The Simple Life with Asparagus Recipes Friday, Jun 14 2013 


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.


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.


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!


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.


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, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

North and South: Massachusetts Maple Syrup and Georgia Cornmeal Pancakes Saturday, Mar 30 2013 


Take a look at that glorious view up in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. Spring seems nearly finished in Atlanta, but it’s still winter in much of the country. New England has had a long, powerful winter. This past week I paid a quick visit up North and was able to experience something I’ve wanted to do my entire food-obsessed life: visit a maple syrup “sugar shack” during production.


Through the snowy woods we drove up a winding, muddy road to the Davenport Maple Farm and Restaurant. As we made our way up the incline I felt excited like a kid when I saw the tin buckets hanging on the shaggy silver bark of the towering maple trees. Lisa chuckled and smiled at me when I exclaimed, “Look at the buckets! Look at the buckets!” Well, it’s been a desire for along while and, if you think about it, I am more used to cane syrup and gnats in South Georgia. Massachusetts maple trees and March snow are pretty foreign to my world.


We arrived at Davenport’s to see billowing clouds of white steam blowing against the bright blue sky. I opened the car door and a sweet, positively indescribable mouth-watering aroma permeated the cold, wet air. On the weekends during the season the Davenports serve breakfast. Sadly, our visit was during the week and there were no pancakes, but I was able to taste freshly made maple syrup right out of the cooker. I smiled ear to ear as I sipped the hot syrup out of the warm cup and gazed around the room.


Between taking delicious sips of the amber, piping hot syrup I listened as Mrs. Davenport kindly explained the process of making syrup. The Davenports have been making syrup on their farm for 100 years. The processing room was filled with accoutrements from the past, taps, sugar molds for making candy, and buckets of various ages and description.


Maple Syrup begins as sap in a maple tree. The sap is harvested in the spring when temperatures rise into the 40s during the day and cool off into the 20s at night. Trees are tapped using a drill to make a small hole. If conditions are right, the sap drips out into a bucket and is hand-collected. More modern methods involve a series of tubes that moves the sap from multiple trees to a holding tank. The sap is pumped into an evaporator that cooks off the water, leaving just the natural sugar. Astonishingly, it takes 40 quarts of sap to produce 1 quart of maple syrup.


Maple syrup is graded by color and flavor. Light Amber or Fancy Grade has a milder maple taste and is made early in the season when the weather is cold and brisk. This syrup is considered best for maple candy. Grade A or Medium Amber is also a fine table syrup and is the most popular for eating. This syrup is made after the weather begins to warm, about mid-season. Grade B is for cooking and is made late in the season. It’s darker and stronger in flavor because the sap has changed. The Davenport’s bottle a sampling from each time they boil sap to make syrup. The stunning array of amber and gold in the photograph below reflects their syrup through the years.


I left with a jugs and jugs of syrup, maple cream, and boxes of maple candy. Poor Mrs. Davenport probably thought I was crazy because I couldn’t help but give her a big hug when I left. I was so happy; I just couldn’t contain myself!


The whole experience was magical. I think that’s the part I love the most about food and cooking – the exploration. Seeing where food comes from and meeting the wonderful people who create, grow, and craft our food gives me such immense pleasure. I feel so fortunate to have these opportunities. Many, many thanks to the Davenport family for the tour and to Jaimee Constantine for sharing this special place with me. Until I am able to get up that way during sugar season for their New England pancakes, I am sharing a Southern-style pancake recipe made with cornmeal.

Lastly, thanks to Lisa for helping this happen, sharing her world, and making my life a little sweeter all around.

Bon Appétit Y’all!


Georgia Cornmeal Buttermilk Pancakes
Makes 10

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup fine yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1¼ cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more if needed
Maple syrup, for accompaniment

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter in a bowl or liquid measuring cup. Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry ingredients and whisk just until combined.

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and lightly coat with canola oil. Ladle ¼ cup batter into the pan for each pancake, cooking only a few at a time. Cook until the bubbles on the top burst and the bottoms are golden brown, about 1½ minutes.

Flip the pancakes and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Transfer to a baking sheet and place in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter, adding more oil to the pan as necessary. Transfer to warmed serving plates. Serve hot or warm with maple syrup.

Photo credit – 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, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

New England Seafood + Five Recipes Wednesday, Jul 11 2012 

Cape Cod

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Chatham Squire Cold beer and awesome Mussels Marinara.

Essex Seafood Incredible Fried Clams and Shrimp.

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

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

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

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

New England Clam Chowder
Serves 6

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

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

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

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

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

Lobster Rolls
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serves 4 to 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clam Shack Clams
Serves 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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