Best Winter Squash Recipes: Cozy Comfort Wednesday, Jan 22 2014 

 

Winter Weather 

pan seared winter squash on www.virginiawillis.com

Wintery mix and snowy weather call for cozy, comforting foods. One of my absolute favorite recipes when I was a little girl was Roast Acorn Squash. Mama would halve the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. She’d fill the scooped out center with a thick pat of butter, amber maple syrup, and chopped pecans and roast the halves until perfectly tender. The buttery syrup would seep into the squash and create a  magical mash, closer to dessert than a healthful vegetable.

Winter Squash Glossary on www.virginiawillis.com

Clockwise, starting at bottom left: Delicata, Acorn, Kabocha, and Butternut Squash

I’m still a huge fan of winter squash, although my recipes are now a bit less decadent. Winter squash are earthy, creamy, and rich – the definition of cozy comfort. Many varieties are available year-round, but their natural season runs from late summer to mid-winter. Many people gravitate towards acorn squash because they are familiar with it, but there are many other flavors and textures. Sure, they are all quite similar, but just different enough that I want you to give them a try. In fact, except for spaghetti squash, virtually any winter squash, including pumpkin, can be substituted for another in any recipe, from main dish to side dish to dessert. Here are a few of my favorites.

Delicata – Sweet and thin-skinned, this winter squash is quick cooking and very useful. The cream colored skin has dark green stripes in the ribs. My favorite way to cook this is to thinly slice it and roast it, seeds and all, to make delicata chips.

delicata squash on www.virginiawillis.com

Acorn – Sweet and nutty, the most common acorn squash are dark green in color, sometimes tinged with a bit of orange or yellow. The flesh is pale yellow and somewhat fibrous. As the name suggests, it is shaped much like an acorn. It has distinct ridges and a fairly tough skin, making it difficult to peel.

acorn squash on www.virginiawillis.com

Butternut – This is one of the easiest of all the winter squashes to work with because its smooth skin just pares away with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Also, they keep well even once they have been cut upon – meaning, I shop for a large one, use what I need, and wrap the rest. It will easily last a week or so and can be carved on and be part of more than one meal. The long slender neck of the squash is perfect for cubing and I roast the bulbous end, skin and all, as in the recipe below.

Kabocha - Kabocha is the generic Japanese word for squash. It has a green, bluish-gray streaked rind and the flesh is deep yellow. Kabocha squash has a rich sweet flavor, and can be a bit dry when cooked. The outer skin is pretty tough so follow my instructions for handling rutabagas to cut these hard-skinned squash.

kabocha squash on www.virginiawillis.com

This week, I am sharing a vibrant, beautiful, and tasty recipe for Pan-Seared Winter Squash with Maple Syrup and Pecans. Check these recipes out, too:

Speaking of comforting foods for winter weather, I am having a great time with my column on FoodNetwork.com called Down-Home Comfort. (You can follow  the Down-Home Comfort feed on FN Dish with this link.) Stay tuned later this week for my Fried Chicken with Rice and Black Pepper Gravy!

Believe it or not, I am currently working on my next batch of posts that will run this summer. Please help me out and answer this poll:

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

Pan Seared Winter Squash - www.virginiawillis.com

Pan-Seared Winter Squash 
Serves 4

2 tablespoons canola oil, more if needed
1 acorn squash, cut into eighths
4-6 1/4-inch thick slices of butternut squash
1 small red onion, stem end trimmed and root attached, cut lengthwise into eighths
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 thyme sprigs, preferably fresh
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1-2 tablespoons chopped pecans
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350°F. Brush a large skillet with oil and heat over medium heat. Add squash wedges without crowding and cook on both sides until mottled and browned, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. (You will need to sear the squash in batches.) Repeat with remaining oil, squash, and onion. Return all squash and onion to the skillet and season with salt and pepper. Tuck the herbs about the skillet and transfer to the oven. Bake until tender to the point of a knife, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and drizzle over the maple syrup and sprinkle over the pecans. Return to the oven to warm the syrup and lightly toast the pecans, about 5 minutes. Remove the herbs and serve immediately.

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

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All Photos by Virginia Willis. Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

How to Cook Vegetables: Rev it Up! Wednesday, Jan 15 2014 

Eat Your Vegetables

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Right about this time of year people are just starting to get a wee bit weary of root vegetables, winter squash, and bitter greens. Face it, after the romantic rush of collard greens kissed by frost and the seductive aromas of roasting roots, kitchen life can get a bit dull. Roots become a rut. Sweet potatoes are no longer nature’s candy. Face it, it’s a challenge to stimulate the senses — and your family — with a rutabaga.

vegetable-www.virginiawillis.com

Even though I most often cook for two or more, there’s a recent new cookbook that offers a very refreshing look at vegetables and is guaranteed to spice things up. It’s called Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook by my friend and colleague Joe Yonan. I adore Joe’s approach to food and cooking and featured his first book, Serve Yourself, in my blog a few years ago. He’s the food editor for the Washington Post. Check out his witty, smart piece on lentils. Mama loves him. She calls him “that handsome boy from DC”.

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Well, that handsome boy has written a great cookbook that you need in your kitchen.  It’s perfect for anyone looking to expand their vegetarian and produce-based repertoire. The recipes are eclectic, flavorful, and yes, inspired. The ideas are fresh and out of the box. This cookbook will help you get more plants on your plate — even in the dead of winter. Yes, it’s a cookbook for cooking for one, but I’ve found the many of the recipes are very agreeable to scaling up or, as with the recipe I am featuring below, the portions are fine to share with one person. The main thing is that this book will help you think about cooking vegetables in a whole new light.

