Mama Love & Breast Cancer Awareness Month Tuesday, Oct 18 2011 

I am a “mama’s girl.”

Mama and I travel quite a bit together. I love to ask her to come with me to book signings and cooking classes. I get a huge pleasure out of seeing folks ask her for her autograph. She’s got quite the following! Seeing my beaming proud mama in the front row of my cooking class also makes me smile.

It’s not all work. We take vacations together, too. We’ve tromped up steep, long, winding stairs in Italy, across sun-bleached limestone roads in Turkey, and wet cobblestone streets in London. She’s joyfully joined me in France for cheese, chocolate, and croissants; been starved, stretched, and sunned at the spa in Mexico; and held my hand and wiped my tears on one perfectly miserable trip to Hawaii.

Mama is now a dear friend to the new love in my life. It gives me infinite pleasure to see two of the most important people in my life enjoying one another, relating, talking. Being.

My Mama is my best friend.

We talk nearly every day. She’s heard plenty from me; that’s for sure. She celebrates my joys and blessings and consoles me when something goes wrong. We don’t always agree, by a long shot. And, we have very different attitudes on life in general. She was the baby girl, grew up in the country, and never worked when I was growing up. I am the oldest, have lived all over the world, and my work and my life are intertwined to the point of nonrecognition. One is not complete without the other.

As different as we are, there’s something in her saying, “It’ll be okay” that makes me believe it will – that somehow she knows that it will really, truly be okay.

Our daily calls started when Meme passed away. We were both devastated.  So, we started calling each other to see if the other was okay, to check on each other, to make sure. Ten years later, we call each other at least once a day, usually at night even if it’s just 2 minutes to say, “I love you.”

During the day or if one of us calls the other at an unexpected time as soon the other answers the phone, we’ll quickly say, “Everything’s okay – nothing’s wrong.”

One day in 2002 Mama called and it wasn’t okay.

I was grocery shopping and picked up my cell phone. I was in the parking lot of Whole Foods in Sandy Springs. She didn’t say those magic words as soon as she heard my voice. Instead, she said the words that no one wants to hear, “They’ve found something.”

They.

“They” are instantly known and identified – the harbingers of both good and evil, happiness and sadness, joy and despair – wearing lab coats over dusty blue scrubs.

My world went instantly blinding white. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t hear. All I could feel was my heart pounding in my chest. Somehow I could feel the blood rushing, crashing through my body, through my brain.

Blinking, blinking.

It’s that moment when you realize it’s happening to you. It’s not a story about someone else. It’s not a magazine story or on the news. It’s not your friend’s mama. It’s not a sad story in the paper that makes you shake your head. It’s you. It’s your mama.

I don’t remember crying. I don’t think I did.

Mama, like always, said in her soft Southern drawl, “It’ll be okay, I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right, Gin.”

She calls me Gin, sometimes Missy Gin. Me, adamantly the woman of no nicknames, but I love it.

Regarding her call, frankly, I don’t remember much other than that. Somehow I made it home. And, I think I called and told my sister. I honestly don’t remember. I have absolute zero recollection.

I went home – home to Mama – in the next days and we went to the doctor.

The surgeon said it was small. The surgeon said it was the kinder, gentler breast cancer. The surgeon said it was caught early and that she’d be fine.

“She’d be fine” didn’t sound anything remotely like “It will be okay” to me.

The first visit to the oncologist was surreal. The office was full of sickness and death. Pale hairless faces haunted with the look of fear. It was perfectly clear what we were up against.

I felt the blood rushing and crashing again.

Once in the examination room I asked so many questions the doctor looked at me and asked me what part of the medical profession I was in.

I evenly replied, “I am not; it’s my Mama.” To me that succinctly explained everything….

Thankfully, the surgeon was right. She was fine. She was all right. Mama had a small lump removed. Her lymph nodes were clean. She didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. She had several months of radiation.

My mama is now 9 years cancer-free.

Her kinder, gentler breast cancer was caught by a routine mammogram.

This month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you are 40, go get a mammogram. If you are over 40 and late on your mammogram, call and make an appointment. NOW.

You know who you are. Do it. Do it, dammit.

You are loved and the world is a better place with you in it.

