Berry Berry Good: Strawberry Desserts Monday, May 5 2014 

Strawberry Semifreddo on https://virginiawillis.wordpress.com

Strawberries are the most popular berry fruit in the world, and while they are available in grocery stores every week of the year, spring is their true season. (Technically, strawberries aren’t actually a fruit or a berry; they are instead the “enlarged receptacle of the strawberry flower.”) Regardless of the correct botanical terminology, strawberries are a most welcome salute to spring! Their bright red bursts of color and flavor are refreshing after the winter months of apples, pears, and citrus. Although you can get seasonal strawberries grown in Florida and California, there’s nothing better than picking your own fully ripe berries or picking up farm fresh berries at your local farmer’s market.

Choose strawberries that have a good aroma and sweet fragrance. When ripe, the color of strawberry varieties can vary from a more medium red to deep red, so color is not always the best indicator. However, since they do not ripen after being picked, only choose strawberries that are fully red without any creamy white or pale green, with fresh-looking caps and perky green leaves. Health-wise, strawberries are fantastic with a good amount of fiber and more vitamin C than any other berry.

Topped with a spoonful of plain yogurt, they are a sweet-tart, wonderful, and delicious way to start your day. I’m not a fan of cooked strawberries (except in jam) so I prefer them as bright and clean bursts of flavor in salads or tossed in vinegar as a fruity salsa.

However, we all have destiny, I believe. And, to me there’s no doubt that strawberries shine their brightest in dessert. This Strawberry Semi-freddo was created by my dear friend and colleague Tamie Cook. It’s a creamy, indulgent, and awesome spring fling.

Strawberries and cream are classic decadence. For some Down-Home Comfort, please also take a look at FoodNetwork.com for my golden brown and incredibly tender Brown Sugar Strawberry Shortcakes. Absolutely nothing beats the taste of real whipped cream so just leave the non-dairy topping in the fridge for both desserts.  You know, yogurt is virtuous and yes, even delicious, but fresh strawberries and cream are simply divine.

Brown Sugar Strawberry Shortcake on Down-Home Comfort

When I was 18 I spent the summer in London. That summer I thought I was especially grown up, living abroad and galavanting all over London. I had heard about the beauty of Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and planned a visit. It was a few train rides away and off the normal metro line, but I managed to find my way there — all by myself. (I only want to add London England is a long, long ways from the red dirt roads of South Georgia.) Just before entering the majestic splendor, I popped into a grocer and purchased a pint of strawberries and a small glass bottle of clotted cream. It was a Anglophile’s dream date and I wanted a special private picnic for my solo garden tour. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat at the combination of my sophisticated sojourn and the very British bites I had in store. Yet, after the shop, I found myself at the gate without enough money to enter the gardens. I was scared I wouldn’t have enough money to get back home. So, I sat down on the bench by the gate and gazed through at the amazing beauty within the ornate iron gates. I remember thinking to myself what a silly little girl I had been, but I loved every mouthful of strawberries and cream none-the-less.

When whipping cream it is very important the cream be well chilled as well as the bowl and the beaters. (Cream simply will not whip if it is warm.) For best results, make sure to use cream that has either a 36 to 40 percent milk-fat content (heavy cream) or 30 to 36 percent (light whipping cream). Lastly, don’t over-whip the cream – it turns to butter. On that note, you won’t find either dessert in my next cookbook, Lighten Up, Y’all (spring 2015), but this book is all about saying YES! not saying no. You can have enjoy indulgent desserts – just not every day, not without moderation, and not without putting in an extra bit of exercise. So, enjoy!

Along with strawberries, spring has brought about a bit of spring cleaning. Please check out my new website, www.virginiawillis.com. I’m thrilled with the design and technology. It’s responsive to smart phone, tablet, or computer screen. Pretty cool stuff and great job by IdeaLand and Pixie Wizard Graphixs. I am so thankful to work with such a great team. Stay posted for big changes on my blog, too. Lots of new comings and goings on the horizon. Thanks so much for reading!

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

Strawberry Semifreddo on www.virginiawillis.com

Simple Strawberry Semifreddo 

Makes 8 3-ounce

2 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup strawberry puree
1 cup heavy whipping cream, chilled
Fresh strawberries, for serving

Place a large saucepan with 2-inches of water over high heat. Bring the water to a boil then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Whisk the eggs, sugar and salt together in a medium mixing bowl. Set the bowl atop the simmering saucepan, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.Whisk constantly, over the heat, until the mixture reaches 170° degrees F and has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.

Remove the bowl from the heat, add the strawberry puree and whisk until combined. If necessary, refrigerate until cooled to room temperature. Whip the cream in a large mixing bowl until medium peaks form.Fold whipped cream into strawberry mixture until well combined. Transfer to molds and freeze until firm, at least 6 hours. Unmold and serve with fresh strawberries.

