Delightfully Southern inside and out, chef and storyteller Virginia Willis has cooked around the world, but the South has never been far from her plate. We recently got to sit a spell with Virginia and dish about summer in the South and the bounty of fresh ingredients that inspire her to get inventive in the kitchen. Don’t miss her recipe for Mama’s Sweet Biscuits with Stewed Blackberries below!
What is your first food memory?
I made biscuits with my grandmother from the time I was old enough to stand on a chair and reach the counter.
Blueberries or blackberries?
I grew up eating wild blackberries and love blackberry cobbler, but blueberries have become my go-to snack.
Favorite way to eat a tomato?
I love an old-fashioned tomato sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise. No basil, artisan sourdough bread, extra-virgin olive oil, aïoli, sea salt, lemon zest, or crispy applewood-smoked bacon is allowed. It’s the only time of year I buy squishy white bread, and it’s the absolute best for a tomato sandwich.
Best use of a perfectly ripe peach?
The best way to eat a peach is standing over the kitchen sink. My favorite way to use peaches is in peach cobbler. Nothing is as good as warm peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream—or, if I really want to gild the lily, I’ll make peach ice cream to go on top. If I’m trying to be more healthful and less indulgent, I love a peach yogurt smoothie for breakfast in the summertime.
Farmers’ market you can’t wait to visit this summer?
Grant Park Farmers Market in Atlanta. There are loads of kids playing, live music, everyone brings their dog, and it’s just beautiful. It’s a Sunday market, so some folks go before or after church, but for some people, being outdoors and appreciating good food in nature is their church.
Always in your pantry?
A can or two of whole tomatoes. The reason I keep whole tomatoes is because you can chop, but you can’t unchop. A can of tomatoes becomes a pot of soup or a simmering sauce for pasta or vegetables in a few strokes of the knife.
Go-to comfort meal?
If I am moping and feeling sorry for myself, I want gooey, cheesy macaroni and cheese. If I don’t feel good, I want homemade chicken soup. I have grown to absolutely love matzo ball soup, which I did not grow up with, but I agree wholeheartedly that it is indeed Jewish penicillin.
What’s growing in your garden?
We grow the usual suspects: tomatoes, cucumbers, lots of peppers, squash, zucchini, kale, collards, okra, and eggplant. I love working in the garden; there’s nothing like growing something and then cooking it. It’s so fresh, vibrant, and veritably electric. We’ve started mixing our vegetables in the flower garden because we were bursting at the seams. It’s beautiful. We plant the eggplant near a spot of purple flowers, and they enhance one another. It’s very natural.
Virginia Willis is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all. Her newest book, Lighten Up, Y’all, will debut next spring. Follow Virginia’s Southern food adventures at virginiawillis.com.