Virginia Willis Blog

Q: Back to School? A: Thirty Minute Pasta

Pasta seems to be the go-to dish when we’re slammed and busy. Every parent I know right now is scurrying around shopping for notebooks and uniforms, waving a tattered equipment list as they zip along the back to school aisle of the local megamart.

First of all, take a moment, take a breath, and realize it’s all going to be okay. Soon.

Pasta for dinner is a great standby. It cooks in less than 10 minutes and all some people do is heat up a jar of sauce. Yes, that’s fast, but is it good?

Quick and good are not mutually exclusive.

If your question is “what to serve for dinner”, then your textbook needs to be Thirty Minute Pasta by Giuliano Hazan.

A couple of years ago I cooked for a fancy fundraising dinner in Vero Beach, Florida. It was held in an amazing, enormous, very posh house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The house was over the top elaborate. The kitchen was astonishing, one of those designer kitchens with 8 burners and a wall of ovens, crisply accessorized in white marble and stainless steel. The part that I enjoyed the most was that I was paired to cook with Giuliano Hazan. It was fabulous, we had a great time, tasted incredible wine, and laughed the kitchen would never be used again. (The folks that live in those kinds of houses make reservations, not dinner.)

But it wasn’t so rosy just days prior. Several months before they called to let me know I was partnered with Giuliano; I was beyond thrilled. The organizers set up a time to discuss the menu; we were each allotted courses and it seemed set. I was so honored and excited. I mean, me? With Giuliano Hazan? Wow. Forget the famous part – I’ve worked with plenty of famous, and sometimes, well, anyway…. Let me put it this way, he knows what he is talking about.

Giuliano Hazan is one of the foremost authorities on Italian cooking. He’s received the coveted Cooking Teacher of the Year Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. The New York Times has called his food genius and said of his first book, The Classic Pasta Cookbook, “just about everything you want to know about pasta and how to prepare it from the Italian perspective.”

At the last minute they wanted to add a course for a specific wine.

They asked ME to cook pasta. Plain pasta with red sauce.

That’s pretty ridiculous. Seriously, really? I mean, really? My friend drolly inquired if he had been asked to fry chicken.

Not one to shirk from a challenge, I ordered my pasta and had it fedexed overnight from artisan pasta maker Elisa Gambino, (who no longer sells pasta, but has an incredible line of sauces.) My own sauce recipe is actually one I learned from reading Marcella Hazan, but that makes it a double whammy. Not only am I cooking pasta in the kitchen with a master chef of pasta, I am trying to replicate his mother’s recipe.

Reproduce, duplicate, replicate, imitate, I don’t care what you call it, but copying anybody’s mama, much less the lady who wrote The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, is a pretty tall order.

In a fancy house where people were paying buckets of money to attend.

Guess what? It was fabulous — once the oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and I was able to breathe. I can cook, you know? So, I cooked. I did ask him to taste my sauce to make sure it was okay. He teased me about that, but the sauce passed muster, which was all I cared about.

So, now in the continued exercise of spreading the love and the tenets of The Pork Chop Theory, I am sharing some recipes from my friend and colleague Giuliano Hazan.

His book, Thirty Minute Pasta is excellent. It’s a great addition to your culinary library. Simple, well-written, and delicious, and best of all they are 30 minute recipes, very family friendly, and perfect for this busy back to school time of year.

Many thanks to Lael and Giuliano.

Buon Appetito, Y’all!

Serves 4 people

This dish is named after the small town of Amatrice, about 100 miles northwest of Rome, though most people think of it as a classic Roman dish. In Rome it acquired onions and sometimes olive oil and it is usually always made with guanciale (cured pork jowl) rather than pancetta. In the following recipe I use onions, as in Rome, butter, because I like the creaminess it gives the dish, and pancetta because guanciale just too difficult to find in States, at least at the time I am writing this. Regardless, it is a heavenly combination of spiciness, rich creaminess, and savoriness. It’s a sauce I will never tire of and which makes my mouth water just thinking of it. The classic pairing is with bucatini, the thick, hollow spaghetti. Though not as authentic, it is also very good with penne or maccheroni.