And, while you are at it, call your mama and tell her you love her or call your daughter and tell her you love her. Call any woman you love and tell her you love her.

Peace be with you.
VA

Mama’s Pecan Pie
Makes two 9-inch pies

Too many pecan pies are mostly goo without enough pecans, making them far too sweet. The secret to the success of this pie is that its pecan-to-goo ratio is just right. As a child, I helped Mama make this pie. It was my job to help her coarsely grind the nuts. She still uses a hand-held grinder; it has a crank that forces the nuts through two opposing fork-like blades and a glass jar to catch the nut pieces. The metal top that screws into the glass jar is bent and dinged, but the tool still coarsely cuts the nuts just right.

Double recipe All-American Pie Crust (see below)
3 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare 2 unbaked 9-inch pie shells.
To make the filling, combine the eggs, sugar, corn syrup, butter, vanilla, and salt in a bowl; stir until blended. Add the pecans and stir to combine. Pour into the chilled pie shells.

Bake the pies, rotating once, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Remove the pies to a wire rack to cool. The pies can be stored wrapped tight in aluminum foil or in a pie safe (at room temperature) for up to 1 week.

All-American Pie Crust
pastry for 1 (9-inch) pie crust

1¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ cup solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, chilled and cut into pieces
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
3 to 8 tablespoons ice water

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the flour and salt, then add the vegetable shortening and butter. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.

Add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing to mix, until the dough holds together without being sticky or crumbly. Shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

Flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin. (If you are making a double-crust pie or two pie shells, work with one disk at a time, keeping the second disk chilled.) Place a dough disk in the center of the floured surface. Starting in the center of the dough, roll to, but not over, the upper edge of the dough. Return to the center, and roll down to, but not over, the lower edge. Lift the dough, give it a quarter turn, and lay it on the work surface. Continue rolling, repeating the quarter turns, until you have a disk about 1/8 inch thick.

Ease the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate. To keep your crust from shrinking or tearing, snuggle your dough into the pie plate by lifting the edges and letting the weight settle it into the plate contours. Trim 1 inch larger than the diameter of the pie plate; fold the overhanging pastry under itself along the rim of the plate. For a simple decorative edge, press the tines of a fork around the folded pastry. To make a fluted edge, using both your finger and thumb, pinch and crimp the folded dough. Chill in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

To blind bake, preheat the oven to 425°F. Crumple a piece of parchment paper, then lay it out flat over the bottom of the pastry. Weight the paper with pie weights, dried beans, or uncooked rice. This will keep the unfilled pie crust from puffing up in the oven.

For a partially baked shell that will be filled and baked further, bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the paper and weights. (You can reuse the rice or beans for blind baking a number of times.) The shell can now be filled and baked further, according to recipe directions. For a fully baked shell that will hold an uncooked filling, bake the pie shell until it is a deep golden brown, about 30 minutes total.

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.

Top photo by Helene Dujardin

Others by me.

My Day in NYC on 9/11 Friday, Sep 9 2011 

This picture of my sister was taken in August, just a few weeks before the tragedy in 2001. Last year when I wrote my original post, I hadn’t ever written a word about 9/11.

I’ve been pretty somber this week, as many have been, on the 10th anniversary with all the additional press, new photos, and new audio. I looked at photographs yesterday online that made me absolutely shiver.

I reworked this piece just a bit, but, I think, at least for a while, this will remain my blog post for 9/11. 

I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning.

I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy.

We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living.

Sadly, somehow I have always constantly, somewhat obsessively, wondered about the socio-economics of garbage. It used to drive me absolutely mad, how much sheer waste people used to carelessly throw on the ground.

So, I walked that morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant cerulean blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty, dented cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.

I remember walking mad.

Can you imagine? Walking mad? Letting filth, garbage, other people’s refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this?

It turns out that my disgust and  irritation actually saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower.

I know this.

I walked this walk every day —  most often amazed, looking skyward at those tall twin towers across the river directly in my sight. They were a compass point. The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute of the deadly attack in the days and weeks to come.

I know that I was walking exactly at that exact time.

I didn’t see one of the most horrific things in history because I was looking down at garbage.

Often I would take the PATH from Jersey City to the WTC and then change on the subway to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.

