Get Your Grit On: Short Stack and SFA Grits Muffins Friday, Nov 8 2013 

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I love grits. I am a Grits Missionary. Folks tell me they don’t like grits and I tell them they haven’t had the right grits.

I like grits so much I wrote a little book about them that’s coming out in a few weeks. It’s a little collectible booklet by Short Stack Editions. Short Stack is a series of small-format cookbooks about inspiring ingredients, authored by America’s top culinary talents.  Each edition is a collectible, single-subject booklet packed with recipes that offer ingenious new ways to cook your favorite ingredients. They are  beautifully designed, hand-stitched, and retail for only $12. I am thrilled  to be a part of something so innovative in publishing and honored to be in such good company.

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To be able to write about grits is a dream come true. I can preach the gospel of grits beyond the Mason Dixon line! My grandmother fed my mother and her siblings grits for breakfast each morning when they were children. She would fill the plates to the brim. To this day, my mama has cheese grits every morning without fail.

I come from grits-loving people.

My short stack has over 20 recipes for grits of all kinds. I’ve got old-timey Southern recipes for grits including Cheese Grits Casserole, Nassau Grits, Garlic Cheese Grits, and my version of Shrimp and Grits. I’ve also got Italian polenta inspired recipes like Rabbit in Red Wine with Sage Grits and Baked Grits with Sausage Ragu. I share recipes for Caribbean-style savory grits with Fish Stew and Jamaican style sweet breakfast grits. I went crazy and mashed grits up with recipes from other cultures — I have a recipe for Chinese Congee made with grits not rice, and with the Grits and Pork Tamales below, in which the traditional corn product masa, is replaced with grits.

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Or, with these idlis, a traditional Indian steamed lentil bread I replaced the traditional accompanying grain, rice with grits. These are served with Spiced Okra and Tomatoes. Crazy, I tell you, I got to go crazy! Theses recipes may be out of the box, but every last one of them are absolutely delicious. It was very freeing to shake loose convention and just get gritty-with-it.

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My grits book explains the difference between hominy grits and stone-ground grits as well as the difference between polenta and grits. (There’s not much.) We include a source list of grits to try and chat a bit about the difference between yellow and white corn, as well as cormneal and grits. That little book is packed!

Then, in the midst of all of this, I was asked to cook the grab-and-go breakfast at the Southern Foodway’s Alliance Symposium. Director John T. Edge stipulated that whatever I served needed to be able to stand up to the excesses of the night before….I knew we needed starch and fat.

Typically, the grab and go is a breakfast sandwich or a biscuit. And, I might add it’s for about 400 people so make ahead was a must. I contemplated a few different dishes, but then I saw the light.

What could possibly be better than Cheese Grits Casserole? Who doesn’t like cheesy-baked goodness? I added a bit of sausage and bread to fill the boozy bellies. We made them in muffin cups so they would be grab and go and served heirloom apples on the side. Word on the street is that they were a huge success. It was such an honor to cook for this esteemed bunch, and I am glad everyone loved them so much.

Grits proverb 1: Grits are good and good for you.

Grits proverb 2: Grits will cure what ails you. 

I hope you enjoy this recipe for my SFA Cheese Grits Casserole Muffins. And, I hope you’ll consider buying my Short Stack Grits book, too.

It’s my Grits Missionary Bible.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

PS Lots of BIG news coming – including a great, new gig on Comfort Food that launches in the new year. Details to come! Please keep up with my on Facebook and Twitter.

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Many thanks to John Currence and his staff for helping me get the job done and make 500 cheese grits casserole “muffins.” They did a great job and I couldn’t have done it without them.

SFA Cheese Grits Casserole “Muffins” 
Makes 8

Use extra stiff paper liners for these and understand they don’t actually come out of the paper like a baked muffin, and still need to be eaten with a spoon. I think they will be excellent for the holidays with guests and company. And, if you don’t want to make individual servings, you can always bake this in a buttered casserole dish. Simply increase the cooking time to 45 to 60 minutes.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 cup coarse-ground grits
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 ounces country style breakfast pork or turkey sausage
2 slices challah or egg bread, cubed
1 1/2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese (about 6 ounces)
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 jalapeño chile, seeded and finely chopped
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a jumbo muffin tin with cups. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the water and milk and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the grits and return to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Decrease the heat to low, and simmer until creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes.