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Today, I am sharing Joe’s recipe from Eat Your Vegetables  for a Sweet Potato Galette and just to prove these rustic roots can be rewarding, my recipe for a Revved Up Rutabaga Puree. I’m certain you will like them both.

A safety note about knives – rutabagas are hard and dense, much like winter squash and celery root.  I have found that the safest way to cut these tough vegetables is to press the chef’s knife against the vegetable, but do not force the knife through the vegetable. Hold the knife firm to the vegetable, and using your other hand, actually rock the vegetable back and forth into the knife. Try it. It’s a revelation.

Please look for Shrimp and Grits in my column Down-Home Comfort later this week on FoodNetwork.com. I kicked off the series with Collard Greens & Whole Grain Cornbread and last week was Brunswick Stew. The response has been really great, so thanks for reading!

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

vegetables

Revved Up Rutabaga Puree
Serves 4 to 6

Root vegetables, unlike green vegetables, need to start cooking in cold liquid, not boiling liquid.

4 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced fat low sodium chicken broth
1 large rutabaga, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 sprigs thyme
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the stock, cubed rutabaga, and butter in a medium saucepan and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce the heat to simmer. Cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the rutabaga is tender to the point of a knife, about 30 minutes.

To make the puree, using a slotted spoon, transfer the cubes to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade or the jar of a blender. Add the garlic and process until a smooth puree. If the mixture is too thick, add some or all of the cooking liquid, if necessary. If too thin, transfer to a clean saucepan and cook over low heat to evaporate some of the moisture. Add thyme leaves and pulse to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. If needed, re-warm the puree over medium-low heat. Serve immediately.

sweet potato galette

Sweet Potato Galette with Mushrooms and Kale
Serves 1-2

1 cup lightly packed kale leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón), or 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (for more heat)
1 very small onion or large shallot lobe, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
4 ounces oyster or other variety meaty mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
Kosher or sea salt
1 small (6- to 8-ounce) sweet potato, scrubbed but not peeled, cut in 1/8-inch slices
2 tablespoons grated Comté, Gruyère, or other nutty mountain cheese
2 tablespoons raw unsalted pecan or walnut halves
1 green onion, trimmed and thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Strip the kale leaves from the stems and coarsely chop the leaves. Thinly slice the stems and keep them separate from the leaves.

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a medium skillet over medium heat. When it starts to shimmer, sprinkle in the pimenton and let it sizzle and bloom for a few seconds, then add the onion, garlic, and sliced kale stems and sauté until tender. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they collapse and release their liquid, then add the kale leaves and continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated. Season with salt to taste and remove from the heat.

Pour the remaining tablespoon of oil into a small, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Carefully arrange half of the sweet potato slices in the skillet in concentric circles, overlapping to form a couple of layers; sprinkle each layer with a little salt as you go. Spoon on the mushroom-kale mixture, and top with the grated cheese.

Arrange the remaining sweet potato slices on top, sprinkling each layer lightly with salt as you go. Press the galette with a spatula, cover the skillet tightly with aluminum foil, and bake until the sweet potatoes are easily pierced with a fork, 20 to 25 minutes.

While the galette is baking, sprinkle the pecans into a small skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, shaking the pan frequently, until the nuts start to brown and become fragrant, a few minutes. Immediately transfer them to a plate to cool; if you leave them to cool in the pan, they can burn. Once they are cool, chop them.

Remove the galette from the oven and take off the foil. Turn the oven to broil and slide the skillet under the broiler element or flame until the sweet potatoes just brown on top.

Let the galette cool for a few minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the skillet to loosen it. Invert a plate over the skillet and, using oven mitts, hold the skillet and plate together and quickly flip the two so the plate is on the bottom and set it on the counter. Lift off the skillet. Some of the potato slices may stick to the pan; use a spatula to scrape them out and patch up the galette.

Sprinkle with the green onion slices and nuts and eat. (If you prefer, you can leave the galette in the pan and cut wedges out of it for eating.)

All Photos by Virginia Willis – except the Sweet Potato Galette

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

Keep up with me on Facebook , Twitter, and Pinterest.

Sweet Potato Galette: Reprinted with permission from Eat Your Vegetables by Joe Yonan, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Food Photography credit: Matt Armendariz © 2013

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Down-Home Comfort on FoodNetwork.com Wednesday, Jan 8 2014 

slow cooker brunswick stew

Food Network

I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new weekly column on FoodNetwork.com!

It’s called Down-Home Comfort and will feature user-friendly, seasonal recipes that will make your mouth water! I am honored to be able to promote Southern food and cooking and ecstatic to be a part of presenting these foodways to a very broad audience. While I will certainly feature some classic, indulgent recipes like Fried Chicken and Macaroni and Cheese, I am very excited to show that Southern food is a living, growing cuisine, and not all Southern food is — or has to be — unhealthy.

I kicked off the series last week with Collard Greens with Whole Grain Cornbread.

This week’s post is Slow Cooker Brunswick Stew– the perfect antidote to a Polar Votex. The other exciting piece of this is that I am shooting the photos, as well. I love learning and growing; it’s so exciting!

Please sign up for the feed and stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter.

I’m getting back on track with my own blog, so look for new posts in the next few weeks! In the meanwhile, please enjoy some Down-Home Comfort.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

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

Photo credit – Virginia Willis

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Lifelong Learning: One Soufflé at a Time Monday, Nov 25 2013 

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I can’t describe how proud I am of this photograph. I’ve previously written about my admiration for my mentor and teacher, Anne Willan in a post titled The LaVarenne Way. I was recently able to be her sous chef at Rancho la Puerta and it was such an honor and privilege to assist her, once again. She graciously insists we teach together, but I know better. I may be an accomplished chef and food writer, but with Anne I am the constant student. She’s had an amazing career and each and every time I am in the kitchen with her I learn something.