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.

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings? Lets connect on  Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

virginia willis cookbooks

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

DSC_0455

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.

DSC_0475

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.

DSC_0478

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.

DSC_0542

Basil-Crusted Trout Fillets with Creamy Garlic Aioli
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

The Simple Life with Asparagus Recipes Friday, Jun 14 2013 

DSC_1057

Spring Vegetables?

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

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

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

DSC_0685

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

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

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

DSC_0399

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

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

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

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

DSC_0406

Simple Asparagus
Serves 4 to 6

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

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

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

DSC_0390

Asparagus with Fresh Mozzarella
Serves 4

The ends of fresh asparagus can be tough and woody. I prefer to slice off the last inch or so of the stem instead of snapping it off where the spear breaks naturally. Not only is it more visually appealing when all the spears are exactly the same size, but they will also cook at the same rate of speed. You can also trim the end then shave the tough bottom skin off with a vegetable peeler.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Little Jars, Big Flavors on National TV! Wednesday, Apr 24 2013 

Jamscvr2_7mc.indd

Putting Up

I’m excited about my new collaboration with Southern Living out this spring called Little Jars, Big Flavors. It’s Southern Living’s FIRST book about preserving and canning. It’s packed with 110 recipes and beautiful photos for small-batch jams, jellies, pickles and preserves from the Southern Living test kitchen. This handy new cookbook shows traditional canning basics, as well as how to make quick freezer jams and pickles, even ones that can be made in the microwave! I’ve written the introduction as well as a chapter on a “putting up party” — how to have a get-together with your friends and family and everyone goes home with a couple of jars of jam, jelly, or pickles. I’m thrilled to be part of it!

Watch for me nationally on Fox and Friends Weekend this Saturday morning April 27! 

Here’s a recipe for Quick Confetti Pickles. I hope you enjoy this recipe and can’t wait to hear what you think about Little Jars!

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

confetti_pickles

Quick Confetti Pickles

makes: 2 (1-pt.) jars for the fridge
hands-on time: 30 min.
total time: 1 hour, plus 1 day standing time

No time to can? No problem. These refrigerator pickles are easy—and so colorful that you’ll want to shingle them on buttered brown bread or put them in a glass bowl just to show them off. Standard radishes will do, but slender, carrotlike icicle radishes from the farmers’ market are easier to slice.

1 English cucumber
1 medium-size yellow squash
4 Tbsp. canning-and-pickling salt, divided
1 long, slender medium carrot
2 pink, purple, or red icicle radishes or 10 standard-size radishes
4 dill sprigs
1 cup cider vinegar (5% acidity)
¼ cup sugar
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. dill seeds

1. Wash vegetables. Score cucumber and squash lengthwise with a fork, leaving furrows in the peel on all sides. (This makes scalloped edges when vegetables are sliced.) Trim stem and blossom ends of cucumber and squash; cut into 1⁄8-inch slices. Place in a colander in sink; sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. salt, and toss gently. Let drain 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, peel carrot, and cut carrot and radishes into 1⁄8-inch-thick slices. Toss together with drained cucumber and squash.

3. Place 2 dill sprigs in each of 2 clean (1-pt.) jars or nonreactive containers with lids. Pack vegetables in jars, leaving ½-inch headspace.

4. Bring vinegar, next 3 ingredients, remaining 2 Tbsp. salt, and 2 cups water to a boil in a 1½-qt. stainless steel saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar and salt dissolve. Pour hot vinegar mixture over vegetables to cover. Apply lids. Chill 24 hours before serving. Store in refrigerator up to 3 weeks.

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.

Wild about Vegetables! Wednesday, Jul 25 2012 

20120725-083652.jpg

I’m a meat eater. I love seafood, poultry, goat, lamb, pork, and beef. I enjoy wild game and will pretty much try anything once. I’m even working on a book proposal about my friend Will Harris, a 4th generation cattle farmer. I got a kick out of this sticker I saw last week on a cooler of “Absolutely Local Beef” near Amherst, Massachusetts.

20120725-083109.jpg

However, especially in the summer, I’m wild about vegetables. For those of you that have been reading my blog you know we’ve got a garden. We have been harvesting cucumbers, squash, arugula, chard, and kale. The cucumbers have been fresh and crisp; the squash, creamy rich and aggressively vegetal at the same time. Wasabi arugula is an eye-opening green that gives our salads serious zip. (The yankee okra has been delicate, vibrant — and infrequent, but more about that later.) I admit I love the colors of the rainbow chard more than the green itself. Aahh, but the kale? I adore the kale.

20120725-092150.jpg

One of the cookbooks I’ve been reaching for to gain inspiration is Wild About Greens by my friend and colleague Nava Atlas. Now, Nava is a vegan culinary authority who fully subscribes to a non-animal lifestyle – no meat, no animal products, no honey, no wool, no leather. At first glance you might wonder if she and I, the Southern-born and bred, French-trained, meat-eating, Italian-loafer loving chef would have anything in common.

