The holidays are a time to celebrate traditions with family, raise a glass with friends old and new and gather around the table to give thanks—and of course, eat! It’s also a notoriously stressful time, particularly if you’re the one hosting. We polled three cookbook authors, each with a special tie to the Augusta area, to share their personal holiday stories, the traditions they can’t do without, go-to recipes and top tips for hosting—and enjoying—the holiday season.
Chef Virginia Willis is a big name in the food world but she hasn’t forgotten her roots. Growing up, Willis spent many summers in Evans and considers it home because “that’s where Mama lives!” Besides being celebrated as a go-to resource on Southern cuisine, she’s also an award-winning cookbook author. Her latest, Lighten Up, Y’all, took home top honors at this year’s James Beard Awards (it’s like the Oscars of the food world). Soon she’ll be adding TV host to her resume—her PBS show, Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, and companion cookbook will bow in 2018.
For Willis, holiday get-togethers run the gamut, from extended family affairs to intimate gatherings. “My eldest cousin and his wife have taken on the mantle of Christmas hosting, and we all bring dishes and make it more of a shared responsibility. I am generally up North for Thanksgiving with my in-laws.”
No matter the celebration, Willis is a firm believer in tradition. There’s always a turkey at Thanksgiving and tenderloin, prime rib or a crown roast of pork at Christmas. “One of my favorite things is that we always have greens and Mama usually washes them in the washing machine, without soap of course, but it looks pretty hilarious.” Willis’ own cooking methods skew more conventional but her dishes always have an elevated twist. Here, she shares two recipes from Lighten Up, Y’all—Sweet Potato Gratin with Herb Crumble and an elegant, feeds-a-crowd Spinach and Parmesan-Stuffed Beef Tenderloin. But perhaps her most satisfying tradition is giving back. Every year, Willis makes a donation to the Atlanta Community Food Bank to ensure that those less fortunate have a happy holiday too.
Spinach & Parmesan-Stuffed Beef Tenderloin
Beef tenderloin is the most expensive cut of meat. It’s the gold standard of beef because, not surprisingly given its name, it’s the most tender. In beef, exercise means flavor, so the leg muscles are intensely flavored, but very tough. These cuts are more appropriate for long, slow cooking, like pot roast. The muscles along the back of the cow don’t get much exercise; these are the quick-cooking steaks like ribeye and New York strip that come from the primal cut called the loin. Underneath the loin is the tenderloin, which gets even less exercise than the loin.
The truth is that the tenderloin actually doesn’t have a lot of flavor. That’s why you most often see it wrapped in bacon or served with a horseradish cream sauce. In this stunning dish appropriate for a holiday feast, is stuffed with a savory combination of spinach and Parmesan, which really bumps up the flavor.
1 (3½-pound) beef tenderloin, trimmed
6 garlic cloves, very finely chopped or mashed into a paste with salt
1 cup cooked spinach (thawed if frozen), squeezed dry and chopped
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Using a sharp knife, butterfly the tenderloin by cutting it open lengthwise, taking care not to cut all the way through and leaving a spine so you can open the tenderloin like a
book. (Or ask your butcher to do it.) Season generously inside and out with salt and pepper. Rub the garlic paste on the inside of the tenderloin. Spread the spinach over the inside surface to cover. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.
Reform the tenderloin and tie every 3 inches with kitchen twine to hold in the filling. Heat the oil in a large roasting pan and sear the meat on all sides over high heat. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the meat and stuffing reads 120° to 125°F for medium-rare meat (the internal temperature of the meat will continue to rise about 10°F outside of the oven), about 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove to a carving board, preferably with a moat, and tent to keep warm. If serving hot, let stand for 10 to 15 minutes before carving. If serving at a buffet, cool for at least 30 minutes, then carve and serve within 2 hours. Or cool completely, wrap tightly in aluminum foil, and refrigerate for up to 2 days before carving and serving at room temperature.
Sweet Potato Gratin with Herb Crumble
Earthy, rich sweet potatoes are one of fall’s most delicious vegetables and pair wonderfully with pecans, one of fall’s most delicious nuts. You’ll be shocked when you take a bite of this dish. Everyone always assumes they will be hit with a rush of sugar, and yet this sweet potato dish is distinctively full-flavored and savory, a welcome departure from typical marshmallow-topped and bourbon-drenched sweet potato dishes. This recipe utilizes whole wheat pastry flour, which is more nutritionally dense than refined all-purpose flour but also is not as dense and heavy as regular whole wheat flour. Look for Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat pastry flour in well-stocked grocery stores. “I know Thanksgiving can be tricky. No one wants to give up a favorite dish, but slip this one into the mix and it’s certain to become a family favorite,” Willis says.
