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.

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.

New England Seafood + Five Recipes Wednesday, Jul 11 2012 

Cape Cod

Isn’t that gorgeous? It’s sunrise in Chatham, Massachusetts. The water was like glass and the sea was so calm the waves were barely lapping on the shore. It was pure magic.

Three things I’ve got to say about New England beaches:

  1. The beaches are LOVELY.
  2. The ocean is COLD.
  3. The seafood is GOOD.

We’ve just spent the last few days on Cape Cod, meandering up into the Cape Ann area around Ipswich, Essex, and Gloucester, and visiting friends in the Calendar Islands in Maine. I’d never been to this area of the country and it was astonishingly beautiful. The hydrangeas on Cape Cod are like nothing I have ever seen!

Cape Cod has been in the news because of the great white shark following the kayaker. We saw the seals that are drawing in the sharks — as well as the posted warnings. No worries. I wasn’t in any hurry to get in the water to begin with, to be honest with you. My Southern blood is waaaay too thin for 64° F water. Brr.

Gloucester

I have been keen on visiting Gloucester since getting in a fish fight with the tuna fishermen over my Wicked Tuna blogpost and the piece I wrote about the same subject for CNN’s Eatocracy. Folks have been fishing off Cape Ann since 1626. There’s a long, proud history of fishing. Sustainability is a hot button issue. Whole Foods Market recently stepped up it’s efforts to source only sustainable fish. Consequently, much of the fish caught off Cape Ann is no longer available in Whole Foods.

Lots of the locals aren’t happy about it, and it’s certainly not black and white. It’s just not. I can’t imagine my reaction if someone said to me, “You can’t cook or write for a living anymore. It’s no longer allowed. You have to do something else.” I’d be pretty upset. It’s what I do. Well, it’s the same thing for these fishermen.

There are still plenty of choices. I’m almost embarrassed to document the seafood we consumed in 5 days. We had seafood for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We used the Brook Dojny’s New England Clam Shack Cookbook as our guide and grazed up the coast. (She has a new book on Lobster I need to check out, too.) Yelp was quite helpful, as well.

I’ve calculated that we enjoyed: Raw Oysters, Fried Oysters, Raw Scallop Hand Rolls, Fried Scallops, Raw Clams, Steamed Clams, Fried Clams, Clam Chowder, Raw Fluke Sashimi, Fried Haddock, Grilled Swordfish, Haddock Fish Chowder, Lobster Roll(s), Steamed Lobsters, Lobster Stew, Fried Maine Shrimp, Mussels, and Jonah Crab.

Phew.

The best part was that it was all local! Our five day feast wasn’t as completely gluttonous as it sounds. We paced ourselves, ordered small portions, and skipped the fries.

Here’s a list of the places we liked the most:

Chatham Fish and Lobster Home of the best lobster roll I may have ever had.

Chatham Squire Cold beer and awesome Mussels Marinara.

Essex Seafood Incredible Fried Clams and Shrimp.

The Causeway in Gloucester. Fish Chowder that will make you a believer. It opened at 11 and we arrived at 11:05 to a packed restaurant. Good food at amazing prices.

In honor of our New England Tour, here are five easy seafood recipes inspired by our journey for you to try!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS If you are in the area or have plans to be, I’m heading back to Maine in late August to teach at Stonewall Kitchen. Hope to see you there!

New England Clam Chowder
Serves 6

Quahogs are the kind most often used for linguine with clam sauce or chowder. Small quahogs are called cherrystone or little necks.

2 ½ cups fish stock or bottled clam juice
40 Little Neck clams
2 slices bacon, diced
2 medium onions, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
½ cup milk
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon freshly chopped thyme
1 bay leaf
Pinch cayenne pepper
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the fish stock in a shallow pot to a boil. Add the clams and simmer until the shells open, about 2 minutes. Then, remove the clams and remove the meat. Chop the meat and set aside. Strain the remaining fish stock through a fine mesh sieve and reserve for the chowder.

Heat a large pot over medium-high heat, add bacon and cook until slightly browned. Reduce the heat to medium. Add onions and celery to the pot and cook in the bacon fat until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes.

Whisk in the flour, and cook for a few minutes, stirring, to eliminate any raw flour taste. Add the potatoes, fish stock, milk, and cream and bring to a simmer. When the potatoes are almost cooked (after 5 to 10 minutes), add the thyme, bay leaf, cayenne pepper, and clams. Simmer until clams are cooked, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Lobster Rolls
Serves 4

Apologies for my indulgence, but I absolutely love this picture taken at the Chatham Fish and Lobster Market. They had the best lobster roll of the entire trip.

4 whole lobsters, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 rib celery, finely minced
4 top-split hot dog rolls
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Choose a pot large enough to hold all the lobsters comfortably; do not crowd them. (A 4- to 5-gallon pot can handle 6 to 8 pounds of lobster.) Put 2 inches of seawater or salted water in the bottom of a large kettle. Set a steaming rack inside the pot and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Just before cooking snip away the rubber bands. Add the live lobsters one at a time, cover the pot, and start timing. Halfway through, lift the lid (careful—the steam is hot) and shift the lobsters around so they cook evenly.

If the lobster weighs
1 pound – steam for 10 minutes
1-1/4 pounds – steam for 12 minutes
1-1/2 pounds – steam for 14 minutes
1-3/4 pounds – steam for 16 minutes
2 pounds – steam for 18 minutes

Meanwhile, prepare an ice-water bath. Remove lobsters from pot and immediately transfer to ice-water bath until chilled.

Twist claws with their knuckles from the body. Separate knuckles from claws. Crack knuckles open; remove meat and set aside. Grasp “thumb” and bend it back to snap it off. Crack claw in half; remove meat and set aside. Pull of legs. Twist tail from the joint where it meets the body. Pull off tail fins. Bend tail backward to crack off end of shell. Use your fingers to push tail meat out opposite side; remove with fork and set aside. Discard any remaining lobster.

Roughly chop lobster meat into about 1/2-inch pieces. Place in a large bowl, along with mayonnaise, lemon juice, and celery; season with salt and pepper. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Butter hot dog rolls and place on the griddle or in skillet. Toast until golden on each side; transfer each roll to a serving plate. Divide lobster mixture between the 4 rolls. Serve immediately.

Steamers
Serves 4 to 6

The photo above is what are referred to as “steamers”. They are soft-shell clams found in the sand along the shoreline. The first time I had steamers was a few years ago at Barnacle Billy’s in Perkins Cove, Maine. It was a revelation. The briny minerality of the seafood combined with the hot melted butter is intoxicating.