I’ve thought about that quite a bit in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC.

I could have been right in the middle of it.

By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station on 40th Street the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower.

I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet.

Once in the office it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the pentagon was hit, then the White House.

I was the producer for Epicurious on the Discovery Channel hosted my chef Michael Lomonaco. We didn’t know where he was.

I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay.

But, I was in Times Square and which actually didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Time Square might likely be dead center next.

So, we walked down 25 floors of the winding darkened stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It somehow seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.

The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lock-down.

I knew I couldn’t get home.

So, I started walking southeast from Midtown. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. It gave me chills. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying in and of itself.

At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone.

Just gone.

As I walked South, soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking further south, then east. I finally arrived at my friend’s apartment on 5th Street on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I took my shoes off and waited on the stoop. Seems like I remember now that my shoes were new and my feet were blistered. At the time it seemed unimportant and now, I am not certain.

My cell couldn’t call out, it was silent, but somehow my friend and colleague Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay. She called home. She called, she called, she called. She called home for me.

My friend finally arrived home. We quietly walked up the stairs. We then watched the news, silently weeping, watching the horror, the live images, the flying shreds of paper, the grey dust, the people — the absence of survivors, of people — trying, all the while, to keep the children occupied in the other room.

We were in shock and disbelief.

Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I didn’t care about what might happen to me. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. My friend didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to go home.

We kissed, we cried, and cell phone dead, I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a movie set. New York City, but without the people.

No more sirens. No more noise. No radios. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. No people. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.

It was dreamlike and surreal.

I walked North through Union Square where literally only two candles flickered, the beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.

The 14th station was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, also closed, so onward to 33rd.

Finally, success.

The cavernous station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop.

Everyone was muted and paralyzed  in fear and shock.

We crossed under the river to Hoboken because my regular station was destroyed and closed. Standing on the platform as we pulled into the station, I saw evacuees from lower Manhattan, covered in soot and ash, now clothed in garbage bags.

Garbage bags.

Tell your loved ones that you love them.
Peace be with you.
VA

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

My Day in NYC on 9/11 Saturday, Sep 11 2010 

This picture of my sister was taken a in August, just a few weeks before the tragedy. I’ve never written a word about 9-11, a single word.

So I did.

Virginia Willis

I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning. I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy. We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living. Sadly, somehow I have always constantly, somewhat obsessively wondered about the socio-economics of garbage. It used to drive me absolute mad, how much sheer waste people used to carelessly throw on the ground.

So, I walked that morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.

I remember walking mad.

Can you imagine? Walking mad? Letting filth, garbage, other peoples refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this?

It turns out that my irritation saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower. I know this. I walked this walk every day most often looking skyward at those twin towers across the river directly in my sight. The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute in the days and weeks to come.

I didn’t see one of the most horrific things in history because I was looking down at garbage.

Often I would take the PATH to the WTC and then change twice to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.

I’ve thought about that more than once in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC.

By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower. I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet. Once in the office it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the pentagon was hit, the White House. I was the producer for Epicurious on the Discovery Channel hosted my chef Michael Lomonaco. We didn’t know where he was. I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay.

But, I was in Times Square and which didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Time Square could be next. We walked down the winding darkened stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It somehow seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.

The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lock-down.

I knew I couldn’t get home.

So, I started walking southeast. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw only one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying in and of itself.

At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the cerulean blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone. Just gone.

Soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking south, then east. I finally arrived at Claire’s apartment on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I waited. My cell couldn’t call out, but somehow my friend Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay.

Claire arrived. We watched the news all day, weeping, trying to keep the children occupied in the other room. We were in shock and disbelief.

Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. Claire didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to go home.

I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a movie set. New York City, but without the people.

No more sirens. No more noise. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.

I walked North through Union Square where 2 candles already flickered, the beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.

14th was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, also closed, so onward to 33rd.

Finally, success.

The cavernous station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was muted in fear. We crossed under the river to Hoboken because my regular station was destroyed and closed. Standing on the platform as we pulled into the station, I saw evacuees from lower Manhattan, covered in soot and ash, now clothed in garbage bags.

Garbage bags.