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I admit I take it personally when folks don’t realize what an enormous contribution Anne has made to the world of food, cooking, and food-writing — or even sometimes who she is. Those who are in the know are also in awe. In May, Anne was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame for her body of work, which includes 40 cookbooks and a 26-part PBS program. The list of LaVarenne alumni goes on and on — Amanda Hesser, Alex Guarnaschelli, Tanya Holland, Steve Raichlen, Kate Krader, and Gale Gand are just a few.

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All those folks may be in media and on TV, but that’s the thing, Anne is, as one review stated, “not the next Food Network Star.” Indeed, she is not, but without her there wouldn’t be one.

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Anne’s latest book is her memoir called One Soufflé at a Time. In it she documents her wonderful, wondrous life in food. It’s peppered with stories of smuggling truffles, as well as the birth of LaVarenne Pratique, the culinary masterpiece that was eventually translated into 9 languages and sold over 1 million copies. (It’s out of print and much sought after on e-bay. However, it will be available as an e-book soon. Make sure to “Like” Anne Willan on Facebook to hear about the release.

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Born and raised in England, she attended Oxford University and graduated with a degree in Economics. Her scores were not stellar and her father suggested she attend secretarial school. Instead, she thought she’d do something different and studied at Le Cordon Bleu. She went on to cook for the Van der Kamps at Chateau de Versailles where she cooked for British royalty, French aristocrats, and Heads of State. She later became the Food Editor for the Washington Star and an editor for Gourmet Magazine. In 1975, encouraged by her dear friends Julia Child and James Beard, she founded the Parisian cooking school LaVarenne, the first bilingual French cooking school in Paris. Whether you recognize her name or not, Anne Willan and LaVarenne were hugely impactful in popularizing French cuisine to the American public. She demystified classic French culinary technique for regular people who love food. Her recipes and instructions are clear and direct, much like Anne.

The reviews of One Soufflé at a Time have been been solid:

“Ms. Willan tells the story of her life—interspersing it generously with recipes, classic French and otherwise—in an easygoing, readable style, full of anecdote and insight. Along the way, she lets us intuit, rather than informing us, just what an influential figure she has been.” — Colman Andrews, Wall Street Journal

“When Julia Child introduced me to her dear friend, Anne Willan, she said, ‘You must get to know Anne, she is remarkable!’ Julia was almost right: Anne is extraordinary! For those of us who love Anne and have admired – and benefited – from her work (she trained some of my favorite chefs and editors), this memoir is filled with insights, lessons, inspiration and so many tales of adventure. And for those of you who are just meeting Anne, you’re lucky – you have a treat in store.”–Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table and co-owner of Beurre & Sel cookies

..a memoir inundated with easy-to-follow recipes for classic French foods than a regular cookbook, the book reinforces what I’ve suspected all along: Storytelling is the best way to teach.” Praised as a “Book worth Buying” by Saveur Magazine

I have to be honest and admit I haven’t quite finished it. I’m savoring it like a French buttery sablé, enjoying bits at a time, sneaking reads in between a slew of deadlines. In it I hear Anne’s clear, strong voice and I feel like I am the constant student, joyfully learning once again.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to share Anne’s recipe for Moroccan Roast Turkey found in One Soufflé at a Time. I actually originally tested this recipe as an editorial assistant — over 15 years ago for her cookbook Cooked to Perfection. It’s positively delicious and like much of Anne’s work, has stood the test of time. If you’re wanting to try something a little different this Thanksgiving week, I can’t think of anyone else to trust.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

MOROCCAN SPICED TURKEY
Serves 8

A 10-pound/4.5 kg turkey
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 cup/100 g slivered almonds, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 onion studded with 6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons softened butter

For basting
1/2 cup/110 g honey
2 cups/500 ml chicken stock, more if needed
String for trussing

1. Heat the oven to 350F and set a shelf low down. Spread the chopped almonds and sesame seeds in a single layer in a shallow pan and toast them in the oven, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden, 8-10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Leave the oven on.

2. In a small bowl, mix the ground cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and cloves with the salt and pepper. Rub both the skin and cavity of the turkey with the spice mixture. Set the bird on its back in a roasting pan and spread the skin with softened butter. Put the whole onion inside the turkey and tie it in a neat shape with string. Warm the honey and half the stock in a small pan and pour this over the bird.

3. Roast the turkey in the heated oven until it is golden brown all over and the meat starts to shrink from the drumsticks, 2 1/2-3 hours. During cooking, turning it on one side, then the other, and finally returning it to its back. The turkey is done when you lift it with a two-pronged fork, juices from the cavity run clear, not pink, and when you rotate a drumstick it will feel pliable not rigid. During roasting, baste the bird often and, when the juices begin to brown, add the remaining stock. Dilute with more stock towards the end of cooking if needed as that the honey scorches easily.

4. About 15 minutes before the turkey is done, take it from the roasting pan and strain the pan juices into a small saucepan. Skim off the fat and boil the juices to reduce them if necessary — there should be about 1 cup/250 ml of this glaze. Stir in the toasted sesame seeds and almonds. Return the turkey to the roasting pan, spread the glaze over the top, and continue roasting, basting very often, until the skin is dark golden brown and crisp, 10-15 minutes.

5. Transfer the turkey to a carving board or platter, cover it loosely with foil and let stand 10-15 minutes. Before serving, discard the strings and onion from the cavity.

