Virginia Willis Blog

Cooking Classes in Western Massachusetts

Chef Sandy D'Amato featured on www.virginiawillis.com

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 www.virginiawillis.com

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.

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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 www.virginiawillis.com

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 www.virginiawillis.com

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!
VA

Chef Sandy D'Amato featured on www.virginiawillis.com

SALTED BLACK BEAN CLAMS WITH SPICY SALAMI AND GINGER
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.

RECIPE © SANFORD D’AMATO 2014

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, virginiawillis.com. 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, virginiawillis.com. 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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Turning Old into New: Banana Mango Muffins

Banana Mango Muffins on www.virginiawillis.com

I have a near daily ritual in that I scope out the fridge and repurpose what needs to be eaten, compost what needs to go, and freeze what needs to chill out until a later date. I make stock of some sort from those bits and pieces that make sense. And, of course, there’s a small amount that’s past its prime. It’s a smart habit, one that I heartily encourage.

Cooking from scratch can be expensive. I know I’m guilty of being seduced by produce at the farmer’s market or a sale at our local co-op. I know I wind up with more than we can eat every now and then. Other than a goal of not creating scary science experiments, I strongly feel it’s a crime to waste food, and an expensive one, too.

Recently, we had a lot of friends and family in town and after the dust cleared I spent a day puttering about the kitchen and turning old into new. Nearly limp vegetables were grilled for salad, slightly bruised berries and stone fruits were made into smoothies, and we enjoyed the treat of freshly cooked pole beans for lunch.

Banana Mango Muffins on virginiawillis.com

Overly ripe fruit can be tricky. I am pretty persnickety about bananas. I only eat bright yellow and firm bananas. I had to take a medicine when I was a little girl that was banana flavored. The result? For most of my life, I have despised bananas. I saw the light and changed my ways a few years ago. Now, I always keep bananas in the kitchen and when I have bananas past their prime, I make banana bread.

It’s also an easy and automatic way to transform brown, spotty, mushy fruit into a delicious quick bread or muffins. We also had a mango left over from my recent business trip to Florida, so I chopped it up and added it to the batter, as well. Since I added the mango and knew it would contribute moisture, I also knew I needed to back off on the butter. By the way, if you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, you can solely use all-purpose.

Fruit flies be gone! With just a little effort I had breakfast muffins for the family. Reuse, reduce, recycle — and rethink. I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as we did.

I’ve been pretty busy with my column Down-Home Comfort  for Food Network. Please check it out. I am absolutely loving it! And, take a look at the recent Q&A in Taste of the South magazine where I talk about my newfound love of Matzoh Ball Soup and what makes a good tomato sandwich. Lastly,  I’m  in pretty good company with Mario Batali, Chris Costentino, and Elizabeth Karmel in Redbook’s 30 Days of Grilling so make sure to take a look at the slideshow for great ideas for cooking outdoors.

Bon Appétit Y’all! 

Virginia

Banana Mango Muffin on www.virginiawillis.com

Banana Mango Muffins
Makes 12

nonstick cooking spray
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs, at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 ripe bananas, mashed
1 mango, chopped
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. In a bowl, whisk together the sugar, pastry flour, all purpose flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.

Add the eggs, melted butter, then the mashed bananas and diced mango. Add the reserved dry ingredients and pecans and stir to combine. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan.

Bake until a rich, golden brown and the muffin start to pull away from the sides of the muffin tin, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly, then invert onto the rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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, virginiawillis.com. 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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World’s Best Salad Dressing

southern chef salad at www.virginiawillis.com

One of my favorite meals of the past few years was a quiet date night at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. It was just the two of us and it was a lovely, quiet evening with good service, good wine, and good food – the trifecta of what successful dining out should be. One of the highlights was a simple butter leaf salad that was perfectly dressed in a mustard shallot vinaigrette.

“Salad?  you say, “A world class restaurant and she remembers the salad?”

Of course, all of the other dishes were amazing, but actually, sometimes the things that are the most challenging in the kitchen are those made of the least amount of ingredients. The fewer the ingredients there are in a recipe, the better each individual ingredient has to be, and the better the techniques must be executed in preparing those ingredients. The real secret to a world class restaurant is that the attention to detail is the same as with a simple salad as it is with the foie gras studded with truffles or christened with foam.