3 large sweet potatoes
½ cup coarsely chopped pecans
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour, plus more for your hands
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for seasoning
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
3 tablespoons 2 percent milk
1 tablespoon pure olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. (This will help with cleanup.) Spray a 2-quart shallow baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
Using a fork, pierce the sweet potatoes in several places and place on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until fork-tender, about 50 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.
When the potatoes are almost tender, prepare the topping: In a small bowl, combine the chopped pecans, flour, Parmesan, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Add the milk, oil, and sage. Stir until well combined. Set aside.
When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes, discarding the skin. Place the pulp in large bowl. Add the brown sugar and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper. Smash the potatoes with a potato masher until chunky.
Transfer the sweet potatoes to the prepared baking dish. Lightly flour your hands and crumble the topping in small, cherry size pieces on top of the sweet potatoes. Transfer to the oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.
If you want to take a serious shortcut for this dish, you can substitute one 29-ounce can of pumpkin puree or canned sweet potatoes. The herb-pecan topping tastes equally great with both.
Gena Knox is the author of Fire and Flavor, Southern My Way and Southern My Way—Healthy. She also co-owns Fire & Flavor with her husband, Davis, a company the pair founded on their shared love of grilling. “We offer flavor solutions that give you a “kick start” in the kitchen so you can get a meal on the table with ease,” says Gena.
Though Gena, Davis and their three kids call Athens home, Davis grew up in Augusta and still cherishes childhood memories made along the Savannah River. November means heading to their farm in South Georgia, and every year they look forward to an extended family Thanksgiving lunch where a smoked turkey is the star of the show. The bird is brined overnight in their own Turkey Perfect brine, then Gena’s dad rigs the rotisserie over hot Fire & Flavor lump charcoal and apple wood chips. The turkey is tied up with cotton strings and gets slowly basted with melted butter and Worcestershire sauce until it’s glistening. “It is amazing,” Knox enthuses, “and the best part is actually chewing on the butter-basted cotton string when we cut it off. I know that sounds crazy, but it is delicious.” Sensational sides round out the spread, including a must-have sweet potato casserole, from-scratch cornbread dressing and Knox’s sweet-savory roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Prunes. “I am a big fan of roasting vegetables—it is super easy and the caramelization that fall vegetables get from the oven makes the dish.”
The next day the family makes cane syrup in a giant cast iron kettle over an outdoor fire. “The kids love having friends over and running all over the farm. They gather pecans, shell them and after the syrup has been bottled, they run the pecans through the candied syrup that is left on the edges of the kettle for a candied pecan treat.”
Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts
“When my husband says, ‘This is my favorite recipe,’ I know it’s a keeper. I enjoyed this dish at a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and recreated it at home. Hands down, these are the best Brussels sprouts I have ever had,” says Knox.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
2 strips bacon, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
12 ounces prunes, cut in half (about 2/3 cup)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 425°F. Using a sharp knife, trim stem ends of Brussels sprouts. Peel off outer leaves and discard. Cut sprouts in half lengthwise, or, if large, cut into quarters.
Divide sprouts between two greased baking sheets and toss with bacon,
oil and prunes. Season with salt and turn cut sides down. Roast, without turning, 20 minutes or until bottom sides are golden brown and tops are lightly charred. Toss with vinegar and season to taste with freshly ground black pepper.
Chef, food writer and cookbook author Jennifer Brulé originally hails from Columbus, Ohio, but she spent three years in the Garden City. It’s where she discovered regional delights like boiled peanuts, pimento cheese and tomato pie, and it’s safe to say that her appreciation for Southern food traditions influenced her new cookbook, Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways.