While the grits are cooking brown sausage in a skillet until cooked through, about 8-10 minutes, breaking up the meat with the edge of your spoon.

Remove the grits from the heat. Add the cheese and 2 tablespoons butter.Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Add ¾ of the sausage, the eggs, cayenne, jalapeño, and green onions and 
stir until well incorporated. Scoop a heaping 1/2 cup of the mixture into each cup.

Meanwhile combine the remaining sausage with the cubed bread. Top each cup with a couple of tablespoons of the bread-sausage mixture. Bake until bubbly and golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly before serving.

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

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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The Dark Side: Five Recipes for Winter Greens Tuesday, Oct 15 2013 


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Summer produce is easy. Summer produce is the embodiment of an easy, breezy sunny day. Tomatoes are sliced. Okra only needs a short simmer or perhaps a bit of grilling. Fresh corn takes a quick dip in salted, boiling water and is eager and ready for a soft, melting knob of butter.

Fall brings wet mornings and long cool nights. The darkness of night lingers longer in the morning and quietly eases in earlier in the evening. As the days grow shorter, cabbage, kale, collards, spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard greens replace the tender lettuces and easy vegetables of spring and summer. The dark leafy greens of fall are more complex than sunny summer produce.

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Winter greens are members of the Brassica family and are noted for their bitterness. They need full, bold flavors to meet their match and test their mettle, like the red pepper flakes shown in the photo above. Yet, winter greens are also wonderfully versatile. The peppery heat of turnip greens are pungent and sharp when compared to the subtle grassiness of Swiss chard or the aggressive vegetal flavor of kale.

One troublesome aspect of cooking these nutritional powerhouses is that winter greens can be quite gritty. The best way to clean greens is to fill a clean sink with cold water, add the greens, and swish them around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out, drain the sink, and repeat until the water is clear and the greens are free of dirt and grit.

As a helpful hint, if you don’t buy your produce from the local farmers market, look for the washed bagged greens sold in most supermarkets. These bagged greens can save a lot of time in the kitchen. After a day or so, make sure to blanch them in boiling salted water once you get them home so they don’t spoil in the bags. Once they’ve been blanched, you can store them 3 to 5 days in a sealable container in the refrigerator.

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Traditional Southern cooking cooks the life out of them. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Slow-cooked greens with some form of glistening fatty pig suspended in salty, smoky potlikker are the primary DNA of the taste memories from childhood. There’s nothing like a wedge of cornbread dipped in that rich, oily, green broth. However, it’s a real revelation when you understand you can cook greens 4 to 5 minutes, not 1 hour 45 minutes!

You may have avoided these nutritious greens in the past because of their bitter reputations and gritty nature, but when you balance their flavors with full flavored ingredients like garlic, red pepper flakes, creamy cheeses, smoked meat, and rich, crème frâiche —it’s easy to moderate their bitterness. Now is the time to celebrate the dark side this fall and welcome these beautiful greens into your kitchen.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

Mozz Greens Bruschetta

Mozzarella and Winter Greens Brushchetta
Makes 8

Fresh mozzarella is increasingly available in better stores and markets. This cheese is moist, soft, and delicate. It’s miles away from the hard pizza cheese. Mozzarella was originally made from water-buffalo milk, but now most fresh mozzarella comes from cow’s milk, both in Italy and here in the United States. Fresh mozzarella is normally sold in a container of water. It’s highly perishable, so refrigerate it in its liquid for no more than a few days.

1 baguette or Italian loaf
1 garlic clove, halved
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound tender dark greens, stems removed, leaves chopped
4 garlic cloves and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shredded fresh mozzarella cheese
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the broiler. Slice the bread crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices and place on a baking sheet. Broil the toast about 4 inches from heat until golden brown, about 1 minute. Remove to a rack to cool.