What it Takes: Labor Day & Poached Georgia Shrimp Tuesday, Aug 31 2010 

Talk about fresh shrimp? I helped haul in the net that held that catch.

It was messy, dirty, smelly hard work. Talk about labor? We’d left the dock at 4:00 am.

But, check out my grin.

As a chef and a cook I have a natural curiosity about where my food comes from, its origin. I want to know who made it, who grew it, who harvested it.

I love knowing the source for many reasons. First and foremost is the taste and wholesomeness of the food.

Many years ago I once stood on top of a hillside in Chablis, France looking at the vineyards. There was a map so that the visitor could see the areas designated for Grand Cru, Premier Cru, etc.

Cru is a French wine term which means “growth place”. The terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru are translated into English as Grand Growth and First Growth. The vineyards designated Grand Cru are on the sunniest part of the slope are have the best conditions for growth.

I had the proverbial lightbulb moment regarding wine. The best grapes grow in the best environment.

Guess what? Same for a tomato or an ear of corn, or a chicken or a cow. Or a shrimp.

The best comes from the best environment.

In this day and age, many people are removed from where their food comes from. There’s a reason that blueberry tastes so good. It was grown in the best environment, harvested at the best time, and transported under the best conditions.

We could talk food politics, factory farming, and food safety well past dinnertime. Even if you aren’t remotely interested, there is the simple fact of appreciating the number of people who are involved and their labor to keep you and yours fed.

I want to support people who labor to do good work. I want to support the stores that buy from the people who do good work.

Last weekend I spent the weekend doing just that, learning what it takes to get shrimp to our plates. We were on the Georgia coast shooting the pilot for “What it Takes”, a 13-part series all about what it takes to get the food on your plate. There’s lots and lots more to come, and we’ve got a lot of work to do, so “stay tuned” (sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Best place for that right now is by following this blog or friending me on Facebook.

Still on deadline, I am taking a brief detour from my promotion of The Pork Chop Theory to share with you some happy snaps from last weekend and recipe for Poached Georgia Shrimp for you to enjoy this upcoming weekend.

I want to share my sincere and heartfelt thanks to these folks for their hard labor: Gena Berry, Taylor and Camille Adams, Mama Laura Berry, Melanie McCraney, Mike Thomas and Olivia Sellers, and Carlin Breinig.

I feel very much loved and I am very, very thankful.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Here I am with Brande Bennett, 4th generation shrimper from Brunswick. The Georgia coastline is part of the largest saltwater marsh in the world. Men and women have made their lives for centuries fishing and harvesting from the low country estuaries, sounds, and sea.

It took me an hour to fill one of these baskets, in the meanwhile Brande and her dad, Captain Johnny had filled two a piece.

Captain Johnny about to “surf the boards”, heavy doors that keep the nets submerged.


Getting ready to get busy.

The end result!

Poached Georgia Shrimp
Serves 4 to 6

The shrimp can be prepared completely ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. The most important part is bathing them in the lemon mixture while they are still warm. Simply bring the shrimp to room temperature before serving. It’s high shrimp season, so enjoy these as a little nibble while the burgers or steaks are grilling.

Jumbo, large, and medium are all arbitrary designations for shrimp. Chefs buy shrimp according to an industry designation—the count per pound. For example, a count of 41/50 means that there are between 41 and 50 shrimp per pound, while U12 indicates that there are “under 12” shrimp per pound. In general, large shrimp are 21/25 count, extra-large are 16/20 count, and jumbo shrimp are 11/15 count.

12 cups water
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
1 lemon, halved
1/2 onion, preferably Vidalia, peeled
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1 tablespoon coarse salt, plus more to taste
11/2 pounds unshelled large shrimp (21/25 count)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 baguette, sliced 1/4 inch thick, for accompaniment

To poach the shrimp, in a large pot, combine the water, carrot, celery, lemon, onion, bay leaves, and 1 tablespoon of the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to low. Simmer gently for about 10 minutes to make a flavorful court-bouillon. Return the heat to high and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Add the shrimp and boil until the shells are pink and the meat is white, 1 to 2 minutes. Do not overcook.

Drain the shrimp in a colander. As soon as the shrimp are just cool enough to touch, peel and devein them.