We do. We most certainly do. We both like good food. My ingredient list may be more diverse than her plant based one, but I fully respect her beliefs and her food is good! Her recipe for Garlicky Greens and mine for Chilled Kale Salad were separated at birth. Please make sure to check out her book. Just like the subject of her book, it’s good and good for you!

20120725-113452.jpg

I’m hosting Martha Stewart Radio this week! Today, Wednesday, July 25 is all about Preserving. I’ll be talking to canning expert Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of Put Em Up! We’ll explore ways to help you put up some great summer fruits and vegetables.
I am also thrilled to be “chilling out” with NY Times best-selling author Mark Kurlansky, who has written a biography on the inventor of modern frozen foods, Clarence Birdseye.

Please call in with your questions! You can also follow or ask questions on twitter at @MarthaRadio and use the hashtag #CookingToday. It’s Martha Stewart Living Radio, channel SiriusXM 110. If you would like to listen in but do not have Sirius, you can sign up for a FREE 7 day trial!

Below are a couple of greens recipes I hope you are wild about!

Bon Appetit, Y’all!
VA

20120725-092004.jpg

Nava’s Very Green Avocado-Tahini Dip
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Kind of a marriage of guacamole and hummus, and infused with a good amount of leafy greens, this rich dip makes its own unique statement. Serve with tortilla chips, fresh pita, pita chips, raw veggies, or a combination.

3 to 4 ounces baby spinach or arugula, or a combination
1 large, ripe avocado, peeled and diced
1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, cilantro, or dill
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Rinse the greens and place in a large skillet or saucepan. With just the water clinging to the leaves, cook until just wilted down. Remove from the heat.

Place all the ingredients in the container of a food processor, and process until smooth. Add 1/4 water, as needed, to achieve a medium-thick consistency. Transfer to a serving bowl. Keep covered until ready to serve.

Serve at once as suggested in the headnote. Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Recipe from Wild About Greens by Nava Atlas (Sterling, 2012), reprinted by permission

20120725-112015.jpg

Virginia’s Chilled Kale & Garlic Salad
Serves 4-6

The best way to clean greens is to fill a clean sink with cold water, add the greens, and swish them around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out, drain the sink, and repeat until the water is clear and the greens are free of dirt and grit.

1- 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium bunch kale (about 11/2 pounds), cleaned, tough stems removed and discarded,
and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper 

In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the slightly damp ribbons of greens; season with salt and pepper. Toss once or twice, then add the garlic. (This is where Nava and I slightly differ, but the results are quite similar. I add mine after the greens to buffer the garlic from possibly burning) Cook until the greens are bright green and slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. You can serve warm or for salad, transfer to a bowl and refrigerate until well-chilled. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Kale Photo credit: Virginia Willis
Dip Photo credit: Susan Voisin

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.

This Week I’m Hosting Martha Stewart Living Radio! Monday, Jul 23 2012 

Greens, Gardening, & Grilling

Quick note to let you know I’m hosting Martha Stewart Living Radio this week at 3:00 pm EST.

Today, Monday July 23rd I’m with vegetarian cooking expert Nava Atlas, author of the awesome new book, Wild about Greens. I’ll also have BBQ Queen Judith Fertig on the line with her new book, The Gardener and the Grill. We’re talking about greens, gardening, and grilling!

Canning & Preserving

Wednesday is all about Preserving. I’ll be talking to canning expert Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of Put Em Up! We’ll review simple approachable ways to can and preserve that will help you put up some great summer produce.
I am also thrilled to be chatting with NY Times best-selling author Mark Kurlansky, who has written a biography on Clarence Birdseye. (Yep, that one, the man that essentially invented frozen food.) I am a huge fan of Mark’s work and am so excited to have the opportunity to interview him. His book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World changed my life and how I consider seafood.

What’s HOT!

Friday is “What’s Hot”. There’s nothing much hotter right now than food trucks in the food world. I’m excited to have John T. Edge on the line talking about his new book The Truck Food Cookbook with recipes and great photographs by Angie Mosier.

When it’s hot I love nothing more than a ice-cold glass of tea. I’ll be joined by tea expert Bob Heiss, owner of Tea Trekker, one of the pre-eminent tea stores in the country and author of The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook.

Please listen and call in with your questions! You can also follow or ask questions on twitter at @MarthaRadio and use the hashtag #CookingToday. It’s Martha Stewart Living Radio, channel SiriusXM 110. If you would like to listen in but do not have Sirius, you can sign up for a FREE 7 day trial!

