The Taste of Summer: From Pantry to Patio

IMG_2106written by Dawn Burgess
photography by Angie Mosier; reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press

Whether at one of the countless farmers markets, a produce stand or even in our own back yards, it’s time to eagerly seek the local, fresh produce with that kissed-by-the-sun flavor to be celebrated all season long. Indeed, we are fortunate in the South to have such amazing farm-to-table opportunities and Georgia, in particular, offers iconic produce that should not be denied. If you don’t have recipes at the ready, the good news is you can serve up delicious okra, corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers and berries, among other favorites without much fuss. The natural flavor of these culinary gems need very little attention to go from good to divine. Don’t know where to begin? Well, allow me to introduce Atlanta’s own Virginia Willis, accomplished Southern chef and author. Her newest cookbook “Lighten Up Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome,” is filled with fresh takes on classic favorites, perfect for summer eating.


With a mother who was a skilled and adventurous home cook, Willis began learning about and appreciating food at an early age. She was raised in a home where the kitchen was the center of activity. It was where people gathered to catch up with one another, to do homework and, of course, to share a delicious meal that often included fresh vegetables from her grandfather’s enormous garden.  While her love was born in the kitchen of her childhood home, Willis didn’t give in to the pull of culinary arts until after graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in history. It was only then, after years of being the go-to friend for gourmet, homecooked meals that she realized professional happiness, for her, would only be found in the kitchen. Though Willis once cooked ceviche for her awe-struck college roommates, her first true taste of the industry came as an apprentice to Nathalie Dupree, the “grand dame” of new Southern cuisine. Once Willis’ career began, it became clear that she was on the right path, as she quickly became a well-respected, exceedingly busy chef. While still working with Dupree, she trained in classical French cooking at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, and then furthered her training at La Varenne (one of the premier cooking schools in France), where she connected with a second career-long mentor, Anne Willian, the school’s founder. Willis continued to work with Dupree as kitchen director for her popular PBS television cooking show before going on to direct mega food stars Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart. She also made numerous TV appearances of her own, as a frequently featured guest chef on Stewart’s shows and even once was a contestant on The Food Network’s “Chopped.”

Willis accomplished all of this while writing a total of six cookbooks including her must-read signature series of “Y’all” cookbooks: “Bon Appetit, Y’all,” “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all” and now “Lighten Up, Y’all.” On the pages of the latter, you’ll be pleased to find beautifully photographed dishes and a variety of simple, healthy recipes, perfect for summer soirées. Family and friends will dive into the “Lightened Up Pimiento Cheese,” tasty bites made with fresh vegetables or sliced apples prior to the Bourbon Grilled Pork Chops, a bona fide cookout crowd pleaser. Don’t miss delectable sweets like the Brown Sugar-Strawberry Shortcakes, a dish that celebrates Georgia’s abundant crop of fresh, summer berries found across the state at “u-pick” farms and farmers markets.   In addition to being a guide in the preparation of memorable fare, “Lighten Up Y’all” serves as a source for healthy eating. It’s packed with a wealth of clever substitutions like Greek yogurt to maintain the creamy consistency of recipes (think chicken salad, pimiento cheese…) without the fat of mayonnaise and quinoa, as well as ground turkey, for BBQ meatballs instead of ground beef. Willis also shared that in just about any recipe, you can substitute butter for half butter-half canola oil.

Now that your mouth is watering and the breezy days of summer beckon you to the patio, it’s time to plan the menu. With Willis’ simple recipes, take full advantage of the South’s most iconic summer produce in ways you might never have imagined. First, she suggested her Shrimp & Pepper Poppers as a fresh, light alternative to the commonly served cheese-filled, fried poppers. In contrast, these stuffed peppers are a bright and flavorful seafood bite made on the grill. This recipe calls for just a few ingredients, most of which you’ll find in your pantry right now. Grilled Okra Skewers is another option that will not only break the ice and wow your guests at your next neighborhood get-together, it could be a new favorite for many. This recipe is super simple — the okra is tossed in canola oil, skewered with jalapeños and grilled — and though okra may be one of the South’s most iconic summer vegetables, it tends to be polarizing. Trust me, this savory technique will win over even those that aren’t fans. Finally, most of us have never served what Willis calls “summer in a bowl,” but her Peach and Tomato Gazpacho will most certainly change that. This easy, make-ahead soup is a refreshing salute to our state’s finest produce with an innovative way to simultaneously enjoy tomatoes and peaches. Surprisingly, each ingredient winds up complementing the other’s flavor because of, as Willis described, “just the right balance of sweet peaches and slightly acidic tomatoes.”

