Virginia Willis Blog

Alphabet Soup: IACP, PDX, PRS, and SPA!!

Had a GREAT week in Portland for IACP, but am in serious need of a bike ride, yoga, and some real exercise, not to mention a hardcore deep tissue massage to remove the gnarly gremlin that has moved into my shoulder blade from toting too much heavy luggage. It’s mean. Mean and mad.

AWESOME food. Pok Pok was a real fave. The hot wings are frankly something you just kind of want to roll around in they are so good. Ping was good, too. Big new experiment from both of those experiences will be the flavored drinking vinegars. Stay tuned.

The Heathman Hotel was OUTSTANDING. Their tag is “where service is an art” and they are not kidding. James Beard award-winning Best Chef Northwest Philippe Boulot, originally from Normandy, is brilliant. He trained in Paris with Joël Robuchon. Think Rock Star. Very charming, handsome Rock Star.

Everything I put in my mouth at the Heathman (and one day, practically everything including breakfast, lunch, and dinner originated there) was absolutely superb. Seriously perfect execution. The Dungeness Crab Salad with Mango and Avocado? Sure, I knooow, that’s been done and done again, frankly. But this one? A perfect combination of sour, salty, bitter, sweet. French influence runs deep in the heart of Northwest cooking. Exquisite.

One night we enjoyed razor clams the chef had dug up from the sand himself from the Washington State coast just the day before. The minerality and sweetness was positively and distinctively seductive in my mouth. Rich lamb tongue salad was counteracted with an bracing mustard vinaigrette; meltingly soft smoky cedar plank salmon was paired with sweet, green sauteed pea shoots; rabbit was stuffed with meaty mushroom farcie, wrapped in caul fat and roasted until smoky and brown.

Veal sweetbreads on a perfect julienne of apple and pear with bitter lettuce. Even thinking back to that bite induces a dreamy sigh of contentment from me as I type. The Heathman food was really amazing. Very, very balanced flavors and just really good cooking.

IACP, or the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference was great. Kim Severson , NYT journalist and author of Spoon Fed (Ahem, BUY IT.) enjoyed her inner Ellen with Ruth Riechl. Ruth Riechl addressed the Big Elephant in the Room about the demise of Gourmet. The opening reception was amazing with a great assembly of restaurants and representatives from the PDX street food culture. There were tons and tons of great seminars and of course, the cookbook awards. The best of the best for the year. One of the books nominated for an IACP award was Golden Door Cooks at Home by Chef Dean Rucker and Marah Stets.

Um, no caul fat. None. Not the first bit.
Spas? Their point is to make that stuff go away.

Marah and I were at LaVarenne together working with Anne Willan back in the 90s.

We were laughing last week. I walked into the kitchen the first day, scared to death, really. Thinking I was going to peel potatoes or chop onions or such, I somewhat hesitantly leaned in to ask Marah, “So, um, what can I do?”

She cleanly looked at me and replied, “Cook dinner.”

Alrightly, then.

And there I was and it was most likely the best words that could have been spoken. Those two words meant, “You are a cook, so cook. This is a busy place. Sink or swim, but don’t weigh anyone down in the meanwhile. Get to work. Don’t be scared. And, when you are done? Do the dishes.”

I have long admired her no nonsense New England attitude. She hired me to do some work on The All New Joy of Cooking; it was an real honor to work with her. Lest I make her sound like an ogre, she is not. She’s an absolute master at French, speaking proficiently in lyrical, dulcet tones, and yet was always exceedingly patient with my clumsy butchery of her adopted tongue. She’s a dear beautiful, smart woman and a first rate editor and writer.

Ok, enough with the niceties and back to that caul fat.

The goal is balance. Food need not be wrapped in caul fat to be good, and while I loved the indulgences, we all know, chef Philippe included, rich food like that is not meant to be eaten every day. He loves the woods and the wild; he’s asked me to come back to go out to the river with him and I cannot wait to take him up on it. It’s whole mind, whole body. Nature is good for the mind, heart, and soul.

I am heading to teach at Rancho la Puerta in May to enjoy some whole body nourishment, to get a little wild. So, given my rich indulgent choices last week and seeing Marah, I thought I’d give some of the Golden Door Recipes a shot for some inspiration and encouragement.

Hope you enjoy, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS Marah, congratulations on your nomination. It was great to see you.

Adobo-Marinated Grass-Fed Flank steak

If you are in the SE, give this a try with Will Harris’ White Oak Pastures Beef

Adobo-Marinated Grass-Fed Flank Steak with Spinach Salad and Roasted Poblano Dressing

Yield: Serves 4

Cows are ruminants, which means they have more than one stomach and their digestive systems are specifically designed to break down grasses into proteins and fats to meet their nutritional needs. They are not naturally meant to eat corn and other grain. Grain feeding—the fastest, cheapest way to produce the most beef—is not only unnatural for cows but also has profound consequences for us. To counteract and prevent the damage caused by eating food that is difficult for them to digest, coupled with cramped living conditions, feedlot cattle are often routinely fed antibiotics, which can remain in the meat we buy after the cows are slaughtered. It’s not any better for us to routinely consume antibiotics than it is for cows.