Buy Grits by Short Stack Editions. And, if you buy any of my books from your independent bookstore or online, I’ll be happy to send you a signed bookplate!

Please keep up with me on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Photo credit – Lisa Ekus

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Get Your Grit On: Short Stack and SFA Grits Muffins Friday, Nov 8 2013 

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I love grits. I am a Grits Missionary. Folks tell me they don’t like grits and I tell them they haven’t had the right grits.

I like grits so much I wrote a little book about them that’s coming out in a few weeks. It’s a little collectible booklet by Short Stack Editions. Short Stack is a series of small-format cookbooks about inspiring ingredients, authored by America’s top culinary talents.  Each edition is a collectible, single-subject booklet packed with recipes that offer ingenious new ways to cook your favorite ingredients. They are  beautifully designed, hand-stitched, and retail for only $12. I am thrilled  to be a part of something so innovative in publishing and honored to be in such good company.

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To be able to write about grits is a dream come true. I can preach the gospel of grits beyond the Mason Dixon line! My grandmother fed my mother and her siblings grits for breakfast each morning when they were children. She would fill the plates to the brim. To this day, my mama has cheese grits every morning without fail.

I come from grits-loving people.

My short stack has over 20 recipes for grits of all kinds. I’ve got old-timey Southern recipes for grits including Cheese Grits Casserole, Nassau Grits, Garlic Cheese Grits, and my version of Shrimp and Grits. I’ve also got Italian polenta inspired recipes like Rabbit in Red Wine with Sage Grits and Baked Grits with Sausage Ragu. I share recipes for Caribbean-style savory grits with Fish Stew and Jamaican style sweet breakfast grits. I went crazy and mashed grits up with recipes from other cultures — I have a recipe for Chinese Congee made with grits not rice, and with the Grits and Pork Tamales below, in which the traditional corn product masa, is replaced with grits.

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Or, with these idlis, a traditional Indian steamed lentil bread I replaced the traditional accompanying grain, rice with grits. These are served with Spiced Okra and Tomatoes. Crazy, I tell you, I got to go crazy! Theses recipes may be out of the box, but every last one of them are absolutely delicious. It was very freeing to shake loose convention and just get gritty-with-it.

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My grits book explains the difference between hominy grits and stone-ground grits as well as the difference between polenta and grits. (There’s not much.) We include a source list of grits to try and chat a bit about the difference between yellow and white corn, as well as cormneal and grits. That little book is packed!

Then, in the midst of all of this, I was asked to cook the grab-and-go breakfast at the Southern Foodway’s Alliance Symposium. Director John T. Edge stipulated that whatever I served needed to be able to stand up to the excesses of the night before….I knew we needed starch and fat.

Typically, the grab and go is a breakfast sandwich or a biscuit. And, I might add it’s for about 400 people so make ahead was a must. I contemplated a few different dishes, but then I saw the light.

What could possibly be better than Cheese Grits Casserole? Who doesn’t like cheesy-baked goodness? I added a bit of sausage and bread to fill the boozy bellies. We made them in muffin cups so they would be grab and go and served heirloom apples on the side. Word on the street is that they were a huge success. It was such an honor to cook for this esteemed bunch, and I am glad everyone loved them so much.

Grits proverb 1: Grits are good and good for you.

Grits proverb 2: Grits will cure what ails you. 

I hope you enjoy this recipe for my SFA Cheese Grits Casserole Muffins. And, I hope you’ll consider buying my Short Stack Grits book, too.

It’s my Grits Missionary Bible.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

PS Lots of BIG news coming – including a great, new gig on Comfort Food that launches in the new year. Details to come! Please keep up with my on Facebook and Twitter.

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Many thanks to John Currence and his staff for helping me get the job done and make 500 cheese grits casserole “muffins.” They did a great job and I couldn’t have done it without them.

SFA Cheese Grits Casserole “Muffins” 
Makes 8

Use extra stiff paper liners for these and understand they don’t actually come out of the paper like a baked muffin, and still need to be eaten with a spoon. I think they will be excellent for the holidays with guests and company. And, if you don’t want to make individual servings, you can always bake this in a buttered casserole dish. Simply increase the cooking time to 45 to 60 minutes.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 cup coarse-ground grits
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 ounces country style breakfast pork or turkey sausage
2 slices challah or egg bread, cubed
1 1/2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese (about 6 ounces)
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 jalapeño chile, seeded and finely chopped
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a jumbo muffin tin with cups. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the water and milk and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the grits and return to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Decrease the heat to low, and simmer until creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes.

While the grits are cooking brown sausage in a skillet until cooked through, about 8-10 minutes, breaking up the meat with the edge of your spoon.

Remove the grits from the heat. Add the cheese and 2 tablespoons butter.Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Add ¾ of the sausage, the eggs, cayenne, jalapeño, and green onions and 
stir until well incorporated. Scoop a heaping 1/2 cup of the mixture into each cup.

Meanwhile combine the remaining sausage with the cubed bread. Top each cup with a couple of tablespoons of the bread-sausage mixture. Bake until bubbly and golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly before serving.

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

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

The Dark Side: Five Recipes for Winter Greens Tuesday, Oct 15 2013 


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Summer produce is easy. Summer produce is the embodiment of an easy, breezy sunny day. Tomatoes are sliced. Okra only needs a short simmer or perhaps a bit of grilling. Fresh corn takes a quick dip in salted, boiling water and is eager and ready for a soft, melting knob of butter.