1/2 medium yellow onion
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 ounces pancetta, sliced 1/8 inch thick
2 pounds fresh tomatoes
1 pound bucatini (penne or maccheroni are also good
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano

1. Fill a pot for the pasta with about 6 quarts of water, place over high heat, and bring to a boil.
2. Peel and finely chop the onion. Put 2 tablespoons of the butter and the crushed red pepper in a 12-inch skillet, add the chopped onions, and place over medium high heat. Sauté until the onion turns to a rich golden color, about 5 minutes.
3. While the onion is sautéing, unravel the pancetta and cut it into 1/8-inch wide strips. When the onion is done, add the pancetta and cook until it begins the brown, 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Peel the tomatoes and coarsely chop them. Add them to the pan and season with salt. Cook until the liquid they release has evaporated, 10 to 12 minutes.
5. When the tomatoes are about halfway done, add about 2 tablespoons salt to the boiling pasta water, add the bucatini, and stir until all the strands are submerged. Cook until al dente.
6. While the pasta is cooking, grate the two cheeses.
7. When the pasta is done, drain well and put it in a serving bowl with the two grated cheeses and the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Stir vigorously until the sauce is creamy and thoroughly coats the pasta. Serve at once.

Serves 4 people

I often make a risotto with red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, and basil whose enticing colors and aroma make it one of my family’s favorites. The fresh and fragrant combination of flavors makes this dish a great light summer meal.

1/2 medium yellow onion
3 tablespoons butter
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 1/2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes
1 pound penne (also good with fusilli or a wide egg noodle such as pappardelle or tagliatelle)
8-10 fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Fill a pot for the pasta with about 6 quarts of water, place over high heat, and bring to a boil.
2. Peel and finely chop the onion. Put it with the butter in a 12” skillet and place over medium heat. Sauté until the onion turns to a rich golden color, about 5 minutes.
3. While the onion is sautéing, peel the peppers, core, and seed them. Cut away any white pith inside the peppers and cut into 1” squares. When the onion is ready, add the peppers and season lightly with salt. Raise the heat to medium high and sauté until they are mostly tender and begin to brown lightly, about 10 minutes.
4. While the peppers are cooking, peel the tomatoes and coarsely chop them. When the peppers are ready, add the tomatoes and season lightly with salt. Cook until the tomatoes have reduced and the liquid they release has evaporated, about 10 more minutes.
5. After the tomatoes have cooked for about 5 minutes, coarsely chop the basil and add it to the pan. Add about 2 tablespoons salt to the boiling pasta water, put in the penne, and stir well. Cook until al dente.
6. When the pasta is done, drain it well, toss it with the sauce and the freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve at once.

From Giuliano Hazan’s Thirty Minute Pasta by Giuliano Hazan, Stewart, Tabori & Chang
Photos by Joseph De Leo

Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, LLC 2010

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

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Healthy Chicken, Yankee Peaches, and The Pork Chop Theory

It’s high season for preserving summer fruits and vegetables and I am thrilled about my friend and colleague’s new cookbook Put ’em Up! by Sherri Brooks Vinton. Canning, fermenting, freezing, drying are just a few of the many ways eaters can preserve the fantastic flavors of locally grown foods. Whether you’re a canning novice or preservation pro, Sherri’s book gives eaters all of the information they need to Put ‘em Up!

With my next cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all on rapidly approaching deadline and launching my new product line, My Southern Pantry, I am afraid the extent of my preserving this year has been limited to making bourbon and Maraschino cherries (which simple consists of pouring booze over the fruit, not a real stretch of culinary prowess) and a putting up a couple of gallons of quart size bags of frozen butterbeans, lady peas, and okra and tomatoes.

So, sadly, canning kettle is staying in the box this year.

However, if you are in the Atlanta area and want to dust yours off, check out the Georgia Organics event with Liz Porter, Preserving the Harvest on August 14 or Yes We Can Can on August 21. Great stuff.

I was honored Sherri asked me to be a part of her book, so I am reprinting her version of my recipe here. That’s real love, you know, sharing like that. It’s the ultimate in the Pork Chop Theory by my dear friend Nathalie Dupree.

What’s that? The what? Huh?

The Pork Chop Theory is based on the premise that if you put one pork chop in the pan and turn the heat on high, the pork chop will burn. If you put two pork chops in the pan, however, and turn the heat on high they will feed off the fat of one another. It’s the ultimate in giving, sharing, and developing mutually beneficial partnerships and relationships. It’s not about competition, it’s about sharing the fat, sharing the love.