Rub toasts with garlic on one side and lightly brush same side with about 1 tablespoon of the oil. Set aside.

Heat the remaining oil in a large heavy-bottom sauté pan over medium low heat. Add the garlic paste and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the greens and season with salt and pepper. Sauté over medium high heat, stirring, until wilted and tender, about 3 minutes. Pour off any excess liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the mozzarella and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Divide the greens between the toasted bread and serve immediately.

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Kale Tangle
Serves 4 to 6

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

In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the slightly damp ribbons of greens; season with salt and pepper. Toss once or twice, and then add the garlic. (I add mine after the greens to buffer the garlic from possibly burning.) Cook until the greens are bright green and slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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Vegetarian Collard Greens

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium bunch collard greens (about 1 1/2 pounds), stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
4 cups water
1 tablespoon smoked salt
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
Hot Pepper Vinegar, for accompaniment

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the greens, water, smoked salt, pimenton, and apple cider vinegar. Season the mixture with pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until the greens are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with smoked salt and pepper. Serve immediately with the hot pepper vinegar on the side.

Smoky Slow-and-Low Mustard Greens
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste
1 pound mustard greens, tough stems removed and chopped
2 cups fruity white wine (such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer)
4 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups water
1 smoked turkey neck or drumstick
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds.

Add the greens and cook until the greens are slightly wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil; cook until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the stock, water, and smoked turkey neck; season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the greens are very, very tender, about 1 hour. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed serving bowls with plenty of the flavorful broth. Serve immediately.

Spinach with Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chicken stock low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, heated
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
2 shallots, very finely chopped
2 pounds spinach, tough stems removed
Pinch red pepper flakes, or to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the raisins in a small bowl. Pour over the heated chicken stock. Let rest to plump and rehydrate, 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the pine nuts in a large heavy-duty skillet over medium heat. Toast, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in the same skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the spinach, and stir-fry until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain the golden raisins, discarding the liquid or reserving for another use. Add the drained raisins, toasted pine nuts, and red pepper flakes.Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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Braised Cabbage
Serves 4 to 6

This is another example of simple country cooking that would be equally at home cooked in a cast-iron skillet in the South or simmered in a cocotte on grandmère’s stovetop in France. Cabbage is an inexpensive vegetable, and if stored properly, will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium head green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced (about 8 cups)
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 sprig of thyme
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat the bacon fat over medium-high heat until sizzling. Add the cabbage and saute until the cabbage starts to wilt, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

Decrease the heat to medium, and simmer until the cabbage is meltingly tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the sprig of thyme and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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

Photo credits – Virginia Willis, Ellen Silverman, and Kathy Waites

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Get out the Hat Rack! Wednesday, Jul 24 2013 


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Quick note to let you know I am actually not on vacation, but guest blogging on a couple of other sites. Click on the links and please check out Dianne Jacob’s Will Write for Food where I talk about being a food writer and wearing many hats. I am also blogging this summer for an organization near and dear to my heart and stomach, the Southern Foodway’s Alliance. We are featuring iconic summer foods through Labor Day. So far, we’ve had ice cream, corn, and this week is about tomatoes — and I make very clear my feelings on the purity of Tomato Sandwiches. (Next week, I am spilling the peas and the beans.)

Lastly, I was interviewed for HGTV’s Frontdoor and I’m now a guest blogger for Ty Pennington. I am honored and thrilled with these opportunities.

Soon, I will pop back over to this blog, too, but I wanted to share my new connections. Thanks so much for reading.

In the meanwhile, I have a very, very important question for you:

Bon Appétit Y’all!

VA

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

Photo credit: Scott M. Porush

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Eat It to Save It: Bristol Bay Salmon Wednesday, Jul 10 2013 

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Fishing for Salmon

The beach calls to many this time of year. I absolutely love the ocean. It’s so intensely primal and the only thing that could remotely come close would be the basic human reaction to fire. I’m pretty certain that if I lived at the beach I’d ditch my red Chanel lipstick pretty darn quick and become someone who fishes a whole lot more and bathes a little less. I love to fish. Mama tells me that the first time I caught a fish I jumped up and down so much my diaper fell off. That’s how young I was! Our whole family loves to fish. The photo below is my grandfather fishing for salmon in Alaska.