Fall brings wet mornings and long cool nights. The darkness of night lingers longer in the morning and quietly eases in earlier in the evening. As the days grow shorter, cabbage, kale, collards, spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard greens replace the tender lettuces and easy vegetables of spring and summer. The dark leafy greens of fall are more complex than sunny summer produce.

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Winter greens are members of the Brassica family and are noted for their bitterness. They need full, bold flavors to meet their match and test their mettle, like the red pepper flakes shown in the photo above. Yet, winter greens are also wonderfully versatile. The peppery heat of turnip greens are pungent and sharp when compared to the subtle grassiness of Swiss chard or the aggressive vegetal flavor of kale.

One troublesome aspect of cooking these nutritional powerhouses is that winter greens can be quite gritty. The best way to clean greens is to fill a clean sink with cold water, add the greens, and swish them around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out, drain the sink, and repeat until the water is clear and the greens are free of dirt and grit.

As a helpful hint, if you don’t buy your produce from the local farmers market, look for the washed bagged greens sold in most supermarkets. These bagged greens can save a lot of time in the kitchen. After a day or so, make sure to blanch them in boiling salted water once you get them home so they don’t spoil in the bags. Once they’ve been blanched, you can store them 3 to 5 days in a sealable container in the refrigerator.

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Traditional Southern cooking cooks the life out of them. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Slow-cooked greens with some form of glistening fatty pig suspended in salty, smoky potlikker are the primary DNA of the taste memories from childhood. There’s nothing like a wedge of cornbread dipped in that rich, oily, green broth. However, it’s a real revelation when you understand you can cook greens 4 to 5 minutes, not 1 hour 45 minutes!

You may have avoided these nutritious greens in the past because of their bitter reputations and gritty nature, but when you balance their flavors with full flavored ingredients like garlic, red pepper flakes, creamy cheeses, smoked meat, and rich, crème frâiche —it’s easy to moderate their bitterness. Now is the time to celebrate the dark side this fall and welcome these beautiful greens into your kitchen.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

Mozz Greens Bruschetta

Mozzarella and Winter Greens Brushchetta
Makes 8

Fresh mozzarella is increasingly available in better stores and markets. This cheese is moist, soft, and delicate. It’s miles away from the hard pizza cheese. Mozzarella was originally made from water-buffalo milk, but now most fresh mozzarella comes from cow’s milk, both in Italy and here in the United States. Fresh mozzarella is normally sold in a container of water. It’s highly perishable, so refrigerate it in its liquid for no more than a few days.

1 baguette or Italian loaf
1 garlic clove, halved
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound tender dark greens, stems removed, leaves chopped
4 garlic cloves and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shredded fresh mozzarella cheese
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the broiler. Slice the bread crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices and place on a baking sheet. Broil the toast about 4 inches from heat until golden brown, about 1 minute. Remove to a rack to cool.

Rub toasts with garlic on one side and lightly brush same side with about 1 tablespoon of the oil. Set aside.

Heat the remaining oil in a large heavy-bottom sauté pan over medium low heat. Add the garlic paste and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the greens and season with salt and pepper. Sauté over medium high heat, stirring, until wilted and tender, about 3 minutes. Pour off any excess liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the mozzarella and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Divide the greens between the toasted bread and serve immediately.

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Kale Tangle
Serves 4 to 6

1 to 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium bunch kale (about 1 1/2 pounds), cleaned, tough stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the slightly damp ribbons of greens; season with salt and pepper. Toss once or twice, and then add the garlic. (I add mine after the greens to buffer the garlic from possibly burning.) Cook until the greens are bright green and slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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Vegetarian Collard Greens

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium bunch collard greens (about 1 1/2 pounds), stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
4 cups water
1 tablespoon smoked salt
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
Hot Pepper Vinegar, for accompaniment

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the greens, water, smoked salt, pimenton, and apple cider vinegar. Season the mixture with pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until the greens are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with smoked salt and pepper. Serve immediately with the hot pepper vinegar on the side.

Smoky Slow-and-Low Mustard Greens
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste
1 pound mustard greens, tough stems removed and chopped
2 cups fruity white wine (such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer)
4 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups water
1 smoked turkey neck or drumstick
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds.

Add the greens and cook until the greens are slightly wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil; cook until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the stock, water, and smoked turkey neck; season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the greens are very, very tender, about 1 hour. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed serving bowls with plenty of the flavorful broth. Serve immediately.

Spinach with Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chicken stock low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, heated
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
2 shallots, very finely chopped
2 pounds spinach, tough stems removed
Pinch red pepper flakes, or to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the raisins in a small bowl. Pour over the heated chicken stock. Let rest to plump and rehydrate, 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the pine nuts in a large heavy-duty skillet over medium heat. Toast, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in the same skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the spinach, and stir-fry until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain the golden raisins, discarding the liquid or reserving for another use. Add the drained raisins, toasted pine nuts, and red pepper flakes.Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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Braised Cabbage
Serves 4 to 6

This is another example of simple country cooking that would be equally at home cooked in a cast-iron skillet in the South or simmered in a cocotte on grandmère’s stovetop in France. Cabbage is an inexpensive vegetable, and if stored properly, will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium head green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced (about 8 cups)
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 sprig of thyme
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat the bacon fat over medium-high heat until sizzling. Add the cabbage and saute until the cabbage starts to wilt, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

Decrease the heat to medium, and simmer until the cabbage is meltingly tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the sprig of thyme and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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

Photo credits – Virginia Willis, Ellen Silverman, and Kathy Waites

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Get out the Hat Rack! Wednesday, Jul 24 2013 


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Quick note to let you know I am actually not on vacation, but guest blogging on a couple of other sites. Click on the links and please check out Dianne Jacob’s Will Write for Food where I talk about being a food writer and wearing many hats. I am also blogging this summer for an organization near and dear to my heart and stomach, the Southern Foodway’s Alliance. We are featuring iconic summer foods through Labor Day. So far, we’ve had ice cream, corn, and this week is about tomatoes — and I make very clear my feelings on the purity of Tomato Sandwiches. (Next week, I am spilling the peas and the beans.)