It’s about everyone getting what they need to be satisfied and happy.

And, you know what? The older I get, the more I know that’s what life is all about.

Following your heart and being happy.

So, in light of looming book manuscript and in the spirit of The Pork Chop Theory, in these next couple of months I’ll be reaching out to friends and colleagues and sharing their recipes with you. Enjoy!

Bon Appétit, Y’all

Sherri’s Chinese Plum Sauce
Makes about 3 cups

Richly spiced, full of flavor, you won’t want to save it just for your moo shu. Be prepared for this condiment to become your new ketchup.

2 pounds plums, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 garlic cloves
1 star anise

Combine the plums, vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and star anise in a large nonreactive pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, 20 to 25 minutes. Fish out the star anise and discard. Puree the sauce with a stick blender.

Refrigerate: Ladle into bowls or jars. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.

Can: Use the boiling-water method. Ladle into clean, hot 4-ounce or half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Release trapped air. Wipe the rims clean; center lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, remove canner lid, and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours. Check seals, then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Sherri’s Asian Chicken Wrap
Makes 2 wraps

2 cups diced cooked chicken
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese Plum Sauce (above)
2 flour tortillas
1 cup shredded lettuce
1 cucumber, sliced into ribbons with
a vegetable peeler
Several sprigs fresh cilantro (optional)

Toss the chicken with the soy sauce in a small bowl and set aside. Smear half the Chinese Plum Sauce in the center of each tortilla, being careful to leave at least a 1-inch border all around. Arrange half of the lettuce, cucumber, chicken, and cilantro, if using, on the lower third of each wrap. One at a time, fold up the wraps, first folding the two sides of the tortilla in over the filling, and then, starting with the edge closest to you, rolling the wrap away from you. Turn seam-side down on a plate and serve.

Sherri sent me a picture of peaches from the Union Square farmer’s market to use and I told her I grew up picking peaches in Peach County, Georgia. Pork Chop Theory aside, I told her I couldn’t use her photo of Yankee peaches. I might get run out of town!

Sherri’s Pickled Peaches
Makes about 2 quarts

There are some dishes so quintessentially Southern that they never make it north of the Mason- Dixon line, and Pickled Peaches is one of them. The vinegar-and-fruit combo might sound odd to a Yankee, but put up a batch of these and you’ll be whistling Dixie no matter where you live. I have adapted this recipe from one in Bon Appetit, Y’all, a treasure of a book from my dearfriend, and an authentic Georgia peach herself, Virginia Willis. For best results, use ripe but firm peaches.

6 (500 mg) vitamin C tablets, crushed
2 quarts cold water
2 cups ice
5 pounds peaches (10–12)
4 cups distilled white vinegar
4 cups sugar
1 (2-inch) knob ginger, sliced into coins
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon whole cloves

In a large bowl, cooler, or your impeccably clean kitchen sink, create an antibrowning ascorbic-acid bath by dissolving the crushed vitamin C tablets in the cold water. Add the ice.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Working in batches of two peaches at a time, blanch the fruit in the boiling water for 30 seconds to loosen the skins.

Scoop the peaches out of the water and plunge them into the prepared ice water. Repeat with the remaining peaches. Drain. Using a small paring knife, peel, pit, and halve the peaches, returning them to the ice bath as you go.

Bring the vinegar, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves to a boil in a large saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the drained peaches, return to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes.

Refrigerate: Ladle into bowls or jars. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.

Can: Use the boiling-water method. Ladle into clean, hot quart canning jars, covering the peaches by 1/2 inch with liquid. Leave 1/2 inch of headspace between the top of the liquid and the lid. Screw lids on the jars temporarily. Gently swirl each jar to release trapped air bubbles. Remove the lids and add syrup, if necessary, to achieve proper headspace. Wipe the rims clean; center lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process for 20 minutes. Turn off heat, remove canner lid, and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours. Check seals, then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, LLC 2010

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

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Corn Soup & Attack of the Killer Tomato Pie Recipe Test

It’s hot as blue blazes in Georgia. Last weekend the heat index was 110°. That’s just unbelievable. And, the nights? The nights have been positively wet and thick with heat. Unbearable.

