Q&A with Chef Virginia Willis, Author of Lighten Up, Y’all

James Beard Award-winning chef Virginia Willis explains how to lighten up Southern favorites.

Think Southern food can’t be lightened up? Think again! I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Virginia Willis about her James Beard Award-winning cookbook Lighten Up, Y’all. She was kind enough to share her tips for lightening up traditional Southern foods like biscuits, as well as her recipe for Vegetable Corn Bread.

Can traditional Southern foods be lightened up and still taste good?

Virginia Willis: Yes and yes! First, and foremost, I want to say that all traditional Southern foods aren’t unhealthy. We’re a vegetable-based cuisine and have a 12-month growing season. And, yes, I admit we’re most famous for fried chicken, cornbread and overcooked vegetables. My answer to that is: When you have fried chicken, have really good fried chicken, hold out for the good stuff — and take a walk afterwards. There are tons of great vegetable recipes, and whole-grain cornbread isn’t unhealthy. I suggest backing off on the fat and amping up the nutrition.

What are three of your top tips for lightening up Southern fare?

VW: 1) I have a squirt bottle of canola oil at the side of my cooktop. I know that three squirts are 1 teaspoon, and that helps me be accountable. Bacon fat, butter or canola oil, all oil is around 120 calories a tablespoon. I try to use heart-healthy oil for general cooking and only use more-indulgent oils when their flavor really makes a difference.

2) It doesn’t matter if it’s Southern food or Italian food or Mexican food — the real key is portion control.

3) Eat your vegetables! Make vegetables the main place on the plate, and the starch and protein the secondary piece.

In your cookbook Lighten Up, Y’all, you talk about cooking fats for a healthy Southern kitchen. Could you tell us what you prefer as your top cooking fats?

VW: In general, I use expeller-pressed organic canola oil for most of my cooking. I use olive oil when it can contribute to the flavor of a dish.

But, you know, there’s nothing that tastes like butter. For example, when I was working on the right-side-up pineapple cake, nothing would replace the flavor of butter. I try to use it judiciously, so for example, I manipulate the baking recipe and replace half the butter with canola, but still keep the flavor of the butter.

Is there a particular Southern classic that you found especially difficult to lighten up? How did you end up lightening it up?

VW: The baked goods were the most difficult. I’m pretty proud of the biscuit recipe — whole-wheat, whole-grain biscuits made with part canola and part butter. I say in the headnote it’s not health food, but it’s pretty darn good, and better for you than a typical biscuit.

Please share a favorite seasonal recipe from your cookbook.

VW: A fun way to get your vegetables in is cornbread! The suggested vegetables here are just that, a gentle suggestion. You can mix it up depending on what’s in season and fresh at the market. This recipe will support about five cups of chopped vegetables. Any more and the batter doesn’t hold together very well, and any less, it’s not really vegetable corn bread. I like to use variety of chiles and leave the seeds in the rings to give the corn bread some kick, but you could remove them or try chopped zucchini, yellow squash, or eggplant. If you use these more watery vegetables, you should parcook them first to remove some of the moisture (this could be as simple as zapping in the microwave and draining off the excess water).

Vegetable Corn Bread

Serves 8


2 tablespoons canola oil

2 cups yellow whole-grain cornmeal

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

6 fresh okra pods, stem ends trimmed, very thinly sliced

(about 1 cup)

1 red onion, chopped

Cut and scraped kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn, cut from the cob (about 1 cup)

1 banana pepper, thinly sliced into rings

1 jalapeno chile, thinly sliced into rings

1 small red chile, such as bird’s eye or Thai, thinly sliced into rings

1/2 poblano chile, cored, seeded, and chopped

2 cups low-fat buttermilk

1 large egg, lightly beaten


Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Place the oil in a large cast-iron skillet or ovenproof baking dish and heat in the oven until the oil is piping hot, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. Add the okra, onion, corn, banana pepper, and chiles and toss to coat. Set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine.

Remove the heated skillet from the oven and pour the hot oil into the batter. Stir to combine, and then pour the batter back into the hot skillet. Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Using a serrated knife, slice into wedges and serve warm.

Per serving: Calories 208; Fat 6 g; Carbohydrate 33 g; Fiber 6 g; Protein 6 g

Reprinted with permission from Lighten Up, Y’all by Virginia Willis © 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography © 2015 by Angie Mosier. For more information, please visit www.virginiawillis.com

Get more healthy dish ideas:

Healthy Weeknight Dinners

Healthy Meal Makeovers

Superfood Breakfasts

Healthy Potato Side Dishes

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

Next Up

29 Essential Cookbooks by Black Chefs, Authors and Historians

Make room: These titles need a permanent spot on your shelf.

Lighten Up Your Meat

When you're making burgers, meatballs or other ground-meat dishes, combine equal parts of beef or pork with a leaner meat like turkey or chicken.

Q&A With Gluten-Free Cookbook Author Elizabeth Kaplan

We talked to Elizabeth Kaplan, founder of The Pure Pantry and author of a new gluten-free, allergy-free cookbook, Fresh from Elizabeth’s Kitchen.

Q&A With Rebecca Scritchfield, Author of Body Kindness

A dietitian's new book urges smart habits and body kindness to achieve long-term health and wellness.

6 Iconic Southern Ingredients Lightened Up, Y'all

Yes, there is a lot of Southern food that is fried, but Southern food is about more than just fried chicken and fatback.

Chef Eric Greenspan's Culinary Q&A

We checked in with Chef Greenspan, one of 10 rival chefs competing on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption, to find out his culinary icon, favorite seasonal ingredients, go-to potluck dish and more.

Chef Marcel Vigneron's Culinary Q&A

We checked in with Chef Vigneron, one of 10 rival chefs competing on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption, to find out his culinary icon, favorite seasonal ingredients, go-to potluck dish and more.

Chef Duskie Estes' Culinary Q&A

We checked in with Chef Estes, one of 10 rival chefs competing on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption, to find out her culinary icon, favorite cookbook, go-to potluck dish and more.

Chef Elizabeth Falkner's Culinary Q&A

We checked in with Chef Falkner, one of 10 rival chefs competing on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption, to find out her culinary icon, favorite seasonal ingredients, go-to potluck dish and more.