Lastly, I was interviewed for HGTV’s Frontdoor and I’m now a guest blogger for Ty Pennington. I am honored and thrilled with these opportunities.

Soon, I will pop back over to this blog, too, but I wanted to share my new connections. Thanks so much for reading.

In the meanwhile, I have a very, very important question for you:

Bon Appétit Y’all!

VA

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

Photo credit: Scott M. Porush

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Eat It to Save It: Bristol Bay Salmon Wednesday, Jul 10 2013 

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Fishing for Salmon

The beach calls to many this time of year. I absolutely love the ocean. It’s so intensely primal and the only thing that could remotely come close would be the basic human reaction to fire. I’m pretty certain that if I lived at the beach I’d ditch my red Chanel lipstick pretty darn quick and become someone who fishes a whole lot more and bathes a little less. I love to fish. Mama tells me that the first time I caught a fish I jumped up and down so much my diaper fell off. That’s how young I was! Our whole family loves to fish. The photo below is my grandfather fishing for salmon in Alaska.

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As a cook, I am wildly passionate about sustainable seafood. I am concerned for our oceans. I write about it as often as I can in print, online, and through my blog. I teach sustainable seafood in cooking classes all across the country, and I only buy, cook, and eat sustainable seafood. I do this because I am on the Blue Ribbon Task Force for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a member of Chefs Collaborative. I “walk what I talk.” According to many scientists and scientific organizations, like Seafood Watch, the Marine Stewardship Council, and the Blue Ocean Institute, frankly, we are seriously jeopardizing the health and welfare of the oceans.

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First, we are eating out of the ocean like it is an endless Las Vegas buffet and it’s not. Second, global warming is not a myth — but it has become a political pawn. According to Dr. Mark Hixon, one of the world’s premier authorities on coral reefs, as a result of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the oceans are becoming warmer and also becoming acidified. Our fossil fuels usage is warming the entire planet, including the ocean. According to Dr. Hixon, scientists don’t argue about this — only politicians. We’re also destroying habitats of thriving fisheries through more direct ways such as direct pollution and runoff. We need to do something sooner rather than later to correct our perilous course.

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There’s a fight going on about runoff and pollution in Bristol Bay, Alaska. This summer, Chefs Collaborative is teaming up with the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association on a series of dinners to help protect Bristol Bay’s salmon. The Bristol Bay region is pristine wilderness untouched by development, stretching from the snow-capped peaks of the Alaska Range, across wetlands laced with icy cold rivers that flow into the Bay. This region is  home to the nation’s largest wild salmon fisheries and one of the best salmon habitats on Earth. If you look at the map below, Bristol Bay is located between the Bering Sea and the Alaska Peninsula in the southwest region of the state. Every year, approximately 37.5 million adult wild salmon return over the course of just a few weeks between the end of June through mid-July.

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However, the Bristol Bay is under threat from corporations that want to build Pebble Mine, an enormous industrial mining operation. The Pebble deposit is a massive storehouse of gold, copper, and molybdemum, located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay. If built, this would be North America’s largest open-pit mine and one of the largest mines in the entire world. Due to the size, geochemistry, and location, Pebble Mine would run a dangerously high risk of polluting Bristol Bay – and risk destroying a $1.5 billion commercial and sport salmon fishery that represents nearly 75% of local jobs in Bristol Bay.

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The good news is that you can help, and it starts with the tip of your fork. Buying Bristol Bay salmon provides economic incentive to protect Bristol Bay’s resources.

You’ve got to Eat It to Save It.

What to do? Take action and find out the latest at www.savebristolbay.org and the Save Bristol Bay Facebook page.

Where to buy? Click here for a list of suppliers and retailers suggested by Trout Unlimited. Also, I contacted Sea to Table, a business that partners with local fishermen from small-scale sustainable wild fisheries, finding better markets for their catch. Sea to Table delivers overnight and direct from the source. This reduces time and cost,  allows diners to know the ’who, how and where’ of the fish, and creates a direct connection from fisherman to chef.

Thanks so much for reading. It may all seem very overwhelming, but the choices we make, one meal at a time, add up. Together we can make a difference.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

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Poached Salmon with Herb Mustard Sauce
Serves 4

My grandparents drove their motor home all the way from Georgia to Alaska three or four times. Dede loved Alaska, mostly because he liked salmon fishing. They would fish and then my grandmother would process it in her canning kettle in her tiny motor home kitchen. They’d return with cases and cases of salmon preserved in mason jars. I was in my twenties before I ever tasted commercially canned salmon.

3 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
2 to 4 sprigs tarragon, leaves coarsely chopped and stems reserved
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 carrot, sliced
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
4 (5-ounce) skinless salmon fillets
2 cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
½ cup Dijon mustard
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the greens

First, you need to prepare a court bouillon to poach the salmon: combine the water, wine, tarragon stems (leaves reserved), bay leaves, peppercorns, and carrot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to low. Simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Then, we set aside some of the liquid to chill the salmon instead of letting it cool in the hot liquid which would overcook it, or, cooling it in cold water which would dilute the flavor. Fill a large, heavy-duty sealable plastic bag filled with ice cubes. Place a bowl over a bowl of ice and transfer several cups of the court bouillon in a bowl. Place the ice pack in the bowl of broth; move the pack around until the broth is well chilled (drain the bag and add more ice to it as needed). Set the chilled court bouillon aside.

