Virginia Willis Blog

Birds and the Bees: Springtime in the South

Spring tulip on a dewey morning in a dear friend’s garden.

Atlanta is glorious in spring. My windows are open; I hear the buzz of the bees, the lilting song of the birds, and the breeze gently waving in the trees. Earlier today it was a swirling snowstorm of pink blossoms when a bold gust of wind jostled the cherry trees, the petals cavorting in the wind. I watched a brilliant red male cardinal dash and dart among the budding hydrangea, flitting and flirting with his amorous choice of desire, a more subdued female. The daffodils and forsythia are bursting with color so yellow it’s positively garish. I’ve brought some of the flowers inside to enjoy and their sweetness fills the air. Atlanta is glorious in spring.

I was recently fortunate enough to shoot Easter with Country Living for spring of 2011. Some of the recipes will be in my next book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all. It was hosted by my sweet dear cousins Gene and Kathy Waites, at their lovely home in Fort Valley. Kathy took some snaps of the shoot itself, and I thought I would share.

Many thanks to them for their generous hospitality — and to my family, too for putting up with me.

Enjoy the photos and there’s a little recipe at the end, too.

Mama and I – She’s positive the pot likker shots need salt and I am a bit amused….

Tools of the Trade: Q-tips can be your best friend.

The Team at Work – It’s pretty amazing how different it looks in “real life” and how it transforms in the lens.

Behind the Scenes – but Mama, ahem, still thinks the pot likker needs salt….

Our Easter Buffet -Heather and Barb orchestrated an amazing spectacle.

Camera envy!!

Messing around with Mama and her Ben Franks!

Yes, undoubtedly I am a Mama’s girl, just in case you were wondering.
I love my Mama. She and my sister came down early for the shoot to help me out.

Life is good. Spring is glorious.
I am so happy and very thankful for my many, many blessings

Bon Appétit, Y’all
Virginia ‘

Here’s a recipe that I shared with Whole Foods Market last spring I thought you might enjoy.

Crispy Phyllo Sesame Asparagus

Yield: makes 2 dozen

Asparagus is a member of the Lily family and the spears grow from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in sandy soil. It’s harvested in the spring and it’s amazing to see – the spears literally grow straight out of the earth. The first time I saw this was at the beautiful kitchen gardens at Jefferson’s Monticello. When shopping for asparagus look for firm, fresh, spears with closed, compact tips and uniform diameter, so that all spears will cook in the same amount of time.

Meme loved asparagus, which she called “asparagus salad,” although there wasn’t anything to preparing it other than opening the familiar shiny silver can. Even though I know the flavor of canned asparagus (really, there isn’t any) cannot compare to freshly cooked, I enjoy that taste memory.

The ends of fresh asparagus can be tough and woody. I prefer to slice off the last inch or two of the stem instead of snapping it off where the spear breaks naturally. Not only is it more visually appealing when all the spears are exactly the same size, but they will also cook at the same rate.

Ingredients

24 asparagus spears
12 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, preferably black
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Bring a shallow skillet of salted water to the boil. Add the asparagus and cook until just tender, 2 –3 minutes. Drain and plunge into an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Remove the asparagus when cool and transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Pat dry and set aside.
  2. Heat the oven to 450° with the rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat (non-stick silicon baking sheet) or parchment paper; set aside.
  3. Place 1 sheet of phyllo dough on a clean dry surface. Keep the remaining sheets covered with a clean, slightly damp towel. Brush phyllo lightly with melted butter and top with a second sheet of phyllo. Brush again with butter. Cut into 4 rectangular pieces, each about 5 x 7-inches.
  4. Arrange a spear of asparagus on the short end of the phyllo rectangle, letting the tip lay exposed beyond the top edge by a half inch or so. Roll up and secure the edge of the dough with additional butter, if necessary. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
  5. Repeat with the remaining ingredients, transferring to the prepared baking sheet. The straws may be made up to 1 to 2 hours ahead at this point, covered with plastic wrap and kept refrigerated.
  6. Cover the tips of the asparagus with a piece of aluminum foil to protect them from the heat. Bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve warm.
http://blog.virginiawillis.com/2010/04/birds-and-the-bees-springtime-in-the-south/

 

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Chilly. Chili. Chilies. Chillin’.