To dress the shrimp, while they are still warm, place them in a large bowl with the olive oil and lemon juice. Toss to coat, then season with salt and pepper. Marinate the shrimp at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour before serving. Add the chopped parsley and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve the shrimp on baguette slices, drizzled with some of the juices.

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

Edible Communities & Corn: Taking Care of Mama Wednesday, Aug 25 2010 

Funny how things work out in life.

For those not aware I am in on deadline for my next cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: Recipes and Recollections of a Southern Culinary Journey. I am in the final stretch so I am enlisting the assistance of friends and sharing recipes from books and people that I think do good work.

Sometimes we get a little hung up on competition. I’m all about doing one’s best and healthy contest, but there’s a lot to be said for sharing. They are helping me; I’m helping them. Not to overdo the idioms, but think “a rising tide floats all boats.”

However, since I am from the South, we’ve got to involve pork, not boats. It’s called The Pork Chop Theory and I learned it from my friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree. It’s a very sharing and feminine approach to life and work.

This week, I asked Tracy Ryder, co-founder of Edibles Communities with Carole Topalian, if she would share some recipes for corn.

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

Lately, I’ve been consumed with corn, dried corn that is. Grinding grits, when to grind, where to grind, how much to grind. The top photo and the photo just below is of my heirloom granite ground grits for My Southern Pantry. (Much more on that later, but if you want to stay posted, please follow that story on the MSP Facebook Page.)

I have a dual sided Zuni Corn Maiden created from turquoise that I wear on my “life necklace”. My life necklace is sort of like a charm bracelet, but not exactly. It is a select group of items either lovingly given to or purchased by me when something was happening that I wanted documented.

Something to have close to me to touch when I want a “physical” memory.

Corn Maidens reflect the agricultural and ritual importance of corn to native Hopi and Zuni culture. Corn Maidens are emblematic of this respect for corn as a sustainer of life and spirituality. It’s a very female oriented aspect of the culture. Corn, essentially represents the Mother.

And, you know, it’s all about taking care of Mama.

The dual sides of the Corn Maiden represent the younger and the older woman. On the younger side the Corn Maiden is shown with her cob full of corn. Mature Corn Maidens are depicted without corn kernels — but their robes are much richer.

The coincidence of the corn is that I had purchased my Corn Maiden while in Santa Fe with Edibles Communities.

My Corn Maiden was meant to document an amazing, rich, and fulfilling experience.

Being in Santa Fe was truthful, challenging, and stimulating. Seeing new things, tasting new flavors, feeling new emotions, thinking about things in a way I had never before was immensely rewarding.

Edible Communuties is a national network of award-winning regional magazines that is dedicated to transform the way consumers shop for, cook, eat and relate to local food. It’s the world’s largest publisher of information on local foods with the specific flavor of each community.

There are currently 62 magazines that celebrate the abundance of foods season by season through documenting local and authentic food traditions. These magazines connect the people in the food community with stories of real people making real food, a truthful source of local food information for consumers.

It’s an amazing group of talented dedicated people making really good magazines.

Through its printed publications, websites, and events, Edible Communities strive to connect consumers with local growers, retailers, chefs, and food artisans, enabling those relationships to grow and thrive in a mutually beneficial, healthful and economically viable way. Think of it as a sound business model built on taking care of Mother Earth.

Given my experience in Santa Fe, they had me at hello, but it gets better.

They now have a cookbook.

In the continued exercise of spreading the love and the tenets of The Pork Chop Theory, with a nod to Mama Earth and the Corn Maiden, I am sharing some recipes from my friends and colleagues.

Their beautiful cookbook Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods is a collection of essays and recipes from the individual EC magazines on local food heroes and traditions incorporating the very best regional foods from every area of the United States, as well as British Columbia and Ontario.

This week, we celebrate corn.

Many, many thanks to Tracy and Carole.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA


SUMMERTIME SWEET CORN FRITTERS

Much lighter than hush puppies, these corn pancakes are perfectly seasoned and bring out the sweetness of corn kernels freshly cut from their cobs. You might want to consider doubling the recipe; these fritters disappear very quickly!