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As a cook, I am wildly passionate about sustainable seafood. I am concerned for our oceans. I write about it as often as I can in print, online, and through my blog. I teach sustainable seafood in cooking classes all across the country, and I only buy, cook, and eat sustainable seafood. I do this because I am on the Blue Ribbon Task Force for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a member of Chefs Collaborative. I “walk what I talk.” According to many scientists and scientific organizations, like Seafood Watch, the Marine Stewardship Council, and the Blue Ocean Institute, frankly, we are seriously jeopardizing the health and welfare of the oceans.

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First, we are eating out of the ocean like it is an endless Las Vegas buffet and it’s not. Second, global warming is not a myth — but it has become a political pawn. According to Dr. Mark Hixon, one of the world’s premier authorities on coral reefs, as a result of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the oceans are becoming warmer and also becoming acidified. Our fossil fuels usage is warming the entire planet, including the ocean. According to Dr. Hixon, scientists don’t argue about this — only politicians. We’re also destroying habitats of thriving fisheries through more direct ways such as direct pollution and runoff. We need to do something sooner rather than later to correct our perilous course.

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There’s a fight going on about runoff and pollution in Bristol Bay, Alaska. This summer, Chefs Collaborative is teaming up with the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association on a series of dinners to help protect Bristol Bay’s salmon. The Bristol Bay region is pristine wilderness untouched by development, stretching from the snow-capped peaks of the Alaska Range, across wetlands laced with icy cold rivers that flow into the Bay. This region is  home to the nation’s largest wild salmon fisheries and one of the best salmon habitats on Earth. If you look at the map below, Bristol Bay is located between the Bering Sea and the Alaska Peninsula in the southwest region of the state. Every year, approximately 37.5 million adult wild salmon return over the course of just a few weeks between the end of June through mid-July.

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However, the Bristol Bay is under threat from corporations that want to build Pebble Mine, an enormous industrial mining operation. The Pebble deposit is a massive storehouse of gold, copper, and molybdemum, located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay. If built, this would be North America’s largest open-pit mine and one of the largest mines in the entire world. Due to the size, geochemistry, and location, Pebble Mine would run a dangerously high risk of polluting Bristol Bay — and risk destroying a $1.5 billion commercial and sport salmon fishery that represents nearly 75% of local jobs in Bristol Bay.

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The good news is that you can help, and it starts with the tip of your fork. Buying Bristol Bay salmon provides economic incentive to protect Bristol Bay’s resources.

You’ve got to Eat It to Save It.

What to do? Take action and find out the latest at www.savebristolbay.org and the Save Bristol Bay Facebook page.

Where to buy? Click here for a list of suppliers and retailers suggested by Trout Unlimited. Also, I contacted Sea to Table, a business that partners with local fishermen from small-scale sustainable wild fisheries, finding better markets for their catch. Sea to Table delivers overnight and direct from the source. This reduces time and cost,  allows diners to know the ’who, how and where’ of the fish, and creates a direct connection from fisherman to chef.

Thanks so much for reading. It may all seem very overwhelming, but the choices we make, one meal at a time, add up. Together we can make a difference.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

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Poached Salmon with Herb Mustard Sauce
Serves 4

My grandparents drove their motor home all the way from Georgia to Alaska three or four times. Dede loved Alaska, mostly because he liked salmon fishing. They would fish and then my grandmother would process it in her canning kettle in her tiny motor home kitchen. They’d return with cases and cases of salmon preserved in mason jars. I was in my twenties before I ever tasted commercially canned salmon.