Lastly, if you miss the 3 PM broadcast, you can catch the re-play at 6 PM or 10 PM EST.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

4G Summer: Glorious, Gardening, Grilling, & Garlic + Three Condiment Recipes Wednesday, Jul 4 2012 

Life is Good

This summer has been glorious. Life is good, love is good, work is good. I am happy.

The past weeks have been filled with lots of gardening and grilling. I absolutely love to dig in the dirt. It’s so therapeutic. I can’t tend a houseplant to save my life, but vegetables? Love. It is so amazingly satisfying to watch them grow — and then eat them!

I am a simple creature, I really am. I insist. Feed me, love me, and I am good to go. Or grow, as the case seems to be.

Decompression from working and writing is spent in the garden. At the end of each day we go to the garden to weed and water. We enjoy drinks in the Adirondack chairs as the grill heats. It stays light quite late, it’s so beautiful outside, and grilling keeps the heat out of the kitchen. Last night we picked our first squash which I grilled seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and just a hint of oil. We also had salad from the garden – that I didn’t grill – but we enjoyed with a simple garlic dressing. It’s garlic harvest now and although we didn’t plant any in our garden, we’ve been buying fresh, sticky, hot delicious garlic at the Farmer’s Market. We’ve been putting it in everything.

Gardening, Grilling, and Garlic. That’s pretty much my summer in a nutshell.

I told you I was a simple creature.

Simple Food

Simple food is best to me. “Let the goodness of the ingredients shine” is my philosophy, especially in summer when the produce is fresh and bright. My friends and colleagues the BBQ Queens, Karen Adler and Judith Fertig have a tasty new cookbook that is spot on perfect for this summer. The Gardener and the Grill brilliantly combines the bounty of the garden with the sizzle of the grill. It’s packed with recipes for honest, good food. The photography is mouth-watering and it will inspire you to do more than the typical hot dogs and hamburgers on your grill this holiday weekend.

The recipes emphasize seasonality, sustainability, and recognizes that grilling from the garden has two rewards: growing your own food AND making it taste good – which I wholeheartedly endorse! Their book has new twists on grilled produce and great vegetable sides. And, there’s far more. Karen and Judith include an explanatory pantry chapter with recipes for homemade salts, seasonings, and dressing to enhance your grilling experience. Then, they break out the grill for appetizers; sandwiches, flatbread, and pizza; soups and salads; meat, poultry, and fish; and a sweet finish with fruits and desserts. Even if you aren’t able to grow your own,you will find plenty of recipes to use with vegetables from your local farm stand.

One recipe that caught my eye of course, involved garlic. I adore Romesco Sauce. So, in honor of my 4G glorious summer I want to share some garlicky goodness condiment recipes with you – Bagna Cauda and Aioli. With the 3 of these simple condiment recipes you can have a glorious picnic, too!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS Click here to see my video for the Washington Post on How to Pack a Perfect Picnic!

Flame-Licked Fingerlings with Romesco Sauce
Makes 8 servings

Flame-licked? More like finger-licking with this full-flavored Romesco Sauce! Try it with grilled zucchini or even grilled meats such as steak or chicken. Pretty much tastes good on anything.

1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
2 roasted red bell peppers or jarred roasted red bell peppers, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 slice white bread (crust removed), toasted and crumbled
1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds fingerling potatoes
Pure olive oil, for drizzling
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a food processor, grind the almonds. Add roasted peppers, garlic, bread, parsley and hot pepper flakes. Blend until it becomes a paste. Add the vinegar and pulse to blend. With the motor running, gradually pour the olive oil through the feed tube in a steady stream until the mixture thickens like mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. (Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)

Meanwhile, prepare a hot fire in your grill. Drizzle the fingerling potatoes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill the fingerlings in a perforated grill basket or an aluminum pan with holes in it. Place over the hot fire and close the grill lid. After about 3 or 4 minutes, open the grill and toss the potatoes. Clove the lid again and repeat the tossing in about another 3 or 4 minutes. Cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. Serve the grilled fingerlings on a platter with a bowl of the Romesco sauce set in the middle for dipping.

Adapted from THE GARDENER & THE GRILL © 2012 by Karen Adler & Judith Fertig, Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

Lisa’s Bagna Cauda
Makes about 3/4 cup


Instead of a mayonnaise or sour cream based dip, try this recipe for an exquisite warm oil-based dipping sauce. It is a lot of oil, but it’s heart-healthy olive oil. Packed with flavor that pops, all you need is the quickest, lightest coating on the dipped vegetables.

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 anchovy fillets in oil
6 large garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Fresh garden vegetables, for serving

Place the oil, anchovies, garlic, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse until smooth. Transfer the mixture to small heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat 15 minutes, stirring, occasionally. (The sauce will separate.) Serve with fresh vegetables.

