For those of you who have been reading this blog for years, it will come as no surprise that I have a girl crush on Virginia Willis. For me, she embodies all of the things that are required of a great Southern Chef with an added hearty laugh. Her book Bon Appetit, Y’all is in constant rotation in my kitchen and the beautiful photographs still take my breath away.
I was so excited about her new book – Basic to Brilliant, Y’all – and to finally meet her at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium this autumn. She was so kind as to give me a few moments for a picture and a mini chat about Basic to Brilliant, Y’all. The concept of the book is to provide two interpretations of a single recipe – a basic version for everyday and a “brilliant” one for extra-special meals (although I find the basics just as spectacular as the brilliant). Like Bon Appetit, Y’all, the book is filled with lovely tales of growing up in the South, stories of family and friends, and practical tips for the everyday chef – all distilled, mixed, and integrated with Virginia’s years in France. The photographs are just as stunning (perhaps more, if that is possible) as the ones in Bon Appetit, Y’all; you can read all about the photo shoot on Virginia’s blog (plus find recipes for deliciousness like “Mama’s Fried Pies”).
Virginia Willis is a national hero in my book. Visit her site, read her blog, and by all means, read her books and recipes. As we move towards the holidays, I asked Virginia to share a favorite holiday memory and/or recipe. Please enjoy – and I am off to by a coconut! Check back in the next weeks for more about Virginia’s books and how she has inspired my life in the kitchen.
I leave you today with her story below and, of course, a recipe.
Christmas provides such an abundance of blessings for culinary memories! The cakes, pies, roast beasts — but, as a chef, I think that perhaps one of my favorite memories is my grandparents making ambrosia. It wasn’t just my grandmother, my grandfather helped cook, too. He was a mountain of a man. It didn’t bother him a bit to be in the kitchen. The process would start by buying the big bag of oranges in the red netting bags at the grocery store. They would peel and segment all the navel oranges by hand. I remember being intrigued by the navel, the mini orange at the bottom of the fruit. They would also only use fresh coconut. My sister and I would shake them, listening to the amount of liquid sloshing about, waiting on our treat. Dede, my grandfather, would poke 3 holes in the soft section at the top. He’d then pour the water out of the coconut into a glass. We’d drink the slightly sweet liquid. With a small metal hammer and a dishtowel he’d crack the pieces into his enormous hands. Then, he would then remove the hard outer shell and peel the pieces. Finally, once he had a mountain of coconut shards, he’d wipe each piece clean with a paper towel to remove any brown bits of husk or shell, then, carefully, slowly, grate each piece on the small side of a box grater. The rhythmic noise he made as he scrubbed each piece is as much a part of my holiday memory as Christmas carols. Meme and Dede made huge quantities of everything. Meme would combine the ambrosia in a large opaque sealable Tupperware container as big as a drum. Depending on the sweetness of the coconut and orange she would add sugar, but never, ever, ever maraschino cherries or marshmallows. I make smaller amounts now, the crowd isn’t as large, but it just wouldn’t be Christmas without ambrosia.
And she just wouldn’t be Virginia if she didn’t send along the recipe:
Serves 4 to 6
No holiday in our family would be complete without this refreshing fruit salad. My grand-father Dede would patiently grate the fresh coconut on a box grater, also put to use for the obligatory coconut cake. My sister, Jona, would sit, fidgeting, on the stool in the kitchen waiting for a sip of the coconut juice. Once the coconut was grated, Dede would peel and segment enough oranges to make gallons of this exquisite concoction. Although Dede did all the work (with a little help from Jona), I’ve named this dish for Meme, because she loved it and he made it for her. Use this simple recipe as the starting point for creating your own version. Always use fresh coconut, not flaked, canned, bagged, or frozen.
6 navel oranges
1 cup shredded fresh coconut (see below)
1/4 cup sugar (optional)
To section the oranges, using a sharp knife and a cutting board, slice off the tops and bottoms so the oranges will stand upright. For each orange, set the fruit upright on the board. Working from top to bottom, slice off the peel, pith, and outer membranes from the orange to expose the segments. Carefully cut each segment away from its membranes and put in a bowl along with any juice. Squeeze any remaining juice from the membranes, then discard them.
To assemble, add the coconut to the orange segments and gently toss to combine. Add sugar to taste, depending on the sweetness of the oranges. The ambrosia can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, covered.
Preparing Fresh Coconut
To crack the coconut, pierce three holes on the coconut shell with an ice pick or a clean screwdriver and drain out the juice. Place the pierced, drained coconut directly on the rack in a pre-heated 350°F oven for about 10 minutes to crack the shell. Remove it from the oven and wrap it in a kitchen towel; place it either on the floor or on a sturdy work surface that can tolerate hammering. Give the shell a couple of whacks with a hammer to break it completely open. Remove the pieces of broken coconut from the towel. The coconut meat, covered with brown skin, will pull away easily from the cracked shell. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the brown skin from the meat. Grate the skinless meat in a food processor or with a box grater.