Mildly spicy poblano chiles are roasted to soften them and add delicious, smoky flavor. When blended with the other ingredients the peppers become a creamy, emulsified dressing. Serve this with Adobo-Marinated Grass-Fed Flank Steak with Spinach Salad or whenever you want to add or highlight southwestern flavors—on grilled poultry or meat or on a simple salad of corn, tomatoes, avocado, and jícama, for example.


For the steak
1 pound grass-fed flank, skirt, or strip steak (about 1/2 inch thick)
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (from 1 orange)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 1 lime)
2 teaspoons adobo seasoning
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
For the pickled red onions
1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced (1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Pinch of sugar
For the spinach salad
2 ears corn, husked
Olive oil, grapeseed, or canola spray
Roasted Poblano Dressing (below)
1/4 small to medium jícama (5 ounces)
Juice of 1/2 lime
12 cups baby spinach leaves, washed and dried (about 12 ounces)
1 large red bell pepper, grill-roasted, peeled, seeded, and diced, or 1/2 cup diced store-bought, drained, roasted red peppers
1 medium avocado, cut in 1/2-inch dice
1 ounce queso fresco, crumbled (1/4 cup)
Kosher salt (optional)
Fresh cilantro leaves, for serving
for the dressing
2 whole poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and seeded
4 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon agave syrup or honey
1 garlic clove
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves


    Prepare the steak
  1. Place the steak in a shallow pan just big enough to hold it. Whisk together the orange juice, lime juice, adobo spice, cilantro, and garlic. Pour over the steak and turn the steak over to fully coat with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  2. Prepare the pickled red onions
  3. Place the red onion in a small bowl and add the sherry vinegar and sugar. Stir to combine. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 8 hours.
  4. Grill the corn
  5. Prepare a medium-high grill or set a grill pan over medium-high heat. Lightly spray the corn all over with oil and place on the grill. Grill until nicely marked on all sides, turning with tongs as necessary, about 5 minutes total. Remove from the grill and let cool. When cool enough to handle, use a sharp knife to cut the kernels from the ears and set them aside. Discard the ears.
  6. Prepare the roasted poblano dressing
  7. In a blender, combine the poblano chiles, vinegar, agave syrup, garlic, salt, and 3/4 cup water. Blend until well combined but not completely smooth, about 20 seconds. Add the cilantro and pulse a few times until it is chopped. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
  8. Grill the steak
  9. Remove the steak from the marinade and season on both sides with salt. Grill until the outside has nice grill marks and the center is pink, 2 to 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing.
  10. While the steak is resting, finish the spinach salad.
  11. Peel the jícama and cut it into 1/2-inch dice; you should have 1 cup. Toss with the lime juice and set aside. Put the spinach in a large bowl. Add the roasted peppers, the reserved corn, and the jícama. Add the avocado and queso fresco. Pour half of the roasted poblano dressing over the ingredients and toss to coat well. Taste and season with a pinch of salt if desired. Thinly slice the steak against the grain.
  12. Serve
  13. Mound the salad in the center of a large serving platter. Fan the steak slices on top of the salad. Spoon the pickled onion with its juice on top and sprinkle with cilantro leaves. Serve.


No, these are not poblano, but they are from the Cocina que Canta garden

Recipes from GOLDEN DOOR COOKS AT HOME: Favorite Recipes from the Celebrated Spa
by Dean Rucker with Marah Stets (Clarkson Potter, April 2009, $40.00/ Hardcover)

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Anne Willan & The LaVarenne Way

Next week I will be in Portland attending a conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals, or IACP. I am speaking on a few subjects, mostly about cookbook writing, what I laughingly call “sharing my mistakes”. I am only teasing, I am incredibly honored to be speaking to my peers, to be counted as an expert in the culinary world, to be recognized for my work. It’s extremely gratifying.

One seminar however is very special to me, more than the nuts and bolts of my trade, more than being recognized in my field. Several months ago Anne Willan outreached to me and asked me if I would like to submit a seminar titled “Willan and Willis: A Culinary Conversation”. I am not kidding you when I say it took my breath away and made me a little leaky around the eyes.

Thinking about my career, Nathalie Dupree took me out of my mama’s kitchen. She exposed me to things I had never heard of or knew about. I knew Mama made “patty shells” with creamed chicken, but I didn’t know they were puff pastry, and I sure didn’t know what that was or how to make it. Nathalie taught me to cook.