1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 gallon cold water
5 pounds steamer clams
1 quart hot water
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Bread, for serving

Combine the cornstarch and about 1 tablespoon of the water in a large bowl to make a slurry. Add remaining 1/2 gallon of water. Add clams and stir to submerge. Refrigerate so the clams will purge their sand, about 20 minutes. Lift the clams out of the water, leaving the sand on the bottom of the bowl.

Meanwhile, bring the quart of hot water to a rolling boil in a large pot over high heat. (A pasta pot with a metal insert works great.) Carefully add the clams so as not to break their shells. Cover and cook until the clams are firm, but not overcooked, about 10 minutes. Remove clams and place in a large bowl.

Ladle some of the cooking liquid from the top of the pot so as to leave the sand on the bottom of the pot into a small bowl. Combine the lemon juice and melted butter. Set both aside.

To eat the clams using your hands, remove the clam from the shell. Peel the outer, dark skin from the “foot”. Holding the clam by the now-clean foot swish the clam in the small bowl of cooking water to further remove any sand or sediment. (This gives a whole new meaning to rinse and repeat.) Dip the clam in melted lemon butter. Eat so that butter and clam juice drips on bread. Lick your fingers and enjoy.

Clam Shack Clams
Serves 2

The clams are the ones on the left in the photo above and the shrimp are on the right. I had never had Maine shrimp before and loved them. They were delicious and sweet. In terms of a recipe, I am fairly certain the coating and use of evaporated milk is the same.

1 cup fine yellow corn meal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
11/2 pounds shucked whole steamer clams
1 12 ounce container evaporated milk
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups canola oil, for deep-frying
lemon wedges, for serving

Combine the corn meal, flour, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper in a large bowl. Set aside. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels or newspaper. Set aside.

Place a sieve over a bowl. Place the clams in the sieve to drain. (Reserve juice for another use.) Place the evaporated milk in a large bowl and season with additional salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a large heavy deep pot until it reaches 375°F. Add the drained the clams to the evaporated milk. Using a wire-mesh skimmer or a slotted spoon, clift up a small batch allowing the excess milk to drip back into bowl, then drop the clams into the flour mix and toss it to evenly coat.

Add to the oil and fry in batches until golden brown and crisp, 30–40 seconds. Drain on prepared baking sheet. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with lemon. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

photos by Virginia Willis except the one of me, which was taken by Lisa Ekus.

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.

Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: Behind the Scenes & Free Recipe Sampler! Tuesday, Sep 27 2011 



Basic to Brilliant, Y’all is now on sale! 

We sealed the deal on Christmas Eve of 2009.

Can you believe it? Writing a cookbook is a long process. Most folks aren’t aware of just how long it takes. Yes, some books are pushed quickly through the system and some books, frankly aren’t always carefully produced. My experience with both of my books has been one of slow, careful growth. I like it. I love it. I feel that something worth having is something worth the wait.

First, there’s the tiny little wisp of a thought that might, just might be something. That little thought needs nurturing, so I roll it around my brain and marinate on it until it’s bona fide, the real deal. Then, I write my proposal. This is the piece for the publishing company to be able to understand the idea, see if they are game, see if they think it’s bona fide, too. (My words, not theirs; they are from Northern California, I am from the South.) My proposals have a full recipe list, sample chapter, a selection of recipes, as well as a summary of each intended chapter. It’s basically the skeleton, or the outline, of the book. Once the proposal has been accepted, in both instances, I’ve had one year to complete the manuscript.

Basic to Brilliant, Y'all

Completing the manuscript means writing, testing, and developing all the recipes. For this process, in my experience, it means that I have one year to complete the task. It also means some of the recipes listed in the proposal may fall to the wayside and replaced with better ideas – but just a smattering. I build my proposals with real intent.  I also learned recipe testing from Nathalie Dupree and Anne Willan. It’s a meticulous process.

First, I write a rough recipe before I even walk into the kitchen. I may have been cooking supper or eaten something somewhere that sparked my interest. It’s not always from absolute zero that an idea becomes a recipe. But, then, I test and test again. And, it needs to get an A or a B. If it gets a B, we retest it. Often, if it gets a C, I’ll walk away from the concept. I’ll test a recipe 3 or 4 times. If it can’t achieve an A – I feel like it’s not just meant to be.

For Basic to Brilliant this meant 150 Basic recipes — and 150 ways to make them Brilliant. There’s a lot of information packed in that book!

Once the year has passed and I turn in all my recipes with my manuscript, it starts the editorial process. From the time it’s turned in until it’s printed, it’s an additional year. For Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, I worked with an editor, a series of proofreaders and copy editors, and a designer for 6 months. It takes the proverbial village. Only after all that work is it sent off to the printer to be printed, and that takes another 6 months!

Basic to Brilliant, Y'all

Food Photographer Helene Dujardin

As I was working on my manuscript, I started looking for a potential partner for photography. I wanted a partner, not someone to just take pretty pictures and move on to their next project. For Basic to Brilliant, Y’all I started looking around online, on blogs, on websites. One super special magical day I came across a really wonderful blog called Tartelette by Helene Dujardin. I subscribed, I watched, I read, I looked and each week I was absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty of her images.

Long story short? I sent Ten Speed her link and we all talked. We agreed it was worth a shot. I sent her a tweet and our conversation started.

I had already asked Angie Mosier and Gena Berry to collaborate with me again. They had both worked with me on my first book.

We packed up our cars and headed down to Charleston. We had a team of 6 interns and culinary students helping cook the food. We were shooting 6 photographs a day; it’s quite the production. And, it’s a lot of groceries! Gena would send the food out of the kitchen to the studio and Angie, Helene, and I would set the scene. Each surface had to blend with the next, have the same feel, but not be repetitive. Betsy, the designer taped each shot to the wall and mapped out the entire book. It was such satisfaction to look at the new images from the day before at the beginning of a day. We were watching it grow.

Technically, Angie is listed as the prop stylist, Gena is the food stylist, and Helene the photographer, but we all worked together. No one person has one job. At the end of the day, it’s my name on the cover of the book, and I had to approve, but I love to work with talented people and let them do what they do.

Basic to Brilliant, Y'all

Me and the beautiful and talented Angie Mosier

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

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

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

Following your heart and being happy. This book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, makes me happy. It’s the collaboration of many folks sharing their love and talents.

MAMA’S READING LIST

Lordy Mercy, I’m on Oprah. Here’s a little bit on Oprah.com about my Beurre Monte in a piece about How Chefs Make Food Look Good — (but, Oprah I only want to add, “Taste Good,” too!)