What makes a salad memorable is the quality and freshness of the lettuce, the care with which the greens were washed and dried, the temperature at which they were stored. The vinaigrette must be  well-balanced in sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. The salad as a whole should be  judiciously seasoned with good sea salt and freshly ground pepper. The lettuce leaves must be crisp and gently tossed with just enough sharp, shallot vinaigrette to bring the dish together.

This isn’t world class restaurant cooking — it’s just paying attention.

rice wine vinegar - the world's best salad dressing

A salad shouldn’t be dry, nor swimming in dressing. Whether it’s a vinaigrette made by a French-trained chef or a store-bought bottle of Ranch or the World’s Best Salad Dressing, each leaf should be have a quick kiss of flavor to heighten the flavor of the salad, not overwhelm. A good salad is truly satisfying.

And, guess what? You can do this at home.

Summer in New England is high-salad season. We’re already picking greens from our garden – arugula, mizuna, and red leaf.  There are also so many fresh greens at the farmer’s markets and better grocers in summer.  Treat salad greens like the special ingredients they are, not just a thoughtless part of your meal.

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You will notice the title is not vinaigrette, but salad dressing. While I do adore a classic French vinaigrette, I must confess, I have a new love in my salad bowl. It very well quite possibly the world’s best salad dressing. I actually once heard a non-vegetable eating 9-year old boy refer to it as such. I got this mouth-watering recipe from my mama-in-law and now I am passing it along to you.

This magical combination is  comfortable, familiar, and just sexy enough because it’s homemade, and not out of a bottle. The World’s Best Salad Dressing is a bit on the sweet side due to the seasoned rice vinegar, yet tempered with a heavy hand of sharp garlic and a pungent pow of mustard powder. I love it and I hope you will, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia

World’s Best Salad Dressing

Yield: Makes 1 cup

World’s Best Salad Dressing

Ingredients

1/3 cup seasoned rice vinegar
2/3 cup canola oil
2 cloves garlic, pressed or very finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine. Or, place in a jar and shake to combine. Stores in a sealable container for up to 5 days.
http://blog.virginiawillis.com/2014/06/worlds-best-salad-dressing/

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, virginiawillis.com. 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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Fresh Look: Raw Asparagus and Lemon Salad

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Funny how things work. I never really cared for asparagus, and now that I’m in prime asparagus country, where it’s known as “Hadley Grass” in Western Massachusetts, I can’t get enough of it. We’re having it every night for supper and eating the leftovers for breakfast and lunch. Coming to love asparagus makes me realize sometimes things just need a fresh look.

I’ve also recently made changes with my website,  and worked up a whole new design.  This is the first post of my blog hosted on wordpress.org. I’ve got more changes coming in the next few weeks and I’ll be able to categorize the recipes. It will make my blog a lot more user friendly. It’s great to get a fresh look at things, to shake things up. There’s no doubt, change can be challenging, but it’s good to step out of the box.

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Most often asparagus is simmered in water, or perhaps grilled or broiled. This salad is completely raw, which is something really fresh and different. The lemon gives the salad real punch, the pine nuts a nice fatty richness, and the parmesan rounds it all out with a lovely sharp mouthful of umami. There’s no fancy equipment needed, just the swift use of an old-fashioned sharp vegetable peeler. It’s pretty simple stuff. Good ingredients, just enough done to them to maximize flavor without going overboard. It’s a new perspective on things. I hope you enjoy and thanks for reading.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

PS Please also keep up with my other column, Down-Home Comfort on Foodnetwork.com


Raw Asparagus and Lemon Salad

Yield: Serves 2 to 4

Raw Asparagus and Lemon Salad

Ingredients

Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
1 small shallot, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted
1 pound asparagus spears, tough bottoms removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup loosely packed shaved Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Combine the lemon zest, lemon juice, shallot, mustard, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a medium pan over medium heat, stirring often, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to a small bowl to cool.
  2. Using a vegetable peeler, thinly slice the asparagus lengthwise into strips and place in a large bowl. (If you have any trouble peeling the asparagus, place the spear on the flat wooden handle of a spatula. This will lift it high enough to allow the peeler to move freely.)
  3. Whisk the olive oil into the lemon-vinegar mixture in a thin and steady stream. Taste and season the dressing with salt and pepper.
  4. Add the reserved pine nuts, dressing, half of the Parmesan, and the parsley to the asparagus and toss to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Let sit at least 10 minutes before serving.
http://blog.virginiawillis.com/2014/06/fresh-look-raw-asparagus-and-lemon-salad/

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, virginiawillis.com. 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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