Nathalie shipped me off to France to apprentice with Anne. I learned a lot more about food and cooking when I went to France. Going to France allowed me to see, taste, and be immersed in a whole new culture, a whole new cuisine. The effects of living and working in France, both personally and professionally are immeasurable.

But, the one key thing, the lynchpin, the glue that holds my whole raison d’etre together?

Anne Willan taught me how to write a recipe.

The LaVarenne Way of recipe writing has evolved with Anne’s experience of over 35 years as a teacher, cookbook author, and food writer. She is known on both sides of the Atlantic as a leading authority on the cuisine of France and its culinary history. As the director of Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, the cooking school that she founded 1975 with the encouragement and support of the grand doyenne herself, Julia Child, Willan has shaped and influenced countless professional and amateur cooks all over the world.

Anne’s body of work is astonishing. Her books have been published in two dozen countries and translated into 18 languages. Her awards include Bon Appétit Cooking Teacher of the Year, Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from International Association of Culinary Professionals. Practically every major food magazine in the US has LaVarenne alumni on staff that knows the LaVarenne Way. The alumni are called tongue in cheek, the LaVarenne Mafia. No secret society, the list reads like a who’s who of the culinary world. It includes among others: 2009 IACP award cookbook nominee and co-author of Golden Door Cooks at Home, Marah Stets; Food52 and NYT writer and editor Amanda Hesser; cookbook author Cynthia Nims; Barbecue Bible chef Stephen Raichlen; James Beard award-winning chef Ana Sortun; IACP award-winning cookbook author Molly Stevens; and Tina Ujlaki, Executive Food Editor, Food & Wine magazine.

Pause for a moment and think how many home cooks are reached by these alumni, how many recipes are written in LaVarenne style. James Beard award-winning cookbook author Molly Stevens says, “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Anne Willan and La Varenne. In addition to the invaluable culinary training I garnered in France, working directly with Anne over the years opened countless doors and opened my eyes to the possibility of making a career by teaching and writing. In addition, Anne is one of the hardest working individuals I know, and her drive for perfection has long been an inspiration.”

Originally based in Paris, LaVarenne later moved to the 17th-century Château du Fey. I arrived at La Varenne in 1995, initially as an editorial stagière or apprentice. Working in exchange for room and board I was able to polish my cooking, writing, and editorial skills testing recipes for Cook It Right, a comprehensive work that documents various states of cooking. It was hard work, long hours, and not a whole lot of freedom – after all I was living with my boss. New apprentices are low on the totem pole and chores exceed the confines of the kitchen.

It was similar to interning at a country inn and duties include pre-dawn baguette runs, toting luggage up winding flights of ancient stairs, and picking cherries for the breakfast jam. Cherry picking always seemed to need to happen just before dinner service, something I never could quite grasp. Of course, room was in the château and board included produce delivered each morning from the potager, still damp with the morning dew. It was a precious opportunity to learn how to actually cook it right from Anne herself.


I was meant to be there for three months and instead I was there on and off for three life-changing years. I was starving, not just for the food, but for knowledge, for reason, for how and why. Anne gave me that. Wait, no, she didn’t give me that, she made me work for that.

It wasn’t all rosy, believe me. One of the most powerful moments in my entire life was a result of a long day at work. It was the end of a long work day of a long work week. I don’t remember even what it was, but we bumped heads a bit over something. I sulked off to my room and flung open the windows, cursing to myself, “What on earth?! Why I am doing this!” (Okay, I am taming the language for both Anne and my Mama, but you get the point.)

I look out the window and in the brightness of the late summer afternoon stood a massive field of sunflowers covering the hillside. The force of the view was so intense it literally physically pushed me back, it was as if someone smacked me on the chest and forced me down to sit on the bench. Now, I had seen those flowers before, but I had never seen them like that. That was the answer to my question.

One of my favorite tales from my time there is that while preparing for the Bastille Day picnic, I cut off the tip of my left thumb while preparing potato salad. I quickly wrapped my hand in a towel and raised it above my head. I grabbed the severed bit from the cutting board in my right hand, walked into Anne Willan’s office, and told her I had cut myself. She asked to see it. I refused. She repeated herself. I refused. See, I knew it was a pretty good cut. I didn’t want to spurt all over her office. Her eyebrows arched. (Anne is not used to being told “no”.) She insisted.

Finally, opening my right palm, I said, “Well, here it is.” The grand dame Anne blanched and replied, “Oh dear, I think we need a Cognac.”

Quickly, the lost bit was placed on ice and she sent me down the hill to Joigny for repairs.

She, then of course, went back to work.