Wendell Brock wrote a lovely piece on Basic to Brilliant, Y’all in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And, check out these amazing photos by Renee Brock.

I’ve got a Virtual Potluck going on! A special group of folks are posting the recipes on their blog. If you read one of the blogs and buy a book, I’ll send you a bookplate! I’ll let you know as they post.

The first one to give it a go was the lovely Amy Sherman of Cooking with Amy. She loved my Twice Baked Sweet Potatoes. I loved her kind words! Thanks Cousin!

If you want to take part, cook from the book and send a photo to info@virginiawillis.com. And, fill out this form, and I’ll send you a signed bookplate if you buy a book in the next two weeks!

Please make sure if you cook from my book to send me a photo or a link!

I hope you enjoy my recipes and stories. Thanks so much to everyone for your support.

Bon Appetit, Y’all!

VA

Click on the link below to download the FREE recipe sampler! 

Basic to Brilliant Sampler

Helen Dujardin’s photo by Taylor Mathis.
Cover photo by Helen Dujardin.
Angie and me by Jenni Coale.

Twilight: End of Summer Garden Thursday, Sep 15 2011 

It’s that twilight time in the garden and at the farmer’s markets.

The magic in-between time that gently divides the seasons. The summer darlings such as heirloom tomatoes, vibrant peppers, and the last stubby fingers of okra sit adjacent to mottled wild pears, aubergine-colored scuppernongs bursting with sweet juice, and tender, young winter squash.

The slate of a garden, of a season, is not quickly wiped away. It’s more akin to gentle strokes. The natural transition of the garden is slow, soft, and gentle.

I love the twilight.

Although I’ve enjoyed tomato sandwiches for literally both breakfast and lunch many days this week on pullman loaf Southern sandwich bread from HF Bread Co, it was a real pleasure to take home a taste of fall from the Grant Park Farmers Market last Sunday.

The tomatoes seem to be the stalwart vegetable of summer. Somehow it seems that summer has officially arrived when the first “good tomatoes” come in — and it seems that summer is really leaving us when the tomatoes wind down.

Well, folks, it’s about that time.

I maintain that Southerners have been eating seasonally and locally for generations. It wasn’t “locavorism” or some other such bizarre seemingly made-up word.

It just was. It all seems new again, but really, the concept is as old as when the 1st plowshares were thrust into the earth. We just lost our way for a bit. Some folks still need guidance. Yes, I admit there’s a practical aspect to it. It’s hard to find everything local — and sometimes it’s expensive. There’s no doubt there’s a complicated landscape.

My friend and colleague Sherri Castle has a lovely book, The New Southern Garden Cookbook, to help remind us, to help us once again find our path.

Don’t be fooled by the title. It’s not just for Southerners. It’s to help everyone think about eating what’s in season.

The reviews have been very impressive.
“A celebration of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, from apples and asparagus to winter squash and zucchini.”
 –The New York Times Book Review

“If you see the garden as an extension of your kitchen, and if you happen to appreciate a Southern sensibility. . .you’ll be happy with the vegetable-focused recipes.” –The Washington Post

“A must-have cookbook for backyard gardeners and farmers’ market aficionados alike.” –Taste of the South

It’s a beautiful book, full of mouthwatering photos. It’s one of those cookbooks that does it’s job. It makes you hungry.

Sherri’s shared with me a lovely recipe for a Slow Roasted Tomato Tart. Slow roasting the tomatoes really helps those that are less flavorful than those picked at the zenith of summer. And, in a nod towards what’s just around the bend, I am sharing a recipe for Kale Salad with Lemon. I hope you’ll enjoy!

Mama’s Reading List .

  • New recipes and photos at virginiawillis.com
  • LOTS of events on my book tour schedule and new ones coming soon!
  • A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to an old friend, Amanda Hesser . We shot a video for Warm Summer Shrimp Salad for Food52
  • Lastly, here’s what Amanda had to say about my new book, “Virginia Willis could cook a memorable meal from a sock and some twigs. Whether she’s making southern food (her home turf) or French country dishes — or helping you get ready for company as she does in this treasure of a book, Virginia is someone you want by your side in the kitchen.” Wow! Isn’t that nice!! 

Bon Appetit, Y’all!
VA

Kale Salad with Lemon
Serves 4 to 6

1 bunch kale
2-3 slices baguette, toasted
1/2 garlic clove, mashed to a paste (see below)
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, more for garnish
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more for garnish
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

First remove the stems of kale then slice then into chiffonade. Chiffonade is is a classic French technique that means thinly slicing an herb, such as basil, or a leafy vegetable, into strands or ribbons. To make chiffonade, stack the leaves one on top of the other, and roll them tightly into a cylinder. Using a chef’s knife, slice the cylinder crosswise into thin strips. Place the kale ribbons in a large bowl.

Using a microplane or box grater, grate the bread into the kale. Add garlic, cheese, oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper flakes. Toss to thoroughly coat. Refrigerate to wilt and let the flavors marry, at least 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper before serving.

Garlic Paste
To prepare garlic paste, place the broad side of an unpeeled clove of garlic on a clean work surface and give it a whack with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Remove the papery skin and trim away the tough basal plane at the top of the clove. Halve the garlic lengthwise and remove any of the green shoot, if present, as it is bitter. Coarsely chop the garlic, then sprinkle it with coarse salt. (The salt acts as an abrasive and helps chop the garlic.) Then, using the flat side of a chef’s knife like an artist’s palette knife, press firmly on the garlic, crushing a little at a time. Repeat until the garlic is a fine paste.

Slow Roasted Tomato Tart
Serves 8

1/2 recipe Basic Pastry I (recipe below)
1/2 cup crème fraîche
2 tablespoons wholegrain Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, divided
3/4 cup crumbled soft, fresh goat cheese
3 cups Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (recipe below)

Fit the pastry into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Bake and cool to room temperature according to the directions.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Mix the creme fraiche and mustard and 1 tablespoon of the thyme in a small bowl. Use the back of a small spoon to spread 2 tablespoons of the mixture evenly over the bottom of the tart crust and set the rest aside. Sprinkle the cheese into the crust.

Cover the cheese with the tomatoes. Working from the outside of the crust toward the center, arrange the pieces in concentric circles and overlap their edges so that very little of the filling shows.

Bake the tart until the tomatoes are just beginning to lightly brown, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of thyme. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature with a spoonful of the remaining creme fraiche mixture on the side.