3 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
2 to 4 sprigs tarragon, leaves coarsely chopped and stems reserved
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 carrot, sliced
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
4 (5-ounce) skinless salmon fillets
2 cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
½ cup Dijon mustard
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the greens

First, you need to prepare a court bouillon to poach the salmon: combine the water, wine, tarragon stems (leaves reserved), bay leaves, peppercorns, and carrot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to low. Simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Then, we set aside some of the liquid to chill the salmon instead of letting it cool in the hot liquid which would overcook it, or, cooling it in cold water which would dilute the flavor. Fill a large, heavy-duty sealable plastic bag filled with ice cubes. Place a bowl over a bowl of ice and transfer several cups of the court bouillon in a bowl. Place the ice pack in the bowl of broth; move the pack around until the broth is well chilled (drain the bag and add more ice to it as needed). Set the chilled court bouillon aside.

Return the heat to high and bring the remaining mixture to a rolling boil. Add the salmon fillets. Cover and simmer for 7 minutes.

To chill the salmon: Remove from the heat and remove the salmon from the poaching liquid. Transfer to the chilled court bouillon and allow the salmon to cool in the bouillon. Cover the fish and broth with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, or until you are ready to serve. (This helps boost the flavor and allows you to make it ahead without it drying out. )

For the mustard sauce: Meanwhile, put the mustard in a small bowl. Whisk the olive oil into the mustard in a slow, steady stream. Stir in the reserved chopped tarragon leaves. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

When you are ready to serve, put the greens in a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss to combine. Arrange the greens on a platter Remove the salmon from the broth and pat dry with paper towels. Top the greens with the salmon and garnish with the sliced cucumber. Serve, passing the mustard sauce separately.

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

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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

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There’s nothing like the aroma of basil. It is the herb that most heralds that summer is in full swing. Perhaps because it requires bountiful sunshine and seems to thrive in the heat. Basil is often associated with Mediterranean cooking, but basil is native to India and Asia as well as parts of Africa. The leaves are used in cooking, imparting their bold flavor to recipes. There are many cultivars available with different nuances of taste, size, and appearance, including those with cinnamon, clove, lemon, and lime overtones.

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The basil in the photo above is Thai basil, also known as Tulsi or Holy Basil, and has a minty, almost smoky aroma. I love it. The purple basil in the photo below has a mild licorice flavor and aroma and provides a rich pop of color in the garden.

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Up in Massachusetts, we harvest our Thai basil and dry it for tea and make and freeze pesto from the Italian, or Genovese, to enjoy in the winter months.

Having a garden is especially satisfying, but if you don’t have the space and inclination, basil is a great herb to grow in a pot on the windowsill or patio. If you’ve followed past posts, you know that we love to dig in the dirt. Several months ago, I was able to spend some time with an absolutely wonderful woman and master gardener, Mary Beth Shaddix. She’s my kind of people! After 10 years working in the marketing and research department at Cooking Light, Mary Beth traded in her business suits for garden gloves. She and her husband have a wholesale nursery and farm, Maple Valley Nursery, near Birmingham, Alabama. They also grow a garden for the test kitchens at Cooking Light Magazine.

How lucky are those test kitchen cooks! How smart is that magazine! I love it when big companies do smart and creative things. Mary Beth has collaborated with the magazine and they’ve produced a really smart, fun cookbook with lots of amazing recipes called, Pick Fresh. I absolutely love it.

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The book features 200 full color photographs and 150 recipes from starters to sides, light salads to hearty main dishes, and incredible desserts — all with nutritional analysis so you can stay on track for healthy eating. The chapters are divided into fruits, vegetables, and herbs with guides for growing, choosing, storing, and preparing each ingredient. It’s really fantastic and I cannot recommend it enough. The Peach Lemonade, Summer Squash with Bacon and Mozzarella Quiche, and Mint Gremolata Zucchini with Sea Salt are top of my list to try.

Today, with a nod to the myriad of basil varieties available, I’m sharing a couple of basil recipes. First, is the Cooking Light Pick Fresh Spicy Basil Beef Salad. Delicious, bold flavors with cooling cucumber make this dish a great meal for a hot summer night. You could also serve it on a bed of arugula, spinach, or butter lettuce if you wanted to enhance it with additional greens.

