The Blended, Bountiful Table

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; Page F01

Leaves swirl, ovens warm the kitchens and jewel-toned produce swells the farmers markets. Home cooks take it all in each fall . . . and start to fret. · Angst creeps into Food section readers' calls and queries weeks before Thanksgiving. We understand, mostly. The holiday table can be too beige, brown and bland. It is an unwieldy roster of family favorites that don't quite fit together or an overwhelming ode to carbohydrates. Vegetarians go on the defensive.

Even when turkey and trimmings are welcome, their simultaneous preparation is not.

And so we say: Take a deep breath. We have a plan. It starts with the grace and bounty of a menu inspired by Southern and French sensibilities, which is a surprisingly happy union. Much of it can be made in advance.

Chef Virginia Willis demonstrates the synthesis in her first cookbook, "Bon Appetit, Y'all," published this year. The Atlanta resident grew up cooking at her mother's and grandmother's elbows, and she was trained in classical French culinary techniques.

"We think turkey is all-American, but it's not," she says with a soft, husky drawl. "When I lived in France, I'd go to the butcher and find turkey breasts and turkey paupiettes, thin slices wrapped around forcemeat.

"Of course, they don't go for the 25-pound behemoths that we get," she adds.

Willis, 41, has returned to France several times since she studied at the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in the mid-1990s (and at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg before that, and as an intern to Southern food doyenne Nathalie Dupree before that). She'll never forget how low it felt to spend Thanksgiving abroad.

"It wasn't just the food I missed. I opted not to go to an expat restaurant in Paris and had roast chicken at a bistro instead," she says. "It made me tragically homesick."

The menu Willis devised for The Post this year is the same one she'll be sharing with her partner of 20 years and their families, save for the addition of a mandatory corn bread dressing. Preserved figs, blackberry jelly and pickles are their standard condiments. She knows the math of a thoughtful Thanksgiving cook: Add, but never take away. "I'm excited about it," she says. "The flavors all work together."

At the heart of the meal is a butter-basted turkey that can serve as a cornucopia for a rich mixture of chestnuts and mushrooms. That combination is very French, Willis says. Her complementary celeriac puree, featuring a root vegetable beloved by French cooks, adds dimension to what might otherwise be an ordinary bowl of mashed potatoes.

The chef's kale-and-squash side dish evolved more from her employ as kitchen director for Martha Stewart television shows in the late '90s than from her Southern roots. She tries a theory out loud: "Maybe it's New Southern." Yet its gratineed preparation, with cream and a crumb topping, speaks to her French approach.

That approach, Willis explains, might mean something as simple as the skill or patience it takes to cut everything to the same size, so it all cooks at the same rate of speed. And the concept of mise en place, of having ingredients assembled and prepped before making a dish, is part of her classical training that would benefit all Thanksgiving cooks.

The yeast roll and blackberry cobbler recipes have truly Southern roots, from the grandmother she called Meme. The rolls are a bountiful, old-school recipe that her grandfather also had a hand in. "Meme didn't have a mixer. She had him," Willis explains, recalling the way her grandfather would be called into service, using a bread-beating spoon to tame great amounts of yeast dough.

The rolls are a two-step production that might seem burdensome to an already-busy holiday cook, and the recipe makes a hefty amount. "The effort involved in making a half-dozen seems hardly worth it, though," Willis says. "So go ahead and make them all. They freeze well."

Her mother's pecan pie is "one of those recipes that was being made before I was born," Willis says; at some point, it probably involved the back of a bottle of Karo syrup. Her mother, also named Virginia, creates a dessert that is not too sweet and not too thick, with the right proportion of goo to pecans In her book, the chef describes the way a hand grinder was used to chop the pie's pecans just so: not a French technique, just Willis's usual careful treatment.

The fact that the recipe yields two pies is no accident: Leftovers are in mind. "I prefer that pie after a couple of days," Willis says. "The sugars and nuts get chewy."

There's no question that Willis's menu requires cooks who are prepared to spend time in the kitchen. But their efforts will be rewarded with a beautiful and gracious array of food that beckons family and friends to the table, and that's just what Thanksgiving is about.

Join Virginia Willis for our Free Range chat online at 1 p.m. today.

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