Basic to Brilliant, Y’all

Basic to Brilliant

Welcome to our dish for the Virtual Potluck with Virginia Willis. Buy Virginia’s book then fill out this form to get a personalized bookplate from Virginia.

Is it wrong to start this by saying that I really love Basic to Brilliant, Y’all? Because I do. Virginia Willis subtitled this book 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, and that’s exactly what they are. They’re all great recipes that will make for wonderful meals on your table. That’s the Basic part. Virginia brings the Brilliant part in by giving you a variation or add-on that will turn that better-than-everyday meal into something you’d be proud to serve to anyone on any occasion or to make leftovers into something special.

Virginia shows her heart through these recipes. In her introduction to the Fish and Shellfish section, she talks about going to the beach as a little girl and transitions that into talking about the seafood industry in the South and how important it is to support the industry in the Gulf. The stories she gives along with the recipes give you glimpses into her childhood, her life in France, and some of the challenges that have come along in her career. Mixed in you’ll find Virginia’s answers and advice on questions dealing with everything from choosing the right salt to freezing casseroles to storing fresh mussels.

Behind all these recipes and stories is what really makes this a special book, simply, Virginia herself. Her wit, wisdom, and Southern charm come through loud and clear. And the book is as beautiful as the lady who wrote it. The photos will make your mouth water.

Now, about the food.

We made (Actually, it was Patric who made it because he’s useful that way.) Mama’s Spaghetti Bolognese with Venison first. We sat down and had our first bites. And my dear sweet son promptly said, “I love this spaghetti. This is the best meat sauce ever. Um… I mean, I like yours, Mom, and, um… yours is just as good but different?” Don’t worry. He lived long enough to wolf the spaghetti down before there were any pictures, but that was okay, because I had another recipe in mind to share anyway, but I’m sure Virginia will like knowing that her sauce is the best ever, and that’s just fine by me.

The recipe I really wanted to do was her Mama’s Fried Quail with Cream Gravy. I love quail. They’re one of those things that I wouldn’t eat as a child (along with duck after a traumatizing buckshot incident) but found the value of as an adult. The only real thing to worry about when cooking them is to not overdo it. There’s really not that much meat on there, and it doesn’t take long for them to end up dry and flavorless. But use Virginia’s techniques and times, and you won’t have a problem. These were wonderful.

Paul isn’t a big fan of Dijon mustard, but Patric and I are, so he had to eat it anyway and smile about it. Not really. He liked it more than he had expected. But if someone in your house doesn’t, I think it would be fine to decrease the amount, use a different mustard, or just add a few dashes of hot sauce to the gravy instead.

Disclaimer: We received this book as a free review copy from the publisher.

Mama's Fried Quail with Cream Gravy

To make the recipe brilliant, make Virginia's warm mustard relish: Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon each yellow and brown mustard seeds. When they start to pop and release their aroma, about 5 seconds, add 3 onions, preferably Vidalia, sliced and season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high. Add 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar is reduced and the onions are a deep golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Makes 1 cup. Serve a dollop of the warm mustard relish with the quail and gravy.
Servings 4 to 6 servings


  • 10 whole quail
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 sprig thyme plus more to garnish
  • 1 cup homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream half-and-half, or whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard


  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pat the quail dry; tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Season with salt and pepper. Place the flour in a shallow bowl and season with salt and pepper. One at a time, dredge the quail in the flour, then shake to remove any excess flour.
  • Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon each of the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Without crowding and working in batches with the remaining butter and oil, add the quail and sear on both sides until deep brown, about 3 minutes per side. Sprinkle the thyme over the birds and transfer the skillet with all the quail to the oven.
  • Roast until cooked through but still pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the quail to a warm platter; tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.
  • Place the skillet on the stovetop over high heat. Add the stock and cream. Stir with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits from the skillet. Bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the mustard. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
  • Pour the gravy over the quail. Garnish with thyme; serve immediately.
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