The Simple Life with Asparagus Recipes Friday, Jun 14 2013 


Spring Vegetables?

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Bon Appétit Y’all!


Simple Asparagus
Serves 4 to 6

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

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

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


Asparagus with Fresh Mozzarella
Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Three Asparagus Recipes and Four Centuries of Cookbooks Wednesday, Jun 13 2012 

Simple Things

The first time I saw asparagus growing I couldn’t believe my eyes. My friend Tim and I were touring the kitchen gardens at Monticello and there it was, popping up out of the ground one spear at  a time. I was awestruck. Sometimes the simplest of things can be absolutely astonishing.

Hanging on the wall in the corridor at Château du Fey was, at first glance, what appeared to be a menu from Catherine de Medici. (I later found out it was an Middle Ages inventory list of sorts written by her kitchen manager.) It hung in a small, simple frame just outside the bedroom suite of  Anne Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky. I was in France as a stagiare at Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, founded by Anne at the encouragement of Julia Child and named after Francois Pierre LaVarenne. LaVarenne  was the author of Le Cuisinier françois, the founding cookbook of modern French cuisine. I remember the first time I saw the ancient list. It seemed inconceivable that this historical document hung there on the wall just like you or I might hang a family photo. Other than the fact that it was over 500 years old, it was as simple as simple could be, a list of food in the kitchen for the day – a medieval post-it note. Amazing.

This small document was part of their collection of four centuries of cookbooks. Their oldest book dates to 1491. Unbelievable, right? Cookbooks and other how-to books are the most simple of books, instructing us how to manage our daily lives and feed our families. For the most part, they are not great art and few will go down in history as some of mankind’s greatest achievements. Cookbooks are so much part of our daily lives that they are far from sacred — which to my mind is the real and actual reason that they are.

Clearly, cookbooks are very important to Anne and Mark. Their library is truly one of the best-assembled collections in the entire world. While in France, I once worked on an essay on herbs and used a 1633 edition of Gerald’s Herbal, a very important historical book about botany. My access to such an amazing book was astonishing to me as a novice cook and writer. What a gift!

History and Respect

Their collection has resulted in a collaboration by Anne and Mark titled The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook . It’s a life’s work of such importance and gravitas that anyone that has real interest in food and cooking must read it.

Russ Parsons of the LA Times says, “If you really love cookbooks (or books in general) and you love history, this is a book you have to read.” It’s clear in his glowing review he has a fondness and respect for Anne. Many of those of us that have worked with her share those sentiments. I learned an immense amount working for Anne. I cherish our professional relationship, as well as our personal friendship. Of all the people I have worked for, working with Anne perhaps makes me the proudest. I have huge respect for her and her work. I don’t mean to be disparaging to any other key influencers in my professional life, it’s just that my time in France was life-changing in a very real sense of the phrase.

Recently I attended at a signing for The Cookbook Library. That very afternoon I had attended a talk about monetizing blogging where I realized that I couldn’t worry about what I wasn’t, only what I was, which I wrote about last week. Unknowingly, Anne was part of that realization – it’s more important for me to have her respect than ever compromise my integrity and principles.

Real and Delicious Recipes

I started thumbing through the pages of The Cookbook Library perusing ancient recipes such as Spicy Roast Pork, Quail with Bay Leaf, Apple Dumplings, and Sage Fritters with Saffron. Positioned between the history lessons are very good and delicious recipes, all doable. I am enough of a history and food geek to absolutely love cooking a recipe that’s been made for centuries.

Asparagus caught my eye because it’s asparagus season here in Western Massachusetts. I smiled broadly when I saw it was a recipe from LaVarenne’s Le cuisinier françois.

Many thanks to Anne and Mark for this wonderful book  — and many, many other things.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

Asperges à la Crême
Asparagus in Cream and Herbs
Serves 3 or 4

This is a deliciously decadent dish. I used the bouquet garni method and the flavor and aroma was fantastic — and very, very French.

From François Pierre de la Varenne, Le cuisinier françois (Paris, 1651; recipe from Brussels 1698 edition):

Cut them [the asparagus] very small, leave nothing but the green, sauté them with fresh butter or melted lard, parsley, green onion, or a bouquet of herbs; after that simmer them very gently with crème fraîche, serve if you like with a little nutmeg.