Basic Pastry 1
Pastry for one double-crust 9-inch pi e, two 9-inch regular or deep-dish pie shells, or two 9- or 10-inch tart shells

The keys to this flaky, flavorful pastry are chilled vodka and lard. Sherri explains the vodka, “Pastry is flaky when its chilled liquid evaporates quickly in the oven, leaving little steam pockets between the grains of flour. Because vodka evaporates even more quickly than water, this pastry is more flaky than most.”

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and chilled
1/2 cup lard, cut into small cubes and chilled (about 4 ounces)
4 tablespoons vodka, chilled
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water
Instant flour or additional all-purpose flour, for rolling

If you do not have a food processor, use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work in the fat.

Place 1 1/2 cups of the flour and the salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade or pastry blade and pulse to combine. Scatter the cubes of butter and lard over the flour and pulse until the pieces of fat are the size of small peas. Add the remaining 1 cup of flour and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Transfer into a large bowl.

Sprinkle the vodka and 2 tablespoons of the ice water over the flour mixture and stir with a fork or rubber spatula to form large clumps that pull in all of the dry ingredients. Squeeze a small handful of dough; if it doesn’t hold together, stir in more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Although the pastry should not be wet, it works best when it is a little sticky.

Gather the clumps into a smooth ball of pastry. Divide the pastry in half and shape each piece into a ball. Flatten each ball into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days. This gives the pastry time to rest, so the flour can continue to absorb the liquid and the pastry will be easier to handle. For longer storage, place the wrapped pastry in a freezer bag and freeze for up to 2 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before using.

Slow Roasted Tomatoes
Makes 3 cups

3 pounds ripe Roma or other paste tomatoes
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Core the tomatoes, cut them in half lengthwise, and use your fingers to scoop out the seeds. (A small tool called a tomato shark is the best way to remove only the core without lopping off the end of the tomato.)

Place the tomatoes cut-side up in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle with the salt and drizzle with the oil. Roast until the tomatoes have collapsed and their centers are mostly dry, yet still slightly soft and plump, 2 to 4 hours, depending on the size and moisture content of the tomatoes.
The pieces should have the texture of a moist prune. Let the tomatoes cool to room temperature on the pan. Gently pull off and discard the skins. Set aside for tart.

Sherri’s recipes and images from THE NEW SOUTHERN GARDEN COOKBOOK: ENJOYING THE BEST FROM HOMEGROWN GARDENS, FARMERS’ MARKETS, ROADSIDE STANDS, AND CSA FARM BOXES. Copyright © 2011 by Sheri Castle. Photographs © 2011 by Stewart Waller. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

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.

How to Make Biscuits: Baking Secrets and Five Recipes Friday, Aug 19 2011 

What’s The Secret to a Perfect Biscuit?

I’ve been asked quite a bit about biscuits these past few months.

Folks pull me aside at book-signings. As I am spending the summer in New England, random folks hear my accent and ask about Southern biscuits. People reach out on Twitter and Facebook. I also get at least a couple emails a week asking about how to make biscuits.

This week it was a plea for a lost recipe, ” They were very light and fluffy, think she used lard and cut the biscuits out and let the dough rest while we went to church. The bread and biscuits were better than any bread or biscuits I have ever tasted.”

I love biscuits and I am not alone.

I have a fantasy of opening a street-front, window only walk-up restaurant in NYC and sell nothing but biscuits and grits. It’s not that I think that there are that many displaced Southerners in NYC. No, not at all. It’s that everyone loves biscuits. Those folks may think they like bagels, but in my opinion, they just haven’t met the right biscuit.

There’s no doubt in my mind that nothing says comfort like a fluffy, buttery biscuit.

No, I am not talking about those obscenely large and layered monstrosities that the fast food places sell. Or those bizarrely soft and spongy cans of biscuit dough that have a shelf life of 6 months!? Those kind of biscuits only exist because of chemical manipulation and ingredients that end in letters like “-ceride” and “-pylene.”

I am talking about flour, fat, liquid, leavener, and salt.

A few weeks ago I gave an impromptu biscuit making class. We made biscuits side by side with two kinds of flours. In the photograph below, Gold Medal All Purpose flour is on the left, and White Lily All Purpose flour on the right. See the difference?

Secrets of Southern Flour

Wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. When you combine flour with water, the proteins create a strong and elastic sheet called gluten. Flours vary in their protein levels, which affects the texture of baked goods. Gluten gives structure to yeast breads, but is not recommended for tender cakes, biscuits, and quick breads. Southern all-purpose flour is milled from soft red winter wheat that has less gluten-forming protein. It is typically bleached, which makes it whiter, but this does not affect the protein. My family has always used White Lily flour, a staple across the South; another dependable Southern brand is Martha White.

Most national brands of all-purpose flour are a combination of soft winter wheat and higher-protein hard summer wheat. White Lily contains approximately nine grams of protein per cup of flour, whereas national brands can contain eleven or twelve grams of protein per cup of flour. If you live outside the South, White Lily is available online or in some specialty shops in other parts of the country.

For results similar to those of Southern flour, substitute one part all-purpose flour and one part cake flour for the amount of Southern flour in a recipe. Finally, high-protein flour absorbs more liquid than does low-protein flour; if you attempt to make biscuits with a high-protein flour, you will need to add more liquid.

Want to know more?

Want to know just how easy it is to make mouth-watering, buttery biscuits?

Want to know how to have hot, fresh, homemade bread on the table in minutes?

Want to perhaps find your lost recipe?

Well, I’ve got the book for you.

My friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree has just released a new book called Southern Biscuits she co-wrote with Cynthia Grauburt.

It’s The Book on How to Make a Biscuit. Period.

It’s the definitive biscuit book with recipes and secrets to creating every style of biscuit imaginable.

It’s filled with amazing photographs including dozens of how-to photos showing how to mix, stir, fold, roll, and knead.

It also explains what ingredients to use and how the type of flour, fat, and liquid affects the end result; how to cut, hand-shape, or scoop the dough; time and temperature.

Like I said, it’s How to Make Biscuits. Period.

Before you get your copy of the book, I’ll leave you with a few recipes and tips on making biscuits. (And, after all, remember, after Meme and Mama, Nathalie first taught me, too.)

Tips and Techniques on Making Biscuits

  • Chill the bowl used to mix the dough as well as the pastry blender to prevent the butter or shortening from warming up.
  • Cut the butter into flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Cold bits of butter or fat will melt during baking, creating pockets of steam that give biscuits their flakiness.
  • When working with butter, cut it into small pieces, and chill again before adding to dry ingredients.
  • Dip the cutter in flour. Cut the biscuits smoothly and cleanly straight down without twisting. Twisting can seal the dough and prevent the rise.
  • As Nathalie used to tell me, “Get your hot little hands off that dough.” Handle the dough as little as possible. You don’t want to make the biscuits tough by overworking, and you want the fat to stay cold until the biscuits bake.
  • A very hot oven is essential. The steam interacts with the baking powder to create the biscuit’s ideal textures inside and out.
  • The perfect biscuit should be golden brown and slightly crisp on the outside, with a light, airy interior. For a flaky, tender biscuit, don’t overwork the dough: gently combine the ingredients until just blended.

