Lighten Up, Y’all: Virginia Willis Yummy French & Southern Cuisine

Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked with Julia Child and cooked for President Bill Clinton but when she found herself in “unhealthy situation.” She was overweight and her cholesterol and glucose numbers were way too high. So she decided to take a new approach to Southern cooking, combining her education at L’Academie de Cuisine and her childhood spent learning to cook from her Southern grandmother, recreating the classic dishes she learned to make. Keeping the flavor but eliminating the fat is what her cookbook Lighten Up, Y’all (Ten Speed Press) is all about. And for those of us who love the flavors of the south her recipes are a joy to recreate at home.

Makeover Broccoli Mac & Cheese

Photo Courtesy of the Food Network

1 cup shredded 50 percent reduced- fat extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (4 ounces)

3/4 cup shredded 75 percent reduced-fat extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (3 ounces)

2 tablespoons panko (Japanese) bread crumbs

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 3/4 cups 2 percent milk

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup low-fat cottage cheese

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces (2 cups) whole wheat elbow macaroni

12 ounces ( 4 cups) broccoli florets and stems

Preheat oven to 450°F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Coat an 8-inch-square (2-quart) baking dish with cooking spray. Combine the two cheeses. Mix 1⁄4 cup of the cheese mixture, the bread crumbs, and paprika in a small bowl. Set aside.

To make the cheese sauce, heat 11⁄2 cups of the milk in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until simmering. Whisk remaining 1⁄4 cup milk and the flour in a small bowl until smooth; add to the hot milk and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce simmers and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 11⁄2 cups of the cheese mixture and the cottage cheese until melted. Stir in the dry mustard, and nutmeg, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Cook pasta according to package instructions. In the last 3 minutes of cooking, add the broccoli florets. Drain well and add to the cheese sauce; mix well. Spread the pasta-broccoli mixture in the prepared baking dish; sprinkle with the bread crumb mixture. Bake until bubbly and golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Serve warm.

Oven-Fried Chicken On-a-Stick with Vidalia Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce

Photo courtesy of the Food Network

1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt

2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed (1 1/2 pounds)

2 cups panko (Japanese) bread crumbs

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 large egg whites

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

Vidalia-Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce:

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 Vidalia onion, peeled and quartered

1 garlic clove

1/3 cup honey

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup canola oil

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine the salt, 1 teaspoon of the paprika, 1/2 teaspoon of the onion powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of the garlic powder. Add the buttermilk and whisk until the salt is completely dissolved and the spices are dispersed in the liquid.

Cut the chicken lengthwise into about 1-inch-wide strips. Add to the marinade and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. (Do not marinate any longer or the chicken will be too salty. If you can’t cook it right at the 30-minute mark, remove the chicken from the marinade and refrigerate until ready to continue.)

In a large shallow dish (a 9 by 13-inch baking dish works well), combine the bread crumbs, the remaining 1 teaspoon paprika, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of onion powder, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of the garlic powder. Add the 2 tablespoons oil and toss well to coat. Whisk together the egg whites and mustard in a second large shallow dish. Season both mixtures with pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, then set an ovenproof rack on it. Coat the rack with nonstick cooking spray.

Remove the chicken from the marinade, shaking off any excess, and thread onto sixteen 12-inch bamboo skewers, dividing the meat evenly, about 1 strip per skewer. Dip the chicken into the egg mixture, coating both sides. Place in the bread crumb mixture one skewer at a time, sprinkle with crumbs to cover, and press so the coating adheres to both sides. Gently shake off any excess crumbs and place the skewers on the prepared rack.

Bake the chicken, turning halfway through, until golden brown and the juices run clear, about 25 minutes. Serve warm with the dipping sauce.

Vidalia-Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce:

Put the vinegar, onion, garlic, honey, and mustard in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until smooth. With the motor running, add the oil in a slow steady stream until thick and emulsified. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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