Virginia Willis Blog

Food Photography: Friendship, Inspiration, and Opportunity

Lighten Up, Y'all cover on

Growing into Food Photography

I’ve got two big announcements to share: Lighten Up, Y’all is now available for pre-order and will be in stores in March. My dear friend Angie Mosier and I worked together over the course of a year shooting the photos so that we could best capture the food when in season.  The photo below of the two of us is before I started lightening things up — and over 35 pounds ago! It makes me so happy to see that progress and know I am so much happier and healthier.

Angie has worked with me on all three of my Y’all books, as the prop stylist on the first two and as the photographer for Lighten Up, Y’all. We’re a good team and her photographs are stunning.

Virginia & Angie

She is hands-down one of the most talented people I have ever met and consider her a real-life Renaissance woman. She’s been an enormous inspiration to me. Her culinary career began over 20 years ago when she started a wedding cake and pastry business.  When her creations were photographed for books and magazines, she found that she loved the process and began working as a food stylist.  She also started writing about food. Then, one day she picked up a camera and started to shoot food, too.

So….Virginia Willis, Chef and Food Photographer!?

My second big announcement is that I’m excited to add Food Photography to my list of services. Angie’s versatility and desire for her own change and growth has inspired me to do the same.

Click here to see my photography portfolio.


buttery bundt

I wear many hats in my business, but my work has always been more about the recipes and the words.  However, I have always enjoyed photography and have always shot the photos for my own blog. But, honestly, I wasn’t very dedicated and focused far more on the quality of the food than the photos. Then, a few of my recipe development projects required accompanying photos. Things change for me when it becomes a job. I pride myself on my work. So, I started paying more attention. I started studying. I thought about my talented friend Angie and realized this was something I could do, too. As we worked together on Lighten Up, Y’all I learned more and more. My photos improved. Last year, I was offered the opportunity to shoot the photos for my blog, Down-Home Comfort on Food Network. It’s been awesome. This past year,  I have felt like I was learning to cook a whole new cuisine.

peaches on

I love that Angie is thoughtful and mindful about her work. We share beliefs about the importance of food and cooking. Her website Placemat Productions states, “By documenting food, and the folks who work to bring good food to the table, Angie hopes to celebrate it, save it, cook it, serve it, and of course, eat it.”

melons on

She’s super smart. You can clearly see she’s stunningly beautiful. She can also sing. It’s almost unfair that one person could be so amazing, except the fact that I love her and she is one of my dearest friends. I am grateful for her inspiration, our friendship, and this new opportunity.

Let me know what you think!

 Bon AppétitY’all!

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings? Lets connect on  Facebook , TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.




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Southern Recipes: Savory Eggplant Dip

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Eggplant Dip

It’s funny to me how eggplant isn’t often perceived as a Southern vegetable. Eggplant flourishes in the scorching heat of a Deep South summer. My grandparents grew row upon row of the stately bushes, heavily laden with the shiny black-purple orbs. The plants are absolutely majestic in the vegetable garden with their luscious, draped, fanlike leaves and vibrant colors. Eggplant Dip? No way. My grandmother seemed to only ever fry eggplant. She peeled, then dusted thick ivory eggplant steaks, peppered with an abundance of seeds in seasoned finely ground cornmeal. They were then pan-fried in a bath of sizzling hot oil in a cast iron skillet until golden brown and crisp.

eggplant on

Eggplant is immensely versatile. It’s truly one of my favorite vegetables. I love the meatiness of it, the texture and toothsomeness of it. How did Southerners not create our own herbed ratatouille, pungent caponata, or cheesy Parmesan? How were we not seduced by these jewel-like vegetables into developing our own sensual Baba Ghanoush or fiery hot Szechuan stir-fry?

Eggplant on

One of my strongest beliefs is that Southern cuisine is a living, vibrant cuisine. While I embrace traditional ingredients, I also firmly believe that the food of the South shouldn’t be judged solely by plantation cooking or what our grandparents cooked and ate. Also, sometimes I find myself in a French-Southern box – a delicious box that’s been very good to me, but a box nonetheless. It’s important to try new things in the kitchen. When this dish was first made for me, I instantly fell in love with it and still request it often. It’s an adaptation of Strange-Flavor Eggplant, a recipe by chef Barbara Tropp —  that was in turn inspired by a traditional Chinese recipe. Is it Southern? No, not at all. Is it good? Yes, indeed.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!