Come November she’ll take a break from her whirlwind book tour to celebrate the holidays with an extended family Thanksgiving get-together. “Thanksgiving is our big family gathering for two reasons: First, we are Mayflower descendants and take our genealogy seriously and second, my sister’s family is Jewish, so we celebrate together at Thanksgiving rather than Christmas or Hanukkah.” The family is full of talented cooks and eager hosts—Brulé’s parents also went to culinary school—so hosting honors rotate. Food is served buffet style and always includes three kinds of stuffing—traditional, oyster and chestnut and apricot; Brulé’s father’s super-smooth mashed potatoes (he makes 10 pounds and there are never leftovers!); and her mom’s “divine” Port gravy. There’s also plenty of meat-free and butter-, cheese-, egg- and cream-free dishes to satisfy the vegetarians and vegans in the bunch.
The conversation centers around cooking and eating, but they honor the true meaning of the holiday with a game. “Everyone anonymously writes down what they are grateful for that year, then we put all the papers in a basket and read them aloud. Everyone takes turns guessing whose gratitude is being read. There is a lot of laughter and a few tears, but all are special.”
Kryptonite Pimento Cheese
Creamy, tangy pimento cheese is Brulé’s Kryptonite, her delicious weakness. There are some dishes that simply aren’t as good when put through a healthy makeover—but this is not one of them. Through a few modifications and one unorthodox additional ingredient, she’s come up with a pimento cheese recipe that can hold its own against the traditional favorite. Don’t be thrown by the fish sauce—it doesn’t give even a trace of fish flavor; it only adds umami and balances out the sweetness that comes with low-fat mayo. Seriously, hold your nose and use the fish sauce! It’s her secret for making many dishes more delicious.
2 cups shredded 2% sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups shredded 2% mild cheddar cheese
3 teaspoons grated onion
½ cup chopped pimento (or roasted red pepper), drained
¼ cup juice from pimentos 1 teaspoon fish sauce
½ cup low fat or light mayonnaise (preferably Duke’s)
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
4 dashes cayenne pepper, or more, to taste
Combine the shredded cheeses in a mixing bowl and add the onion, pimento, pimento juice, fish sauce, mayo, yogurt, and cayenne. Mix well with a spoon or rubber spatula. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Serve with crackers or as a filling for sandwiches.
Top Tips for Holiday Entertaining Success
Dial down the pressure
“The number one way to stay sane is that I don’t put pressure on myself,” says Brulé. “I do my best and then move on. I focus on what’s truly important: Family, food and connecting. If all the forks don’t match, who cares?” Knox agrees, saying, “Keeping things casual and laid back versus formal and stuffy puts everyone at ease and allows the host/hostess to enjoy themselves too.”
Spread the love
Willis warns against trying to do it all yourself. “When I host a big holiday gathering, I generally plan on providing the main dish and ask friends and family to bring side dishes, bread, salad or dessert. It’s important to be specific so you don’t wind up with four dishes of the same thing.” She also reminds us to be kind and supportive, saying, “If your aunt is famous for her pound cake, then ask her if she would like to bring her much-loved dish.”
Be a kitchen task master
It’s “all-hands-on-deck” in the Brulé household, so Jennifer dispatches her husband, “the organized one,” to make a schedule and divvy up duties. “Those who want to cook choose a dish or two to prepare and we make a kitchen schedule so that we’re not bumping into each other. Those who don’t cook do the dishes and clean up. It works out great!”
Stick to tried-and-true
Willis says she’ll never forget the Christmas goose that almost got her banished, and Brulé still remembers the turkey that caused a revolt. “One year, my mother tried to switch it up and made an Indian seasoned turkey—it was all curried-up and delicious but did not go over well. We all wanted what was tried and true.”
Brine your turkey
The first time that Willis and her mom brined a turkey it was a revelation. “The bird emerged from the oven glistening and a rich, golden brown, like the glorious totemic bird from the Rockwell painting,” she enthuses. If you need a jump start, try Fire & Flavor’s Turkey Perfect brine.
You can’t go wrong when you cook with seasonal produce. “Fall is one of my favorite times to cook because I love all the greens, beets and winter squash,” says Knox. “I can create a mean fall-themed salad to go along with our meal. I top my salad with smoked turkey and put a little of the sweet potatoes on the side for dessert and I’m happy as a clam!”
Add a personal touch
When it comes to setting the table, look to family heirlooms or items with sentimental value for inspiration. “Last year my mother hand-stitched a beautiful 22-foot linen tablecloth. It’s so wonderful to have her at the table at Thanksgiving, even if I am up North and we are not together,” Willis says.
This article appears in the November-December 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.