Return the heat to high and bring the remaining mixture to a rolling boil. Add the salmon fillets. Cover and simmer for 7 minutes.

To chill the salmon: Remove from the heat and remove the salmon from the poaching liquid. Transfer to the chilled court bouillon and allow the salmon to cool in the bouillon. Cover the fish and broth with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, or until you are ready to serve. (This helps boost the flavor and allows you to make it ahead without it drying out. )

For the mustard sauce: Meanwhile, put the mustard in a small bowl. Whisk the olive oil into the mustard in a slow, steady stream. Stir in the reserved chopped tarragon leaves. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

When you are ready to serve, put the greens in a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss to combine. Arrange the greens on a platter Remove the salmon from the broth and pat dry with paper towels. Top the greens with the salmon and garnish with the sliced cucumber. Serve, passing the mustard sauce separately.

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

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Cooking with Basil: Pick it Fresh! Friday, Jun 28 2013 

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There’s nothing like the aroma of basil. It is the herb that most heralds that summer is in full swing. Perhaps because it requires bountiful sunshine and seems to thrive in the heat. Basil is often associated with Mediterranean cooking, but basil is native to India and Asia as well as parts of Africa. The leaves are used in cooking, imparting their bold flavor to recipes. There are many cultivars available with different nuances of taste, size, and appearance, including those with cinnamon, clove, lemon, and lime overtones.

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The basil in the photo above is Thai basil, also known as Tulsi or Holy Basil, and has a minty, almost smoky aroma. I love it. The purple basil in the photo below has a mild licorice flavor and aroma and provides a rich pop of color in the garden.

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Up in Massachusetts, we harvest our Thai basil and dry it for tea and make and freeze pesto from the Italian, or Genovese, to enjoy in the winter months.

Having a garden is especially satisfying, but if you don’t have the space and inclination, basil is a great herb to grow in a pot on the windowsill or patio. If you’ve followed past posts, you know that we love to dig in the dirt. Several months ago, I was able to spend some time with an absolutely wonderful woman and master gardener, Mary Beth Shaddix. She’s my kind of people! After 10 years working in the marketing and research department at Cooking Light, Mary Beth traded in her business suits for garden gloves. She and her husband have a wholesale nursery and farm, Maple Valley Nursery, near Birmingham, Alabama. They also grow a garden for the test kitchens at Cooking Light Magazine.

How lucky are those test kitchen cooks! How smart is that magazine! I love it when big companies do smart and creative things. Mary Beth has collaborated with the magazine and they’ve produced a really smart, fun cookbook with lots of amazing recipes called, Pick Fresh. I absolutely love it.

Book Cover

The book features 200 full color photographs and 150 recipes from starters to sides, light salads to hearty main dishes, and incredible desserts — all with nutritional analysis so you can stay on track for healthy eating. The chapters are divided into fruits, vegetables, and herbs with guides for growing, choosing, storing, and preparing each ingredient. It’s really fantastic and I cannot recommend it enough. The Peach Lemonade, Summer Squash with Bacon and Mozzarella Quiche, and Mint Gremolata Zucchini with Sea Salt are top of my list to try.

Today, with a nod to the myriad of basil varieties available, I’m sharing a couple of basil recipes. First, is the Cooking Light Pick Fresh Spicy Basil Beef Salad. Delicious, bold flavors with cooling cucumber make this dish a great meal for a hot summer night. You could also serve it on a bed of arugula, spinach, or butter lettuce if you wanted to enhance it with additional greens.

I love to eat fish in the summer. It’s light and quick cooking. Today, I’m sharing a simple recipe for Basil Crusted Trout with Creamy Garlic Aioli. I’m using farm-raised trout here, but if you can’t find trout, just make sure to check with Seafood Watch for a sustainable substitute.

Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve got lots of great things happening and want to share — I’m now a contributing blogger for Ty Pennington’s Good Eats blog and next up for the 4th of July is Sweet Tea Brined BBQ Chicken. I’ll also be blogging for the Southern Foodways Alliance this July and August. Lastly, I’ll be at the Fancy Food Show on Monday July 1 as the Chef Ambassador for Roland Foods. Please stop by and say hello if you are in NYC!

Thanks so much for reading.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Spicy Basil Beef Salad

Spicy Basil-Beef Salad
Serves 4

1 tablespoon canola oil
12 ounces hanger steak, trimmed
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste)
1 1⁄2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
1 cup thinly sliced English cucumber
3 large ripe heirloom tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 425°. Heat a large ovenproof stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add canola oil to pan; swirl to coat. Sprinkle both sides of steak evenly with black
pepper and salt. Add steak to pan; cook 5 minutes or until browned. Turn steak over. Bake at 425° for 8 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into thickest portion of steak registers 135° or until desired degree of doneness. Remove steak from pan; let stand 10 minutes. Slice across grain.

Combine soy sauce and next 5 ingredients (through sambal) in a small bowl,stirring well. Combine basil and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Drizzle dressing over basil mixture; toss gently. Divide salad evenly among 4 plates; divide beef evenly among salads and serve immediately.

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Basil-Crusted Trout Fillets with Creamy Garlic Aioli
Serves 4

If you are new to cooking fish or worried about overcooking, this recipe has “training wheels”. The spicy-herb topping helps protect the fish under the broiler and can help prevent it from drying out and overcooking. This trout would be lovely served with freshly sliced tomato on a bed of crispy greens.