I remember when I was a very young girl my grandparents did not have air conditioning. It sounds so primitive doesn’t it? Yes, of course, they had indoor plumbing! No jokes about me being a hick. Not having AC in a place that can feel like it is as hot as 110° is pretty serious stuff. Meme would sprinkle the sheets with baby powder. Oscillating fans, window fans, and the massive and terrifyingly large attic fan ran at all hours of the day and night. The attic fan was controlled by a switch in the hall closet. It was situated in the center of the house in the ceiling; once the switch was flipped the levered doors would groan open, the motor would hum, and the blades would begin to twirl- thump, thump – as the brass blades pushed the air.

Hot dry summers make for uncomfortable people, but it is pretty much heaven for tomatoes. As long as there is enough water to prevent them from drying up and dying, tomatoes love the heat. Hot dry summers make for intensely flavored tomatoes, not watery or thin-flavored. Same with corn. What grows together goes together and those veggies like it hot.

If you are around next weekend in Atlanta the folks over at JCT kitchen are throwing the 2nd annual Killer Tomato Fest for Georgia Organics. Good food and drink for a good cause. I’ll be up in chilly Maine teaching at Stonewall Kitchen, so if you are in that neck of the woods, stop in and say hello.

The recipes below are perfect for right now, at least down South. The first is from Bon Appétit, Y’all and is just simple goodness.

If you would like to participate in testing, the second one, Old-Fashioned Tomato Pie, is for my next book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: Recipes and Recollections from a Southern Culinary Journey. I thought I would put it out there for testing and see what everyone thinks.

There’s a testing sheet at the end and if you wish, you can please send to me at I really learned a lot from the Spicy Pulled Pork Recipe Testing Experiment.

So, looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say about my Old-Fashioned Tomato Pie!

Thanks in advance!
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Best VA

Corn Soup with Tomato Garnish
Serves 4 to 6

Dede always preferred to plant his corn patch in the fruitful black soil at the river’s edge. He taught me that when corn is ripe and ready to be picked, the silk at the top of the ear should be dark brown, almost black. It is not unusual to see people peeling back the husks in search of ears with perfect rows of kernels. Just take a peek to make sure the ear is full and free of worms, but keep the husk on to keep the corn moist and sweet.

Do not bother with this recipe unless it is summer and you can make it with fresh corn and the best tomatoes, preferably heirloom. You will only be disappointed. Heirloom tomatoes, varieties passed down through generations by farmers and gardeners the world over, come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes. If you cannot find heirlooms, this garnish would also be delicious with any ripe tomato from your garden or market.

Scraped kernels from 6 ears fresh sweet corn (about 3 cups) cobs reserved and cut in half
4 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon corn oil, preferably unrefined
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
1 russet potato, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon fine yellow cornmeal
Bouquet garni (2 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme, 1 bay leaf, preferably fresh, 6 whole black peppercorns, tied together in cheesecloth)
2 to 3 heirloom tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley, tarragon, or basil)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)

To make the corn stock, in a saucepan, combine the corncobs and chicken stock and bring to a boil over medium heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer until the stock has taken on a light corn flavor, about 10 minutes. Remove the corncobs, strain the stock into a bowl, and set aside.

To prepare the soup, in the same saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and cook the onion until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the corn kernels, potato, and cornmeal. Add enough of the corncob-infused stock to cover. Add the bouquet garni and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer until the chopped potato is tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, to prepare the garnish, combine the tomatoes and any juices, olive oil, and herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

To finish the soup, in the saucepan, using an immersion blender, puree the soup. Or ladle the soup into a blender and puree until smooth a little at a time. Leave it coarse and chunky if you prefer a more rustic soup, or puree until smooth for a more elegant soup. Stir in the cream and reheat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon into bowls and top with the tomato garnish. Serve immediately.

Old-Fashioned Tomato Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie

Here’s a recipe for my next book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: Recipes and Recollections from a Southern Culinary Journey. I’d love to hear what you think, so if anyone wants to give it a try and let me know, please do.

1 (9-inch) pie shell lined with your favorite pie crust or puff pastry (1/2 recipe of Pâte Brisée, see below)
4 to 5 garden ripe tomatoes, preferably heirloom, cored and thinly sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt, for sprinkling
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup mixed freshly chopped herbs such as chives, parsley, and basil
1/2 cup freshly grated Gruyère
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/4 cup mayonnaise
freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 375° F. Line the shell with foil and fill with pie weights, dried beans, or rice. Bake in the lower third of the oven for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the weights and foil. Return to the oven and bake for 10 minutes more or until light golden. Remove to cool in the pan on a wire rack.

