Lightening Up (Y’All)

My nephew Michael's burger, complete with cheese and a bun.

My nephew Michael’s burger, complete with cheese and a bun.

January is in full swing. After a couple of weeks of holiday overindulgence, I have been back on my nutritional cleansing program for a while now. I don’t know whether I’ve been brainwashed by the program (my coach is a very convincing woman!) or I just like being a little lighter, but I’m actually enjoying dieting.

Like many Americans, I have spent much of my life on diets. Experience tells me that the greatest pitfall for the dieter is a feeling of deprivation. Virginia Willis understands that problem and addresses it brilliantly in her recent book Lighten Up Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome (Ten Speed Press, 232 pages, $24.99).

Virginia is a French-trained chef who specializes in quality Southern cuisine. She lives in Georgia but spends a lot of time near my own corner of western Massachusetts. I have been following her writings for several years; she is an expert in one of my favorite styles of cuisine: elegant but simple comfort food.

Virginia confesses early in the book that she has always had a weight problem and was recently counseled by her doctors to “lighten up.” She set out to develop a series of recipes that would lose calories and gain nutrition but not sacrifice taste.

The book includes healthier versions of such perennial favorites as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken (made in sticks on the oven), biscuits, seven-layer dip, and shrimp étoufée. Virginia even offers desserts: strawberry shortcake, cream-cheese brownies, and carrot cake, among other sweets.

I have tried only one recipe from the book so far—Virginia’s chicken, apple, and cheddar burgers. My current regimen doesn’t allow me to eat any cheese, not even the small amount called for in this recipe, so I had to change the flavor profile slightly by serving the burgers without the cheese. (I did serve them with organic mustard.)

The burgers were a delight. Ground chicken has less fat than ground beef and can tend to dry out. Virginia’s recipe cleverly incorporates both grated apple and grated sweet onion into the chicken to add moisture and flavor. My family eats the recipe WITH the cheese and loves it.

I plan to make several more dishes from Lighten Up, Y’all in the near future. Virginia Willis has clearly worked hard to find formulas that retain the flavor in foods while making them healthier.

Best of all, I envision using some of Virginia’s lightening-up techniques in dishes of my own. I trust her as a chef, a writer, and a dieter. And I look forward to the debut of her forthcoming PBS TV series.

lighten up web

Virginia Willis’s Chicken Burgers

Courtesy of Virginia Willis and Ten Speed Press. Used with permission.

Note: You may prepare these on the stove in a frying pan as well as in the oven, but they stay together better for me (and presumably for Virginia since she suggests doing them this way) in the oven. The ones in the pictures above and below were actually fried by my sister-in-law!


1 medium sweet-tart apple (such as Gala, Granny Smith, Cortland, or Fuji), cored and quartered
1/4 sweet onion
1 pound ground chicken or turkey
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1/2 jalapeño chile, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
2 ounces (1/2 cup) sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (optional for me but yummy)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Grate the apple on the large side of a box grater. (If you grate the apple skin-side out, you can grate it without having to peel it; a bit of peel is okay.)

Next, grate the onion and the cheese. In a medium bowl combine the chicken, apple, onion, garlic, chile, cheese, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the mixture into 4 equal-size balls; each will weigh about 7 ounces. Shape each into a patty about 4 inches in diameter. Place the patties directly on the prepared baking sheet.

Transfer the sheet to the oven and roast the burgers until they are lightly browned, flipping once during cooking, and the temperature measures 165 degrees when measured with an instant-read thermometer, about 18 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

My own burger, sans cheese but with mustard (and lots of flavor!)

My own burger, sans cheese but with mustard (and lots of flavor!)

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6 Responses to “Lightening Up (Y’All)”

  1. Alina says:

    Bravo! Yes – the key to healthier living is eating delicious, healthy foods and not depriving yourself. I think we need to take the two “D” words out of our vocabulary – “diet” and “deprivation”. As your “convincing coach” (love that by the way!!) I’m so happy you’ve embraced this whole concept and I hope you inspire others to do the same! Healthy can be delicious!!

  2. Grad says:

    This sounds great, Tinky. And so does the book. She’s going to have a TV show on PBS?? That’s fabulous When the TV is on, it’s almost always on one of the two PBS channels I get…one is pretty much devoted to cooking shows on the weekend which is when I do most of my cooking, so I’l have to look for it and for the book. P.S. I’m also on what I call my “un-diet” which consists of restricting wine or a cocktail to only the weekend, piling up on organic vegetables – particularly greens, eliminating sugar, increasing the whole grains in my baking..and then there is the “Fit-Bit” that acts as my conscience. I’m always full!

  3. Margie says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. Will see if the library has it.
    Losing a pound or two does makes a difference in how we feel. Isn’t it amazing?
    Like you, Tinky, I’m not a tall person–better than saying we’re short. Right?
    If I keep to my plant-based diet most of the time, I can keep weight down. Eat the pork that I love and the junk, and the pounds come back on.
    I remember the signs that I used to put on the refrigerator, and I bet you did, too. Things like, “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels” and “110, again.” Then it became 118, and so on the years had added pounds and more pounds. Let’s blame it on middle-age and changes in metabolism. Of course, now I’ve crossed over into old age. I don’t think there’s any way on earth that I can claim 76 as being middle-aged. Even the mirror tells I don’t look fifty any more. Doggone it!
    I’m proud of you for keeping at it. You’ll feel better and reduce certain health risks that extra pounds can bring.
    Keep us posted as to how you’re maintaining. Remember, accountability is a big motivator in weight loss and maintenance.
    Enjoy your writing and have a healthy day!

  4. tinkyweisblat says:

    You’re ALL right! And Margie as far as I’m concerned 76 can CERTAINLY be middle aged. Thanks for reading, and congratulations to you all on your healthy choices.

  5. Cara says:

    Ooohh…this sounds great! Thanks … my husband is trying a “no white” eating…and I am just “trying” ….

  6. tinkyweisblat says:

    Trying is always good. But remember that it’s winter. White is unfortunately natural from time to time! Good luck to you both.