Get your outdoor entertaining area ready because this low-stress, easy-to-prepare menu will leave you and your guests relaxed and satisfied with the taste of summer.

Makes 8 to serve 4
1 pound large shrimp (21/25 count), peeled, deveined, and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Grated zest of 1 lime
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Hungarian wax or banana peppers, halved lengthwise and cored

In a large bowl, combine the shrimp, cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, cilantro and lime zest, and season
with salt and pepper. Using a spoon, fill the peppers, mounding the shrimp over the top. (These may be made and refrigerated up to one day ahead.) Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes. Place the peppers on the medium hot grill and cover. Cook until the peppers are tender, charred on the bottom, and the shrimp is cooked through and pink in color, 5 to 7 minutes. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 cups to serve 6
4 large peaches, peeled, pitted and quartered (about 2 cups)
2 large tomatoes, cored and quartered (about 4 cups)
1/2 sweet onion, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
1/3 cup plain two-percent Greek yogurt
3/4 cup finely diced peeled English cucumber (about 3 inches)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram or chives, plus more for garnish
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish (optional)
1/4 peach, pitted and thinly sliced, for garnish

Combine the quartered peaches, tomatoes, onion and vinegar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Season with salt and pepper. Purée until smooth. Transfer to a sealable container and refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour. (Take the time to chill the serving bowls at this time, as well.) Place the yogurt in a medium bowl. Add the cucumber, chives, and garlic and stir to combine; season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until ready for use. When ready to serve, taste and adjust the soup for seasoning with salt and pepper. (Chilling dulls the seasoning so it may need to be adjusted.) Ladle the chilled gazpacho into the chilled bowls. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the cucumber-yogurt mixture into the center. Garnish with a peach slice and a sprig of marjoram. Drizzle over a few drops of extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

Pimiento Cheese SJS

Makes about 2 cups to serve 16

4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, freshly grated (about 1 cup)
4 ounces light Cheddar cheese, freshly grated (about 1 cup)
¼ sweet onion, grated
1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
1 tablespoon plain
2 percent Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped pimientos, drained
Hot sauce
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Japanese or English cucumbers, for accompaniment

To make the pimiento cheese, combine the cheeses, onion, mayonnaise, and yogurt in a bowl. Stir until well combined. Add the pimientos and hot sauce to taste. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Cut the cucumbers into 1-inch-thick rounds, discarding the ends, but leaving the skin on. Using a small spoon or melon baller, scoop the seeds and some of the flesh out of each round (be careful not to go all the way through) to form a small cup. To serve, fill each cup with about 1 teaspoon of the pimiento cheese. Serve immediately.

Makes about 2 cups to make 16 wraps

2 tablespoons plain 2 percent Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 stalks celery, sliced sharply on the diagonal into 1/8-inch thick pieces
1 tablespoon freshly grated or prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon hot sauce, or to taste
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound lump crab, picked over for shells and cartilage

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 to 3 heads butter leaf lettuce, for accompaniment In a large bowl, stir together the yogurt, mayonnaise, mustard, celery, horseradish, parsley, shallot, garlic, lemon zest and juice, hot sauce, paprika, and cayenne pepper. Add the crab and fold together as gently as possible. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon a tablespoon or so of the rémoulade into the lettuce cups and serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6
4 jalapeños
1½ pounds okra, stems trimmed
1 tablespoon canola oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, slice the jalapeños into coins about ¼ inch thick. Thread the okra crosswise onto two skewers, building a ladder of sorts so the okra won’t spin on the skewer and inserting slices of jalapeño every other pod or so, depending on how much kick you want. Brush with canola oil and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the grill and cook until bright green and tender, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove from the grill and serve immediately.

Makes about ½ cup

To heighten this basic combination of smoky grilled okra and jalapeño, Willis suggests this brilliant dipping sauce. Omit slicing the jalapeños; before grilling the okra, place the jalapeños on the prepared grill and roast until blackened and charred. Peel, seed and core. Place in the jar of a blender, with one clove garlic and ¼ cup canola oil. Purée until smooth. Season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Proceed with grilling skewered okra as above. Remove the okra from the skewers and place on a warmed serving plate. Serve the dipping sauce on the side.

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