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 cups fresh corn kernels (from about 3 ears of corn)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 eggs, separated
1/4 cup finely chopped spring onions or scallions
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 teaspoons paprika
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1. In a large bowl, stir together the corn, flour, egg yolks, onions, salt, paprika, pepper and cayenne. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Stir one-quarter of the beaten egg whites into the corn mixture. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the remaining egg whites into the corn mixture in three additions.

2. In a large skillet, heat the oil and butter over medium heat until the butter has melted. Carefully drop some of the corn mixture by tablespoons in to the hot oil, taking care not to crowd the pan. Cook each fritter until browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn each fritter over and brown the other side, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the fritters to a platter lined with paper towels. Sprinkle lightly with salt, if desired. Repeat until all of the corn mixture has been used. Serve hot with some broiled tomatoes, a salsa made with chopped avocado, mango, lime and cilantro, and sour cream, if desired.

RICH CORN CHOWDER
It is not surprising that sweet corn frequently appears on Vermont menus during the few weeks it’s in season. This luscious corn chowder uses the whole vegetable – cob and all – to create a dish that is satisfying and distinctive. If you choose to preserve some of the summer bounty for use throughout the year, frozen kernels (and cobs) work very well in this recipe.

Makes 8 servings

Corn broth (optional):
4 ears of sweet corn
8 cups water

Chowder:
4 slices thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice, optional, or 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive or grapeseed oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped celery root or celery
5 medium potatoes, chopped
4 cups corn broth, chicken broth or vegetable broth
2 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more if needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more if needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half

1. Make the corn broth, if using (you can use chicken broth or vegetable broth instead): Stand an ear of corn up against a cutting board. Using a large sharp knife, and running the blade downwards between the corn kernels and the corn cob, cut the corn kernels from the cob, rotating the cob until all kernels have been removed. Transfer the corn kernels to a medium bowl. Repeat with the remaining 3 ears of corn; set the corn kernels aside for making the chowder.

2. In a medium pot, add 8 cups of water and the cobs of corn from which the corn has been removed. Bring to a boil, partially cover the pot, reduce the heat and simmer until the water has become rich and golden, about 90 minutes. Strain the corn broth through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl. Discard the solids.

3. Make the chowder: In a large pot over medium heat, add the bacon (if using). Cook until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp, about 7 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels. If not using the bacon, heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat.

4. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Stir in the carrot and celery root and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften, about 3 to 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir in the potatoes, corn broth, water, salt, pepper, nutmeg, thyme, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the reserved corn kernels, bring the chowder back up to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes.

5. Remove the bay leaf. Using an immersion blender or a potato masher, lightly break up some of the potatoes and corn in the chowder. Do not over-process, or you will lose the rustic texture of the chowder. Stir in the cream and the reserved bacon. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve hot.

2.To thicken the soup, immerse a stick blender into the pot and pulse quickly 5 or 6 times (or use a potato masher) to quickly break up some of the potatoes and corn. Do not over-process, or you will lose the rustic texture of the soup.

Stir in the cream and reserved bacon. Adjust the seasonings; you may need to add more salt to balance the sweetness of the corn broth and bring out the full flavor of this soup.

NOTE: A corn chowder soup base adds great flavor to this soup and is a wonderful bonus when freezing kernels cut off the cob. Simmer the cobs in water to cover for 2 hours, until the water has turned into a rich corn broth. Cool the broth and store in freezer containers.

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, http://www.virginiawillis.com

My Feisty Sister, Green Beans, and The Best Birthday, Ever. Thursday, Jul 22 2010 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t breathe.

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

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

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

Only sisters could laugh at a time such as that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, Jona.

VA

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

Mama’s Macaroni Salad
Serves 4 to 6

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

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

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

Green Beans with Buttery Peaches
Serves 4 to 6

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary 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, http://www.virginiawillis.com

Happy Mother’s Day: Mama’s Pound Cake Friday, May 7 2010 

Any one that speaks to me more than a couple of paragraphs essentially knows I love my Mama. I am a Mama’s girl through and through. Mama and I have always been very good friends.

