce or meats that you otherwise may have been missing out on (honey mustard Carolina quail with grilled grapes, okra, greens). It’s a wonderful way to enjoy healthier versions of beloved classics without feeling like you’re sacrificing portion size or flavor, and to try new flavors as well.