I love to eat fish in the summer. It’s light and quick cooking. Today, I’m sharing a simple recipe for Basil Crusted Trout with Creamy Garlic Aioli. I’m using farm-raised trout here, but if you can’t find trout, just make sure to check with Seafood Watch for a sustainable substitute.

Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve got lots of great things happening and want to share — I’m now a contributing blogger for Ty Pennington’s Good Eats blog and next up for the 4th of July is Sweet Tea Brined BBQ Chicken. I’ll also be blogging for the Southern Foodways Alliance this July and August. Lastly, I’ll be at the Fancy Food Show on Monday July 1 as the Chef Ambassador for Roland Foods. Please stop by and say hello if you are in NYC!

Thanks so much for reading.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Spicy Basil Beef Salad

Spicy Basil-Beef Salad
Serves 4

1 tablespoon canola oil
12 ounces hanger steak, trimmed
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste)
1 1⁄2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
1 cup thinly sliced English cucumber
3 large ripe heirloom tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 425°. Heat a large ovenproof stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add canola oil to pan; swirl to coat. Sprinkle both sides of steak evenly with black
pepper and salt. Add steak to pan; cook 5 minutes or until browned. Turn steak over. Bake at 425° for 8 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into thickest portion of steak registers 135° or until desired degree of doneness. Remove steak from pan; let stand 10 minutes. Slice across grain.

Combine soy sauce and next 5 ingredients (through sambal) in a small bowl,stirring well. Combine basil and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Drizzle dressing over basil mixture; toss gently. Divide salad evenly among 4 plates; divide beef evenly among salads and serve immediately.

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Basil-Crusted Trout Fillets with Creamy Garlic Aioli
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

The Simple Life with Asparagus Recipes Friday, Jun 14 2013 

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

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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.

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Asparagus with Fresh Mozzarella
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Busch Gardens F&W Festival: Grilled Lemonade Chicken & Summer Succotash Thursday, Jun 6 2013 

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Busch Gardens Williamsburg, VA

This month I am the headline chef at the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival. I was there last weekend and I’ll be back June 15-16. If you are in the area or have friends in the region, please tell them to come check it out! I have 30-minute demonstrations throughout the afternoon in an amphitheater that are open to all park guests and one special dinner show called the Chef’s Guest in the evening. The entertainment team producing the shows are top notch! Everything runs like clockwork and everyone is kind, professional, and hospitable.

The Chef’s Guests demonstration includes wine, dinner, and is much more intimate. Here’s a quick snap of what’s for dinner with the Chef’s Guests – Sweet Tea Brined Pork Chop atop a bed of Parmigiano Reggiano Grits and a Tangle of Garlicky Collard Greens. I have become a Grits and Greens missionary, converting the unknowing to the joys and pleasures of both Southern staples. If I heard once last weekend, “I usually don’t like grits, but I love these” — I heard it a dozen times. I saw one lady sneak back for 3rds and 4ths on the grits!

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Food and Wine Around the World

I didn’t do it all by myself. Executive Chef Justin Watson is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and has a long history working for resorts including Woodstock Inn and Resort and Kingsmill Resort & Spa. His culinary team did an absolutely superb job with my recipes setting up the mise en place for the demonstrations as well as catering the Chef’s Guest Food and Wine Dinner Demonstrations.

For the Food and Wine Festival Chef Watson has created a collection of food and beverage selections representative of each European country at the park – England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Germany and France – as well as countries such as Spain, Canada and Greece that are not currently in the park. Each country has a kiosk and for a small fee, guests can sample dishes from that country. This is not turkey legs and funnel cakes, my friends. It’s really tasty. The scallop wrapped in Serrano ham from Spain was one of my favorites and I can guarantee I’ll be tweaking that recipe soon for my blog! The chef’s expertise and dedication to further improve the quality of the food in the park was evident. Everything I sampled was very nicely done.

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The festival also features culinary experts throughout the park, including sugar and chocolate work as well as incredible fruit and vegetable carving. Check out the watermelon carved by Chef James Parker of Veggy Art. You would not believe what this talented man can do! I was in awe of his knife work.

