Virginia Willis Blog

Labor Day Appetizers and Summer’s Sweet End

I’ve spent the summer in New England. It’s been an eye-opener on many levels.

First, I was told all about the corn. “Our corn is the best in the world,” she said.

In my mind, I silently dismissed it.

“Oh-okay,” I responded. The half acknowledgment that conveys the unspoken sentiment, “You really don’t know what the h*ll you are talking about…”

Best in the world? Yankee corn. Seriously?

Well, let me tell you. It is the best corn I have ever tasted.

I had no real idea. The amount of agriculture in the area is astonishingly prolific. They pretty much grow all the things we grow down South, it’s just the season is shorter and the peak of the season comes a few weeks later. In fact, due to the extreme heat in the South, some things grow better up North.

It’s been a great lesson.

There’s a farmer’s market in the area practically everyday of the week. Also, everyone with a substantial garden has a little shed, stand, or table at the end of their driveway for selling produce and sometimes, flowers. One of my favorites is the farmer with his battered old Ford pickup truck open and backed toward the road. The roadside tables – or tailgates – are filled with freshly harvested produce and a handwritten sign, often on the back of a cardboard box, with the price list. Sometimes there’s a moneybox, but sometimes there’s just a Mason Jar or an old dinged up cookie tin. No lock, no strap, nothing to prevent theft.

I grew up in the country. Montezuma, Georgia. The population at the time hovered around 3000. It’s nice to once again have a healthy, wholesome dose of real country living.

This summer has enlightened me. Over the course of these past few months I have realized, that for the most part, country folks are country folks all across the US.

Sure, I get some funny looks with my  slow drawl and Southern accent, and believe me, we sure don’t sound alike. I’ve heard some voices straight out of central casting – curmudgeonly old Maine fisherman with their here-uhs and there-uhs, Yo-Joey Italian American foodies from Rhode Island, and fast-talkin’ BAHSton city slickers.

I feel like I am in the middle of a Rockwell painting with the red, white, and blue bunting that graces so many of the windows and balconies, farm stands at every turn and curve, and tall white spires of 18th century churches piercing the crisp blue cloudless sky.

Freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear.

There’s something about the summer holidays that bring out a heartfelt feeling of pride and patriotism. Memorial Day is a day that honors those that have died in service, July 4th celebrates our independence, and Labor Day is dedicated to the achievements of American workers that have contributed to the strength and well-being of our country.

What I’ve grown to appreciate, once again, is that at the end of the day, we’re all Americans.

My friend and colleague Judith Fertig has a new book out titled Heartland: The Cookbook that celebrates another seemingly Rockwellian region of the US, the Midwest.

It’s a an absolutely beautiful book and embraces that eating local and farm to table is really just plain old eating for many rural Americans. It’s like I wrote for a piece called “Being Southern is a State of Mind” for CNN’s Eatocracy, “We were country when country wasn’t cool.” Residents of the Midwest have been living off the bounty of the land since the pioneer days.

Judith is one half of the dynamic duo, the witty, wise-crackin’ BBQ Queens along with Karen Adler. The two of them have written over 20 cookbooks together – and sold over 1/2 million books. Phew.

However, Judith isn’t simply tongs and tiaras. She is a fellow alumni of Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne and part of Anne Willan’s La Varenne Mafia.

This cook knows her stuff.

Heartland marries modern cooking with an authentic approach to the bounty of the land, presenting 150 recipes for farm-bounty fare. It’s far more than pig and polka. Heartland embraces the spirit and flavors of the modern farmhouse. Judith highlights ethnic food traditions, seasonal flavors, artisan producers, heirloom ingredients, and heritage meats.

Included are recipes for Chocolate Buttermilk Poundcake, Heirloom Bean Ragout stuffed in Acorn Squash, Four Seasons Flatbread, and Bacon Bloody Mary – with housemade bacon vodka –  that you are certain to enjoy regardless of where you call home.

Since you’ve likely got the grill going with BBQ Chicken or Steaks this weekend, I am featuring a couple of recipes to serve for apps and snacks. I’m sharing my own recipe for Quick Pickled Vegetables to go along with Judith’s recipes for Smoked Goat Cheese, Branding Iron Beef, and {End of} Summer Sangria.

Mama’s Reading List

A couple of weeks ago I started a section to let you know where I’ve been and what I’m up to. As tour dates firm up I’ll add those here, too. This section happens to be my mama’s favorite. 

Kim Severson, author of Spoonfed and writer for the New York Times asked me about field peas for a piece titled Last Call for Summer. Other delicious treats to make sure you have before summer’s end include peaches, flank steak, corn, and blackberries. (Click through to see them all — and it’s interactive. You can share your essential summer eating recipes, too.)