Savory Eggplant Dip

Serving Size: serves 6

Savory Eggplant Dip


2 medium eggplant
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
¼ cup thinly sliced green and white scallion rings
1 serrano chile pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped, plus more sliced for garnish
¼ teaspoon dried red chile flakes, or to taste
3 tablespoons tamari
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon hot water
2 tablespoons canola oil


  1. Preheat oven to 475°F. Wrap the eggplant in foil and place in the oven. Roast until collapsed and very tender, about 45 minutes. Remove the eggplant and loosen the foil. Slit it lengthwise to speed the cooling.
  2. Combine the garlic, ginger, scallion, and Serrano pepper in the bowl of a small food processor fitter with blade attachment. Pulse to combine. Set aside. Combine the tamari, brown sugar, vinegar, sesame oil, and water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Set aside.
  3. Heat a wok over medium high heat. Add the canola oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the reserved garlic-ginger mixture and red pepper flakes.
  4. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant 45 to 60 seconds. Add the reserved sauce ingredients and eggplant.
  5. Stir well to blend, and heat through. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve warm or cold. Keeps up to 5 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.


All other photos by Virginia Willis

Check out Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk and read about why I am walking.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings? Lets connect on  Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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Southern Recipes: Pickled Okra

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Of all the Southern recipes and ingredients I might love okra the most. I love okra. I love okra so much I wrote a book about it. Yes, a book about okra!

Folks have been getting confused all summer. Excited, they gasp, “You wrote a book about Oprah?!”

“No”, I reply, “I wrote a book about Okra.” The humble, oft-maligned vegetable, not the  celebrated media mogul.

Okra by Virginia Willis

It’s part of the Savor the South® series by UNC Press. Each cookbook in the collection is a celebration of a beloved food or tradition of the American South. I have to tell you, I had lots of choices regarding Southern ingredients – sweet potatoes, pecans, catfish, bourbon — yes, I passed up bourbon for okra!  That’s how much I love okra. (Trust me, all of the books have great stewards of their each individual subject so make sure to check them out!)

I wanted to write about okra, because, as I say in the very first sentence of the book, okra is a contentious vegetable. Folks love it or hate it. There are very few people in the middle. Okra getting a lot of attention of late in the press including these pieces in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Timesand  the Chicago Tribune!

I am an okra missionary.

On Thursday 8/28 at 7:00 pm, I’ll be at the Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley, Massachusetts demonstrating how to make pickled okra and serving up what I am calling Mason-Dixon Martinis. These pungent and potent concoctions will be made from locally made Massachusetts vodka and Spicy Pickled Okra from Georgia.

I have learned in my quest to convert people to the joys of okra that a Pickled Okra Martini is hands-down, the absolute best gateway recipe to cajole folks into trying okra. (I’ll also be serving Okra Corn Cakes for those that don’t need vodka to help with okra digestion.) Check out this article on about the event.


For this week’s Southern recipe, I am sharing with you a recipe for Spicy Pickled Okra. Pickling okra minimizes the slime, the elephant in the room with okra. This dreaded slime is produced by mucilage, a type of soluble digestible fiber. In the plant it aids in water storage, prevents the seed from drying out, and assists with seed germination. Folks that love okra don’t mind the slime. My mother cooks okra until it’s more akin to a vegetal oyster and will very nearly slide down your throat on its own volition. I like it that way, too. The deal is, folks that love okra love it any which way – pickled, boiled, grilled, fried, steamed – you name it, we like it.

I like okra so much that my little book has 50 recipes, yes, 50 okra recipes!! The first half come from the Southern kitchen and range from old-fashioned to chef-chic. The second half of the recipes spans the globe. Okra grows best where it is hot. We begin our okra journey in Africa, the land of its birth. Then, I follow okra around the globe starting in the Mediterranean, including Egypt. Greece, Turkey, Morocco, and Iran. We then travel to India, a large country with many regions and styles of cuisine. We make a brief stop in Malaysian for a quick stir-fry. Lastly, we travel to the Caribbean and to South America. Whether you are an avid okra lover or just now exploring the joys of okra, I am certain you will find recipes you and your family will savor. For information on buying my okra book, please click here.

spicy okra and tomatoes

I also want to let you know about my other blog, Down-Home Comfort. It runs every week on Friday afternoon on  – a little culinary inspiration for your weekend. It’s composed of the absolute best old-timey, down-home, comfort food recipes. I’m honored to offer these authentic, time-tested Southern recipes to a very wide audience. I’m also thrilled to photograph these posts in addition to writing them. Here’s my recipe for Spicy Okra and Tomatoes on Down-Home Comfort, because, you  know, I am an okra missionary.

Bon Appétit Y’all!


Spicy Pickled Okra

Makes 4 pints

2 pounds medium okra pods
4 small dried chiles
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
8 cloves garlic, peeled
4 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cups water
2 tablespoons pickling salt

Wash the okra and trim the stems to 1/2 inch. Place 1 chile, 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed, 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns, and 2 cloves of garlic in the bottom of each of 4 sterilized pint-sized canning jars. Divide the okra evenly among the jars, placing the pods vertically, alternating stems up and down.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil. Carefully pour the boiling mixture over the okra in the jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headroom between the top of the liquid and the lid. Seal the lids.