I had lots of requests for my demo recipes so I promised I would post them on my blog. I think they are superb for summer. The Lemonade Chicken is as easy as 1,2,3 and the Summer Succotash can be served hot, warm, room temperature – or even made ahead and served cold. Hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do!

Lastly, I have fun posting pictures while I am out-and-about so click on each if you want to keep up with me on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Bon Appétit Y’all!

VA

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Grilled Lemonade Chicken
Serves 4

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 cups lemonade
¼ cup freshly chopped mixed herbs such as basil, mint, and parsley
2 cloves garlic, mashed into a paste
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the chicken in a medium bowl. Add lemonade, herbs, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate to marinate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove chicken from marinade; place on grill. Discard marinade. Cook, turning once or twice, until the meat is firm to the touch and the juices run clear when the chicken is pierced with the tip of a knife, about 10 minutes.

Summer Succotash
Serves 4 to 6

Succotash has many versions, but all contain corn and beans. If butterbeans are not available, I often substitute shelled edamame or black-eyed peas. Small farm stands, local and state farmer’s markets, and even the Whole Foods in my area usually carry shelled peas and butterbeans in the summer. They are both doubly precious—extremely delicious and fairly expensive, the result of the luxury of not having to shell your own.

1 1/2 cups shelled fresh butterbeans (about 1 1/2 pounds unshelled) or frozen butter beans
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, diced
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 sweet onion, chopped
Scraped kernels from 4 ears fresh sweet corn (about 2 cups)
1 yellow squash, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 cup grape, cherry, or teardrop tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup freshly chopped mixed herbs such as basil, oregano, and parsley
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

To cook the beans, place them in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and season the water with salt and pepper; decrease the heat to low. Simmer until tender, about 30 minutes for fresh beans, less for frozen. Drain well and set aside.

To cook the potatoes, place them in a second saucepan and cover by 1 inch with cold water; season with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to low and simmer until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside. (You can also microwave the potatoes whole, then dice them. They simply need to be parcooked before being added to the succotash.)

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil and the butter over high heat until the foam subsides. Add the drained potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cook the potatoes, stirring infrequently, until nicely crusted, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the onion, corn, squash, and zucchini and cook, stirring, until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the reserved butter beans and cook, stirring, until heated through. Add the tomatoes and fresh basil, stirring to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or cold.

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Photo credits – Lisa Ekus & Virginia Willis

Disclosure: My appearances at the Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival are sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company. This post is not a requirement of our agreement and I am not additionally compensated for this post or any social media efforts publicizing this post.

Where to Eat in Paris Wednesday, May 29 2013 

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Where to Eat in Paris

This time of year I am often asked where to eat in Paris, France. Folks are going on vacation and are curious for my suggestions on where to eat and what to do.

This is by no means a definitive list, but a list of places we have really enjoyed the past few years.

I try to search out restaurants off the beaten path and I love trying cuisine other than French. Crazy, I know. Paris is a major metropolitan city with a population representative of that, and also has well-established enclaves made of citizens of former French colonies. Give some of those foods a try. And, the neat part about eating “foreign” food in Paris is that it’s cheap — which allows for balancing things out with extravagant, expensive splurges at Michelin-starred restaurants such as L’Arpege, Le Meurice, Benoit, or Pre Catalan.

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Paris Cookware Shop

You can’t eat there, but let’s start with shopping for cookware. Dehillerin will be crazy crowded, the purchasing system is strange, and the salesmen are typically gruffly French, but it’s been open since 1820 and the best cookware store in Paris. It’s located in the area of Les Halles that used to be where the main food markets were from 1183 until the market center was demolished in the early 70s. (It only makes sense that there are cookware specialty stores near the markets. Chefs would go into town and buy both food and equipment.) When I was an apprentice working in Paris I would save my money for weeks and weeks to afford one copper pot. Now, life has changed a bit, and I can afford to buy more than one pot — but I’ve maintained my tradition — and restraint!