We recently had a cold spell in Atlanta, as well it seems as the entire Northern hemisphere except, bizarrely, Greenland of all places, which I really pretty much thought was a glacier with a little dirt caught in the cracks. As Jack Frost was nipping at my toes, along with every other cook and food writer, my thoughts turned to soups and stews. So, these last weeks I have enjoyed hearty beef and vegetable stew as well as a robust lentil soup with collard greens and bits of delicious guanchiale from the Batali (yes, that one) family’s shop Salumi in Seattle. Yesterday, I was enjoying a spicy bowl of chili con carne, with pungent pieces of poblano chilies simmered until meltingly soft. Distracted as ever and effortlessly accomplishing the skill of NOT writing, I let my mind wander…. Brrrrr. I’m chilly……chili is so delicious……I should make this more often… I like that meatless one I make…..especially with a little sour cream and hot sauce…hmmm……Chilis…..I love chili peppers…… I think poblanos are my favorite…….complex heat…..I should look up a recipe from Rick Bayless … dang, he’s sooooo handsome….I love his work……chef crush……Mexico….. whew…….I bet Mexico is really warm right now. Ummmm. Hot….Mexico….. ummmm…..warm…….those firm hands…. nimble fingers…. breathless…. the pulsing rhythm…..drums…….the flavors…..sensations…. ummm….all that delicious stretching…..that warm undulating water… you, know, I just didn’t know I could bend like that….the pleasure….but, the pain is really what did it… wow, it just hurt so good….ummm, gosh, it’s been a while….. dang I sure could use…. What? No! Not THAT! I was thinking of Rancho la Puerta! Rancho la Puerta is Spafinder.com’s favorite spa in North America. Amazing. Beautiful. Whole mind. Whole body. It’s the first time ever I went anywhere and my job was to do nothing but take care of myself. To chill, to relax, to rest, and to regenerate. So, that’s how chilly gets to chillin’. It’s a phenomenal place. It was founded in 1940 by founded by Edmond and Deborah Szekely and is the original destination fitness resort and spa. The believe in providing space, “Space to breathe freely amidst nature. To relax. To renew, reflect and redirect one’s longer-living life. To explore the possibilities of changing course in one’s life…. one strengthened and emboldened by good health and fearless life-long learning, which unleashes the willingness to change…for the better.” I spent a week there in November. There are classes and seminars all day. Stretch, yoga, swimming, pilates for the body. Drawing, sculpture, beading for the mind. Chaise lounges surrounding the four pools on site, dance, and drumming for the soul. You can come for a week or just a few days. Guests are housed throughout the property in little casitas or cottages that vary in size and price. All are charming and lovely with patios and many have fireplaces. The flowers are exquisite and the views are spectacular. At the end of the week, after such healthy eating, 6 hours of exercise a day, long walks, mindful meditation, and warming glorious sun I felt like I had been transformed into a 5’11″” super model. In my mind I was long, lean, in fact, you could practically see my six-pack abs. (Ok, that’s not exactly true, but like I said in my MIND. It’s a spa, not a miracle camp!) The food is incredible. The ingredients are farm fresh, and grown on the property. Portions are realistic but filling. It’s not just rabbit food. It’s full of flavor and alive. (All meals are provided in the cost of the stay.) Their cooking school La Cocina que Canta is where I come in. (You know it wasn’t the circuit training.) I am teaching Southern Comfort SPA style the week of May 15 – 22. To find out more about it or to register click here or call 1-800-443-7565. The week I was there Marie Simmons was the teacher. Here’s a photo of my friends and colleagues Anne Willan and Lisa Ekus-Saffer in her class. Guess what? Mama’s coming. She is really looking forward to it. However, she already told me NO to the pre-dawn morning hikes. But, that’s just it. There’s as little or as much as you want. It’s about taking care of what YOU need. Come see me this spring at Rancho la Puerta and let’s enjoy a little Southern Comfort, SPA style. In the meanwhile, enjoy my recipe for a HOT bowl of meatless chili. Bon Appétit, Y’all! VA

PS. Yes, I think Rick is very handsome, smart, and talented. And, I like his smart, talented, and wonderful happily married wife, Deann, as well. 

Where's the Beef Chili

Yield: serves 6

Truthfully, I don't normally use many meat replacement products. I'll most often use ground beef or ground turkey in chili, but I love the recipe for this chili with TVP, or texturized vegetable protein. The thing is, the texture is the same as ground meat - but there's no oil or fat. Even serious meat eaters like it.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
2 onions, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups dry TVP (texturized vegetable protein - available at Whole Foods Market and other health food stores)
3 cups tomato juice
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1/4 cup chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes
3 cans of pinto beans, rinsed and drained
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in a large heavy bottom pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Season with salt and pepper. Add TVP and tomato juice. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to simmer and add bay leaves, chili powder, cumin, coriander, and cayenne pepper. Add tomatoes, beans, and stir to combine. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for at least one hour. Adding water if the mixture becomes too thick. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve HOT.
http://blog.virginiawillis.com/2010/01/chilly-chili-chilies-chillin/

 

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Guest Cook: Slow Cooker Beef Stew on pauladeen.com


Hi there – Hope everyone had a happy and safe Thanksgiving. We had a very nice time. It was very bittersweet because this was our last holiday at the family home.