Process the jars in a boiling-water canner for 15 minutes. Store the unopened jars at room temperature for up to 1 year. Once the jars are opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Variation: For refrigerator pickles, skip the boiling-water canner and refrigerate for up to 1 month.


Cornmeal Cakes photo by Helene Dujardin

All other photos by Virginia Willis

Check out Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk and read about why I am walking.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings? Lets connect on  Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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Cooking Classes in Western Massachusetts

Chef Sandy D'Amato featured on

One of my favorites stories is that my dear grandmother, Meme, wanted me to be a teacher. I revered my grandmother, but never wanted to be a teacher. Ever. Now, I teach cooking classes all over the US and even in Mexico and France. I was nominated a few years ago as Cooking School Teacher of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. I love to teach.

There’s a very dreadful expression, “Those that can, do and those that can’t, teach.” Well, I think that’s an absolute load of horse manure. My resistance to teaching had nothing to do with feelings that teaching was below me or not a good use of my skills or talents. The ability to teach is a gift. Frankly, I didn’t think I had enough patience to be a teacher. I now know, the key is knowing what to teach.

Chef Sandy D'Amato featured on

Last week, I was able to take a cooking class from chef Sandford D’Amato. A few folks were incredulous and asked, “Why are you taking a cooking class?!” Well, it was pretty amazing to be able to take a class from such a well-accomplished chef. I always want to know more about food and cooking. I don’t remotely know everything about food and cooking. I want to learn. Now, the deal is, Sandy is my friend. I’ve eaten his delicious food at around both his and my table. But, I took off my friend hat and I took off my cooking teacher hat. I listened to and learned from this master chef — and I loved it.


Sandy grew up in Milwaukee, where his father and grandfather operated a grocery store for nearly 80 years. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and  shortly thereafter he became the first American cook at Le Veau d’Or. He  was a part of the opening of the renowned Le Chantilly, then returned to Milwaukee and made his mark as the chef at the award-winning John Byron’s restaurant.

In 1989, Sandy and his wife, Angie as front of the house, opened Sanford Restaurant in the building that formerly housed the family grocery store. They made a formidable pair. The restaurant very quickly became regarded as one of the best in the Midwest, earning accolades from Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Esquire, Wine Spectator, and Zagat Guide. In 1996 he was awarded Best Chef: Midwest from the James Beard Foundation. Sandy was one of 12 chefs chosen by Julia Child herself to cook for her 80th birthday celebration.

Chef Sandy D'Amato featured on

Sandy and Angie moved from Wisconsin to Hatfield, Massachusetts in the Pioneer Valley and opened a cooking school in their beautiful home, Good Stock Farm. The almost 2-acre property rests on the picturesque banks of the Connecticut River overlooking Mount Warner to the east. It’s an amazingly beautiful setting. With Sandy at the stovetop and Angie, continuing in her expert role as host, the pair have created a cooking school like no other I’ve experienced.

Scallops by Chef Sandy D'Amato featured on

According to his memoir, Good Stock, Sandy’s basic philosophy in cooking is pretty simple. He writes, “It doesn’t matter whether you are preparing a Grilled Hot Dog or Pan-Roasted Monkfish with Paella Rice, if you are a true craftsman, you treat them with equal care, love and soul; this will elevate each dish to its ultimate delicious pedestal.”

The difference between good and great is always in the details.

One of my favorite takeaways from the class was the technique of discerning if the scallops are cooked to the correct temperature. The scallops are first seared in a nuclear hot cast iron skillet. Then, he removed them to a rack set above a baking sheet to finish them in the oven. He inserted a skewers into three of the scallops. I perked up and asked, “What’s that for?” He replied, “Once the scallops are in the oven, I can pull a skewer out and check the temperature by touching the skewer to my bottom lip. (This is old-school French; no thermometer needed.) If it’s still cool, the scallops are not yet done. I insert more than one so that I can pop them back in the oven. When the skewer is warm to the touch, the scallops are cooked.” A method like this is so very simple, but absolute genius.

His food is completely grounded in classic technique, yet inspired and diverse. His food is far beyond French formula. Our seafood class menu included Pan Seared Scallops with Pea-Bacon Mash and Raisin Vinaigrette, Salted Black Bean Clams with Spicy Salami and Ginger, and Mussel Soup with Saffron and Grilled Fennel. The flavors were complex and intriguing.

At Good Stock Farm, students learn how to create restaurant quality food, from a James Beard award-winning chef in his home kitchen. Sandy blows the doing-teaching myth out of the water, and then some. He’s inspired me in my teaching methods and to elevate, at least sometimes, the kind of food to teach in my own classes. Remember, the key is knowing what to teach….

Hatfield is only a few hours from Boston and not much further from NYC. I heartily suggest taking the opportunity to take a Good Stock Farm class and I for one, can’t wait to take another.