I developed a tremendous respect for her work ethic and knowledge about food and cooking. Her way, the LaVarenne way is based on a regimen of rigorous recipe testing and editing. My first attempts at recipe writing were returned bleeding in the red ink of her razor sharp pen. I learned the importance of proofreading and attention to detail and I am not alone. Tamie Cook, Culinary Director for Alton Brown and former LaVarenne stagière says, “My experience with Anne Willan at La Varenne was invaluable. Never have I worked so hard and been so rewarded. Anne is driven to perfection like few people I have ever met and her willingness to open the doors of her operation to someone like myself with very little culinary experience at the time is a testament to her passion for teaching and life-long learning.” This premise is the foundation of Willan’s work and emanates from her writer’s desk to the stovetop. Anne says, “Learn the scales before you play the music. Cooking is about creativity, but it’s important to acquire discipline first.”

Practicing the essentials and learning the basis are the fundamental building blocks of the LaVarenne Way. I once asked Anne what part of her illustrious career she is most proud of. Beaming with pride she answered, “Creating LaVarenne where so many people have been through and learned then going out and doing their own things, taking things further and creating their own careers.”

Thank you, Anne.
Gros bises.
See you next week.

Gâteau Breton
Butter Cake

Brittany butter is famous and the richest pastry of all is this gâteau Breton, with equal weights of all ingredients. No flavorings are added so the true taste of butter shines through. The same recipe produces either a single round ‘gâteau breton’ or 18-20 individual ‘petits gâteaux.’ This is great finger food for afternoon tea, or could become an elegant dessert when dressed up with fresh berries.

Serves 8

6 egg yolks
1 ¾ cups/225g flour
1 cup/225g butter
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons/225g sugar

9 to 10-inch tart pan with removable base

Set the oven to 375°F/190°C. Thoroughly butter the cake pan. Set aside a teaspoon of the egg yolks for glazing.

Sift the flour onto a marble slab or board and make a large well in the center. Cut the butter in small pieces and put it in the well with the sugar and egg yolks; work them together with your fingertips until the mixture is smooth. Gradually incorporate the flour using the fingers and heel of your hand, and then work the dough gently until smooth. It will be sticky at this point and must be mixed with the help of a metal pastry scraper.

Transfer the dough to the buttered pan and smooth it to an even layer, flouring the back of your hand to prevent sticking. Brush the surface of the gâteau with the reserved egg yolk and mark a lattice design with a fork.

Bake in the heated oven for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F/180°C and continue baking for 30 more minutes or until the cake is golden and firm to the touch. Leave it to cool then unmold carefully on a rack. Cut it in wedges for serving.

La Varenne Gougères
Makes 20 medium puffs

This is a savory version of the classic French pastry dough pâte à choux used to make profiteroles and éclairs. Gougères are a classic Burgundian treat commonly served with apéritifs at parties, bistros, and wine bars. You can increase the recipe (see Variation, following), but do not double it, as it does not multiply well.

A note of encouragement: don’t panic when you are adding the eggs and the dough starts to look awful. Just keep stirring and it will come together.

3/4 cup water
1/3 cup unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese (about 21/2 ounces)

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking sheet or parchment paper.

To make the dough, in a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt to a boil over high heat. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, add the flour all at once, and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a ball, 30 to
60 seconds. (This mixture is called the panade.) Beat the mixture over low heat for an additional 30 to 60 seconds to dry the mixture.

To make the egg wash, whisk 1 of the eggs in a small bowl with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt until well mixed; set aside. With a wooden spoon, beat the remaining 4 eggs into the dough, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. (It will come together, I promise.) Beat until the dough is shiny and slides from the spoon. Add the grated cheese.

If using parchment paper to line the baking sheet, “glue” down the paper at this point with a few dabs of the dough.

To form the gougères, use either a tablespoon for a rustic look, or for a more finished appearance, a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip. Spoon or pipe 12 mounds of dough about 2 inches in diameter onto the baking sheet, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Brush the puffs with the reserved egg wash.

Bake until puffed and golden, 25 to 30 minutes. To test for doneness, remove one puff from the baking sheet and let it cool for 45 to 60 seconds. If it remains crisp and doesn’t deflate, it is done. If not, return it to the oven and continue baking 5 to 10 minutes more. Remove to a rack to cool. Let the puffs cool slightly on the sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

making ahead: These are brilliantly resilient and freeze beautifully. Once cooled, store them in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 4 weeks. Warm and re-crisp in a 350°F oven, 5 to 7 minutes.

variation: To make 30 to 35 medium puffs, adjust the ingredient amounts as follows: 11/4 cups flour, 1 cup water, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 61/2 tablespoons butter, 6 eggs (5 for the dough and 1 for the wash), and 1 cup cheese.

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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.


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


  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.


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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’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.


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


  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.


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Guest Cook: Slow Cooker Beef Stew on

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 , 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!


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