I hope you enjoy this collection of recipes. Keep me posted on what you’re doing – both success and failure stories. Shoot me a comment or email. I’m happy to try to help.

Lastly, a couple of things to share since I am marrying my newsletter and blog. I’ve decided I should call this “Mama’s Reading List!” This week I was interviewed for USA Today about Georgia peaches and Roberta and Lois from Kosher Eye called to chat about Southern Food. And, please check out Lisa is Cooking to see what’s on my bedside table.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS The recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits is a sneak peek at Basic to Brilliant, Y’all .(Shh, don’t tell!)

Meme’s Biscuits

Makes about 9 biscuits

Meme most often made rolled biscuits. For large biscuits, she had a special aluminum cutter with a small wooden handle that fit in the palm of her hand. She cut out small biscuits with an empty apple juice can open at both ends. Some purists use lard instead of butter. Although I like biscuits made with lard and understand the tradition and history, Meme and Mama had started using butter by the time I was born.

2 cups White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour, or cake flour (not self-rising), more for rolling out
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 500°F. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk, and gently mix until just combined.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat 8 or so times. (It’s not yeast bread; you want to just barely activate the gluten, not overwork it.) Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out 1/2 inch thick. Cut out rounds of dough with a 21/4-inch round cutter dipped in flour; press the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked.

Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet or in an 8- by 2-inch round cake pan. If the biscuits are baked close together the sides will be moist. If the biscuits are baked further apart, the sides will be crisp.

Bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool just slightly. Serve warm.

variation: If I don’t feel like rolling out biscuits, or just want a different texture, I tweak the recipe by adding more buttermilk to the dough and make drop biscuits: use 3 cups of flour—2 for the dough and 1 cup placed in a bowl to shape the dough into biscuits. Increase the buttermilk to 2 cups. The dough will be very wet and resemble cottage cheese. To form the biscuits into balls, scoop up some dough with a large ice cream scoop; place the dough balls in the bowl with the 1 cup of flour. Working one at a time, roll the balls to coat in flour, then set in an ungreased 8- by 2-inch round cake pan. The baking time will be the same as for cut biscuits.

Sneak Peek Sweet Potato Biscuits
Makes about 16

2 medium sweet potatoes
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup low-fat or whole milk

Preheat the oven to 400°F.Bake or microwave the sweet potatoes until soft and tender, about 45 minutes in the oven or about 10 minutes in the microwave. Set aside to cool.

When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to touch, peel and mash until smooth in a food processor fitted with a metal blade or with an old-fashioned potato masher. Measure out 1 cup and reserve the rest for another use.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment paper. Set aside. In the same bowl of the food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Pulse in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Combine the sweet potato and milk in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the potato mixture to the flour mixture, pulsing just until moist.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead lightly four or five times. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough 3/4 inch thick. Cut out 10 biscuits with a 2-inch biscuit cutter, pressing the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Gather together the scraps (by placing the pieces on top of one another in layers instead of bunching it up). Roll out 3/4 inch thick. Cut with the biscuit cutter into 5 or 6 more biscuits. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Discard any remaining scraps.

Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Nathalie’s Yogurt Biscuits

Makes 12 (2-inch) biscuits

Yogurt makes a very light, tangy biscuit. With homemade or commercial self-rising flour, it is a simple matter. Yogurt varies in consistency, from the thick cream-topped to the thinner generic brands, so it is always a judgment call as to how much to use to make a wet dough. Do not be tempted to use nonfat or light yogurt as they have additives that will change the nature of the biscuit. But if the yogurt is so thick you can’t incorporate it, feel free to add a bit of milk or buttermilk. These crisp biscuits triple in size and cut easily.

2 1⁄4 cups self-rising flour, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain yogurt, divided
Softened butter, for brushing

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior is desired. For a soft exterior, select an 8- or 9-inch cake pan, pizza pan, or oven-proof skillet where the biscuits will nestle together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to circulate and creating a crisper exterior, and brush the pan with butter.

Fork-sift or whisk 2 cups of flour and the salt in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep, and set aside the remaining 1⁄4 cup of flour. Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Pour 2⁄3 cup of yogurt into the hollow, reserving the 1⁄3 cup yogurt, and stir with a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the yogurt. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons of reserved yogurt, just enough to incorporate the remaining flour into the shaggy wettish dough If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.

Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough out into a 1⁄3- to 1⁄2-inch-thick round, using a little additional flour only if needed. Flour again if necessary and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat dough out into a 1⁄2-inch thick round for a normal biscuit, 3⁄4-inch-thick for a tall

biscuit, and 1-inch-thick for a giant biscuit. Brush off any visible flour from the top. For each biscuit, dip a 2-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter.

The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although these scraps make tougher biscuits. Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 10 to 14 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning. Continue baking another 4 to 8 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, remove from the oven and lightly brush the tops with softened or melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.

Senator Holling’s Carolina Biscuits

Makes 20 (1-inch) biscuits

According to Nathalie, U.S. Senator “Fritz” Hollings, one of the truly great raconteurs of the twentieth century, posted this recipe on his website. Also called Carolina Biscuits by some, they are the kind of Southern hors d’oeuvre greedily eaten as opposed to nibbling while standing around drinking and telling stories. Without a doubt the flakiest and richest of all the biscuits we’ve made, these tiny

bites melt in the mouth, need no embellishment, and can be served unadorned, warm out of the oven or at room temperature. As someone said, “I can’t believe how good these are.”

There is no sense doing this by hand when a food processor is available, making it easy and stress-free.

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2⁄3 cup butter, softened
1 cup self-rising flour, divided
Softened butter, for brushing

Pulse together the cream cheese, 2⁄3 cup of butter, and 1 cup of the flour two or three times in a food processor fitted with the knife or dough blade. Turn the dough out onto waxed paper and divide into two rounds. Wrap in waxed paper, plastic wrap, or a resealable plastic bag, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour. With floured hands and a floured rolling pin, roll out one portion of the dough at a time to approximately 1⁄2 inch thick. For each biscuit, dip a 1- to 1 1⁄4-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter. The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although these scraps make tougher biscuits.

Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to an ungreased baking sheet, placing the biscuits 1 inch apart. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 10 to 12 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning.

Continue baking another 4 to 6 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, lightly brush the tops with melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up. These biscuits may be frozen, unbaked or baked, and reheated.

Nathalie’s Overnight Biscuit, Sausage, and Apple Casserole

Serves 8

Sausage and apple is one of my favorite food combinations, and I find ways to cook it into everything from quiches to this soufflé-like casserole, great for a brunch or long weekend.

2 pounds bulk sausage
2 tart apples, cored and sliced
6 cups torn or cut biscuits in 1⁄2-inch pieces
9 large eggs, beaten
3⁄4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1⁄2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
3 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fry the sausage in a skillet, breaking it up as it cooks, and drain on a paper towel. Reserve the fat and let the sausage cool. Sauté the apples in the reserved fat, remove from pan, and let cool.

Move the biscuit pieces to a large resealable plastic bag. Whisk together the eggs, mustard, cheese, and milk in a large bowl. Stir in the sausage and apples. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to the plastic bag. Place the bag inside another resealable plastic bag with the zipper facing another direction in order to prevent leaks. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight or up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pour mixture into a buttered 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish or divide between two 1 1⁄2-quart casseroles. Bake covered 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes until eggs are set and the center measures 200 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer.

Southern Biscuit © 2011 Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Stevens Graubart. Photographs © 2011 Rick McKee

Sneak Peak Sweet Potato Biscuits – Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company (Ten Speed Press 2011)

photos for Meme’s Biscuits and Sweet Potato Biscuits are by me.

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.

BIG Catch on the Full Moon & 10 Wild Shrimp Recipes Friday, Aug 12 2011 



Primal Urges

We’re in the middle of summer and there is a full moon this weekend.

For most folks that’s enough to generate a powerful urge for a barefoot stroll on the beach in the soft light of la belle lune. Perhaps a stolen kiss? A wishful glance? A passionate embrace? Ah, no sweet, dear romantic one.

It means a darn BIG shrimp haul.

A full moon means hundreds of pounds of shrimp on slick, wet deck. It means being at work at 4:00 am, the emptiest, loneliest time on earth. It means mud, sweat, and possibly, blood. It’s dangerous work.

So, what does this have to do with the moon?

The Earth and the moon are attracted to each other, and are constantly pulling at one another, just like magnets … or lovers on a beach. Gravity holds everything solid on earth in place — but that means the moon is able to pull the non-solid, the water. As earth rotates, the ocean is constantly moving from high tide to low tide, and then back to high tide.

You with me?


Last summer I was able to go out on a shrimp boat. It was then that I learned that a full moon typically produces a higher shrimp catch.

First, let me briefly explain the life cycle of a shrimp. Riveting stuff, I know. Just pretend you’re on a romantic moonlit beach.

Shrimp spawn about 4 miles out off the coast of Georgia. Each female lays between 500,000 to 1 million fertilized eggs that drift along in ocean currents and hatch within 24 hours. During the next month or so, the larva continue to grow, eventually migrating from the ocean into the brackish marsh. There, as juveniles, they feed on algae, small animals, and organic debris for 2-3 months until they mature. Once mature, they return to the ocean as adult shrimp.

Shrimp season usually starts in late spring or early summer and lasts until December. The opening of the season is determined by the amount and size of the shrimp harvested within 3 miles of shore. The season opens when it is determined that there are enough fully grown shrimp that have come out of the marsh.


Full Moons and BIG Hauls of Shrimp

Now that you understand the basic premise of gravitational pull and tides, let me explain about the moon. A spring tide is when the sun, moon, and Earth are in alignment creating extra-high high tides, and very low, low tides. Shrimping is often best on the “spring” tides that coincide with both full and new moons. (A neap tide is  when the tide’s range is at its minimum.)

Check out my nifty graphic from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. (You have no idea how excited I am this works.)

Why? The short answer is that the full moon creates the most water movement and sweeps the most shrimp out of the marsh into waiting nets.

Don’t you love knowing that?!

It’s empowering to understand where you food comes from, why, and how. And, you know I am fiercely passionate about sustainable seafood. Mama and I both love fried shrimp—we can’t go to the beach without enjoying a meal of fried shrimp. It’s sad how many of those beach restaurants are serving imported shrimp. I like to put my money where my mouth is and try to patronize restaurants that are supporting the local fishing industry. Read up on what Seafood Watch has to say about shrimp.)

I can’t write about summer and walking on the beach with your sweetie without a recipe for fried shrimp! Scroll down where you will find there’s a whole mess of wild American shrimp recipes for you to try!

Please share with me your photos, comments, and reactions to the recipes. I love hearing about what folks are doing. And, please keep in touch on Facebook, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS Thanks to everyone helping me make the transition from newsletter and subscribing to my blog.

PSS Here’s a little lagniappe about shrimp from the Southern Food Ways Alliance.

Better than Bubba’s: Ten Wild American Shrimp Recipes

FRIED SHRIMP
Serves 4

1 pound large shrimp, tails on, peeled and deveined
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup beer
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Canola oil for frying
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Using a medium bowl, combine egg, beer, cornmeal, flour and baking powder, season with salt and pepper, mix until smooth.
Heat oil in deep fryer to 350°F. Add shrimp to batter and stir to coat. Working in batches, carefully drop shrimp in oil. Fry until light golden brown, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.

GRILLED SHRIMP AND TOMATO SALAD
Serves 4

1/3 cup olive oil plus additional for brushing the tomato and the shrimp
1 ½ pound jumbo shrimp (about 16), peeled and deveined
½ cup plain Greek-style yogurt
¼ red onion, finely chopped
½ stalk celery, finely chopped
¼ jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
½ bunch of flat parsley, finely chopped
2 large garden-ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered

Preheat grill to hot. Season shrimp with salt and pepper on both sides. Brush the tomato with a little oil. Place shrimp on the grill and cook for 1 ½ to 2 minutes on both sides. Remove the shrimp from the grill. In a bowl mix together yogurt, red onion, celery, jalapeño, cumin, honey, orange juice, parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Add shrimp and tomatoes; stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve immediately.