I’ve been taking lots of pictures. I think I will miss the pond the most. It is truly, truly one of my favorite places on earth – and I am counting Paris, the Alps, and the Caribbean in that list. And, don’t worry – I am taking Meme’s cabinets! It’s a long story, as most family dramas are, but at the end of the day, it really is the best thing for mama. This house is too big and too much for her, needs too much work.

Logic and emotion rarely exist on the same plane. I am feeling a little wounded, feel like I need a little cotton padding around my heart. It’s been very sad, almost like dealing with my grandmother dying again. I stand and wash the dishes, looking out the window, knowing it is all ending soon. That all those meals I enjoyed in that heart of pine kitchen will only be a memory and that the heart of pine kitchen, as well as part of my heart, will be razed along with the rest of the home.

I wrote this article months ago for Pauladeen.com , not knowing about the timing, not knowing just how much a comforting bowl of beef stew would be. My original thought was that it would be perfect after Thanksgiving. (‘Cause, if you haven’t eaten all the leftovers, I have to say, it’s time.) I knew that I would want something radically different, but still comforting and satisfying, and most of all? NOT turkey.

But, it’s more. My little story is about Mama, Dede’s cows, memories of steamy windows on cold fall days. It’s Uncle Frank and my father skinning the buck they shot in the valley east of the pond. It’s the little bit of France I brought back and couldn’t wait to share with my dearest Meme.

Home is where the heart is, there is no doubt, but memories and love aren’t held in walls of wood and brick. Walls crumble, wood rots. Memories and love are everlasting.

Click through to check out my visit as guest cook in Paula’s Kitchen and for my recipe for Slow Cooker Beef Stew.

Many thanks to Libbie and Paula for the opportunity.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

 

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Thanksgiving Morning: Two Great Ways to Start the Day

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and websites – everywhere you look are recipes or stories about Thanksgiving sides or The Best Turkey. I’m guilty, too having sent out recipes for winter greens and winter vegetable gratin just last week.

But, I was talking to some folks this past weekend at Mistletoe Market in Perry, GA and we were talking about making breakfast for a crowd. I suggested they try my recipe for French Toast Casserole. It’s great. (If you click on the photo you can see it featured in Paula Deen’s magazine.) I’ve shared it before so excuse the redundancy, but it’s perfect and I don’t think you’ll mind because it tastes soooo good.

Breakfast can get the short shift on Thanksgiving. There’s so much food later in the day, but the morning can be hectic. When my sister and I were young, our favorite mornings were when Mama would prepare French toast for breakfast. The smell of butter, kissed with cinnamon, combined with the heady scent of sizzling egg was a most welcome greeting as we bounded down the stairs.

Sounds great – but nothing to make with a full house of people and lots of cooking still left to do. So, instead of another side dish to compete with Mama’s Sweet Potato Casserole or dessert to compete with Cousin Kathy’s Buttermilk Pecan Pie, I am sharing a couple of recipes for breakfast or brunch. (I will admit however, I have served the cassserole before as a dessert, but that’s neither here nor there 😉 )

My French Toast Casserole is made the night before, so you won’t find yourself camped in front of a hot griddle in the early morning, groggy and in need of caffeine. Make it tomorrow night and then, Thanksgiving morning remove it from the fridge to take the chill off. Grab a cup of coffee and pop it in the oven. Turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, give many thanks you aren’t in that crowd lining the streets of NYC, and basically, breakfast is ready. It’s a sturdy dish, nothing to fuss over, and responds well to being kept in a low oven while family members emerge for the day.

If you want to go for an even more simple way to start the day, try Sauteed Pears with Vanilla Yogurt and Honey Peanuts. The pears can be sauteed the night before and even microwaved in individual servings on Thanksgiving morning. I love the flavor combination of the peanut and the pear.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I have so much to be thankful for – no, not everything is perfect by a looooong shot – but I am so grateful for what I do have. I have my health, my family, good friends, and love in my life.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

SAUTEED PEARS WITH VANILLA YOGURT AND HONEY PEANUTS
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 large Bosc pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of fine salt
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup low fat vanilla or plain yogurt
1/4 cup honey roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Melt the butter in a large heavy bottomed sauté pan over medium high heat. Add pears and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until softened. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and lemon juice. Season with a pinch of fine salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Keep warm.