Icebox pies are hot according to the Oregonian. Leslie Cole speaks to Martha Foose and also recommends a litany of Southern books by me as well as Nancy McDermott, Sara Foster, and Hugh Acheson.

Check out what tea-expert Lisa Boalt Richardson says about coffee and  My Southern Pantry!

And, by the way, I’ll be back at Williams-Sonoma at Lenox Mall this Labor Day weekend on Saturday 3 September from 12-4 pm for the Artisan Market series.

Bon Appetit, Y’all!
VA

VIRGINIA’S PICKLED VEGETABLES
Serves 8 to 10

1 cucumber
1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
8 cups assorted cut vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower florets, green beans, wax beans, and small okra
6 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cup sugar
¾ cup kosher salt
1 large garlic clove, cut into slivers
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
4 small red peppers

Prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Remove alternating stripes of peel from the cucumbers. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice and water and set aside. Place the 8 cups of vegetables in the boiling water and let cook until vibrant in color but still firm, 1-2 minutes. Drain the vegetables well in a colander, and then set the colander with the vegetables in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the vegetables are submerged. Drain well. Set aside.

Place ½ the red onion, garlic, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns in the bottom of a large sealable bowl or jar. Transfer the blanched vegetables to the jar, layering to alternate the color and texture. Layer in remaining ½ onion, cucumber, and peppers.

Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until the mixture comes to just under a boil. Pour mixture directly over vegetables and spices. Depending on the size container and the size of the vegetables you may not use all of the vinegar. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Cover or seal and store refrigerated, stirring occasionally, for at least 48 hours. Serve well-chilled.

How to Smoke Tomatoes and Goat Cheese:

When you’re already grilling something else, put these on at the end and you’ll have double the pleasure. You can make any quantity of smoked tomatoes or goat cheese with this easy method.

1. Prepare an indirect fire in your grill, with no fire on one side. For a charcoal grill, place about 1 cup wood chips on ashed-over coals. For a gas grill, place ½ cup of wood chips in a metal smoker box or in a homemade aluminum foil packet with holes punched in the top; place the smoker box or packet nearest to a gas jet.

2. Stem and core the tomatoes, brush them with olive oil, and put them in a disposable aluminum pan. Brush a log of goat cheese with olive oil and place it in a disposable aluminum pan. Place the pan(s) on the indirect side of the grill. When you see the first wisp of smoke, close the lid. The tomatoes and goat cheese take about 30 minutes or until they have a burnished appearance and a smoky aroma.

3. Peel and seed the tomatoes. To puree, put the peeled and seeded tomatoes in a food processor and puree until smooth.


Branding Iron Beef with Smoked Tomato Drizzle
Serves 8

Kansas is, literally, “home on the range”—at least it was to Brewster Higley, the Smith County settler who wrote the song there in 1871. Today, there are still deer and even a few antelope, but mainly beef cattle in the Flint Hills and the western prairie. To make your taste buds sing, get your outdoor grill a-smokin’ so you can rustle up this easy version of beef carpaccio. The beef gets a little tasty char around the outside, is very rare inside, and has a smoky sauce to finish. You can make the sauce and grill the beef a day ahead, then assemble the thin slices a few hours before your guests arrive and keep chilled.

For the Smoked Tomato Drizzle:
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon smoked tomato puree (see How to Smoke Tomatoes and Goat Cheese)
¼ cup bottled smoked chipotle pepper sauce

For the beef:
1 pound boneless eye of round, top loin. or beef tenderloin
Olive oil for brushing
Coarse kosher or sea salt and cracked black pepper
Drained capers and baby arugula for garnish

1. For the drizzle, whisk together the mayonnaise, tomato, and smoked chipotle pepper sauce in a small bowl until smooth. Transfer to a plastic squeeze bottle. Chill 8 appetizer plates.

2. Prepare a hot fire in your grill and place a cast iron skillet or griddle on the grill grate to heat for 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Brush the steak with olive oil and season the exterior with salt and pepper. When the skillet is very hot, sear the beef on all sides until blackened, about 1 to 2 minutes per side.

4. Let the beef rest until it is at room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap. To serve the same day, place it in the freezer for 30 minutes to firm up. To serve the next day, place in the refrigerator, then in the freezer for 30 minutes.

5. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, cut the beef into paper-thin slices and arrange on the chilled plates. To serve, drizzle the sauce on each plate in a cross-hatch pattern and scatter with capers and arugula.

