For The Love of Pecans: Chef & Author Virginia Willis, Atlanta, GA
By Stephanie Burt, The Southern Fork
“There’s a misperception, a myth that comfort food, Southern food is bad for you,” says Chef Virginia Willis. “And it doesn’t have to be. My approach with recipes now is that little things add up, and since no one gains weight overnight, losing it fast usually isn’t sustainable either.”
Willis is the author of five cookbooks (including Lighten Up, Y’all, which won a James Beard award), and she is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree. She’s worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, traveled the world producing food stories and appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay.
And as she puts it, when it comes to her weight, she has been more heavy than not for most of her life. The change happened when she changed her mindset, from trying to get to a “health destination” -- a number on the scale -- to committing to health and wellness as a lifestyle, but allowing the intensity of her adherence to that commitment to wax and wane daily. Soon it became easier to focus on sensible eating and an active lifestyle and actually enjoy it.
“For me, lightening up is about increasing the nutritional content and density, and making my food count,” she says.
Pecans, with their protein, fiber, and more than 19 vitamins and minerals, fit that bill, and of course, they add a sweet, nutty crunch to anything you add them to. But when it comes to waffles, many Southerner’s minds turn to Waffle House when the words “pecan waffle” are uttered. It’s an institution, sure, but if you’re making them at home, why not “lighten up, y’all?” and try something a little different for a lazy weekend morning breakfast.
Willis’ key to accomplishing this is replacing some of the flour in waffle batter with whole wheat pastry flour and cornmeal. “You have the benefits of whole grain, but the pastry flour texture is a little lighter.” After 2020’s baking boom, more than just “white flour” is available in more places, and the chef recommends Bob’s Red Mill or King Arthur brands if you can find it. If not, there is always the internet, she says, which is worth it to discover a world of varietal diversity when it comes to flour. Especially if that search results in guilt-free Saturday morning waffles with a nutty crunch. Pass the syrup, please.
Multigrain Pecan Waffles
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.
Chef’s note: These freeze well, too. You can easily double the recipe and cook the rest after you’ve finished with breakfast. Once they’ve cooked, store the waffles, separated with waxed paper, in a sealable freezer container. If I need a healthy quick breakfast on the run, it’s just as simple as popping one in the toaster oven, then topping it with a bit of sunflower butter and a few slices of fruit.
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chopped pecans
¼ cup whole-grain cornmeal
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Mix the buttermilk and oats in a medium bowl; set aside for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the whole wheat pastry flour, unbleached all-purpose flour, pecans, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl.
Stir the eggs, oil, and vanilla into the reserved buttermilk-oat mixture. Mix with a rubber spatula just until moistened.
Coat a waffle iron with nonstick cooking spray and preheat. Spoon in enough batter to cover three-quarters of the surface (about 2/3 cup for an 8-inch round waffle iron). Cook until the waffles are crisp and golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 cups of batter to make six 8-inch round waffles