Reduce oven temperature to 350° F. Place the tomatoes on a rack in the sink in 1 layer. Sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook until clear and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. (Don’t skip this step! Not cooking the onion can make the pie soggy and wet.)

Layer the tomato slices, cooked onion, and herb in the pie shell. Season each layer with pepper. Combine the grated cheeses and mayonnaise together. Spread mixture on top of the tomatoes and bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove to a rack to cool. Serve warm or room temperature.

Pâte Brisée
Makes 1 double-crust or 2 single-crust 9- to 10-inch pies

Pie crust is one of those terrifying things for most people, but the difference in a homemade crust and a rolled pre-manufactured butterless tube of tasteless dough are night and day. If you like to cook, it’s very much worth over coming your fears. Try the real thing.

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/4 to ½ cup ice water

In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.

With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream. Pulse until dough holds together without being sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. (To test, squeeze a small amount together: If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time.)

Divide dough into two equal disks and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator, and chill until firm, at least 30 minutes. Dough may be stored tightly wrapped in plastic film and frozen up to 1 month.


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RECIPE TITLE: Old-Fashioned Tomato Pie
Basic to Brilliant »
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Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, LLC 2010

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.

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My Feisty Sister, Green Beans, and The Best Birthday, Ever.

It’s my younger sister’s birthday this weekend and I am going home to see her and mama. Some of y’all may remember about mama moving and selling our family home last Christmas. It’s hard to imagine, but I’ve only been home one time since the holidays. I’ve had a block about it – I can be exceptionally good at putting emotions in boxes and putting them on the shelf. I actually really didn’t realize it until the last time I went home, and driving there I realized I hadn’t been to Mama’s but once. I knew exactly what my crafty mind had been up to…. Of course, I have seen Mama and Jona, but with all the travel, it’s been fairly easy to avoid.

This weekend though? This weekend I am going home to see my sister. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

I love my sister. She means the absolute world to me. She is my heart, my shoulder to cry on, and my biggest cheerleader.

Now, I love her, but we are like night and day. Two more different women could hardly exist. Mama is going to kill me, but I’ve always said that she must have a medical abnormality and have two wombs, because there is no way that my sister and I came out of the same one. And, low and behold this week, a woman in Utah was diagnosed with the condition. Not kidding. Check it out.

We are really different. We used to fight like cats and dogs. She was a biter when she was a little girl and damn, she was feisty. When she was in junior high she was one of the popular girls. I was very much a social outcast nerd and member of the drama club, debate team, and always had my head in a book. She would pass me on the school campus and not speak to me. She was that cool. That, of course, infuriated me, but she ran track and I could never catch her.

She is smart, wicked smart, with math. I have to use my iPhone or count on my fingers for pretty much anything over 2 digits. She balances her checkbook to the dime. I, um, don’t. She sees that I am book smart, but doesn’t think I have a lick of common sense. (We argue of course, on that, too.) I love to travel and essentially left home at the age of 16. She’s a homebody and hates to fly. Clearly, I am an adventurous eater and love to go out to dinner, She’s a meat and potatoes kind of girl. She can’t stand to go out to eat and grumbles at me when I put herbs in the food, suspiciously eyes herbed potatoes and asks, “Did you mess that up by putting any pine needles (aka rosemary) in there?”

This is the look I get when I’ve done something stupid. She’s really going to love I shared this one. You may think that wasn’t very fair of me, but honestly, she makes me so mad sometimes I can’t breathe. You know how it is with sisters.

A couple of years ago Mama called in the middle of the night. She was crying, I think. Honestly, I can’t really remember. She called to tell me Jona had been burned in a house fire. She was at the hospital in the burn unit. I needed to come home first thing in the morning. She was alive, but had 3rd degree burns over 20% of her body. I remember going back to bed and of course, poorly doing the math, “Ok, she’s 5’8” so 20% is a little more than a foot.” I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. (I would have gotten That Look.)