SHRIMP & GRITS WITH COUNTRY HAM

Serves 4 to 6

4 1/4 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup stone-ground grits
2 tablespoons corn oil
4 ounces country ham, cut into thin strips
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 pounds large (21/25) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup chives, chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Using a large saucepan over medium high heat, bring chicken stock, milk, butter and garlic to boil. Gradually whisk in corn grits. Return to boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low, simmer uncovered until grits thicken, whisking often, 45 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add ham and cook until crispy, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove to a plate. Add shallots and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and shrimp and sauté 2 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to large bowl. Add white wine and boil until reduced to a syrupy consistency, about 5 minutes. Add drained diced tomatoes and half of reserved ham. Simmer until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Add parsley, chives and shrimp, simmer until shrimp are warmed through, about 2 minutes. If needed, thin sauce with reserved tomato juices. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon grits into shallow bowls. Top each serving with shrimp mixture. Garnish with remaining ham and serve immediately.

FRIED COCONUT SHRIMP
Serves 4

1 1/2 cups sweetened finely shredded coconut
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 pounds 26-30 count shrimp, peeled, de-veined tail on
4 cups peanut oil, for frying
3/4 cup plain low fat yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons shallot, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon Madras curry powder
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix the coconut and panko together in a shallow dish or pie pan. Scatter a handful of the coconut mixture over a baking sheet. Set aside. In another shallow dish, lightly beat the egg whites. Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Dip shrimp in egg whites to coat completely; lift from whites (shaking off any excess), and dredge in coconut mixture. Place on prepared baking sheet.

In a large, deep heavy-bottom pan, heat peanut oil over medium heat until 350° on a deep-fry thermometer. Cook half the shrimp, lightly shaking to separate shrimp, until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer shrimp to paper towels to drain. Return oil to 350°; repeat with remaining shrimp.

In a small bowl, mix together the yogurt, lime juice, minced shallot, curry powder and chopped cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve as a dipping sauce with the coconut shrimp.

SPICY TOMATO BBQ SHRIMP
Makes about 2 dozen hors d’oeuvres

1 small onion, quartered
3/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons apple juice
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons ground celery seeds
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce
1/2 teaspoons cayenne
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, shelled, leaving tails intact, butterflied, and deveined
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place ingredients in a blender or food processor fitted with a blade attachment. Process until smooth. Transfer mixture to a non-reactive saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low. Simmer, stirring, for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Store refrigerated in an airtight container. Sauce may be prepared up to 1 week ahead.

Prepare a medium-hot fire and oil grill. Starting at the tail end of each shrimp, thread the shrimp on the skewers. Brush with barbecue sauce and arrange shrimp on a large platter. Just before grilling brush the shrimp again with the sauce. Grill shrimp on a rack set over hot coals until just pink, about 1 minute per side. Serve warm or at room temperature.

SHRIMP CAKES
Serves 6

1 pound large shrimp, raw, peeled and de-veined
1 large egg
1 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
zest from ½ lemon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, minced
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), divided
2 tablespoons canola oil

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the shrimp a few times to coarsely chop. Add egg, chives, lemon zest and juice, mustard, cilantro, hot pepper sauce, salt, and pepper. Pulse just until blended. Add 1 cup panko and pulse just until mixed in. Form mixture into twelve 3-inch-diameter cakes. Place remaining panko in a pie plate. Crust the shrimp cakes with panko. Transfer to waxed-paper-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes. (Can be made up to 4 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.). Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry cakes until cooked through and golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.

SAVANNAH MARINATED SHRIMP

Serves 4 to 6

2 1/2 pounds large shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined
3 onions, preferably Vidalia, very thinly sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and very thinly sliced
4 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup canola oil
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

In a large, nonreactive bowl, layer some of the shrimp, onions, bell pepper, bay leaf, garlic, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, and freshly ground black pepper. Create several layers of these ingredients until the remaining amount is used. Set aside.

In a large liquid measuring cup, combine the vinegar, oil, and lemon zest and juice. Pour this marinade over the shrimp mixture. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp is pink and opaque, at least 6 to 8 hours. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper before serving.


MAMA’S SHRIMP CREOLE
Serves 4 to 6

11/2 pounds large shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup canola oil
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups water, plus more if needed
Pinch of cayenne pepper
4 green onions, white and green parts, chopped, for garnish
Rice Pilaf, for accompaniment

Place the shrimp in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to marinate while you prepare the vegetables.

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and cook until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, an additional 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, sugar, water, and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then decrease the heat to low. Simmer until the oil rises to the surface, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. (Use more water if the sauce gets too thick.) Add the shrimp and cook until pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Garnish with the green onions. Serve with rice pilaf.

SHRIMP QUESADILLA
Makes 8 wedges

2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 onion, sliced
1/2 poblano pepper, seeded and sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
8 large shrimp, peeled
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 large flour tortillas
1/2 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese
2 tablespoons chopped scallion
2 tablespoons salsa
2 tablespoons sour cream
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add onion and pepper and season with salt and pepper. Cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Remove to a bowl and cover with foil to keep warm.

In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil over medium high heat. Add the shrimp and season with salt and pepper. Cook until pink and tender, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Do not over cook. Remove to a bowl and cover with foil to keep warm.

In the same skillet, heat the remaining 1tablespoon of canola oil over medium heat. Place one of the tortillas in the pan. Top with half the cheese, onions and peppers, shrimp, then the remaining cheese. Cook for 2 minutes (until underside is golden brown). Place second tortilla on top and flip the quesadilla over. Cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Remove. Slice into wedges. Top with sour cream and salsa. Serve immediately.


SHRIMP BUTTER

If making seafood stock with crustacean shells and not fish bones, the lobster, crawfish, and shrimp shells may be used to make Crustacean Butter. (Blue crab shells are too hard, but king and snow crab legs are fine.) Classic French technique instructs to grind shells with cold butter then work through a tamis. The few-and-far-between more modern recipes suggest using a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  The former is far too labor intensive and not nearly enough flavor is extracted for all the effort. If using lobster or crawfish shells, discard the claws, they are too hard, like crab. Crush the shells with a mallet. Set aside. I first place my mixer on a rimmed baking sheet. This seems to help with containment. Place 1 pound of crushed shells or shrimp shells in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment with 1 pound of cold unsalted butter cut into chunks. Attach the guard, or carefully wrap a kitchen towel around the mixer. Start the mixer on slow so you don’t wind up with crustacean butter smelly bits everywhere. Work it on slow for at least 5 minutes. Mix the shells with the butter until the butter is pale coral colored and fragrant, pausing the machine to occasionally scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula, about 20 minutes. Transfer the butter and shell mixture to a medium heavy-duty saucepan. Place over low heat to melt and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Strain though a fine mesh sieve. Place the liquid in a bowl over a bowl of ice or cover and refrigerate to solidify. Once the butter has solidified into a solid layer remove it with a slotted spoon and transfer it to a clean saucepan. Discard the remaining liquid. Heat the crustacean butter over low heat to melt and remove any moisture. Strain the melted butter through a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth into a measuring cup or Mason jar. Store covered up to 1 month in the refrigerator. Makes 1 1/4 cups of pure seafood gold.