Virginia’s Aioli
Makes 1 cup


This is an indulgence, but oh-my-goodness it is some kind of good. It’s homemade garlic mayonnaise and is awesome on grilled bread or vegetables. This would take your burger bash to a whole new level.

2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, mashed to a paste with salt
1 cup oil such as canola, olive, or a combination, room temperature
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Grilled bread, for serving

Whisk the egg yolks, mustard, white wine vinegar, and garlic together in a medium bowl until smooth and light. In a slow steady stream whisk the oil, a drop at a time, until the mixture starts to stiffen and thicken. As the mixture thickens you may add the oil, slightly faster. Season with salt and pepper. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Note: Pregnant women, young children, the elderly, or anyone whose health or immune system is compromised should not consume raw eggs.

Potato Photo credit: Steve Legato
Bagna Cauda and Aioli: Virginia Willis

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.

Healthy Summer Sides & Rancho la Puerta Thursday, Jun 28 2012 

Organic Cooking School

Last week I was in Mexico teaching La Cocina que Canta at Rancho la Puerta. At every turn there are sights, smells, and sounds that fill the senses. Such amazing beauty — and as incredible as those fields of flowers are, the gardens that really fill my soul are the organic vegetable and fruit gardens. Tres Estrellas is the 6 acre organic garden that provides much of the produce in the main kitchen and nearly all of the produce used by the cooking school.

Executive Chef Denise Roa works closely with the energetic and gregarious Head Gardener Salvadore with planting and harvesting the fruits and vegetables in the garden. She’s developed a very tight system in that 2-3 weeks before the chefs arrive she knows what will be ready for harvest. The visiting cooking teachers and chefs can then plan their menus accordingly. Frankly, I know of no other program like it, certainly in North America. It’s amazing for the cooking teachers, and most definitely, for the guests. It’s incredibly enlightening to be in an organic garden and see real food, to learn how to cook real food, and to push your body in physical exercise.

Really Losing It

Last year after teaching at Rancho la Puerta, I wrote a rather controversial post about the F word. Well, face it. Many people visit spas to lose weight. Regardless, a lot of people were quite surprised at my self-deprecating remarks. I have had issues with my weight my whole, entire life. I admitted in that post that I had truly never felt beautiful.

Mama was very upset with my post, mad that I said I wasn’t pretty, then she said she shouldn’t have fed me so much when I was a little girl. Lordy Mercy. It wasn’t her fault. We didn’t eat junk food growing up and she cooked homemade, wholesome food. My dad’s side of the family are large and stocky. There’s a lot about our bodies that boils down to genetics.

Y’all, some folks look like Charlize Theron and most folks don’t.

I wince when I hear women see a superthin waif-like supermodel and vocalize “I wish I looked like that!” Looking back at photos of when I was younger and thought I was fat, I actually wasn’t. A good deal of it was in my mind. But, even with my weight issues I’ve never, ever wanted to be super thin. I want to be strong. I guess if I could look like anyone other than myself, it would be a swimmer or a volleyball player, but never, ever a stick figure. The deal is no matter how much weight I lose, the likelihood of me growing another 3 inches is slim to none.

Last year’s piece was also about making changes, eating more healthfully. And, I did. The next months were filled with fresh produce and exercise. I was on track and things were going great. Then, I had a serious detour with my fall book tour. It completely messed me up. January came around and I was miserable, absolutely miserable. And, very overweight.

I had a major realization and I joined Weight Watchers. I knew I couldn’t continue on that path without serious consequences. I had to lose weight and I needed help. Coincidentally, one week after I joined the program Paula Deen announced she had diabetes. (I am not making that up.) I was quoted in various publications, including the New York Times. My iPhone was buzzing and dinging like a slot machine that entire week with various media outlets wanting quotes.

One of the things I said in the interviews is that Southern food doesn’t have to be unhealthy and that what is portrayed in the media isn’t always real Southern food. Yes, we occasionally ate Fried Chicken and Biscuits when I was young, but I sure as heck didn’t grow up with Bacon Wrapped Deep Fried Macaroni and Cheese.

How can I be taken seriously with my sermon because of my weight? Well, I am working on it.

Since January, I’m happy to say that I’ve lost 25 pounds and I’m working to lose even more. I feel absolutely great. I feel strong. (No, sadly I haven’t grown those 3 lost inches in stature and those Charlize Theron looks just aren’t happening this lifetime.)

It’s slow going, but it’s working and it’s real.

Real Food

It’s all about eating real food. The vegetables at Rancho la Puerta are alive! The gentle, persistent hum of the bees in the herbs is the soundtrack of the garden. The garlic is sticky and fiercely hot; the carrots are crisp and sweet like candy. One row goes to seed as the adjacent row has fledgling seedlings push through the soil. It’s vibrant and moving and pulsing with life. The food is as real and nourishing as it can possibly be. It’s powerful. It’s strong. The entire experience makes you think.