For the Creamy Aioli:
1 head garlic, peeled
1 large egg yolk
6 sprigs flat leaf parsley
Juice ½ lemon
¼ cup olive oil

For the Fish:
8 sprigs chopped fresh basil
8 sprigs chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 small cloves garlic, peeled and very finely chopped
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 8-ounce trout filets, halved

For the Creamy Aioli:
Place the peeled cloves in a in a small saucepan with 1 cup cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then drain. Repeat process 4 times, always starting with cold water. Place the softened garlic, egg yolk, parsley, lemon juice, and 1/4 cup of olive oil in a blender; blend until creamy. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Set aside.

For the Fish:
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 450° F. Combine the parsley, basil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl. Brush each fish with olive oil, season with salt, then dust top side with mixture. Place fish on an oiled baking sheet and bake until the fish is opaque, 5 to 7 minutes. Top with Creamy Aioli and serve immediately on warmed serving plates.

Trout – photo credit Virginia Willis
Pick Fresh photo and recipe credit photo credit, Cooking Light Pick Fresh Cookbook/Oxmoor House.

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

The Simple Life with Asparagus Recipes Friday, Jun 14 2013 

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Spring Vegetables?

I came up to Massachusetts for the summer a little over 2 weeks ago. It’s a big shift changing houses and merging lives. I’ve gone from busy, bustling Intown ATL to a village founded in 1670 without a stop sign on Main Street, much less a traffic light. It’s a lot to manage, but you know what? It’s been absolutely wonderful.

Last weekend we were able to work in the garden. One of the many aspects that New England is different from the South is the climate. Oddly enough, the one piece of life that seems to move slower up North in summer is the weather. (It was 92° yesterday in Atlanta and yesterday I wore sweatpants and a fleece “hoodie” in Massachusetts!)

In addition to fending off slightly derisive remarks about my thin blood from Yankee family and friends, this also makes for big changes in the garden. The weather makes it all topsy-turvy to someone who has only ever gardened in the subtropical Deep South. For example, there may be peaches in Georgia, but in Massachusetts we’ve yet to trim the garlic scapes, our tomatoes are just beginning to flower, and I’m still thinning carrots. Lastly, what we would consider a spring crop in the South like strawberries or asparagus is a summer crop up North.

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The Pioneer Valley is famous for asparagus. My grandmother, Meme, liked what she called “Asparagus Salad” but there wasn’t anything to preparing it other than opening the familiar shiny silver can. And, even though I know the flavor of canned asparagus cannot compare to freshly cooked asparagus, I truly relish that taste memory.

Confession: I actually like canned asparagus.
Bigger confession: I never really liked fresh asparagus.

Well, I always thought it was just okay. I can’t think of any vegetable that I aggressively dislike. I’ve always considered asparagus to be an overrated, snobby vegetable that is most often served with dishes such bland beef tenderloin or over-cooked salmon at catered events or so-called “fancy” restaurants. Asparagus has always been ubiquitous and seemingly season-less. Then, on top of that, I found myself in several life situations where I began to associate fresh asparagus with a couple of certain people and it put a bad taste in my mouth. It’s amazing and powerful how food can evoke such strong, visceral feelings, both intensely positive as well as negative.

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Well, I’ve now fallen in love with it.

Of course, asparagus has a real season. Perspective makes all the difference in the world. We’ve been eating it every last meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I stop at a little farm stand off the main road on the way home from my daily visit to town. The farmer has a small shaded table at the end of the driveway. There’s an old yellow lab with a grey muzzle that sits under a tree nearby. He’s sat there for so many years he’s worn the grass away and he rests on a dark, uneven circle of dirt. He gives me a “woof” and thumps his tail a few times. I smile at him and tell him he’s a good boy. There’s an unattended cash box with a handwritten sign that reads $4 and a collection of plastic bags from various grocery stores there for the taking, if you need one. The whole experience speaks of more simple times and makes me smile from the inside out. Now, one of the things I disliked the most brings me pure joy.

I hope you enjoy these simple recipes as much as we do.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

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Simple Asparagus
Serves 4 to 6

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.

1 pound  asparagus, ends trimmed
1 tablespoon  olive oil
½ teaspoon Piment d’Espelette
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the broiler. Spread out the asparagus spears in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a nonstick silicone baking sheet. Drizzle with oil and shake the pan to evenly coat the spears. Season with Piment d’Espelette, salt, and pepper. Broil until the spears are just tender, 4 minutes for thin and up to 10 minutes for thick asparagus. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or cold.

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Asparagus with Fresh Mozzarella
Serves 4

The ends of fresh asparagus can be tough and woody. I prefer to slice off the last inch or so 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 of speed. You can also trim the end then shave the tough bottom skin off with a vegetable peeler.

1 pound  asparagus, ends trimmed
2 tablespoons  garlic oil (I’m in LOVE with Boyajian garlic oil) or olive oil
1 slice country bread, torn into bits
1-2 balls fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the broiler. Spread out the asparagus spears in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a nonstick silicone baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of garlic oil and shake the pan to evenly coat the spears. Season with salt and pepper. Divide into 4 equal portions on the baking sheet. Set aside.

Heat the 1 tablespoon of remaining garlic oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a small skillet over medium high heat. Add the bread bits and season with salt and pepper. Cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.

Broil until the spears are just tender, 4 minutes for thin and up to 10 minutes for thick asparagus. In the last few minutes of cooking, top each individual bundle with a slice of mozzarella. Return to the broiler and cook until melted and bubbly, about 2 minutes, depending on the strength of your broiler. Transfer the bundles to warm plates. Sprinkle over toasted bread and red pepper flakes. Serve immediately.

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

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