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.

Easter Dinner: April “Country Living” on the Stands! Sunday, Mar 13 2011 

Wow. That’s all I have to say.

Well, that’s not true. I also have to say thank you. Lots and lots of thank yous.

Many thanks to Country Living Magazine and Monica Willis (no relation!) for asking me to be a part of this special issue. I am so grateful to Jona and the rest of my family for allowing their Easter dinner to be transformed into a photo shoot last year, thank you to my aunts and cousins for helping with the food, thank you to Gene, Kathy, and Meghan for opening their home, thanks to Gena Berry for her assistance, delicious thanks to Robert at Melissa’s Produce for helping with the ingredient sourcing, thank you to Heather, Harry, and John for making such beautiful photos, and lastly, but by far not the least, thanks to my Mama for all her love and support.

I told her it was TEN pages. She asked me where the rest of it was. I reminded her the magazine wasn’t titled Virginia Willis’s Country Living.

Here’s the full Country Living Easter Dinner article and here are the recipes.

I am so honored and thrilled to be the subject and also the author of the piece, a little written ramble about cherished childhood memories, my abhorrence of dotted Swiss, and sunrise service at Riverview Methodist church. It’s about how my family’s Easter menu has evolved and changed, but much of it remains true to the Easter Sunday dinners of my youth and the memory of my grandparents.

And this year? This spring I look forward to starting new traditions of family celebration and expanding the circle of sharing with people I love. Spring is after all, about shedding the old and celebrating newness and rebirth. It’s the perfect time for new lives and fresh starts.


Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA


PS Click and read here, too, but help keep print alive my buying one at the newsstand. That is if Mama left you any. I think she’s gathered enough to wallpaper the spare room she’s so proud.

Easter Menu

Sliced Radishes with Horseradish Buttermilk Dip
Baked Fresh Ham with Herbes de Provence
Spiced Sweet Potatoes, Steamed Asparagus with Tangerines, Roasted Spring Vidalia Onions, Parmesan Grits with Morels
Buttermilk Angel Biscuits
Turbinado Shortcakes with Strawberries and Whipped Cream





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.

More Pork Chop Theory: Nathalie Dupree’s Shrimp & Grits Monday, Sep 20 2010 

My first job cooking was on a TV cooking show hosted by Nathalie Dupree. I started with her as a scared, untrained, but hardworking, novice hungry for knowledge. She took me by the hand and showed how to cook. Nathalie took me out of my mother’s kitchen and showed me a world I did not know existed. I felt like I was tasting for the first time.

Without her I would have never found my way to this path, much less on it.

She has been my friend and guide all along the way. She’s a very complicated woman. All at once she is passionate yet carefree, strong yet vulnerable, and selfish yet giving. While apprenticing in her home, she used to drive me absolutely positively crazy, leaving her peanut butter covered knife on the counter after making a sandwich, or mixing her ladies garments into the laundry with my kitchen towels.

Several months after I left her apprenticeship she called me in DC to ask about how to work her microwave. (She’s going to call me vicious for telling you that.)

We have gone round and round, experienced the range of emotions from absolute joy, as it was dining together in France at the famed 3-star L’Esperance in Burgundy, to pure pain, each of us crying over hurtful words. When I am nice and she is being nice, she calls me her “little chicken.” When I tease her mercilessly, as now I am more apt to do, about her quirks and eccentricities I am deemed a “vicious woman.”

It is somehow wonderfully poetic she now lives on Queen Street in a historic home in Charleston, SC. She has a battalion of tea cups and a freezer in the guest bathroom. Her universe seems like utter chaos, but there she is at the center, calm as the eye in the storm. She is prone to working at her laptop in a wing-back chair, surrounded by towering mountains of books and magazines, ensconced in her own petite fortress.

Pat Conroy once wrote she was “more like a fictional character than a flesh and blood person.” That still makes me howl with laughter. But, it’s not because she putters about in myopic Mr. McGoo fashion, uttering epithets like “if I were the woman I wish I was” or when dropping a bowl/chicken/apple/you name it, on the floor, “Oops, I dropped my diamond.” It’s not because while taping one of her hundreds of TV shows the this or that wouldn’t go right and she’d say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”(See some of her clips on the Charleston Post & Courier.)

It’s because it’s impossible to imagine that anyone could actually, truly be that tender, generous, and loving and be a real live person.

She’s the originator of The Pork Chop Theory. Her flock includes Rebecca Lang, Shirley Corriher, and many many more.

I should write much, much more and one day I will. But for now, I felt compelled to share with you this week this recipe from her Shrimp and Grits Cookbook.

She’s one of my dearest friends ever, and I love her.

Thank you, sweet Nathalie.
I love you.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

CHEESE GRITS SOUFFLÉ WITH SHRIMP SAUCE
Serves 8

A soufflé is just a thick sauce to which egg yolks and beaten egg whites are added. Cheese grits make a sturdy base for the eggs, enabling the soufflé to be assembled in advance and cooked just before serving, or cooked and frozen. Top the servings with the Shrimp Sauce. This is an extraordinarily popular dish for a buffet.
The soufflé:
1 cup uncooked grits, quick or stone ground
4-5 cups milk
1 pound sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 large eggs, separated
The shrimp sauce:
1 cup (1 stick) butter
1 ½ pounds small shrimp, peeled and deveined
2-3 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley and basil, mixed

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter an 8½ x 13-inch ovenproof serving dish. To make the soufflé: Cook the grits in 4 cups of the milk according to the package directions, stirring. The grits should have the consistency of a sauce. If they are very thick, add all or a portion of the fifth cup of milk and heat until absorbed. Stir in the cheese, butter, mustard, mace, salt, and cayenne pepper. Cool slightly. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if desired. Lightly beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir a little of the grits into the yolks to heat them slightly, then add the yolks to the grits mixture and combine thoroughly. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and fold into the grits. Pour into the prepared pan. (The soufflé may be made several hours ahead to this point, covered and set aside or refrigerated. ) When ready to eat, return to room temperature. Bake the soufflé for 40 to 45 minutes, or until it is puffed and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and spoon onto plates. Ladle the shrimp and their sauce over each serving.

To make the shrimp sauce: Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the shrimp and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until they start to turn pink. Add the chopped herbs and spoon over soufflé.

Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC 2010

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

Anne Willan & The LaVarenne Way Tuesday, Apr 13 2010 

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.

Herbs

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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