I was always a bookish child, curled up in a corner with a book, reading a book in the car, or hiding under the weeping willow tree with a book in my hand. Once when I was in elementary school the principal called mama in for a meeting because I was cutting class — cutting class and sneaking into the library. Mama didn’t think that was such a problem. A couple of years later just before summer break we were in the library choosing books for vacation. I was reading above my age and the librarian wanted me to read something more “age appropriate.” I vividly remember her telling me to stick to a certain children’s section for my summer reading, when what I really wanted to do was go over there to the hard back books. I wasn’t reading titillating teen material; I had started reading the classics. I was beginning to appreciate literature. Mama just let me choose what I wanted to read.

A bookish child turned into a bookish teenager. I was never part of the popular crowd. Didn’t kiss a boy until I was 16. Of course, that’s all more clear now, but the nut of it was, I wasn’t hanging out in the Dairy Queen parking lot with the other teens on Friday night. I was at home with Mama. Mama divorced my father when I was in high school, the summer between my junior and senior year. That same summer the private school I attended closed. I was 16. It was tumultuous. Mama and I leaned on each other and it was then that our “grown-up” friendship really started.

Instead of going to another school for my senior year I started college. I had to get my driver’s license so that I could live at home and drive to college. It just was the thing to do and I did it with Mama right there beside me. She never let on she was worried or that I couldn’t do it. She believed in me, if she had any hesitation about her sheltered bookish daughter starting college at 16, she never let on.

A lot has happened in my life since those big steps many years ago. I transferred to UGA and boy howdy, did my world open up. I went to England one summer for a couple of weeks and called her to ask if I could stay the summer. She said yes. I am sure she was scared to death, but if she had any hesitation, she never let on. After a few years of floundering around I wanted to go to culinary school. She supported my ambition and if she had any hesitation, she never let on. Later still, I wanted to move to France to learn and study. I was supposed to be there 3 months and was there for almost three years. If she had any hesitation, she never let on. Moving to New York City to be the kitchen director for Bobby Flay? Leaving that to work for Martha Stewart? Leaving a fantastic job with Martha to travel the world with Epicurious shooting stories about mustard in Dijon or pasta in Italy? We’ve traveled the world together, I’ve gotten her lost in Turkey, taken wrong turns in Paris, and we’ve trooped up many a tower stairwell in Italy.

If she had any hesitation, she never let on.

When I returned home to the South was another story. She “let on” how happy she was and I am very glad I returned. Life is good to me here. When you are young you can’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge and I found at least, when I got older I couldn’t wait to get the hell back. After 9/11 and being stuck in Manhattan as those towers burned and subsequently losing my job, I wanted to go home to Georgia and Mama. She’s been right beside me these past nearly ten years as my life has radically changed. My career has exploded. My book has significantly altered my life. My heart has also been hurt, I nearly cracked, quite frankly, and had to go away to the white beaches of Florida to heal. I am now experiencing a love like nothing I have ever known before and joyful in its beauty and all the while my Mama has been right there.

And, if she had any hesitation, she never let on.

I’ve always devoured books, still do. Words are magic to me. The fact that occasionally I can string together a couple and make a beautiful sentence or a moving phrase or an evocative thought thrills me. I love to cook, and as my life evolves and changes I realize I love writing almost as much. The fact that I can marry these two loves and pay my bills is a wonderful and wondrous thing.

And, that, like most of the wonderful and wondrous things in my life is as a result of the love and support of my wonderful and wondrous Mama.

I love you Mama.
Happy Mother’s Day.
I Love YOU the Most!
Gin

Meme’s and Mama’s Pound Cake
Makes one 10-inch cake

This cake has been a constant in my life and it has been my birthday cake many times. Our family holidays would not be complete without it. The best part is the crispy, dark-brown sugary edges. Much to my mother’s consternation, more than once, little pesky elves raided the opaque Tupperware cake container and nibbled away those tasty bits.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
3 cups White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, at room temperature
3 cups sugar

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Generously grease a 16-cup (measure to the rim) bundt pan with butter. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a large liquid measuring cup, combine the milk, eggs, and the scraped vanilla seeds. Set aside.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, cream together the 1 cup of butter, vegetable shortening, and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the flour and milk mixtures to the butter mixture in 3 batches, alternating between dry and liquid, occasionally scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Fill the prepared pan with batter (it should be no more than two-thirds full).

Bake for 15 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 325°F and bake an additional 45 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Remove to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely.

This cake will stay moist in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

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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