Bon Appétit Y’all!

Chef Sandy D'Amato featured on

For 2 Large Appetizers

¼ cup (1 ounce) salted black beans, dried and salted from an Asian store
1 cup dry sake
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 large shallot (1 ounce), peeled and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic (½ ounce), peeled and thinly sliced
2 ounces fresh ginger root, peeled and cut in fine julienne (need 1/3 cup medium pack)
1½ spicy salami’s, cut in julienne (need 1/3 cup loose pack)
2 pounds Manila clams, washed and scrubbed in cold water, then drained
½ teaspoon tamarind concentrate
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 scallions, cleaned and sliced in ¼-inch thick pieces on a slight bias (need ½ cup)
1 cup cilantro leaves (loose-pack), cleaned and dried
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place beans and sake in a small sauce pan over medium heat. When up to a simmer, cover and steep for 15 minutes. When ready, place a large pot over medium heat. When hot, add the sesame oil. When oil is hot, add the shallots and garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the ginger and sauté, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the salami and stir for 15 seconds.

Add the clams, bean/sake mix, tamarind and black pepper and cover pot. Raise heat and cook for about 1 to 2 minutes until about half of the clams are open. Add the scallions, stir, then re-cover pan until all of the clams are open. Mix in half the cilantro and divide the clams between two bowls with a slotted spoon. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary, with salt and pepper, divide broth over clams and sprinkle the remaining cilantro over all.


Photos by Virginia Willis

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings? Lets connect on  Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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The Susan G. Komen Three Day & Why I am Walking

Laughing in the kitchen

Some of you know through social media that I am in training to walk in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day in Atlanta this October. It’s 60 miles in three days and I am midway through the 24 week training program. It’s been challenging with my schedule, but it’s something I have wanted to do for years. In this post I am sharing what I wrote on my personal fundraising page and why I am walking.

The training has been very powerful. It’s scary to think about walking 60 miles in three days. Yet, my fear lessens as I train. It felt amazing to accomplish walking 8 then 9 then 10 miles! That made me feel like I can do anything! I have been encouraged by so many friends. Maureen Petrosky kindly shared the laces she wore when she walked and I’ve gotten so many notes and emails of support.

I am walking in honor of my sweet Mama, Jenny B. Willis who is an 11-year survivor. I will never forget the day she called and told me that they had found a lump in her breast. It was that call, the call that happens in the movies, the call that happens to other people, the call that seems surreal and unimaginable. The call that changes your life.

Mama and Me

They had found a small lump when she was undergoing a routine mammogram. I needed to come home.

The next few weeks and days are a blur and I honestly don’t remember much. When Mama was sick and in the hospital, it was one of the most frightening things ever. It seemed actually possible that my Mama might die. Cancer. Seeing my tiny Mama scared and unable to do anything at all was the worst. She kept saying, “I’ll be all right.” I know she was saying it to make my sister and I feel better, but we knew she was just saying it, we knew that no one knew. Fear was the only thing that was certain.

Mama, Me, and Dede


We were all taking a crash course in learning to speak a new language. Sentinel lymph node, ductal carcinoma in situ, needle aspiration. It felt like a dream, a horrible, horrible dream. The first visit to the oncologist was alarming and grim. Chair after chair of thin, pallid people connected to IVs of chemotherapy; there were some people that were very clearly dying. I was having to imagine the unfathomable, that I might lose my mama. I felt chilling fear deep in my soul like I had never, ever felt before.

As is my nature, I started to educate myself. I asked the doctor so many questions that he inquired in which of the medical field did I work! The kind ladies at the University Breast Health Center were immeasurably helpful. They shared information with us, educated us, and advised us. They directed us to the Susan G. Komen website where I was able to study what our family, my Mama, was facing.

teaching me to swim

The days and months after were terrifying, but her cancer had been caught in time.

The Susan G. Komen 3-Day® is a 60-mile walk over the course of three days. Net proceeds help support research, scientific programs, and community-based breast health and education programs for those facing breast cancer. I will never, ever forget how important the Susan G. Komen foundation was to my family during that difficult time.

This is why I will walk, to help quell the fear.

Currently, about 70% of women 40 and older receive regular mammograms – just like the one that discovered Mama’s. Regular mammograms are the single most effective screening tool to find breast cancer early. Since 1990, early detection and effective treatment have resulted in a 34% decline in breast cancer mortality in the United States. Susan G. Komen has played a critical role in every major advance in the fight against breast cancer – transforming the treatment of this disease and helping to turn millions of breast cancer patients into breast cancer survivors.

I am very, very glad my sweet Mama is one of them.

Many thanks for your support.
Virginia Willis

Please click here to donate to my personal fundraising page.

Mama in Maine

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings? Lets connect on  Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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