This past week at Rancho la Puerta I felt like I really embraced the philosophies of the ranch. I enjoyed the food and experience as I had never before. I did Monster Cardio Blast and Circuit Training. I laughed when the massage therapist said my calves were like massaging rocks. I taught Southern Comfort Spa Style and French Cuisine, and I felt honest in my skin. It felt really, really good.

Below are some of the recipes from the my classes as well as the famous Ranch Guacamole that I thought you might like as healthy summer sides.

Lighten Up, Y’all!
VA

Fennel and Carrot Slaw
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon mayonnaise or reduced fat mayonnaise
2 tablespoons low fat Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Zest of 1/2 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons fresh dill or fennel fronds, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar, honey, or agave, or to taste
1 pound fresh fennel bulbs, cored, trimmed, and thinly sliced in julienne
½ pound carrots, sliced in julienne
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Using a large bowl whisk together the mayonnaise, yogurt, vinegar, lemon juice, lemon zest, dill, and sugar. Season with salt and pepper. Add the thinly sliced fennel and carrots; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill up to 1 hour. Taste and adjust for seasoning and toss again before serving.

Roasted Beet Salad with Walnuts and Walnut Oil
Serves 4 to 6

4 medium fresh beets
1/4 cup walnuts, for garnish
1 shallot, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sherry or walnut vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon walnut oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 to 8 ounces mâche or tender young greens
4 to 6 ounces fresh goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Wrap the beets individually in aluminum foil and bake them directly on the oven rack until completely tender, 1 to 11/2 hours. Remove from the oven. When cool enough to handle, slip off the skins and slice the beets 1/4 inch thick. Set aside.

While the beets are roasting, toast the walnuts on a baking sheet in the same oven until brown, about 10 minutes. Let the nuts cool slightly, coarsely chop them, and transfer to a small bowl; set aside.

To prepare the dressing, whisk together the shallot, mustard, and vinegar in a small bowl. Add the olive and walnut oils in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until creamy and emulsified; season with salt and pepper.

Just before serving, toss the beets in a little of the dressing to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, toss the mâche with just enough dressing to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

To serve, divide the greens and beets among the serving plates. Top with a spoonful of goat cheese and a sprinkling of toasted walnuts. Serve immediately.

Rancho la Puerta Guacamole
Makes about 2 cups

1 cup frozen peas, slightly thawed
1 medium Hass avocado, peeled and pitted
Juice of 1 lime
1 medium tomato, seeded and cut into ¼-inch dice
1/2 sweet onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeño, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 small clove garlic, mashed into a paste
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, process the peas until smooth. Add the avocado, lime juice, tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Pulse until well-blended, but still slightly chunky.

Recipe adapted from Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta by Jesús González, Deborah Schneider, and Deborah Szekely.

Full disclosure: I teach at Rancho la Puerta in exchange for lodging for myself and one guest for the week. In addition, I receive 3 credits for use at the spa. However, this post is not part a prerequisite of our barter agreement and I am not additionally compensated for this post or any social media efforts publicizing this post.

All photos by Virginia Willis

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.

PEACH PIE: COLLABORATION AND SHARING Wednesday, May 30 2012 

Where do you think the expression “easy as pie” originated? Many cooks are scared of making pie – they don’t think it’s easy! Every one loves pie, but making it can be intimidating. Even perfectly useful kitchen folk are rendered helpless when pie is mentioned. Pie is a dish most often composed of delicious flavorful goodness encased in buttery pastry goodness. And, the peach pie I’m featuring in this post has a double dose of goodness, a butter and lard crust. That, in my opinion, should be enough incentive to overcome any kind of fear.

I grew up in Macon County, Georgia. Central and South Georgia are well known for their peach crops in the summer. Summer means peach pie, peach cobbler, and peach ice cream. Macon County is adjacent to Peach County, home to “The Big Peach”, a 75′ tall peach mounted on a 100′ tall pole. Peaches are serious business in Georgia.

The June issue of Southern Living contains my first story as a contributing editor. It’s all about peaches and I couldn’t think of any subject more appropriate. I am thrilled with the recipes and the photography and styling is absolutely beautiful, created by the talented Jennifer Davick and Marian Cooper Cairns.

Each summer my family would make “put up peaches”. We’d can peaches, freeze peaches, and make peach jelly. You have never been hot until you have been picking peaches in July in Georgia. The air is hot, thick, and wet like a sauna, but it’s about as far away from a spa as you can get. Satan himself would agree that hell is actually cooler. Gnats buzz around your eyes, mouth, and ears as mosquitoes nibble away at your ankles. Peach fuzz covers all exposed skin, and considering the extreme heat, there’s a lot of skin surface. The combination of sweat, bug spray, and itchy peach fuzz is a potent cocktail of misery. But, one bite of a perfectly ripe sweet, fragrant, flavorful peach is worth it.