In a small bowl combine the peanut butter, honey, and yogurt; stir until smooth. Set aside.

To serve, place the pears in a shallow bowl. Top with yogurt mixture. Sprinkle over peanuts. Serve immediately.

FRENCH TOAST CASSEROLE
Serves 8

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 loaf brioche or challah, sliced
11/2 inches thick (about 11/2 pounds)
8 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Confectioners’ sugar, for accompaniment
Sorghum, cane, or maple syrup, for accompaniment

Combine the melted butter and brown sugar in a baking dish. Arrange the bread slices in the dish. Whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in a bowl. Pour over the bread, letting it soak in. Top with the pecans. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Let the chilled casserole stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Bake until browned and set, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Sift over confectioners’ sugar. Serve hot or warm with sorghum, cane, or maple syrup.

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Mama Says It’s Okay: Root Vegetable Gratin

Last week I wrote about “messing around with greens” with a recipe for Meme’s loooonnnggg-cooked greens and the wisdom of not changing the sacrosant and inviolable Thanksgiving menu.

This week? I’m feeling a little frisky. Actually, a lot.

I’ve taught a lovely recipe for a Root Vegetable Gratin for my next book in class several times over the last few weeks. Everyone has really loved it.

Mama was in town as my date for the Georgia Restaurant Association Awards. (They kindly honored me by asking me to be their keynote speaker.) I was showing her my photos over the past month or so. She drawled, “That’s pretty,” commenting on the golden, bubbly gratin. I told her about it and she thought it sounded nice.

I ventured out on a limb, “I uh, I thought I would maybe try that for our Thanksgiving.” She slightly lifted her brow and queried, “Oh?” Bravely, I proceeded, “Well, everyone really likes it.” (Of course, immediately bringing to mind deeply buried memories of being a child and a parent saying something along the lines of “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?”)

Mama smiled sweetly – as only mama’s can do – and replied, “I think we should try it.”

Hope you do, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS. Here’s a picture of mama down at the pond earlier this year. Shh! Don’t tell.

 

Root Vegetable Gratin with Sauce Mornay

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Root Vegetable Gratin with Sauce Mornay

French chef Antonin Carême evolved an intricate methodology by which hundreds of sauces were classified under one of five "mother sauces”: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Tomato. Béchamel, one of the most useful sauces, is a white sauce made by stirring heated milk into a butter-flour roux. The thickness of the sauce depends on the proportion of flour and butter to milk. Mornay, the sauce in this gratin is a sauce derivative of Béchamel created by simply adding cheese.

DON'T get caught up on the vegetable combination! It's a mixture of root vegetable and tubers. Can't find celery root? Use Yukon Gold potatoes. Try sweet potatoes instead of carrots and rutabagas instead of parsnips. Get all crazy and add a turnip or two. Mix it up and don't overthink it.

Ingredients

2 cups reduced fat milk
10 peppercorns
3 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs thyme
4 medium carrots, cut into 1 inch pieces
4 small parsnips, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 celery root, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
3 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
1⁄4 cup unsalted butter, more for the baking dish
1⁄4 cup all purpose flour
1 1⁄4 cups freshly grated Gruyère cheese
1/2 cup Panko or dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat the milk in a small pot until just simmering. Add the peppercorns, parsley, and thyme. Remove from the heat and set aside to steep for 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350°. Butter a large gratin dish and set aside. Combine all the vegetables in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. (You can also parcook the vegetables in the microwave until just tender, about 5 to 7 minutes depending on the strength of your microwave.) Add chopped herbs and stir to combine. Set aside.
  3. Melt the butter in a saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two until foaming. Pour in the milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season and simmer for 2 minutes. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. Take the sauce from the heat and stir in half of both cheeses until they melt. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the vegetables and stir to combine.
  4. Spoon the vegetable mixture into the prepared gratin. Cover with foil and transfer the gratin to the oven and bake until the vegetables are tender, 45 to 60 minutes. (Or, if using parcooked vegetables, only about 30 minutes.)
  5. Heat the oven to broil. Combine the remaining gruyère, panko, and Parmesan. Sprinkle over the top of the gratin. Broil until golden brown, about 5 minutes, depending on the strength of your broiler. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly, and serve.
  6. To make ahead and reheat: Do not add the layer of breadcrumb mixture. Remove from the refrigerator, and let come to room temperature, 15 to 20 minutes. Cover with parchment paper, and reheat in a 400° oven for 20 minutes. Top with breadcrumb mixture, and broil until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
http://blog.virginiawillis.com/2009/11/mama-says-its-okay-root-vegetable-gratin/

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