We drove home the next day, straight to the hospital, no, the burn unit. There’s a mighty big difference, believe me. It’s ICU to the nth degree. I remember sobbing, shaking, leaning against the wall outside the door trying to get the booties over my shoes, the mask over my face, the surgical gown over my clothes to enter her room. All the protective covering was necessary to protect her from germs. It became rapidly crystal clear that my math was very, very wrong. I couldn’t see for crying.

I couldn’t breathe.

Over the next few days she underwent a series of debridements, an incredibly painful surgical procedure in which the damaged skin and tissue is removed. Once cleaned, her wounds were covered and protected by cadaver skin. The donor skin helps prevent infection, reduce pain, and would maintain her body temperature until she was well enough for skin grafts from her own skin. She was unconscious and on morphine. There were tubes and machines, and more tubes and machines to help her breathe.

We were fortunate in that her burns were on her leg and arm, her face and head were not injured. Mama and I were only allowed to see her twice a day. We were always waiting at the door as soon as door would open with all the other families.

You know when things are so absurd, life is so topsy turvy that everyone goes into survival mode? I remember one afternoon, she and I laughed so hard we were crying because I had looked in the mirror and I had been crying so much that the bags below my eyes were actually hanging over my face mask. My feisty sister was still practically at death’s door and she was laughing at my puffy eyes.

Only sisters could laugh at a time such as that.

One morning early on, when our grief and worry were still overriding any desire to eat, a group of ladies came to the hospital and set up lunch. The volunteer explained that several of the local churches provided lunch and supper for the families of patients. Pimento cheese sandwiches and individual slices of pound cake were hand-wrapped in waxed paper and homemade yeast rolls were delivered while still warm, shiny with butter. There were hunks of meaty pot roast bathed in dark brown gravy and a comforting combination of tender chicken and dumplings. The food was amazing. Not the first bite of fast food. Not the first bucket of chicken or box of burgers. It was real and restorative, as much for the delicious taste as the real caring and kindness. It was without a doubt the most rewarding, healing love I have ever felt from absolute strangers.

Jona, however, wouldn’t eat. The doctors wouldn’t perform skin grafts until she was consuming a certain amount of calories. The burn unit was so full, they needed the bed, so they sent her home. Yes, you read that right. They bandaged her up, gave us instructions on wound care and sent her home.

I went into high gear cooking, trying to feed her. I cook in a crisis. She couldn’t die, she just couldn’t die. She had to eat. Every day without the skin grafts was dangerous. She was practically comatose from the heavy-duty narcotics and medication. I tried to feed her. She fought me, of course, feisty and mad as hell. She was nauseous and didn’t want to eat. I shoved green beans in her mouth, furious at her, crying. I was so mad I could hardly breathe. We yelled and screamed at each other. She was nauseous and got sick. She hated me. It was an awful, messy scene.

Two days later she’d eaten enough so we took her back to the hospital for her skin grafts. Skin grafting is a procedure where they remove healthy skin from another part of the body to attach to the wounded area, essentially creating additional third degree burns. These surgeries lasted for several days and then eventually we took her home again, for good.

She had to undergo months and months of physical therapy and wear special burn garments for over a year. Now, you can hardly tell. She generally wears long sleeves and a suntan is out of the question. She says sometimes the scars hurt and ache, but for the most part you’d never know. A couple of years ago she helped arrange for supplies for the families and victims of the Imperial Sugar fire and explosion. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud, humbled, and amazed in my whole life.

We still argue and fight. Always will, I imagine. But, now, when my feisty sister makes me so mad I can’t breathe. I do breathe. I take a full breath as I thank G*d she is here on this earth to make me mad. And, you know why I am going home for her birthday? Because she’s having one and as long as she has one, that’s the best birthday ever.

Here are a couple of recipes, Mama’s Macaroni Salad is one of her favorites. We both love it, and, of course, fight over the last bowl. Then, just because I can, and I can’t wait to hear her complain about it, I am also including a recipe for Green Beans.

I love you, Jona.


And, if you would like, please click on the links to tearn more about and donate to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center and Southeastern Firefighter’s Burn Foundation.

Mama’s Macaroni Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1 (16-ounce) box elbow macaroni
3 stalks celery, very finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and shredded
1 Vidalia onion, very finely chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise, or to taste, preferably Duke’s
1 cup mild cheddar cheese, shredded, for serving
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season with salt and add macaroni. Cook macaroni until tender, about 10 minutes or according to package instructions. Drain well, then transfer to a large bowl to cool.

Once the macaroni is cooled, add the celery, carrots, onion and mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator until cold, at least 2 hours. Tastes and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Add cheese just before serving.

Green Beans with Buttery Peaches
Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespooon canola or grapeseed oil
4 peaches, pitted and sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste
1 teaspoon fennel seed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line a plate with paper towels.

To cook the beans, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the beans and cook until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well in a colander, then set the colander with beans in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the beans are submerged. Once chilled, remove the beans to the prepared plate.

In the same pot, heat the butter and oil over medium heat until shimmering and foamy. Add the sliced peaches and season with salt and pepper. Cook, until browned on both sides, turning once, about 4 minutes, depending on the tenderness of the peaches. Add the garlic and fennel seeds; cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the reserved green beans and toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature.

Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, LLC 2010

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

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Spicy (or Maybe Not So Much?) Pork Shoulder Results

Last weekend, just before the holiday, I gave a call out on Facebook, Twitter, and in this blog asking for folks to participate in a recipe test for Spicy Pulled Pork Shoulder.

WOW. I was overwhelmed with the response! So many people responded. Thank you so much! I was blown away.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Lots of grade A, grade B+ were bestowed. I don’t think we had the first C.

Of course, the funny thing about asking so many people to do this at once were the difference in comments. One tester commented, “It was delicious, but not spicy at all” and suggested I rename it “Savory Pork Shoulder” and to the opposite end of the spectrum was a very apologetic, “I really thought it was really too spicy.”

Part of my job has always been recipe testing. My first “job” as apprentice involved recipe testing for Nathalie Dupree . I’ve written about learning how to recipe test from Anne Willan and as TV Test Kitchen Director for Martha Stewart I was ultimately responsible for all the food on the show, and believe you me I made sure those recipes worked before Martha made them on set.

Recipes aren’t meant to be a ball and chain, but when actually testing a recipe to write it so the whole wide world can follow it and duplicate it without difficulty, instructions must be followed to the letter, that’s my approach and how I learned to do it over the years. When I test recipes for articles and books, I test and test eliminating variables and try to be as detailed as possible so instructions are clear. If I hire people to help me and assist me, that’s the attention to detail I expect.

My name is on the cover of that book.

Sometimes people try a recipe from book and the recipe fails. The cook thinks he or she has done something wrong, when the truth of the matter is the less-than-honest writer hadn’t really tested the recipe. That’s the wildcard of using recipes off the internet. The internet is only as good as the source.

There’s always going to be some differences in recipe testing. Pots differ, BTUs for stovetop power differ, some ovens aren’t properly calibrated. My medium tomato might be a little larger than your medium tomato, but for the most part a professional recipe tester tries to eliminate those nuances.

Some folks took the time to fill out the test sheet, including Katherine, Scott, Jane, and Heather. Wow! I was so impressed by the level of detail. Really cool experiment, you know. It was pretty much out of my control, which, um, sometimes, um, I struggle with.

Well, a good many of the “tests” that came in didn’t actually follow the recipe.


But, you know what? I loved it! Woo-hoo! Freedom!!

I got SO many great ideas and garnered so much great information by NOT following the recipe the way it was written! By doing exactly what I DON’T do!

One tester ran out of Worcestershire sauce and used Picka Pepper, instead. Many, many people tried it on a low and slow grill or Big Green Egg, a cooking method I have still yet to try. Someone from South Georgia used a fresh ham (from the back leg) instead of a shoulder (from the front leg). We had beer used instead of bourbon, muscavado sugar instead of dark brown, and ketchup instead of whole tomatoes. I got a note from Lance who’s testing it today in the UK, I can’t wait to see what he says!

Some folks, like Otis from Columbus, clearly thought it needed more bourbon. Or maybe he needed more bourbon… that wasn’t clear in his notes… well, maybe there’s my answer.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot. This was my first foray into rampant, unbridled, lawless recipe testing. It was enough to make me blush.

I can be a bit hemmed up with things sometimes, so it was good for me to stretch my boundaries and try something new, too.

Of course, I’m taking all those comments, suggestions, observations and writing out another recipe and testing it again.

I just can’t help myself.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS Here is the original Spicy Pulled Pork Shoulder that was posted last weekend, just in case anyone wants to give it a try!

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