Based for the next few months in New England, I am a long ways away from hotter-than-Georgia-asphalt summer. I took a couple days to drive up. I picked up strawberries in Maryland and peaches in South Carolina (shh, don’t tell Georgia.) I am thankful my life and work allows this kind of freedom and flexibility. I’m blessedly busy and as long as I have wi-fi and a kitchen I can work anywhere in the world. And, this summer I am exactly where and with whom I want to be. We put in the garden last weekend, have lots of plans, and lots of non-plans. If this past weekend is going to be any indication, I am certain this summer is going to be absolutely wonderful and quite delicious.

For Memorial Day we attended a Oaxacan goat roast co-hosted by  Sally Ekus. (The event was fantastic and will be featured on Food52 at a later date. I’ll be sure to share the link so stay-tuned.) Her sister, Amelia, arrived for the party from New York. She wanted to make pies for the feast — but her arrival time and party start time made that task pretty challenging. So, she asked her mom and I to make the fillings. Lisa made Strawberry Rhubarb and I made the White Peach and Ginger I am featuring today.

Amelia whisked in with several disks of dough she’d made the night before and kept cold on the train. Out whipped a rolling pin and the pies were in the oven within minutes. It was awesome. It was all about mutual trust and working together to get the job done. Collaboration Pies. They were beautiful and tasted incredible. The multi-family member exercise in putting food on the table made me smile from the inside out.

When something feeds the head, heart, and belly that’s about as good as you can get.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

I’ve tried hard to make a very user-friendly recipe complete with hand-holding, but if you are still intimidated about making pie, here’s a bit homework to settle your nerves:

WHITE PEACH AND GINGER PIE

Serves 8

One important cooking note – Amelia suggests to make this crust and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight. There is sound science behind these instructions: the dough will be evenly moist and the gluten will be very relaxed, resulting in a tender, flaky pie crust. And, it splits up the work so actually assembling the pie is, well, easy as pie.

6-8 ripe peaches (about the size of a baseball)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 Double Recipe Butter-Lard Crust, preferably made the day before, see below

The proper way to peel a peach: Fill a large bowl with ice and water to make an ice bath. Set aside. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, using a paring knife, score the bottom (not the stem end) of the peaches with an “X”. Using a slotted spoon, dip the peaches in the boiling water for just a moment, literally, 30 seconds or so. Transfer immediately to the ice bath. Using the paring knife, remove the skin from the peach.

The not proper way to peel a peach, but it will work if the peach is properly ripe: Simply peel it with a paring knife, by pulling, not cutting the skin off. When peach is just ripe, the skin will easily slip away.

However your method of peeling, slice this first peeled peach into eighths and place in a medium bowl. Add the vanilla, ginger, salt, lemon zest, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until well-combined. This will practically liquify this first peach if the peaches are very ripe, making it easier to evenly toss the remaining peaches. Peel and slice remaining peaches. Add and toss to coat.

Heat the oven to 425°F. Prepare the pie shell (see below) and pour the filling into the bottom crust. Top with lattice. Bake for 15 minutes then reduce the heat to 350°F and continue baking until golden brown, about 45 additional minutes.Transfer to a rack to cool slightly before slicing and serving.

Double Recipe Butter-Lard
Makes 1 double crust pie

3 cups all purpose flour, more for rolling out the dough
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
9 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons lard
1/2 cup cold water

To prepare the dough, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the butter and lard. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds. With the processor on pulse, add the ice water a tablespoon at a time. Pulse until the mixture holds together as a soft, but not crumbly or sticky, dough. Shape the dough into 2 equal disks, wrap each in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm and evenly moist, at least 30 minutes and preferably overnight.

Lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Place one dough disk in the center of the floured surface.(Keep the other one cold while working with the first.) Roll out the dough, starting in the center and rolling up to, but not over, the top edge of the dough. Return to the center, and roll down to, but not over, the bottom edge. Give the dough a quarter turn, and continue rolling, repeating the quarter turns until you have a disk about 1/8 inch thick.

Transfer the dough round to a 9-inch pie plate. With a sharp paring knife, trim the dough flush with the rim of the plate. Refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes.

To make a lattice, Roll out the remaining disk of the pie crust on a lightly floured surface. Using a pastry wheel, cut the square into 11 1-inch-wide strips. Lay strips, spaced 1/2-inch apart, across the filling. Fold back every other strip almost to the edge; then, at the folds, place a new strip perpendicular to the first ones. Return the folded strips so they overlap the new strip. Fold back the the other set of strips, stopping about 1 inch away from the first perpendicular strip; arrange another perpendicular strip at the folds. Continue until the lattice has been formed. Trim the overhanging strips so they are flush with the pie plate’s edge. Using a fork, seal the strips to the edge. Chill in the refrigerator until the crust is firm, about 15 minutes.

