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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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!


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, Thanks so much.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Chef’s Collaborative: Good Eats in The Big Easy Friday, Nov 11 2011 

After a visit to Austin, Texas for the Texas Book Festival, I had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans for the Chefs Collaborative National Summit. Lordy mercy, NOLA is a continual bacchanal. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to everyone in whole neighborhoods walking around with cocktails. Party as they may, they are mighty serious about good eats and preserving foodways.

Chefs Collaborative is pretty serious business, too. It’s an amazing alliance chefs and the greater food community to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply. Chefs Collaborative is the leading nonprofit network of chefs that’s changing the sustainable food landscape using the power of connections, education, and responsible buying decisions. Through these actions, members embrace seasonality, preserve diversity and traditional practices, and support local economies.

Want to talk local? At the opening event for the National Summit we had an amazing array of oysters provided by P & J Oysters from the entire Gulf. It was spectacular. There were folks there that could tell what “bed” the oyster was from and how it differed in taste and texture from an oyster from an adjacent “bed.”

More than 300 chefs, farmers, and members of the culinary community embraced the conference theme of “Hands on New Orleans – Sustainability in Action” with four butchery workshops and demos, charcuterie and classic cocktail workshops, and numerous conversations and practical workshops on timely topics including grassfed beef, Gulf seafood, dead zones, farm worker justice, and climate change.

I attended a charcuterie class at Delmonico’s. The photo above is of house-cured boudin, the spicy cajun sausage made of pork and ground red pepper. (And, yes, I asked. It’s a cow bung casing.)

We also heard Dana Cowin of Food and Wine, John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and restaurant chefs Donald Link, Sean Brock, and Andrea Reusling, as well as producers and farmers such as my friend, Will Harris from White Oak Pastures and rice farmer Kurt Unkel of Cajun Grains.

Sustainability Awards
were given to Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine. Hayward was honored with the “Sustainer of The Year” award, which recognizes a chef who has been both a great mentor and a model to the culinary community through his purchases of seasonal, sustainable ingredients and the transformation of these ingredients into delicious food.

Fedele Bauccio, founder and CEO of Bon Appétit Management Company received the “Pathfinder Award,” which recognizes a visionary working in the greater food community who has been a catalyst for positive change within the food system through efforts that go beyond the kitchen. (BTW  I checked out their work last year – one of their accounts is Google. Ahem. This is a BIG company doing very, very good work. No one – no one – is too big or too small to make a difference. )

Sal and Al Sunseri of P & J Oysters received the “Foodshed Champion Award,” which recognizes a food producer (farmer, fisher or artisanal producer) committed to working with chefs who also exemplifies the following principle: Good food begins with unpolluted air, land, and water, environmentally sustainable farming and fishing, and humane animal husbandry.

Pioneer Awards were given to my former chef, Chef Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora, Chef Mary Sue Miliken, Chef Jody Adams,  Chef Deborah Madison, Chef Jasper White,  Amy Bodiker, Food Systems Consultant, Columbus, Ohio, Robin Schempp, Right Stuff enterprises, Waterbury, VT, Chef Greg Higgins, and  Gary Nabhan, author, food activist, and professor.

It was a passionate, intense few days. I left encouraged, invigorated, and full of intent to share the word.

The experience fed my mind, my heart, and my belly.

This is the future — this has to be the future of food. We can’t continue on this hugely self-destructive path. We’re eating the fish out of the ocen like it’s some endless Las Vegas buffet, we’re polluting our land and rivers with pesticides, and our children are increasingly allergic to foods, ill, and obese.

The members of Chefs Collaborative are doing something about it.

Click here to become a member – or give the gift of membership – to someone you know would appreciate the great work that Chefs Collaborative does. I know you’ll be glad you did.

Mama’s Reading List

Lot’s going on with my book tour. It’s been fantastic. I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing people. Here are some of the recent pieces in the news….

Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles Magazine interviews me about a novice tackling the Brilliant versions of the recipes. (My answer? Of course you can!)

El Paso Times reports on the continued strong presence of Southern food across the US and also features Hugh Acheson’s new book as well as Nathalie Dupree. gave me some pretty high praise. Called me a “first rate writer”. Coming from such an esteemed journalist and writer, I was very humbled and proud.

Fetch Magazine for Taigan by Julia Reed! features a whole Thanksgiving menu with Turkey, Meme’s Rolls, Winter Greens and Butternut Squash Gratin, and Caramel Cake for dessert. YUM.

The Charlotte Observer blog is about my Mustardy Mashed Potatoes — check it out, maybe you’ll want to mix, or mash things up for your Thanksgiving Day Potatoes!

Upcoming Events

You can always check out the Events page on my website. I have a few more cooking classes around the Atlanta area in the next few weeks. I am very excited about the Newnan Carnegie Library Event on Monday 11/28.

I’m looking for some reviews on amazon if you have (and hopefully, like!) my book! I’d appreciate it! Those things count and I appreciate your support.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Mama’s Shrimp Gumbo

Serves 6 to 8

To quote the regional cookbook Louisiana Entertains, “Good gumbos are like good sunsets: no two are exactly alike, and their delight lies in their variety.” All gumbos use a roux. However, in addition to a roux, some gumbos flavor and thicken with okra and others call for filé powder. Integral to Creole and Cajun cooking, filé powder is made from the dried leaves of the sassafras tree. It is used not only to thicken gumbo but also to impart its mild, lemon flavor. Filé powder should be stirred into gumbo toward the end of cooking or it will become tough and stringy.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

4 cups water or shrimp stock (see below)

2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds large shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined

Hot sauce, for seasoning

1/4 teaspoon filé powder (optional)

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, stirring slowly and constantly, and cook to a medium-brown roux, about 30 minutes.

Add the onion and bell pepper and stir to combine. Cook until the vegetables have wilted and are lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the water and tomato paste and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavorful and thickened, 11/2 to 2 hours.

Add the shrimp and stir to combine. Continue cooking over very low heat until the shrimp are cooked through, an additional 10 minutes. Season with hot sauce and stir in the filé powder, if using. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with rice pilaf.

Shrimp Stock and Fish Stock

Seafood soup, stew, and gumbo all taste better when prepared with homemade stock as opposed to bottled clam juice, the favorite stand-in to freshly made stock. When you peel the shrimp, save the shells (heads also, if you are fortunate enough to have them), and rinse with cold running water. Place the shells in a pot and add enough water to cover. Add a few fresh bay leaves, sprigs of parsley and thyme, a quartered onion, chopped carrot, and chopped celery, and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low and simmer until fragrant and flavorful, about 30 minutes. Strain the stock in a strainer layered with cheesecloth, discarding the solids. If I don’t need to make shrimp stock every time I peel shrimp, I save the shells for later in a sealable plastic bag in the freezer. For fish stock, it’s the same principle, but use bones instead of shells. Do not use oily or heavy fish such as mackerel, skate, mullet, or salmon; their flavor is too strong and heavy. Use approximately 4 pounds of fish bones to 10 cups of water to make 8 cups of stock.

(Shrimp photo by Helen Dujardin. And, yes, I know it’s SC shrimp -but it is local and sustainable, too. Oyster and Boudin snaps by me.)

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.

%d bloggers like this: