Berry Berry Good: Strawberry Desserts Monday, May 5 2014 

Strawberry Semifreddo on

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 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, 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

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, 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

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


Winter Weather 

pan seared winter squash on

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

Winter Squash Glossary on

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

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

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

delicata squash on

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

acorn squash on

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

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

kabocha squash on

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

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

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

Bon Appétit Y’all!

Pan Seared Winter Squash -

Pan-Seared Winter Squash 
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

Paris Cookbook Fair: Pulled Pork with BBQ Sauce Saturday, Feb 23 2013 


Paris Cookbook Fair 2013

Bonjour! Sending out a quick post from the Paris Cookbook Fair, Festival du Livre Culinaire from Le Carosel du Louvre. There are so many amazing, beautiful books from all over the world – France, the UK, South America, Israel, New Zealand — all over! I was thrilled to be asked to do a cooking demonstration. Of course, I knew I wanted to share my style of cooking, a blend of French and Southern — but with an extra special nod towards my Southern roots. So, I put it out on Twitter to ask folks what I should make…..

chicken 1 copy

Fried Chicken at the Louvre?

You will laugh at the reply from the Twitterverse!

chicken tweet copy

So, I didn’t. The last thing I want is an international incident over Fried Chicken. Although I am convinced that if the Mona Lisa could taste my fried chicken she’d have a full blown grin instead of her quirky little smile.

Southern Living saw the conversation and decided they had to write about it on their Daily South blog — “No, Virginia, You Can’t Fry in the Louvre.” Funny, right!?

Instead, I chose to make Pulled Pork Tenderloin with Georgia BBQ Sauce paired with Heirloom Stoneground Grits and Greens topped with Cole Slaw in a Mustard Vinaigrette. I actually brought My Southern Pantry® grits from home. I’m delighted to say that everyone loved it. It was a real blast.

I’m off to go see some beautiful food photography from the award-winning, international photographer Nancy Bundt. She’s absolutely phenomenal. I love her work. Later tonight, two people very important to me, Lisa Ekus and Anne Willan are receiving Gourmand Awards. More soon!

Bon Appétit Y’all!




Pulled Pork Tenderloin with Georgia Barbecue Sauce
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 small very finely chopped onion
2 1/2 cups ketchup
2 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cupDijon mustard
2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
Juice of 2 lemons (about 1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 (1-pound) pork tenderloin
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and simmer until soft and melted, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, brown sugar, lemon juice, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until flavors have smoothed and mellowed, about 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil.

Meanwhile, to prepare the pork, trim off the fat and silver skin: insert the tip of a sharp boning knife just under the silver skin about 1/2 inch from the edge of the meat where the silver skin begins. Keep the knife closer to the membrane than the meat, and pulling up slightly with the knife, slide the knife along the length of the meat to remove a strip of the membrane. Repeat until no silver skin remains. Season the pork with salt and pepper.

To sear the pork, in a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Sear the tenderloin until well browned on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove from the heat and place lengthwise on the prepared baking sheet. Top with about 1 cup of the barbecue sauce and roll to fully coat. Fold the foil over the top of the meat and pinch the ends of the foil to seal well. Bake until very tender, 30 to 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven and transfer the pork to a large bowl. Discard the cooking juices remaining in the foil. Using 2 forks, shred the pork tenderloin into strips. Add barbecue sauce to taste, about 1 cup. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve on the split buns with the remaining 1/4 cup of sauce on the side.

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.


Mix it Up: Beef Brisket Tacos with Chipotle Dressing Wednesday, Jan 9 2013 


Winter Wonderland

“Wait, where are you?”, the person on the other end of the line asks in complete disbelief.

Many conversations have gone along these lines this month. Yes, it may seem crazy to some, but I decided to come to New England for January. The winter wonderland is absolutely exquisite. Most snowbirds are heading to the sunny South and I decided to go North. What? Well, I have the flexibility and desire. And, of course, you know, sometimes you just have to mix it up.


I’m guilty of flying on auto-pilot in the kitchen sometimes. I don’t stretch with techniques or out of my normal palate of flavors. Sometimes, just like you, I just want to get dinner on the table. And, after a long day of exacting, precise recipe testing, the last thing I want to do is follow a ding-dang recipe. So, you know, sometimes you just have to mix it up.


I’ve had a stack of books to check out from Ten Speed Press, my publishing house.  I’m proud to be one of their authors. Robb Walsh is a fellow Ten Speed Press author and I am a sincere admirer of his work. Robb is an award winning author and journalist. He’s the real deal and his take on Texas is just the right thing to mix up your cold January.


Robb’s latest book is  Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook. He covers the classic Texas favorites like chicken-fried steak, cheese enchiladas, barbecued brisket, and King Ranch casserole.  He also delves into other Texan fusion cuisines, and there are more than a non-native might expect. There’s more to Texas than Tex-Mex, my friend. He shakes things up with Texas-versions of soul food, German-influenced recipes, and Vietnamese crossovers. With more than 200 recipes and captivating photography, Texas Eats brings Texas food and culinary history vibrantly to life.  It’s a beautiful, wonderful book.


Food Blog South

Education is a great way to shake things up.  Later this month I will be learning and sharing at Food Blog South in Birmingham. It’s a fantastic conference that has grown into a super event in just a few short years. On 25 January, the day before the conference actually starts, Lisa Ekus and I are teaching Honing Your Edge: Media Skills and Branding for Bloggers and Culinary Professionals.  The seminar will be held at Rosewood Ballroom, the site of the conference. The seminar is in a classroom setting and is limited to 50 people. There are still spaces available.  This is a great opportunity to learn and grow. Let me know if you need more information.

Lastly, on 28 January members of the Atlanta chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier are hosting a Simple Abundance cooking class at The Cook’s Warehouse to benefit the Atlanta Community Food Bank. It’s going to be a great night and seats are limited. Sign up today!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!


Robb’s Beef Brisket Tacos with Chipotle Dressing

Serves 10

4 pounds trimmed beef brisket
1 large white onion, chopped
4 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon salt
10 peppercorns
2 serrano chiles, coarsely chopped
8 cups water
4 cups beef broth

Chipotle Dressing
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 (7-ounce) can chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
Lettuce leaves, for serving
Chopped tomatoes, radish slices, cucumber slices, and chopped red onions, for garnish
20 Crispy Taco Shells

In a Dutch oven, combine the beef, onion, bay leaves, 
garlic, salt, peppercorns, and serranos. Pour in the water and broth and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer, covered, for about 3 hours, until the meat is falling-apart tender. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the brisket will register 190°F. Alternatively, bring to a boil as directed, then cover and cook in a preheated 350°F over for 3 hours. Or, combine all of the ingredients in a slow cooker and cook on the low setting for 6 to 8 hours.

Transfer the brisket to a cutting board and let cool. Meanwhile, strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve and set aside. When the brisket is cool, trim and scrape away any fat and gristle. With your fingers or 2 forks, tease the meat into shreds. Cut the shreds into 1-inch-long threads and place in a bowl. Moisten the meat with ½ cup of the broth. Save the remaining broth for another purpose.

To make the dressing, in a blender, combine the oil, lime juice, vinegar, and garlic and sprinkle in a little salt and pepper. Drain the chipotles, pouring all of the adobo sauce into the blender. Then add the chipotles to taste: there are about 10 chipotles in a can. For a little heat, add just 1 chipotle; for a medium-hot dressing, add 2 or 3 chipotles; and for a spicy dressing, add 4 or more chipotles. Turn on the blender and process until you have a smooth dressing. Add the dressing to the shredded beef. The mixture should be moist but not soupy. Chop the rest of the chipotles and put them on the table as a condiment.

Salpicón is a mixture of chopped fish, meat, or vegetables in a sauce, used as fillings for tacos, croquettes, and pastries. It is customarily chilled, then served at room temperature. To chill, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to several days. When you remove it from the refrigerator, the top will be dry and the dressing will have collected on the bottom of the bowl. Just before serving, dump the mixture into another bowl and retoss it.To serve, arrange a bed of lettuce leaves on a deep platter, and spoon the salpicón onto the lettuce. Garnish with the tomatoes, radish slices, and cucumber slices and top with a sprinkling of onion. Serve with the taco shells.

“Reprinted with permission from Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook, with More than 200 Recipes by Robb Walsh, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.”

Beef Photo credit: Laurie Smith © 2012

Winter Wonderland 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, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Lady Luck: Black Eyed Peas and Greens Tuesday, Jan 1 2013 


Eating black eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day is a special Southern tradition, and folklore says it brings luck and money in the upcoming year. However, eating greens actually isn’t a rarity for me. We eat greens 3 or more nights a week. I buy bunches at the farmer’s market, but I will admit to taking a shortcut with the pre-washed and pre-chopped bags of greens, too. They are just so easy and so good! It’s simple to simmer a couple of handfuls with an onion and a little vegetable or canola oil, just until they are tender. Meme used to cook them for hours and hours with salt pork or fatback. The salty, delicious greens would be so soft and tender they would practically slide down my throat. I like them prepared the old-fashioned way, but I also like them a bit more toothsome.


In the spirit of clean-eating and starting out the new year with a new you, I  am  sharing a recipe for a Black Eyed Pea Paella from my friend and colleague Kim O’Donnel. Kim is such an inspiring person, writer, and friend. Her most recent book is The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebration: Year-Round Vegetarian Feasts (You Can Really Sink Your Teeth Into). Her recipes are flat out delicious and, they just happen to be meatless. They are built on sound technique and good flavor. This book is a beautiful follow-up to her first book The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour. Her recipes are about good food, first. She’s a meat eater — she eats meat, just not as much as she used to.

Kim is very involved in the global movement Meatless Mondays. Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Meatless Monday premise is that going meatless once a week may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel. One pound of commodity ground beef – meaning not grass fed or all natural – takes 2000 gallons of water to produce. That’s astonishing. Thoughtful and mindful eating is a good way to make a small change in our health and our lives. The tiny step of going meat-free one day a week can make an impact on your own health, and the health of the global community.

Often at this time of year people make resolutions. I find those grand proclamations can be perfect set ups for massive failure. Instead, I prefer the Japanese concept of kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices and personal efficiency. Lordy Mercy, I know I am flawed and I have plenty to work on. If I think of all the things I should work on in my life, it’s far too overwhelmingBut, if I think about improving my life a little bit at a time, it’s manageable. Kaizen.

Here are a few tips for cooking black eyed peas and greens from a recent interview with  the Charlotte Observer. I also have an article in this month’s Fine Cooking on Hoppin John. Meaty or meatless, you’ve got the recipes for a lucky start to the New Year. Many wishes for a safe, prosperous, and healthy 2013.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!


VA’s Lucky Greens
Serves 4 to 6

Kale, collards, turnip greens, and mustard greens are dark leafy winter greens that are nutritional powerhouses and familiar friends on the Southern table. Look for brightly colored greens free of brown spots, yellowing edges, or limp leaves. The best way to clean greens is to first remove the tough stalks and stems. Fill a clean sink with cold water. Place the greens in water and swish around, allowing the grit to fall to the bottom the sink. Lift greens out of the sink and transfer to a large bowl and rinse the sink. Repeat the process at least three times or more as needed until no grit remains.

2 pounds assorted greens, such as collard, kale, mustard, or turnip
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 sweet onions, chopped
2 cups water
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hot sauce, for serving

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add the onions and cook until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil, gradually stir in the greens, allowing each batch to wilt before adding more; season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook, until greens are just tender, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Black eyed pea paella

Serves 6 

Kim says, “I learned how to make paella many years ago from one of Spain’s great culinary ambassadors, chef José Andrés. Using the technique Andrés taught me, I have created a meatless version with
black-eyed peas, a new twist on New Year’s hoppin’ John.”

The amounts below are for six hearty servings. Ideally, you’ll
want to use a 15-inch paella pan to ensure the most even cooking
results, but don’t worry if that’s not an option. Use a wide and
shallow skillet (lid not necessary) as close to 15 inches in diameter
as you can get. For a half-batch, use a pan about 10 inches wide.

Saffron, which is a spice derived from a variety of crocus, is a
traditional seasoning in paella, for both flavor and color. For this
dual tribute to the Catalan and the American South, the saffron
is not as integral to the final dish as is the pimentón (smoked paprika),which adds layers of flavor to the beans. You can do this
dish without the saffron, but in my humble opinion, you can’t do it
without the pimentón.

4 cups vegetable stock
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced onion (more than 1⁄2 medium-size onion)
1 cup seeded and diced bell pepper of your favorite color (about 1 medium-size pepper)
1 (16-ounce) bag frozen black-eyed peas, or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas, cooked*
1 1⁄2 teaspoons smoked paprika (also known as pimentón)
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 1⁄4 cups tomato puree
1⁄2 teaspoon crumbled saffron (optional)
1/2 cup white wine you enjoy drinking
1⁄2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2 cups uncooked short-grain white rice (1 pound)
Optional garnishes: Pickled peppers, chopped fresh parsley, lemon zest

*To cook dried black-eyed peas: Soak the peas for at least 2 hours in enough water to cover by at least 2 inches. Drain the peas, then place in a large pot with 4 cups of water. Bring to a lively simmer over medium-high heat.Cook at a hard boil for 5 minutes, then lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the beans are tender to the bite. This should take about 1 hour.

HERE’S WHAT YOU DO: In a medium-size saucepan, warm the vegetable stock until heated through and keep covered, on low, until ready to use.

Over medium-high heat, heat a 15-inch paella pan until it’s too hot to place your hand about 3 inches above the pan. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, tilting the pan so that the oil coats the entire bottom surface. Lower the heat to medium, add the onion, and cook until slightly softened, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep from burning or sticking.

Add the bell pepper, stir well, and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add the black-eyed peas and smoked paprika, stirring until the vegetables are evenly coated with the spice, about 90 seconds.Transfer the black-eyed pea mixture to a bowl and set aside.

Wipe the pan clean with a dry paper towel to remove any burnt, stuck-on bits. Add the remaining olive oil plus the garlic and cook over medium heat until, as chef Andrés says, “they dance.” (When
heated, the garlic moves around the pan in the bubbling oil.)

Add the tomato puree and stir often, over the next 5 minutes, until the color has transformed from red to a more golden, orange-brown shade. Add the saffron, if using. Then add the white wine and increase the heat to medium-high, stirring to keep from burning.

Return the black-eyed pea mixture to the pan. Add the stock. Bring to a boil, taste for salt, then season accordingly. You want the mixture to be slightly salty. This is also your last chance to add salt before
the rice is added.

Add the rice and set a timer for 16 minutes. For the first 6 minutes, gently stir the paella, to minimize burning and sticking. For the remaining cooking time, please heed the advice I learned from chef

Andrés: no more stirring or touching. Otherwise, you
will have a gummy rice concoction. This is also why you cannot add salt at this stage.

At minute 16, taste a grain of rice for doneness. It should be slightly al dente, like risotto. Turn off the heat and allow the paella to sit for at least 5 minutes. The results should be dry, not soupy. Serve hot in bowls.

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 © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

Home & Family: Creole Country Bouillabaisse Tuesday, Dec 11 2012 


I had an absolutely great time taping Home & Family on the Hallmark Channel. Hosts Mark Steines and Cristina Ferrare were super nice, truly, and it was a really, really neat show.

Here’s a link to the segment if you missed it.

The how-to segments evoked shades of my days with Martha Stewart TV! I loved David Walrod’s gardening tips and the succulent gardens. (For more about the Urban Dirt folks, make sure to check out

Ok, and hello?! Fan Girl! Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman! I was in makeup at the same time as Jane Seymour! I could hardly breathe, so yes, of course, I was too shy to ask her for a photo.

The other crazy part was the show is shot on the Universal Studio back lot. So, it’s like a neighborhood, but it’s not. The Home & Family house is a functioning house-set mashup, but the neighbors are just facades! In fact, I walked past the Leave it to Beaver house! It’s black and white in real life, too. 😉


Lots of folks have emailed me this morning asking for the recipe so here it is! It’s a great dish for the holidays when you are feeling a bit turkeyed out and you feel like you are about to sprout tail feathers. Other fish can be substituted if you can’t find halibut, just make sure to check out Seafood Watch to insure you are buying sustainable seafood for your seafood feast! You can download the app for your phone. It’s fantastic. On that note, I am very, very proud to announce I’m a founding member of the Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force along with chefs Hugh Acheson, Cindy Pawlcyn, Richard Blais, and John Ash, just to name a few.

Happy to also announce today that I’m writing another book! LIGHTEN UP Y’ALL!: 150 Comfort Food Recipes for Heart and Soul for publication in Spring 2015. I’m very excited. Much like this seafood soup, Southern food doesn’t have to be unhealthy! The book will be real food for real people. No boxes or mixes, no “fat free” fake food, just easy, delicious chef-inspired recipes to make for your family at home.

Many thanks, once again to Home & Family for having me on the show. If you watched and order a copy of Basic to Brilliant, Y’all or Bon Appétit, Y’all, I’d be happy to send you a bookplate, just send a note to with your address and I’ll pop it in the mail. Thank you, thank you, once again for your encouragement and support. Feeling very full right now….Thank you.

Bon Appétit, Y’all



Creole Country Bouillabaisse

Serves 6 to 8

This is a marriage made in heaven. I grew up in Louisiana enjoying crawfish boils. The Low Country, the area of the Atlantic coast between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, is famous for its Low Country boil, also known as Frogmore Stew. The south of France is famous for bouillabaisse. All are simple country seafood stews. I’ve combined the three, taking the best from each. Crawfish are available by mail order, online, and are sold live in better seafood markets in the spring.

2 tablespoons pure olive oil

1 onion, chopped

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 to 16 red new potatoes, about the size of golf balls

4 quarts homemade seafood stock or water

1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled

½ cup (3-ounce bag) Old Bay Seasoning

Bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, preferably fresh, 5 sprigs thyme, 4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, 10 black peppercorns, tied together in cheesecloth)

¼ cup tomato paste

2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

2 pounds fresh kielbasa, cut into pieces

6 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked and silk removed, broken in half

12 live crawfish

1½ pounds skinless halibut fillet, cut into large chunks

12 large shrimp (21/25 count), in the shell

12 mussels, scrubbed and debearded

12 cherrystone clams, scrubbed

Heat the oil in a large, heavy stockpot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the potatoes, seafood stock, garlic, Old Bay, bouquet garni, tomato paste, tomatoes, and cayenne pepper. Cover the pot and heat to a rolling boil. Decrease the heat to simmer and cook until fragrant and flavorful, about 15 minutes. Add the sausage, corn, and live crawfish and return to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the fish and cook gently until just opaque, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the shrimp, mussels, and clams and cook until the shrimp shells are pink and the meat is white and opaque and the mussels and clams have opened, an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Taste the broth and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

To serve, transfer portions of the seafood to warmed shallow soup bowls. Spoon the broth over the seafood and serve immediately with crusty bread.

Bouillabaise photo credit Helene Dujardin.

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 © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

Modern Thinking with Sauce on the Side Sunday, Dec 2 2012 

Image 2

Chef Boy-ardee

In the past week, much has been said about my appearance on Food Network’s Chopped and how I was the only woman, as either contestant or judge. I noticed, believe me.  Most of the side commentary hit the editing room floor, but there was not a lack of off-color jokes during the judging of the appetizer round. Put a platter of testicles in front of a man and he reverts to being an 8-year old.

gender symbols

Many folks were also surprised I was on a show with all restaurant chefs and not a special food writer’s episode. Interestingly enough, it’s pretty safe to say that a majority of restaurant chefs are men and the majority of food writers and cooking school teachers are women. I’ve seen sexism and experienced it first hand. I was once paid less than a man at a major position — and, I was working for a woman! I just try to do the best job I can and let my work speak for itself. It’s modern thinking. I certainly don’t believe that any appendages – other than a good set of hands – make someone a better cook.

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Chef James Beard?

If anything, I feel my not being a restaurateur has made things more challenging for me.  I’ve worked in restaurants, but it was never my passion. If I had a dollar for each time I answered the question, “what’s the name of your restaurant?”, I would be a very wealthy woman. I worked my way through culinary school by working in restaurants, but I never really wanted to own one. One of the greatest parts about being a culinary professional in today’s modern age is that there are so many choices. I have enormous respect for restaurant chefs. It’s hard work to make a living feeding people day in and day out. Yet, without intending to sound pompous, I feel like for the most part, I can cook clog to clog with anyone.  Of course there’s always more to learn. I am not saying I am the female Thomas Keller, but I certainly would not shrink from cooking for him or with him. I actually find the insinuation that I am somehow a lesser cook because I am a food writer slightly more insulting than any potential sexism.


I am a cook that became a writer. I find it ironic that James Beard, the American culinary icon, whose award is seen as the penultimate recognition of culinary prowess, was not a restaurant chef. James Beard was a food writer.

Sure, there are a lot of food writers that can’t cook like restaurant chefs. They know words, not execution. There are also some food writers that feel uncomfortable cooking with or in front of other people. Some food writers hate to teach cooking classes; I love it. I also relish the opportunity to cook with other cooks and chefs at events and for special book dinners, fundraisers, or as part of a food and wine festival. It’s outside of my day-to-day box and I like it. Maybe because it’s one of the few opportunities I have to show that I can do it, that I can cook with the “big boys” — which is also why embraced the challenge of Chopped.

sauces book cover

One of the elements that separates the men from the boys, so-to-speak, in cooking are sauces.  Home cooks rarely make sauces and trained cooks and chefs often do. A sauce can completely transform a dish.The saucier position in a French kitchen brigade is the highest of all the line cooks, just below the sous chef and chef. French chef Antoine Carême evolved an intricate methodology by which hundreds of sauces were classified under one of five “mother sauces”: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole; Hollandaise, and Tomate.

Carême devised this organization in the early 1800s and indeed, they are classics, but there is definitely room for something new! My friend and colleague Martha Holmberg has a new cookbook that is the answer. Modern Sauces: More than 150 Recipes for Every Cook, Every Day is a tool kit of incredible sauces for cooks to prepare at home. It’s “sauce-making for everyone.” She, too is a fellow LaVarenne alum and Anne Willan protege. Martha is also the former food editor for Fine Cooking magazine. True to form, the recipes are excellent and very clearly written. The book is receiving very high and deserved praise.

“Modern Sauces is my favorite book this year. It is destined to be a classic reference for the rest of my cooking life, on one of the most valuable but least understood facets of cooking: sauces. Martha Holmberg brings great intelligence and lucid writing and instructions to the important craft of sauces. She is both respectful of and illuminating about classic sauces, innovative in her thinking about contemporary sauces, and practical in terms of everyday cooking. This is a great book.” – Michael Ruhlman

The photography is by Ellen Silverman, the photographer for my 1st book, Bon Appétit, Y’all. Martha’s book is absolutely lovely in words, photos, and flavors. She’s done an excellent job of what good food writers strive to do, to teach people how to prepare restaurant quality, chef-inspired food at home. 

With a big wink and a nod, I’m sharing her recipe for a very home-style bread pudding with a very cheffy ginger caramel sauce. It’s the best of both worlds. Try it this holiday season for a simple dessert or as she suggests, give it a go it for an indulgent breakfast!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS If you missed it, here’s a link to part of my appearance on Chopped – ice cream fiasco included. 😉

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Martha’s Buttery Apple Bread Pudding with Ginger Caramel Sauce
Serves 8

Challah or brioche makes a rich and tender pudding, and white artisanal loaves make a denser but still delicious pudding. You can serve this dessert warm from the oven or cold the next day, and it microwaves beautifully if you want to warm it up for breakfast.

1 pound bread such as challah, brioche or a rustic white artisanal loaf, crusts left on unless tough, cut into 1-inch cubes
2-1/2 cups half-and-half or whole milk
1 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of kosher salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more for the pan
3 to 4 medium apples such as Braeburn, Pink Lady or Fuji (about 13/4 pounds), halved, cored, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Ginger Caramel Sauce, recipe below
1 cup crème fraîche

Arrange the bread in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet and leave it out on the counter overnight to dry out. (Or dry the bread in a 200-degree oven for about 30 minutes.)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, 1 cup of the sugar, the eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt until the sugar is dissolved. Add the bread to the bowl and gently fold it into the custard. It will take some time for the bread to absorb all of the custard, so keep folding.

In a large frying pan, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the apples and cook, shaking the pan frequently and flipping the apples once or twice, for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the apples are soft and beginning to brown, 5 to 6 minutes more.

Stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar and continue to cook, stirring often, until the apples looks golden and yummy, another 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer the apples to a large plate to cool. When they are barely warm, fold them into the bread and custard.

Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 2-quart souffle dish or baking dish with high sides (you can use a shallower, wider dish, but you will need to shorten the cooking time). Transfer the bread-and-apple mixture to the dish, spreading it evenly. Cut the remaining 1 tablespoon butter into small pieces and dot the top of the pudding.

Bake the pudding until it is firm and no longer jiggly in the center and slightly puffed, 45 to 60 minutes. It can be hard to tell when the pudding is completely done, so if you have an instant-read thermometer, use it. It should register 160 degrees in the center.

Let the pudding cool briefly. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the creme fraiche to loosen it. Scoop portions of the warm pudding onto small plates or into little bowls. Garnish each serving with the caramel sauce, drizzling it in one direction over the top of the pudding. Then drizzle the creme fraiche in the other direction. Serve right away.

Ginger Caramel Sauce

1 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 tablespoons peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the cream and ginger and bring just to a simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat and let the cream infuse for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste the cream, and if it isn’t gingery enough, let it sit for another few minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing gently on the solids to extract the ginger flavor (press too hard and the cream will have a vegetal taste).

In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring just until the sugar is moistened. Let the mixture boil, without stirring but with an occasional swirl of the pan, until it is a deep amber, smells like caramel, and you can see just the tiniest wisps of smoke, 9 to 12 minutes. The caramel will be very hot at this point. Remove the saucepan from the heat and carefully add a little bit of the ginger-infused cream; the caramel will bubble up furiously.

Return the pan to low heat and whisk in the remaining cream a little at a time (to avoid bubbling over), then whisk in the butter and salt. Continue to whisk until the sauce is very smooth, another minute or so. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sauce cool in the pan; it will thicken as it cools. Serve warm or at room temperature.

— From “Modern Sauces” by Martha Holmberg (Chronicle Books, $35)

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 © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

SPOILER ALERT: Chopped, Nuts, & Ice Cream Fiascos Wednesday, Nov 28 2012 


Nuts. There’s the whole nuts thing to begin with… I know you’re glad those are pecans featured in the photo above and not the other!

Ok, before I get started with all that – thanks for reading, thanks for watching, and thanks for your support. Since I announced that I would be appearing on Chopped, I have had so many notes and emails of encouragement. It’s been incredible humbling. It has touched me more than I could ever express. I’ve read the posts on Facebook about being carried into the winner’s circle and how folks just knew I’d won.

I knew the results.

I knew I didn’t win, I knew I had been chopped, but I was still proud. Of course I was disappointed; I wanted to win. But, you know what? I may not have won, but I didn’t fail.

There’s a lot to be said for that. Originally, I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted to even participate. On one hand, I like watching the show and appreciate the entertainment factor. On the other? I am weary of fighting food. How weird can the ingredients be? How fast can food be prepared? How many can be served at once? How much can be eaten at once? Those concepts are pretty far from my food and cooking philosophies, which primarily involve refined Southern cuisine, using sustainable food, and classic French technique.

The deal is: I love to cook! Chopped was a challenge. I’m not a restaurateur and yet I know I can cook! I wanted to see if I could do it. I also recognize it takes a lot of nerve to go on national television in front of millions of people and possibly fail. I had a 75% chance of failure – and a 25% chance of success.

There’s an expression I use with myself quite a bit, “If you try, you might fail, but you are guaranteed to fail if you don’t try.”

It was an honor to make it through the try-outs and tests just to even have a chance at being a Chopped champion. I made errors, things I know better than to do. I second -guessed myself on a few things and of course knew not to do others, as well. Hindsight is 20/20. I’ve replayed those thoughts and choices again and again. My competitors were very well-qualified opponents but, no one is prepared for the strange ingredients offered up in those baskets on Chopped.

Lamb balls? Seriously? Lamb balls and coffee? Chickpea flour and raspberries? Whoa. I’ll just tell you one thing, an armchair quarterback is an easier place to be! It was hot as blue blazes in that kitchen. There’s no space to put anything. The dishes are on one side of the enormous set and the ingredients are on the other. I just remember muttering repeatedly, “I can do this, I can do this.”

That ding dang ice cream fiasco was nearly the death of me.

I’m not used to industrial restaurant equipment. The whole idea that I even pulled off using the anti-griddle is flat out hilarious to me. Me, of all cooks, successfully using a high-tech piece of equipment from kitchens which often feature molecular gastronomy, seemed ludicrous. In my kitchen, I focus on teaching people how to make chef-inspired food at home with equipment and ingredients available at your local cookware store.

Did you see that fork get sucked up into the ice cream machine like a tornado? Oh Lordy Mercy. I wanted to die, but I never, ever, ever thought about quitting.

I almost made it. “Almost” is rarely good enough for me. “Almost” doesn’t cut it – yet, somehow I am satisfied. Well, almost…. The main thing is that I didn’t give up. I know I am a damn good cook.

And, you know what? I’d do it again in an absolute heartbeat.

Special, special thanks to The Lisa Ekus Group, my trainers Sally Ekus and Debi Loftis, and the amazing folks at The Cook’s Warehouse, especially Matthew Hott, for their amazing support.

I am given much and feel incredibly blessed and thankful. I volunteer with Georgia Cooking Matters, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and Tonight we’ve promoted #LetsChopHunger. As we consider what it means to have food for entertainment, please also consider donating or volunteering for an organization that helps folks with hunger issues. To those that much is given, much is expected. Let’s share the love.

Lastly, many, many congratulations to Tabb Singleton for his amazing victory. I am so happy and proud for his very well-deserved win. Bravo, chef.

In honor of my ice cream fiasco I am sharing a recipe for CHOPPED NUT ICE CREAM!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Chopped Nuts Ice Cream
Makes 1 quart

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups light cream
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 cup 2% or whole milk
1/4 cup strong brewed coffee
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts such as pecans, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts

To prepare an ice bath, fill a large bowl halfway with ice cubes; toss kosher salt generously among the cubes, and add a bit of water. Set aside.

Place the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl. Bring 1/2 cup of the cream to a simmer. Pour the cream over the chocolate.

Let it sit for several minutes, then slowly stir the cream into the chocolate. Once it’s smooth, add the cocoa powder to the chocolate cream. Set aside.

Heat the milk and remaining 1/2 cup of cream to a simmer in a saucepan. In a bowl, blend together the egg yolks, sugar, and a pinch of salt with a wooden spoon until thick and light, being careful not to make the mixture foamy.

Whisk in half the hot milk, then whisk the mixture back into the remaining milk. Heat gently, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Add the coffee.

Continue stirring the custard until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and it reaches 180°F on an instant-read thermometer.

Remove from the heat and immediately strain into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve. Add the reserved chocolate mixture to the strained custard and stir to combine.

Place the mixture over the ice bath and chill until completely chilled.

Add the NUTS and the chilled custard into the bowl of an ice cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Enjoy, ’cause y’all this stuff is good!!

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 © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

Turkey 101: Brining, Roasting, and Carving Wednesday, Nov 21 2012 

Turkey 101

Mama told me the most shocking thing this week – she’s never roasted a turkey. I was absolutely, positively flabbergasted. I didn’t believe her. She said that Meme always cooked it — and then I took over cooking the bird.

What? Really?! How on earth did that happen?

We’ve cooked one together, this I know. In fact, the first time I ever brined a bird was with Mama over 10 years ago. I had read about it in Cook’s Illustrated. You know those folks like to brine. They’ll brine anything that doesn’t move fast enough. I was pretty curious so we thought we’d give it a try. We tried an overnight brine with salt, sugar, and spices. The bird was moist and tender with the most beautiful caramel-colored golden brown skin.

It was then I decided I would never not brine a turkey.

We brined and cooked one again this past weekend. We celebrated Thanksgiving on Sunday as I am in New England for the next few weeks. It was just the three of us at Mama’s, so we didn’t need a big bird. Then Mama and my sister are going to celebrate again on Thursday. We all like dark meat, so a breast wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t certain what to do – then, I had one of my better ideas. I bought a small bird and brined it overnight as I always do, then I halved it! I cut the backbone out and split it down the breast. It was an absolute revelation – and only took about an hour to cook. Splendid. Something to keep in mind if you need a smaller-than-normal bird. You can always freeze the other half. Mama is finally going to cook a bird! Well, technically, it will be half a bird, but I think we’ll give her credit.

Brining Basics

What’s all this business about brining? Brining – soaking meat in a saltwater solution – is the key to a juicy, tender turkey. Salt causes the food proteins to form a complex mesh that traps the brine so the muscle fibers absorb additional liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier to begin with, it cooks up juicier at the end. It sounds a little complicated, but think of a cup filled “over the rim.”

The size of the salt grains used in a brine is very important. Grains of table salt are very fine, while those of kosher salt are larger. The crystals of the two most widely available brands of kosher salt, Morton’s and Diamond Brand, differ. Half a cup of table salt is equal to 1 cup of Diamond Brand kosher salt or 3/4 cup Morton’s kosher salt. My recipes call for Diamond Brand because the conversion is easy at 2:1.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for brining – it all depends on how long you want to brine. However, keep in mind that the stronger and more concentrated the brining solution and the smaller the piece of meat, the shorter the brining period. A turkey is best brined in a weak solution for a longer period of time. For smaller pieces of meat, my philosophy is to use a strong brine that takes an hour or less.

However, for a turkey, I prefer an overnight brine. With a 10 to 15 pound turkey, dissolve 1 cup Diamond Brand kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar in 1 gallon of hot water. Stir until dissolved, then add 1 gallon of ice water to cool the solution. The total amount of water depends on the size of your container. Since most of us don’t have a refrigerator to place a turkey in a 5-gallon bucket, I suggest using a cooler with ice and ice packs. I store the cooler outside since it’s cold. Having said that, make sure to weigh down the lid of the cooler so a curious raccoon or other critter doesn’t take a peak, look-see, or a nibble.

Brining? Check.

What about Roasting? There are recipes at the bottom of this post for whole roast turkey and a turkey breast. I roast at a higher temperature to start, then reduce the heat to finish cooking. In general, The main point about roasting a big bird is food safety. I suggest using an instant read thermometer. Instant-read thermometers are indispensable when cooking a large piece of meat because, while the doneness of steaks and chicken breasts can often be gauged by touching the meat and feeling for firmness, a large piece of meat such as a turkey needs a thermometer to really see what’s inside. The plastic pop-up timers found in many turkeys are unreliable, often resulting in an overcooked bird. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with an instant read thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

Here’s a general guideline for cooking times for  unstuffed birds:
4 to 8 pounds (breast) 1½ to 3¼ hours
8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours

What about Carving? What on earth do you do once your’ve cooked your  bird? Here you go!

How to Carve a Cooked Turkey

When carving a turkey, let the bird guide the way. This may sound funny, but the parts should separate at the joints with little or no effort. I often tell my students that if the bird is fighting you, the knife is not in the right place.

Set the turkey breast side up on a cutting board, preferably with a moat to catch the juices.  If the bird is hot, I use a clean kitchen towel to protect my hand and fingers instead of a carving fork, but you can use a fork. I prefer to use the towel because it doesn’t tear the skin and I have those chef asbestos fingers. Do what feels comfortable to you.

Pull the leg and thigh back to expose the joint that attaches it to the body.

Somewhat forcefully bend a leg away from the body until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the leg from the body, cutting through the separated joint. As you separate the leg, using the tip of the knife, be sure to get the “oyster,” a yummy nugget of delicious dark meat toward the back of the turkey, just above the thigh. Repeat the process with the other leg and thigh.

Place each leg quarter on the cutting board, skin side down. Use a chef’s knife to cut through the joint that connects the leg to the thigh. (It should be fairly easy to cut through the joint.) Look for a line of fat, and if the knife meets resistance, your knife is hitting bone and is not placed at the joint, which is easy to carve through. So, reposition the blade slightly and try again.

Place the turkey breast side up on the cutting board. Feel for the breastbone, which runs along the top center of the carcass. Begin separating one side of the breast from the body by cutting immediately alongside the breastbone with the tip of your knife. Work from the tail end of the bird toward the neck end. When you hit the wishbone, angle the knife and cut down along the wishbone toward the wing, then make a cut between the breast and the wing.

Finish separating the breast by simultaneously pulling back on the meat and using little short strokes of the knife tip to cut the meat away from the carcass. Slice the breast into 1/4-inch thick slices. (Do the same to remove the breast meat on the other side.)

Find the joint where the wings connect to the body and bend until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the wing from the body, cutting through the separated joint. Using a chef’s knife or your hands, remove whatever meat remains on the carcass. (Reserve the carcass for stock.) Arrange the legs, thighs, wings, and meat on a platter, pour over any accumulated juices to moisten the meat, or use in pan sauce, and serve.

There you are – Turkey 101 – Brining, Roasting, and Carving. Whether this will be your 1st bird or your 50th, I wish the best for you and yours.

A couple of thoughts before I sign off — We’re on the official countdown!! One week until my appearance on Chopped! Make sure to watch 11/27 at 10 pm EST! If you’re on twitter follow with the hashtag #Chopped AND #letschophunger!

Lastly, as you start your holiday shopping, please know that both of my cookbooks are on sale on Amazon for an amazing price of $23.10. I’m happy to send you a signed and personalized bookplate if you shoot me a note to with “bookplate” in the subject heading.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Bon Appétit, Y’all!


Makes 8 to 10 servings

2 cups kosher salt
1 12 to 14-pound turkey, neck and giblets reserved for stock
1 stalk celery
1 apple, halved
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh oregano
4 fresh sage leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1 onion, peeled
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Apple Cider Gravy, recipe follows

Using a 5-gallon bucket lined with a large heavy-duty plastic garbage bag, combine 2 gallons of water with 2 cups kosher salt as directed above. Add the turkey, cover and chill for 8 to 10 hours.

Heat oven to 425°F, place oven rack in lowest position. Rinse turkey inside and out and pat dry. Rub turkey inside and out with salt and pepper. Place celery, apple, parsley, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, bay leaf and onion in cavity. Working from large cavity end, run fingers between skin and flesh of breast to loosen skin without tearing. Put 2 tablespoons butter under skin and spread butter evenly. Tie drumsticks together with kitchen string and fold wings under body. Put turkey on rack in a large roasting pan. Brush remaining 2 tablespoons butter over turkey, roast 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Baste turkey with pan drippings and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes, until a thigh registers 165°F on a thermometer, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Carefully tilt turkey to release any juices from inside cavity into roasting pan. Transfer turkey to serving platter. Discard celery, apple, parsley, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, bay leaf and onion from cavity. Allow turkey to rest 30 minutes before carving. Serve with Apple Cider Gravy.


1 cup hard cider or sparkling hard cider
4 cups turkey stock
2 large onions, finely chopped
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter,
4 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Remove rack from roasting pan and pour pan juices through a sieve into a 1-quart glass measure. Place roasting pan across two burners over high heat, add cider and deglaze pan, stirring and scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes. Pour cider through sieve into glass measure with pan juices, skim fat, reserving 1/4 cup. Add enough turkey stock to drippings to equal 4 cups.

Using a large sauté pan over medium heat, add butter. Sauté onions, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add sage and cook, 1 minute. Add turkey stock mixture and any turkey juices accumulated on platter and bring to a boil. Using a small bowl whisk together flour and reserved 1/4 cup fat. Whisk into gravy, reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Want something a little smaller?

Brined Roast Turkey Breast with Herb Pan Gravy
Serves 6 to 8

Several years ago I was asked to style the food for a commercial with Paula Deen. They called me during the ten-day photo shoot for my first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all. I was exhausted, but it was good work, and I have an attitude that you can do anything for two days. I drove south and, with toothpicks holding my eyes open, did my work. On the afternoon of the second day, her assistant told me Ladies Home Journal was coming to shoot the Thanksgiving cover story, a big deal in the magazine world. He said, “We thought they were bringing a stylist; they thought we had a stylist. Will you stay two more days?” Well, I can do anything for two days so I pushed through and stayed, creating an iconic roast Thanksgiving turkey cover shot and all.

The experience turned out to be a life lesson. Six months later, Ladies Home Journal posted that my first cookbook was one of their favorite books of the year, and Paula soon thereafter had me as a guest on her show. I believe sometimes you have to put it all out there for good to happen. That, and you can do anything for two days.

1 cup kosher salt
1 cup sugar
1½ gallons water
1 whole bone-in, skin-on turkey breast (6 to 7 pounds)
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon very finely chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon very finely chopped fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
3 celery stalks, chopped
3 carrots, cut into chunks
3 onions, preferably Vidalia, quartered
2½ cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Coarse salt

Dissolve the kosher salt and sugar in the water in large, clean bucket or stockpot. Set the turkey breast in the brine, making sure it is submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to overnight.

Remove the turkey breast from the brine. Pat dry and set aside. Place the butter in a bowl; add the sage and thyme. Season the butter well with pepper and stir to combine. Set aside. Twenty minutes before roasting, preheat the oven to 450°F.

Place the turkey on a clean work surface. Using a chef’s knife, remove the remaining portion of the neck and reserve it for the stock and gravy. Remove the wishbone to make carving easier; set it aside with the neck for the gravy. With your hand, carefully release the skin on both breasts to form two pockets. Rub the seasoned butter under the released skin. If there is any extra butter, massage it on the outside of the skin.

Put the celery, carrots, and onions in a large roasting pan. Pour ½ cup of the chicken stock into the pan bottom to prevent the drippings from burning. Place the prepared turkey, skin side up, on top of the vegetables. Place the pan in the oven with the wide neck end toward the rear of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan back to front. Roast for 15 minutes more, until skin turns golden. Decrease the oven temperature to 325°F and continue to roast, rotating the pan once more about halfway through the cooking, until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast registers 160°F to 165°F, 30 to 45 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the turkey breast to a cutting board, preferably with a moat. Cover the turkey loosely with aluminum foil. Pour the remaining 2 cups chicken stock into a saucepan. Add the reserved neck and wishbone and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to simmer.

Place the roasting pan over medium-high heat. Add the flour to the pan drippings and stir until well combined. Strain the warmed stock over the flour-vegetable combination and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to simmer and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Strain the mixture into a saucepan (the saucepan that held the stock is fine to use), pressing on the vegetables to get every drop and all the flavor. Check and make sure the sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon; if not, continue simmering the sauce until the correct consistency is achieved. (If it’s too thick, add a little water or additional stock.)

Carve the turkey breast and plate on a warm platter. Add any juices that run into the moat to the gravy. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper and serve with the gravy on the side.

Speaking of sides…

Bourbon Sweet Potatoes on Leite’s Culinaria.

Winter Green and Butternut Squash Gratin on the Cooking Channel.

Five Biscuit Recipes to choose from OR try out Sweet Potato Biscuits.

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 © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

BIG NEWS! I’m going to be on Chopped! Thursday, Nov 1 2012 


I’m excited to announce that I’m going to be a chef-testant on Food Network’s  cooking competition show Chopped!! The episode premiers on November 27 at 10 pm EST/9 pm CT.  I am sooo excited. It was a fantastic experience — and really, really hard! No kidding, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Take a moment and noodle on that for a second.

I started college when I was 16. I’ve worked for Martha Stewart, Anne Willan, Nora Pouillon, and Nathalie Dupree. I trained under French chefs in DC and in France. I worked in a 2 star Michelin kitchen where we cleaned the kitchen with rubbing alcohol on Saturday nights after 150 covers, just for kicks and giggles. I’ve slept on the dining room floor of a restaurant where I cooked between day and nighttime shifts because I was so exhausted. I’m a very hard worker — and yet, being a guest on Chopped was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was seriously intense.

“Chopped” is a top-rated competition cooking show that focuses on skill, speed, creativity, and execution. Chefs are challenged to create dishes that showcase their passion, cooking style, and culinary talent, all within a 30 minute deadline. The catch? We had to use mystery ingredients pulled out of a basket just seconds before we started cooking. In the past, contestants have pulled out items such as animal crackers, octopus, yucca, rice cakes, and Gummi Bears.

Believe me, I was wishing for gummi bears. You will not believe what we had to cook. Check out the press release to read more about it!

Of course, I can’t share anything I cooked on the show. In honor of weird, strange ingredients I’m going to share a recipe for one of the more normal things I can think of — Tomato Soup!

Remember to mark your calendars and save the date!
Watch Tuesday 11/27 at 10 pm  on Food Network!
Make sure to tune in and see if I survive the Chopping Block!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Mexican Tomato Soup

Serves 4 to 6

Well, it’s not really a super normal recipe – it’s a Mexican version. The key here is charring the tomatoes. Normally I would never suggest cooking fresh tomatoes out of season, but charring them really transforms their flavor.

2 medium Roma tomatoes, cored
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 onion, CHOPPED
2 garlic cloves
1 quart reduced-sodium fat-free chicken broth or homemade chicken stock
2 cups low-sodium tomato juice
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
4 green onions, CHOPPED
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup CHOPPED fresh cilantro
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat 2 minutes until it’s nuclear hot. Add the tomatoes, and cook, turning occasionally, 10 minutes or until charred on all sides. Transfer to a food processor.

Let the skillet cool down just a little. Add the oil and heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the whole (not CHOPPED!)  garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Transfer onion mixture to food processor with tomatoes; process until smooth.

Transfer the tomato mixture to a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until thickened. Stir in broth and tomato juice. Add bay leaf, cumin, coriander, and red pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, partially covered and stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. Discard the bay leaf. Stir in green onions, lime juice, and cilantro. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into warmed bowls and enjoy!

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 © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

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