Ever since her 2008 book, “Bon Appetit, Y’all,” Virginia Willis has been one of the top Southern food writers.
Willis, who ran the TV kitchens for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and Nathalie Dupree, has been building her own star for a while and is a frequent guest at the Central Market Cooking School in Austin, and she’ll return next week for a class on May 12 to promote her newest book, “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30).
The new book chronicles the vast and varied stories of food and food makers throughout the South today, incorporating a much more diverse perspective on what we call “Southern food” than we typically see in books on this regional cuisine, such as recipes descended from the Chinese immigrants who moved to the Mississippi Delta during Reconstruction. You’ll find profiles of (and recipes from) arepa-makers in Atlanta, quail farmers in South Carolina and Morovian bakers in North Carolina, whose families settled the area in the 1740s, as well as recipes from Willis’ own family history.
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She’ll tell many of these stories and more at her class next week. You can still get tickets to the class ($70, centralmarket.com), where she’ll teach a handful of dishes, including Asian Cajun shrimp, grilled skirt steak, tomato ginger green beans, crispy Greek potatoes and Mexican chocolate pudding.
Here’s her spin on summer squash, which is spiced with the ever-popular harissa and a lemon vinaigrette.
Pan-Seared Summer Squash with Spiced Lemon Vinaigrette
Summer squash thrive in the semitropical South. My grandparents always had a garden with many mounded rows of squash, and my grandfather taught me that summer squash bear both male and female flowers. The female flowers are easy to identify by looking for a miniature squash just below each blossom. Male flowers sit directly on the stem and do not produce fruit. Pick these male blossoms for using the flower. If you pick the females, you won’t have any squash. Simple biology.
This dish was inspired by chef-owner Rafih Benjelloun of Imperial Fez, a beloved Atlanta institution for more than twenty-five years. At his restaurant, guests are magically transported to Morocco — the tea is mint, not sweet; diners rest on comfortable pillows surrounded by opulent colors; shoes are left at the door; and belly dancers dance and sway to the music.
Harissa is a spicy, aromatic, and flavorful chile paste used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking. The blend differs from country to country, but it’s a puree of hot chile peppers, garlic, olive oil, and spices such as cumin, coriander, and caraway. It can be found at Middle Eastern markets, well-stocked gourmet stores, and natural foods stores.
To prepare the garlic paste, place the unpeeled garlic on a cutting board, broad-side down, set the flat side of a chef’s knife on top, and give the knife a quick whack with the palm of your hand to crush each clove. Remove the papery skin and trim away the tough basal plane at the end of the clove. Halve the garlic and remove any of the green shoot, if present, as it is bitter. Coarsely chop the garlic, then sprinkle it with a pinch of coarse salt. (The salt acts as an abrasive and helps grind the garlic.) Using the side of the knife like an artist’s palette knife, press firmly on the cutting board and crush the garlic a little at a time. Repeat until the garlic is a fine paste.
— Virginia Willis
3 or 4 small yellow squash (about 1 pound)
3 or 4 small green squash (about 1 pound)
Zest of 1 lemon and juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
1 teaspoon harissa or chile paste, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Trim the stem and flower ends of the squash, and then use a chef’s knife to quarter each one lengthwise. Using the tip of your knife, trim away the seeds. (The seeds can make the dish watery.) Cut the squash into 1-inch pieces.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Without crowding, add the squash to the dry skillet and cook, stirring often, until lightly blistered on both sides and tender to the point of a knife, 5 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl or jar with a lid, combine the lemon zest, lemon juice, oil, garlic, harissa, and cumin to make the dressing. Stir or shake to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
Place the squash in a large bowl and drizzle some of the dressing over the top. Toss to coat and combine, and add more as needed. Sprinkle with the parsley. This dish is excellent served hot or room temperature or cold as a salad. If you serve it cold, make sure to taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper before serving, as chilling dulls the seasoning. Serves 4 to 6.
— From “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South” by Virginia Willis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)