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.

Planting Gardens & Being Thankful: Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes Thursday, Apr 19 2012 

This week I kicked off chefs cooking at the at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in their awesome outdoor kitchen. It’s a lovely space and Atlanta is fortunate to have such an amazing garden. If you are a resident or a tourist, you should make sure to pay a visit when time allows. It’s spectacular.

The class was planned months ago, but happily we were able to use about 80% ingredients from the garden. It’s always a gamble, it is after all, farming, but the weather cooperated. The menu was Cream of Spring Greens Soup, Pea and Lettuce Risotto, Fennel Slaw, and Pecan Crusted Trout. For dessert, I made Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes. Other than the trout, all the recipes were newly created for the class. I wanted something special to start the season. An homage, of sorts, to the birth of Spring.

Several climate zones North of Atlanta I’m working on a garden for this summer in New England. Hay and sheeting still cover the rows, but it’s almost ready to be unwrapped. Being in the beauty of the gardens in Atlanta has given me great inspiration. Gardening is so powerful and full of life. Dirt is alive!

If Spring is an infant, Summer moves from toddler to teenager, and quickly. First there are small plants with clumsy, crooked stems then there are these powerful full fledged beings bursting with energy. But not yet, now there are dozens of seedlings in starter pots and biodegradable cups. Babies. They need watering or misting daily.

It’s just not in my skill set.

I do pretty good once the plants hit the great outdoors, but while still inside, they are too close to house plants. I am not so good with house plants. I can barely keep alive “pathos” which could likely survive nuclear winter and Saharan-like drought. What’s funny to me is that the lack of desire to spritz seedlings has to do with patience. I don’t have the patience for it — but I am actually a patient person. If I think something is worth having, I think it is also worth waiting for… working for….

So, my partner in this summer garden venture is spritzing the seedlings. What’s so funny is that she might be perceived as less patient. I talk slow; she talks fast. I work slow; she works fast. I edit my words; she is a fountain of words. The Southern girl who grew up on a red dirt road doesn’t have the patience and the Big City girl does. I love that.

Life isn’t always what is perceived, is it? I laughed at myself when I looked back at Bon Appétit, Y’all to gauge the proportions for the recipe for the cupcakes. In the headnote that I wrote 5 years ago I scoffed at chefs using beets instead of food coloring, and here I am now using beets. See red velvet and think a bottle of red dye and instead, it’s all natural coloring. It’s not what you would think; it’s not what one would automatically perceive.

Life isn’t at all what is often perceived by not only others, but also ourselves, and life is always, always changing.

I’m thankful, not of misperception of course, but of changing life. That’s what keeps us alive and growing.

I’m thankful to have the opportunity to cook in cool kitchens. I’m excited and thankful about our summer garden. (We’ve got scads of okra started so I can test recipes for my next book — on OKRA! It’s a little single subject university press and I am SO excited.) I’m thankful for the many opportunities being presented to me. I am thankful I love my work. I am thankful for my friends, family, and loved ones.

Speaking of, I’m very thankful there’s someone more patient than me to spritz seedlings and help our young plants grow. I’ll show up right about when it’s time to shovel that heavy Yankee dirt and turn those houseplants into a garden.

Bon Appétit, Y’all
VA

BEET RED VELVET CUPCAKES
MAKES 1 ½ quarts batter (2 9-inch layers or 100 mini cupcakes)

3 medium beets, scrubbed
1 cup canola oil, more for the pan if making a cake
½ cup + 2 tablespoons buttermilk
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 (16-ounce) box confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans, for garnish, optional

Heat the oven to 350. Place the beets on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until tender, about 1 hour. Remove and let cool. Peel the beets and coarsely chop.

Place the chopped beets in the large bowl of a large food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process until chunky, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the food processor running, add the oil and continue processing until very smooth. Add 1/2 cup buttermilk and eggs. Puree until smooth.

Add the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Pulse until well-combined. (If you have a large food processor you can continue in the processor, if not, sift the dry ingredients in a large bowl and add the wet ingredients from the food processor to the dry and stir until combined by hand. Don’t be blaming me when your beet dribbles onto your kitchen counter if your processor isn’t big enough.)

For mini cupcakes: Line the tin with cupcake liners. Using a ice cream scoop, a spoon, or a liquid measuring cup, fill the liners no more than 2/3 full. (This is important!!) Transfer to the oven and bake until firm, about 10 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.

Meanwhile, to prepare the frosting, in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle or beater attachment, cream the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth. Sift over the confectioners’ sugar. Beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. If too stiff, add the 2 tablespoons buttermilk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to achieve the correct consistency. Transfer the frosting to a piping bag. Top with a kiss of frosting. Sprinkle with optional pecans. Serve within 2-3 days.

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.