{End of} Summer Sangria
Serves 8

Stir up a pitcher on a hot day, then sit back and relax. It’s summer! Choose a semi-dry white wine from Heartland wineries and a Triple Sec made in Cincinnati, Ohio. Perhaps a Prairie Fume from Wollersheim in Wisconsin or the Vignole from Sainte Genevieve Winery in Missouri, and De Kuyper Triple Sec from Ohio.

2 bottles semi-dry white wine, chilled
2/3 cup Fresh Herb Syrup (see below)
2/3 cup Triple Sec
1 liter sparkling water
½ cup fresh lime juice, or to taste
2 cups fresh fruits in season, such as peach slices, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, or gooseberries
Fresh lemon balm or basil sprigs to garnish
1. Combine the wine, syrup, Triple Sec, sparkling water, and lime juice over ice in a large pitcher. Add some fruit to the pitcher, portion the rest among 8 glasses. Pour in the sangria, then garnish with a sprig of lemon balm.

Fresh Herb Syrup
Makes about 1 cup

For this recipe, use the freshest, most aromatic tender herbs you can find, such as basil, mint, or lemon balm.
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup fresh, aromatic herb leaves, packed, coarsely chopped
1. In a large, microwave-safe glass measuring cup, combine the sugar, water, and herbs. Microwave on high until the sugar dissolves, about 3 to 4 minutes. Let the mixture steep for 20 to 30 minutes. Then, strain the mixture into a bowl and let cool. Use right away or store in a covered glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

corn, pickled vegetables, and field photos by me.

Judith’s recipes and images from Heartland: The Cookbook by Judith Fertig/Andrews McMeel Publishing
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.

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20 Responses to “Labor Day Appetizers and Summer’s Sweet End”

  1. ALright, Virginia! I found this beautiful pickled veggie recipe on pinterest. I just now finished and am looking forward to tasting! thank you!

    Reply
  2. Deborah & the furry gang in OK

    Virginia, I was looking for pickle recipes on Pinterest and found this!! I adore pickled veggies…I’m not so fond of sugar these day. Can one leave the sugar out or reduce to maybe 1/8-1/4 C.

    I’ve had Maine corn..you are right..it’s in a class of it’s own. Back in 1997, we were visiting my husband’s parents and Mom told me we were having corn for supper. I ask what I could bring..she gave me a strange look and said..Oh nothing dear! We indeed had Corn and tea for supper..boiled corn with lot’s of butter and some she had cut from the cob with a knife and fried. My husband winked at me and said…our first meal with corn each summer..is just corn!!

    They are all gone how, but every time I eat corn, they are with me! Thanks for the memories!

    Deborah and the furry gang in OK

    Reply
  3. magicofspice

    Nice line up of recipes, love the sangria with the herb simple syrup 🙂 Wishing you a Happy Labor Day

    Reply
  4. Loved this one! I think your smoked goat cheese is calling my name!

    I grew up in New England and miss those farmstands with fresh picked corn, almost always sold by the baker’s dozen rule. Sometimes, as a kid, we’d make a whole meal of just corn on the cob. I miss New England tomatoes too… another meal in and of itself!!

    Glad you had the opportunity to experience the riches of New England and to share them with your fans!

    Reply
  5. During a visit to New England, I once bought veggies off the tailgate of one of those pickup trucks parked at the end of a driveway in rural New Hampshire. The honor system of paying for what you get–and the owner’s confidence that you’ll count your change correctly if you have to reach into that cookie tin–is something you don’t find often anymore. It made me want to buy something from every open tailgate I passed that day.

    Lovely piece, Virginia….Thanks!

    Carol Penn-Romine

    Reply
  6. Those are some of the most beautiful pickled vegetables I’ve ever seen. Might even tempt me to eat okra, the one veg I’m still trying to work up my nerve to cook. Too many bad memories from the college cafeteria.

    Reply
  7. I am from the PNW of Washington state. I think the produce that comes out of this entire state is incredible, it might be this northern latitude. The corn…. oh the corn! My husband is from Texas and he gets excited to go and eat the produce that comes out of the black dirt deep in the heart of Texas.

    Reply
  8. Next time I head up to New England I’ll definitely check out their corn. Wonderful post with great information. I’ve never made an icebox pie but would like to especially since I’ve seen so many posted lately. They must be coming back in style.

    As for your pickled veggies, they look fantastic and so easy. Can’t wait to try them!

    Reply
  9. Wonderful column, Virginia. Reminds me of my childhood in Michigan and summers in Northern Michigan, fruit and veg stands, the un-manned jar for money, the great taste of sweet corn picked just an hour ago, etc.

    Michigan used to be and still is a huge ag state, growing melons, corn, cherries and more and with a luscious Yankee taste. I’m an adopted Southerner now but often long for some Northern agricultural aggression!

    Love, Jim

    Reply

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