2 pounds (900 g) asparagus
2 tablespoons (30 g) butter or lard
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 green onions, sliced, or a bouquet garni of 4 or 5 parsley stems, 4 or 5 sprigs thyme, and 1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 cup (250 ml) crème fraîche
Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Cut the green stalks of asparagus on the diagonal into 1-inch (2.5-cm) slices, discarding the tough ends. Melt the butter in a sauté pan or shallow saucepan. Add the asparagus, parsley, and green onions or bouquet garni and season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and let the asparagus sweat over very low heat in its own juices, stirring oc­casionally, until it is almost tender when pierced with a knife, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the crème fraîche and leave the asparagus to simmer very gently, uncovered, until just tender, about 5 minutes longer. Do not let too much of the crème fraîche evaporate or the asparagus will scorch. Discard the bouquet garni if using. If you like, sprinkle the asparagus with grated nutmeg. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot.

Recipe reproduced with permission from University of California Press from The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook by Anne Willan with Mark Cherniavsky and Kyri Claflin (University of California Press, 2012)

Asparagus Gratin
Serves 4 to 6

This dish with the sauce Mornay is a wonderful dish for a dinner party. It would be wonderful with broiled salmon. You can also make it ahead and broil it at the last minute.

1 cup 2 % milk
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
6 black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 pound medium asparagus
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 egg yolk, optional
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat the oven to 350° F. Combine the milk, bay leaf, peppercorns, and thyme in a small saucepan. Bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Once small bubbles appear around the edges of the saucepan, remove from the heat and let the flavors infuse, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, trim the tough woody ends from the asparagus. Heat the water over high heat in a medium saucepan. Add asparagus and season with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Cover and cook until just tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Remove the asparagus to a medium baking dish. Pat dry.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two until foaming to make a roux. Strain the steeped milk into the roux and bring to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, salt, and freshly ground white pepper. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 2 minutes. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the cheese until it melts. Place the egg yolk in a small bowl. Spoon over a couple of tablespoons of the sauce into the eggs and stir to combine. (This is called tempering and will help prevent the eggs from cooking in the heat of the sauce.) Return the now-tempered yolk to the larger saucepan of sauce and stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the asparagus in the baking dish. Top sauce with breadcrumbs and bake until the breadcrumbs are pale golden, about 10 minutes.

Light Asparagus Salad with Lemon and Herbs
Serves 4

After the 1st two rather rich recipes I thought I would offer up something more on the lighter side. This salad recipe is fresh and crisp – perfect for summer.

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pounds medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bunch thinly baby Vidalia onions or green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 English hothouse cucumber, partially peeled, seeded, and cubed
1/4 cup chopped fresh mixed herbs such as parsley, mint, tarragon, and chervil
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

Whisk together the lemon juice and sherry wine vinegar. Add oil and whisk until combined. Fill large bowl with ice water. Cook asparagus in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.  In the last 30 seconds of cooking, add the green onions. Transfer vegetables to bowl of ice water to cool. Drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Add herbs and dressing; toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky Photo Credit: Patty Williams
Asparagus 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.

Easter Dinner: April “Country Living” on the Stands! Sunday, Mar 13 2011 

Wow. That’s all I have to say.

Well, that’s not true. I also have to say thank you. Lots and lots of thank yous.

Many thanks to Country Living Magazine and Monica Willis (no relation!) for asking me to be a part of this special issue. I am so grateful to Jona and the rest of my family for allowing their Easter dinner to be transformed into a photo shoot last year, thank you to my aunts and cousins for helping with the food, thank you to Gene, Kathy, and Meghan for opening their home, thanks to Gena Berry for her assistance, delicious thanks to Robert at Melissa’s Produce for helping with the ingredient sourcing, thank you to Heather, Harry, and John for making such beautiful photos, and lastly, but by far not the least, thanks to my Mama for all her love and support.

I told her it was TEN pages. She asked me where the rest of it was. I reminded her the magazine wasn’t titled Virginia Willis’s Country Living.

Here’s the full Country Living Easter Dinner article and here are the recipes.

I am so honored and thrilled to be the subject and also the author of the piece, a little written ramble about cherished childhood memories, my abhorrence of dotted Swiss, and sunrise service at Riverview Methodist church. It’s about how my family’s Easter menu has evolved and changed, but much of it remains true to the Easter Sunday dinners of my youth and the memory of my grandparents.

And this year? This spring I look forward to starting new traditions of family celebration and expanding the circle of sharing with people I love. Spring is after all, about shedding the old and celebrating newness and rebirth. It’s the perfect time for new lives and fresh starts.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS Click and read here, too, but help keep print alive my buying one at the newsstand. That is if Mama left you any. I think she’s gathered enough to wallpaper the spare room she’s so proud.

Easter Menu

Sliced Radishes with Horseradish Buttermilk Dip
Baked Fresh Ham with Herbes de Provence
Spiced Sweet Potatoes, Steamed Asparagus with Tangerines, Roasted Spring Vidalia Onions, Parmesan Grits with Morels
Buttermilk Angel Biscuits
Turbinado Shortcakes with Strawberries and Whipped Cream

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

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