Dehillerin
18 et 20, rue Coquillière
75001 Paris

In regards to food shopping, there are more places than you can possibly imagine. However, make sure you also pop into Maille, Hediard, and Fauchon for goodies to bring home — as well as your provisions for your charming picnique at the Tuileries.

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The seafood at L’Ecume St. Honore is beyond phenomenal. It’s an actual fish market and Parisians can buy seafood to take home and prepare, but they also have a few tables, as well. It’s kind of pricey, but well worth it. I have seen and tasted unusual seafood there that I’ve never seen before or since. The owner and workers are a friendly bunch. (You’d be friendly, too if you had a packed restaurant selling at those prices.) The food is fresh, fresh, fresh and just amazing. The first time I was there, I saw super chef Alain Ducasse standing in line like a mere mortal! Then, and I am not making this up, the next year I saw him there again! Maybe he thinks I am stalking him.

L’Ecume Saint Honore
6 Rue du Marché Saint-Honoré
75001 Paris, France

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Le Cuisine Traditionelle

We enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Bistro Paul Bert with Anne Willan — at Dorie Greenspan’s suggestion. Major double whammy with the French cuisine experts.

Bistrot Paul Bert
18 rue Paul Bert
75011 Paris, France

More old-school French. It’s not quite as fabulous as it was, but Ma Bourgogne is still really good. They waiters can be a seriously grumpy, but the Frisee au Lardons is pretty much worth it. It’s at the Place des Vosges, with lovely shops and galleries. Make sure to check out the Dammann Freres Tea Shop just up the block – tea merchants since 1692. It’s exquisite.

Ma Bourgogne
19, place des Vosges
75004 Paris, France

Willi’s Wine Bar has been around a long while. The food is solid and the best thing is that the whole experience is easy. Even though most Parisians speak English, sometimes it can just be tiring trying to navigate a menu and a dining experience in rusty French. Willi’s solves all that for you.

Willi’s Wine Bar
13 rue des Petits-Champs
75001 Paris, France

We adore this old-school restaurant that features rustic food from the Auvergne. The aligote potatoes are absolutely out-of-this-world. The Chocolat Mousse needs its own fan club. Great service and seriously awesome food.

L’Ambassade d’Auvergne
22 Rue du Grenier Saint-Lazare
75003 Paris, France

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Les Exotiques….

Morocco is a former French colony and there are some amazing Moroccan restaurants and cafes throughout Paris. Zerda not the easiest place to find, but well worth the search. The photo above doesn’t do it justice, as the hand-rolled couscous was light as air and positively microscopic. Paired with tender, rich, and delicious lamb, it was a feast of flavor. I cannot recommend this restaurant enough. Go.

Café Zerda
15 rue René Boulanger
75010 Paris, France

The Vietnamese food in Paris is beyond stellar. At Le Bambou you will be jam-packed at a table with strangers. The restaurant is very loud and French spoken with a Vietnamese accent is nearly impossible to understand. Lastly, it’s a trek to this part of town, but it’s all well worth that first satisfying bite. Give it a try.

Le Bambou
70, rue Baudricourt
75013 Paris, France

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Sapporo ramen house was our very 1st stop when we last arrived in Paris! It was cold and snowing and the warm, comforting ramen absolutely hit the spot after our overnight flight.

Sapporo
276 Rue Saint-Honore
75001 Paris, France

Supposedly there are over 40K restaurants in Paris so I could go on and on, but I think this will give you a taste of some fun places to try. I love doing the research and seeing what other chefs and food writers have to say!

Other folks to check out for suggestions include Betty Rosbottom, David Lebovitz, Cowgirl Chef (no, that’s not a typo), Dorie Greenspan, and Patricia Wells (she has a Food Lover’s Guide to Paris Food App). You can also take a peek at Bon App’s list, the NY Times, or LeFooding.com for more advice.

I hope if you travel to Paris this summer, you will enjoy my suggestions. Let me know what you discover and I’ll add it to my list!

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

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

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Putting Up

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

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

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

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

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Quick Confetti Pickles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!
VA

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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, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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